Maria Scott-Wittenborn wrote this paper for a course in Philosophy of Science at Bryn Mawr College in the spring of 2005. Students were required to define an argument, provide an argument against that argument and a response to that challenge, and then give an assessment. In the present case, the argument for "pragmatic multiplism" derives from Getting It Less Wrong: the Brain's Way: Science, Pragmatism, and Multiplism by Paul Grobstein and the counter arguments from from comments related to that paper presented by Michael Krausz in Interpretation and Its Objects: Studies in the Philosophy of Michael Krausz (Rodopi, 2003). The paper is presented on Serendip for its relevance to, among other things, Writing Descartes ... and Fundamentalism and Relativism.

Pragmatic Multiplism: Challenged and Defended

Maria Scott-Wittenborn


The interpretational posture of "pragmatic multiplism", as defined by Paul Grobstein, characterizes not only science but all avenues of human inquiry. For any given set of observations there always exists, at least in principle, more than one admissible interpretation. Grobstein argues that the universality of pragmatic multiplism is due to the nature of the human brain-or material inquirer-which is itself a pragmatic multiplist. The brain is an interpreter designed to construct a variety of potential 'pictures' from the information it receives from sensory neurons and to test those representations against a number of other observations that it has made. It is therefore inevitable that any interpretative activity undertaken by a human (that is to say, a human mind, which is the agent of inquiry) will be characterized by the variation and ambiguity that accompanies multiplism. Pragmatic multiplism differs from the "unmodified" multiplism of Michael Krausz in that the latter entails "an expectation about the relation between interpretation and the actual thing being interpreted."

The pragmatic multiplism and unmodified multiplism are similar in that they both assert that a given material or cultural artifact may have more than one admissible interpretation. However, the similarity is somewhat misleading, for the path of inquiry advocated by pragmatic multiplism is fundamentally different from that of unmodified multiplism. Grobstein's pragmatic multiplism holds that the multiple admissible interpretations of a given object are inevitable due to the structure and organization of the brain. Krausz 's unmodified multiplism approaches the issue from a different angle, and examines whether the ambiguity that allows for multiple interpretations is inherent in the object of interpretation itself. Implied in this approach is that a given interpretation can be compared to "the original", that there is a "way" that the object of interpretation exists and, though it can be interpreted a variety of ways, that it is through the relation between an interpretation to the object itself that the admissibility of a given interpretation can be ascertained. This approach is not a possibility with pragmatic multiplism, because our interpretation of a given object is itself an interpretation of inherently ambiguous information received from sensory neurons.

Grobstein is not simply arguing that because the interpretation of objects is a neurological activity that the interpretations themselves therefore exist only within the mind. Grobstein asserts that "tacit brain processing "interprets" the input on its own, without letting the...I-function know that there was any ambiguity at all." The process by which we use sensory input to "paint" or construct a representation of the world "out there" takes place largely unconsciously and "what we ultimately see is the outcome" of that process. Not only that, but, as illustrated by ambiguous figures, our interpretation of a given object can change even after the tacit processing has presented one possible picture to the I-Function. The picture that the brain ends up presenting to the I-function is not necessarily representative of any exterior world or the objects that inhabit it. For example, as in the case of the popular ambiguous figure that can look either like a duck or a rabbit, that the image in question is not either of those things until the brain gets involved. As Grobstein states in his essay:

"Ambiguity and uncertainty are not (whatever the I-function might think) the ripples of imperfect glass through which the brain tries to perceive reality. They are instead the fundamental "reality", both the grist and the tool by which the brain...creates all of its paintings. In this light, "pragmatic multiplism" is not one possible interpretational posture among which inquirers into material things can choose, it is the fundamental posture from which all others emerge as alternate possibilities"

If this description is the case, Grobstein argues, we cannot use Krausz's unmodified multiplism. We simply do not have access to any certain knowledge of what qualities an object of interpretation does or does not possess.

Counter Argument

Krausz challenges Grobstein's pragmatic multiplism on a number of issues. Krausz faults Grobstein for failing to clearly distinguish between two separate claims. The first of the two claims is the traditional "idealist" assertion that we are able to know anything of the world around us beyond our perceptions. Krausz considers this claim to be indefensible. The second claim, which Krausz accuses Grobstein of failing to distinguish from the idealist claim, is that based on the nature of the brain, a singularist position could never fully comprehend whatever is "out there" in the world. Krausz does not give his support to this second claim, but he allows that it may be defensible in a way that the idealist claim is not. Krausz asserts that although Grobstein "...does not explicitly say that the material brain must also be a product of the brain...the claim is entailed by his thesis." This of course raises questions as to where in Grobstein's argument there is room to account for materiality, for the basis of Grobstein's argument is that the brain is a material thing.

Krausz further challenges Grobstein on his discussion of the advance of science. Krausz agrees with Grobstein's negativist epistemology but draws attention to the fact that it exists quite separately from what Karusz terms Grobstein's "world-as-pictured-by-the-brain" hypothesis. Krausz quotes Grobstein's assertion that "progress in science...has always been measured in distance from ignorance. Science proceeds not by proving truth or reality but by disproving falsity, not by painting the right picture but by painting a picture less wrong than prior pictures. [And that] the basis of the demonstrable power of science." Krausz argues that in order for Grobstein to make use of this notion of "moving away from ignorance" he must provide "some way to account for the notion of falsity (in contrast to truth) fully in terms of the painting the brain paints." Having rejected the realists' notion of falsity, Krausz claims, Grobstein does not provide us with an alternative. Krausz goes further, asserting that Grobstein's argument is inconsistent and that what he holds to be true of our neurological existence is irreconcilable to scientific inquiry as he characterizes it.: "The notion of the way the world is has no place in Grobstein's account. So an alternative to falsity is required. But he does not provide one. The claim that "the world" is a product of the brain and is limited to the brain precludes the conceptual space required for criticism of the contents of hypotheses about the world"


A major flaw in Krausz's critique of Grobstein's pragmatic multiplism is that Krausz concludes from Grobstein's assertion that "...the brain doesn't know if there is a "reality" out there, and so it cannot, without reservations, assume that it itself has been designed (by evolution) to paint pictures of it " that Grobstein is suggesting that "what the brain produces is all that exists." This is reductionist and not an accurate description of Grobstein's argument. Nowhere in the passage quoted by Krausz or in the remainder of the essay does Grobstein claim that only our perceptions exist to the exclusion of all other things. Grobstein at no point denies that there is something out there; he simply asserts that the material inquirer with which we investigate our surroundings is not designed to represent the 'out there'. Similarly, our perception of the world around us does not represent anything more, or anything less, than one way in which the information from our sensory neurons could be assembled into a single cohesive 'picture' by the brain.

There is an agnostic element to Grobstein's argument with which Krausz takes issue . Our conception of the material brain is indeed the product of our brains, and it is incomplete. "We" don't understand how or why we work the way that we do; we have no inherent knowledge, only observations from a variety of sources ranging from our internal experience within the world to fMRIs. It is simply not entailed in Grobstein's thesis that the material brain "must be a product of the brain" in the sense that Krausz intends the comment. The implication is that Grobstein is suggesting that material objects are thought into being. This is not the case; rather, Grobstein would argue that the brain, as a pragmatic multiplist, has a story of what it is and what it does that is in a constant state of evolution but that our conception of what the material brain is is very much a product of the mind.


Grobstein's pragmatic multiplism gains support from current work being done in the field of cognitive science concerning embodied or situated cognition as well as work being done on heuristics and rationality. Research in both fields has yielded results that increasingly indicate that at what Grobstein would term the "tacit processing" level thought is inextricably bound up with action-or at least the potential for action. Right off the bat the picture we ultimately see is being selected on criteria that is totally unconcerned with painting a picture of reality. It is instead concerned with painting a picture that provides the brain at both the tacit and I-function level with the information it needs in order to act within the context of its environment.

Krausz's misconstrual of Grobstein's assertion that to the brain only the neuronal signals are "real" rendered irrelevant many of the challenges he posed to pragmatic multiplism as defined by Grobstein. In addition, Grobstein offered the set of observations on highly qualified terms regarding how they were intended to be taken by the reader. Krausz, in his criticism, changes the terms on which the argument is being discussed. Grobstein is not attempting to offer pragmatic multiplism as a way of establishing what does or does not exist. It is a way of understanding what and how we do (and don't) know about ourselves, the world around us and the interface that exists between the two.

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