Is This the Right Room for an Argumentative Theory of Reason?

By Chris Mooney | April 26, 2011 11:02 am

There is a good discussion going at my original post on Mercier & Sperber’s new paper on why reasoning may have evolved to support argument. Mercier himself is responding in the comments.

I want to raise one additional point. I’m no evolutionary biologist or evolutionary psychologist–but I know something about basic issues in the field. And my problem is, I just don’t know how this “argumentative theory of reasoning” fits into the whole debate over group vs. individual (or gene) selection.

My piece on “motivated reasoning” assumed that our biases are ego protective, and a kind of self-defense mechanism. I even likened them to fight-or-flight at one point. The idea is that you rapidly apply what you think you know about the world to new situations, before even thinking consciously about it, because what you think you know is reliable and can protect you. This would presumably have once favored the fitness/survival of the individual. (Whether it does any more is an open question.)

But Mercier & Sperber are saying that reasoning leads the individual into problems (no doubt about that) but can serve groups nicely. Are they thus proposing a group selection theory?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Motivated Reasoning

Comments (8)

  1. Don

    Group v. individual selection is the most rancorous area in evolutionary science. You will find huge amounts of “argumentative reasoning” in Gro v. Ind evolution.

  2. kirk

    5 minutes or the full half hour? IMHO the anxiety from cognitive resonance with ‘this is a scary idea that I cannot bear considering’ machinery. Then conditioned response – an argument clinic – then the self awakens to generate a response that matches our inner autobiography of well loved truthiness. The response is simply a mouth function driven by operant conditioning that has predetermined our behavior to fight back with motivated reasoning.

  3. Thanks for this opportunity to clarify our position. We’re actually not defending any kind of group selectionist theory. We’re saying that reasoning works better in groups (with disagreement), not that it evolved for the group. When you argue with someone, you benefit individually: either you manage to persuade your interlocutor (to collaborate with you, that you’re a good guy, that he should do the dishes, etc.), or you’re persuaded to adopt some better beliefs or better plans. When reasoning works well, it benefits all the individuals taking part in the discussion, as individuals, not as a group (obviously, this also benefits ‘the group’, as a statistical average of the individuals, but we don’t think that matters). In a way, you can say the same thing about communication in general. Communication only makes sense if you have two or more people. Yet it’s very plausible that it evolved not for the good of the group, but for that of each individual.

    We would also argue that the fact that (some) of our biases are ego-protective is only a proximal explanation. At the evolutionary level, what matters is not to sustain a positive self-view, but to make good decisions, even if that entails changing our mind, forfeiting cherished beliefs, etc. Think of a mouse who has a belief that there is no cat around. If it has a confirmation bias, its ego may be protected, but she’ll soon be dead. The same apply to humans (although it’s obviously a bit more complicated, as we have other reasons to hold on to poor beliefs — for instance because they are used a ‘coalition tags’, as ways to say that you belong to a group).

  4. Gaythia

    I think that it is important to point out here that there is obviously something (presumably training as a science journalist) that causes Chris Mooney to think that the appropriate authorities to consult to help him make good decisions here are evolutionary biologists or evolutionary psychologists and not priests. This is obviously going to affect the decision outcomes of any reasoning process or debate.

  5. Nullius in Verba

    “Yet it’s very plausible that it evolved not for the good of the group, but for that of each individual.”

    Communication evolved for the good of the gene that enables communication. If everyone in the communicating group has the gene, and it does the group good, that does the gene good, irrespective of the individual. It’s just the standard Dawkins altruism argument.

    Of course, once communication is invented for one reason, there’s nothing to stop others hijacking the machinery for their own purposes – as parasites and symbiotes. Argument may exist for the benefit of the arguments.

  6. Well, communication may have involved in part for the gene. At times, I think Dawkins practices the same greedy reductionism Dennett does (and accuses others of doing).

    A particular evolutionary trait may have pressures for its selection from more than one level … gene, shared epigenetic conditions, more.

  7. Great entry cheers, please consider a follow up post.


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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