Independent in All Things, Neutral in Nothing

On Human Reason and its Evolution

with 2 comments

A new theory of cognitive and behavioral science, called the argumentative theory of reasoning, asserts that discourse and discursive reason evolved in human beings for no other purpose than to win debates.  “It [reason] was a purely social phenomenon.  It evolved to help us convince others and to be careful when others try to convince us.”  The argumentative theory is the brainchild of French cognitive social scientists, stirring intriguing discussion and abhorred dissent among academics of all stripes—philosophers, political scientists, educators, and psychologists alike.

The linchpin of the researcher’s conclusion is the phenomenon of confirmation bias, whereby people persist in picking out evidence that supports their beliefs and filter unpleasant evidence, clinging doggedly to deeply held ideas about the way the world works even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.  Why, these researchers ask, did manifold problems in human reasoning not go the way of other vestigial organs? Repeatedly failed attempts to ride people of their biases led scientists to conclude one thing: paradoxically, it is reason itself that prevents biases from proper correction.  In other words, since reason evolved purely to win arguments, one can see flawed reasoning as a nearly rational evolutionary adaptation, useful for bolstering debate skills.

This study clearly has prodigious implications for our view of human reason.  Gone is the romantic vision of reason, a gift unique to humans for examining the universe and arriving at profound truths.  Gone is the idea that we may know all things, or nearly everything.  Gone is the nexus between reason and freedom or self-determination.  Gone is the development of formal or philosophical logic.  The idea that reason evolved only to win arguments—in other words, to dominate others—is devastating to the idealistic and instrumental view of reason championed by so many philosophers over the ages, beginning with the Greeks.

Since Aristophanes’ play The Clouds, musing about the exercise of reason or questioning the use of reason is nothing new.  In the Platonic (i.e., Gorgias) and Aristotelian (i.e., On Rhetoric) traditions, reason inhabits the highest part of the human soul.  Both philosophers accord to reason the ability to examine all things; in the Aristotelian tradition, the telos of reason is both virtue and wisdom itself.  Indeed, if we declare somebody’s “way of life” to be philosophical, in the way Socrates claimed his life was, he/she clearly revels in the eudemonia that befalls those who engage in pure, abstract, or theoretical thought.  To be sure, the argumentative theory of reasoning does not detract from the happiness incurred by those who engage in purely abstract or theoretical thought; however, it does deny the manifold instrumental value of such thought.  In the Greek tradition, knowledge brings happiness, virtuous behavior, and other instrumental ends—perhaps a social transformation of the world and the instantiation of some good—but most importantly, knowledge acquisition serves as a proper and virtuous end in itself.  This is contrary to the case laid out by the purely evolutionary focus of the French cognitive school.

The researchers do admit that humans can improve reasoning ability, often aided by group settings and deliberative discourse.  (Perhaps we may note here that this demonstrates the importance of an education focused on the development of rigorous analysis, argumentation, and reasoning ability, but this is a separate argument.) Yet, in my opinion, what ultimately detracts from the French school are the myriad anecdotal vignettes that contradict the theory of reason as merely an instrument of argument and domination.  Take Alan Greenspan, for instance.  A devout free-market economist and member of Ayn Rand’s infamous group (humorously titled) “The Collective,” Greenspan spent his life advocating for the social utility of unregulated markets.  Particularly, prior to the financial meltdown, Greenspan went on record stating the he believed the free-market—through the Efficient Markets Hypothesis—was the best regulator of derivatives, excessive bank leveraging, and excessive risk-taking.  After 2008, he famously recanted his view in Congressional testimony based on dramatic new evidence.  Was it not reason that caused him to alter his vision? More cogently, Greenspan’s entire legacy as both an intellectual and public official rode, in large part, on his claims about the social virtues of the free-market.  It is telling for the classical view of reason that Greenspan abjured some of his previously cherished beliefs, knowing well the embarrassment it would cause him and the lashing that would befall him from both the political community and those who respected him.  The role of reason accorded by the French school cannot explain the case of Alan Greenspan, unless we caricature Greenspan as a whimsical figure secretly changing his opinion in pursuit of historical validation.  (This caricature is unlikely—recanting before the US Congress is not a surreptitious move, to say nothing of the reluctance and grief Greenspan evinced in publicly stating the fallacies of his most cherished beliefs.)

Certainly, politicians and intellectuals have deep ideas of how the world works, but many have profound (and public) about-faces on issues of deep importance to them.  In my opinion, a more fruitful approach remains for future research: the focus instead on the role of the subconscious in human reasoning, to say nothing of “the passions”—e.g., Eros, hubris, spiritedness—which clearly affect reasoning and are timely for American political debate.


2 Responses

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  1. LOL if you look at your argument, isn’t that just what it is, an argument to preserve your own cherished beliefs?

    Wayne Ferrier

    August 10, 2011 at 10:42 am

  2. The temptation to retort that my argument is somehow an ironic confirmation of what the French School argues is strong. Indeed, it crossed my mind as I wrote this, but we must see it as just that–a temptation. I’ll be the first one to admit that humans don’t always aim reason at its highest, noblest purposes–my vision isn’t that Romanticized!–but this nitpicking about the argument misses the forest for the trees: to wit, 1) showing the profound consequences on the age-old conception of reason if the French theory is true (e.g., the Greek focus on reason and knowledge acquisition leading to happiness, not to mention being a virtuous end in itself), 2) to offer a poignant (and topical) anecdote which I think pushes back on the theory, 3) to offer what I think are alternatives or “spin-offs” of the French School research that would be more fruitful or pressing to modern debate, and 4) overall, to show that the French School, in many ways, is nothing more than a reductionist evolutionary theory, a la mode in the current Psychology mainstream, that everything humans do is somehow motivated by selfishness, manipulation, and domination, inter alia. The goal is to show that while there may be slivers or truth in this theory, it is, like any other mainstream schema in the sciences and social sciences, a very limiting approach. As I think the Greenspan anecdote illustrates, reasoning, in part, develops from experience and reflecting on those experiences with an open heart and fine-tuned critical conscience. These are the types of things on which I wanted our readers to focus and ruminate after reading the post.


    August 10, 2011 at 4:32 pm

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