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You have finished your journey and enter a new world. The intelligent humanoid natives are friendly and speak your language.

However, as you get to know them, you discover that they can't see colour, just black and white.

How can you explain colour to them?

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    $\begingroup$ You may want to take a look here: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Qualia $\endgroup$ – user289661 Feb 9 '17 at 17:17
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    $\begingroup$ What kind of explaination are you looking to give them? You can give them a clinical cut-and-dry scientific explaination, or you can dig into what user289661 points at, which is the more subjective side of color. Or really anywhere in between, but the way I'd go about it would depend greatly on what I wanted to convey. $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Feb 9 '17 at 18:39
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    $\begingroup$ Also, please note that technically there is a difference between "black and white" and "grayscale". Are these beings only capable of seeing "black and white" (unlikely), or are they able to see in grayscale (what in humans might be termed full color blindness)? The two existing answers appear to assume the latter, but strictly speaking, your question says the former. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Feb 9 '17 at 21:24
  • $\begingroup$ Are they primitive or technological? $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Feb 10 '17 at 10:02
  • $\begingroup$ @JDługosz technological $\endgroup$ – Beastly Gerbil Feb 10 '17 at 12:44
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Color: The property possessed by an object of producing different sensations on the eye as a result of the way the object reflects or emits light.

If the humanoid is sufficiently advanced to understand the concept of light as a wave form in the EM spectrum, they may be able to understand it explained as such. If they have tools to measure such phenomena, they will undoubtedly already be associating those values with gradients of their own Grey-scale vision, and therefore can tie the concept of color to these values.

If the humanoid is not so advanced, the best method is likely to refer to objects that they are familiar with and simply point out that while they see it as light-gray the non-natives see it as blue. While they will be physiologically unable to rectify the difference according to their experience of reality, at least they will be made aware of the difference between the two species.

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Give them glasses with one eye red and another green, then ask to close one eye and observe and then with another eye - for instance a red object would look different through (to them) magic glasses. Finally try to explain we humans see those two distinct images at the same time and be able to somewhat distinguish them although the sensation is mixed and not really experienced as two different images.

Then follow up with tricolorism and tetracolorism and beyond.

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In maths imaginary numbers are often mapped on one axis whilst real numbers are mapped on another. I would try and explain colour in similar terms.

You could also prove the existence of colour by picking two different colours perceived as the same shade of grey and encoding information of some sort with them. This is an effective and simple proof that some visual phenomena is inaccessible to the natives.

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Assuming they see greyscale*, I would just show them two objects with the same greyscale shade (i.e. which look identical to them), and explain that to me they look different - my eyes can see things their's can't. I'd explain that in low light my vision is like theirs, but my eyes have something that can see more when the light is brighter.

If they have advanced enough physics to know what wavelengths are, then I would just explain that I can perceive different wavelengths. If they have a sense of hearing and can hear differences in pitch, then I'd explain that brightness is analogous to loudness and color is analogous to pitch - I can see differences in wavelength of light in the same way they can hear differences in wavelength in sound.

If they required proof, I'd do something similar to Dubber Rucky's suggestion. I'd give them two piles of identically shaped pieces of paper which are indistinguishable in greyscale, but of two different colors. I'd tell them to test me; make a shape from the pieces of paper in one pile against a background of pieces of paper from the other pile (which they obviously would be unable to see after construction), and then show it to me and see if I could identify it. They could even have a control group of members of their own species, to prove that it really isn't greyscale-identifiable.

*All of this would work too if they saw pure black and white only and nothing in between

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Considering that the natives can see in grayscale, it means that at least they can identify two colors: black and white.

Take a completely black object and ask them what they see it as. Of course they will see they see it as black/dark. Then take a completely white object and repeat the question. They will tell you that it is fully white. Now pick up a red or blue or green object, point to it and tell them that while they see it only as a shade of gray, you can see beyond black and white.

The intelligent folk would easily understand what you mean, but the lesser intelligent would have trouble comprehending the concept.

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  • $\begingroup$ I don't think a person only seeing in greyscale would identify it as a mixture of the two colours black and white. As they completely lack the notation of colours, they would likely only see them as "bright" and "dark". How would you explain to them that object A, which has a certain level of "bright" is completely different than object B, which has a similar level of "bright"? They might see them as two different shades of grey and, thus, believe they understand what you mean, but if the items happen to have the same shade, then they would likely only consider you crazy. $\endgroup$ – Mrkvička Feb 9 '17 at 20:21
  • $\begingroup$ This answer just amounts to "tell them you can see more colors" - it doesn't really explain anything to them $\endgroup$ – Tharaib Feb 10 '17 at 2:19
  • $\begingroup$ There is some background to that statement, @Tharaib That prelude adds meaning to the otherwise circular statement. $\endgroup$ – Youstay Igo Feb 10 '17 at 20:59
  • $\begingroup$ @YoustayIgo I don't see how. The prelude just establishes that they can see different shades of brightness - which they presumably already know. Telling them you can see beyond black and white (minor nitpick: they can see beyond black and white - gray - so you couldn't phrase it that way) doesn't help them understand what you mean by 'color." "You see it as 'gray#12,' but I see beyond grays, I see it as 'blue'" doesn't explain how blue is different to gray#12. If an alien said "you see blue, but I see beyond color, it's qt!x" would that explain to you what they could see differently? $\endgroup$ – Tharaib Feb 11 '17 at 0:05
  • $\begingroup$ Your whole argument is based on the grounds that the natives don't consider black and white as colors but as shades of dark and light. This assumption is flawed. Black and white are as distinct as red and green. Furthermore, one could go on to add that we (humans) only see different shades of the same color, based on the wavelength of the light being reflected from the object. That is the iteration of the same (faulty) statement that black and white are not colors but different shades of light and dark. $\endgroup$ – Youstay Igo Feb 11 '17 at 14:51

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