Philosophy of Happiness: A Theoretical and Practical Examination by Martin Janello.
Closeup square photo of a setting sun in an ocean reflecting an orange sky.


What Color Is The Sky?


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That is a silly question, some might say. Just look out of the window and you will know! Yes, but the sky might be different where you are. And even if we are in the same location or we look at a similar sky, I would like to know whether we have the same impression.


As you might gather, I am not really talking about the sky. I am more interested in what you and I are perceiving, thinking, and feeling about the same things. It is the basis for us to intelligently communicate and cooperate. The color of the sky is a good example to show the difficulties in knowing that we are conceptualizing objects or events in the same way. So bear with me and let us discuss the color of the sky.


It is hard to pin down the right answer. Let us begin with the concept of color. We might define color as a radiating emission of particles that move at a certain wavelength. We think that we know what light is because we give it names and because we can detect certain behavior that makes us conclude certain properties. But these are contradictory to our mind because light can behave both as a particle and as a wave. Although attributing these names may give us confidence, we do not really know what either phenomenon is nor why nor how the same phenomenon has either or both properties. Our attempts to explain what light is seem to be afflicted by limitations of our senses, the attachment of the rest of our  mind to these confines, and possibly inherent boundaries of our rational mind. We have difficulties imagining objects or events outside of our experiences, of the patterns these have laid in our rational mind, or of our genetic cerebral setup. The machines we build are not much help either because they are mere extensions in an attempt to translate into our range objects and events outside that range. We have difficulties building machines that capture phenomena we cannot perceive let alone phenomena we do not understand. Even if we find mechanisms that can capture phenomena beyond our range and we can expose them to our senses, something seems to be lost in our perception and understanding of what this is. The ratcheting down of phenomena into our range by translation may fail if objects and events are so different that our references cease. As light proves, even measurements and properties of a phenomenon we can ascertain through natural perception may leave us without a fundamental understanding because we lack familiar references.


Arguably, we may not have to know what light is and how it arises to make a statement about how it affects us. We may not have the ambition to understand it. We may instead take it at its face value, its obvious effects that we can observe or otherwise sense with the help of contraptions. We may relatively easily identify the effect of light generally and light of a certain color on objects and events within our range of perception and understanding. We can measure its frequency and call it a color. But that is not how we communicate in most circumstances. We operate by our sense of color recognition. We are likely to call a whole range of light frequencies by the same name or group them as similar into categories in the spectrum. So we might be quite imprecise. Further, we cannot be sure that we see the same color even if we call it by the same name. We only name our perception a certain color because someone pointed at an item that we perceive to be of a certain color and called it by that name. We might have some sort of relative color blindness or another variation in our color perception. Moreover, we can say that we are all colorblind to some extent. And even if we see the same color, other life forms see it differently. Maybe no living thing can see it as it really is in all its emissions. We do not call radiation that our machines can detect beyond what we can see a color although it is part of a continuous spectrum. We only include in the definition of color what we can see. Color depends on our visual receptors, the impressions of particles on particles in them, the transport of the triggered signals, and their subsequent processing and labeling by our mind. It might be something we fabricate at least in part in our mind. The color of the sky is then to some extent what we make it. To the extent individuals do not afford signals identical processing, we might see different colors. Still, we may think that we see the same thing because we call it the same.


Another variable enters when we refer to sky. Do we include things that are suspended in it? Do we include weather phenomena? Do we include conditions beyond our atmosphere? Do we consider impositions on our view by the atmosphere or cosmic phenomena as obstructions of the sky? Where do we draw the line? We may not make that clear when we communicate. The words we use may be rather vaguely defined and give rise to misunderstandings. Moreover, the color changes because its composition changes, because our viewpoint in it or toward it might change, or because its illumination changes. The sky may have aspects that differ in color. Even if it seems to be uniform, it may be a composite of different colors. Does the sky have a color even if it is dark? Unless atoms in it emit radiation on their own, color comes from or is triggered by other radiation sources that we may not include in our concept of the sky. Only certain components of the sky emit or transmit color. Others may absorb, bend, or filter light. Can we then really attribute a color to the sky? Are we not inexact in what we say unless we make numerous qualifications?


Part of the confusion in our descriptions derives from the imprecise meaning of the word “is.” What does it mean when we say that something is? Are we referring to its momentary status or are we inquiring about its intrinsic nature? Is how objects react to or correlate with their environment part of their intrinsic attributes? These might be the least of our problems when we classify what is. We render our judgments about the nature or status of an object solely based on our experiences of what it is not. Our senses pick up emissions or reflections that have left the object we explore and are no longer part of it. All we can measure is the effect of an object, not the object itself. Depending on the changes in measurements, we may attribute different periods to the meaning of “is” in the definition of an object. We may describe sequences of states in which we find objects as events. But these categorizations do not only depend on emissions from objects. They also depend on how we perceive and process information about them. That perception may not only depend on our relative positioning and our capacity as humans. Nor may our processing of information be only cast by that capacity or by how we learn to describe things. There are a number of other factors that influence both. These include our emotions as well as individual particularities that may affect our perceptory, rational, and emotional disposition and situation. That we think we know about an object from what we perceive and make of it in our mind might then be a dubious conclusion.


Science might help us to straighten out misconceptions. We might educate ourselves and form a comprehensively considered and considering mind and mode of interaction. Even then, the immediacies of our impressions, instincts, and old habits that we might have difficulties controlling might continue to cause us and others trouble. Our failure to adjust ourselves according to scientific insights leaves a dangerous division between reality and our processing of it. Our differences in capacity and viewpoint may have us believe that there are many truths. This can make it difficult for humans to cooperate or even to coexist. A discussion of our perceptions may not help us much to identify let alone bridge these discrepancies. Our discrepancies and difficulties even on a simple, innocent question such as what color the sky is may not give us much hope that we can come to terms. Even if we could interject science to resolve perceptory and rational discrepancies, emotional bias may engender misperceptions, misunderstandings, and miscommunications. What we want ourselves or others to perceive or think may become more important than how things are. Ascertaining and agreeing on facts is difficult enough when we are well intentioned. It becomes hopeless if we infuse lies and deception.



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