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Did Reason Evolve For Arguing? - Hugo Mercier
Posted: 16 August 2011 09:36 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 16 ]
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Part II:

This is why I distinguish between Western serial thinking and Chinese serial thinking. The Western version is a step or two further down the evolutionary path of thinking. There truly is a big difference here; while you are correct that “Chinese reasoning” (in your terminology) is no worse that “Western reasoning”, it is also true that “Western serial thinking” (in my terminology) has been more productive than “Chinese serial thinking”.

Now, on to some specifics in the paper!

Reasoning versus Logic
At one point in the paper, you characterize your notion of “reasoning” (analytical thinking) as a form of reasoning in which the reasons leading to the conclusion can be articulated. Intuitive thinking simply produces a result with no intermediate steps, but your “reasoning” can be shown to have some kind of supporting elements. This is a broad definition that covers a huge range of thinking that does not, in my view, constitute logical thinking. For example, consider this line of thinking:

“I hate hippies”
And why is that?
“Because they’re lazy and don’t bathe.”

You’ll agree that this constitutes reasoning in your sense. But I think you’ll also agree that this doesn’t constitute logical reasoning.

On page 4, you assert that “reasoning is a profoundly social mechanism whose function is to find and evaluate arguments so as to convince other people and be convinced only when it is appropriate.” What bothers me about this statement is that it fails to give what is, in my opinion, proper credit to other forms of manipulating people. My belief on this matter is that the most common technique for manipulating people is the use of intimidation, followed by emotional manipulation, with reasoning dead last in importance. Certainly I have great difficulty imagining the progress of human history being guided by reasoning. Rulers did not convince anybody of their power; they simply executed those who failed to obey. Popes and Caliphs did not rely on sweet reason to convince people of the truth of their creeds; the stake did that job more effectively. I can think of few serious disputes in history that were NOT resolved by recourse to arms; the instances in which some form of reasoning provided a resolution are few enough to be startling footnotes in history. Reasoning works only with reasonable people; how many such people are there in our world? I need only mention the name “Michelle Bachmann” to conclusively prove the low place that reasoning holds in modern American political thinking.

I am confused by the arguments at the top of page 5. Later in the page, you seem to be reciting counter-arguments for later refutatio, but at the top of the page, you declare “According to this theory there is no reason to expect a special kind of selection (such as sexual selection or frequency dependent selection) to have had strong effects on the shaping of our reasoning skills. This implies that these abilities should be shared by all (non-pathological) human populations.”

This statement makes no sense to me. First, there is the question of whether there was ever any selection effect in favor of reasoning. You referred to this obliquely on page 4, sweeping it away with the comment that it is discussed elsewhere. Unfortunately, I do not have access to the publications to which you refer. However, I am most skeptical of any claim that there were any selection effects for reasoning. It’s true that social reasoning skills played an important role in human evolution, and I strongly support the notion of a social reasoning mental module. But this talent is highly gender-specific and, as I mentioned earlier, reasoning (in my opinion) plays third fiddle to intimidation and emotional manipulation.

Moreover, if there were no selection effect (which is what you seem to be saying), then why would reasoning skills be universal? I would expect that a trait without selection effects would die out quickly, but you seem to be saying the reverse: that the absence of a selection effect renders the trait universal. What am I missing here?

On page 6, the advantage of my pie-slicing (parallel versus serial) is clearly demonstrated by the problems you encounter dealing with the notion of abstract thinking. What in the hell do we really mean by “abstract thinking”? I’ve always considered that phrase to be one of those wishy-washy terms that sounds great but is impossible to pin down. I am aware of one way to define abstract thinking in terms of serial thinking, but in general, that term provides more in the way of obfuscation than clarification.

On page 10, you conclude a long argument with the observation “This should put to rest the claims that natives and/or illiterates are incapable of abstract thought.” My reaction to this statement is, “Who’s talking about individuals?” We’ve all known for generations that you can take any infant out of any culture and raise that child to adulthood in another culture, and they’ll fit right in and be perfectly normal in their adopted culture. This isn’t about individuals, it’s about cultures.

Next: Part III!

[ Edited: 16 August 2011 09:42 PM by Chris Crawford ]
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Posted: 16 August 2011 09:37 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 17 ]
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Next follows a long section that particularly bothered me because it is entirely anecdotal in nature. You provide lots of anecdotal evidence of Asian logic and Western rejection of logic. What bothers me here is the gigantic size of our evidentiary samples. We both could assemble thousands of examples of Western and Asian logic and illogic—but what would that tell us? Do we count anecdotes to decide which “side” has more anecdotal evidence? Your logical strategy establishes plausibility only; it does not provide anything in the way of logical force. I think that a more productive logical strategy is to look for phenomena that integrate the total problem-solving intellectual output of a civilization over the course of time. I say “problem-solving” because this is what logical thinking empowers us to do. Of course, your definition of “reasoning” would look only at the extent to which people argue—but I find that to be an unquantifiable concept. How do we measure the role of argumentation in a civilization? By the number of arguments people have? By the amount of ink spilled or paper consumed in pursuance of arguments? Your terminology doesn’t lend itself to analysis of the problem.

By contrast, we can indeed make comparisons of the intellectual output of different civilizations in different kinds of problem-solving. In particular, we can state with much confidence that, around the year 1900, before much intermixing of Sinic with Western civilization, the West was far ahead of Sinic civilization in mathematics, science, and technology. The gap between those two civilizations is all the more striking because Sinic civilization had been well ahead of Western civilization two thousand years earlier, and had both a larger population and a larger GDP than Western civilization for much of the intervening period. By all rights, the Chinese should have retained a dominant position in intellectual prowess, but in fact, it fell far behind the West. This is a development every bit as striking as, say, the demise of the dinosaurs, or the invention of the atomic bomb. It demands a damn good explanation, and the accelerated development of logic in Western civilization is clearly the explanation.

On pages 23 and 24, you cite a number of studies of Americans and Chinese that demonstrate similar reasoning talents. I have no problem accepting these studies at face value, but I do question their explanatory significance. In my opinion, these studies demonstrate just how completely the Western intellectual model, based on logic (not reasoning!) has been embraced by other civilizations. No longer do Chinese examinations challenge the student’s knowledge of Confucian thought and its complex ramifications. Instead, Chinese students today spend their time studying mathematics, science, and logic—just like their Western counterparts. I expect that, given the intellectual energy of the Chinese people, they will quickly make it their own and begin producing outstanding mathematicians, scientists, and engineers. However, I don’t understand the intellectual utility of these observations—they are obvious. Are you trying to prove the obvious point that people around the world share similar intellectual capabilities? If so, I fear that you are beating a dead horse. My interest is in the historical process that got us to where we are today, and historically there was a vast difference between Western and Eastern approaches to the process of thought. I emphasize that I am using past tense (“was”) in that statement.

On page 26, you write “For the theory defended here, however, reasoning (system 2, analytic reasoning), is not a mere style of thinking but an essential ingredient of human psychology.” This statement implies that you percieve a biological foundation for analytic reasoning—that the capacity for analytic reasoning is encoded in our genes. While I agree that the capacity for complex serial thinking is indeed built into our genes, I would not go as far as you do. After all, if it were in our genes, why didn’t we solve Pascal’s Theorem in 30,000 BCE? Our genes really haven’t changed much in the interim.

Finally, a quibble on your concluding comments on page 30: you write “By seeing reasoning and logic as tools primarily designed for individual epistemic improvement, the Greeks may have bequeathed upon their intellectual heirs a rather flawed conception.” I claim that it was only the high-falutin’ Greek philosophers who saw reasoning that way. Greek civilization as a whole saw reasoning and logic as tools for getting ahead in the world. Reasoning and logic allowed Greek merchants to perceive market opportunities faster, to calculate risks and benefits more precisely, and so to prosper. This was the heritage that actually sank into the pores of Western civilization, the heritage that was passed on through the societies as a whole, rather than the thoughts of the elite, which were little known by most in the West. Because merchants in the West weilded considerable power (and were not disdained as they were in China), the value system of the merchant, based on logical analysis of market conditions, permeated all aspects of Western societies and later produced the intellectual explosion that swept the world over the last 400 years.

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Posted: 16 August 2011 09:55 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 18 ]
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>Terminology
Third, you live and breathe a highly specialized argot that concentrates your thinking along one set of lines. This argot makes it easier for you to directly address the issues of interest to your peers and judges, but it can also make it more difficult for you to break out of some confining assumptions. The most obvious example of this arises in your definition of “reasoning” as that form of linguistic expression required to convince others. In Medieval Europe, that was called “rhetoric”. There’s no gain for us to quibble over the “true” meaning of any term; if you want to use “reasoning” to be synonymous with “rhetoric”, that’s fine with me. I will certainly not quibble with your notion that reasoning is that second mode of cognition (analytic as opposed to intuitive). However, I would like to offer you a different way to slice the semantic pie that provides more analytical utility.
My own thinking on this matter divided the pie into “pattern-based cognition” versus “sequential cognition”. I now think that a cleaner terminology is “parallel versus serial”. While it doesn’t quite cover the neurophysiology well, it’s close enough to serve the purpose, and it’s a very clear distinction. Thus, what your tribe calls “intuitive cognition” I call “parallel cognition”; what your tribe calls “analytical cognition”, I call “serial cognition”.

I’m not sure that any broad categorization of cognitive abilities along the lines of “system 1” “system 2,” “analytic” “associative,” etc. is of much use. Our definition of reasoning is much more specific. And no, we can’t quite equate it with rhetoric, it is just what people doing psychology of reasoning have been talking about. In any case, the terminological dispute is not interesting. What matters is the way to carve up the mind. We think there is a reasoning mechanism that is very specific and dedicated, not a whole “mode of thinking.”

>The advantage of my terminology is that it really zeroes in on the mental processes at work. Serial cognition is a neurophysiological kluge, something that neurons really don’t do well, and that’s why it’s so damned difficult. That’s also why mammalian brains are so damned big: it takes a hell of a lot of neurons (which are essentially parallel devices) to cobble together a serial-processing system. And that’s also why human brains are so much bigger than mammalian brains: we do a LOT more serial processing. Language is the primary form of high-intensity serial processing that we do, and language gobbles up neurons by the ganglion.
This line of thinking clearly shows that formal logic, the kind of rigorous serial thinking that made Western math, science, and technology possible, is the most extreme form of serial cognition. It’s also the most difficult to do; we really have to push our brains hard to carry out that processing. My cutesy way of expressing this point is that “serial logic does to the mind what yoga does to the body—you really have to twist yourself around to get it to work.”

Yes, but only because the type of reasoning your thinking about is a highly unnatural use of reasoning. Argumentation recruits the same mechanisms, but much more spontaneously.

Unfortunately, I’m afraid I won’t be able to keep up with this exchange—as you point out, I’m facing pressure to publish papers (and also to look after a 2 month old baby at this point…), and so I’m going to have to go back to that.

Thanks for the exchange, it’s been fun. Sorry if I’ve been curt at times, it’s this question of not having as much time as I wish I had. And I appreciate the advantage of being able to delve on many topics. That’s actually what I do too, although that doesn’t show yet in my academic papers (publication constraints). It’s not common enough, but more common that you may think only by reading people’s academic papers: in real life, we are often less focused than that.

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Posted: 17 August 2011 09:19 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 19 ]
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While I’m disappointed that my long posts were in vain, I completely understand the predicament you find yourself in. You’re a postdoc, under intense pressure to produce papers in your chosen field. “Publish or perish”, for you, is red in tooth. This, I think, is one of the most serious flaws in the academic system. The intense competition forces overspecialization, and sharp minds are allowed to wander more broadly only after they have obtained tenure. The system works well with fields that support specialization; most of the physical sciences fall into this category. For example, climatology was something of a backwater until the 1990s. Then, with concern about climate change growing, a great many specialists from related fields were able to convert quickly to address the scientific problems of climate change. This episode reveals the academic system at its best.

In the behavioral sciences, however, the system doesn’t work so well, largely because human behavior is so dauntingly complex. Academics have made a worthy effort at breaking it down into analyzable components, but the subject matter itself defies clean analysis. As I mentioned earlier, my own investigations into the development of rationalism and logic involved a gigantic range of materials, far too broad for anybody to assess in less than several decades. It is these broadly multidisciplinary topics that hover out of the reach of academic aspirations; humanity’s grasp of them remains weak.

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Posted: 22 August 2011 04:42 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 20 ]
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I find the distinction between the use the brain for argument and for logic based reasoning fascinating. Argument can often force us to examine our reasoning with more rigour than we might if we are left to ourselves. Much depends on the approach or motivation of the arguers, whether winning the argument or finding the truth is most important. Thus I found this podcast very interesting. I believe it is obvious that pure logic can take us to the point of decision making but is not capable of taking us through it. (I use decision making here to refer to decisions of the “what’s best to do” type. It may be possible to make decisions of the what/how something happens type, with pure logic.)In other words at best it can predict the outcomes of differnet courses of action, but cannot on it’s own determine which outcome is better. This depends on the motivation of those making the decision and pure logic can not provide motivation.

However I have a difficulty with the question “Did Reason Evolve For Arguing”, and to a lesser extent to referring to the “function” of Reason. My difficulty is that the word “for” implies an element of design or predetermined purpose. This language is too close for my liking to the Intelligent Design notion. I know that avoiding this kind of language may require a more elaborate sentence which may become tiresome but I believe this would be worth the effort given that the language we use can so strongly influence how we think. I am not well studied in evolution but as I understand it variations occur in species, and the individuals with the variations that turn out to be most suitable to the environment survive best. Evolutionists do not, I understand, make any claim that the variations occur “so that” the species may survive.  We may readily speak of an “evolutionary advantage”. Given the CFI and POI position on skeptical thinking I believe this, or a similar form, should be used. Even the form “evolutionary imperative” carries a hint of a predetermined purpose. We may validly theorise and research whether our brains have evolved in a a way which is best suited to arguing or to logical reasoning, but to ascribe to this the “purpose” of evolution is to encourage acceptance of some pre -determined purpose, something we should try to avoid.

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Posted: 22 August 2011 05:07 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 21 ]
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Well, there’s no question that it wasn’t GENETIC evolution that produced rationalism—it was a cultural process (although Mr. Mercier might disagree). Rough rule of thumb: you need 500 generations under strong selective pressure for a trait to spread widely through the gene pool. That’s 10,000 years for humans. I very much doubt that there was strong selective pressure for rationalism: many other factors were more important. Thus, we’d be looking at many more generations. One experiment demonstrated 20,000 generations in order for a weakly selected trait to spread through the gene pool. Thus, 10,000 years is the shortest possible adaptation time for something really important (such as resistance to a deadly infectious disease), and we’re more likely looking at several hundred thousand years for something so weakly selected for as rationalism.

My own investigations into this zero in on post-Bronze Age Greece as the site where rationalism got started. I’m not talking about classical Greece (Plato, Aristotle, and that crowd), I’m talking 400 years before those guys. The fact that its development was confined to Western civilization clearly demonstrates its cultural foundation.

Mr. Mercier was kind enough to visit us and respond to some of my plaints, but his responses did not satisfy me.

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Posted: 22 August 2011 05:24 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 22 ]
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To Chris Crawford’s first post:
>While I’m disappointed that my long posts were in vain, I completely understand the predicament you find yourself in. You’re a postdoc, under intense pressure to produce papers in your chosen field. “Publish or perish”, for you, is red in tooth. This, I think, is one of the most serious flaws in the academic system. The intense competition forces overspecialization, and sharp minds are allowed to wander more broadly only after they have obtained tenure. The system works well with fields that support specialization; most of the physical sciences fall into this category. For example, climatology was something of a backwater until the 1990s. Then, with concern about climate change growing, a great many specialists from related fields were able to convert quickly to address the scientific problems of climate change. This episode reveals the academic system at its best.
In the behavioral sciences, however, the system doesn’t work so well, largely because human behavior is so dauntingly complex. Academics have made a worthy effort at breaking it down into analyzable components, but the subject matter itself defies clean analysis. As I mentioned earlier, my own investigations into the development of rationalism and logic involved a gigantic range of materials, far too broad for anybody to assess in less than several decades. It is these broadly multidisciplinary topics that hover out of the reach of academic aspirations; humanity’s grasp of them remains weak.

Thanks for understanding, and good luck in your endeavours!

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Posted: 22 August 2011 05:27 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 23 ]
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To donalobyrne

>However I have a difficulty with the question “Did Reason Evolve For Arguing”, and to a lesser extent to referring to the “function” of Reason. My difficulty is that the word “for” implies an element of design or predetermined purpose. This language is too close for my liking to the Intelligent Design notion.

Not necessarily. I think (and I think most people in evolutionary biology would agree), saying that the eye is for seeing is quite ok. And it is most certainly normal to speak of function.

>I know that avoiding this kind of language may require a more elaborate sentence which may become tiresome but I believe this would be worth the effort given that the language we use can so strongly influence how we think. I am not well studied in evolution but as I understand it variations occur in species, and the individuals with the variations that turn out to be most suitable to the environment survive best. Evolutionists do not, I understand, make any claim that the variations occur “so that” the species may survive.

Actually, it’s not for the species, but for the individual or the genes. (see for instance: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adaptation_and_Natural_Selection)

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Posted: 27 August 2011 11:28 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 24 ]
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Had a chance to hear this podcast last night before being up all night working.

Just wanted to thank Chris both for hosting a very interesting and thought-provoking guest and for asking exactly the questions that I would have wanted to ask had I researched and thought carefully through the subject matter in advance.
Excellent work!

Also, I found Mr. Mercier’s replies to be highly articulate, honest, on-point, and generally persuasive, though if I had the time I’d want to research the data and the implications much more deeply.

Regarding the debate / disagreements over biological vs. social or psychological evolution, it’s always seemed to me that both sides do a lot of talking past each other when both sorts of phenomena obviously exist.  The problem often seems one of definition of terms and understanding of circumstances rather than disparity of fact, as far as I can see.
Not that that ever happens in any other area of discourse…

Going back to sleep now…

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Brad

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Posted: 27 August 2011 11:33 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 25 ]
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Thanks, Brad!

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Posted: 27 August 2011 03:45 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 26 ]
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I have just listened to the podcast.

I enjoyed it.

I understood you to have been suggesting that confirmation bias and other failures of reasoning are fine because, set in the context of a dialectic process, truth will likely out.  And you assume that “truth” is the best outcome.

What if, however, its more like a tussle for a scrap of meat between hyenas.
It does not matter who owned the meat in the first place. 
What matters is who gets the meat.

Likewise, thinking about reasoning between humans. 
Perhaps what matters most is who wins.
Because he who wins is one notch further up the pecking order.

To my mind this fits rather better and explains how so many online discussions end up smelling more of testosterone than of “truth” (whatever that smells like!)

So confirmation biases and the like allow men to argue more successfully - by sacrificing truth for force of rhetoric.

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Posted: 27 August 2011 07:26 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 27 ]
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Thanks for your comment Millicent_Tendency.

The idea is that argumentation is supposed to work within people who have some interest in collaborating. If it’s a purely competitive, zero-sum game context, then there should be no communication, and no argumentation either. Yet clearly people sometimes engage in shouting matches that cannot be won. In that case, I’d say they’re not using argumentation as it was supposed to be: they do it to show off to their peers rather than convince their interlocutor.

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Posted: 27 August 2011 08:29 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 28 ]
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I am given to understand that, in America culture, there are strong differences between group problem-solving as practiced by the two genders. Male problem-solving groups tend to be strongly hierarchical, with the lower-status males being careful not to confront the higher-status males, while males of equal status tend to engage in zero-sum arguments about whose idea is better. Among females, problem-solving sessions tend to be much more socially tempered, with lots of free exploration of ideas, digressions, and nobody ever directly contradicting anybody else. In the real world, we tend to get mixing of the two styles, a source of intense frustration for many females. There has been some interesting work on the different styles of men and women in the business context, and how this has been changing since the 1970s.

There is also the difference between Asian deliberative styles and Western deliberative styles. The former tend to avoid direct confrontations, while the latter encourage tightly-regulated, rule-based confrontation. Perhaps this is best revealed in legal styles. The American adversarial system is intensely confrontational, while being very tightly controlled by very detailed rules. By contrast, there’s the old Chinese legal scholar who wrote that laws should not be overly specific, so that judges have the freedom to apply them with true justice.

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Posted: 28 August 2011 03:17 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 29 ]
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Forgive me, because I’m wading shoulder deep in my ignorance here, being neither a social anthropologist nor brain scientist but…

While your thesis makes a lot of sense to me, I do wonder if you are over-emphasising the knowledge generating aspect of argumentation as against its social value.

Hugo Mercier - 27 August 2011 07:26 PM

I’d say they’re not using argumentation as it was supposed to be: they do it to show off to their peers rather than convince their interlocutor.

I’m sure you don’t mean it this way, but this almost looks like an Intelligent Design viewpoint: i.e. we occasionally waste the god-given gift of reasoning.

My understanding of natural selection is that characteristics persist because they confer survival benefits.

I can quite see how enhanced dialectic reasoning powers could improve the survival of a group, but it does not quite seem right that it would lead to reasoning faculties that contain so many flaws - group-think, confirmation biases, and the like - without some other factor coming into play as well.

I’d argue that in societies where there are strong dis-benefits to physical manifestations of rivalry between members, prowess at argumentation is a great proxy.  And “showing off to your peers” is a crucial component of establishing one’s position in the pecking order.

Much as the peacock’s feathers demonstrate healthy genes and therefore suitability for mating, so, perhaps competent argumentation demonstrates mental fitness, and therefore suitability for the “alpha-male” position.

Obviously there are great subtleties in human interaction and this is only one of many facets of male rivalry, but it might explain why men are more prone to aggressive forms of argumentation than women.

So might a refinement to your thesis therefore be that:

- human reasoning capabilities evolved through arguing, and

- the persistence (or exaggeration) of certain flaws in human reasoning can be partially explained by the social benefits for rival males of winning arguments?

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Posted: 28 August 2011 04:43 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 30 ]
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>I’m sure you don’t mean it this way, but this almost looks like an Intelligent Design viewpoint: i.e. we occasionally waste the god-given gift of reasoning.

I didn’t mean it normatively. In the same way, I could say of people walking on their hands that they’re not using them as they are supposed to do.

>My understanding of natural selection is that characteristics persist because they confer survival benefits.

Actually, it’s mostly a matter of reproduction, but I think you get the gist.

>I can quite see how enhanced dialectic reasoning powers could improve the survival of a group,

It’s not the group but the individual.

>it does not quite seem right that it would lead to reasoning faculties that contain so many flaws - group-think, confirmation biases, and the like - without some other factor coming into play as well.

Yet that’s what makes the strength of our theory. The display theory does not predict the confirmation bias for instance. If it’s just a matter of demonstrating my brilliance, then arguments for either side would do.

Actually, a couple of the commentators on our main paper made suggestions along the same line, you can find them and our reply there:

http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=8242469

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