Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Social Dimension Of Reason

According to the argumentative theory, however, the function of reasoning is primarily social. In particular, it allows people to anticipate the need to justify their decisions to others. This predicts that the use of reasoning in decision making should increase the more likely one is to have to justify oneself.


Reasoning contributes to the effectiveness and reliability of communication by enabling communicators to argue for their claim and by enabling addressees to assess these arguments. It thus increases both in quantity and in epistemic quality the information humans are able to share.
Hugo Mercier & Dan Sperber, "Why do humans reason? Arguments for an argumentative theory", Behavioral and Brain Science(2011)34
"Reason Seen More as Weapon Than Path to Truth" claims the headline. The sub-head, which is in the URL, reads "People Argue Just To Win, Scholars Assert". Intrigued, I clicked over and read through the piece by Patricia Cohen.
For centuries thinkers have assumed that the uniquely human capacity for reasoning has existed to let people reach beyond mere perception and reflex in the search for truth. Rationality allowed a solitary thinker to blaze a path to philosophical, moral and scientific enlightenment.

Now some researchers are suggesting that reason evolved for a completely different purpose: to win arguments. Rationality, by this yardstick (and irrationality too, but we’ll get to that) is nothing more or less than a servant of the hard-wired compulsion to triumph in the debating arena. According to this view, bias, lack of logic and other supposed flaws that pollute the stream of reason are instead social adaptations that enable one group to persuade (and defeat) another. Certitude works, however sharply it may depart from the truth.(emphasis added)
As there was a link provided, I did what probably four other people did - I downloaded and printed off the article under review. I was shocked - SHOCKED! - to discover that The Old Gray Lady got the article wrong, pretty much all the way around.
The mental action of working out a convincing argument, the public action of verbally producing this argument so that others will be convinced by it, and the mental action of evaluating and convinced by it, and the mental action of evaluating and accepting the conclusion of an argument produced by other correspond to what is commonly and traditionally meant by reasoning (a term that can refer to either a mental or a verbal activity).


We see three complementary explanations for the saliency of reasoning. First, when we reason, we know that we are reasoning, whereas the very existence of intuitive inference was seen as controversial in philosophy before its discovery in cognitive science. Second, while an inferential mechanism, that delivers intuitions about arguments is, strictly speaking, highly domain specific, the arguments that it delivers intuitions about can be representations of anything at all. . . Third, as we will now argue, the very function of reasoning puts it on display in human communication.
The short version of the theory set forth is simple enough - the view of reason, nous, ratio as the supreme mark of individual human specific difference, the height of individual accomplishment, shown to be problematic by a host of cognitive research over the decades, errs because it does not take in to account the role of communication in social groups, as an enhancement mechanism to the way human beings make clear the reasons for choices.

The Times article erred in a number of ways. First, the authors never claim that the question of truth or falsity is irrelevant to their argumentative theory of reason; on the contrary, they show through reference to abundant research that, in fact, group dynamics tend toward convergence on correct choices through a process of setting forth, and assessing, arguments for various choices. Second, the sub-header is something that should be clear, but the inference is wrong. The mechanism set forth in the argumentative theory of reason is more subtle and complex, not least because it is set not only in a social context, but also an evolutionary context. They argue that human communication is an evolutionary adaptation, and the social dimension of reason - including the ability to assess arguments for and against various choices - enhances survivability. Groups that are better able to assess arguments and make correct choices are more likely to survive, even thrive, producing more offspring.

Which is the source of one of the more intriguing criticisms of the theory. Jean-Louis Dessalles, of Teleco Paris Tech, writes:
If the biological function of reasoning is to achieve shared knowledge optimization (SKO), as suggested in the target article, then why do people show obvious limitations such as confirmation bias? M&S answer that information quality is optimized, not at the individual level, but at the group level. It would even be a good thing that individuals specialize on their (probably erroneous) line of reasoning, as long as argument exchange restores global information quality. The problem is that natural selection does not operate at the collective level. Shared knowledge belongs to the phenotype of no one.
Biologist and philosopher Ernst Mayr writes, in "The Origins of Human Ethics", in the collection Toward a New Philosophy of Biology:
The evolution of uniquely human ethics was closely correlated with the evolution of human cultural groups. These groups - enlargements of the original family groups - were held together by leadership, dialect, geography, rituals, and cultural traditions. The crucial question to be asked is whether such cultural groups could act as units of selection in the evolution of human ethics. That is, could a cultural group be the target of selection? . . .

In my view, one must avoid lumping under the term group selection entirely different evolutionary phenomena. I agree with Williams, SOber, and others that group selection among animals . . . is not supported by any evidence. Of the three kinds of so-called group selection among animals that I can distinguish, none is supportable by the evidence. In all of the animal groups, the individual is the target of selection.

But human cultural groups are something quite different. There is a great deal of evidence that human cultural groups, as wholes, can serve as the target of selection. Rather severe selection among such cultural groups has been going on throughout hominid history. . . . This form of selection is of such special importance because, in contrast with individual selection, cultural group selection may reward altruism and any other virtues that strengthen the group, even at the expense of individuals.
So, yes and no. Seeing human cultural groups as unique manifestations open to evolutionary pressure offers, at the very least, the possibility of taking an argumentative theory of reason in to account in the story of human evolution.

I find the theory set forth intriguing, to say the least. I hardly consider myself qualified to make any other claim for it. In all honesty, I just can't think of any arguments for or against it . . .

Virtual Tin Cup

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