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Did Reason Evolve For Arguing? - Hugo Mercier
Posted: 28 August 2011 08:58 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 31 ]
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Thank you Hugo for the link to your excellent paper and the subsequent exchanges.
It’s a rich source of very interesting material, that I’m sure I’ll be digging into again.
(Although I was a bit deafened by the noise of axe grinding while reading the Open Peer Commentary   wink )


I understand the point you make about confirmation bias: why would we need it if we are arguing for display?
You propose it would be redundant.
But, I’d suggest that confirmation bias is particularly useful when arguing for display (or more accurately position), rather than from principal.
Indeed, you may be underestimating the extent to which men establish position through argument (rather than displays of running and fighting).


Cognitive bias helps in a “Leader Debate”
What’s most important when arguing for position is rapidly to marshall your “ammunition”. 
If you are engaged in a leader debate on a topic with which you may not be familiar you need to be able to find good arguments as fast as you can.
Confirmation bias is a filter that helps us see the useful “missiles” in amongst the dirt and undergrowth.
Additionally, it helps us avoid voicing ideas that would be contrary to the line we are taking.
Nerds, who may have the best ideas, don’t win leader debates if they are too deliberative or too socially awkward at expressing their views. 
(And, of course, they rarely get the girl, without the help of a Hollywood script-writer.)


The importance of followership
That leads on to a point Chris Crawford made above: namely the mechanism by which good argumentation skills lead to a favourable selection effect.
The most favourable position from a selection perspective is to be an alpha male.
To be the leader of the pack.  But no leader can exist without followers.
Argumentation skills confer on the alpha male the capacity to build followership.
In advanced societies we select our leaders inter alia on the same basis: we tend to favour the decisive over the deliberative.
(Of course not all debates are “leader debates”, but argument can also establish support for the “worthy challenger”.)


Argumentation is a key leadership tool
In many contexts, and I suspect in emerging human society, it’s crucial to have a leader who is decisive and persuasive.
This is not to say that good leaders should be bombastic idiots.  Far from it.  (But some who get to those exalted positions are - “W” there I’ve said it.)
In my career, I’ve been fortunate enough to see some excellent entrepreneurs.
The skill is to focus the group effort on clear goals, rather than to allow resources to diffuse through endless debate and fruitless false-starts.
This is about clarity of communication, which relies on a coherent narrative or argument.
But the good entrepreneur also knows when to change tack, and she’s able to redirect the team towards this new goal that everyone supports.
The entrepreneur must therefore be able to marshall a completely new narrative and to sell it to her followers.
(Of course, argumentation is not the only way leaders win and encourage followers - emotional skills are also crucial - but the argumentation helps.)


A final thought
As a final thought, I’ve occasionally caught myself taking a stance that reflects my personal feelings for an interlocutor.
I’m minded to argue for my friends, even if I’m ambivalent about their proposals.
And, I find myself occasionally arguing against something of which I am a natural supporter, because I’m arguing with someone I don’t particularly care for.
And I’m far less willing to admit defeat than I would be if arguments weren’t as much, if not more, about “face” rather than “fact”.
In other words, my choice of argument is socially contextual.
I can’t cite sociological studies that confirm my behaviour as normal rather than aberrant, but I’m willing to bet money that I am not alone.  smile

[ Edited: 28 August 2011 09:01 AM by Millicent_Tendency ]
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Posted: 28 August 2011 10:15 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 32 ]
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I can’t cite sociological studies that confirm my behaviour as normal rather than aberrant, but I’m willing to bet money that I am not alone.

I’ll add myself as a second data point, for I engage in the same behaviors you describe. That makes two of us. It’s a simple extrapolation to the other 7 billion people on this planet.  cheese

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Posted: 28 August 2011 11:49 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 33 ]
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LOL

Chris Crawford wrote - 28 August 2011 10:15 AM

I’ll add myself as a second data point, for I engage in the same behaviors you describe. That makes two of us. It’s a simple extrapolation to the other 7 billion people on this planet.  cheese

Millicent_Tendency heard - 28 August 2011 10:15 AM

Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world .....  ...

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Posted: 29 August 2011 01:09 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 34 ]
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Why is Chris Crawford saying that western man invented rationalism before anyone else? Him and me argued about this in an earlier thread, and I said the same thing basically, but he disagreed with me. What gives here?

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Posted: 29 August 2011 08:02 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 35 ]
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Mid Atlantic, could you point me to the place where you interpret my writing that way? I’ll look at it and respond here. Perhaps I’ll start a topic devoted to the matter so we can thrash out the details.

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Posted: 29 August 2011 01:01 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 36 ]
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In post #1 - The big flaw in his reasoning is that he fails to recognize that rationalism is very much a western phenomonon, invented by the Greeks

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Posted: 29 August 2011 04:00 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 37 ]
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The title of the podcast was “Did Reason Evolve For Arguing?”  Shouldn’t the title be “Did Cognitive Bias Evolve For Arguing?”  The analogy that Mr. Mercier used was trying to find the purpose of a hammer if one had never seen a hammer before.  A hammer is a very specific tool.  It has very few uses.  Reason on the other hand can have many uses.  Arguing was probably one of them.  Reason could still have been used to come up with an accurate interpretations of reality, develop coping strategies do deal with that reality, and then implement those strategies.  Cognitive bias may have gotten in the way of reasoning in the past, but due to its high value in establishing dominance (as Millicent_Tendency has argued) it still had survival value for the genes of those leaders.

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Posted: 29 August 2011 04:04 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 38 ]
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Thank you for your comment, brightfut.

We’ve argued that reasoning is in fact much more specific than you suggest. It is not a general purpose capacity, but the ability to find and evaluate reasons. This is what many philosophers and psychologists refer to by reasoning, by contrast with other psychological mechanisms such as social cognition, planning, imagination, etc.

As for cognitive bias, I still don’t see how it could have benefited for establishing dominance. Having wrong beliefs because of biases is not going to help. And there is no reason that being biased should be respected as a display behavior. On the contrary, if people argued primarily to show off their intellectual skills, they should simply try to go for the best arguments, whether they support their beliefs or not.

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Posted: 29 August 2011 05:23 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 39 ]
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Hugo Mercier - 29 August 2011 04:04 PM

  On the contrary, if people argued primarily to show off their intellectual skills, they should simply try to go for the best arguments, whether they support their beliefs or not.

Contradicting oneself in a heated argument in front of a social group would look foolish and weak.  The person would lose face.  It’s good to be open minded when creating one’s own beliefs, but when in an argument when it really counts when social standing is on the line, you’d better have the bugs worked out of it.  (This isn’t the way the CFI Forum should work where people calmly discuss differences of opinion, but I’m talking about a different time). Back then they didn’t have science to tell them what was objectively true.  All they had was one person’s opinion’s vs other people’s opinions.  If nobody could tell what was objectively true then the best arguer, the one with the most confidence and sophistry skills would win.  You see this in politics today - Never ever admit you are wrong.

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Posted: 29 August 2011 05:52 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 40 ]
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The whole idea is that the guy with the best arguments is more often right than the other. Otherwise argumentation would be moot. Likewise, if you take two debaters and say that it had nothing to do with the truth, then following the one who wins (i.e. changing one’s mind to follow the one who wins) would be counteradaptive, so people wouldn’t listen and argumentation wouldn’t evolve.

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Posted: 29 August 2011 08:29 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 41 ]
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Thanks for clarifying that for me, MidAtlantic; now I understand your point. Yes, I do claim that rationalism first arose in post-Bronze Dark Age Greece and was developed into logic during the Classical period, and into science much later. I further claim that no other civilization made much of a dent on rationalism. My misunderstanding with Mr. Mercier is semantic: he uses the word “reason” in a very different sense than I do. There’s no traction in arguing semantics; it would be better if we declare that “Mr. Crawford thinks that the emphasis on rigorous argumentation was created by the Greeks, and Mr. Mercier thinks that the skills of convincing argumentation developed much earlier.” There really isn’t any conflict between our two points of view; the conflict was in our interpretation of the word “reason”.

But if you’d like to discuss my claim, perhaps I should start a topic on that so that we don’t contaminate this topic.

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Posted: 30 August 2011 03:23 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 42 ]
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Adam Isaak - 15 August 2011 04:51 PM

According to Hugo Mercier, we’ve been reasoning about reason all wrong. Reasoning is very good at what it probably evolved to let us do—argue in favor of what we believe and try to convince others that we’re right.

Hugo Mercier - 29 August 2011 04:04 PM

  As for cognitive bias, I still don’t see how it could have benefited for establishing dominance. Having wrong beliefs because of biases is not going to help. And there is no reason that being biased should be respected as a display behavior. On the contrary, if people argued primarily to show off their intellectual skills, they should simply try to go for the best arguments, whether they support their beliefs or not.

I’m confused.  Cognitive bias/confirmation bias were given as evidence that reason did not evolve for what we used to think it evolved for - to correctly apprehend reality (which is useful for coping).  It seems like in the second quote, here, that Mr. Mercier is saying that cognitive bias is not helpful in arguing.  I thought cognitive bias/confirmation bias were given as evidence by Mr. Mercier that reason evolved for arguing?  If cognitive bias/confirmation bias is not helpful in personal coping or in arguing then what is it good for?  It would just be a software bug if it was good for nothing, like people believing that we have to live forever in order for our lives to have meaning.  Thanks for answering my questions Mr. Mercier.

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Posted: 30 August 2011 03:26 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 43 ]
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>It seems like in the second quote, here, that Mr. Mercier is saying that cognitive bias is not helpful in arguing.

Sorry for not being clear. What I’m saying is that biases are not useful if the point of argumentation is to display one’s rhetorical skills as opposed to convince one’s audience. If the goal is to convince, then the confirmation bias is useful in the production of arguments.

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Posted: 30 August 2011 03:56 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 44 ]
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Hugo Mercier - 30 August 2011 03:26 PM

  Sorry for not being clear. What I’m saying is that biases are not useful if the point of argumentation is to display one’s rhetorical skills as opposed to convince one’s audience. If the goal is to convince, then the confirmation bias is useful in the production of arguments.

Hugo Mercier - 29 August 2011 05:52 PM

The whole idea is that the guy with the best arguments is more often right than the other. Otherwise argumentation would be moot. Likewise, if you take two debaters and say that it had nothing to do with the truth, then following the one who wins (i.e. changing one’s mind to follow the one who wins) would be counteradaptive, so people wouldn’t listen and argumentation wouldn’t evolve.

You said it is more than just convincing one’s audience through rhetoric.  The debater has to be right otherwise argumentation would be moot.  The debater was right because of good reasoning skills of correctly apprehending reality which you said was not why reason evolved.  Cognitive bias/confirmation bias don’t help in correctly apprehending reality and yet being right is important for arguing and evolving.  As I see it, a debater first needs good reasoning skills to come up with right ideas, then the debater uses cognitive bias/confirmation bias to argue for those ideas.

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Posted: 30 August 2011 04:54 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 45 ]
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>The debater was right because of good reasoning skills of correctly apprehending reality which you said was not why reason evolved.

In general, no: people are right because other mechanisms besides reasoning (perception, inference) have worked properly. People can also be right because of reasoning, mostly when they have evaluated a good argument and accepted its conclusion.

In science, this is often what happens. Scientists come up with an idea mostly through intuition and then try to find a way to show that they’re right through reasoning.

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