Naïve Realism: Part One

I’ve spent the day walking throughout the house with my eyes closed. It’s an experiment. My two year old daughter is helping. We are trying to imagine what it is like to be blind.


Well, you see last night we watched a Discovery Channel documentary on unusually gifted people. One man, Esref Armagan, was on for his ability to paint. Why was his ability to paint considered such an unusual gift? You guessed it, Mr. Armagan is blind. Although he was born without eyes, Mr. Armagan can paint the most beautiful scenes, colourful sunset landscapes with birds and trees – and all with the right rules of perspective and shading. How does he do it? We’ll return to that question later, but first back to my experiment.

So I’m walking throughout the house with my eyes closed when I have a rather painful revelation: Don’t walk about your house with your eyes closed unless you have shoes on. This may seem pretty obvious to you. Anyway, here’s something else I realized: When I was walking through the house with my eyes closed, I was not really experiencing the house as a blind person would. When a blindfolded sighted person walks through a room he or she visualizes the room. If the room is familiar, its layout is imagined, couch here, wall there, and so on,........if it is an unknown place, then just a basic space template is imagined, that is: the ground is imagined, an open space is imagined. Then when we feel objects around us, their position relative to us is imagined. None of this type of imagining happens for a person blind from birth.

If you ask a person who has been blind from birth questions related to the experience of space their answers reveal how much we take visual experience for granted. For example if you ask: Does a street sign appear smaller or larger the further away it is? Most blind people have no idea, but incorrectly guess larger for they associate larger with ‘further away’. Of course the further away an object is, the smaller it appears. For a blind person, the 3-dimensional world is not pictured ‘out there’, it is not pictured at all, but rather, it is felt.

So how can Esref Armagan, the blind artist, paint so accurately? How does he know that, for example, objects that are further away should be painted smaller than objects that are up close? “I was taught,” he says. “Not by any formal teacher, but by casual comments by friends and acquaintances.” He confides, “For a long time I figured that if an object was red, its shadow would be red too. But I was told it wasn't." How does he even know about colour? “I know that there's an important visual quality to seen objects called "colour" and that it varies from object to object.” He has memorized that apples are often red, that water is blue, and so on. For Esref, size isn’t a visual experience, but rather a temporal and tactile one. The larger an object is the more time it takes to trace with his hands. That’s how he knows it is large. A blind person learning to paint, and learning to paint well at that, is a remarkable achievement. (I can’t draw at all, so Mr. Armagan’s ability seemed, at first, borderline unbelievable to me. I feel more comfortable believing it now though. I’ve had time to understand how it is possible.)

Anyway, so here is what I’ve learned from my experiment:

I’ve learned that the physical world (universe) doesn’t actually take up any space!

And I’m going to try to convince you of this fact.

I think we mistakenly super-impose our subjective visual experience of depth, height, and width onto our idea of the objective world without knowing it. I don’t think objective space is extended the way we imagine. That is to say, (I’m really trying to make this clear) it doesn’t seem to me that objective reality actually takes up any space.

Huh? Yes you heard me. Space has no size! I mean suppose everybody were blind, would we even consider the possibility that the world took up any space? That just happens to be the particular way our eyes and brains represent objective reality. It doesn’t mean that the world really does take up space.

Maybe if I keep repeating myself again and again you will just start believing it through sheer force of delivery:

The physical world doesn’t actually take up any space!
The physical world doesn’t actually take up any space!
The physical world doesn’t actually take up any space!

Believe me yet? Great. That was easy.

Okay, for those of you who need further convincing let’s continue this next time. I’m getting tired, and the fact that I have to walk up what seems like far too many stairs from the basement to the second floor in order to get into bed is really starting to make me doubt this little revelation about distance being an illusion.


Go to Part Two


  1. It must've been really wonderful to play with your daughter! I think playing with kids can really teach us!

    Really nice blog, Tallis! When I have more time, I'll come definitely back and read more of your posts.

    All the best,

  2. Thank you for the encouragement Markus. I've noticed how positive you are with people. It is needed.

    I spend a lot of time with kids. They teach me silly things.

  3. It seems to me that objects (the physical world) and the space in which they 'exist' are interdependent; you can't have one without the other - and therefore the idea that 'objects' take up 'space' is meaningless.

  4. Nick,

    It does appear to be the case, doesn't it.(?)

  5. Your stairs experience does properly indicate the physics of space in the relation between distance and gravitational field properties.

    The blind person experiences space through different sensory modeling, but in the end is observed to navigate the same space we do although based on their own process of assessing it.

    When you close your eyes the visual spatial model does disappear for you, even though you know what to expect when you reach out and touch something "physical". The interesting thing is that the feeling of touch experienced is experienced entirely as a vibratory "displaying" in consciousness that you model into the notion of existance of a solid form. You never actually directly feel the physical contact touch of the body sensors with the (spatial) physical world object. This may be easier for the blind person to fathom because they have not had the simultaneous experience of "seeing" an object and "feeling" the object at what the consciousness model displays as being apparently the same precise location. It is this dual experience that "confirms" to us that we are actually directly seeing and touching the physical object itself instead of their consciousness display. In the display there is no space, so the experience of no-space is entirely a valid and correct experience of our actual condition as conscious being, but one doesn't want to make the reverse mis-take of assuming the properties of the physical world are similar, in this case, to the "properties" of the consciousness display, which is entirely empty of any physical nature.