The argumentative theory

The argumentative theory of argumentation maintains that reasoning is for arguing–actually, for winning arguments (but not in the philosophy way). Here’s the idea (from here):

Reasoning was not designed to pursue the truth. Reasoning was designed by evolution to help us win arguments. That’s why they call it The Argumentative Theory of Reasoning. So, as they put it, “The evidence reviewed here shows not only that reasoning falls quite short of reliably delivering rational beliefs and rational decisions. It may even be, in a variety of cases, detrimental to rationality. Reasoning can lead to poor outcomes, not because humans are bad at it, but because they systematically strive for arguments that justify their beliefs or their actions. This explains the confirmation bias, motivated reasoning, and reason-based choice, among other things.

Here’s an interview with Hugo Mercier I stumbled across that gives a shorter and less formal version of the idea. A sample:

And the beauty of this theory is that not only is it more evolutionarily plausible, but it also accounts for a wide range of data in psychology. Maybe the most salient of phenomena that the argumentative theory explains is the confirmation bias.

Psychologists have shown that people have a very, very strong, robust confirmation bias. What this means is that when they have an idea, and they start to reason about that idea, they are going to mostly find arguments for their own idea. They’re going to come up with reasons why they’re right, they’re going to come up with justifications for their decisions. They’re not going to challenge themselves. 

But maybe these people are terrible at reasoning.  Ok, joking (sort of). The interview is well worth reading. There’s even a little video.

Any view is an opinion, in my opinion

The problem with arguments is that everyone who has a view (i.e., everyone) considers themselves an expert. Stanley Fish  lends credence to this view. In a recent op-ed on Historians Against Trump, he writes:

But there’s very little acknowledgment of limitations and subjectivity in what follows, only a rehearsal of the now standard criticisms of Mr. Trump, offered not as political opinions, which they surely are, but as indisputable, impartially arrived at truths: “Donald Trump’s presidential campaign is a campaign of violence: violence against individuals and groups; against memory and accountability, against historical analysis and fact.” How’s that for cool, temperate and disinterested analysis?

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that this view of Mr. Trump is incorrect; nor am I saying that it is on target: only that it is a view, like anyone else’s. By dressing up their obviously partisan views as “the lessons of history,” the signatories to the letter present themselves as the impersonal transmitters of a truth that just happens to flow through them. In fact they are merely people with history degrees, which means that they have read certain books, taken and taught certain courses and written scholarly essays, often on topics of interest only to other practitioners in the field.

This strikes me as very confused. In the first place, what on earth are “political opinions”? Are the on par with opinions about matters of taste? (pizza is great!) If so, then indeed, maybe Fish is right. But I doubt this is what he means. Political opinions, after all, include all sorts of things that are fact-based. One example would be: “we should do this because it worked in the past.” The test of the acceptability of this opinion would be whether this indeed worked well in the past. That’s a factual question. Historians deal, allegedly, with such past-tense factual questions. In makes perfect sense that they weigh in.

On another level. Fish has hugely exaggerated the force of the argument from expert opinion (of which this is an example). Experts, which historians surely are at some level, are called upon (by reasonable people) to help with questions that fall within their expertise. For this reason, we call upon doctors to comment on political matters when those have bearing. We can call upon historians to answer questions about history. It does not mean, nor would anyone anywhere suggest, that such opinions are the same thing as truth itself than cannot be objected to.

Naturally, all of this is just my opinion.

Disagreement is personal

Disagreement is difficult and costly. When you disagree with someone on some matter of fact or policy, you’re alleging by implication that they’re mistaken. Whatever the source, the accusation of being mistaken stings–it suggests you have failed at a cognitive task and, importantly, that you are unaware of that. So you’ve failed at two cognitive tasks. There are polite ways to communicate this, but in the end they amount to the same thing: you’re right, they’re wrong. You’re passing judgment on them, as people. It’s personal.

Too often, sadly, people do not appreciate this. An example from the Chronicle of Higher Education. Historian Jonathan Zimmerman writes:

I yield to nobody in my disdain for Donald J. Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee for president. In a half-dozen essays, I’ve decried his bigotry and demagoguery. I’m especially concerned about his corrosive effect upon our civic discourse, which has sunk to almost unimaginable depths over the past year.

This disagreement with Trump, obviously directed at Trump supporters, is more than a matter of what kind of pizza is best. This disagreement concerns matters of fact and policy. Zimmerman thinks p, the Trump supporters think not-p or q. More than that, Zimmerman implies that supporters of Trump are susceptible to demagoguery and excuse, justify, or embrace bigotry. They’re mistaken in horrible and dangerous ways. That’s a pretty harsh judgment on them.

Despite such judgments, Zimmerman continues:

But I won’t join Historians Against Trump, which indulges in some of the same polarized, overheated rhetoric used by Trump himself. In a statement released on July 11, the new group warned that Trump’s candidacy represents “an attack on our profession, our values, and the communities we serve.” But that claim is itself a repudiation of our professional values, which enjoin us to understand diverse communities instead of dismissing them as warped or deluded.

Aren’t bigotry, demagoguery, and the corroding of public discourse an attack on the values presumably shared by academic historians? Let’s say they are. More importantly, Zimmerman shares HAT’s harsh judgment of Trump (and by implication his many supporters). In fact, let’s rephrase the last clause in light of this:

. . . which enjoin us to understand diverse communities [which are] warped or deluded.

Now he basically agrees with them. They even say as much:

As historians, we consider diverse viewpoints while acknowledging our own limitations and subjectivity. Our profession reminds us to look for the humanity in everyone as we examine the ideas, interests and movements that shape world events. We interrogate and take responsibility for our sources and ground our arguments in context and evidence.

To me it seems obvious that the historians are concerned, at this stage, to convince the Trump supporters that they’re mistaken and that their (and his) ideas are antithetical to a truth-based civil society. Figuring out just why these ideas have traction, understanding their appeal in other words, is secondary question. You can’t figure out why someone is a bigot without first concluding that they’re a bigot.