Reasoning together

Hugo Mercier visited the Centre for Research in Reasoning, Argumentation and Rhetoric at the University of Windsor last Fall to discuss his recent work with Dan Sperber in which they  argue that reason is meant to function socially, in contexts of argumentation and hence as part of communication.  This welcome message for argumentation theorists and social epistemologists draws together an immense amount of research in cognitive psychology about the conditions in which reasoning is successful.  I found it very exciting.

Not only does this view suggest a fundamental epistemological significance for argumentation, it suggests that argumentation is basically cooperative, not adversarial.  Sure, opposition can be part of valuable argumentative practice, but the more general or at least original benefit is learning from each other — not winning, as the view has been misrepresented in The New York Times.

What was disappointing is the appearance that Sperber and Mercier’s appeal to evolution, and their employment of “evolutionary psychology” is weak.  Does evolution provide explanatory power, connecting theory with one of the most important scientific innovations of the past several centuries?  Yeah sure.  But explanatory power is not enough, especially when more rigorous empirical standards are available from and demanded by evolutionary biology.  At least, so the consensus seems to be — I need to learn more about this area; but Mercier appealed only to the explanatory power of natural selection, not to anything concrete.

Evolutionary psychology is notoriously problematic, and seems especially prey to the assumption that what has evolved must have been selected for, having an advantage itself. Some evolutionary features, like chins and male nipples are by-product of other features, like jaws and female nipples.  The automatic assumption that all evolved features are adaptations has been described by Elisabeth Lloyd as “adaptationism.”


2 thoughts on “Reasoning together”

  1. Mercier’s reply to that unfortunate NYT piece:

    Puzzling, the assertion made by critics of EP — see examples and refutations below — that evolutionary psychologists automatically assume features or behaviors are adaptations, when in fact they are generating and testing empirical hypotheses bearing on *whether* something is an adaptation.


    1. Thanks Rob for continuing this discussion. I did not mean to criticize EP in general (which is the subject matter of [2] and [3]) but the weakness of it in the hands of Sperber and Mercier. There are different evolutionary psychologists, and the extent to which they actually test their hypotheses varies from one researcher to the next. Some are responsible while others are not.

      Unfortunately Mercier seems to be among the less responsible, for instance when he says, in the article you link to, “If the speakers didn’t benefit, they would have evolved to stop speaking; if the listeners didn’t benefit, they would have evolved to stop listening.” That assumes that speaking and listening are adaptations.

      I would like to believe his account were true, and it would support my own commitments to social epistemology. Unfortunately, the only evidence I’ve found him to provide is that appealing to evolution has explanatory power. In [1], he provides as justification, “people are entitled to wonder why…,” which is no evidence at all.

      Am I missing somewhere that he (or they) actually tests out his hypotheses? The defenses you cite — in text and [1] — seem to show evidence that argumentation serves functions other than decision-making, but not that they are adaptations.

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