Have we evolved to argue?

Forget about truth. The reason we can reason is to win arguments, say evolutionary psychologists.
Zac Alstin | May 17 2011 | comment  


Philosophers have long held a respected place in our culture as the guardians of wisdom and elevated reason. But in modern times their influence has faltered as if in direct proportion to the success of the natural sciences. The rewards of physics, biology, and chemistry are self-evident in this era; philosophy, not so much. Philosophers might be tempted to join the ranks of those (including friends and family) who wonder: “why didn’t you do law instead?”

Originally, it was philosophers who gave us our great scientific and mathematical discoveries: the likes of Newton, Descartes, Pascal, and Leibnitz. Now, even the core skills of philosophical inquiry are being subsumed under various scientific disciplines. Cognitive science has overtaken the traditional categories of logical fallacies with the empirically-minded study of cognitive biases. These biases supplement traditional philosophical attitudes to human reason with hard evidence of pervasive human irrationality.

We now know, for example, that people tend to favour information which confirms their beliefs, over information that challenges or contradicts them. If, for instance, you believe that new migrants are more prone to criminal behaviour, you are more likely to look for, notice, and remember evidence that confirms this view, while forgetting or discounting any counter-examples. Most people make no effort to test their beliefs by seeking out contradictory evidence or considering alternative possibilities. As the 16th century scientific pioneer Francis Bacon wrote:

“The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion... draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects or despises, or else by some distinction sets aside or rejects.”

Traditionally, we have regarded such logical errors or cognitive biases as part of our fallen human condition, a sorry fact of life against which we should strive to the best of our abilities. Likewise, a post-Christian Enlightenment perspective would distinguish between sound and faulty reasoning, naturally preferring the former for the sake of truth. But under the influence of evolutionary psychology, a new paradigm is emerging in which the primary purpose of reason is not to find the truth but to win arguments.

The proponents of the “argumentative theory of reasoning“ contend that what may look like errors and biases in the context of an individual’s pursuit of the truth are in fact eminently suited to the social goal of persuading others. They point out that reasoning through group argumentation is very efficient, that most people are much better at arguing than at abstract reasoning tasks, and that people will use reasoning to justify their intuitions instead of pursuing an objective position. They conclude that our reason is riddled with errors, because persuasion has greater evolutionary value than truth:

“What if we evolved the capacity to reason not to get closer to the truth, but to persuade others (and ourselves) of viewpoints, regardless of their relation to truth?”

In other words: we are not made for truth, we are made to argue and persuade. The lone philosopher rapt in contemplation and striving for the truth is an evolutionary outlier, not a natural ideal. We have evolved to be the prejudiced, biased, blinkered sophists that all of us tend toward, because these traits help us to approach the truth collectively. Nature has shaped us into irrational individuals for the sake of a more rational group. Don’t waste your time trying to reform your thinking, get out there and start arguing your case!

Where does this leave the poor philosopher: alone, underpaid, and now an evolutionary anomaly?

I have to admit I’ve always been a bit dismissive of philosophers. Studying philosophy did not, I believed, equip me with anything more valuable than crippling self-doubt and a sensitivity to logical inconsistencies. Contemporary philosophers seemed to prize doubts more than answers, and I found myself in sympathy with Chesterton:

“For my friend said that he opened his intellect as the sun opens the fans of a palm tree, opening for opening's sake, opening infinitely for ever. But I said that I opened my intellect as I opened my mouth, in order to shut it again on something solid… And as I truly pointed out, it would look uncommonly silly if I went on opening my mouth infinitely, for ever and ever.”

But in the last year or so I have found a growing respect for the fruit of my philosophical education. It may not have given me answers, but it did teach me how to doubt answers. It showed the fragility of knowledge, and the vast expanse of doubt in which belief and knowledge float. It taught me, contra these proposed evolutionary forces, to hone my reason and challenge my own biases.

The majority of people have never been exposed to the degree of doubt engendered by philosophical studies, nor have they acquired the sensitivity to logical inconsistencies that goes with it. In everyday life a philosopher is as prone to prejudice and untested belief as anyone else. But we know, indeed we take for granted, that serious assertions of knowledge cannot be made lightly.

“Shall I teach you what knowledge is? When you know a thing, to hold that you know it; and when you do not know a thing, to allow that you do not know it; – this is knowledge.” ~ - Confucius

In my experience, people who have studied philosophy or related disciplines are often bewildered by the confidence with which others take hold of a belief and assert it as truth; or alternatively, we are bemused by the hidden logic with which people “argue to win” or shift and change their positions so as to score points without any apparent concern for the truth. On the contrary, a philosopher should – to borrow a phrase – work out their knowledge in fear and trembling.

So although I find this “argumentation theory of reasoning” extremely persuasive – testament no doubt to the highly evolved minds of its proponents – I can’t help but wonder about the truth of it. I would rather be right than merely be seen to be right, and if this means that philosophers are evolutionary anomalies, I’m sure we can live with that.

But even if this new evolutionary theory were somehow shown to be true, I cannot see it gaining great popularity. Try telling the passionate advocate of some controversial position that he’s wrong, but it’s OK for him to be wrong because he is playing his part in a highly evolved group dynamic. This isn’t an explanation, it’s condescension, at which any honest person would balk. The fact is that despite our biases, nobody wants to be wrong. The allure of philosophy has always lain in the relative ease with which a motivated individual can at least recognise the errors in his thinking. It is the allure of correcting our mistakes and coming closer to the truth. Not just philosophy, but all modes of education depend on the ability to train both the human character and the human intellect and bring us closer to true knowledge.

In an era where persuasion reigns supreme via political spin and ubiquitous marketing, the argumentative theory of reasoning seems entirely appropriate. And if nothing else, we now have an evolutionary theory for why philosophy is such a poor career choice. But even if this speculative theory is somehow shown to be true, it does not follow that we must adhere to it. The beauty of any evolutionary rationale is that it isn’t binding on our future behaviour. So we can, if we so choose, continue to pursue the rarefied realms of philosophical inquiry, paying genuine homage to the truth that so enthrals us.

We have traditionally taken for granted that reasoning serves, however imperfectly, the individual’s grasp of the truth, and we have considered group argumentation a practical necessity in the face of imperfect reason. I hope we do not diverge from this course. With ambivalence our culture continues to venerate the wisdom of the iconic philosopher Socrates, while nevertheless preserving the democratic principles that saw him condemned to death by a jury of his fellow citizens. “He, O men, is the wisest, who like Socrates, knows that his wisdom is in truth worth nothing”, and yet the majority of his 501 jurors considered it wise to have him killed. I hope we do not reach a stage where we consider the jurors wisest after all.

Zac Alstin works at the Southern Cross Bioethics Institute in Adelaide, South Australia. 

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