Saturday, October 8, 2011

Evolved to blog

Is our reason good for thinking, or good for arguing?

Recent podcasts featured two researchers who propose a novel idea about the point of human reasoning. Their proposition is that it evolved not to reason silently to ourselves, but to support our side in arguments. (Hugo Mercier, on point of inquiry; Dan Sperber on philosophy bites.)

Acting in the world, we generally don't resort to pen and paper to work out complex trains of thought or future action. We go with our gut, and trust to our instincts. We also go by painstakingly cultivated cultural norms and other social frameworks, virtually all of which are implicit, not to say unconscious. It is only in the modern world that we have engineers working out complicated tasks by mathematical means, or management gurus leading by microsoft "project", for what that is worth.

A theme in recent shopping research is that the more we obsess about a decision, and the more we make lists of pros and cons, the less well the decision goes. It is another case of our unconscious guiding us very well through the vageries of life, while reason just can't keep up with the huge amount of information involved.

Our reason, when we choose to employ it, also has characteristic defects. We use it to rationalize existing preferences more than to lead us to new conclusions. We suffer from confirmation bias, which helps us (blindly) feel good about past decisions. We use it to criticize the positions of others relentlessly, with far more skepticism than we would ever train onto our own core ideas.

So what is its point? If reason is so biased and rarely used, why have it at all? Hugo Mercier thinks we reason to argue- it is a social skill far more than a solitary one. This hearkens back to the core pursuits of the ancients, one of which was rhetoric, a sadly abused discipline in our current politics. The citizen gathering, shura, or agora was where public policy was made, with momentous consequences for everyone in the society. Wars were begun, diplomats heard, crimes judged. This was where common action was commenced- that essential function of being human.

Today, through the magic of modern media, our attention spans have declined to soundbites, horseraces, gaffes, and gotchas, rendering reason in the public sphere virtually invisible. We are left with the vote as the final refuge of public will, virtually naked in its tattered clothing of discussion and debate, exercised as a pure, though often ignorant, expression of private interest, rather than public spirit.

Sorry to digress.. so, does arguing and public reason lead to better results? Sperber and Mercier argue that it does (if not on certain cable channels). This is mostly clearly seen in the scientific culture, where pet theories and self-serving authorities are raked over the coals of public critique, peer review, and independent confirmation. It is the public nature of science that is key to its success. Even lone geniuses like Newton and Eistein had their bad, even crackpot ideas, (alchemy in the case of Newton), judged and flushed down the drain of "irreproducible results".

Other animals do not reason together- it is a uniquely human activity as far as we know. Most animals reason implicitly, individually, and unconsciously, with only a few (perhaps jays, crows, higher mammals) able to reason their way around the most elementary problems in a way that appears strongly conscious. So this conscious reasoning capacity is a very recent layer atop the much more powerful unconscious systems that keep us alive and going most of the time.

A leading theory for human intelligence posits that it was mostly selected for its social virtues and attractiveness to mates. Language is of course a primary factor in our heightened consciousness and reasoning ability, to the point that we often reason privately by talking to ourselves or writing, (or doing math), to "bring out" thoughts that otherwise are inarticulate, unformed, or absent. The nexus between language and reasoning (and the other human virtues of art and imagination) seems very strong, supporting an interactive theory of how and why we reason.

Nothing turns on one's reasoning powers like a good argument. Our assumptions are questioned, our interests opposed, and in turn we call up latent resources of rhetoric and rationalization. The true target is typically onlookers in the disinterested middle who may lack preformed personal committment. It may be possible, ideally, to exhibit such a compelling argument that even those directly opposing one's argument must recognize its validity.

In my blogging travels, I have to say that such experiences are quite rare, especially in the area of religion where the most devout inaccessibility to reason prevails, whether public or private. Perhaps the ability to change one's mind needs to be better appreciated and cultivated in our society, particularly in our politics.

  • Bad loans- who is at fault?
  • Bad banks... mark-to-make-believe.
  • Warning- patriarchy at work.
  • Evil, finally vanquished.
  • Yet in Koch industries, it somehow persists.
  • Stiglitz on the need for lots of public spending.
  • Plastics, really vanquished.
  • Even China can't really stand Pakistan's duplicity.
  • OWS slogan of the week: "Tax the psychopaths".
  • Economics quote of the week, from Bill Mitchell, writing about the fundamental issue of economic distribution:
"In the past, the dilemma of capitalism was that the firms had to keep real wages growing in line with productivity to ensure that the consumption goods produced were sold. But in the lead up to the crisis, capital found a new way to accomplish this which allowed them to suppress real wages growth and pocket increasing shares of the national income produced as profits. Along the way, this munificence also manifested as the ridiculous executive pay deals and Wall Street gambling that we read about constantly over the last decade or so and ultimately blew up in our faces. 
The trick was found in the rise of “financial engineering” which pushed ever increasing debt onto the household sector. The capitalists found that they could sustain purchasing power and receive a bonus along the way in the form of interest payments. This seemed to be a much better strategy than paying higher real wages."


  1. Burk, excellent post. It ties in to the whole immediate-gratification culture we have now... we don't sit down to reason with one another because there's no time for that.
    I hate that being open to changing one's mind - or worse, actually changing it - has become taboo in this country. We call it waffling and flip-flopping and not sticking to one's principles.... And so the benefits of reason via arguing and public debate - active engagement, learning, development and growth (both socially and individually) - all become impossible. It's a sad state to be in.

  2. Thanks, Kelley- These interviews were highly interesting. It is a rationale perhaps to like blogging (and commenting!) more than "liking" or "tweeting". On the other hand, speaking personally, I am not big on meetings, brainstorming, and other highly collaborative thinking.. blogging & email is about my speed.

  3. Good stuff here, Burk. I throughly enjoy debating, mostly because I have found it the most efficient way to develop and refine my own ideas. I need that other point of view.

    And the art of the great discussion/debate is to define what is held in common and to more precisely pinpoint the differences, all the while making sure that the definitions of words are somewhat understood and agreed upon.

    I also read a lot of negative views of discussion, that no one really changes his/her mind, etc. But I have not found this to be the case. It's rare for a person to suddenly change his/her mind, but "planting seeds" is a common occurrence in discussions, which contribute to gradual shifts in points of view. It has happened to me many times.

    However there are lots of people who won't change their minds, but from my experience with those folks, I can't even get to a point where we are using the same definitions, so of course nothing is going to change.

  4. Do you think being a good thinker requires being able to argue with oneself?

    I think it definitely does, however, I usually assume another's persona in the process - what would Esmerelda say to this? What about Horatio?

  5. Steven, along those same lines, I might try to justify the opposite position to myself. If I make an honest attempt, I'll see the validity in the opposing argument.
    Outside of my head, however, it's not so easy. Usually I have to force myself to see the person as a person, and not as an embodiment of the opposing argument!

  6. Haha! Kelly, that is so true. It's an exercise in compassion "to see the person as a person".