Is Reason a Tool for Winning, Rather than for Truth?

This NYT article should give us all some pause.  The core idea is that reasoning developed as a tool to win arguments, rather than to get at truth.  According to this theory, you can not cure people of bias, because biases are what helps people win arguments.  The Times article builds on an article in Behavioral and Brain Sciences.  Abstract here:

Reasoning is generally seen as a means to improve knowledge and make better decisions. However, much evidence shows that reasoning often leads to epistemic distortions and poor decisions. This suggests that the function of reasoning should be rethought. Our hypothesis is that the function of reasoning is argumentative. It is to devise and evaluate arguments intended to persuade. Reasoning so conceived is adaptive given the exceptional dependence of humans on communication and their vulnerability to misinformation. A wide range of evidence in the psychology of reasoning and decision making can be reinterpreted and better explained in the light of this hypothesis. Poor performance in standard reasoning tasks is explained by the lack of argumentative context. When the same problems are placed in a proper argumentative setting, people turn out to be skilled arguers. Skilled arguers, however, are not after the truth but after arguments supporting their views. This explains the notorious confirmation bias. This bias is apparent not only when people are actually arguing but also when they are reasoning proactively from the perspective of having to defend their opinions. Reasoning so motivated can distort evaluations and attitudes and allow erroneous beliefs to persist. Proactively used reasoning also favors decisions that are easy to justify but not necessarily better. In all these instances traditionally described as failures or flaws, reasoning does exactly what can be expected of an argumentative device: Look for arguments that support a given conclusion, and, ceteris paribus, favor conclusions for which arguments can be found.

There are plenty of critics.  From the Times:

Mr. Mercier and Mr. Sperber have skeptics as well as fans. Darcia Narvaez, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame and a contributor to the journal debate, said this theory “fits into evolutionary psychology mainstream thinking at the moment, that everything we do is motivated by selfishness and manipulating others, which is, in my view, crazy.”

I also don’t buy the argument, and my counter-argument is the scientific method, which has evolved from more general reasoning skills to meet the need for true rigor and for a broadly acceptable methodology for resolving those disputes with which the tool can be used. Thus our use of formal research and evaluation methodologies becomes particularly important.  Similarly, where appropriate, the use of scientific evidence in the courtroom.

Put another way, argument is something you learn as a lawyer, and reasoning something you use as a judge.  The best lawyers use their reasoning abilities to structure arguments that appeal to judges’ reasoning process, while not forgetting that they too may have biases.  The best judges work hard to recognize and rid themselves of their biases.  The very best are open about this process.  The rules are designed to structure argument to that it is most likely to lead to a fair (and legitimate result.)  In other words, as lawyers we recognize the inherent limitations of argument, as opposed to true reasoning, and try to set up systems in which arguments lead to reasoning.  That we do so underlines that we value decision-oriented reasoning as a higher process, and argument as a tool to achieve it.

Additional thought (June 16, 2011).

Ingo Keilitz, now at the National Center, sent me this, that he wrote years ago, and I find very helpful:

Searching for the truth is fundamental to education, but how do we know what is true? In his new book, Truth: A History and a Guide for the Perplexed (St. Martin’s Press, 2000), Felipe Fernandez Armesto, a member of the modern history faculty at Oxford, writes that people throughout history have sought to get at the truth by one or more basic ways: the truth you feel, the traditions of the past, reason and logic, and the scientific method. The first gets at the truth through feeling, introspection and intuition. Truth is a tangible entity that we feel “in our gut.” Then, according to Fernandez-Armesto, there is divination or the authoritarianism of “the truth that is given,” a method employed by religious traditions. Ancient Greek gods spoke the truth through common people. Third is reasoning, a method that is not subject to the misinterpretation of introspection and divination. Rational thinking and logical analysis was used in China and Egypt long before Plato brilliantly employed them in his dialogues. Finally, there is perception and the use of evidence gained from experience and experimentation. Galileo, the foremost scientist of his day, broke free of the authoritarianism of seventeenth century Catholic doctrine, which taught the “truth” of the heavenly bodies as “given” by the church, and spawned the scientific revolution by revealing a new reality in the heavens through his telescopes.


About richardzorza

I am deeply involved in access to justice and the patient voice movement.
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1 Response to Is Reason a Tool for Winning, Rather than for Truth?

  1. Charles Dyer says:

    Sperber and his protogee Mercier, who evidently was the lead writer, come from the Gricean school of pragmatics, a linguistics school that has tried to placate the problems of Chomskian generative grammar through the extensive examination of context and social discourse. Frankly, as one who feels more at home with the cognitive linguistics view that the soul of language is meaning, and not necessarily truth as such, I often find Sperber’s work worthwhile, but always somewhat in the apologetic vein, explaining why a bad theory can still work. This article is another good example. It offers no new insights to me. Thomas Kuhn and George Lakoff have argued these points for a long time. And, with regard to the Times article’s small reference to “truth” in court, the legal realists had commented on that problem long ago.
    Neither the courtroom nor the scientific method can achieve fundamental truth, just our best hope for some understanding within the context and within the discourse (professional, scientific, and locally cultural, not to mention tenure-driven) that we can get.
    Sorry, Richard, but I must disagree with you. Yes, lawyers knowingly argue, but judges also argue. Even Posner, who writes books about how judges think without even referring to neuroscience or cognitive science, agrees with that. My inclination is to say that the whole appellate process is something of a group-think process, somewhat like Mercier’s crowd think, and lower court judges rule so that they won’t be overturned by the group.

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