Saturday, May 20, 2017

Molyneux's Problem

Molyneux's Problem
// Gurney Journey

Here's a philosophical question:

Let's imagine a person born blind had learned to distinguish shapes by the way they feel. If you could surgically bestow sight on that person, would he or she correctly identify those same shapes by sight alone, without recourse to touch?

People argued about this question for centuries. It is a hard one to test, because it's so rare to find experimental subjects. There aren't many people who start with total congenital blindness and later attain full vision.

In recent years, Pawan Sinha, of MIT, was able to find five individuals who met the requirements. They started out with only the ability to distinguish between light and dark. After a surgical procedure gave them the ability to see, they looked at a selection of forms with which they were already familiar by touch.

Although they could readily differentiate one shape from another visually, they could not transfer their tactile knowledge into the visual realm. They could not connect touch and sight. Their guesses were no better than chance. The answer to Molyneaux's problem was a decisive "no."

Sculpture by Carpeaux
However, over time, as they interacted more with the world, the senses of touch and sight were better integrated.

This problem  has relevance for artists. Several art theorists, including Harold Speed, have put great stock in the differences between the sense of touch and the sense of sight.

Many artists now develop their visual skills to a high level, often exclusively through a computer interface, without having the opportunity to touch the objects they draw or paint.

I've always believed that any chance we have to feel, touch, smell, or hear something that we're drawing will make us draw a more convincing representation of it. If you've danced the Charleston, you'll animate it better. If you've tightened the cinch on a Western saddle, you'll paint a better cowboy.

So the problem is not just experiencing the world through all our senses, but integrating those senses with each other. One thing that helps me when I set out to do a plein-air painting is to walk around the subject and check it out first before diving into the preliminary drawing.
You might enjoy these previous posts:
Can Blind People Draw?
Seeing With the Hands
Touching Art at the Prado

Molyneaux's problem on Wikipedia.

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Sent from my iPhone

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