Sunday, June 18, 2006

Once Again: What Is "Visualization" of Evidence and Inference?

Oliver Sacks, A Neurologist's Notebook: To See and Not See, THE NEW YORKER (May 10, 1993, posted online June 12, 2006):
The seventeenth-century philosopher William Molyneux, whose wife was blind, posed the following question to his friend John Locke: “Suppose a man born blind, and now adult, and taught by his touch to distinguish between a cube and a sphere [be] made to see: [could he now] by his sight, before he touched them . . . distinguish and tell which was the globe and which the cube?” Locke considers this in his “Essay Concerning Human Understanding” (1690) and decides that the answer is no. In 1709, examining the problem in more detail, and the whole relation between sight and touch, in “A New Theory of Vision,” George Berkeley concluded that there was no necessary connection between a tactile world and a sight world—that a connection between them could be established only on the basis of experience.

Barely twenty years elapsed before these considerations were put to the test—when, in 1728, an English surgeon named William Cheselden removed the cataracts from the eyes of a thirteen-year-old boy born blind. Despite his high intelligence and youth, the boy encountered profound difficulties with the simplest visual perceptions. He had no idea of distance. He had no idea of space or size. And he was bizarrely confused by drawings and paintings, by the idea of a two-dimensional representation of reality. As Berkeley had anticipated, he was able to make sense of what he saw only gradually, and insofar as he was able to connect visual experiences with tactile ones. It had been similar with many other patients in the two hundred and fifty years since Cheselden’s operation: nearly all had experienced the most profound, Lockean confusion and bewilderment.

And yet, I was informed, as soon as the bandages were removed from Virgil’s eye he saw his doctor and his fiancĂ©e, and laughed. Doubtless he saw something—but what did he see? What did “seeing” for this previously not-seeing man mean? What sort of world had he been launched into?

This tale has implications for the conference on Graphic and Visual Representations of Evidence and Inference in Legal Settings.
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