In the time of the Roman Empire, civic life was divided between the Blue and Green factions. The Blues and the Greens murdered each other in single combats, in ambushes, in group battles, in riots. Procopius said of the warring factions: “So there grows up in them against their fellow men a hostility which has no cause, and at no time does it cease or disappear, for it gives place neither to the ties of marriage nor of relationship nor of friendship, and the case is the same even though those who differ with respect to these colors be brothers or any other kin.”1 Edward Gibbon wrote: “The support of a faction became necessary to every candidate for civil or ecclesiastical honors.”2
Who were the Blues and the Greens? They were sports fans—the partisans of the blue and green chariot-racing teams.
Imagine a future society that flees into a vast underground network of caverns and seals the entrances. We shall not specify whether they flee disease, war, or radiation; we shall suppose the first Undergrounders manage to grow food, find water, recycle air, make light, and survive, and that their descendants thrive and eventually form cities. Of the world above, there are only legends written on scraps of paper; and one of these scraps of paper describes the sky, a vast open space of air above a great unbounded floor. The sky is cerulean in color, and contains strange floating objects like enormous tufts of white cotton. But the meaning of the word “cerulean” is controversial; some say that it refers to the color known as “blue,” and others that it refers to the color known as “green.”
In the early days of the underground society, the Blues and Greens contested with open violence; but today, truce prevails—a peace born of a growing sense of pointlessness. Cultural mores have changed; there is a large and prosperous middle class that has grown up with effective law enforcement and become unaccustomed to violence. The schools provide some sense of historical perspective; how long the battle between Blues and Greens continued, how many died, how little changed as a result. Minds have been laid open to the strange new philosophy that people are people, whether they be Blue or Green.
The conflict has not vanished. Society is still divided along Blue and Green lines, and there is a “Blue” and a “Green” position on almost every contemporary issue of political or cultural importance. The Blues advocate taxes on individual incomes, the Greens advocate taxes on merchant sales; the Blues advocate stricter marriage laws, while the Greens wish to make it easier to obtain divorces; the Blues take their support from the heart of city areas, while the more distant farmers and watersellers tend to be Green; the Blues believe that the Earth is a huge spherical rock at the center of the universe, the Greens that it is a huge flat rock circling some other object called a Sun. Not every Blue or every Green citizen takes the “Blue” or “Green” position on every issue, but it would be rare to find a city merchant who believed the sky was blue, and yet advocated an individual tax and freer marriage laws.
The Underground is still polarized; an uneasy peace. A few folk genuinely think that Blues and Greens should be friends, and it is now common for a Green to patronize a Blue shop, or for a Blue to visit a Green tavern. Yet from a truce originally born of exhaustion, there is a quietly growing spirit of tolerance, even friendship.
One day, the Underground is shaken by a minor earthquake. A sightseeing party of six is caught in the tremblor while looking at the ruins of ancient dwellings in the upper caverns. They feel the brief movement of the rock under their feet, and one of the tourists trips and scrapes her knee. The party decides to turn back, fearing further earthquakes. On their way back, one person catches a whiff of something strange in the air, a scent coming from a long-unused passageway. Ignoring the well-meant cautions of fellow travellers, the person borrows a powered lantern and walks into the passageway. The stone corridor wends upward . . . and upward . . . and finally terminates in a hole carved out of the world, a place where all stone ends. Distance, endless distance, stretches away into forever; a gathering space to hold a thousand cities. Unimaginably far above, too bright to look at directly, a searing spark casts light over all visible space, the naked filament of some huge light bulb. In the air, hanging unsupported, are great incomprehensible tufts of white cotton. And the vast glowing ceiling above . . . the color . . . is . . .
Now history branches, depending on which member of the sightseeing party decided to follow the corridor to the surface.
Aditya the Blue stood under the blue forever, and slowly smiled. It was not a pleasant smile. There was hatred, and wounded pride; it recalled every argument she’d ever had with a Green, every rivalry, every contested promotion. “You were right all along,” the sky whispered down at her, “and now you can prove it.” For a moment Aditya stood there, absorbing the message, glorying in it, and then she turned back to the stone corridor to tell the world. As Aditya walked, she curled her hand into a clenched fist. “The truce,” she said, “is over.”
Barron the Green stared uncomprehendingly at the chaos of colors for long seconds. Understanding, when it came, drove a pile-driver punch into the pit of his stomach. Tears started from his eyes. Barron thought of the Massacre of Cathay, where a Blue army had massacred every citizen of a Green town, including children; he thought of the ancient Blue general, Annas Rell, who had declared Greens “a pit of disease; a pestilence to be cleansed”; he thought of the glints of hatred he’d seen in Blue eyes and something inside him cracked. “How can you be on their side?” Barron screamed at the sky, and then he began to weep; because he knew, standing under the malevolent blue glare, that the universe had always been a place of evil.
Charles the Blue considered the blue ceiling, taken aback. As a professor in a mixed college, Charles had carefully emphasized that Blue and Green viewpoints were equally valid and deserving of tolerance: The sky was a metaphysical construct, and cerulean a color that could be seen in more than one way. Briefly, Charles wondered whether a Green, standing in this place, might not see a green ceiling above; or if perhaps the ceiling would be green at this time tomorrow; but he couldn’t stake the continued survival of civilization on that. This was merely a natural phenomenon of some kind, having nothing to do with moral philosophy or society . . . but one that might be readily misinterpreted, Charles feared. Charles sighed, and turned to go back into the corridor. Tomorrow he would come back alone and block off the passageway.
Daria, once Green, tried to breathe amid the ashes of her world. I will not flinch, Daria told herself, I will not look away. She had been Green all her life, and now she must be Blue. Her friends, her family, would turn from her. Speak the truth, even if your voice trembles, her father had told her; but her father was dead now, and her mother would never understand. Daria stared down the calm blue gaze of the sky, trying to accept it, and finally her breathing quietened. I was wrong, she said to herself mournfully; it’s not so complicated, after all. She would find new friends, and perhaps her family would forgive her . . . or, she wondered with a tinge of hope, rise to this same test, standing underneath this same sky? “The sky is blue,” Daria said experimentally, and nothing dire happened to her; but she couldn’t bring herself to smile. Daria the Blue exhaled sadly, and went back into the world, wondering what she would say.
Eddin, a Green, looked up at the blue sky and began to laugh cynically. The course of his world’s history came clear at last; even he couldn’t believe they’d been such fools. “Stupid,” Eddin said, “stupid, stupid, and all the time it was right here.” Hatred, murders, wars, and all along it was just a thing somewhere, that someone had written about like they’d write about any other thing. No poetry, no beauty, nothing that any sane person would ever care about, just one pointless thing that had been blown out of all proportion. Eddin leaned against the cave mouth wearily, trying to think of a way to prevent this information from blowing up the world, and wondering if they didn’t all deserve it.
Ferris gasped involuntarily, frozen by sheer wonder and delight. Ferris’s eyes darted hungrily about, fastening on each sight in turn before moving reluctantly to the next; the blue sky, the white clouds, the vast unknown outside, full of places and things (and people?) that no Undergrounder had ever seen. “Oh, so that’s what color it is,” Ferris said, and went exploring.
1 Procopius, History of the Wars, ed. Henry B. Dewing, vol. 1 (Harvard University Press, 1914).
2 Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. 4 (J. & J. Harper, 1829).
I have had this experience several times in my life; I come across clear enough evidence that settles for me an issue I had seen long disputed. At that point my choice is to either go back and try to persuade disputants, or to continue on to explore the new issues that this settlement raises. As Eliezer implicitly advises, after a short detour to tell a few disputants, I have usually chosen this second route. This is one explanation for the existence of settled but still disputed issues; people who learn the answer leave the conversation.
"I have had this experience several times in my life; I come across clear enough evidence that settles for me an issue I had seen long disputed. "
What if you made an error in judgement at that point, not having access to all the relevant facts, and the particular matter under dispute is of great importance to discovering the truth about reality?
Isn't that "settles for me" exactly what we see happening when people are unwilling to look at facts that might challenge their current mental models? Couldn't this lead to a cul-de-sac?
Matt, yes of course, one should be very cautious about drawing conclusions contrary to a large community of discussion.
The Blues and Greens were Catholics and Monophysites (I forget which was which). They once united and almost overthrew the emperor Justinian (his wife persuaded him not to flee) but Narses set them against each other and crushed their revolt.
I suspect some Greens will take a spectral analysis of cerulean, point out that it differs from standard blue paint and that there's some green in it, and argue that the sky really is green after all. A new debate might start on the proper definitions of "blue" and "green."
BTW, what happens if the sky is overcast and gray?
Great parable, but I don't think things would actually happen like that. If that really happened, a Green would almost certainly see the sky as just as green as a Blue would see it blue. Light underground is probably of substandard quality most of the time, no pigments underground exactly match the color of the sky, there have been experiments that have shown that native speakers of different languages will classify the same color as closer to different colors based on their native language. The Greens and the Blues may have the same language but their per... (read more)
You know, sometimes I think Daria's attitude is much healthier than Ferris's.
I once told a friend, "I think I'm a Daria, but I know the correct answer is Ferris". Then I realized the absurdity of that statement, and had much pondering to do.
But what causes others to welcome you is not always the best attitude. I also don't see why Aditya would kill him, as he wasn't a green and is likely to readily admit that the sky is blue.
(four years, seven months later)
I was wrong. As I recall, the sentiment that prompted me to write the grandparent was that Daria actually cares about whether the sky is blue or green, whereas Ferris is just wireheading on idle curiosity and doesn't actually care about the sky at all. I said that Daria's attitude was healthier because I thought it was appropriate to feel some shock and horror upon discovering that one of your most cherished beliefs is false.
But in retrospect, this is stupid. Daria is failing to distinguish between the map and the territory: if she actually cares about the sky, then the horrifying realization shouldn't be that she has to relinquish her belief that the sky is green, but rather that the sky is in fact blue, and that fixing this state of affairs is likely to be an extremely difficult engineering problem if it's physically possible at all. On the other hand, if what Daria really cares about is tax or divorce laws, or the shape of the Earth, or fitting in with her friends and family who perform the behavior of asserting that the sky is green, then those are different problems that need to be handled separately from the question about what color the sky is.
You forgot a few cases:
Loretta the Green looked at the sky and said: It is blue. Therefore, it is not the sky. Despite its inmensity, its openness, and those things that look like tufts of white cotton. Now that I think of it, those things don't look quite like cotton.
Bob the Groovy Blue said: Wow. Wait until I tell everyone that it's pink. (He was on acid, as usual).
Ed the Green said: Damm, it's not green. It's black.
Frank the Blue said: Hooray, it's not green. It's black.
(Obviously the last two arrived at night)
And finally John the Ecumenical said: Like I've always said. It's cerulean!
Or the crevice breaks through the ground and into a thickly covered rain-forest. Low and below, as far and high as the eye can see, all is green with tree-cover.
"In the time of the Roman Empire, civic life was divided between the Blue and Green factions".
That's wrong. In the later centuries of the Roman Empire, civic life was divided between the Red, White, Blue and Green factions. The first two vanished in the early part of the Byzantine Empire, so the description is true of the period of the Byzantine Empire under consideration (which still called itself the Roman Empire).
There is some reason to believe that the factions were more than just sporting associations, also handling some militia functions for the defence of Constantinople.
You forgot Gerald the Green, the sole survivor of the earthquake.
I agree with the others. Most greens would insist that the sky is really green through any number of rationalizations.
Nice example of Bliks in action. Literature is powered by such dramas, where people's individual mindset shifts the spectrum of every photon right or left of the reader, or the other protagonists, and the tragedy is that too few rays of light fall true, through a clear eye.
Ferris I suppose has seceded, too advanced to bother with the various foolish repercussions she knows will ring through the world under her feet from this new data. That's fine, she's too far ahead to go back anyway. ()
I worry that we (denizens of this website) are too confident that OU... (read more)
Other possibilities; reconcilement. Some modern Chinese look to Mao's "little red book" for leadership advice to run their business, for example. Or people arguing that the sky used to be green before the cataclysm and that some aspect since then changed things (which is where the blue legends might have come from.)
Also, it's worth remembering that ancient political texts (religious texts most certainly included) were often written without the freedom of speech that we enjoy today. By necessity, they were indirect. To interpret them literally, which some followers did (and which this fable might even imply should be done), of course, was a mistake. And those who were persuaded to change their mind because of their mistakenly literal interpretation might very well consider those who still valued the old stories to be obstinate fools, not those who believed in the value of some esoteric statement.
Or sometimes people make the opposite assertion, and take something which is supposed to be literal and make it metaphorical.
The Greek Gods were said to reside on mount Olympus, and as people started to climb to the top of that mountain the myths got moved to a mythical mountain somewhere else. (Or so I was once told.)
Beautifily written. Just beautiful.
There's good evidence that human color vision shows enormous individual physical variability in certain aspects. The ratio of long- to medium-wavelength cone cells as measured in one study varied by over an order of magnitude across color-normal males. A non-trivial lucky fraction of women are believed to be tetrachromatic like birds and reptiles. Some aphakic people (with missing or damaged lenses) who can see UV light have reported that it appears to be bluish-white.
How about Gloop, who considers the possibility that the fact that the sky is blue now has no actual bearing on what the color of the sky might have been when the scraps of paper were written? He can entertain the possibility that the composition of the atmosphere might have changed during all the time people spent underground, so he establishes a laboratory to investigate if A) what particles were present in the air at the time the paper was written and B) if they were able to scatter blue or green light more efficiently?
Is it just me, or did Ferris have the best reaction? It seems to me that if everyone reacted this way to learning something so exciting, the world would be a much better place. it doesn't say what Ferris believed earlier, but perhaps the point is that it doesn't matter. What matters is the magic of the reality, not how it relates to prior conceptions.
Is it just me, or does this strike anyone as very similar to the God debate? Some differences are obvious (the sky's colors don't have books of morals and "history" on their sides, e.g.) but the allusion to hatred and war seems apt.
It seems to me, though, that if we were to flesh this comparison out, neither Ferris's or Daria's responses seem entirely correct (although they are the only two that make an attempt to act as rationally as possible.) Consider Richard Dawkins: A man obviously motivated by science and discovery (Ferris), but yet a ma... (read more)
Arguing over minor semantics may also lead to a conflict as described.
Kill the greys!
That's not semantics, it's syntactics.
(Get it? Cause that is a minor semantic issue.)
Murphy the Green puffed his cheeks, whuffed in exasperation and thought "Why does Universe keep doing this to me! Let Accuracy Triumph Over Victory indeed. Does this data demand any changes to 'Sheep Bucket Truth', 'Light Switch Reliability', or 'Slavery Is Evil'? How about 'Trust And Audit' or 'Life Is Worth Defending'. No?" As his footsteps turned him homeward, his mind began to revisit other questions for which he had no satisfactory answer. I smile when he starts to think again, "What could the ancients have possible meant when they wrote about 'Outer Space'."
And the phrases are capitalized because that is the way he thinks about them.
Consider a slightly different story. Eddin and Ferris come across a strange gas cylinder and both look at the warning labels the cylinder has.
Eddin: Ah. Explosive. I better handle this carefully then.
Ferris: Ah. Explosive. I really need a ciggarette now...
I'd go with Eddin as being the more rational reaction. Ferris sees, and understands there's more to be learned, but doesn't seem to make any effort to internalise or actually understand this knowledge. Both explore, but in diferent ways. At the end of the day though, neither immediate reaction is bad. No one is required to learn something in a single moment. What matters is whether they have other reactions (and specifically, each other's reactions) in the minites, hours, and days to follow.
Nice parable, but the author has stacked the deck. The Blues and Greens were originally divided over the issue of the color of the sky. These groups then developed their own cultures and attitudes that had nothing to do with what they believed was the color of the sky, though they were thus identified. The world had evolved to a point that the Blues and Greens had developed mutual tolerance based on a deeper understanding of their common humanity. I suspect that in this new "secular" world, most people viewed the origins of their group name as fi... (read more)
"Rachel glanced at the sky only once, briefly, before turning to study the expressions of the others who have inevitably followed her outside. She sees incredulity, defeat, unabashed wonder...
She proceeds to gather those with the most angry expressions into a group, and leans in to whisper something to them.
"Now the likelihood is that we can tell everyone back inside that the sky is green. All we'd have to do is make sure none of the Blues ever make it back, and we can say that they died in the earthquake. How many of you are able to pretend to be former Blues that have been converted? The rest of you can help seal up the entrance..."
Gregory looked at the sky contemplatively, arms folded across his chest. "It all seems very obvious to me," he said "that if anyone was REALLY concerned about the color of the sky, what they ought to have done was sent scouts to the surface immediately to determine who was correct, instead of arguing pointlessly without any evidence."
With a disgusted snort, he returned underground.
I find it disingenuous to entangle serious materially-based political concerns with abstract irrelevant political concerns. Whereas the blues and greens obviously shouldn't (and in real life, probably wouldn't) care what color an alien sky is, there are serious political disputes often tied to such abstract concerns regarding civil liberties, regarding the application of the law or the non-application of the law, regarding the right of the wealthy to victimize the poor, etc..
When people get caught up in complicated political institutions that propound dogm... (read more)
I've been consistently bothered thinking about this story and I think the biggest issue I have with it is the idea that there is a right answer at all. I know this just puts me in the same category as the people at the college who teach everyone that Green and Blue are equally valid viewpoints, but it seems to me that the truth of the matter is that perception is so subjective and societally constructed. The other people in this thread have discussed this as a matter of the Greens rationalizing, hypothetically "seeing" the wrong color because the... (read more)
No. No, no, no, no. Blue light is light that has a wavelength of approximately 450-495 mm and green light is light that has a wavelength of approximately 520-570 mm. If I had a device that measured the wavelength of light, the wavelength of the light coming from the sky is an empirical fact. It may not be constant, and if the wavelength is in between those ranges then it may look more bluish-green or greenish-blue depending on various factors, but I cannot socially construct the wavelength of light emitted by a given source.
What do you think this is a metaphor for?
No, blue is what is collectively perceived as blue, while also not being collectively perceived as any other colour (or color if you are a "gray"). That's how they came up with the objective, standard, scientific definition of blue above.
And the sky isn't pure blue, it's a quarter of the way between blue and green.
Maybe there could be a paragraph in a box or something at the bottom of each post that contains the "take home" lesson for each post, to make it easier for people who are trying to review.
It's grue. Clearly.
Gordon, High Pontiff of the First And Last Temple of Greenism, gasps — but then he remembers the first paragraph of the Greenist Catechism: "Tell the truth always, for the Blue Devil is the Father of Lies. Truth is good, because God the Green commands it. Lying and hypocrisy — living by untruth, yet seeming truthful by all outward signs , and benefiting richly thereby — are the ways of the Blues and of their father the Devil." The God of Greenism, the Father of Truth, has lost Gordon's allegiance. Gordon, now inwardly Blue, joyfully returns to h... (read more)
Only tenuously relevant, but fun to think of in conjunction:
Shouldn't it be rare for the city merchant to advocate... (read more)
Feels nice to see my name in a story. This fact about Romans is just so tasty.
It was hard to really imagine someone getting so emotionally caught up about a fact. I didn't expect to find it so hard.
Most fights are never about the underlying fact but it's tribal, about winning. If people cared about knowing the truth it would be discussions not debates.