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5/2/2024   |  2:15-3:45 PM 

Rockefeller 106 Class of 1930 Room

Kathleen Akins:
Color Bit-by-Bit: The Puzzle of Color Development

Kathleen Akins is a James S. McDonnell Centennial Fellow in Philosophy of Science and a Burnaby Mountain Endowed Research Professor at Simon Fraser University in Canada. Her primary research areas are neurophilosophy and philosophy of mind, and she is famous for three groundbreaking articles: “Of Sensory Systems and the "Aboutness" of Mental States” (1996), “A bat without qualities” (1993) and “What is it like to be boring and myopic” (1993).

Professor Akins is an important figure in empirically guided philosophy of color, and is currently working on issues related to synesthesia, the development of color perception in children, and color phenomenology. Her personal website can be found here.


The talk is sponsored by the Society of Fellows, the Leslie Center for the Humanities, The Department of Philosophy and the Cognitive Science Program.


Professor Akins will be visiting with her co-author, Professor Martin Hahn.

A poster for Kathleen Akins' talk titled "Color bit-by-but: the puzzle of color development," featuring a picture of Kathleen Akins, a white with short, brown hair, smiling.


Despite philosophy’s long fascination with colour perception—what colour is and how we see it—philosophers have largely ignored the topic of human colour development. This is particularly odd given one of the most famous thought experiment in contemporary philosophy of mind: Frank Jackson’s neuroscientist, Mary. Mary is raised in an achromatic or ‘grayscale’ environment, without access to any colour stimuli. As any parent would predict, Mary becomes the world’s foremost expert on the physics, optics, psychophysics and neurophysiology of colour vision. In fact, she knows everything that could be known about human colour vision. Then, one day, Mary enters the coloured world. What happens? Will she learn something about colour, given that, ex hypothesi, she already knows everything there is to know about colour?


Our fascination with Mary is somewhat ironic given that every neurotypical human trichromat develops colour vision sometime after birth. Human colour vision requires years of visual experience to mature: Children under 7 years of age test as colour blind on the Munsell-Farnsworth colour vision despite learning how to use colour terms reliably several years before. Indeed, human colour sensitivity will peak at ~23 years of age and decline thereafter. So, somewhere along the way, between birth and peak colour sensitivity, all such trichromats develop colour vision. What does that mean, how does it happen and, most interestingly, what is that like? Do infants/young children have a Mary Moment, an instant at which the colours appear? 


Probably not. But if not, what happens as colour vision matures?  Do the colours accrue one by one, first the reds, then the greens and so on?  Or do we gain all the hues at once, but only slowly acquire colour saturation? The problem is as much theoretical as empirical. If colour development isn’t about ‘adding the colours’, what sorts of developmental events could explain the complex timeline of human colour development and our experience of it? In this lecture, I will be presenting a neurophysiological view of what it is to see the colours as a human perceiver—and how this view explains the lengthy maturation process of human colour vision. It is a representation view, one that conceives of our colour perceptions as fully intentional perceptual experience. But it is not a view that leaves room for colour sensations, or colour qualia, per se.

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