No, You Can’t Think Outside of the Box

By Ryan Lau | @agorisms  

Try to think of a new color, one that you have never experienced before. It’s purple, but without all of the purple, or green, with a greater amount of intensity. Having trouble yet? Now, attempt the exercise again, but this time, describe it without using any other colors as a reference point to go from. Rather than speaking relatively, imagine the creation of a color outside of our spectrum, and describe it absolutely. You can’t, because you can’t think outside of the box.

Surely, the human brain is not capable of such a task. For that matter, it is also not able to even do so for a color within the existing spectrum. Try, for example, to describe the color green without merely echoing how your individual brain processes the light. Initially, some ideas may include “a cool color”, “the color of the trees in the forest”, or even “light waves that reflect a wavelength of about 550 nm”.

Alas, none of these descriptions are at all meaningful in saying what exactly the color green is. In order to determine what is and is not meaningful, it is best to introduce the situation of a blind man.  If he who cannot see on his own can understand a concept of sight, then that concept must be sound. As the blind man has no bias, he cannot have any pre-existing ideas as to what the color green is.

Suppose the man has a wife and daughter, and both have normal vision. The child goes to a movie with some friends and eagerly comes home after, telling her parents what she saw. The wife can see and the husband cannot, but neither of them has watched the movie. So, neither of them will receive a completely accurate recounting of it. However, by using sensory details, the daughter can convey information that both the wife and husband will understand.

For example, if the movie had a grotesque alien, the girl may say that it had slimy skin, eight legs, and large teeth. Though blind, the man’s other senses compensate, allowing for both he and the wife to get a rough idea of the creature. But what if the daughter only described the alien as green? Even if she called it the forest’s color or remarked about frequency, the blind man would have absolutely no idea what this strange, foreign concept was.

As a person without sight could not understand this aspect of it, then it is safe to say that the description of green is not objective. That is to say, the definition alone holds no absolute truth; the senses are also required in order to understand it. 

Could, on the other hand, the senses alone be a useful tool in determining what the building blocks of the world really are? Though an interesting thought, this appears to be even more difficult to maintain. By looking at forest leaves alone, a person would have no true concept of what makes them green.

What is to say that the way I perceive green is not that way someone else perceives red? Think outside of the box. When looking at a Christmas tree, it is entirely possible that someone may see what I believe to be red. I cannot disprove it, nor can anyone, as that would involve being in everyone else’s minds. The thought, in addition to impossible, is not even slightly appealing and would not be useful in this context.

Clearly, a sense of sight is necessary in order to understand things based on sight alone. The blind man’s assumptions on the movie, referring back, most likely came from information his other senses provided. But just as convincingly, the sense of sight alone is not adequate to bring about objective truth.

Now, a bit of a paradox begins to form. It is obvious that the sense of sight is absolutely necessary to understand the objective quality of sight. However, the sense of sight is also meaningless at determining any objectivity of sight. So, if both statements are true, how can we be sure of anything at all concerning the properties of sight? 

Ultimately, the answer boils down to a level of societal consistency. I, of course, have no idea how anybody else perceives the so-called “green” of a Christmas tree. In fact, there is mounting evidence to suggest different people are able to see and identify different colors. 

One study, done by Debi Roberson of the University of Essex, looks at this phenomenon. The Himba tribe in Namibia has multiple words for green, but not one distinguishing blue from green. So, when trying to pick out different shades of green, they excelled. But, they were often unable to determine the difference between the common green and cyan, even though the distinction is so obvious to native English speakers.

The northwest square is a different color, which the Himba saw immediately. Source:

I do know, however, that the idea of green is commonly accepted among all. It matters not whether we all perceive colors as the same, and in fact, is entirely possible that we each view them wildly uniquely.

What does matter, in this situation, is that we can communicate the existence of color. The above study all but proves the notion that color is different from language to language. But even within a single language, there is no guarantee that, as I previously said, someone does not think a Christmas tree matches my perception of red.

Color, then, if not objectively verifiable, cannot have inherent objective truths to it. Its only use is for communication, and thus, is nothing more than a human construct. This is where the idea of thinking outside of the box comes into play.

Before the cavemen were able to write, were they able to see color? If so, how many were they able to perceive? The Himba tribe study would suggest that the answer to this is no. If a word for a color is necessary in order to see it, how could cavemen existing before language possibly understand it? But if they did not understand it, how could they have possibly come up with words for it? What came first, the color or the idea of color? Either situation proves humanity’s inability to think outside of the box. 

The less likely of the two situations is that cavemen were unable to see color before conceptualizing color. Of course, the study would support this hypothesis, if carried to a full extension. But, it would be impossible for a human to come up with a word for something that he or she could not perceive.

In the modern day, it is safe to assume that the five senses shape our perception of reality. It is impossible for any human being to think of a world in which another sense exists that we do not have the organ to detect, or that our organ is not yet advanced enough to detect. The proof of this lies in the human inability to imagine a new color that does not entail a combination of existing colors or a relative assessment in comparison to them.

So, it is safe to assume that the study has some limitations. Though it is fascinating how language shapes existing color perceptions, it cannot create new ones entirely. Given the scope of human knowledge now, compared to the times of the Neanderthals, it is highly unlikely that they were any more able to do so.

This, by process of elimination, implies that color itself predated the idea of color. So, an ancient human being, deductively, must have looked at his or her own perception of color and given it words. With those words, the ancient could begin showing others this new property, which they had already observed, but not named.

Time passes by. The words red, blue, green, and others fly across the globe, but when we use them today, what are we actually saying? Is there anything true about them, or we are just unable to think outside of the box?

We cannot possibly imagine another term for color, and if we did, we would not be able to explain it. Language has already set aside certain words that denote color, but they are all subjective. So, when seeing green, one is not seeing anything that has any intrinsic green properties, as green itself does not exist. Science tries to approximate it, but even then, it only uses someone else’s definition, someone else’s box. You can’t think outside of the box, because language is in the box. Without language, what is a coherent thought?

The box encompasses all things commonly accepted as human knowledge, given the pattern of perception and storytelling that is knowledge itself. Rather than physical, it is metaphorical, but nonetheless very real. It is a collection of natural occurrences that humans snared with language, conceptualizing them in ways that allow for their understanding. Color, of course, is in the box, as is language. Neither of those is anything more than social constructs used to further communications.

What else can we place into the box of possible thought? Measurements of time, for one. Though time objectively moves, there is nothing intrinsic to say that a second is really a second at all. We merely invent and use the measurements to better understand each other. Try to describe one second without mentioning any words that denote an interval or direction. That means, no “minute”, “year”, or even “forward”. All of them are constructs used to quantify things we cannot otherwise understand. You cannot think in any other terms because you cannot think outside of the box.

Numbers, too, fit into the box. Ask any schoolchild and they will tell you with absolute certainty that 1+1=2. But what is two, and what is one? Again, you cannot describe two without using another human construct for quantity. 3-1, two things, doubled one, the second number after zero. They all are in the box, and you cannot think outside of the box. We can add many more things to it, such as shape, size, and texture. Though they definitely all exist, we cannot describe the concepts without merely giving circular examples of them.

The logic behind the box is not unlike that of a Nigerian prince’s email, offering you his billion dollar fortune. All he asks is for your social security number so that he may complete the transaction. In it, the fake prince says that you can trust the email because he is a trustworthy prince. How do you know he is a trustworthy prince? Well, the email says so, so it has to be true. 

The same reasoning applies to anything in the box. The forest is green because green is found in the forest. Two is more than one because one is less than two. A second is a duration of time because one second goes by for one second to pass. All of these things are very real, but all are also very logically invalid. Each of these resides on a different concept. But in order for any of them to be objectively true, the concept can’t be its own catalyst.

So, what lies beyond the box? We cannot know, because we cannot think outside of the box. But in so many ways, we likewise cannot think inside of the box. So, in a sense, we cannot wrap our heads around the things that lie inside of the box, and we cannot comprehend things that fall outside of it. 

Is this a contradiction? It would appear that this very logic falls within the same category of circular reasoning as many things in the box. Does the box exist at all? If we cannot understand the things inside or outside of it, where can the line fall?

The exact location appears nearly impossible to ascertain. Though individuals can have limitations, they are always in flux. Some evidence suggests that we did not see the color blue until recently. Does this mean that there are other things which we have the capacity to perceive, but simply do not? Surely I cannot rule this idea out, and thus, these things too would fall in the box. If more is in the box than we can see, then we cannot possibly see the edge of the box. 

Where would such a box come from? What kind of limitations exist on the human capacity to know and perceive? The origins of a box may lead back to a Creator, or a scientific guideline, or perhaps some fusion. Maybe all of these possibilities are moot, and are only products of the box.

Being unable to think fully inside or outside of the box, I cannot begin to fathom where it may have come from. With certainty, though, I can state its existence. But in order to investigate its origin, I must first know what it is. And to know what it is, I must know of the boundary between in and out of the box.

The line must exist, for without it, there is no distinction. Without distinction, there is nothing. But with distinction, there is only circular reasoning, which leads itself down a road free of knowledge. The box must exist, but for it to exist, it must have a place to fall. But, without knowledge of the inside or outside, how can such a place exist? Perhaps, if I was able to think outside of the box, it would be more imaginable. Perhaps not. In a world of circular reasoning, the prospect of an answer appears as dark and unclear as is the box itself, turned over on top of humanity.

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