A (D)evolutionary Theory of Argument

An evolutionary theory of argument from Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, “Why Do Humans Reason? Arguments for an Argumentative Theory” (Behavioral and Brain Sciences 34. 2 [2011]: 57-74), is noising about at the moment:

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.

So, competition in argumentation supposedly gets at the truth — eliminates “misinformation” — better than cooperation? Reasoning = argument = competition (for truth) = survival of the fittest (idea) = evolution.

Nay, methinks.

(And what about those other evolutionary fetishes:

  1. argument as display (a.k.a. epideictic argument) — as peacock feather; or
  2. argument as mimicry (a.k.a. participatory argument) — as camouflage; or
  3. argument as interaction (a.k.a. dialogic argument) — as language;
  4. argument as reciprocal altruism (a.k.a. Rogerian argument) — as bee-dance?

They seem equally persuasive. I’d probably favour argument as world-disclosing, which I’d consider post-evolutionary.)

Pierre-Yves Trémois

The bright spot in the article is the idea of epistemic vigilance — critique by another name (which Sperber develops at greater length here):

To avoid being victims of misinformation, receivers must therefore exercise some degree of what may be called epistemic vigilance. The task of epistemic vigilance is to evaluate communicator and the content of their messages in order to filter communicated information. / Several psychological mechanisms may contribute to epistemic vigilance. The two most important of these mechanisms are trust calibration and coherence checking.

  1. Trust calibration: “People routinely calibrate the trust they grant different speakers on the basis of their competence and benevolence.”
  2. Coherence checking: “The interpretation of communicated information involves activating a context of previously held beliefs and trying to integrate the new with old information. This process may bring to the fore incoherencies [sic] between old and newly communicated information” (60).

As described, this seems entirely self-evident, as does the outcome:

Reasoning contributes to the effectiveness and reliability of communication by allowing communicators to argue for their claim and by allowing addressees to assess these arguments. It thus increases both in quantity and in epistemic quality the information humans are able to share.

Profound (or not).

And dodgy, in that it serves the capitalist model of competitive (rather than cooperative) behaviour as ubiquitous (an old critique, I know, but still valid, one that goes back at least to Marshall Sahlins on sociobiology).

———

Mercier talks at Edge. The paper can be downloaded at SSRN. Here’s the full abstract:

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.

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