Sunday, March 8, 2015

Believing Is Seeing

Apparently people need to believe that something exists, and in some instances have a word for it even, before they can actually see it. Such was the case with the color blue, which has only recently entered the consciousness of people on the timeline of human existence. There is considerable evidence that the ability to see the color blue is a relatively recent development in human evolution. According to scholars, the ancient languages of Greek, Chinese, Japanese, and Hebrew didn’t have a generic word for the color blue in them. Without a word to label the color, strong evidence indicates that these ancient peoples didn’t see it. In the Odyssey, Homer describes the ocean as “wine-dark” – never blue. Wine is not blue. The Odyssey contains detailed descriptions of the trappings of life at that time, but the references to color are limited. Classics scholars note that black is mentioned over 200 times in the Odyssey and white over 100, but other colors are barely mentioned. Red is mentioned about 15 times and yellow or green less than 10. Blue never. There is no word for blue in ancient Greek.

The nineteenth-century philosopher Lazarus Geiger hypothesized that the evolution of reason is intimately connected with the evolution of language. Geiger explains that the last color to begin to appear in the evolution of language from ancient times to the present day is blue. Geiger studied ancient texts and discovered some interesting things about perceptions of color. Democritus and Pythagoras note four fundamental colors:  black, white, red, and yellow. The Hindu Vedas describe the heavens in intricate detail at all hours of the day and night, but never once say anything about the sky being blue. Blue does not appear in the Koran, Icelandic Sagas, ancient stories from New Guinea, or ancient Chinese stories. In short, ancient civilizations did not perceive blue as a separate color the way we do in modern times. It was not distinguished as different from green. The only exception is the ancient Egyptians, who did have a word for blue, and who had figured out how to make a blue dye. Geiger came to the conclusion that the use of language to describe the world is arbitrary. I would say it is not so much arbitrary as rooted in culture, and cultures are widely different.

Neuropsychologist Jules Davidoff conducted research in Namibia to explore the question of whether or not we can see something if we don’t have a word for it. The Himba Tribe of Namibia has no separate word for blue. The word for green is also used to describe blue and Himbans make no distinction between blue and green. This makes sense if you imagine the world in which a Himba lives. Blue occurs infrequently in nature, and probably less or not at all in the native environment of a Himba. When shown a circle of 11 squares in which 10 were green and one was blue, Himbans could not pick out the blue square. But when shown a circle of 11 squares in which 10 were the same shade of green and one was a slightly different shade, Himbans could easily pick out the odd square, while Davidoff could not. Can you?

The picture below reveals the renegade square.

I can’t see any difference in the shades of green in the squares. I imagine that there are many words for different types of green in the Himba language and perhaps even a word for the different shade of green of this different square used in the test. In the daily life of a Himban, an extraordinary range of shades of green are probably perceived. Without knowing anything about Himban culture, I would hazard a guess that being able to recognize the difference between greens of very close color is an important ability that contributes to daily life and perhaps even survival. For instance, when a particular medicinal mushroom has a certain shade of green around the edge then it could be poisonous while a different shade of green around the edge could mean it is edible. I have made up this story about the mushroom to prove a point, but I think you can see what I’m saying. Similarly, Alaskan Natives have no one word for snow but many different words that each describe the type of snow. Thus my assertion that the use of language to describe the world is deeply rooted in culture. (Although how Himbans can see such delicate differences in shades of green and not notice that a blue square is a different color eludes me.) I have to wonder if people with limited vocabularies have limited perceptions of the world.

The word gives us a way to comprehend something within the context of our worldview, and a way to describe it. Without the word, it appears that we are in danger of not recognizing it. Can we see something if we don’t have a word for it? When Columbus arrived on this side of the ocean, he first made land in what is now the Dominican Republic. It is well-documented that the indigenous people did not see Columbus’s ships approaching. (See Charles C. Mann’s book 1491.) It is speculated that they did not have any frame of reference into which they could fit the image of his ships on the water and therefore they didn’t register their existence. I have to wonder what I am not seeing because I have no word for it or frame of reference in the context of my consciousness. I suppose (this is a leap but stay with me) it would be theoretically possible for extraterrestrials to pass among earthlings without detection because we have no word for them and thus no way to comprehend what we see when we see them. They could be a color that has not yet appeared on our spectrum.

I confess that I don’t think that there are extraterrestrials among us, although that might be a plausible explanation for some of my husband’s behavior. Invisible extraterrestrials are too supermarket-tabloid for my rational mind. But I do believe that there are forces of nature and spiritual commerce that we fail to see because we have no way to define, name, or comprehend. Some people are more able to perceive and recognize activity on the spiritual plane than others. The history of the color blue reminds me that an infinite array of events transpire in the world right in front of me that I fail to notice because I have a finite brain, a culturally-defined vocabulary, and a limited ability to see. Noticing and recognizing these things would unravel mysteries and enrich my life, I’m sure. I regret that they escape me. With a nod toward Aldous Huxley and his hallucinatory memoirs, we need to open wider the doors of our perception and believe in a broader possible reality. For now, I’m grateful that I can see blue. It’s one of my favorite colors; moreover, if I stopped being able to see it then I would not be able to find my car.


Divora Stern said...

I do not know if Tchlet is sky blue as in Medern Hebrew or medium (cobalt,) blue, as I had thought. However after our conversation about this blog, our Rabbi and myself looked it up. Thankfully our rabbi is well versed in Hebrew and found that tchlet was mentioned a lot in this weeks parsha other than Tzitzit.
My understanding was that the blue of the Tzitit was cobalt blue, not sky blue. However I find this entire topic fascination, Amy THANKS from Divora

Amy at Woza Books said...

I am also fascinated Divora. I wonder exactly what blue is meant by the word tikhelet. I wonder if it's a particular shade of blue that can be made with the dye from the sea creature mentioned or if it is used to describe a number of shades of blue. The Ancient Egyptians had words for blue and they, like the Ancient Hebrews, had a blue dye. It is difficult to imagine how the mind of an Ancient Hebrew perceived the world!