The inscrutability of colour similarity

Will Davies

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6 Citations (Scopus)
168 Downloads (Pure)


This paper presents a new response to the colour similarity argument, an argument that many people take to pose the greatest threat to colour physicalism. The colour similarity argument assumes that if colour physicalism is true, then colour similarities should be scrutable under standard physical descriptions of surface reflectance properties such as their spectral reflectance curves. Given this assumption, our evident failure to find such similarities at the reducing level seemingly proves fatal to colour physicalism. I argue that we should dispense with this assumption, and thus endorse the inscrutability of colour similarity. This strategy is inspired by parallels between the colour similarity argument and the explanatory gap between mind and body made vivid by Jackson’s (1986) knowledge argument, and in particular by type-B physicalist responses to that argument. This inscrutability response is further motivated by cases in chemistry and biochemistry in which analogous scrutability theses fail to hold. Along the way, I present a challenge to standard formulations of the colour similarity argument based on the extreme context sensitivity of the similarity relation. Most presentations of the argument fail to control for such contextual variation, which raises the distinct possibility that the argument equivocates on the similarity relation across its premises. Although ultimately inconclusive, this context challenge forces a significant reformulation of the colour similarity argument, and highlights the need for much greater care in handling claims about colour similarity.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)289-311
JournalPhilosophical Studies
Issue number2
Early online date18 Jan 2014
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 2014


  • Physicalism
  • Mind–body problem
  • Colour
  • Perception
  • Colour ontology
  • Similarity


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