ON Serendip

Getting It Less Wrong, The Brain's Way:
Science, Pragmatism, and Multiplism

Paul Grobstein
Department of Biology
Bryn Mawr College

The following is a draft (November, 2001) of an essay which appears in a slightly different form in Ritivoi, A.D. (ed) Interpretation and Its Objects: Studies in the Philosophy of Michael Krausz, New York: Editions Rodopi, pp 153-166, 2003. It exists as a single html file whose sections are internally linked and can be reached by clicking on titles from the following directory:

Science and "Pragmatic" Multiplism
The Brain as Inquirer
The Painter and the Audience
Tacit Processing and the I-Function
The Existence of Multiple Admissible Interpretations in Perception
Ambiguity and Reality
Science and Pragmatic Mulitplism More Completely
Pragmatic multiplism, multiplism, and culture
Acknowledgements and Notes


"One's conduct of inquiry is largely shaped by one's answer to the question of whether there must always be a single admissible interpretation … Must there be a single right interpretation for such cultural entities as works of art, literature, music, or other cultural phenomenon?"

Michael Krausz (1)

In both fields [neurobiology and developmental biology], there has been some tendency for investigators to presume that a complex process is "designed" to have a particular, single, and well-defined outcome, and hence to search for some equivalent of a cog and wheel machine which yields that outcome for particular inputs and starting conditions ... this can cause problems if … the nature of [the systems being investigated] is such as to put a premium not on uniformity but on diversity …

Paul Grobstein (2)

Physical concepts are free creations of the human mind, and are not, however it may seem, uniquely determined by the external world.

Albert Einstein (3)

Einstein's assertion that "physical concepts" are not "uniquely determined by the external world' may be surprising to people whose experience with science is largely "from the outside". It is, however, an operational reality of science itself, one which has, I believe, wider implications extending well into cultural and philosophical realms. Being professionally a "scientist", rather than a "humanist" or philosopher, I will confine myself in this essay largely to science and how it works, and to considerations of brain function which relate to that. The context for doing so is, however, very much Krausz' above-quoted assertion (with which I agree wholeheartedly) and question (for which I believe the discussion of science and brain function is relevant). Toward the end of this essay, I will sketch some directions which I think warrant further exploration in connection with issues of the interpretation of cultural entities, as opposed to "material" ones, and of the "conduct of inquiry" more generally.

Science and "Pragmatic" Multiplism

Einstein ought properly to have said "Physical concepts are, as best I can make sense of things from my experiences, free creations of the human mind …". I presume the phrase added to be so obvious to Einstein that he felt no need to include it. But, in the present context, it is important to make explicit that, to a scientist, understandings are always "summaries of experiences" and have no greater (or lesser) significance than that. One important corollary that follows from science as "making sense of experience" is that all scientific understandings, whether they are called concepts or laws or theories or hypotheses, have in common the same validity within their respective realms of observations made. They effectively summarize existing observations (and make testable predictions about future observations). All scientific understandings have as well the same fundamental vulnerability to being "wrong", when tested by further observations.

An additional less obvious corollary of science as "evolving summaries of experience" is the operational reality Einstein characterized: there are always, at least in principle, multiple admissible ways of summarizing a given set of observations. Not all "scientists" would agree that this "multiple acceptable stories" corollary follows necessarily from how science works, but virtually all at least embrace it in practice. Scientists aspire (to one degree or another) to the holy grail of themselves making observations that don't fit the current understanding (concept, theory, hypothesis, story) in their area of expertise, and hence require replacement of that understanding with a new and different one, one which adequately summarizes both the old observations and the new ones. For this to be an entertainable ambition, scientists must believe (consciously or unconsciously) that there exists, at any given time, summaries different from, but as appropriate as (and, in the long run, better than), those that are currently generally accepted.

Hence, scientists always presume, for operational purposes, that there exist at least two admissible hypotheses: the one that effectively summarizes observations made to date and the (perhaps not yet described) different one which will also effectively summarize those observations, as well as some new observations yet to be made. To put it differently, "science", which one might have taken to represent the quintessentially "singularist" ("that which is interpreted should always answer to one ideally admissible interpretation" (1) ) mode of inquiry, actually has at its core a very profound "pragmatic multiplism" ("there may be a one to many match between what is interpreted and its interpretations" (4)) in its conduct of inquiry, at least over the short run. Whether science has or doesn't have, needs or doesn't need, a presumption of "singularism" over extended time is a question I will return to. For this reason, I will, for present purposes, use the term "pragmatic multiplism" (5) , to distinguish what is involved in science from Krausz' unmodified "multiplism" which (like "singularism") is an expectation about the relation between interpretation and the actual thing being interpreted. As I hope will become clear later in this essay, the significance of "pragmatic multiplism", as it emerges from consideration of some relevant aspects of brain function, is such as to make it very unlikely, perhaps impossible, to ever provide a sufficiently certain description of the thing being interpreted to say what is its actual relation to an interpretation of it.

The Brain as Inquirer

The primary argument I want to develop in the following is that "pragmatic multiplism" is not a characteristic of science alone, but rather is an inevitable and inescapable characteristic of all human inquiry into material things … because it is a fundamental aspect of the organization of the brain, which is itself the "inquirer". I will not take time to defend the assertion that the material brain (rather than the mind or the spirit or the soul or some other material or non-material entity) is in fact the exclusive and sole inquirer (6). For reasons of space, I will simply take that as a given and concede, as a necessary stipulation, that my argument for the inevitability of "pragmatic multiplism" holds only if the given is so. This will clear the way to a more focused consideration of some particularly relevant aspects of brain organization to which I want to call attention.

One other preliminary is needed before we get to the main argument. As a professional neurobiologist, it would be irresponsible of me not to note that the description of brain organization I am about to give is not the "summary of experience" that many other neurobiologists would provide (as the summaries of many scientists would not include Einstein's corollary of the nature of science itself). It is important to understand, both for professional reasons and as an illustration of the larger argument, that any disagreements here (among neurobiologists) have to do not with the existence or validity of relevant observations, or even with the immediate interpretation of particular observations, but rather with the degree of priority one gives to particular observations/interpretations in creating the overall "summary of experience". This is not the place for an extended discussion of theories of brain function, but I will try and make clear the idiosyncracies of my own prioritization as they become relevant. I will also return, with further illustrations, to the central role that "giving priority" plays in brain function, and hence in pragmatic multiplism.

The Painter and the Audience

Preliminaries completed, let's start with what I call the "picture in the head", by which I mean nothing more (and nothing less) than what people (at least many people) experience when they are looking at some aspect of the world (as well as at other times, such as when dreaming). A very large body of observations of a variety of different kinds (7) are well summarized (to almost any neurobiologist) by saying that the "picture in the head" corresponds (no more and no less) to some pattern of activity in some very large number of neurons widely distributed in the brain, at least in the sense that different "pictures" correspond one to one with different patterns of activity and that, in the absence of one or another of some large (probably infinite, but certainly bounded (2) ) set of patterns of activity, there is no "picture in the head."

Two questions (among others) arise from this. Who is the painter (the entity that creates the picture in the head)? And who is the audience (the entity that looks at it)? Phrasing the questions this way raises a new set of issues that, like the question of whether there is anything other than the material brain. I don't have the space to pursue here. Are there really two (or more) "people" in the brain? Do they each/all have all of the properties we normally mean by "personhood"? Do one or more have all the properties we normally mean by "painter", by "audience"? These are, I believe, all entertainable and, in principle, answerable questions. But the answers to most of them are not central to the arguments I am developing here. There are particular characteristics of being a "painter" and being an "audience" that are important to my argument, and I will try and make clear in the following what these are, and hence why I want to use these terms. I also do not intend by the phrasing of the questions some slight of hand which leads to a dramatic but essentially (to me at least) trivial conclusion: both the painter and the audience are the brain. In fact, I follow this path to reach most clearly and directly a point which is both reasonably robust and distinctly non-trivial: while both the painter and the audience (understood in the terms I will characterize) are in the brain, they are neither coextensive with each other nor with the brain as a whole. The painter of the picture in the head and the audience that peruses it are largely distinct aspects of the brain.

There are a variety of quite different sets of observations well summarized by the assertion that the painter and the audience for the picture in the head correspond to distinguishable brain processes. Perhaps the simplest and most dramatic has to do with phenomena related to the optic nerve head or "blindspot" of the eye (8) . At this anatomical location in the back of the eye, there are no photoreceptors capable of transducing light into neural signals. In consequence of this piece of anatomy, taken together with the optics of the eye, there is a significantly sized portion of what one is looking at about which the brain receives no direct information whatsoever. Despite this, the picture in the head has no "hole" or unfilled space. Instead, processes within the brain use the incomplete information provided to them to render a continuous and complete picture in the head. Interesting as this is in its own right, the important point, in the present context, is that, even if one is fully "aware" that the hole is being rendered invisible, there is no sign whatsoever of that activity in the picture in the head. This dissociation is one of the characteristics to which I want to call attention in using the terms "painter" and "audience". The tools and creator of aspects of the picture in the head (constituting one set of brain processes) are invisible to the audience observing the picture (a second, distinct set of brain processes).

I have, deliberately, used a somewhat vague term, brain "processes", rather than a more concrete one, like brain "regions" or "locations". The reason is largely technical and (like some other things I've chosen to bypass) not worth the effort to expand on for present purposes. Given existing observations, there are uncertainties about how well localized the picture in the head is (cf discussion of the effects of brain lesions (6) ). And about whether the processes involved in elaborating the complete "picture in the head" are fully distinct or have same significant degree of overlap with those involved in observing it. Neurobiologists familiar with the relevant observations would, however, generally concur with a summary to the effect that brain processes involved in creating from visual input abstracted signals which are adequate to interact successfully with the world are different from those involved in having a "picture in the head". And all would be comfortable with the summary that the former (located largely in subcortical parts of the brain) are an important input to the latter (largely dependent on the neocortex). There is no way for information to reach the neocortex except via subcortical processes, and there is abundant evidence that subcortical processing does indeed influence the picture in the head (9) .

Tacit Processing and the I-Function

For ease of reference in the following, it will be helpful to have some terms by which to refer to the two distinguishable sets of brain processes. Here too there are difficult issues which I wish to detour around as not essential to the argument. The easiest thing would be to refer to those processes which contribute to the picture but which one is unaware of (and largely can't control) as "unconscious" brain processes and the reminder as "conscious" brain processes. I'm fully comfortable with this, and hope a reader who also is will use that distinction. The difficulty, however, is that both terms are freighted with innumerable alternate and corollary meanings which make them both controversial and potentially misleading in the present, rather simple case. A largely parallel distinction between "implicit" and "explicit" processing is employed in the psychology and cognitive science literature (10) , but it too is freighted with more meaning (and associated controversy) than I either want or need to deal with here. With the hope of keeping things simple (while preserving the useful parallelisms), I will follow the philosopher Michael Polanyi (11) and use "tacit" for the brain processes (and sometimes the resultants) of which one is unaware. I will use "I-function" (12) for the brain processes that constitute observable internal experiences (such as the picture in the head). While the particular words and usages are idiosyncratic, most neurobiologists would agree that available observations require some kind of dichotomy along these lines. In these terms, I am equating the painter with tacit brain processes and the audience with the I-function.

A second set of observations provides further support for the tacit/I-function dichotomy, and will also serve to lay out the core of the argument for the fundamental character of pragmatic multiplism. Most people are familiar with "ambiguous figures", images which are sometimes seen as one thing and sometimes as another (the duck/rabbit, the old/young woman, and so forth (13) . In the present context, what familiar observations reveal is that, despite a constancy in the inputs from the eye to the implicit processing part of the brain, the picture in the head is bi-stable. Different pictures can and do result from the same input. Here again the observations are both compelling and interesting in their own right. For purposes of the present argument, though, what is significant is that there is no sign in the picture in the head of either the ambiguity itself or of the act of repainting the picture as it goes from one stable state to the other. As in the case of the blindspot, the painter and tools are missing from the picture in the head. The observation of a picture is the business of the I-function, but the tools and at least a large portion of the painter, the origin of the picture, is elsewhere, in the brain's tacit processing.

The Existence of Multiple Admissible Interpretations in Perception

What the case of ambiguous figures adds to the understanding of brain function, over and above the painter/audience distinction, is the important recognition that there is a step of ambiguity prior to the presentation of the picture to the audience (its appearance in the I- function). For "ambiguous figures", there are two (at least) admissible pictures which the painter can make of the input. Even more importantly, the I-function is not in general "aware" of the existence of multiple admissible interpretations (until it is pointed out, or one is startled by a change in appearance when seen a second time). The painter (tacit brain processing) "interprets" the input on its own, without letting the audience (the I-function) know that there was any ambiguity at all. This is the second of the two characteristics which make the metaphor of the "painter" and the "audience" an appealing one: tacit brain processes not only create the picture without themselves being visible to the audience (the I-function), they also, in doing so, commit to one of several admissible possibilities, without that fact being visible to the audience either. What this implies is that the existence of more than one admissible interpretation is, whether one is aware of it or not, a significant factor in perception itself, at a stage in the inquiry process long before it might have been thought that issues of "singularism" and "multiplism" arise.

We have here reached a key element in the argument that pragmatic multiplism is how brains work and so is fundamental to human inquiry. The point is not only that what the I-function sees is not "reality" but, even more importantly, that what it does see is the outcome of a prior process (of which it is not generally aware) in which multiple admissible possibilities (of which the I-function again is not generally aware) are reduced to a single observed picture. Why the brain is organized in this fashion is an important issue, which I will consider further below. For the moment it is enough to say that it is - that tacit brain processes, as revealed by ambiguous figures, are fundamentally multiplist in character, able to generate more than one admissible interpretation of what they are painting.

A second, and related, interesting question is what is involved in the transition within the brain from multiple admissible paintings (inherent in the tacit processing) to a single outcome (in the I-function)? That is, I suspect, an extensive terrain ripe for productive inquiry in its own right but two aspects of it are clear and germane here. In ambiguous figures, there are two (or more) admissible interpretations and, in typical cases, each involves a different identification of what in the picture constitutes the foreground and what the background. Krausz, in an approving discussion of "imputational interpretation", describes this phenomenon as "one assigns salience to certain aspects of the figures" (14) . This is the same phenomenon that I referred to earlier, though in a broader intellectual context, as " the degree of priority one gives to particular observations/interpretations in creating the overall "summary of experience". So, the transition from multiple admissible paintings to a single outcome (always?) involves some assignment of special significance to some feature of the picture/observations in comparison to others; by changing the priority the picture/"summary of observations" changes. To avoid misunderstanding, I should emphasize that while the prioritization process may have a "conscious" (I-function) involvement, it need not (as it doesn't in the example of ambiguous figures). Moreover, there is increasing reason to believe that the prioritization process, while certainly influenced by a variety of definable factors (cultural, psychological, and so forth), also has a degree of indeterminacy or randomness associated with it (15) . For this reason, prioritization, in the sense used here, can result in genuinely unexpected and novel pictures/summaries. The significance of prioritization in broader contexts will further emerge toward the end of this essay.

From this point, the path to my conclusion, that "pragmatic multiplism" is a central aspect of brain function and so an "inevitable and inescapable characteristic of all human inquiry into material things" should be fairly clear. So, too, should be some of the remaining obstacles along that path. The first, and easiest to deal with, is the issue of whether the "blind spot" and "ambiguous figures" are special cases, unique in the property of having a painter (tacit brain processes) tacitly resolving ambiguities before presenting a painting to an audience (the I-function). The answer to this question is a resounding no; the blind spot and ambiguous figures created by humans are usefully unusual in being situations where the underlying brain processes can readily be made apparent, but are in no other way special cases.

It is not, for example, the case that only the creations of artists interested in ambiguity are ambiguous in the sense of having "multiple admissible interpretations". All visual input, including that from non-man made sources, has this property. An instructive, if extreme example, is that of a neurobiologist. Such a person (me, for example), can (and does) accept as an admissible interpretation of any scene both a representation of it as a set of well-defined and recognizable objects, and an interpretation of it as a very large array of independent point sources of light each emitting different sets of photons of distinctive number and wavelength. The latter is the "problem to be solved by the brain" and, in general, there are lots of pictures in the head that can solve it, of which one is that description itself (it is noteworthy that not even a neurobiologist is likely to be offered by implicit processing the photon interpretation as a picture in the head, despite the fact that it is, in some sense, the most "real").

Nor is it the case that the ambiguity/painter/audience phenomena are limited to visual input. Identical phenomena occur in all sensory realms. The sound of a clarinet playing an "A", for example, consists of a fundamental tone together with a series of overtones sounding at the same time. Under appropriate circumstances it can be heard either as a clarinet playing an "A" or as a series of simultaneously perceived pure tones. Imagine now a symphony orchestra, in which a large number of instruments are simultaneously each generating a fundamental tone and a series of overtones. Unbeknownst to the I-function, implicit brain processes have made an enormously complex set of decisions about which overtones to associate with which tones in order to eliminate ambiguity. There are an enormous number of different, but equally good, "symphonies in the head", depending on which overtones have been associated with which fundamentals (16) .

Ambiguity and Reality

A second and more major obstacle in the path to my conclusion about the fundamental character of pragmatic multiplism has both a professional and a more general aspect to it. Many neurobiologists would argue that the ambiguities to which I am calling attention are "in principle" ambiguities rather than meaningful ones, that the brain is "designed" (by evolution) with a series of mechanisms that in practice eliminate most or all of the alternate interpretations, hence yielding the "real" picture (or "symphony"). Correspondingly, many non-neurobiologists (at least those who are not philosophers interested in multiplism) would contend that there actually is a "real" thing which the picture (or symphony) in the head is of, and so the fact that the brain can generate alternative construals is, while interesting and perhaps unsettling, simply an oddity of the limited capabilities of the material brain, one without broader significance.

My response to this concern, in both professional and non-professional contexts, is the same. And, as earlier, it has to do not with disagreements about observations or about interpretations of observations but rather with how one prioritizes in painting the painting which is the summary of those observations. IF one starts with the presumption that there IS a reality out there, THEN the organizational characteristics of the brain that I've called attention to can be regarded as oddities of the material "inquirer" (the brain). And many neurobiologists can continue to study and describe aspects of brain organization which have evolved to make the picture of that reality more "real". In doing so, however, both groups are ignoring (or choosing in their painting to deprioritize) what seems to me the most important and general implication of the phenomena I'm describing: 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.

The point here is important enough (and perhaps "odd" enough) to pause and try and add some extra brushstrokes so a key portion of the picture I'm painting in this essay can be seen in more detail. For a neurobiologist (at least this one), the only (and only needed) input link between the brain and things outside the brain is a set of sensory neurons; it is signals in these sensory neurons which (perhaps together with architectural features of the brain themselves dependent on genetic information) constitute the only information the brain has about anything outside of itself. It is particular patterns of signals in these sensory neurons which are (under most circumstances) the prelude to the picture in the head. And there is nothing special about these signals. They can in principle be brought into existence either by light from objects in the "outside world" impinging on sensory neurons in the retina or by, for example, a neurobiologist using electrical stimuli to activate sensory neurons, or, for that matter, by processes within the neurons themselves that cause them to generate signals autonomously. In short, the brain does not get any unambiguous information about exactly what is "out there"; all it gets is signals in sensory neurons which it needs to "make sense of". Indeed, it gets no unambiguous information indicating that there IS an "out there".

Perhaps the most significant (and "odd"?) thing implied by observations on the brain is that the very concept of an unambiguous "reality" (indeed of a reality of any kind) is itself an hypothesis made and continually being retested by the inquirer, a painting (one of many possible paintings) created by the brain. External "reality" (ambiguous or otherwise) is a good hypothesis, supported by an overwhelming number of observations over a very long period of time, but it is not the starting point for how the brain (and hence the inquirer, at the deepest level) works. What is "real" to the brain is the signals it receives (and it itself generates), signals which are always ambiguous in the sense of having multiple interpretations. In the face of this, what the brain has evolved to do is not to lessen its imperfections in painting pictures of "reality", but rather to make of the ambiguous information it has candidate unambiguous paintings, not one but many, which it can then test by additional observations. The brain is not designed to have a single picture of "reality" as an outcome, but rather to explore an infinite variety of candidate pictures. Ambiguity and uncertainty are not (whatever the I-function might think) the ripples of the 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 (and, hence, all humans, you and I among them) 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.

Science and Pragmatic Multiplism More Completely

I hope it is clear to the reader that, in accord with the overall message of this essay, it is not my aspiration to reach "conclusions" in the sense in which term is frequently understood. I have, from what I hope is a clearly described set of observations, painted a picture. I assert that it is indeed a picture that can legitimately be painted from the observations. I do not assert, as I've tried to make clear and as follows from the argument/painting itself, that it is the only such picture. To put it differently, I do not assert that the argument has any exclusive claim to being "true" nor the picture any exclusive claim to being "real". Instead, I assert that the picture is an admissible summary of the observations (and that a large number of otherwise entertainable pictures aren't), that it is viewable by anyone inclined to try and see it for what it is (subject to the limitations of my skill as a painter), and, most importantly, that it is of potential use, to myself and others, in helping to define available options for further paintings.

No claim of "truth" or "real"? To some, the above may seem such a disclaimer as to make the whole exercise appear worthless. To them, my response is that the argument I've developed itself allows, at the moment, no greater claims than those given, not only in the case of this particular inquiry by me but also (as Einstein suggested) in the case of any other inquiry into material entities by anyone else. Other people, in contrast, may find the directions pointed by my painting actually so sweeping and unsettling that they reject it out of hand for that opposite reason. Can one do "science" at all, in the absence of some conception of "truth" or "reality" against which particular claims/paintings can be evaluated? Doesn't this line of thinking (this painting) tumble us all into abject and valueless relativism? My answer to these challenges is not only that one can indeed do science in the absence of the concepts of truth and reality, but, whatever one (the I-function?) may think, that is in fact, operationally, the way science is done. "Progress" in science is not measured by increasing closeness to "truth" or to the "real"'. It can't be, because neither "truth" nor the "real" is a known location against which proximity can be measured. Progress in science has instead always been (and can't but be) measured in terms of distance from ignorance. Science proceeds not by proving "truth" or "reality" but rather by disproving falsity, not by painting the "right" picture but by painting a picture "less wrong" than prior pictures. And that, rather than either "objectivity" or some other privileged access to "reality" is in fact the basis of the demonstrable power of science.

This is, of course, simply another way of describing "pragmatic multiplism", the notion that inquiry proceeds by assuming that, at any given time, there exist at least two admissible interpretations of available observations, the one currently used and the different one that will, by accounting for available observations as well as some new ones, replace it. And that returns me to a question posed and deferred earlier in this essay. Pragmatic multiplism is (I have argued) the operational strategy of science operating in the short run. Furthermore, it demonstrably works, not because of "abject relativism" but because of a quite rigorous method of continually conceiving and evaluating summaries (pictures) of increasingly large numbers of observations. Does science either have or need a singularist presumption in some "absolute" sense, in the long run? Many scientists certainly presume (as Einstein may have (3) ) that the answer to both questions is yes, that what is really going on is the use of "pragmatic multiplism" to achieve successively closer approximations of "reality", and that what really drives science is the aspiration to achieve the single perfect painting of it, after which the task is effectively over. Among the observations prioritized in painting such a picture is the history of unification in physics, the achievement of progressively smaller pictures summarizing increasing larger number of observations, creating a sense that a final and complete picture might in fact be achieved.

My own answer to the question of whether science either has or needs a long range "singularist" posture is no and no. The difference between my painting and that of many other scientists is again one of prioritization, rather than of the validity of either observations or interpretations involved in creating the different paintings. What is highlighted in my painting is not the history of unification in physics (nor other comparable historical patterns) but rather modern understandings of the evolutionary process, and some extensions of the kinds of brain operations discussed in this essay. Evolution treats change over time not as the deterministic playing out of a fixed and eternal set of rules but rather as an exploration which may go in many different directions dependent on chance events, and one which is both modified by and modifier of what it explores (17) . And at least some neurobiology and cognitive science (18) treats the brain not as a passive observer but rather as an "inquirer", an explorer who learns by acting on what is being observed and, in so doing, necessarily changes to one degree or another what is being inquired into (the point is most obvious in thinking about explorations of the brain, by the brain, but has, in fact, much more general applicability in, among other places, quantum physics). In my painting, the historical convergence in physics is not an exemplar of science in general but rather the possible playing out of the usefulness of a particular painting style.

Again, let me emphasize that I regard this set of issues not as settled, but rather as at the moment permitting two (at least) currently admissible paintings/interpretations. Whether there will be, at some time in the future, a "singularist" outcome to science (at which point it will, of course, cease to be a significant human activity) is very much an open question, one that only time will answer (or, I suspect) fail to answer. As for the issue of whether science "needs" the presumption of singularism in the long run, I offer myself and most other children/humans (as well as James and the other pragmatists (5) as adequate evidence that it does not:

That this agnostic approach works ought not to be surprising, since it is in fact the way humans first make sense of the world, and the way most humans continue to do so in their day-to-day lives. Children make no presumption either that there are an inevitably fixed number of alternative explanations for a given phenomenon or that there exist basic building blocks of reality. They instead imagine and play, constructing and destroying hypotheses at all levels of organization based on their day-to-day interactions with the world. (19)

Perhaps the brain as evolved as a "pragmatic multiplist" because that is the most productive posture in a "reality" which is itself characterized by continual change and exploration? Perhaps inquiry is in fact not only an exploration of what's "out there", but itself part of the continual change, a creative as well as a revelatory process?

There is for science quite broad significance to the issue of whether "pragmatic multiplism" suffices for the long run, as it does for the near term, with important implications for thinking about the nature of scientific revolutions and the existence or lack thereof of ways to translate one set of scientific understandings into another. And these, in turn, have important implications for science education, as well as for how the place of science is understood in the broader culture. My guess is that science would proceed more rapidly (either along its infinitely extended trajectory or toward reaching the "final picture" if such exists) if scientists were generally more aware of what they are about in practice. And that the understanding of science by non-scientists, and their engagement with it, would both be desirably enhanced if science's core activity of pragmatic multiplism were more clearly understood. All that, though, is a new painting, and I mention it here simply as evidence that the current painting is indeed of potential use in conceiving future ones.

Pragmatic multiplism, multiplism, and culture

The remaining issue to address is the significance of "pragmatic multiplism" as evolved in science to Krausz' question "Must there be a single right interpretation for such cultural entities as works of art, literature, music, or other cultural phenomenon?" By this point, I assume it can be guessed that, from my perspective, the simplest answer goes roughly as follows. "Pragmatic multiplism" is inherent in the organization of the material inquirer (the brain) and suffuses all of the primary acts (seeing, hearing, construing) which are involved in inquiring into material objects. Since cultural artifacts are themselves material objects, pragmatic multiplism " is an inevitable and inescapable characteristic of the interpretation of cultural objects, as it is of other material objects. Indeed, since one (arguably) needs for the interpretation of cultural artifacts to paint not only a picture of the material object itself but also of its creator and context, one would tend to expect that the number of admissible interpretations for cultural artifacts is greater than that for other material objects.

Notice, though, that I have, as I mentioned at the outset of this essay, been discussing an interpretational posture, "pragmatic multiplism," which has significant overlap with Krausz's "multiplism" (there can exist multiple admissible interpretations) but also a key difference. Krausz poses the question of interpretational postures in terms of whether or not it is inherent in the things being interpreted that there exist multiple admissible interpretations. The argument I have developed precludes the possibility, at least for material things, of knowing with any reasonable degree of certainty, what is or is not "inherent in the things being interpreted". There exist only the interpretations, and no way, other than via the interpretations and the trajectory of interpretations, to answer the question of whether the things being interpreted inherently require a "multiplist" interpretational posture. To put it differently, "pragmatic multiplism" makes it impossible to assert the validity of, or even the desirability of, a "multiplist" interpretational posture as Krausz defines it. On the other hand, it yields an alternate approach which, for all practical purposes, comes out in the same place: one is, in the interpretation of cultural artifacts, as in the interpretation of material ones, always best off proceeding from the interpretational posture that there exist multiple admissible intepretations.

In this realm, though, I substantially mistrust the range of my own observations, and so am inclined to offer the arguments above not as a painting but rather as a sketch, to be modified, filled in, or rejected entirely by others whose experience with the interpretation of cultural artifacts is greater than my own. For their use, I can think of several places where the sketches may be either faulty or need to be filled in. It is conceivable (though I don't quite see how) that the "having been constructed by a human in a particular socio-cultural context" status of cultural artifacts somehow lessens, rather than adds to, the number of admissible interpretations. The approach here would appeal to "intentionality" as a distinct and distingushing property of cultural artifacts and/or their creation. I don't actually think it is, but that's a whole different painting and, even if one were persuaded of the category distinction, an account would need to be given of why such a property reduces the number of admissible interpretations, since more than one is already present given the existence of the cultural artifact as a material entity.

The sketch might also be discarded on the grounds that it presumes that the problems of cultural interpretation occur "on top of" the previously existing problems of interpretation of a material object. How to create a painting which doesn't have this characteristic is not (at the moment at least) clear to me. My sense is that it would, at a minimum, have to provide a way to portray inquiry into "cultural artifacts" as involving distinctive brain activities which occur independently of, rather than in sequential relationship to, those involved in inquiry into material objects. Perhaps an admissible painting of this sort can be generated, but I don't think I can do it.

Most generally, the sketch might be discarded on the grounds mentioned at the outset of this essay, the assumption that it is in fact the brain (no more and no less) that is the inquirer. Related to this is the still deeper assumption that the brain is a material entity, inquiring into things that are themselves, at the core, material entities. Could an admissible painting be done which doesn't similarly prioritize existing observations on the material nature of human existence (but also doesn't leave them out)? If one accepts (as I do) that pragmatic multiplism is "inevitable and inescapable", then the answer must be yes. But I am, given the evolution of my own painting style over many years, even less likely to be able to do it. It is far easier (and almost certainly more productive) for me to tell and retell, with second thoughts and modifications based on new observations,, my own story, while also listening to the stories of others … with an open mind/brain, one able potentially to be awed and fundamentally changed by the experience. As with the inquiry into "material artifacts", this is a pretty good path for finding "truth" if it exists, and certainly a better one than singularism if it turns out that in the interpretation of "cultural artifacts", as in material ones, part of the point of the inquiry is the creation of new things into which to inquire.

Acknowledgements and Notes

This paper emerged from a talk, given in spring 2001, which was cosponsored by the Center for Visual Culture and the Center for Science in Society at Bryn Mawr College and attended by Michael Krausz. I greatly appreciate Michael's encouragement for me to shape a written essay from that talk, and the valuable discussions with him that contributed importantly to its evolution. Many other colleagues and students also made invaluable contributions to the essay, including Jeffrey Oristaglio, Elizabeth McCormack, Anne Dalke, Sharon Burgmayer, George Weaver, Alfonso Albano, Peter Brodfuehrer, and … . My thanks go as well to many classes of students in biology, neurobiology, and freshman seminar courses who provided me both the incentive to work through the issues discussed in this essay and essential insights which it reflects.

1. Michael Krausz, Limits of Rightness (Rowan and Littlefield, New York, 2000), p 1.

2. Paul Grobstein, " From the head to the heart: Some thoughts on similarities between brain function and morphogenesis, and on their significance for research methodology and biological theory" Experientia 44 (1988): 962. The full paper is available on line at http://serendipstudio.org/complexity/hth.html.

3. Albert Einstein and Leopold Infeld, The Evolution of Physics (Simon and Schuster, New York, 1938), p 33. Thanks to Alfonso Albano for calling this quotation to my attention. The passage continues "In our endeavour to understand reality, we are somewhat like a man trying to understand the mechanism of a closed watch … He will never be able to compare his picture with the real mechanism, and he cannot even imagine the possibility or the meaning of such a comparison. But he certainly believes that, as his knowledge increases, his picture of reality will become simpler and … explain a … wider range of his sensuous expressions. He may also believe in the existence of the ideal limit of knowledge and that it is approached by the human mind. He may call this limit the objective truth." Such a definition of "objective truth" with the implied implication that there is an observable, stable "reality" which science can successively approximate is a common one, a version of "idealism". As I hope becomes clear toward the end of this essay, my own perspective is much closer to "constructivism" and "pragmatism". We have available only our observations and the stories we tell to make sense of them and so are likely never to know whether there exists a "real" or "ideal" independent of our explorations. The arguments presented are, of course, independent of Einstein's views on the matter. I do, however, think it significant that that Einstein and Infeld wrote "In our endeavour to understand reality …" rather than , for example, "In approaching reality …" and said "may also believe … " and "may call this limit …" rather than presuming the unquestionable existence of either "the ideal limit" or "objective truth".

4. Krausz, Limits, p 2.

5. The adjective "pragmatic" is meant, as will emerge, not in the sense of something which will, in practical terms, suffice until something better is found. Instead, it is used as an acknowledgement of a great similarity between the arguments presented here and "pragmatism" as a philosophical perspective, one which asserts that there does not in fact exist anything other than the "practical". See, for example, William James, Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking (Longman Green, New York, 1907). James drew from this perspective several implications with notable similarities to those reached here from considerations of brain function. For example (p21), " if you follow the pragmatic method, you cannot look on any such word [eg. "God", "Matter", "Reason", "the Absolute", "Energy"] as closing your quest. You must bring out of each word its practical cash-value, set it at work within the stream of your experience. It appears less as a solution, then, than as a program for more work, and more particularly as an indication of the ways in which existing realities may be changed." James' Pragmatism is available on line at http://spartan.ac.brocku.ca/%7Elward/james/James_1907/James_1907_toc.html .

6. There is, of course, a large and continually evolving professional literature on the brain/mind issue, as well as an increasing professional literature both in neurobiology and in cognitive science, and a substantial and increasing semi-popular literature. While dualist positions continue to be evolved and defended by supporters both in neurobiology (Karl Popper and John C. Eccles, The Self and Its Brain (Springer, New York, 1978)) and in philosophy (David J. Chalmers, The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory (Oxford University Press, New York, 1996)), my own perspective is that the historical "trend of the observations" strongly suggests (without "proving" the point) that both behavior and the human experience of it are accountable for in terms of the organization of the complexly organized matter which is the nervous system. The relevant observations are considered at length in a course on neurobiology and behavior, much of which is available online at http://serendipstudio.org/bb/neuro/neuro02. The argument is perhaps most dramatically (though not necessarily most compellingly) made in Francis Crick, The Astonishing Hypothesis (Scribner, New York, 1994). An earlier important book is Daniel Dennet, Conscious Explained (Little, Brown, New York, 1991) More recent relevant semi-popular books include Tor Nørretranders, The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size (Viking, New York, 1998), Antonio Damasio Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain (G.P. Putnam, New York, 1994) and The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness (Harcourt Brace, New York, 1999), V.S. Ramachandran and Sandra Blakeslee, Phantoms in the Brain, Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind (William Morrow, New York, 1998), and Oliver Sacks, An Anthropologist on Mars (Knopf, New York, 1995).

7. Among these is the fact that certain lesions of the brain in fact abolish the "picture in the head" while sparing a variety of meaningful responses to visual stimuli (being able to point to a target, for example). The phenomenon is termed "blindsight" (Lawrence Weiskrantz, Blindsight: A Case Study and Implications (Clarendon Press, New York, 1986) to emphasize that the internal experience of such lesions is in fact that they abolish the "picture in the head", while sparing some significant visual function. Also relevant is that aspects of the "picture in the head", such as color and motion, can be selectively abolished by particular lesions of the brain. With advancing technology, it is becoming increasingly possible to actually see in living brains the patterns of activity corresponding to particular pictures, including changes in those patterns which occur when the same input yields different pictures.

8. See, for example, V.S. Ramachandran, "Blind Spots", Scientific American, May, 1992, pp 86-91. There is an on-line exhibit with background and provisions to experience the phenomology of blindspots oneself available at http://serendipstudio.org/bb/blindspot1.html).

9. For an example closely related to painting, see Floyd Ratliff, "Contour and Contrast", Scientific American 269 (June, 1972), pp 102-109.

10. Cf. Zoltan Dienes and Josef Pernar "A Theory of Implicit and Explicit Knowledge", Behavioral and Brain Sciences 22: 735-755 (1999).

11. Michael Polanyi, The Tacit Dimension (Doubleday, New York, 1966)

12. This is an term of my own, developed in the course of teaching (cf note 6) and derived from the operational necessity in neurobiology to distinguish between "able to respond adaptively to visual input" and saying "I saw that" (cf note 7).

13. Such images are common in both psychology textbooks and semi-popular writing about visual perception. They are also widely available on line; see, for example http://serendipstudio.org/bb/ambigfig/. Richard Gregory has written extensively about the significance of ambiguous figures for understanding the psychology of vision (cf Eye and Brain: The Psychology of Seeing (McGraw-Hill, New York, 1966)). Ambiguous figures have also been of explicit interests to artists (cf. Dawn Ades, Dali's Optical Illusions (Yale University Press, New Haven, 2000; Bruno Ernst, The Eye Beguiled (Benedikt Taschen, Köln, 1992)), art historians (E.H. Gombrich, Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1969), and philosophers (see following note). 14. Michael Krausz, Rightness and Reason (Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 1993), p 68

15. Paul Grobstein, "Variability in Brain Function and Behavior", The Encyclopedia of Human Behavior, Volume 4, (V.S. Ramachandran, ed., Academic Press, New York, 1994), pp 447-458, available on line at http://serendipstudio.org/bb/EncyHumBehav.html. See also R.H.S Carpenter, A Neural Mechanism That Randomizes Behavior, Journal of Consciousness Studies 6: 13-22 (1999).

16. Explicit thanks to Alfonso Albano and Peter Beckmann for providing me the observations that made me aware of these auditory ambiguities. Diana Deutsch has been studying auditory illusions (cf. "The Tritone Paradox: A Link Between Music and Speech", Current Directions in Psychological Science, 1998, 174-180), has created a CD illustrating them (Diana Deutsch: Musical Illusions and Paradoxes, Philomel Records, 1995), and makes available materials on line at http://psy.ucsd.edu/~ddeutsch/psychology/deutsch_research1.html.

17. Richard Lewontin, The Triple Helix: Gene, Organism, and Environment (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2001)

18. Margaret A. Boden, The Creative Mind: Myths and Mechanisms (BasicBooks, New York, 1992); C.R. Gallistell, The Organization of Learning (MIT Press, Cambridge, 1990); Gerald Edelman and Giulio Tononi, A Universe of Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagination (Basic Books, New York, 2000)

19. Grobstein, Experientia (note 3) , p 968.
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