Behavioral and Brain Sciences

Color, consciousness, and the isomorphism constraint

Stephen E.  Palmer a1
a1 Department of Psychology, University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, CA 94720-1650 [email protected]


The relations among consciousness, brain, behavior, and scientific explanation are explored in the domain of color perception. Current scientific knowledge about color similarity, color composition, dimensional structure, unique colors, and color categories is used to assess Locke's “inverted spectrum argument” about the undetectability of color transformations. A symmetry analysis of color space shows that the literal interpretation of this argument – reversing the experience of a rainbow – would not work. Three other color-to-color transformations might work, however, depending on the relevance of certain color categories. The approach is then generalized to examine behavioral detection of arbitrary differences in color experiences, leading to the formulation of a principled distinction, called the “isomorphism constraint,” between what can and cannot be determined about the nature of color experience by objective behavioral means. Finally, the prospects for achieving a biologically based explanation of color experience below the level of isomorphism are considered in light of the limitations of behavioral methods. Within-subject designs using biological interventions hold the greatest promise for scientific progress on consciousness, but objective knowledge of another person's experience appears impossible. The implications of these arguments for functionalism are discussed.

Key Words: basic color terms; color; consciousness; functionalism; inverted spectrum; isomorphism; qualia; subjectivity; symmetry.