In 1688, the Irish philosopher William Molyneux sent a letter to his colleague John Locke offering him a thought experiment that has occupied both philosophers and scientists ever since. The question was very simple: if a person born blind – and was able to distinguish between objects (for example, a cube and a ball) by touch – sees one day, will he be able to recognize these same objects just by looking at them?
The two reporters at the time concluded that the person would not succeed. For Molyneux, although a person had gained experience of touch, if he regained his sight without experiencing the relationship between touch and sight, it would be impossible for him to pass the test. This interrogation was pivotal for Locke and his fellow empirical philosophical colleagues, because a positive response to Molyneux’s question confirms the existence of an innate idea, of a common space between the senses. The response negatively supports the argument that these knowledge gains come from experiential learning. Despite Locke and Molyneux’s clear opinion, thinkers such as Voltaire or Diderot have continued to consider the question, without anyone really succeeding in providing a definitive answer.
After that, going beyond the cognitive and philosophical framework, he ended up with interesting neuroscience researchers. For them, too, the stakes mattered: a positive answer means that there are brain biological factors—specific neural pathways connecting different sensory areas—that we would have had from birth.
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Educated or innate ability?
In 2003, Pawan Sinha, Professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), a member of the Prakash Project, which works on blindness issues, has developed a protocol to try to provide a definitive answer. First identify the people who can meet Molyneux’s criteria. Five patients between the ages of 8 and 17, blind from birth, were to undergo surgery to gain full vision. They were selected to participate in the experiment. Within 48 hours of surgeries conducted between 2007 and 2010, Sinha’s colleague Richard Heald’s teams applied the famous protocol and gave them things to do. The results confirmed the philosophers’ intuition: the participants were able to remotely identify what was shown to them, with a success rate of 58%, which is hardly better than chance. It seems to indicate that the correspondence between touch and sight was an acquired ability. However, Heald’s team didn’t stop there and decided to retest five days later, seven days later, and then five months later. The results in these cases were much better and the success rates were as high as 80-90%! This meteoric improvement contradicted our philosophers and seemed to indicate that at least some form of biological connectivity was already present—but not used—in these people’s brains. This function simply needed a relatively short period of time to get started. So the interconnectedness of our senses seemed to be an inherent factor in our biology.
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This thought experiment, in addition to its resolution, shows how important the interdisciplinarity between science and philosophy is for both fields. A question asked in the 17th century has helped 21st century neuroscientists better understand our perception and the connections between our senses. We have an unfortunate tendency to separate the fields of human interest. Collaboration between these disciplines is an asset that should not be overlooked. Moreover, for anecdote, in 2020, researchers in entomology — the branch of zoology whose goal is the study of insects — studied Molino’s problem in a group of bumblebees to see if they had an internal representation of the things they touched or saw. , The bugs passed the test! Cross-disciplinarity can give absolutely amazing results and that is what makes it so valuable.
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