Controversial Theory Sparks Argument About Why Humans Reason
CAMBRIDGE, England and NEW YORK, July 25, 2011 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ — A revolutionary theory about reasoning and argumentation is itself leading to argument and debate around the world.
The theory, that the main function of human reasoning is not to help with the individual pursuit of the truth but with the production of arguments to convince others, has been promoted by academics, Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences, published by Cambridge University Press.
In ‘Why do humans reason? Arguments for an argumentative theory’, Mercier and Sperber claim that the much-vaunted position of reason in human society has been misunderstood and, far from being a way to help the lone thinker work her way towards the truth, is actually used by humans to score points in discussion as well as make sure they are not tricked by poor arguments.
Suggesting that the function of reasoning should be rethought, Mercier and Sperber write: “Our hypothesis is that the function of reasoning is argumentative. It is to devise and evaluate arguments intended to persuade…When problems are placed in a proper argumentative setting, people turn out to be skilled arguers.”
They argue that reasoning works best in the production and evaluation of arguments intended to convince. Producers of arguments, seeking to convince their audience, exhibit a typical ‘confirmation bias‘. Evaluators on the other hand, wanting to be informed but not misinformed, are more objective. As a result, when people debate with one another a balance can be achieved and reasoning can work well. When used outside of an argumentative context, however, the confirmation bias can distort evaluations and attitudes, bolster wrong beliefs and lead to decisions that are easy to justify but not necessarily better.
The article has, perhaps ironically, led to much argument and attempts among philosophers, political scientists, educators and psychologists, to reason both for and against Mercier and Sperber. One academic who has come out in favor of their thesis is Jonathan Haidt, Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia, who said the theory was a “powerful idea” that could have valuable practical applications in the real world. Some of the practical uses to which Mercier and Sperber hope their theory may be put include applications in education and in politics. In schools, they feel their theory can explain why children tackle problems–from mathematics to English–more easily when they work in groups, arguing their way to a solution.
Similarly, in politics, the argumentative theory of reasoning can be used in defense of deliberative democracy, the view that discussions and debates, as opposed to solitary reasoning or voting, are the best way to make political decisions. After the bombshell on reasoning, Mercier now has other human behaviors and their uses in his sights. He is working on research that, he says, will show that “cognitive mechanisms that are typically thought of as being part of individual cognition have, in fact, a mainly social function.”
Dan Sperber has co-authored a book with Deirdre Wilson called Meaning and Relevance, which will be published soon by Cambridge University Press. With Hugo Mercier, they are now working on a book that will cover and expand on the issues raised in this study.
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About the authors of ‘Why do humans reason’?
Hugo Mercier is a Post-Doctoral Fellow on the Philosophy, Politics and Economics Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. Dan Sperber is a Researcher at the Jean Nicod Institute (Paris) and Professor in Philosophy and Cognitive Science at the Central European University (Budapest).
SOURCE Cambridge University Press