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Molyneux's Problem: Brains, Minds, Synesthesia & Experimental Philosophy

"Suppose a man born blind, and now adult, and taught by his touch to distinguish between a cube and a sphere of the same metal, and nighly of the same bigness, so as to tell, when he felt one and the other, which is the cube, which is the sphere. Suppose then the cube and the sphere placed on a table, and the blind man made to see: query, Whether by his sight, before he touched them, he could now distinguish and tell which is the globe, which the cube?"  ~William Molyneux

Molyneux thought that "...the acute and judicious proposer answers: ‘Not. For though he has obtained the experience of how a globe, and how a cube, affects his touch; yet he has not yet attained the experience, that what affects his touch so or so, must affect his sight so or so…'." 

Locke agreed, "I agree with this thinking gentleman, whom I am proud to call my friend, in his answer to this problem; and am of opinion that the blind man, at first sight, would not be able with certainty to say which was the globe, which the cube, whilst he only saw them; though he could unerringly name them by his touch, and certainly distinguish them by the difference of their figures felt."  

"Molyneux's Problem" is widely considered to be an "unsolved problem" in epistemology, dealing with issues as broad as: information processing, qualia, brains/minds, amodal perceptions, and much more. 

My intuitions pretty strongly disagree with Locke and Molyneux.  When I hear this "problem" posed, I would have assumed that this person could easily distinguish the cube from the sphere by sight alone. 

But then, along comes that pesky passenger: scientific experimentation!

"Newly Sighted Fail to Match Seen with Felt"

This week we will talk about a cornucopia of philosophical and scientific issues involving Molyneux's problem, including its epistemic, philosophy of mind dimension and its potential scientific resolution, along with the broad issue of how experimental results bear on philosophical questions. 

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  • Steve S.

    A friend told me that he was always capable of distinguishing male and female dogs via visual inspection, but was unable to tell from their barking. Then a dog whisperer told him that with a simple operation on his inner ear he would acquire a neux sensitivity allowing him to understand dog speech. Right after the operation all he could hear was incomprehensible and indistinguishable arf, arf, arf, …. But after a few days of wandering the neighborhood and listening intently he could hear the male dogs saying hump, hump, hump, …., while the females were saying Buzz off I'm not in heat, Buzz off I'm not in heat, Buzz off I'm not in heat, …, with a few OKs.

    I think this confirms the group consensus with regard to Molynew's Problem. It's more than a shaggy dog story.

    February 6, 2014

  • Gretchen

    fun discussion, much to think about. Thanks!

    February 5, 2014

  • A former member
    A former member

    Shall this be made into another knockoff of, "My Fair Lady"?

    Eliza (to Locke): Shapes, shapes, shapes!
    I'm so sick of shapes
    I get shapes all day through
    First from him, now from you
    Is that all you blighters can do?

    Sing me no song, read me no rhyme
    Don't waste my time, show me!
    Don't talk of June, don't talk of fall
    Don't talk at all!
    Show me!

    Never do I ever want to see another shape
    There isn't one, I haven't felt or seen
    Here we are together in what ought to be a dream
    Show me one more shape and I'll scream

    February 2, 2014

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