Reason, for the Sake of Argument

Whether or not Hamlet was being ironic in his admiration for humankind, it seems that the nobility of our reason is up for debate…literally.

New research from French cognitive social scientists indicates that reason exists to help us argue and guard against the arguments of others, according to a recent New York Times article. Reason, so the theory goes, is not about truth, it’s about influence.

The theory, developed by Hugo Mericier and Dan Sperber of the Jean-Nicod research institute in Paris, has been labeled the argumentative theory of reasoning.

“Reasoning doesn’t have this function of helping us get better beliefs and make better decisions,” Mercier told the New York Times. “It evolved to help us convince others and to be careful when others try to convince us.”

As communication became more important to our ever-more-social ancestors, early human listeners needed ways to determine the reliability and trustworthiness of the information they received from others, according to the theory. Over time, the human race developed “epistemic vigilance,” a phrase Sperber coined to describe the set of skills we developed to assess the veracity of arguments meant to influence us.

The argumentative theory of reasoning turns the role of biased reasoning upside down. Consider, for example, “confirmation bias,” or the familiar flaw of selecting information that confirms what we already believe to be true while blinding us to information that disconfirms our beliefs. Many psychologists, social scientists and organizational systems theorists recognize confirmation bias as a flaw that evolved along side our rationality. It’s generally assumed that the biases that encourage us to jump to conclusions were favored by our cave-dwelling ancestors who often chose to run and hide at the sound of thunder instead of trying to understand what caused it.

For Mercier and Sperber, flawed reasoning isn’t a distinct idiosyncrasy of our cognitive abilities; rather, it’s an adaptation that serves our ability to win arguments. We can be much more influential if we favor certain data over other data. In the classical Cartesian universe where reason is meant to improve the quality of our beliefs and reduce the risk of missing something important, confirmation bias becomes a barrier to knowledge. In argumentative theory, confirmation bias makes us gifted debaters.

Among the interesting implications of argumentative theory is the sobering possibility that we’re wired for debate; that reason serves to influence rather than understand. Could it be that developing our analytical capabilities responds to an evolutionary imperative to be more convincing? Perhaps the abrasive, percussive, advocacy of opinions that plays out daily on the so-called news programs represent the fulfillment of our evolutionary mandate. I want Mercier and Sperber to be wrong, but the most diabolical aspect of Mercier and Sperber’s conclusion is that to disagree with it is to help them make the case.

Read other posts by Jay G. Cone

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