Rain Man and Rule-Following: How Autism can Bring Philosophy to Life

Rain Man

Rain Man and Rule-Following

How Autism can Bring Philosophy to Life

By Robert Chapman


In the film Rain Man, there is one scene in which the protagonist, an autistic man called Raymond Babbitt, is crossing a busy road at a pedestrian crossing. When Raymond is half-way across, the light changes from green to red, and a sign saying ‘Don’t walk’ lights up, replacing the ‘Walk’ sign that had previously been there. Whereas a neurologically typical (i.e. normal) person would, in this situation, hurry to the other side, Raymond simply stops right where he is. He doesn’t move despite the fact that he is in the middle of a busy road, or indeed that drivers from nearby cars begin shouting at him and beeping their horns. As the chaos grows around him, and one man starts to threaten to hurt him, Raymond still refuses to move. In the end, Raymond is saved by his brother, who finds him with his hands over his ears and his eyes tightly closed, just as things are starting to look really bad.

Why did this happen? On the one hand, we can elucidate this via cognitive psychology. Psychologists sometimes characterise autistic people as ‘hyper-systemisers’ or as being ‘context blind’, meaning – more or less – that, rather like computers, they find it hard to process anything vague or dynamic, and are better at dealing with fixed one-to-one rules and systems. Whereas people with Asperger’s or autism might be good at activities with fixed rules (say, chess, or computer programming), when they encounter anything vague, most notably in the social realm, they are often overcome with confusion and anxiety. So Raymond stopped crossing the road when the lights changed because, rather than intuitively knowing what to do, he was following the rules (‘walk’/’don’t walk’) with an icy precision. The lights changed, and that was that.

On the other hand, we can also understand Raymond’s problem as being philosophical in nature. For, from the first-person perspective, it is likely that an autistic person in Raymond’s position would both understand, and be furiously trying to work out how to fix, the situation conceptually, as it were. Given his rigid cognitive style, he would be caught between wanting to obey the law imposed by the traffic lights, and not wanting to disturb (or be hurt by) the drivers on the road. Looked at this way, the problem becomes one of understanding and clarifying the correct rule to follow, of finding a rule to point towards a correct action given the situation. What we see here is essentially a normative and conceptual issue.

Relevantly, in his Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein points out that ‘no course of action could be determined by a rule, because any course of action can be made out to accord with the rule’ (PI 201). There is much debate over what Wittgenstein meant by this, but one way of understanding (part of) his point is that any interpretation of a rule that we derive from past experiences, can also be replaced by another interpretation. For example, even though every time I have used the rule “plus 2” to add 2 to the original number, it could be that after a certain point – say, 4,000,000 – you are meant to add 4, and I had simply never known this part of the rule. Put another way: there is nothing to ultimately and definitely determine what counts as following a rule, or indeed for showing that someone is following a rule correctly or not. And this is so in regards to linguistic and social as much as mathematical and logical rules, making Wittgenstein’s rule-following paradox utterly central to philosophical issues regarding meaning, essence, necessity, and such like.

Raymond’s situation, I think, brings Wittgenstein’s rule-following paradox to life. For to Raymond, red meant ‘don’t walk’, and green meant ‘walk’. However, the drivers who couldn’t get past him all thought he should have walked despite the red light and ‘don’t walk’ sign. Where Raymond saw correct rule-following, they saw incorrect rule-following. Notably too, if Raymond’s brother hadn’t found him there, then only working through the seemingly-conflicting rules by reflecting on and analysing them would have allowed Raymond to see that continuing to walk was an option. And so only this – the successful application of conceptual analysis – would defuse the anxiety and terror of the situation. In this example, then, we see what might otherwise seem a dry, theoretical issue as intertwined with practical and existential concerns.

A sceptic might reply here that none of this could really have been going on in Raymond’s head, as it were, and that it is more likely that he would just be unaware and confused. Although we don’t have access to Raymond’s inner life – he is a fictional character – we know from articulate autistic writers that conceptual analysis of the nature of rules (e.g. of the meaning of signs, utterances, and so) are in many such everyday situations normal (indeed, vital) for autistic individuals. Temple Grandin – who amazed the world by writing one of the first autistic autobiographies in the 1980s – for example, has trouble spontaneously abstracting general concepts; and so she constantly has to work through a quasi-Socratic process of questioning in order to find the right ‘pictures’ for understanding everyday concepts such as “charity”, “chair”, and “leaf”. Likewise, Gunilla Gerland, who wrote a similarly enlightening autobiography after receiving a late diagnosis of high-functioning autism, tells grippingly of the conceptual issues and anxieties that came with her belief that ‘there must be one general rule governing the various bits and that all you had to do was work it out’. Like so many other autistic people, from the “outside”, they were often taken to be unaware or uncaring, but on the “inside”, they were continually grappling with conceptual and existential issues.

Given the everyday, highly personal way in which autistic individuals experience and deal with such problems, I think there is a certain sense in which autism can bring philosophy to life, on the one hand – and another sense in which applied philosophical analysis has the potential to help autistic people to live well, on the other. Problems and solutions regarding solipsism, other minds, and the meaning of words are not always abstract, “armchair” issues for autistic people: they are practical, existential, and bound up with anxiety and terror in day to day life.

Robert Chapman is currently working on his PhD, which is on living the good life with autism, at the University of Essex. He is interested in autism, neurodiversity, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, and the relationship between thinkers and thought. His PhD research is carried out with the support of the Shirley Foundation. He can be contacted at rchapm@essex.ac.uk.

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