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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 and confirmation bias – introductory

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I first learned about confirmation bias, and motivated reasoning, through my involvement with skeptical movements and through the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe (SGU) podcast. As has been pointed out by the SGU and elsewhere, this confirmation bias, this strong tendency to acknowledge and support views, about any topic, that confirm our own, and to dismiss or avoid listening to views from the opposite side, is a feature of liberal and conservative thought in equal measure, as well as being as much a feature of highly credentialed public intellectuals’ thought as it is for the thinking of your average unlearned sot. The problem of confirmation bias, this ‘problem in our heads’, has been blamed for the current social media maladies we supposedly suffer from, creating increasingly partisan echo-chambers in which we allow ourselves, or are ‘driven by clicks’, to be shut off from opposing views and arguments.

But is confirmation bias quite the bogey it’s generally claimed to be? Is it possibly an evolved feature of our reasoning? This raises fundamental questions about the very nature of what we call reason, and how and why it evolved in the first place. Obviously I’m not going to be able to deal with this Big Issue in the space of the short blog pieces I’ve been writing recently, so it’ll be covered by a number of posts. And, just as obviously, my questioning of confirmation bias hasn’t sprung from my own somewhat limited genius – it pains me to admit – but from some current reading material.

The enigma of reason: a new theory of human understanding, by research psychologists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, is a roolly important and timely piece of work, IMHO. So important that I launch into any attempt to summarise it with much trepidation. Anyway, their argument is that reasoning is largely an interactive tool, and evolved as such. They contrast the interactive view of reason with the ‘intellectualist’ view, which begins with Aristotle and his monumentally influential work on logic and logical fallacies. So with that in mind, they tackle the issue of confirmation bias in chapter 11 of their book, entitled ‘Why is reason biased?’

The authors begin the chapter with a cautionary tale, of sorts. Linus Pauling, winner of two Nobel Prizes and regarded by his peers as perhaps the most brilliant biochemist of the 20th century, became notoriously obsessed with the healing powers of vitamin C, in spite of mounting evidence to the contrary, raising the question as to how such a brilliant mind could get it so wrong. And perhaps a more important question – if such a mind could be capable of such bias, what hope is there for the rest of us?

So the authors look more closely at why bias occurs. Often it’s a matter of ‘cutting costs’, that is, the processing costs of cognition. An example is the use of the ‘availability heuristic’, which Daniel Kahneman writes about in Thinking fast and slow, where he also describes it as WYSIWTI (what you see is what there is). If, because you work in a hospital, you see many victims of road accidents, you’re liable to over-estimate the number of road accidents that occur in general. Or, because most of your friends hold x political views, you’ll be biased towards thinking that more people hold x political views than is actually the case. It’s a kind of fast and lazy form of inferential thinking, though not always entirely unreliable. Heuristics in general are described as ‘fast and frugal’ ways of thinking, which save a lot in cognitive cost while losing a little in reliability. In fact, as research has shown (apparently) sometimes heuristics can be more reliable than pains-taking, time-consuming analysis of a problem.

One piece of research illustrative of fast-and-frugal cognitive mechanisms involves bumble-bees and their strategies to avoid predators (I won’t give the details here). Why not? Reasoning as an evolved mechanism is surely directed first and foremost at our individual survival. To be more preservative than right. It follows that some such mechanism, whether we call it reasoning or not, exists in more or less complex form in more or less complex organisms. It also follows from this reasoning-for-survival outlook, that we pay far more attention to something surprising that crops up in our environment than routine stuff. As the authors point out:

Even one-year-old babies expect others to share their surprise. When they see something surprising, they point toward it to share their surprise with nearby adults. And they keep pointing until they obtain the proper reaction or are discouraged by the adults’ lack of reactivity.

Mercier & Sperber, The enigma of reason, p210

Needless to say, the adults’ reactions in such an everyday situation are crucial for the child – she learns that what surprised her is perhaps not so surprising, or is pleasantly surprising, or is dangerous, etc. All of this helps us in fast-and-frugal thinking from the very start.

Surprises – events and information that violates our expectations – are always worth paying attention to, in everyday life, for our survival, but also in our pursuit of accurate knowledge of the world, aka science. More about that, and confirmation bias, in the next post.


The enigma of reason: a new theory of human understanding, by Hugo Mercier & Dan Sperber, 2017

Written by stewart henderson

January 28, 2020 at 2:13 pm