Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Getting it less wrong: the brain's way

Paul Grobstein's picture

Welcome to the public on-line forum area for Phil 310 = Bio 310 at Bryn Mawr College. This is not a required part of the course. It is, though, a way to keep course conversations going between meetings, and to do so in a way that makes our course conversations available to others who may in turn have interesting thoughts to contribute to them. I'll be posting my thoughts in progress here throughout the course, and would be delighted to have others join in. 

Feel free to write about whatever has been on your mind this week.  The focus on class discussion was on "pragmatic multiplism" and the brain, as a way to bridge realism and constructivism. 

Paul Grobstein's picture

The brain and "pragmatic multiplism"?

Is there a bridge between realism and constructivism? between singularist and multiplist approaches to inquiry? Can the brain, and "pragmatic multiplism" provide such a bridge? A rich conversation on this subject, with Tara ably speaking for realism/singularism, Julia for constructivism/multiplism, and MK appropriately insisting on clarification of the proposed bridge. Notes here on what seemed to me to be important points that emerged ....

A distinct virtue of realism/singularism is that it provides a clear foundation and means of adjudication for collective activity. By insisting that there is A thing being explored, it avoids the problem of "everybody working against one another". In this sense science is different from art. The objective is one interpretation, not multiple ones.

On the other hand, constructivism/multiplism can be seen as creating, by virtue of the existence of multiple views/perspectives, a progressive dynamic of its own. The different views serve as the grist from which new understandings are created. And adjudication can be understood as paradigm shifts, in which a particular new view proves more "useful", by "subsuming" other views? Along this line, one might see both science and art as similarly involving multiple interpretations and as being similarly progressive.

"Pragmatic multiplism" is clearly situated more toward the constructivist/multiplist position than the realist/singularist position. It does blur the border between science and art by declining the possibility that some things are "constructed" and inherently multiplist (art) while others are "real" and inherently singular (science). Importantly, though, it does not deny the possibility of a realist/singularist outcome for the process of science (or of inquiry generally, or of art?). It simply asserts that the process itself is inherently multiplist/constructivist (which would reach an end at a singularist/realist outcome if one exists). About the ultimate outcome, as about the nature of "reality" independent of an observer, "pragmatic multiplism" can say nothing ("Of which we cannot speak, we must remain silent").

In the paper discussed, "pragmatic multiplism" is derived from characteristics of the human brain, which in turn raises two important issues about it. One is whether the perspective is either required by or dependent on the brain? Could one escape the position by treating it as reflecting simply a limitation of the brain? Yes, in principle, but one has to deal with the apparent reality that it is the brain that is doing science/inquiring, and the likelihood that evolution has produced a good way of doing that. Could one reach this position without appealing to the brain? Yes. Is the position "entailed" by the brain? Probably not, many brain scientists don't hold it. Is the position "illogical" because it asserts the "reality" of the brain while denying the reality of anything else? No, it doesn't in fact assert the reality of the brain nor deny the reality of anything else (as per above). Starting with the brain is simply a way of avoiding a "frictionless spinning void", ie of having a starting point from which to work. It is a starting point which is ultimately itself challengeable, as necessary for a "non-foundationalist" posture of inqury (more on this in weeks to come).

With all that said, the key understanding from observations on the brain is that all perceptions, and everything that in turn derives from them (feelings, interpretations, ideas, meanings) are constructions, in the sense that they are creations of our brains based on processes of which we are largely unaware, and could be otherwise (ambiguous figures are the dramatic illustration of this). Subject to the reservations discussed above, this suggests that one needs a theory of scientific inquiry (and of inquiry in general?) that does not depend on any notion of "the fact of the matter", since "facts of the matter" cannot be derived from observations. The same necessarily holds for "reality" and "ideality", both of which are "properties of the brain and restricted to the brain".

In these terms, the distinction itself between "singularism" and "multiplism" is itself impossible to make because it presumes an "ideality" (how things actually are, independent of the act of inquiry). That is not to say that the distinction isn't important in cultural discourse. It clearly is, but the distinction needs to be understood in terms of its consequences for acts of inquiry rather than as a metaphysical one.

Could one see science (art, inquiry, life in general) simply as a continuing local process of "getting it less wrong"?, ie of the brain creating ideas/stories that generate expectations of input and modifying those stories when observations challenge them? Is science(inquiry/art ) actually about "something beyond inquiry"? or is there only the ongoing process of inquiry itself? What would the advantages of such a perspective be (to offset the vertigo, among other problems)? Beyond providing a less "metaphysical" account of science (and connecting it to other human activities), "pragmatic multiplism" gives participants a genuine creative role to play in what might otherwise be seen simply as a process of uncovering what already exists and some assurance that there is likely to be continuing opportunities for produtive inquiry for the indefinite future.

And what about individual lives? Does the "constructedness" of our understandings, of our feelings deprive them of significance and meaning? Does "story" make our experiences and reactions to them less justified or important? An alternate perspective is that constructed meaning isn't in fact any less meaningful, that in fact our stories are more meaningful insofar as they provide as with the wherewithal to be active participants in shaping the world we find ourselves in. Their meaning derives not from their correspondence to "reality" but rather from their contributions to creating new realities.

Maybe a reality correspondence theory is no more necessary/useful in evaluating science than it is in assuring meaning in life?  There may be, in this, a bridge not only between constructivism and realism but also between the elucidatory and the edificatory. To think further about ...