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Tag Archives: Proscription

White and Black Lists: Evolution and Rule Following


A Prospective View Towards Thinking about the nature of Proscription

It is said that one of the primary weakness of the early concept of evolution as adaptation to an environment was the idea that the environment was prescribing changes in an organism or species, that is telling them how to be. What it seems has become clear is that the environment is not prescribing (that is dictating, or determining) the prescriptions of DNA and then phenotypes, but only proscribing, limiting. This means that the development of organisms follow their own prescriptions (rules) only to the extent that the environment proscribed those products. Hence the environment could not tell an organism how to be, but could only tell it how not to be (that DNA/phenotype combination is fatal before reproduction).Now if we extend this metaphor down into chess, taking cue from Wittgenstein example of language game and rule following, we come up with, initially, a very distinct prescriptive environment (the “white list” as one can call it). The game of chess is for the most part composed of move possibilities that are prescribed, i.e. these are the things you can legally do. I think it would be possible to say as well that these hard prescriptions (for instance, the rules of how a pawn moves), are also complemented with softer prescriptions (for instance, one should try to control the center of the board, or one should castle early, or should maintain pawn chain integrity, or even more basically, one should protect one’s King and attack your opponent’s). If we remain at the level of the strict rules though (which is simplest), what we do when we learn chess, is internalize these rules. The prescriptions of chess become our prescriptions for our movements in chess. Our knowledge of those prescriptions is shown in our behavior. But, and this is important, moment to moment we can not just assume that our knowledge or employment of those prescriptions is correct. This is where prescriptions become proscriptions. If one attempted a move, one might be told: “No, that’s not how the knight moves,” or “No, that puts your King in check,” or even, “No, its my move”. In this way, the prescriptions of chess rules, as the environmental domain of your behaviors, communicated by your partner or an official, become proscriptions, that is limitations. What one does with such negative feedback is correct one’s understanding of one’s prescriptive aim, perhaps selecting a different rule to apply, or applying a rule in a different way.

There is no absolute prescription/proscription distinction at the descriptive level, because the proscriptive rule “You must not move your King into a line of attack,” can be alternately prescriptively described as “You must always move your King, when moving it, to a square of safety .” The distinction I think lies in a another way. One internalizes prescriptions and makes them rules for action, yet because we are ever unsure if our prescriptive understanding is optimal, we are ever ready to revise our prescriptions for action before the occasion of a proscriptive limitation. The proscriptive “no” is an event, a moment when whatever line of reasoning or rule application meets up with a limitation which causes us to revise our direction. (It can be anything from an outright impossibility of an action, “No, you can’t make that move,” to an unexpected consequence of a rule-following action, “Damn, it was stupid to castle so early when my pawn center was under such attack”. But while the proscriptive occasion is an event, the prescription of rules (the “white list”) is global. It contains a universizing aspect within a game, capable of being applied in multiple circumstances. It is simply uneconomic to make a “black list” because the list could be infinite. Instead we have a complex system of prescriptions that are alternately selected and/or revised under occasions of limitation. Just as an species is a series of “adaptive” prescriptions before an infinite “black list” which simply signals certain prescriptions to recombine.