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group think revisited, or how to improve your mind

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Confirmation bias (and the benefits of social reasoning) in a nutshell:

How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when you yourself fail to see the plank in your own eye? Luke 6: 42 New International Version

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The argumentative theory of reason

The recent New Scientist collection, Being Human, includes an essay, ‘The argumentative ape’, by Dan Jones, which is worth reading and contemplating for any teacher involved in encouraging her students to think richly about current ethical or political issues. In my college, NESB students study ‘English for academic purposes’, which involves a lot of basic grammar and vocabulary at the lower levels, and academic presentations and essays at the higher levels. In these ‘discussion’ or ‘argument’ essays and presentations, students are required to examine the pros and cons of some chosen activity or decision, such as the proper driving age, the consumption of GM food, or even whether humanity has benefitted or blighted our planet.

However, there seems to be a contradiction in asking students to write, and be examined on, individually written ‘discussion essays’, when discussions and arguments are group rather than individual activities. More importantly, if we want to improve our students’ understanding of current issues, perhaps we should be placing more emphasis on group discussion than on individual analysis.

This is hardly a new idea. The ancient Athenians, founders of democracy – decision-making by the people – built their city around the agora, a gathering place for public talk and argument. This design was quite deliberate, as all Athenian citizens were required to contribute to discussions from which civic decisions were made.

‘The argumentative ape’, however, provides contemporary evidence about the evolutionary importance of argument in human society. It describes a thesis put forward by European researchers Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, that human reason evolved not so much to assist us in more clearly understanding our world, but to argue, to persuade, to convince others of our position, our right-ness. So, it evolved socially. And there appears to be some evidence for the more general ‘social brain’ hypothesis, in that a clear correlation has been found between the number of individuals in a primate group and the average brain size of that particular species.

Now one essential problem here should be obvious, as it was to Socrates in his battle with the sophists. The most persuasive arguments aren’t necessarily the best. So it’s natural that along with persuasiveness, skepticism would have developed, as humans sought to evaluate competing arguments.

Through scepticism we’ve identified many types of fallacious reasoning, and ways we have of convincing ourselves in the process of trying to convince others. Confirmation bias, or motivated reasoning, probably tops this list, as it is extremely pervasive if not universal. As Mercier points out, using confirmation bias seems counter-productive if you wish to arrive at correct results, for example in scientific research, but it can be highly effective in argument, as your bias commits you to garnering a multitude of arguments for your position while ignoring, and thus rendering insignificant, all arguments against. If we accept an argumentative theory of the evolution of reason, then, we will see confirmation bias not as a flaw, but as a device to strengthen our own arguments, and the ability to detect such biases would in turn be a device to undo or diminish the arguments of others.

how individual reasoning is affected by the larger group

Experimental psychologists have found many ways in which our reasoning can be affected or manipulated. Take, for example, the framing effect. It has been found, and regularly confirmed, that how the same problem is worded will affect our decision. Jones presents the scenario, used by psychologists, of a small village of 600 people threatened by a deadly disease. In scenario one, if Plan A is adopted, exactly 200 people will survive. If plan B is adopted, there will be a 1 in 3 chance that all will survive, and a 2 in 3 chance that none will survive. When this scenario is presented to subjects, the majority invariably choose Plan A. However when, in scenario two, Plan A is framed with the slight difference that exactly 400 people will die (with no change to Plan B), this is enough for the majority to flip over to Plan B. This consistent result has been explained in terms of ‘loss aversion’ – we prefer to avoid the explicit loss of life as expressed in the change to Plan A in scenario two. Significantly though for the argumentative ape hypothesis, this loss aversion bias is strengthened when we have to justify our decision to a larger group. We have a ready-made justification as expressed in the framing. It’s probable that we always have in mind what the larger group, or ‘society’ will think of our decision, but when this need to justify ourselves is made explicit, the ready rationalisation is more likely to be adopted.

Other effects of apparently faulty reasoning, such as the attraction effect and the sunk-cost fallacy, have been detected in psychological studies, and all have been shown to be enhanced when there is an explicit need for justification. The ‘argumentative’ thesis claims that we tend to choose the most easily justified option rather than what might be best.

Confirmation bias for me, scepticism towards you, and how it pans out

While this may seem a pessimistic outlook on our use of reason, the counterbalance lies in our ability, from clear evolutionary need, to identify and so counter the faulty arguments of others. This pattern follows a familiar evolutionary trajectory, in which a predator evolves a means to capture its prey, leading the prey to develop a defence mechanism to protect itself against the predator. Scepticism helps us to avoid being sucked in and ‘devoured’.

The result for group reasoning is that bias and the scepticism can balance each other out, leading to a greater recognition of the weaknesses in our own opinions and the strengths in those of others. And experimental evidence backs up this result. To quote from Jones’ article:

In one convincing study, psychologists David Moshman and Molly Geil at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln looked at performance in the Wason selection test – a simple card game based on logical deduction. When thinking about this task on their own, less than 10 per cent of people got the right answer. When groups of 5 or 6 people tackled it, however, 75 per cent of the groups eventually succeeded. Crucially for the argumentative theory, this was not simply down to smart people imposing the correct answer on the rest of the group: even groups whose members had all previously failed the test were able to come to the correct solution by formulating ideas and revising them in light of criticism (Thinking and Reasoning, vol 4, p 231).

He also points to research indicating that groups are more creative in their thinking than individuals (see sources below).

Implications for teaching, or how to best facilitate the best group thinking

Evidence from a series of studies by Anita Williams Woolley of Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania suggests that a group’s individual skills are not the best predictor of the group’s overall performance in problem-solving. These studies were designed to measure the ‘collective intelligence’ of the group, in something like the manner of IQ tests for individuals. She found that those groups who scored highest were the most inclusive, allowing maximal participation within the group. Sensitivity to the moods and feelings of others helped groups to score highly, and the best groups were those with the greater number of female members, presumably because females have a greater social sensitivity.

Group thinking can, of course, backfire. Groupthink in fact has long been seen negatively, but this is because people with the same cognitive biases often congregate together, as with political parties and religious organisations, or gravitate towards similar professions, such as the police or the military. In such groupings it’s often the case that the group moves collectively to quite extreme positions. Where group thinking would be expected to work most effectively is precisely in a college for NESB students from different cultures and backgrounds, in which individuals are challenged by widely different but (hopefully!) cogent opinions.

As educators, we need to consider the best outcomes for our students. Clearly there is pressure, in an individualised results-based system, to push for individual skill in argumentation, with the resultant high test scores. However, the evidence for group interaction in improving students’ understanding of the many issues focused on in essays and seminars at the higher levels is clear. Of course the situation is complicated by the fact that many students at EAP2 and EAP3 levels still don’t have the  grammatical and lexical skills to present cogent arguments in English, so that it’s often hard to determine whether their difficulties are those of reasoning or of language. Even so, I believe it is vital to take advantage of the cultural diversity of students’ experience and knowledge (even within identical language groups) to encourage interaction that will challenge biases and create awareness of a variety of perspectives. Hopefully this will enliven their thinking both within the college and in their studies beyond Eynesbury.

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Some sources are found in the links. Here are others.

D Sperber and H Mercier,”Why do humans reason? Arguments for an argumentative theory”, Behavioural and brain sciences: Published online March 2011. http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1698090

http://edge.org/conversation/hugo_mercier-the-argumentative-theory. Mercer elaborates on the theory very interestingly in a video on this website

Williams Woolley, Anita, ‘Collective intelligence in human groups’, April 2012: Center for Collective Intelligence: http://cci.mit.edu/ci2012/plenaries/speaker%20slides%20ci%202012/Woolleyslidesci2012.pdf

D Moshman & M Geil, 1998 ‘Collaborative reasoning: evidence for collective rationality’. Thinking and reasoning V4 issue 3: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/135467898394148

Written by stewart henderson

November 26, 2015 at 6:57 am

is faith a virus? Hauerwas, Boghossian, and the ‘problem’ of natural theology

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BAVINCERTA

A post I wrote some 18 months ago reflecting on the comments of an American theologian, Stanley Hauerwas, while he was in Australia (I think) has raised some interest – more than I’m accustomed to – from people who obviously find theology more important than I do. My post was triggered by Hauerwas’s inane remark that atheism was ‘boring’, the kind of cheap remark that Christian apologists are apt to make. So it was with some bemusement that I was treated, in comments, to a defence of Hauerwas as a great Christian critic of standard US Christianity (which struck me as quite beside the point), and as a person whose throwaway lines shouldn’t be taken too seriously. Maybe so, but I can only go on the words I heard, which seemed to be spoken seriously enough, and I have little interest in researching Hauerwas’s whole oeuvre to get a better handle on particular utterances, as I do find theology quite boring (and that’s not a throwaway line).

Still, I’m prepared to give Hauerwas another go, within the broad context of faith. So I’m going to have a look at what he says in the first of his Gifford lectures on ‘natural theology’.

Stanley Hauerwas

Stanley Hauerwas

And what, you might ask, is natural theology? Well, apparently it’s the attempt to find solid reasons, beyond ‘divine revelation’, for the existence of – not gods, but God, the Judeo-Christian creation. I’m always amused by this usage – though actually the bloke’s an amalgam of various local gods including Yahweh the Canaanite war-god, Elohim, a name half dipped in obscurity but deriving from the plural of el, a Canaanite word for any god, and Adonai, a term of similarly obscure provenance. It’s as if a company like MacDonalds  had copyrighted the name Hamburger to disallow its usage by everyone else.

But at least it’s promising that these lectures are about giving reasons for believing in some supernatural entity or other, rather than relying on that notably slippery term, faith.

Unfortunately, though, Hauerwas doesn’t start well. Let me home in on a sentence from the very first paragraph:

The god that various Gifford lecturers have shown to exist or not to exist is a god that bears the burden of proof. In short, the god of the Gifford Lectures is usually a god with a problem.

This is an age-old trope, going back at least as far as Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109), who put forward a piece of clever word-play as an ‘ontological argument’ for the existence of his god, all the time saying that the god didn’t  really need such an argument, implying that to suggest such a thing was tantamount to saying he was a god with a problem.

But Anselm’s god didn’t have a problem, any more than the god of Hauerwas, or the god of any other theist. These gods, I’m fairly convinced, are unlikely to exist outside of theists’ imaginations. It is the theists who have the problem. The burden of proof is borne by the believers, not by their gods. Hauerwas should know better than to employ such a cheap trick.

Further along the line Hauerwas provides his own very different definition of natural theology as ‘the attempt to witness to the nongodforsakenness of the world even under the conditions of sin’. He provides a link to an endnote after this, but I’ve been unable to find the note, so this statement remains largely gobbledygook to me, though I can comment on its key terms; ‘nongodforsakenness’ can only have meaning for those who think they know that their god exists, and ‘sin’ is a not very useful term arising from Judeo-Christian theism, a term I reject because I view morality as deriving from natural and social evolution. Just as we don’t describe our cats as ‘sinners’ or as ‘evil’, we shouldn’t, in my view, describe humans in that way. It would surely be more accurate, and far more fruitful, to describe them as socially or psychologically dysfunctional. This allows for the possibility of remedies.

However, I’m prepared to be patient (to a degree), as Hauerwas requests. I’ve managed to read through the first of his Gifford lectures, and that’s more than enough for me (and my understanding of it all is further undermined by some egregious typos in the text). A number of thinkers are referenced and sometimes discussed at some length – I’ve read a little Aquinas, and more of William James, but the others –  Karl Barth, Reinhold Niebuhr and Alasdair MacIntyre, are only familiar to me as names. These intellectuals have no doubt great resonance in the (clearly shrinking) theological world Hauerwas has chosen to inhabit, and that’s probably the main reason they mean so little to me, as I inhabit the world of modernist nihilism that Hauerwas apparently inveighs against.

To be fair, Hauerwas takes care to claim that the modern era, like the middle ages, is far too complex for any brief laudatory or condemnatory summation. To this effect, he says:

It is important… that I make clear that I do not assume my account of modernity is necessarily one of declension. Though I admire and am attracted to many of the movements and figures we associate with what we call the Middle Ages, I do not assume the latter to be some golden age from which modernity names a fall.

However, I’m suspicious of this claim, as elsewhere in this lecture he speaks of modern nihilism as a given, and as a problem.

But before I go on, I’ll try to give a brief overview of this first lecture, which I’m sure will be seen as a travesty of his views. To some extent it’s a problematising of the stated purpose of the Gifford Lectures, which is apparently to argue for the existence of a god without resort to divine revelation (or perhaps argue about, since a number of previous lecturers, such as John Dewey, William James and A J Ayer, were secularists). It’s Hauerwas’s contention that natural theology is a modern, post-enlightenment phenomenon that wouldn’t have been recognised by earlier theologians such as Aquinas, and that to reduce the Christian god (‘the ground of everything’) to something to be explained or proven, like dinosaurs or black holes (not, unfortunately, Hauerwas’s examples) is more or less to already admit defeat. Of course, he’s right there, and it’s no wonder he inveighs against modernism!

Hauerwas claims Karl Barth in particular as a major influence in his thinking, which seems to involve just accepting the ‘truth’, particularly of the life of Jesus and his death on the cross, and being a ‘witness’ to this life, particularly in the way one lives one’s own life. In outlining this view, he expresses extreme confidence about the essentiality of Jesus and the manner of his death as an example and a message.

I can’t write about this in the way that theologians write, and I certainly don’t want to, so I’ll be much more blunt and say that the problem here is one of faith – a term nowhere mentioned in this lecture.

PBog

Peter Boghossian

The atheist philosopher Peter Boghossian recently toured Australia to promote his book, A manual for creating atheists, and the general project behind it. The tour was partly supported by an organisation called Reason Road, of which I’m a member. It’s Boghossian view – and I think he’s right – that it’s faith rather than religion that atheists need to question and undermine, in order to promote a healthier view of the world, and his characterisation of faith is also something I like. He calls it ‘pretending to know what you don’t/can’t know.’ He also describes faith as a virus, which should be combatted with epistemological antibiotics. Bearing this in mind, it’s worth quoting a couple more of Hauerwas’s statements:

… the heart of the argument I develop in these lectures is that natural theology divorced from a full doctrine of God cannot help but distort the character of God and, accordingly, of the world in which we find ourselves.

That God is Trinity is, of course, a confession. The acknowledgment of God’s trinitarian character was made necessary by the Christian insistence that the God who had redeemed the world through the cross and resurrection of Jesus was not different from the God of Abraham, Moses, and the prophets. God has never not been Trinity, but only through the struggle to render its own existence intelligible did the church discover God’s trinitarian nature. Accordingly, Christians believe rightly that few claims are more rationally compelling than our confession that God is Trinity. Of course, our knowledge that God is Trinity, a knowledge rightly described as revelation, only intensifies the mystery of God’s trinitarian nature.

From these statements we learn that Hauerwas is not only a Christian but a trinitarian, and presumably – but not necessarily – a Catholic. His Catholicism seems further confirmed by remarks here and elsewhere about the essentiality of church to Christian living.

More importantly Hauerwas makes the bold claim that the triune nature of his god is ‘rationally compelling’ to Christians in general. This is quite clearly false. I don’t know too many Christians but few of them are Catholic and even fewer would consider themselves trinitarians. Of course most wouldn’t have given the matter the slightest thought, and so perhaps wouldn’t be Christians to Hauerwas’s mind, but Hauerwas makes the claim that ‘God as Trinity’ is a matter of knowledge – though knowledge as ‘revelation’, which to my modernist mind is no knowledge at all. This is another example of pretending to know things you can’t possibly know. All that Hauerwas adds to this is a degree of confidence, though whether this is false confidence – mere bravado – or not, only Hauerwas can say. We get this throughout the lecture – a ‘confident’ pretence that he knows things that he can’t possibly know.

The reason for this, of course, is that he rejects natural theology, a kind of adaptation of post-enlightenment scientific methodologies, often called methodological naturalism. By doing so he permits himself the luxury of knowing that his god is triune, and is the ground of all being, and had a son who died on the cross for our sins – all by revelation!

Is there any point in continuing? To allow knowledge by revelation, or some sort of automatic conviction, or faith, is indeed to give up on any fruitful theory of knowledge altogether. Everything is permitted.

Epistemology is another term nowhere mentioned in this lecture, but the fact is that our modern world has been largely built on an improved epistemology, one that separates knowledge from belief in a throughly rigorous, and enormously productive way. It is this renovated epistemology  that has allowed us, for example, to look at the Bible not as the work of Moses or other pseudo-characters, but of scores of nameless authors whose individualities and attitudes can be revealed by painstaking textual analysis. It allows us to question the character of Jesus, his motives, his provenance, his fate, and even his very existence. It allows us to distinguish the possibly true elements of Jesus’s story from the highly implausible; the virgin birth, the miracles, the chit-chat with the devil in the desert, the transfiguration and so forth.

Far more importantly, though, from my view, this brighter and tighter epistemology has brought us modern medicine and cosmology, and modern technology, from improved modes of travel to improved ways of feeding our growing population. And of course it has brought about a renovated and enhanced understanding of who and what we are.

I really get off on knowledge, and so I take a very dim view indeed of those who would seek to poison it with so-called knowledge by revelation or faith. Knowledge is a very hard-won thing and it’s very precious. It deserves far greater respect than Hauerwas allows it.

The belief of Hauerwas and others that their god cannot be relegated to the furniture of the universe is simply that: a belief. What they are asking is that their belief should be respected (and even accepted) presumably because it is all-consuming. It’s such a vast belief, such a vast claim, that it dwarfs modernity, it dwarfs methodological naturalism, it dwarfs boring and worthless atheism. And it dwarfs any insulting attempt to test it.

I don’t know whether to describe Hauerwas’s claim as an arrogant one. It might well be that Hauerwas is genuinely humbled by this revealed ‘knowledge’. Either way, it’s not remotely convincing to me.

 

I don’t much enjoy writing about this stuff, and I hope I never post on this subject again.

 

Written by stewart henderson

August 23, 2015 at 9:29 am