Have we evolved to argue?
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
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
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
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
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.
works at the Southern Cross Bioethics
Institute in Adelaide, South Australia.
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