Why Do We Argue?

Just as they have done with most everything else in our lives, scientists now claim to have found the evolutionary basis for argument. Here’s the thrust of a piece in this morning’s New York Times.

“Reasoning doesn’t have this function of helping us to get better beliefs and make better decisions,” said Hugo Mercier, who is a co-author of the journal article, with Dan Sperber. “It was a purely social phenomenon. It evolved to help us convince others and to be careful when others try to convince us.” Truth and accuracy were beside the point.

Apparently, it has caused quite a few comments from people who support this idea and those who are deeply offended by it. The researchers apparently did extensive examination of “confirmation bias.” And I suppose this evolutionary explanation for reasoning does explain why people seem to cherry pick those facts and arguments that fit in with what they already believe. But just because this is how reason “evolved,” doesn’t mean that we can’t use reason to get ourselves closer to truth.

And the authors clarify as much in a response to the comments that was recently posted.

We do not claim that reasoning has nothing to do with the truth. We claim that reasoning did not evolve to allow the lone reasoner to find the truth. We think it evolved to argue. But arguing is not only about trying to convince other people; it’s also about listening to their arguments. So reasoning is two-sided. On the one hand, it is used to produce arguments. Here its goal is to convince people. Accordingly, it displays a strong confirmation bias — what people see as the “rhetoric” side of reasoning. On the other hand, reasoning is also used to evaluate arguments. Here its goal is to tease out good arguments from bad ones so as to accept warranted conclusions and, if things go well, get better beliefs and make better decisions in the end.

The whole discussion may seem a little esoteric but it is worth reading.

Return to Top