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Is seeing all it seems? Action, reason and the grand illusion

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We seem, or so it seems to some theorists, to experience a rich stream of highly detailed information concerning an extensive part of our current visual surroundings. But this appearance, it has been suggested, is in some way illusory. Our brains do not command richly detailed internal models of the current scene. Our seeings, it seems, are not all that they seem. This, then, is the Grand Illusion. We think we see much more than we actually do. In this paper I shall (briefly) rehearse the empirical evidence for this rather startling claim, and then critically examine a variety of responses. One especially interesting response is a development of the so-called 'skill theory', according to which there is no illusion after all. Instead, so the theory goes, we establish the required visual contact with our world by an ongoing process of active exploration, in which the world acts as a kind of reliable, interrogable, external memory (Noe et al., 2000; Noe, 2001). The most fully worked-out versions of this response (Noe and O'Regan, 2000; O'Regan and Noe, 2001)) tend, however, to tie the contents of conscious visual experience rather too tightly to quite low-level features of this ongoing sensorimotor engagement. This (I shall argue) undervalues the crucial links between perceptual experience, reason and intentional action, and opens the door to a problem that I will call 'sensorimotor chauvinism': the premature welding of experiential contents to very specific details of our embodiment and sensory apparatus. Drawing on the dual visual systems hypothesis of Milner and Goodale (1995), I sketch an alternative version of the skill theory, in which the relation between conscious visual experience and the low-level details of sensori- motor engagement is indirect and non-constitutive. The hope is thus to embrace the genuine insights of the skill theory response, while depicting conscious visual experience as most tightly geared to knowing and reasoning about our world.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Cognitive Science Program, Indiana University, Bloomington IN 4705. Email: [email protected]

Publication date: 2002-05-01

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