For a few hours, all our other divisions seemed suspended—progressive vs. conservative, Coke vs. Pepsi, Cowboys vs. Redskins—as the world became diverted by debate over a little blue (or is it white?) dress.
It began Thursday when a woman posted a picture on Tumblr and asked what color the dress was. Some of her friends saw it as black and blue, some as white and gold, and within hours the question about #TheDress was discussed in social media feeds and living rooms across the globe.
Yet #TheDress was far more than a meaningless meme. The online debate offered a fascinating science lesson, united people in a respite of harmless fun, and provided powerful insights into the relationship between subjective experience and objective reality.
As far as the science goes, Wired provides the geekiest explanation. Basically, people see the dress in the original photo as either black and blue or white and gold because of how our brains process information about color differently based on variations of lighting, shade, and background.
The photo was so perfectly balanced on a perceptual threshold that viewers’ brains adjusted one way or the other on the color spectrum, either toward blue and black or the toward white and gold. (Actually, the first time I saw the image, I thought it was periwinkle and olive. I don’t know what that means.) One scientist called the photos "the best test I've ever seen for how the process of color correction works in the brain." This compilation of similar optical illusions at The Washington Post illustrates well how such eye trickery works.
Outcries that whole fuss was a waste of time are nonsense, unless, I suppose, objectors contend that as long as evil and injustice exist, there can be no more laughing and no more fun (a position as silly as it is inhumane). One friend wryly announced on her Facebook page: “To all the Jesus-juking dress haters who think this is too trivial to discuss...you're on Facebook. So shush.”
And at The Atlantic, Megan Garber offered an astute admonition to such “attention police:”
The problem with attention-policing—besides the fact that it tends to be accompanied by humorlessness and marmery, and besides the other fact that it serves mostly to amplify the ego of the person doing the policing—is that it undermines the value of Internet memes themselves. Those memes, whether they involve #thedress or #llamadrama or #leftshark or #whathaveyou, are culturally lubricating. They create, and reinforce, the imagined community.
Games like this, she says, are communal: “They invite us to participate, to adapt, to joke, to create something together, under the auspices of the same basic rules.” This is, Garber points out, “not a small thing,” but “in fact, a huge thing—particularly when it comes to the very concerns the attention police like to remind us of.”
The entire hullabaloo serves also to illustrate something about the nature of reality. Subjective experience—such as how colors appear to us—is powerful and can seem irrefutable. The fact that some can only see the dress as blue and black while the people next to them only see white and gold is disorienting.
Amid abstractions of politics, religion, values, and beliefs, concrete reality seems to anchor and unite us more than ever. It’s why everyone talks about the weather. Color would seem to have been another topic over which there could be no disagreement (our color-impaired friends an already-acknowledged exception). When something as concrete and universal as color leads us to diverge, it’s tempting to question objective reality altogether. Is color in the eye of the beholder? Even more significantly, is perception the only reality?
Not at all.
The science that explains #TheDress reveals that while our visual systems process the colors of an object subjectively, this does not negate the fact that things have objective properties that determine how they reflect light. These properties do not change as a result of our experience of them. #TheDress gets at what 18th-century philosopher Immanuel Kant meant when he said we can never truly apprehend the nature of reality. Through the perception of our senses, we experience only what Kant called the phenomenal world, rather than “things themselves,” which lie beyond our sense perceptions. Yet, “things themselves” (what Kant termed noumenalreality) exist regardless of how imperfectly or incompletely we sense them.
#TheDress (and Kant) can teach us greater humility through recognizing that objective reality cannot necessarily be measured by our sense of certainty about our subjective experience. Furthermore, to embrace epistemological humility about ourselves as the measure of all things is not to weaken our faith in the existence of objective truth. Indeed, it only strengthens that recognition.
The relationship between subjective experience and objective truth is illustrated in the nature of our relationship with God through Christ. Through Christ, we experience God subjectively, relationally, and personally. But the means of that relationship is in the objective truth that Christ was born, Christ died, Christ rose again, and lives today. This truth does not depend on anyone’s subjective experience of it, but it is a truth made real when we become subject to it.
Back to the dress: as writer Preston Yancey pointed out, at least we can all agree that it’s ugly. Or can we? The company that makes it reported that within days the dress’s sales were up 347 percent.
Perhaps there is no accounting for subjective taste. But objective truth? That’s another matter.