The Humanities Research Centre at the University of Leeds, UK has a fascinating series of talks in their Sadler Seminar Series this year. Under the theme ‘Touch: Sensing, Feeling, Knowing’, a rich mixture of philosophers, psychologists and others are presenting, and the talks are convened by Professor Helen Steward (Philosophy), Dr Amelia DeFalco (English) and Dr Donna Lloyd (Psychology).
My talk will be Friday March 9th: ‘Blindness, touch, and ‘seeing’ through other means: Molyneux, neuroplasticity, and technologies of sensory substitution‘ with a response from Filip Mattens (Philosophy, KU Leuven)
What is it like to see with your tongue? If a device converted information from the visual world into tactile stimuli on your back, say, or electrical patterns on the surface of your tongue, could this be a form of ‘seeing’? So-called sensory substitution devices, especially Tactile-Visual Sensory Substitution (TVSS), have been featured in the news because they offer a technological alternative to permanently damaged eyesight. One of them, the Tongue Display Unit (TDU) pioneered by the neuroscientist Paul Bach-Y-Rita, has been tested on blind subjects, including at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. While the technology has been improving over several decades, questions of seeing through other means have been around for far longer. René Descartes had talked about blind men ‘seeing with the hands’ in 1637, after all. In 1688 the scientist William Molyneux, whose wife was blind, asked the philosopher John Locke a hypothetical question: If she were suddenly made to see, would she be able to tell objects such as a cube or a sphere apart without touching them first? To answer ‘yes’ would assume that a framework developed to theorize one sense modality (e.g. vision) can be transferred to other modalities (e.g. touch). More recently, evidence about neural plasticity from experiments with Braille on blind subjects by Pascual-Leone’s lab are challenging such assumptions about translatability between senses, and philosophers like Alva Noë ask whether we can truly ‘see’ through sensory substitution devices.