Molyneux’s Problem answered?

Came upon the following story of a 68-year-old man who had his vision repaired after being nearly blind his whole life. Fortunately (?) he fell down some stairs and required major reconstructive surgery, during which they fixed his eyes as well.

(Story’s from here, where there’s a clearer version of the video too — I’m guessing YouTube is out of focus to get you in the mood for the story).

Being a philosopher, of course, I thought immediately of Molyneux’s Problem, posed back in the 17th century:

whether a man who has been born blind and who has learnt to distinguish and name a globe and a cube by touch, would be able to distinguish and name these objects simply by sight, once he had been enabled to see.

From M. Thomas’s account, it seems that Molyneux’s question should be answered in the negative. Once a blind person gains his or her sight, it seems that it still takes further learning/training to be able to associate the visual information with the tactile information.

Given my rationalist leanings (not in being committed to innate ideas, but in being inclined to think that reason plays a bigger role in knowledge than does experience), I’m mildly surprised by this. But it seems to be fairly well established empirically.

Here’s another case from a couple years ago that supports the claim that previously blind children couldn’t visually identify objects that they knew by touch.

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3 responses to “Molyneux’s Problem answered?

  1. An interesting case. Thanks for posting.

    I’ll have to say that I am not at all surprised at this. It is close to what I would expect.

    I am inclined to say that this supports J.J. Gibson’s theory of visual perception (direct realism), and poses a problem for Marr’s theory of vision (a form of representationalism).

    Isolated examples such as this don’t really settle such philosophical disagreements. However, I am guessing that proponents of direct realism will be less surprised than representationalists.

    The big distinction is that direct realism, or at least Gibson’s version, requires a great deal of perceptual learning, which Gibson might have described as constructing transducers that allow perception of particular kinds of things. And the subject of this accidental experiment seems to be going through a phase of perceptual learning.

  2. I’m pretty much a physicalist too in some sense. And my thoughts were the exact opposite to yours. I would have been utterly flabbergasted if he could have been able to associate the visual information with the tactile information straight away. Furthermore, I doubt he will ever ‘see’ as we do. We ‘see’ with our brains. We gather the raw light information with our eyes, but that is a ton of raw information, totally unorganized, and it is the brain that makes sense of it. In fact, that data is quite rough, and the brain ‘cleans it up’ so to speak, and also fills in gaps making predictions of what it expects. All of this is established in our brains at a young age when it is very plastic. But at his age, his brain is never going to be able to wire up properly.

    • True enough. I’d just have thought the the finished product (so to speak) would be abstract enough that it would be fairly straightforward to connect it with the input from different senses (or, at least touch and sight, — sound and smell would be another matter). But obviously I was somewhat naive about just how processed/abstracted our representations of objects are.

      Learn something new every day.

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