June 14, 2011
Reason Seen More as Weapon Than Path to Truth
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.
The idea, labeled the argumentative theory of reasoning, is the brainchild
of French cognitive social scientists, and it has stirred excited discussion
(and appalled dissent) among philosophers, political scientists, educators
and psychologists, some of whom say it offers profound insight into the way
people think and behave. The Journal of Behavioral and Brain Sciences
devoted its April issue to debates over the theory, with participants
challenging everything from the definition of reason to the origins of
�Reasoning doesn�t have this function of helping us to get better beliefs
and make better decisions,� said Hugo Mercier, who is a co-author of the
journal article, with Dan Sperber. �It was a purely social phenomenon. It
evolved to help us convince others and to be careful when others try to
convince us.� Truth and accuracy were beside the point.
Indeed, Mr. Sperber, a member of the Jean-Nicod research institute in Paris,
first developed a version of the theory in 2000 to explain why evolution did
not make the manifold flaws in reasoning go the way of the prehensile tail
and the four-legged stride. Looking at a large body of psychological
research, Mr. Sperber wanted to figure out why people persisted in picking
out evidence that supported their views and ignored the rest � what is known
as confirmation bias � leading them to hold on to a belief doggedly in the
face of overwhelming contrary evidence.
Other scholars have previously argued that reasoning and irrationality are
both products of evolution. But they usually assume that the purpose of
reasoning is to help an individual arrive at the truth, and that
irrationality is a kink in that process, a sort of mental myopia. Gary F.
Marcus, for example, a psychology professor at New York University and the
author of �Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind,� says
distortions in reasoning are unintended side effects of blind evolution.
They are a result of the way that the brain, a Rube Goldberg mental
contraption, processes memory. People are more likely to remember items they
are familiar with, like their own beliefs, rather than those of others.
What is revolutionary about argumentative theory is that it presumes that
since reason has a different purpose � to win over an opposing group �
flawed reasoning is an adaptation in itself, useful for bolstering debating
Mr. Mercier, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania,
contends that attempts to rid people of biases have failed because reasoning
does exactly what it is supposed to do: help win an argument.
�People have been trying to reform something that works perfectly well,� he
said, �as if they had decided that hands were made for walking and that
everybody should be taught that.�
Think of the American judicial system, in which the prosecutors and defense
lawyers each have a mission to construct the strongest possible argument.
The belief is that this process will reveal the truth, just as the best idea
will triumph in what John Stuart Mill called the �marketplace of ideas.�
Mr. Mercier and Mr. Sperber have skeptics as well as fans. Darcia Narvaez,
an associate professor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame and a
contributor to the journal debate, said this theory �fits into evolutionary
psychology mainstream thinking at the moment, that everything we do is
motivated by selfishness and manipulating others, which is, in my view,
To Ms. Narvaez, �reasoning is something that develops from experience; it�s
a subset of what we really know.� And much of what we know cannot be put
into words, she explained, pointing out that language evolved relatively
late in human development.
�The way we use our minds to navigate the social and general worlds involves
a lot of things that are implicit, not explainable,� she said.
On the other side of the divide, Jonathan Haidt, a psychology professor at
the University of Virginia, said of Mr. Sperber and Mr. Mercier, �Their work
is important and points to some ways that the limits of reason can be
overcome by putting people together in the right way, in particular to
challenge people�s confirmation biases.�
This �powerful idea,� he added, could have important real-world
As some journal contributors noted, the theory would seem to predict
constant deadlock. But Mr. Sperber and Mr. Mercier contend that as people
became better at producing and picking apart arguments, their assessment
skills evolved as well.
�At least in some cultural contexts, this results in a kind of arms race
towards greater sophistication in the production and evaluation of
arguments,� they write. �When people are motivated to reason, they do a
better job at accepting only sound arguments, which is quite generally to
their advantage.� Groups are more likely than individuals to come up with
better results, they say, because they will be exposed to the best
Mr. Mercier is enthusiastic about the theory�s potential applications. He
suggests, for example, that children may have an easier time learning
abstract topics in mathematics or physics if they are put into a group and
allowed to reason through a problem together.
He has also recently been at work applying the theory to politics. In a new
paper, he and H�l�ne Landemore, an assistant professor of political science
at Yale, propose that the arguing and assessment skills employed by groups
make democratic debate the best form of government for evolutionary reasons,
regardless of philosophical or moral rationales.
How, then, do the academics explain the endless stalemates in Congress? �It
doesn�t seem to work in the U.S.,� Mr. Mercier conceded.
He and Ms. Landemore suggest that reasoned discussion works best in smaller,
cooperative environments rather than in America�s high-decibel adversarial
system, in which partisans seek to score political advantage rather than
arrive at consensus.
Because �individual reasoning mechanisms work best when used to produce and
evaluate arguments during a public deliberation,� Mr. Mercier and Ms.
Landemore, as a practical matter, endorse the theory of deliberative
democracy, an approach that arose in the 1980s, which envisions cooperative
town-hall-style deliberations. Championed by the philosophers John Rawls and
J�rgen Habermas, this sort of collaborative forum can overcome the tendency
of groups to polarize at the extremes and deadlock, Ms. Landemore and Mr.
Anyone who enjoys �spending endless hours debating ideas� should appreciate
their views, Mr. Mercier and Mr. Sperber write, though, as even they note,
�This, of course, is not an argument for (or against) the theory.�