Human evolution

Evolution of human reason: Could we try getting the horse to pull the cart instead?

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In “Why do humans reason? Arguments for an argumentative theory,” Hugo Merciera and Dan Sperbera argue (loaded word, that!) for a theory about how argument evolved:

Reasoning is generally seen as a means to improve knowledge and make better decisions. However, much evidence shows that reasoning often leads to epistemic distortions and poor decisions. This suggests that the function of reasoning should be rethought.

Our hypothesis is that the function of reasoning is argumentative. It is to devise and evaluate arguments intended to persuade. Reasoning so conceived is adaptive given the exceptional dependence of humans on communication and their vulnerability to misinformation. A wide range of evidence in the psychology of reasoning and decision making can be reinterpreted and better explained in the light of this hypothesis. Poor performance in standard reasoning tasks is explained by the lack of argumentative context.

When the same problems are placed in a proper argumentative setting, people turn out to be skilled arguers. Skilled arguers, however, are not after the truth but after arguments supporting their views. This explains the notorious confirmation bias.

This bias is apparent not only when people are actually arguing, but also when they are reasoning proactively from the perspective of having to defend their opinions. Reasoning so motivated can distort evaluations and attitudes and allow erroneous beliefs to persist. Proactively used reasoning also favors decisions that are easy to justify but not necessarily better.

In all these instances traditionally described as failures or flaws, reasoning does exactly what can be expected of an argumentative device: Look for arguments that support a given conclusion, and, ceteris paribus, favor conclusions for which arguments can be found.

– Behavioral and Brain Sciences (2011) 34, 57 –111

Interesting approach. The problem with this approach is that one must already be a reasoning being to see any value in accessing such strategies. Animals don’t pay much attention to arguments from reason, nor do small children. Of course, the children hopefully grow up to be people who can see the value, but that is not evolution in action, rather, the unfolding of an existing architecture.

Hat tip: Pos-Darwinista

2 Replies to “Evolution of human reason: Could we try getting the horse to pull the cart instead?

  1. 1
    Ilion says:

    … Hugo Merciera and Dan Sperbera argue (loaded word, that!) for a theory about how argument evolved:

    Loaded word, indeed.

    I’ve seen reference to this elsewhere; my comment is this: this silly persons (*) don’t seem to understand, or simply don’t care (**), that their (ahem!) argument applies just as much to them as to the persons they intend it should be directed at.

    (*) silly or foolish, take your pick; one or the other applies.

    (**) and perhaps imagine that their “scientific authority” will shield them from anyone else pointing out the anti-rationality of, and self-defeating nature of, their strange assertions.

  2. 2
    Neil Rickert says:

    I’ll give my opinion.

    Reasoning evolved (and we are talking social/cultural evolution here, not biological evolution), because it promotes social cohesion.

    That might seem strange, given that reasoning often leads to bitter disagreements. But at least the people involved in the argument are more-or-less talking to one another about it. Without reasoning, we would all be talking past one another most of the time.

    I see reasoning as where our disagreements about concepts and meanings come out, and where there is always some give and take which helps reduce the disagreements over concepts and meanings. And without that process of reducing disagreements, natural language could not work.

    I should add that my own views about language, and how it works, are probably very different from those of most people.

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