Tuesday, June 14, 2011

I Think, Therefore I Win

Cogito Ergo Lucror:

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.
Perhaps the onslaught of summer heat is already making me brain dead, but why is this news? Reason and argument evolving as "weapons" by which to gain victory?
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.

“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.

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.

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 skills.
Maybe I've read of this theory already because none of it sounds "revolutionary" to me. It sounds perfectly evolutionary (as in "evolutionary history"), which seems to be a source of criticism.
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, crazy.”
Perhaps, but the idea that everything we do in the name of reason is designed to bring us "philosophical truth and enlightenment" is also nuts. Reason can be manipulated (depending, of course, on what the definition of reason is) to serve all kinds of purposes. Propaganda could be dubbed reason, as could ideology. And neither is going to lead to "truth", imo.

But I love the coda of the article:
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.”
LOL. Hegel, Foucault, and others would probably argue (debate, reason) with that.

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