Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Rule-following and "Rule-following"

Many processes can be modeled mathematically. Hurricanes, gene dispersion, baseball statistics, insect wingbeats, galaxy formation: really, the list is endless. All of these processes can be said to "follow rules." Computers follow rules in this sense. But when we say about various natural processes that they "follow rules," it is important to keep in mind that the phrase is here used figuratively: there is no conscious rule-following going on, the way there is, say, after you have just taught me a card game and I try to play it correctly. We often use this figurative sense of "rule-following" when describing processes in our own bodies. The retina, for example, is an on-board computer of a sort that measures the amplitude of light coming in to the eye and "encodes" this "information" for transmission to the brain. "Encodes" and (importantly) "information" are also figurative terms in this context. The eyeball no more literally (intentionally) encodes things than, say, a tree encodes its age in its tree-rings.
Brain processes are "rule-following" only in this figurative sense. Stomachs digest food, but they don't eat lunch. Persons eat lunch. Brains compute (or, they do whatever it is that they do that is the equivalent of digestion in the stomach: our Cartesian error is in the way of our seeing what exactly that is). Persons think. I can't think without my brain any more than I can eat lunch without my stomach, but that doesn't mean that there's a little person in my brain thinking any more than it does that there's a little person in my stomach eating. And the processes going on in my brain are no better explained by saying that there's a person in there "interpreting" than are my digestive processes by positing a micro-gourmand. Inside my head there's lots of "rule-following" going on, but there is no rule-following. Actual rule-following is done by persons, out in the world. Thus the savant is "rule-following" (computing with his brain), but he is not rule-following (thinking with his "mind').
(Thanks to Kevin Vond for a lively exchange on this topic. See the comments below and go to Kevin's website for more.)


  1. Anderson,

    There is some problem with this notion of a rule-following distinction you present. First, is your idea of intentionality, which regards choice. Wittgenstein, at least to some degree, actually takes choice (intentionality) out of what "rule following" is:
    "When I obey a rule, I do not choose. I obey the rule blindly (1953, §219)."
    So to separate out "real" rule following under an index of choice alone, is difficult. Indeed, we are all following rules to some degree involunatarily.

    Secondly, I have difficulty with your idea "Actual rule-following is done by persons, out in the world. Thus the savant is "rule-following" (computing with his brain), but he is not rule-following (thinking with his "mind')."

    Somehow savants seem to be denied the status of "real persons, out in the world" here. I don't know what for instance doing out in the world would consist of. If I am doing calculations in my head, I indeed am rule-following, even though I am not doing it "out in the world", whether a Wittgensteinian would allow me that official distinction, or not. Daniel Tammet the mathemtatical savant, as I have suggested, indeed is rule-following when he tells you what shape the number 1012 is. When he tells us that he knows what the answer is because the answer is a certain shape, this is no different than saying that I know where the town is, because the sign has just pointed me to it. Because it is not done "out in the world" does not make Tammet's calculations the rule-following equivalent of "digestion", as much as Wittgensteinians would like to by-definition, make them so.


  2. Kevin, There is no question of "putting down" the savant, as on my interpretation he is in exactly the same position as everyone else: no one follows rules "in their head." Sec. 219 is saying that a rule is a rule, imposed on me: that is the sense in which I do not "choose" to follow it. Nothing is imposed on me "in the head" (just as I cannot give myself a dollar). If my sitting and doing calculations is an example of rule-following, such that W. is refuted ipso facto, then there is no need of the savant example; but if it is not, then the savant example adds nothing. Similarly, if W. is refuted on content when an ordinary person reports that they have dream images, or memory images, or imaginary images, then the autistic example is not needed, but if not, it adds nothing.

  3. Anderson, thanks for the response.

    The autistic savant example indeed does nothing more than make more explicit what is lacking in Wittgenstein's "ipso facto" refutation. (I would though suggest that one can deny that autistic savants are "thinking" when they calculate is a bit of a denigration, though not by intent, I am sure). The problem with Wittgenstein's refutation is that it attempts to make an absolute categorical divide between "reasons" and "causes". He wants to surrender all "causes" to "psychology" and all "reasons" to philosophical disentanglement. This is of course where Wittgenstein and Davidson dramatically depart. One actually can take intentional orientation to one's own causes, and make of them reasons (of a kind). This is what we regularly do when speaking of, and attributing intention to action. For your dissolve of Autistic Calculation completely into the realm of causes, would deprive those actions of any intentional standing, which clearly they do not lack. When Daniel Tammet is calculating, he is intentionally calculating: he is not digesting.

    I've written more of my thoughts on this on my weblog, if interested. I imagine that we will not come to agreement here. But perhaps if you consider it from a Davidsonian point of view, which is much more amenable to Spinoza, you can come to see the point I am making.


  4. In all modesty, this post of mine seems relevant here...