Almost from birth, a human being starts to acquire visual information and process that information into abstract concepts of people, places, things, situations. Roughly one-third of our brain is dedicated to acquiring knowledge through visual perception; it's the most efficient manner through which knowledge is acquired.
There are approximately 30 different cortical areas of our brain that handle a different aspect of visual processing such as "line" or "color" or "movement". The visual brain continually acquires information, discarding some, searching for constancy, retaining essential information and comparing it to stored 'records' of all prior knowledge obtained. Plato theorized that particulars were formed from ideals.
We now understand our brains work in opposite: ideal concepts are abstracted from particulars.
Consider for a moment the cow in the upper right corner. If a human being is born blind and stays blind, they will never understand the reality of what a cow is in the same way that a seeing person understands that cow-reality. Assume this person blind from birth is now 10 years of age, and their sight is suddenly restored. What will they see when they look at this cow upon gaining their vision?
They will not see a cow. Only patchwork shapes. They will have no knowledge of what the shapes are, as there is absolutely no concept or 'meaning' for a cow for them through visual perception. The same for a real cow standing out in a field. The cow and everything in the field will appear as so many lines splotches and blobs. There is no innate common knowledge of a cow. In human knowledge, a cow does not exist outside a human brain's acquired knowledge of it.
The form and meaning of a 'cow' is learned in our brain. The "essence" of a cow is acquired. In 2011 it is a neurobiological doctrine that ideal forms do not exist without a brain. Not cows, not cubes, not spheres, not triangles. "So what?", you may ask. The fact I can, in 2011, state this conclusion reflects a new understanding for an important and long argued philosophical question about the nature of human knowledge, therefore "truth" and "meaning".
In 1688, the philosopher John Locke received a letter from one William Molyneux, a scientist and politician, in which a question was put to Locke regarding a very specific problem. Prior to the 21st century, this question was an open riddle whose outcome carried the conclusion for one or the other of two opposing views of epistemology. This question caused much debate through the years.
William Molyneux's wife became blind not long after they were married. His scientific work involved optics, and he wrote a treatise on optics and the psychology of vision called Dioptrica Nova (New optics) (1692). A few problems in optics at the time surrounded reconciling theories about light and actual perception. Optics showed the inversion of the retinal image, but we perceive it right side up, why? The retinal image is flat, but we perceive distance and depth, why? Problems like that. Earlier theories, such as with Descartes, had imagined that the answer to these problems was some innate mechanism in which the ‘soul’ turns the image right side up, and that unconscious ‘natural geometry’ accounts for 'depth' perception. Apparently Molyneux was not satisfied with these Cartesian or Rationalist answers.
Likely while writing Dioptrica Nova, Molyneux read an essay by the philosopher John Locke, published in 1688 called “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. In this essay Locke had theorized that someone who did not possess a particular sense could never in any way be familiar with the ideas, or realities, associated with that sense. Ideas acquired by a singular modality would not be the same as ideas acquired by multiple modalities. Color is one example. Without the sense of sight, a blind person would never be able to understand the idea or meaning of color, even with all other senses intact.
Molyneux sent Locke a letter in which he asked:
“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?”
Simply put, the question posed to Locke asked that if a person who had been born blind and had learned to distinguish physical form such as cubes and spheres only by touch and name, were suddenly to regain their eyesight and SEE, would they be able to immediately recognize these familiar objects and distinguish these objects by sight alone? The answer to this problem carries tremendous weight.
John Locke was an Empiricist. In its extreme view, Empiricism believes that when you are born the brain is a “tabula rasa”, a blank slate. The empiricist takes a position there is no such thing as a common rational idea or intention that exists as innate human nature, and that all knowledge and understanding is primarily acquired through the senses. Locke believed that we could not know the essence of things beyond the boundary of sense data, or the causal basis for the data we perceive. Locke offered that there is simple knowledge', that is knowledge acquired directly from experience in the world and knowledge that is simple is itself irreducible, such as the properties of “round”, “hard”, “and shiny”.
Locke believed that all 'complex' knowledge was then constructed, or abstracted, from the particular concepts of simple knowledge into increasingly complex concepts of contingent particulars. Empiricists believe that any knowledge acquired is done so only through our senses and that experience acquired thus is the ultimate primary source of all concepts and knowledge. Any belief outside this as to causation, is 'super added'. Even belief in an expectation for causation(as in God) was theorized to be learned from experiential genesis.
“Herein therefore is founded the reality of our Knowledge concerning Substances, that all our complex Ideas of them must be such, and such only, as are made up of such simple ones, as have been discovered to co-exist in Nature. And our Ideas being thus true, though not, perhaps, very exact Copies, are yet the Subjects of real (as far as we have any) Knowledge of them.”
The predominately accepted theory of knowledge in Locke's time was Rationalism. There are a few flavors of Rationalism, but at the extreme polarized view to Empiricism, Rationalism supports the belief that knowledge is realized by means other than sensory experience. Rationalism believes that we are born with innate concepts and knowledge that are either part of our nature or given to us by God, and that sensory experience only realizes these innate truths, it does not provide them. If a cube and sphere are innate objective concepts independent of sensory learning and only realized by our senses, then a person should be able to tell the difference upon seeing them without learning them.
So you can imagine the impact an answer would have provided to the course of philosophy had Locke been able to produce an actual experiment with a human being to answer Molyneux. The predominant problem in realizing an actual answer to Molyneux's question was a lack of subjects. It's been estimated that in one thousand years less than twenty persons blind from birth have had their eyesight restored.
Until now. (Scientists settle centuries-old debate on perception)
In 2003 MIT Professor Pawan Sinha initiated a program for children in India who suffered from curable congenital blindness. These patients, upon having their sight restored, could not immediately identify objects through the sense of vision. The forms these objects represented, did not exist to them.
Here is a video featuring Pawan Sinah explaining how our brains learn to see:
On one end of the spectrum some people believe that all meaning derived from Art is subjective and there are no real meanings beyond subjective contextual interpretation, and so there is not 'truth' to art, only individual experiential meaning. On the other end of the spectrum some believe that Art represents or is derived from objective truth and meaning, and if there is truth, so there must be rules or principles associated with that objective truth.
New revelations from brain science studies have been creeping into the broader academic arena this last decade. A review of the American Society for Aesthetics articles will show various articles concerning brain science and aesthetics. Professor Pawan Sinha's work is only one example for how brain science will likely have a profound effect on the humanities and the teaching of art theory and aesthetics this coming century. While most artists I know seem pretty comfortable with their own current belief in the subjective/objective qualities of Art, it's possible that our understanding for what is subjective, and what is objective, might again be re-ordered.
So who wins, the viewpoint of Empiricism or the Rationalism? In practice, many philosophers take one or both of the positions depending on the issue discussed. Immanuel Kant in "Critique of Pure Reason" synthesized a position inclusive of both Empiricist and Rationalist ideas called Transcendental Idealism. It's been suggested that while theorizing about the 'mind' that Kant, and later Hegel, developed some conclusions that reflect how our brains actually work according to our current understanding of the brain. For instance, Kant surmised in his "Transcendental Aesthetic" that space and time are empirically real, and that we gain an understanding of objects through sensory input such as the visual observation of those objects in space and time; spatial, temporal, motion. The importance of these elements is observed in the above video as the subject is shown learning to 'see'.
The 21st century Holy Grail quest is the pursuit for an understanding of consciousness. Many people are working together around the globe employed in this quest. A few weeks ago, I introduced the Charlie Rose Brain series. Below, you can view excerpts from episode two of the series, discussing visual perception. This round-table discussion features some of our most knowledgeable experts who are studying visual perception, Including Pawan Sinha.