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the evolution of reason: intellectualist v interactivist

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In The Enigma of Reason, cognitive psychologists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber ask the question – What is reason for? I won’t go deeply into their own reasoning, I’m more interested in the implications of their conclusions, if correct – which I strongly suspect they are.

They looked at two claims about reason’s development, the intellectualist claim, which I might associate with Aristotelian and symbolic logic, premises and conclusions, and logical fallacies as pointed out by various sceptical podcasts and websites (and this can also be described as an individualist model of reasoning), and the interactionist model, in which reason is most effectively developed collectively.

In effect, the interactionist view is claiming that reason evolved in an interactionist environment. This suggests that it is language-dependent, or that it obviously couldn’t have its full flowering without language. Mercier and Sperber consider the use of reason in two forms – justificatory and argumentative. Justificatory reasoning tends to be lazy and easily satisfied, whereas it is in the realm of argument that reason comes into its own. We can see the flaws in the arguments of others much more readily than we can our own. This accords with the biblical saying about seeing motes in the eyes of others while being blind to the bricks in our own – or something like that. It also accords with our well-attested over-estimation of ourselves, in terms of our looks, our generosity, our physical abilities and so on.

I’m interested in this interactionist view because it also accords with my take on collaboration, participatory democracy and the bonobo way. Bonobos of course don’t have anything like human reason, not having language, but they do work together more collectively than chimps (and chimp-like humans) and show a feeling towards each other which some researchers have described as ‘spiritual’. For me, a better word would be ‘sympathetic’. Seeing the value in others’ arguments helps to take us outside of ourselves and to recognise the contribution others make to our thinking. We may even come to realise how much we rely on others for our personal development, and that we are, for better or worse, part of a larger, enriching whole. A kind of mildly antagonistic but ultimately fulfilling experience.

An important ingredient to the success of interactionist reasoning is the recognition of and respect for difference. That lazy kind of reasoning we engage in when left to ourselves can be exacerbated when our only interactions are with like-minded people. Nowadays we recognise this as a problem with social media and their algorithms. The feelings of solidarity we get with that kind of interaction can of course be very comforting but also stultifying, and they don’t generally lead to clear reasoning. For many, though, the comfort derived from solidarity outweighs the sense of clarity you might, hopefully, get from being made to recognise the flaws in your own arguments. This ghettoisation of reason, like other forms of ghettoisation, is by and large counter-productive. The problem is to prevent this from happening while reducing the ‘culture shock’ that this might entail. Within our own WEIRD (from Western Educated Industrial Rich Democratic countries) culture, where the differences aren’t so vast, being challenged by contrary arguments can be stimulating, even exhilarating. Here’s what the rich pre-industrialist Montaigne had to say on the matter:

The study of books is a languishing and feeble motion that heats not, whereas conversation teaches and exercises at once. If I converse with a strong mind and a rough disputant, he presses upon my flanks, and pricks me right and left; his imaginations stir up mine; jealousy, glory, and contention, stimulate and raise me up to something above myself; and acquiescence is a quality altogether tedious in discourse.

Nevertheless, I’ve met people who claim to hate arguments. They’re presumably not talking about philosophical discourse, but they tend to lump all forms of discord together in a negative basket. Mercier and Sperber, however, present a range of research to show that challenges to individual thinking have an improving effect – which is a good advert for diversity.  But even the most basic interactions, for example between mother and child, show this effect. A young child might be asked why she took a toy from her sibling, and answer ‘because I want it’. Her mother will point out that the sibling wants it too, and/or had it first. The impact of this counter-argument may not be immediate, but given normal childhood development, it will be the beginning of the child’s road to developing more effective arguments through social interaction. In such an interactive world, reasons need to much more than purely selfish.

The authors give examples of how the the most celebrated intellects can go astray when insufficiently challenged, from dual Nobel prize-winner Linus Pauling’s overblown claims about vitamin C to Alphonse Bertillon’s ultra-convoluted testimony in favour of Albert Dreyfus’ guilt, to Thomas Jefferson’s absurdly tendentious arguments against emancipation. They also show how the standard fallacious arguments presented in logic classes can be valid under particular circumstances. Perhaps most convincingly they present evidence of how group work in which contentious topics were discussed resulted in improvements in individual essays. Those whose essay-writing was preceded by such group discussion produced more complex arguments for both sides than did those who simply read philosophical texts on the issues.

It might seem strange that a self-professed loner like me should be so drawn to an interactionist view of reason’s development. The fact is, I’ve always seen my ‘lonerdom’ as a failing, which I’ve never tried very hard to rectify. Instead, I’ve compensated by interacting with books and, more recently, podcasts, websites and videos. They’re my ‘people’, correcting and modifying my own views thorough presenting new information and perspectives (and yes, I do sometimes argue and discuss with flesh-and-blood entities). I’ve long argued that we’re the most socially constructed mammals on the planet, but Mercier and Sperber have introduced me to a new word – hypersocial – which packs more punch. This hypersocial quality of humans has undoubtedly made us, for better or worse, the dominant species on the planet. Other species can’t present us with their viewpoints, but we can at least learn from the co-operative behaviours of bonobos, cetaceans, elephants and corvids, to name a few. That’s interaction of a sort. And increased travel and globalisation of communications means we can learn about other cultures and how they manage their environments and how they have coped, or not, with the encroachments of the dominant WEIRD culture.

When I say ‘we’ I mean we, as individuals. The authors of The enigma of reason reject the idea of reason as a ‘group-level adaptation’. The benefits of interactive reason accrue to the individual, and of course this can be passed on to other receptive individuals, but the level of receptivity varies enormously. Myside bias, the default position from our solipsistic childhood, has the useful evolutionary function of self-promotion, even survival, against the world, but our hypersocial human world requires effective interaction. That’s how Australian Aboriginal culture managed to thrive in a set of sub-optimal environments for tens of thousands of years before the WEIRDs arrived, and that’s how WEIRDs have managed to transform those environments, creating a host of problems along with solutions, in a story that continues….


H Mercier & D Sperber, The enigma of reason, 2017

Written by stewart henderson

August 13, 2021 at 3:28 pm

interactional reasoning: modularity

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all explained

Mercier and Sperber write a lot about modules and modularity in their book on interactional reasoning and its evolution. I’ve passed this over as I find the concepts difficult and I’m not sure if understanding reasoning as a module, if it fits that description, is essential to the thesis about interactional reasoning and its superiority to the intellectualist model. However, as an autodidact who hates admitting intellectual defeat, I want to use this blog to fully understand stuff for its own sake – and I generally find the reward is worth the pain.

Modules and modularity are introduced in chapter 4 of The enigma of reason. The idea is that there’s a kind of inferential mechanism that we share with other species – something noted, more or less, by David Hume centuries ago. A sort of learning instinct, as argued by bird expert Peter Marler, but taken further in our species, as suggested by Stephen Pinker in The language instinct, and by other cognitive psychologists. 

This requires us to think more carefully about the term ‘instinct’. Marler saw it as ‘an evolved disposition to acquire a given type of knowledge’, such as songs for birds and language for humans. We’ve found that we have evolved predispositions to recognise faces, for example, and that there’s a small area in the inferior temporal lobes called the fusiform face area that plays a vital role in face recognition. 

However reasoning is surely more conceptual than perceptual. Interestingly, though, in learning how to do things ‘the right way’, that’s to say, normative behaviour, children often rely on perceptual cues from adults. When shown the ‘right way’ to do something by a person they trust, in a teacherly sort of way (this is called ostensive demonstration), an infant will tend to do it that way all the time, even though there may be many other perfectly acceptable ways to perform that act. They then try to get others to conform to this ostensively demonstrated mode of action. This suggests, perhaps, an evolved disposition for norm identification and acquisition. 

Face recognition, norm acquisition and other even more complex activities, such as reading, are gradually being hooked up to specific areas of the brain by researchers. They’re described as being on an instinct-expertise continuum, and according to Mercier and Sperber:

[they] are what in biology might typically be called modules: they are autonomous mechanisms with a history, a function, and procedures appropriate to this function. They should be viewed as components of larger systems to which they each make a distinct contribution. Conversely, the capacities of a modular system cannot be well explained without identifying its modular components and the way they work together.

A close reading of this passage should suggest to us that reasoning is one of those larger systems informed by many other mechanisms. The mind, according to the authors, is an articulated system of modules. The neuron is a module, as is the brain. The authors suggest that this is, at the very least, the most useful working hypothesis. Cognitive modules, in particular, need not be innate, but can harness biologically evolved modules for other purposes.

I’m not sure how much that clarifies, though it has helped me, for what it’s worth. And that’s all I’ll be posting on interactional reasoning, for now

Written by stewart henderson

February 6, 2020 at 5:29 pm

What is inference?

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Don’t believe everything you read

What are you inferring?

So am I to infer from this you’re not interested?

What does inferring actually mean? What is it to ‘infer’? Does it require language? Can the birds and the bees do it? We traditionally associate inference with philosophy, which talks of deductive inference. For example, here’s a quote from Blackwell’s dictionary of cognitive science:

Inferences are made when a person (or machine) goes beyond available evidence to form a conclusion. With a deductive inference, this conclusion always follows the stated premises. In other words, if the premises are true, then the conclusion is valid. Studies of human efficiency in deductive inference involves conditional reasoning problems which follow the “if A, then B” format.

So according to this definition, only people, and machines constructed by people, can do it, deductively or otherwise. However, psychologists have pretty thoroughly demolished this view in recent years. In ‘Understanding Inference’, section 2 of their book The enigma of reason, cognitive psychologists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber explore our developing view of the concept.

Inference is largely based on experience. Think of Pavlov and his dogs. In his famous experiment he created an inferential association in the dogs’ minds between a bell and dinner. Hearing the bell thus set off salivation in expectation of food. The bell didn’t cause the salivation (or it wasn’t the ultimate cause), the connection was in the mind of the dog. The hearing of the bell set off a basic thought process which brought on the salivation. The dog inferred from experience, manipulated by the experimenter, that food was coming.

Mercier and Sperber approvingly quote David Hume’s common sense ideas about inference and its widespread application. Inference, he recognised, was a much more basic and universal tool than reason, and it was a necessary part of the toolkit of any sentient being. ‘Animals’, he wrote, ‘are not guided in these inferences by reasoning: Neither are children: Neither are the generality of mankind, in their ordinary actions and conclusions. Neither are philosophers themselves, who, in all the active parts of life, are, in the main, the same with the vulgar…. Nature must have provided some other principle, of more ready, and more general use and application; nor can an operation of such immense consequence in life, as that of inferring effects from causes, be trusted to the uncertain process of reasoning and argumentation’.

This is a lovely example of Humean skepticism, which flies in the face of arid logicalism, and recognises that the largely unconscious process of inference, which we would now recognise as a product of evolution, a basic survival mechanism, is more reliable in everyday life than the most brilliantly constructed logical systems.

The point is that we make inferences more or less constantly, and mostly unconsciously. The split-second decisions made in sport, for example, are all made, if not unconsciously, then with an automaticity not attributable to reason. And most of our life is lived with a similar lack of deep reflection, from inference to inference, like every other animal. Inference, then, to quote Mercier and Sperber’s gloss on Hume, is simply ‘the extraction of new information from information already available, whatever the process’. It’s what helps us slip the defender and score a goal in soccer, or prompts us to check the batteries when the remote stops working, or moves us to look forward to break-time when we smell coffee. It’s also what wags your dog’s tail when she hears familiar footsteps approaching the house.

There’s a lot more to be said, of course…

Written by stewart henderson

December 3, 2019 at 9:53 pm