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The Brain, Observations, and Skepticism: Grobstein's Case for Pragmatic Multiplism

Ian Morton's picture
The Brain, Observations, and Skepticism:
Grobstein’s Case for Pragmatic Multiplism

I. Introduction

According to Paul Grobstein and Michael Krausz, ideals of interpretation such as singularism and multiplism pose important implications for the conduct of inquiry. Consequently, it is worthwhile to review the credibility and value of these modes of interpretation. It is with this intent in mind that Grobstein writes his essay Getting It Less Wrong, The Brain’s Way: Science, Pragmatism, and Multiplism, turning to the brain and its functions in order to make his assessment. Grobstein asserts that the brain, the agent of interpretation, is inherently multiplist, which in turn suggests that the process of inquiry and interpretation is itself multiplist. However, he distinguishes the brain’s mode of inquiry from a more conventional definition of multiplism, adopting instead what he terms “pragmatic multiplism.” As will be discussed, Grobstein’s argument poses important implications for cultural practices including science, however, there remain several areas of possible contention.

II. Exposition

Grobstein begins his essay by discussing the nature of scientific understanding generally. According to Grobstein, “understanding,” which in practice falls under headings such as theory and hypothesis etc., refers to summaries of experience/observations that make testable predications about future observations. He goes on to assert that these summaries are “fundamentally vulnerable” to being wrong. That is, any given hypothesis is subject to falsification by future incongruent observations, echoing the problem of induction as put forth by N. Goodman and K. Popper. It therefore follows that scientific practice specifically, and inquiry in general, is somewhat multiplist in nature, as there is an underlying operational assumption that there exists both the current understanding and the possibility of a new understanding. In other words, at least in the short-run, there always exist multiple admissible interpretations of observations; pragmatic multiplism is at the core of inquiry (in the short-run).

Here it is important to define “pragmatic multiplism” as opposed to general multiplism. “Pragmatic” refers to the operational value of avoiding dogmatisms. By avoiding strict adherence to a single mode of interpretation, one is open to new and possibly “better” or more inclusive descriptions of experience. It is pragmatically valuable to have available multiple summaries since one may be “better” than the other, both may offer important contributions to understanding, and further understanding may derive from comparing these various summaries. (This argument reflects one presented by J.S. Mill in his essay On Liberty.) “Multiplism,” in turn refers to the elemental existence of varying possible ways to summarize sets of observations, as per Grobstein’s aforementioned assertion about scientific practice. Thus pragmatic multiplism is distinct from the general definition of multiplism in that it does not speak to the end of inquiry, but rather concerns inquiry as currently practice (the “short-run”). Further, Grobstein distinguishes pragmatic multiplism from multiplism in its focus on interpretations themselves. Contrarily, multiplism implies reference to the objects of interpretation; it presumes a relationship between interpretation and the object qua object. This will be made clearer with an examination of Grobstein’s subsequent arguments.

In order to advance his argument, Grobstein goes on to argue that pragmatic multiplism is inherent brain functioning, and therefore to the process of inquiry. This argument is born from a consideration of the brain and the manner in which it translates perceptual inputs into the perceived images of “reality” that one experiences. Before going describing his description of the brain, it should be pointed out that Grobstein’s argument stems from two starting presumptions: First, that the material brain operates as sole inquirer (an refutation of an immaterial soul etc.) and second, that both the source of perceptual images and the images themselves are constituted by the brain. These are important points, as they assert that inquiry, which is based on perception/experience, operates solely on neural processes and patterns of neural activity. By characterizing the nature of these neural processes, Grobstein is able to comment more generally on the nature of inquiry.

Grobstein describes the brain in terms of a dichotomy between unconscious process and conscious experience, using the terms “tacit processes” and “I-function” respectively. According to this characterization, tacit processes, located predominantly in subcortical brain regions, are assigned the role of influencing and “painting” the picture presented to I-function awareness. Essentially, information about the external world has no way of reaching the neocortex (the I-function) but through subcortical, tacit processes. Grobstein further points out that the I-function is largely unaware of the tacit processes that shape the picture it receives, as evidenced by the blind spot phenomenon: one is not aware that the visual image of the world presented to one’s I-function was created from incomplete data and completed/filled in by tacit brain processes.

Central to Grobstein’s argument is his description of tacit processes – of which the I-function is unaware – that precede those perceptual images made available to internal observation/awareness. Ambiguous images offer an example of how constant inputs are capable of generating multiple outputs/interpretations: The visual input of an ambiguous image permits at least two admissible interpretations, of which only one is presented to the I-function at a time. Grobstein argues that the phenomenon of ambiguity prior to presentation to I-function awareness can be generalized to perception at large. In other words, there is a multitude of “admissible” ways for tacit processes to interpret a set of inputs, but only one of these interpretations is made available to I-function experience. As the I-function is unaware of both the ambiguous nature of sensory inputs (the existence of multiple admissible interpretations) and the processes that shape which interpretation/picture is ultimately given to awareness, one may be easily lead to believe that there exists only one admissible interpretation in most cases, from which singularism and realism soon follow. However, the brain itself is not committed to singularism, and instead operates via pragmatic multiplism.

So what determines which of the admissible interpretations is finally presented to the I-function? How does an ambiguous pattern of neural activity translate reduce to a single observed picture? Grobstein argues that the ambiguity latent in tacit processes is resolved by a preference mechanism, or what Krausz calls “imputational interpretation.” While there exist multiple interpretations, they vary in salience or degree of priority. How the assignment of priority is made, however, remains unclear, which poses potential problems for Grobstein’s thesis that will be discussed later on. To continue with the point, this prioritization process determines which of the multiple interpretations will be presented to the I-function, and ultimately what will constitute one’s “summary of experiences”; when priority changes, so too do the pictures in the mind (one’s experience). Again, it is important to recognize that this process remains unbeknownst to the I-function.

From here Grobstein considers whether salience implies realism (the potential problem). A neurobiological argument might contend that the brain is designed to eliminate most of these multiple interpretations, leaving an admissible picture of reality. A more philosophical argument may propose that there do in fact exist real independently constituted objects, and the brain’s propensity to generate multiple interpretations of those objects is merely a function of its limitations. Grobstein admits to the potential validity of these arguments, but goes on to argue that regardless, the brain is incapable of knowing whether such an external reality does in fact exist. As the I-function’s only access to the external world is through the pattern of activity in sensory neurons, which can be generated both externally and internally, and which remains ambiguous, the brain only receives signals to be interpreted. Thus there exists no unambiguous information to indicate either the existence of such an external reality; the only “reality” available to the brain consists of the patterns of activity it interprets. From this Grobstein concludes that the brain has not been designed to approach a single picture of reality, but rather to explore the multiple possibilities of interpretation through a continual process of observing and summarizing those (and future) observations. Both singularism and an assertion of realism are fruitless enterprises for the brain’s purposes.

Finally, Grobstein considers whether or not science (and inquiry in general) is capable of proceeding without realism. The problem lies in the necessity for a means of comparison. In order for science or theories to progress, theories must be moving towards an ultimate position (truth), which serves as the standard of evaluation. However, as brains lack access to “truth” and “reality,” it is inherently impossible to make such an evaluation in the first place. In place of movement/progress towards truth, Grobstein argues theories progress away from ignorance, what he calls being “less wrong.” This notion is likened to the theory of evolution, in which “progress” is not directed at a particular end state, but is rather motivated in terms of a random walk. Thus the progress of theories need not be considered in terms of a movement towards truth with an anticipation of meeting the ideals of either multiplism or singularism. Instead, theories progress in various directions, remaining subject to falsification, without arriving at any ultimate descriptions. Grobstein herby concludes that as a consequence of the manner the brain inquires and interprets, in terms of tacit and I-function processes, that it is highly unlikely that one will ever produce a singularist (or classical multiplist) description of experience. In place, Grobstein proposes inquiry adopt a stance of pragmatic multiplism, as it is already inherent to the process of inquiry.

III. Critique

Objection: Is multiplism inherent to operational inquiry?

To first address Grobstein’s beginning description of scientific inquiry in general, it is worthwhile to consider whether or not this process is actually (pragmatically) multiplist as he characterizes it. Grobstein claims that there exist multiple admissible ways of summarizing a given set of observations. However, at this point his claim stems from the assumption that current descriptions and future ones both constitute “admissible” summarizations. It seems that by virtue of the existence of a new summary of observations, that the old one is no longer admissible. That is, a new summary implies that the previous summary was insufficient to account for all the current observations and is therefore inadmissible. It seems that, in principle, there exists only one admissible summary of observations.


Perhaps, Grobstein would consent that this preliminary argument falls short, but he would then go on to assert that, as per his later review of brain functioning, by virtue of the ambiguity of information presented to the brain there will always be multiple admissible ways to interpret any given set of observations. It seems equally likely that Grobstein would reply that the counter argument only holds ground if one is to accept that it is possible to determine if a given summary of observations is “true.” As previously outlined, Grobstein would reject the notion of using the “fact of the matter” as a standard with which to evaluate relative position to truth on the grounds that the brain has no access to external reality. A consideration of Kuhnian gestalt switches may offer further clarification and support to Grobstein’s argument. A gestalt switch refers to a shift between two interpretations, without any assurance that one is better than the other in any absolute sense (since it cannot be determined). One may consider the previous example of ambiguous images. While the object of interpretations remains the same, one may shift between one of at least two possible interpretations of that object, while neither one holds any more position of reality than the other. Thus Grobstein could argue that the transition from an old summary to a new one entails a gestalt switch between two admissible interpretations, neither of which is closer to truth (but instead further from ignorance).

Objection: Getting it less wrong?

It seems that an adoption of a Kuhnian notion of gestalt switches would be incongruent with Grobstein’s notion of “getting it less wrong.” Inherent to a gestalt switch is the belief that neither summary is closer the truth than the other (since the “fact of the matter” escapes inquiry), that both are admissible interpretations. Getting it less wrong, on the other hand, implies that one summary is more inclusive than the previous one. To be more inclusive suggests a progressive movement towards “truth.” To speak more generally, the very notion that one can move away from ignorance inherently implies that one is moving towards something else, the opposite of ignorance, which would be knowledge. It would appear that Grobstein’s notion of being “less wrong” poses problems for both the adoption of gestalt switches as well as his general argument that theories are not progressing towards increasingly better descriptions of reality.


In order to hold onto the “less wrong” concept while sidestepping the accusation of progressivism, Grobstein may opt to adopt a coherence theory of truth. In this sense, “less wrong” descriptions are not progressively becoming more accurate descriptions of the world out there, but are instead progressing by terms of their ability to account for more observations and thus meet the agreement of more inquirers as a potentially valuable, tentative interpretation. The “truth” in such a coherence theory does not refer to truth in an absolute or objective sense. Instead, this would have to be a “ truth” relative to inter-subjective agreement between brain processes, and other contextual factors.

While Grobstein does not explicitly state an inclination towards these dispositions, they do seem to logically follow from his position. In arguing that the brain is incapable of knowing whether or not “the world out there” exists, it seems he is also suggesting the brain would be equally incapable of knowing how such a world is constituted independent of perception (relativism). In a similar vein, he argues that “reality” is constituted by how a brain interprets its input, which ties “reality” to the nature of how one’s brain interprets ambiguous information (relativism). The suggestion of relativism is further evident in the mechanism of prioritization. Prioritization, which determines which interpretations reaches the I-function, is in part shaped by one’s culture and psychological make-up, therefore implicating a subjective process. In sum, all descriptions of the world are relative to the lens of subjective human perception, to the lens of tacit interpretations of ambiguous inputs.

Objection: Relativism, coherence, and the possibility of realism

If Grobstein’s argument is to be understood in relation to relativism and a coherence theory of truth, there are numerous objections that one may pose, as the relativist camp is largely frowned upon within the field of philosophy. While an exhaustive account of the potential objections to this position is beyond the scope of this paper, a very brief description can be offered. The principle concern with relativism is two-fold. If a claim for relativity is absolutely true, it becomes self-contradictory, but if a claim for relativity is only relatively true, it becomes highly limited to a specific context. A principle problem with coherentivism is that it can be viewed as an extension of relativism; it is inter-subjective relativism, which thereby shares the same risks as relativism. Accordingly, Grobstein admits that he asserts no absolutist value to his theory (p. 161), thereby limiting the argument to present understandings and capacities of the brain. If brain processes are in fact evolving to provide increasingly accurate descriptions of an external reality, and if ambiguities are gradually eliminated, then perhaps singularism could emerge. In connection, while Grobstein demonstrates the limitations of the brain’s capacity to know whether or not there exists an external reality, he does not bypass the potential existence of this reality. As long as there is a potential for reality there is a potential for singularism (in the long-run).

IV. Assessment

It seems that Grobstein’s argument offers valuable insight into the nature of inquiry. His characterization of the brain in terms of tacit processes and I-function observation of the resultant summaries is valuable to bear in mind when considering the nature of perception, which serves as the principle basis of inquiry. For example, Grobstein’s story about the manner in which sensory input consistently yields ambiguous patterns of information offers an interesting point from which future investigations could begin in an attempt to make new observations to help characterize the manner in which ambiguous inputs are unconsciously translated and reduced to a single consciously perceive “image.” However, there are potential problems with this essay, and it would pay to revaluate the arguments. Of specific concern are the remaining possibility for singularism and the potential risks of relativism.

Additionally, Grobstein’s concept of “getting it less wrong” could use some reworking. While the comparison to an evolutionary random walk is fruitful for understanding this in terms of an undirected, contextually influenced movement away from a previous stance, the implications of “less wrong” pose a dangerous potential to place this walk along the line between wrong and “right,” which is incongruent with Grobstein’s overarching thesis. It may be best to drop “less wrong” all together and instead focus on the random walk in its contextual determinacy of pragmatic value.

While there may be some potential concerns and objection’s to Grobstein’s essay, it should not be discounted, as it still has potential worth for understanding the nature of inquiry. The story presented offers a convincing argument for the fundamental nature of pragmatic multiplism in the process of inquiry. According, for now it seems worthwhile to adopt an agnostic approach to science and recognize the value of pragmatic multiplism in inquiry. Perhaps there is a “world out there,” and it is likely the case, but it seems plausible that if it does exist, is may not exist as we tend to assume it does.