Why we argue

Edge has a conversation with cognitive scientist Hugo Mercier on a paper he co-wrote on “the argumentative theory” of human reasoning. Here’s the gist:

In Western thought, for at least the last couple hundred years, people have thought that reasoning was purely for individual reasons. But Dan challenged this idea and said that it was a purely social phenomenon and that the goal was argumentative, the goal was to convince others and to be careful when others try to convince us.

And the beauty of this theory is that not only is it more evolutionarily plausible, but it also accounts for a wide range of data in psychology. Maybe the most salient of phenomena that the argumentative theory explains is the confirmation bias.

This is a neat idea. The first question that comes to mind for me is this: Why, if reasoning isn’t based at least in part on developing correct beliefs, would reasons be useful for convincing others? In other words, if I’m not using reasoning in the traditional enlightenment sense then why would I treat reasons as useful input when someone else tries to convince me? Reasons would seem to be more useful tools for convincing in a world where individuals were also using them as tools for obtaining correct beliefs.

It seems plausible that the argumentative aspect of reasoning is a crucial component evolutionarily, but off the top of my head it seems like a stretch to say it’s the the whole enchilada. Of course I know very little about this area so that’s nothing more than a thought. Edge notes that this theory has been met with some controversy, although it also seems to be viewed as a credible contribution.

Interesting stuff.