The function of reason

August 15, 2011 | By | 7 Replies More

Chris Mooney reports on the work of Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, who have argued that (in Mooney’s words): “the human capacity for reasoning evolved not so much to get at truth, as to facilitate argumentation.”

I haven’t yet heard Mooney’s interview of Mercier, which will soon be posted at Point of Inquiry. I do look forward to this interview, because the conclusions of Mercier and Sperber (which I scanned in their recent journal article, “Why do Humans Reason?  Arguments for an Argumentative Theory”) make much sense in light of the ubiquitous failings of human reason-in-action.  Here is an excerpt from the abstract from their article:

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

Image by vargophoto at (with permission)

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. 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.

These ideas resonate strongly with me.   When we argue, especially where resources are at stake, instead of functioning as truth-seeking beings, we more often argue like lawyers, employing many techniques to deflect, distort, distract and destroy, rather than seeking to recognize the substantial common ground that often exists between two arguing parties. Unfortunately, this approach to discussion, no-holds-barred advocacy, is a legacy of my own profession, the legal profession, that has now spilled out into many other instances of public discourse.

The image I have long had is of disputing parties clashing as two antlered stags, working hardest at displaying (in the way described by Zahavi) and disparaging (I know, lots of “d” words here) rather than truth-seeking. My gut sense is that Mercier and Sperber are on the right track. What I understand of their work so far also seems to coincide with Jonathan Haidt’s concept of reasoning as a lawyer striving to control an elephant.


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Category: cognitive biases, Human animals, Psychology Cognition, scientific method

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (7)

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  1. Mike M. says:

    Yes, “reasoning” appears to have devolved into a competitive sport, especially in the arenas of politics and media. The goal seems to be to come out on top as the winner. Who can argue the most effectively or bury the opponent with sheer volume –not much listening going on and a lot of defensive over-talk.
    It turns into a macho game of posturing and bullying, more a thrust of ego than a desire for true communication. The problem with this style of competitive reasoning is that it bypasses the best functions of our brains – which is to accurately receive incoming signals (information) and to re-evaluate our position or beliefs in the face of new data when appropriate. One of the highest functions of the human being is to change, evolve and expand in beneficial new ways with cognitive flexibility. I’m not seeing much of this in Washington D.C. or on CNN, but instead primitive displays of hierarchy, tribal dominance and ego defense tactics. Territorial squabbling and dung slinging just like at the zoo.

  2. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Maybe it’s the way my brain is wired, but I’ve never thought of reasoning as a way to uncover the truth. I’ve always seen it as a method of communicating to others modes of thought that predispose them to conclusions. It is like teaching them to think like you , or at least to demonstrate you point of view.

    The problem is that today, much of what passes ar reasoning is not appealing to ones intelligence, but to the most basic instinctive emotions: Fear, hate and anger.

  3. Tim Hogan says:

    I think the authors mistake “argumentation” as the basis for reasoning for what more properly may be described as the search for errors in decision making.

    If one fails to determine significant variables, one can die from lack of oxygen and drown. If one fails to discern significant variable ranges, one can die from lack of oxygen in an enclosed space. If one fails to discern the proper inter-relationship of variables, one can die from an explosion in a super-oxygenated atmosphere while lighting a fire for protection, cooking, etc.

    Reason allows for the determination of significant variables, variable ranges and inter-relationships of variables in order to avoid or evade death or other serious consequences in decision making.

    In an effort to make such a system of reasoning truly “rational” it may be necessary to make interpersonal comparisons of utilities. If a system generates a means by which interpersonal comparisons of utilities is possible, then a truly “rational” system may be discerned.

    Some posit money or an exchange of value as a means for making inter–personal comparisons of utilities. At best, a system of inter-personal comparisaons of utilities through the use of money or some other exchange is flawed; at its worst such as system devolves into fascist corporatism such as we have in America today.

    Until we can truly quantify and relate all significant variables, variable ranges and inter-relationships among variables in decision making by truly accurate inter-personal comparisons of untilities, our decisions will be inaccurate and flawed but, truly human.

  4. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    I don’t know about y’all, but it seems to me that the people who buy into the tea party rhetoric make the assumption that groups behave exactly like individuals.

    Back in college, I studied psychology as an elective and considered minoring in the subject. Developmental psychology made sense, behavioral psychology made sense, basically any study of individual psychology made sense (except Freud, and he was one sick puppy), but social pyschology was totally different. Individuals behave quite differently when part of a group as opposed to when they are alone.

    Generally, groups reflect the behavior of the individual members of the group, but individual behaviors can change drastically in the context of the group dynamics. For example, if you are driving through the countryside and are the only witness to a car accident, you probabliy as most people would whip out your cell and call emergency services. If you are one of many witnesses to an accident, you are much more likely to assume someone else has called 911 and less likely to call or even to ask if anyone has called. The problem is that, in the second case, it is very likely that all the other witnesses are also assuming some has call for help and because of that, no one has actually called.

    Years ago, before living in Nashville, assisted my local volunteer fire department. I dod not fight fire ,but would wrangle the hoses, and also ascted as a smoke spotter. I did receive some training.

    Over the years, I’ve come upon some serious car accidents, where several onlooker were already on the scene, but had no idea what to do. The first thing I would do was to ask if anyone had called 911. Most of the time, no one had called.

    • Dan Klarmann says:

      I have a degree in psychology, but I can’t think of any way to get Tea Party-ites to believe in emergent characteristics.
      Group behavior is emergent from individual behavior, but otherwise completely different. Much like any philosophy is emergent from thinking and memory that are emergent from neural cell collections, cells which are lifeforms emergent from chemistry which is emergent from quantum physics.

      So to believe that groups might behave differently than individuals, one would have to believe that people act differently than quarks.

  5. Erich Vieth says:

    The podcast regarding this topic of the function of reasoning is here:

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