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Is there any proof to Sir Isaac Newton's claim that color exists only in the mind? That there is nothing intrinsically blue about light with a short wavelength. To us it would look the same whether the cones in our retina detect color or whether they detect wavelength which our brains convert into color. Is there any definitive scientific evidence to prove or disprove his claim?

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Do you have an extract to support your view of what Newton said? – Mozibur Ullah Feb 22 at 11:36
is the blue color of the sky that you see in a dream different than the blue color of the sky that you see in waking life? if so then how? if not then how does that fit with the blue of the sky being an intrinsic property of light? – nir Feb 22 at 12:36
Optiks 1704. The rays to speak properly are not coloured. Sir Isaac Newton. – Zane Scheepers Feb 22 at 13:38
Consider abnormal colour vision and tetrachromatism: colour is subjective. – pjc50 Feb 22 at 14:38
@DevSolar great answer. A trains whisle sounds higher pitched when its travelling towards us and lower as it moves away. Yet the whistle itself is making a constant sound. A similar red/blue shift occurs when objects are moving towards or away from us at near light speeds. This would indeed seem to support the idea that color is not intrinsic to light but rather a perception based on wavelength. – Zane Scheepers Feb 22 at 21:55
up vote 9 down vote accepted

The human colour vision is bound to the cones. We have three types of cones with maximum of absorption in the wavelength domain respectively

  • violet
  • green
  • yellow.

The subjective impression of colour results from the neuronal processing by these types of cones by additive mixture of colours. The theory of Young, Helmholz and Maxwell from the 19th century explains this mechanism in our brain.

It is not the single wavelength which creates the colour impression. We do not have a continous range of receptors, each receptor restricted to one small range of wavelengths disjoint from the range of the next receptor.

Light is an electromagnetic wave like radiowaves. The only difference is their wavelength. We cannot detect any difference between radio waves in addition to their physical properties like wavelength, polarisation or intensity. Hence there is no evidence for colour as an intrinsic physical property.

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Thanks. That helps. – Zane Scheepers Feb 22 at 12:41
According to sources I've looked at, the cones have a maximum absorption corresponding to red, green and blue (LMS respectively). – Bumble Feb 22 at 13:56
@Bumble The maximum of absorption is violet (420 nm), green (535 nm) and yellow (565 nm) See: Schmidt, Robert; Schaible, Hans-Georg: Neuro- und Sinnesphysiologie. 2006 The authors explicitly emphasize that the long wavelength is not red. – Jo Wehler Feb 22 at 14:38
Some humans also posses Tetrachromacy which gives them an extra green receptor (usually) that allows them to see green in a completely different way than other people. – Bradley Uffner Feb 22 at 17:45
@JoWehler it should be noted, however, that different cultures (esp. different languages) do not necessarily agree on which color names correspond to which wavelengths. In particular, there is considerable difference between what Europeans call red, orange and yellow and what North Americans call them and where they draw the line between them (also blue and violet/purple). – RBarryYoung Feb 22 at 19:09

Is there any proof of Newtons claim that colours appear in the mind? That there is nothing intrinsically blue about the light with a short wavelength.

Newton may, surprisingly enough, demur; in part Book 2 of his opticks, he wrote:

Proposition 4: the transparent parts of bodies, according to their several sizes, reflect rays of one colour, and transmit those of another, on the same grounds that thin plates or bubbles do reflect or transmit those rays. And this I take to be the ground of their colours.

Newton appears to take rays to be coloured.

In a later chapter, he does claim though that vision is:

Qu.23: is not vision performed by the excitation of this medium, excited at the bottom of the eye by the Rays of Light, and propagated through the pellucid, uniform cappilimenta of the Optick Nerves into the Place of Sensation?

There's no mention of Mind, though; perhaps you've confused Newton with Hume, or perhaps Saussure; or both.

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Place of perception! Is that not the mind? To be more specific, in sight it occurs within the occipital lobes. – Zane Scheepers Feb 22 at 13:13
@Zane cheepers: the point is he doesn't bring mind into it; if you compare him to Hume, you'll see the difference... – Mozibur Ullah Feb 22 at 14:35
I'm critiquing your argument from authority - what you say - that Newton said, in both your question and comments. – Mozibur Ullah Feb 22 at 14:53
Stop wasting time arguing semantics. He says sensorium and I call it the mind. The point is that color is not a property of light or an object. Color is a sensation which we percieve internally and does not exist "out there". – Zane Scheepers Feb 22 at 15:06
@zane Cheepers: you're wasting my time, my friend; Newton would call your finger, where you touch a coin to pick it up, a place of sensation; philosophy is about semantics... – Mozibur Ullah Feb 22 at 15:11

The "correct" interpretation of Newton's ideas and researches on light is a complex issue and Newton's theory for sure evolved during time.

But, having said this, here is an extract from :

So the true cause of [the phenomena experimented by Newton] found to be just this:

light consists of rays that are differently refractable.


I shall now tell you about another, more notable, unalikeness in light-rays, which is the source of differences of colour. I shall set out the doctrine first, and then describe one or two of the supporting experiments.


You will find the doctrine comprehended and illustrated in the following propositions.

(1) Just as the rays of light differ in degrees of refractability, so they also differ in what colours they are disposed to exhibit. Colours are not what they are generally believed to be, namely states that light gets into because of how it has been refracted or reflected by natural bodies. Rather, colours are basic properties of light, properties that come into existence when light does, and these properties are different in different rays. Some rays are disposed to exhibit a red colour and no other; some a yellow colour and no other, some a green colour and no other, and so on through the rest. [...]

(2) A given colour always has the same degree of refractability, and a given degree of refractability always goes with the same colour. [...]

(3) The kind of colour and degree of refractability that any particular sort of ray has can’t be changed by refraction, or by reflection from natural bodies, or by any other cause that I have so far found.

See also Newton's theory of colour.

Newton's theory is that colours are not properties of things; they are the way we "perceive" wave-lenght, which is an "intrinsic" property of light:

the colours of all natural bodies have no other origin than this, that they are variously qualified to reflect one sort of light in greater plenty than another. And this I have experimented in a dark room by illuminating those bodies with uncompounded light of diverse colours. For by that means any body may be made to appear of any colour. They have there no appropriate colour, but ever appear of the colour of the light cast upon them [...].

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The homogeneal light and rays which appear red, or rather make Objects appear so, I call rubrifick or red-making; those which make Objects appear yellow, green, blue, and violet, I call yellow-making, green-making, blue-making, violet-making, and so of the rest. And if at any time I speak of light and rays as coloured or endued with Colours, I would be understood to speak not philosophically and properly, but grossly, and accordingly to such conceptions as vulgar People in seeing all these Experiments would be apt to frame. For the rays to speak properly are not coloured. – Zane Scheepers Feb 25 at 19:21
Not only does the scientific mainstream tradition conflict with the common-sense understanding of color in this way, but as well, the scientific tradition contains a very counter-intuitive conception of color. There is, to illustrate, the celebrated remark by David Hume: Sounds, colors, heat and cold, according to modern philosophy are not qualities in objects, but perceptions in the mind. (Hume 1738/1911, Bk III, part I, Sect. 1, p. 177; Bk I, IV, IV, p. 216) – Zane Scheepers Feb 25 at 19:23
and It seems Newton, Hume,Galileo, Boyle, Descartes, Newton, Young, Maxwell and Helmholtz. Maxwell as well as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy disagree with you. – Zane Scheepers Feb 25 at 19:26

Color may be only in the mind, but remember that we associate colors with everything around us, and that is what gives them meaning. For example, the sky appears blue, the trees green and the sun yellow-orange. The universe is made up of colors or in other words differences which emerge from the oneness (of love) To truly understand why colors are so magnificent, you need to back to the creation and stare in wonderment of who we are. You might be interested to know that some species can differentiate more color than humans, as they have more than three types of receptors. Look up mantis shrimp for more information.

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One of the simplest proves: Perceivable colors cannot be the same as specific wavelengths because there is a range of colors which do not correspond to a specific wavelength. These colors are called magenta, pink, fuchsia, and the like. They are all colors which are placed on the so called line of purples (the straight line on the CIE chromaticity diagram).

CIE chromaticity diagram

Physical explanation

There are three types of cone cells (called S, M, and L) responsible for color vision in the human eye. Each type is sensitive to a range of wavelengths. If both the S and the L cones are stimulated, but not the M cones, the impression of the color magenta emerges. Because the main responsitivity ranges of the S and L cones do not overlap, one needs light of at least two wavelengths (a short "violet"/"blue" and long "red" wavelength) in order to stimulate both the S and the L cones, which in turn somehow trigger the phenomenal impression of the color magenta.

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