Friday, 10 April 2015

Rules, Norms and Robinson Crusoe

In lieu of a proper post about understanding and rules (it's coming, it's coming), I've posted some rough notes on my other blog concerning rules, norms and the "Robinson Crusoe" debate. I'm not putting them on here as a "proper" post, since they're just me thinking out loud. Still, have a look and see what you think. And, obviously, I'd be grateful for any comments, either here or on the other blog.

11 comments:

  1. I can't seem to comment on the blog, so I will comment here. And in bits!
    1) I think it is misleading to draw the contrast you seem to between customary ways of living (which you call practices) and rules-based activities (which is probably what I would call practices). Rules do not have to be spoken or used in the setting up (teaching) of an activity. Rather that we should do one thing rather than another may be conveyed to us non-verbally. Whether we are just copying what everyone else does or following a rule will come out in our reaction to particular situations or events, most obviously in verbal reactions (but clearly not only in these or even necessarily in these). For example, if you had tried to get me to wear something other than jeans when I was 18, I would have said that I would odd or stupid etc, but I would not have said that in not wearing jeans I was doing something wrong. Similarly, there is a big difference between turning up at Glastonbury in black tie and going to the opera in jeans and no top. In the former case, I might be laughed at or treated like an idiot or a weirdo, but in the latter case I will trigger reactions of disapproval and probably face sanctions. Similarly from my perspective in the former case I might display signs of thinking that I am a real joker or a bit of an eccentric, whereas in the latter case my demeanour is more likely to suggest that I am interested in picking a fight with authority or getting some kind of revenge.
    I think I would say that even very primitive human societies followed rules, that is to say, within them certain types of behaviour were seen not just as inadvisable or unusual but as not permitted and likely to trigger special sanctions and/or disapproval. I suspect that there is also primitive rule-following behaviour or proto-rule following in non-human species - as I understand it, ape colonies do have norms of behaviour that are enforced. It is not just that everyone does the same thing; rather certain standards of behaviour are set up, those who are about to infringe them are warned or encouraged not to and those that do infringe them suffer some form of consequence. I think we probably would be able to distinguish between situations where we would say: "animal X does something different from the others and is therefore rejected because these animals only recognise as similar to themselves animals that act the same" and other situations where we would say: "the group-life of these animals is sufficiently similar to ours for us to say that they are following rules. Look how the other animals react when an animal looks like it is about go to "go against the rules" and how they react when an animal actually does. And look at the animal itself - how it hesitates before breaking the rule and then defiantly anticipates the consequences".

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  2. 2) As for Robinson Crusoe, I would agree with Hacker that there is no reason to deny that a solitary individual can follow rules. Imagine a wild boy who somehow grows up in the jungle or on an otherwise deserted island. Assume he somehow survived despite having no human contact since birth. We then observe his life. We will note that he has certain habits, that there are particular things he likes to do and that there are certain things he needs to do to survive (and maybe some things that he thinks he needs to do but we with our superior knowledge sees as unnecessary or even counter-productive). We will differentiate between these different kinds of activity on the basis of his reactions - he will react differently if he misses the opportunity to do one of his favourite things than if he simply fails to do what he habitually does or than if he fails to do something necessary for his food and comfort. So when might we see him as following a rule? One difficulty is that a lot of our rules about how to conduct yourself in relation to others or in multi-person activities and unfortunately our wild boy has no experience of any of this. Religion is another rule-based area, so perhaps we could imagine our wild boy having some kind of primitive religion. There is a special tree which he always approaches on his knees and which he will not let the jungle undergrowth encroach on. There seem to be rules about what is allowed to happen in relation to the tree and we can see that he tries to prevent certain things happening in a way that indicates that this is not a prudential matter or a matter of personal preference. We imagine that if we got to know him, he would insist on us too approaching the tree on our knees (or perhaps he might insist that strangers like us should not even approach the tree). Perhaps it will be objected that it is cheating to bring religion into it (although it is not clear to me why it should be cheating). So what other kind of activities might he engage in that could potentially be ruled-based? Well, perhaps he fashions primitive pottery and decorates it. Perhaps he just colours his pots in some way and then seems to prefer some decorated pots to others. So far no rules. But what if he starts to use one pot (or a bit of one decoration) as a pattern? We see him straining to produce a new decoration that is the same as the old one. One scenario would be where we concluded that he had a favourite pot and was just trying to make another one similar to it on the assumption that if it was similar, he would probably like it too. Another scenario would involve concluding that the essence of what he was trying to do was to follow the pattern. Perhaps he would do his decorating in two kinds of ways - one way just for fun to see what comes out and whether he likes it and another way where he is only happy if the new pot follows the pattern of the old pot. In the latter case I think we would say that he is following a rule. But haven't I taken for granted what is involved in following the pattern? Aren't I reading into his practice something we would call "following the pattern"? Well, lets imagine that we see all the fine shades of behaviour that characterise our rule-following activities, but the ones he seems to see as following the pattern looking totally different to us. So we have no way of guessing whether he is about to angrily smash a new pot because he did not get it right or whether he will proudly add it to his collection of pots that follow the pattern. In this situation I would recommend patience and perhaps after many years we will understand his rule. But perhaps we won't and in that case we might conclude that what looks like rule-based behaviour is not actually rule-based. To differentiate conclusively between rule-based activities and activities that seem to be rule-based, we need to understand the rule, but that is true whether one person is engaged in the apparently rule-based activity or many.

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    1. Actually, I could have used much simpler examples, e.g. the wild boy plants seeds and uses a piece of jungle creeper to space out the seeds he plants. So effectively he uses the jungle creeper as a crude measure. It seems to me that he does indeed have a practice of measuring and he is following a rule. We may not be very impressed with his "measuring" but its his practice and up to him to show us what he means by "one measure of the creeper" apart.

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  3. 3) Last one! I think "that's how we do things around here" is a perfectly acceptable way of expressing a rule. Similarly, "who the bloody hell do you think you are?" or perhaps simply a cuff around the earhole. They certainly don't have to take the form: "The rule is ...".

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  4. Many thanks Paul. I don't think I've got the distinction right, either. I'll add your comments in to my on-going thoughts. :)

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  5. Also, I agree regarding Robinson Crusoe. What is needed is regularity of behaviour, together with characteristic expressions, which would make it possible to designate his behaviour as "concentrating", "making a mistake", etc. So his rules would be shareable, but unshared. (And that, of course, is the Hacker line.)

    One thing that troubles me here, though, is this: suppose we're talking about a person whose gestures are regular but not like ours. So, she pulls particular faces in particular situations, etc. But the faces she pulls don't "speak" to us. Could we come up with a theory about them? "x is her disappointment face; y is her happy face" and so on? Wouldn't such a theory just hang in the air? Since all her gestures are alien to us, how could the theory get any traction?

    This, I suppose, is the talking lion problem. But it seems to open up the possibility of rule-following that we couldn't possibly recognise as such - and I'm uncomfortable with that idea.

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    1. I suppose it depends what you mean as "couldn't possibly recognise". There certainly could be rule-following that we failed to recognise perhaps because the people (or entities) following the rules were deliberately try to conceal the nature of their behaviour from us. Similarly, there might be Martians whose facial expressions and gestures mean nothing to us ... for the first couple of hundred years and then we might begin to find our feet with them to at least some extent. But what if we never found our feet with them? Would we have to conclude that they were not really following rules? After all, aren't there humans who follow rules that you and I cannot master? But those aren't rules we couldn't possibly master, they are just rules that as happens we haven't mastered (and perhaps can't).

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    2. Yes, there are certainly cases where recognising expressions takes a lot of hard work, trial and error, etc. Naturalists studying chimps in the wild have come to recognise expressions that were completely overlooked at first. But they weren't starting from absolute zero. It's important, it seems to me, that at least some of the chimps' behaviour was easily recognisable: fear, anger, etc. So it was a matter of "filling in the blanks". But what if all you have are blanks? I get the feeling I'm suggesting something unintelligible here but I can't quite spell out why. On the one hand, it's ridiculous because you could use it as a basis for suggesting that any complex behaviour (eg, the behaviour of clouds) might be expressions. But then I want to say that if we were somehow on the "inside" of this behaviour... No. It really is rubbish, isn't it?

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  6. Also, God knows why the other blog wouldn't let you post there, and I apologise for that. I'm thinking of relocating it on blogspot because Wordpress is getting unbearable. These days unless you subscribe you can't put a bloody html link in a post.

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