Separation and Engagement: From Duplex Vision to the Achievement of Self-Consciousness
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The world we observe and the world we act in are one and the same world, and crucially so. Dualisms are rife in cognitive science, and superficially, this paper may seem to be an exercise in splitting things in two. Neither brain structures nor cognitive aptitudes nor even modes of awareness will appear safe. Yet the core insights of this paper are guided by the above maxim of metaphysical monism, and serve to reinforce it. They will concern not differences and oppositions, but rather cooperation and complicity. To employ a prime metaphor elaborated by Brian Smith (1996), this is one story of the single dance we perform in our world, and how the two main skills we bring to bear therein – and to dig deeper, how their neural foundations – result in our important achievements as thinking creatures. Though it may traffic in popular dualisms, this is a tale of negotiation and mutual enrichment. Monisms and dualities notwithstanding, there is also a three-step hierarchy that the following argument will scale. I will begin in the trenches of neuroscience and the psychology of visual perception. This will motivate a discussion of two skills available to perceiving creatures, skills that I will subsequently claim to be central to a rather sophisticated form of self-consciousness. The main charge of this paper may be conceptualised as the task of showing that these three domains, of visual perception, of vital ways of interacting with the world, and of self-consciousness, are importantly interconnected. In what follows, I will build the case for two broad realms of embodied, embedded cognitive capability, referred to as separation and engagement in honour of Smith’s (1996) usage, being directly enabled by the functions characterising ventral stream and dorsal stream visual processing, respectively. Separation and engagement are our twin abilities to represent what is at a spatial or temporal distance from our local and present surroundings on the one hand, and to interact with our immediate, available environments, on the other. I will commence by exploring the perceptual performances made possible by the ventral and dorsal streams of the visual system. Based on empirical findings and theoretical analysis, I will draw out the relationship between ventral processing and a modest form of separation, and indeed, between dorsal processing, ecological perception, and engagement. This strictly segregated dialectic will soon begin to seem artificial. It will therefore be synthesised by way of arguments for the necessity of dorsally mediated processing for full-fledged separation, and the metaphysically indispensable position of the functions of ventral processing in engagement as we know it. Finally, I will attempt to show that full-fledged separation is what catalyses the transition from being an aware subject to being an object of self-awareness. Yet full-fledged separation cannot exist in the absence of an engaged, active life and the neural processing that supports it. Therefore, my claim will be that a sophisticated kind of self-consciousness can be traced back to the functions of the two visual streams via the interlaced achievements of separation and engagement. Prior to my closing remarks, I will advance some clarifications of this thesis and field objections as to its implications for the nature of cognition.