How Social Is Reason?

In their book The Enigma of Reason, out last April, Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber have written an important book on an important but neglected topic. They argue first that humans, and only humans, have a brain module that handles abstract reasoning:

Reason is indeed [a] specialized [module of inference]; it draws interpretive inferences just about reasons.

Second, they argue for a new theory of reason. Previously, scholars have focused on reason in the context of a sincere attempt to infer truth:

Most of the philosophers and psychologists we talked to endorse some version of the dominant intellectualist view: they see reason as a means to improve individual cognition and arrive one one’s own at better beliefs and decisions. Reason, they take for granted, should be objective and demanding.

In this view, observed defects in human reasoning are to be seen as understandable errors, accommodations to complexity, and minor corrections due to other minor selection pressures. Sincerely inferring truth is the main thing. Mercier and Sperber, however, argue that one social correction isn’t at all minor: reason is better understood in the context of a speaker who is trying to a persuade a listener who sincerely seeks to infer truth. Speaker “biases” are just what one should expect from speakers seeking to persuade:

In our interactionist account, reason’s bias and laziness aren’t flaws; they are features that help reason fulfill its function. People are biased to find reasons that support their point of view because this is how they can justify their action and convince others to share their beliefs.

Mercier and Sperber do successfully show that many “defects” in human reasoning can be understand as arising from insincere speaker motives. However, just as we can question speakers motives, we can also question listener motives. Couldn’t listeners also be also concerned about the social consequences of their inferences? Listeners might want to agree to show submission or favor to a speaker, and ignore or disagree to show disfavor or dominance. And listeners may want to agree with what they expect others to agree with, to sound reasonable and to show loyalty.

Mercier and Sperber seem to be aware of many such listener motives:

Luria used problems that were logically trivial but .. unfamiliar:

In the Far North, where there is snow, all bears are white. Novaya Zemlya is in the Far North. What color are bears there?

When unschooled peasants were interviewed, the vast majority seemed at a loss, providing answers such as “There are many sorts of bears.” .. His experiments were successfully replicated with several unschooled populations. .. In small-scale populations, people are very cautious with their assertions, only stating a position when they have a good reason to. .. Only a fool with dare to make such a statement .. she could not appropriately defend. ..

Because of the intense pressure to maintain social harmony, “the Japanese are not trained to argue and reason.” ..

The overlap between the proper and the actual domain of reasoning remains partial. There are false negatives: people in a dominant position or in the vocal majority might pay little attention to the opinion of subordinates or minorities and fail to detect disagreements. There are also false positives; either clashes of ideas that occur between third parties with whom we are not in a position to interact … or clashes of ideas within oneself. ..

Throughout the centuries, smart physicians felt justified in making decisions that cost patients their lives. .. If they were eager to maintain their reputation, they were better off bleeding their patients. ..

You might be ill-judged by people who are not aware of this argument, and you might not have the opportunity to explain the reason for your choice.

Mercier and Sperber treat these various effects as minor corrections that don’t call into question their basic theory, even as they complain that the traditional view of reason doesn’t attend enough to certain effects that their theory explains. But it seems to me that in addition to explaining some effects as due to insincere speaker motives, a better theory of reason could also explain other effects as due to insincere listener motives.

In the modern world, while we usually give lip service to the idea that we are open to letting anyone persuade us on anything with a good argument, by the time folks get to be my age they know that such openings are in fact highly constrained. For example, early on in my relation with my wife she declared that as I was better at arguing, key decisions were just not going to be made on the basis of better arguments.

Even in academia, little value is placed on simple relevant arguments, compared to demonstrating the mastery of difficult tools. And in our larger world, the right to offer what looks like a critical argument is usually limited to the right sort of people who have the right sort of relation in the right sort of contexts. Even then people know to avoid certain kinds of arguments, even if those arguments would in fact persuade if pushed hard enough. And most speakers know they are better off arguing for what listeners want to believe, rather than for unpleasant conclusions.

Mercier and Sperber suggest that arguing used to be different, and better:

When a collective decision has to be made in a modern democracy, people go to the voting booth. Our ancestors sat down and argued – at least if present-day small-scale societies are any guide to the past. In most such societies across the globe, when a grave problem threatens the group, people gather, debate, and work out a solution that most find satisfying. ..

When the overriding concern of people who disagree is to get things right, argumentation should not only make them change their mind, it should make them change their mind for the best.

I’d like to believe that argumentation was all different and better back then, with careful speakers well disciplined by sincere listeners. But I’m skeptical. I expect that the real selection pressures on our abilities to reason have always reflected these complex social considerations, for both speakers and listeners. And we won’t really understand human reasoning until we think through what reasoning behaviors respond well to these incentives.

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  • How much persuasion is self persuasion and how much testable and tested? How much questioning is self questioning and how much experienced and shared? How much is accepted as consistent with beliefs and experience and confirmation of priors or ignored as unimportant or irrelevant?

  • Brian Slesinsky

    It seems like what we consider good, high-status reasoning is communication in “far” mode. It’s a way of sending a message to an unknown audience in far-off places and times, where we can’t rely so much on local culture and reputation. To cross the gap, there is a greater attempt to find universal arguments. In the limit we find mathematics, which as far as we know is independent even of the peculiarities of human thought, or so we hope.

    The incentives to write in “far mode” are often weak, relative to more immediate, local communication. It might not happen at all unless the local culture encourages it. Survivor bias might cause us to think “far mode” arguments were more common in the past than they are today.

  • In the last quote it looks like Mercier and Sperber are saying, not that arguing used to be different and better, but that it gets used more in the face of big collective decisions in small-scale societies (which more of us belonged to in the past) than in large-scale ones.

  • Interesting. I haven’t read Mercier and Sperber’s book. I suppose it largely overlaps with this long article of theirs though (which I have read). I recommend the comments by other scholars.

    The interactionist account explains why “throughout the ages, smart physicians felt justified in making decisions that cost patients their lives” well, whereas that fact may be a problem for the intellectualist account. However, prima facie, it might seem that the interactionist account would have problem explaining intellectual progress. Why did we gradually arrive at more accurate beliefs, if that is not the goal of abstract reasoning?

    I’d be interested in whether the authors discuss that question, or whether you have thoughts on that.

    The question appears somewhat analogous to creationist vs vs evolutionary accounts of the development of life. Evolutionary theory can explain inefficiencies better than creationist accounts. However, prima facie, it seemed that evolutionary theory could not explain why many features of animals and plants are so highly functional.

    Of course, it turned out that evolutionary theory could explain the latter. So, I’m not saying the interactionist account could not explain intellectual progress. But I’d be interested in a fine-grained explanation of why it is possible on the interactionist account – in line with the fine-grained evolutionary explanations of functional features of animals and plants.

    • Silent Cal

      I suspect the true account is a hybrid account, in which reason serves both a truth-seeking function and more cynical functions, with the former providing cover for the latter. If reason has zero truth-seeking function, it seems like doing an impressive dance or something could serve the same role as an impressive argument.

    • Why did we gradually arrive at more accurate beliefs, if that is not the goal of abstract reasoning?

      This is actually quite clear in the book. Arguments for our positions aren’t geared to truth, but the counter-argumenters of listeners are. And good counter-argumenters improve the quality of subsequent arguments. Listeners being better than talkers, the asymmetry that Robin contests, isn’t really the product of overlooking anything; it is at the center of their argument.

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  • free_agent

    It seems to me that some of this could be clarified by using the framework of Trivers’ theory of the subconscious (as published in the forward to The Selfish Gene, 1976): There is a reasoning capability whose purpose is to assess the correct actions to take. This capability is not permitted to speak, and so we call it “subconscious”. There is another reasoning capability whose purpose is to speak, and thus engage in all of the social acts involving speaking. We call it “conscious”. For optimal performance, the conscious capability is not always granted access to the complete information that the subconscious capability possesses.

    In the narrower sense of delivering abstract argumentation, it seems like we are dealing with the conscious capability, and then in a fairly narrow part of its activity in most humans (other than professors, op-ed writers, and other members of the chattering class). Indeed, in many humans, that behavior pattern is probably used very little. There’s no reason to expect the typical peasant to be well-practiced at it or to be motivated to do it. A real test would be to put the peasant in a situation where getting the right answer will ensure their survival. I’ll bet they suddenly become far more definitive in their analysis!

    There is also the complication that carefully assessing an argument is a time-consuming activity, and time is scarce. So people often use much cruder filters for first deciding whether to pay attention to an argument at all.

    You write, “Mercier and Sperber suggest that arguing used to be different, and better: […] ‘When the overriding concern of people who disagree is to get things right, argumentation should not only make them change their mind, it should make them change their mind for the best.'”

    I don’t exactly follow this thread. It’s true that when the overriding concern is to discern the facts of a situation, people will be receptive to argumentation. And that seems to be the case in practice. But in the majority of situations, the central question is not what the facts are but how to divide resources between different claimants. E.g., the placing of the border between the United States and the Iroquois was never one of objective facts but rather one of relative power. You can see this distinction in current politics; in the few situations where there is broad agreement on what the goals are (because everybody thinks their interests are closely aligned), the matter is handed over to “technocrats”. E.g., manipulating the US dollar money supply. In matters where people seem to hold dearly to false information, invariably it is a situation where that “information” justifies a decision which favors the its believers over some other faction.

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