God is the Colors a Mantis Shrimp Can See

Let’s start with an extremely over-simplified biology refresher.

Eyeballs contain special light catching cells called cones that respond to color. More types of cones means more visible wavelengths of light means more visible colors. And more total cones mean richer, more intense color vision.

Most mammals have two types of cones. Dogs, for example, have two kinds of cones. Dogs see the colors of the world as basically yellow, blue, and gray. Dogs are lousy at seeing red, even when it’s all around them. Sucks to be you, dogs.

Humans can see red because we have three kinds of cones. The three basic colors we see are red, blue, and green. These three colors, along with light and dark perception, combine to make the millions of colors we see. All the pinks and oranges and golds and purples are really just different mixtures of these three colors.

Not all humans see these three colors the same though. The most common types of human colorblindness come about because the person is missing one of the three kinds of cones, so they see fewer colors. Sucks to be you, colorblind people.

Also, even if you’re not colorblind, your perception of color is subjective because “the brain responds to the stimuli that are produced when incoming light reacts with the several types of cone cells in the eye. In essence, different people see the same illuminated object or light source in different ways.” I don’t really know what that means, except that I think it probably helps explain why everyone was losing their shit trying to decide if a dress was blue and black or white and gold. (It was blue and black. It always looked blue and black. You people are crazy.)

Remember how I said more total cones of the three kinds of cones mean you see richer, more intense colors? Well, Wikipedia says, “The Himba people have been found to categorize colors differently from most Euro-Americans and are able to easily distinguish close shades of green, barely discernible for most people.” So that’s some crazy shit. The Hima people have apparently evolved better eyeballs. They’re basically X-Men. With a really lame power. It’s a really specific and rare scenario where distinguishing shades of green is gonna stop Magneto. Makes the ability to make it foggy look good, huh?

Here’s where it gets really crazy. Humans are riding the top of color vision evolutionary ladder when it comes to mammals, but we’re as lame as dogs when compared to other animals. Many birds and fish have four types of cones. Butterflies have six kinds. But they all suck compared to the mantis shrimp, who has 16 types of color receptive cones. It is thought that this ridiculous number of cone types, more than 5 times what we have, gives the mantis shrimp the ability to recognize colors that are unimaginable by other species. (Some of this stuff is still being studied, so the jury is still out on exactly what the heck is up with the mantis shrimp’s color vision, but it doesn’t really matter because it’s just an analogy. We can assume the current prevailing theories are accurate for our purposes, so chill out.)

The mantis shrimp can recognize colors that are unimaginable to other species. Unimaginable. As in, we are not physically capable of imagining these colors. If you sat there and tried to imagine a new color, you’d just end up with some combination of red, blue, and green. Because your mind has never received any input other than red, blue, and green to use as a building block for this new color. Your brain hasn’t evolved the circuitry to distinguish these colors, even if somehow you did an eyeball swap with a mantis shrimp.

And if a mantis shrimp has 13 types of cones we don’t have, it’s entirely possible there are billions or trillions of colors we don’t see. We might be/probably are seeing this infinitesimally small fraction of colors the world has to offer. The colors are there, even if you can’t see them. They’re all around you right now. You yourself might be more colors than you can even fathom. Just like dogs are surrounded by all sorts of red, some dogs themselves are even reddish, but they will never know. It doesn’t make the red less real. Reality is not dependent on a dog’s perception.

At this point in my life, I have come to believe that the thing we call God is like the colors the mantis shrimp can see. It’s real, it’s all around us, and we can even catch a small glimpse of it from time to time. But we can’t see all of God. With our short lives on a teeny planet among the expanse of time and space, we simply haven’t been built or evolved the ability to see the immortal, enormous consciousness that is God, much less comprehend it. And how laughable that we think we can verbalize it. God is unknowable. In every sense. Any attempt to know or explain God is inherently wrong, even the one I just provided. Our meat bodies are incapable of processing the concept. But we do occasionally get little slivers of a moment where we see one shade of the spectrum of colors of the thing we call God. We can see the red, blue, and green of God.

The problem is that we get these glimpses of God, and using our wildly inadequate senses, meat brains, and minds that don’t have the sensory input to form the basis of an idea, we start trying to form ideas. And those ideas turn into beliefs. The beliefs turn into belief systems. The belief systems turn into hierarchies and institutions of social control. Social control demands rigid, unthinking adherence to be effective, so people are programmed beginning at infancy that there is only one right way, and failure to follow that way means nothing less than the extinction of the species and the end of all that is good. In the best case scenario, people adhering to a rigid belief structure are unlikely to promote any change or advancement. In the worst case scenario, they kill each other.

I completely believe that people do have fleeting but real encounters with God. But it’s as if he’s a guy who smiled at you from across the room from a cocktail party. It feels pretty great when someone as big and important as God smiles at you, so the experience was really meaningful to you. You think about it a lot. You’ve dissected every detail. God was wearing a red shirt when he smiled at you. That must mean God’s favorite color is red. You should probably wear a lot of red, you decide. In fact, God ONLY likes people who wear red shirts. Actually, God HATES people who don’t wear red shirts. Never mind that God was also wearing blue slacks. That’s not the important part of the outfit. You decide to ignore slacks entirely. They don’t count. Everyone else at the cocktail party agrees with you that wearing red is the only way to please God. Some people at party say the shirt was magenta. You know it was maroon. God likes you better, because you’re better at seeing the REAL color. The difference certainly cannot be explained by the different lighting in different locations of the party that you never saw. Nope. God’s shirt was maroon, only maroon, maroon is a definite objective thing, it’s the only thing that matters to God, God loves you best because you can see his love of maroon, and God hates anyone who says anything but maroon is acceptable.

Your friend down the street wasn’t at the cocktail party. He saw God at the farmer’s market the next morning. God was wearing a green shirt. But you’ve built an entire worldview around God’s maroon shirt now. You cannot accept that God might sometimes wear red and sometimes wear green and still be God. It makes you really uncomfortable to think about, because maybe you wasted an unbelievable amount of time and money making sure every stitch of clothing you own is red. You’ve got a lot sunk into this red theory. Plus, if he’s right, maybe you don’t have a unique insight into God. Maybe you’re not special after all. No, the only explanation is that your friend did not see God, but some horrible imposter, who is making you feel all sorts of unpleasant feelings. If he would just STOP talking about this green shirt. Now he thinks he knows God. He thinks he’s the special one. He’s wrong, and he has to stop talking. You have to stop him.

I think that not only can God change his shirts, but God cares about a lot more than shirts, so it’s pretty silly to build entire belief structures around one shirt. God is a lot more than red, blue, and green. If God is the billions or trillions of colors the mantis shrimp can see, the millions of views of God we have are still just a fraction of what God is.

Everything you believe might be true. For the sake of argument, I’ll even grant you it is. Maybe God really does give some people 40 virgins in heaven. Maybe Jesus really was a physical manifestation of God. Maybe it really does make God angry if you eat shrimp. (Maybe he meant mantis shrimp.) It doesn’t matter, because all of these things could be true at the same time, and it’s all still just one shirt God wore one night at a cocktail party. You’re not his trusted confidant. You don’t even really know him. You don’t have his phone number programmed in your phone. He’s just a  guy that smiled at you once.

And he smiles at everyone.

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2 Responses to God is the Colors a Mantis Shrimp Can See

  1. amyleannwood says:

    “And he smiles at everyone.”
    Tears, totally bawling, not quite to ugly crying but almost. My heart started to soar when you talked about those fleeting moments when you catch a glimpse of Him. I have those God moments where the world goes silent and peace replaces the chaos of my life. For a second, there is a new color, but then it is gone. I met a Buddhist woman on a train one, while I was on a mission to convert Buddhists, and she changed my life. She smiled as she shared about her love for God and for a fleeting second, that peace was there. She knew. We had a shared God moment. No longer could God only like people in red, like me, because she was wearing blue and she had been smiled upon by Him.

    “He smiles on everyone.”

    I just want to hold that line in my heart forever.

    I love you.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: God is the Colors a Mantis Shrimp Can See | Amy Wood's Blog

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