Current philosophy and psychology are dominated by what can be called a classical, or ‘Cartesian’ view of reasoning. Even though this view goes back at least to some classical Greek philosophers, its most famous exposition is probably in Descartes. Put plainly, it’s the idea that the role of reasoning is to critically examine our beliefs so as to discard wrong-headed ones and thus create more reliable beliefs—knowledge. This knowledge is in turn supposed to help us make better decisions. This view is—we surmise—hard to reconcile with a wealth of evidence amassed by modern psychology. Tversky and Kahneman (and many others) have shown how fallible reasoning can be. Epstein (again, and many others) has shown that sometimes reasoning is unable to correct even the most blatantly incorrect intuitions. Others have shown that sometimes reasoning too much can make us worse off: it can unduly increase self-confidence, allow us to maintain erroneous beliefs, creates distorted, polarized beliefs and enables us to violate our own moral intuitions by finding excuses for ourselves.
We claim that the full import of these results has not been properly gauged since most people still seem to agree, or at least fail to question, the classical, Cartesian assumptions. Our theory—the argumentative theory of reasoning—suggests that instead of having a purely individual function, reasoning has a social and, more specifically, argumentative function. The function of reasoning would be to find and evaluate reasons in dialogic contexts—more plainly, to argue with others. Here’s a very quick summary of the evolutionary rationale behind this theory.
Communication is hugely important for humans, and there is good reason to believe that this has been the case throughout our evolution, as different types of collaborative—and therefore communicative—activities already played a big role in our ancestors’ lives (hunting, collecting, raising children, etc.). However, for communication to be possible, listeners have to have ways to discriminate reliable, trustworthy information from potentially dangerous information—otherwise speakers would be wont to abuse them through lies and deception. One way listeners and speakers can improve the reliability of communication is through arguments. The speaker gives a reason to accept a given conclusion. The listener can then evaluate this reason to decide whether she should accept the conclusion. In both cases, they will have used reasoning—to find and evaluate a reason respectively. If reasoning does its job properly, communication has been improved: a true conclusion is more likely to be supported by good arguments, and therefore accepted, thereby making both the speaker—who managed to convince the listener—and the listener—who acquired a potentially valuable piece of information—better off.Mercier continues by looking at the negative side of reason being for interpersonal arguing, and particularly at the confirmation bias. Solo reasoning has its problems, and so does social reasoning.
Accounts of this article in the media and blogosphere sex it up in an odd way. For example, the article is discussed in a New York Times article under the headline "Reason Seen More as Weapon Than Path to Truth." The author writes:
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.Echoing the Times headline, Mooney calls his post "Is Reasoning Built for Winning Arguments, Rather than Finding Truth?" And yesterday Massimo Pigluicci wrote a post saying "Mercier and Sperber’s basic argument is that reason did not evolve to allow us to seek truth, but rather to win arguments with our fellow human beings."
Mercier has tried to clear up the misconceptions in a New York Times blog post. "We do not claim that reasoning has nothing to do with the truth," he writes, calling this a common misconception. The crucial contrast in the BBS article is not between truth and winning, it's between solitary reasoning and social reasoning.
This is the kind of article that achieves some measure of success just by putting forward a new and dramatically different possibility, even if it doesn't make an airtight case for it. I'm pretty accustomed to thinking about reason as a solitary, Cartesian business. M&S show there's another strong possibility, at the very least. That changes the way you think about many things--in fact, it changes the way you think about your own cognitive efforts.
Interesting upshot for philosophy instructors: if M&S are right, we need to be asking our students to spend more time engaging in carefully structured debates, and doing well-designed group assignments. In fact, the argumentative theory of reason explains something I've observed many times and found perplexing--the student who seems very capable when sparring in class, but not very capable in solo written work. If M&S are right, this is not anomalous at all. It's no more surprising than people being more agile on land than in water. Well of course--our physiology evolved that way.
The article's complicated and the follow-up commentaries are extensive--so this is a lot to chew on, but worth the effort, I think.
p.s. Aha--a short-cut. Here's a nice site put up by Mercier, with links to online discussion of the argumentative theory of reasoning. And information about more of Mercier's projects.
p.p.s. Another aha. Gary Gutting notes the way Mercier and Sperber have been misrepresented in a column at The Stone. Not truth vs. winning, but solo vs. social!