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.

4 thoughts on “The argumentative theory”

  1. Reasoning was designed by evolution

    All right, what’s the evidence for this claim? I’m particularly interested in evidence which demonstrates that reasoning is not, as it appears, a learned behavior taught and strengthened by education (debate clubs, university logic classes, et cetera).

    If reasoning is an evolutionary trait, then it has, of necessity, a genetic basis. Which chromosome or chromosomes contain the genes which control “reasoning”? What function, if any, did those genes have in our pre-linguistic ancestors?

    Or is this (like most evolutionary psychology appears to be) merely an appeal to the authority of SCIENCE! which promotes an untestable and unfalsifiable hypothesis, unencumbered by anything so mundane as evidence, to the lofty rank of a scientific theory?

  2. I guess the idea is that this way of understanding argument explains the imbalance between making arguments and critiquing them. It also predicts, better than other theories, how people will behave.

    My issue–as I thought about it this morning was this: it doesn’t appear to me that people are particularly good at critiquing arguments either. So I don’t see an initial imbalance. If anything, my guess is that people are just terrible at arguments, but good at coming up with pseudo-reasons for saving themselves time and trouble. This tendency, sadly, backfires very often.

    I will qualify that by saying I don’t have much by way of empirical evidence.

  3. If you have raised children, you know that the reasoning skills with which we are born are rather poor, even for simple cause and effect.

    Perhaps the issue is not that our ability to reason evolved to help us win arguments, so much as it is that our ability to reason arrived late in the game — after we evolved a set of fears that are programmed at a very deep level, developed the ability to stereotype, developed our predisposition toward faith, and the like.

    I can’t point to the genes that are responsible, but I nonetheless find compelling the argument that certain fears and phobias have an evolutionary basis, and that we are biologically programmed toward a predictable set of weaknesses in both perception and reason.

    I agree with Mr. Berries that the ability to reason is largely learned, but perhaps the reason that it requires effort and discipline to learn to reason well and to apply those skills in a balanced manner, and how easy it is to fail, comes from the shaky evolutionary foundation that underlies our reasoning skills — or from the comparative strength of the cognitive shortcuts that evolved to keep us safe before we developed the ability to reason.

    In any case, that’s what I think and nothing you say is going to change my mind. 😉

  4. Just speculating here, but could it be that reasoning, as they describe it, is like our evolutionary adaptation to certain foods? We have a tendency to crave and gorge on certain foods (carbs, fat, etc..). Nowadays, we don’t really need to do this, because we live among abundance, so we have as a result diabetes, heart disease, etc. We weren’t really meant, in other words, to have this much. We’re poorly adapted to it. We weren’t really meant, by analogy (speculating again!), to get this far with our reasons. We did, and now we have to contend with abundance.

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