Be it Resolved

November 25, 2015 § 2 Comments

Molyneux’s problem (from now on MP) & Frank Jackson’s Mary’s Room (from now on KA) seem to trigger a variety of reflection whose initial appeal seem to be a function of an error they share.

Or perhaps the error lies in the intuition which judges them to be analogous?

The intuitive link for me, was established on hearing Oliver Sacks’ account of Stereo Sue. Before indulging in the details of that case and Sacks’ own contribution to the MP, lets just spell/state in a simple scheme what appears to be common to MP & KA:

State A of System + Property to which System was blind  ->  Judgment as to accompanying phenomenological & behavioral aspects of state A’ -> Judgement as to causal role of such aspects

Property added in Oliver Sacks’ Stereo Sue was Stereo vision …Did she learn something new? Yes

So what of MP & KA?

The first of these two was framed On Saturday 7 July 1688 by William Molyneux
in the following letter to John Locke:

A Problem Proposed to the Author of the Essai Philosophique concernant L’Entendement

A Man, being born blind, and having a Globe and a Cube, nigh of the same bignes, Committed into his Hands, and being taught or Told, which is Called the Globe, and which the Cube, so as easily to distinguish them by his Touch or Feeling; Then both being taken from Him, and Laid on a Table, Let us Suppose his Sight Restored to Him; Whether he Could, by his Sight, and before he touch them, know which is the Globe and which the Cube? Or Whether he Could know by his Sight, before he stretch’d out his Hand, whether he Could not Reach them, tho they were Removed 20 or 1000 feet from Him?

If the Learned and Ingenious Author of the Forementiond Treatise think this Problem Worth his Consideration and Answer, He may at any time Direct it to One that Much Esteems him, and is,

His Humble Servant
William Molyneux
High Ormonds Gate in Dublin. Ireland

The results of Project Prakash carried by MIT, publicised in 2011, seem to have answered MP. Five congenitally blind patients of a mature enough age to make reliable discriminations were treated. After sight restoration they failed to match visually an object to a haptically sensed sample.

John Locke was right in his response the brain cannot immediately make sense of what the eyes are taking in, and the blind man cannot distinguish the two objects.

The response seems in line with Stereo Sue, and interestingly also with a story , Oliver Sacks wrote in 1993 for the New Yorker about Virgil, a man with limited to no vision as a child who had developed cataracts at the age of six. After his cataracts were removed, fifty years later, Virgil had trouble adjusting. (For example, he could not always distinguish the letter “A” from the letter “H” and, when given Molyneux’s test, could not tell a square he felt from a square he saw.)

These results seem also enough to erase/solve KA , or rather expose it as flawed. Frank Jackson himself has rejected the argument …but not in quite the manner which seems evident (to me!). Lets consider this summary of KA:

Mary is a brilliant scientist who is, for whatever reason, forced to investigate the world from a black and white room via a black and white television monitor. She specializes in the neurophysiology of vision and acquires, let us suppose, all the physical information there is to obtain about what goes on when we see ripe tomatoes, or the sky, and use terms like ‘red’, ‘blue’, and so on. She discovers, for example, just which wavelength combinations from the sky stimulate the retina, and exactly how this produces via the central nervous system the contraction of the vocal chords and expulsion of air from the lungs that results in the uttering of the sentence ‘The sky is blue’.… What will happen when Mary is released from her black and white room or is given a color television monitor? Will she learn anything or not? It seems just obvious that she will learn something about the world and our visual experience of it. But then is it inescapable that her previous knowledge was incomplete. But she had all the physical information. Ergo there is more to have than that, and Physicalism is false.

The famous Mary locked in her monochromatic lab is surely not blind, but given that per findings of Project Prakash there is no innate conception of space common to both sight and touch, what allows for framing a hypothetical wherein a complete conception of color minus the respective sensory input is possible ???

…Perhaps Ramachandran’s colorblind synesthetes? …mmm … …but lets bracket that for now for an attack on the conception of Mary’s accumulation of physical knowledge as a sort of filling up of a hard disk which does not alter the processor, the surrogate for the “I”.

Here I would like to insert two statements/lines from Eric Kandel

  • The “I” is not a camera ..

& the more famous one which he usually repeats in most his open lectures

  • In so far as you learn anything …you walk out of this lecture with a different brain
    than you came in

or

  • If people go and see this movie and they remember it the next day it is because there is an alteration in the gene expression in their brain

So where is there room for a non physicalist interpretation of Mary’s acquisition, after exiting the monochromatic lab?

Mary’s brain changes with knowledge acquisition. So too when it is exposed to the actual rays of colored light.

In whatever way the brain (or the cognitive/neural system) is altered by processing light of a wavelength to which it has not been exposed before, it would be in a new physical state A’, with blindness to property in question removed.

This exposure is a physical fact, there may be accompanying qualia, but so what.

Does Mary learn something new? If the alteration in the gene expression in Mary’s Brain accompanying the experience of colored light (novel stimuli processed) and its related memory be labelled a state of additional knowledge, which it is, then of course.

Moreover when is Mary not changing? physically changing

The case of colorblind synesthetes brings one to Daniel Dennett’s response to Frank Jackson’s article titled Epiphenomenal” qualia?

If indeed Mary knew everything – and here Dennet imagines rightly the complete state of knowledge to correspond to a state of the system (…a brain) which has a conception of color red albeit produced without exposure -a complete education should induce or create the brain state corresponding to that of a subject exposed to the light of that wavelength and should have the accompanying memory/altered gene expression. Hence it would learn nothing new.

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