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June 14, 2011 10:44 AM   Subscribe

People argue just to win, assert researchers. Rationality may have evolved simply to let people feel triumphant; internet inevitable.

Please no XKCD, we've seen it.
posted by klangklangston (97 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite

 
I argue for the schadenfreude.
posted by oddman at 10:46 AM on June 14, 2011


They're wrong.
posted by cjorgensen at 10:47 AM on June 14, 2011 [8 favorites]


Didn't we already do this when the paper first came out?
posted by empath at 10:49 AM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


lets be reasonable.
posted by clavdivs at 10:49 AM on June 14, 2011


This is like putting architecture on trial because you find yourself in a prison cell.
posted by chambers at 10:49 AM on June 14, 2011 [14 favorites]


This is why the internet invented Godwin, to provide an end to the arguing. Or at least a weaselly way out.

(You know who else took the weaselly way out...)
posted by chavenet at 10:50 AM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Er, well, um... I think maybe people argue because they believe they are correct, and winning is positive reinforcement that they are. To boil that down to "feeling triumphant" seems a bit... Well, yeah, wrong.

And, I mean, maybe it's less about triumph than non-failure, where failure once often included being killed over a slight disagreement.
posted by Sys Rq at 10:51 AM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Hitler. I lose.
posted by Mister Fabulous at 10:53 AM on June 14, 2011 [7 favorites]


He has also recently been at work applying the theory to politics. In a new paper, he and Hélène Landemore, an assistant professor of political science at Yale, propose that the arguing and assessment skills employed by groups make democratic debate the best form of government for evolutionary reasons, regardless of philosophical or moral rationales.

How, then, do the academics explain the endless stalemates in Congress? “It doesn’t seem to work in the U.S.,” Mr. Mercier conceded.


Heh.
posted by misha at 10:53 AM on June 14, 2011 [4 favorites]


When cognitive scientists talk about evolution, I get headachy.
posted by logicpunk at 10:54 AM on June 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


I never argue to win. That just happens anyway.
posted by philip-random at 10:55 AM on June 14, 2011 [5 favorites]


People argue just to win, assert researchers.

Yeah. I've been slowly coming to that conclusion for a while now and it's discouraging. Most of us just want affirmations of our already formed viewpoints, few are willing to listen, let alone think or change our minds. I wish it were different.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:55 AM on June 14, 2011 [3 favorites]




(You know who else took the weaselly way out...)

SPOILER ALERT!




Ron's brother, Fred.
posted by Sys Rq at 10:55 AM on June 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


Hitherto I had stuck to my Resolution of not eating animal Food; and on this Occasion, I consider'd with my Master Tryon, the taking every Fish as a kind of unprovoked Murder, since none of them had or ever could do us any Injury that might justify the Slaughter. — All this seem'd very reasonable. — But I had formerly been a great Lover of Fish, & when this came hot out of the Frying Pan, it smelt admirably well. I balanc'd some time between Principle & inclination: till I recollected, that when the Fish were opened, I saw smaller Fish taken out of their Stomachs: — Then, thought I, if you eat one another, I don't see why we mayn't eat you. So I din'd upon Cod very heartily and continu'd to eat with other People, returning only now & then occasionally to a vegetable Diet. So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable Creature, since it enables one to find or make a Reason for every thing one has a mind to do.
— Benjamin Franklin

Emphasis mine.
posted by adipocere at 10:56 AM on June 14, 2011 [27 favorites]


How, then, do the academics explain the endless stalemates in Congress?

It's because you don't get eaten by a saber tooth tiger if you're wrong.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 10:56 AM on June 14, 2011


I don't think this line of reasoning can get more circular. Reason developed to win debates? What did a pre-reason debate consist of? Wild assertions of non-sequiturs?
posted by Mental Wimp at 10:57 AM on June 14, 2011 [20 favorites]


It seems like reasoning would have had a lot more use in practical problem solving for early humans rather than rhetorical purposes. Back then civilization did not exist, so if a half-dozen people were in the same area at a given time I can't believe that logical arguments would have won out over brute force. If you look at the most intelligent animals these days, they show signs of reasoning through problems to do things like use tools, well before any kind of coherent exchange of ideas evolves.
posted by burnmp3s at 10:57 AM on June 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


Not necessarily. They could be arguing in their spare time.
posted by dry white toast at 11:01 AM on June 14, 2011 [4 favorites]


Wow, I didn't even click the link text and I said aloud "NO SHIT."

There's a phrase I've always loved for people like this, the "always right but seldom correct", I may have even read it here on MeFi, but I don't recall when/where.
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 11:02 AM on June 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


Meta!
posted by Artw at 11:03 AM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


I evolved this way. Suck it, haters.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 11:03 AM on June 14, 2011


Popular statements of this view are logically incoherent. If arguments were just "to win," instead of referrring at some level to facts of the matter, there'd be no reason to listen to them -- but their ability "to win" depends on people listening. Likewise, successful forms of argument are often truth-preserving ones

If argument was just a formal game with no reference to logic or underlying reality, it would look very different than it does.

A more moderate treatment acknowledges that arguing "to win" is parasitic on arguing for the truth. In practice arguing "to win" often predominates, but it couldn't exist without argument as communication of truths.
posted by grobstein at 11:05 AM on June 14, 2011 [12 favorites]


Metafilter: may have evolved simply to let people feel triumphant
posted by Hairy Lobster at 11:06 AM on June 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


oh, cod.
posted by clavdivs at 11:06 AM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


This is simple-minded, at best.

Surely people argue over objective facts sometime, no? In that case, either one side is right and the other is wrong, or they are both wrong.

Arguments are (ideally) a way of gaining knowledge; if they don't impart knowledge they are not successful. Divining motive is a diversion.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 11:07 AM on June 14, 2011


Before reason, disagreements would have to be solved with what? Intimidation (or outright violence) or bargaining, as far as I can tell. And if you were born into this environment with the ability to reason, is reasoning really going to help you win arguments against people who lack the ability to reason? It makes no sense to me.

It seems to me like they could be half right. Perhaps the flaws in our reasoning evolved (or just remained) to help us win arguments. This makes a lot more sense to me. I think they are trying to be too cute here with a grand unified theory of human logic.
posted by Edgewise at 11:16 AM on June 14, 2011


I'm an Internet Expert and I think this is a perfectly relevant link, goddammit.
posted by griphus at 11:18 AM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Surely people argue over objective facts sometime, no?

Less than you'd think.
posted by Artw at 11:18 AM on June 14, 2011


It's like that article was published just to give people on the internet something to disagree with.
posted by Stagger Lee at 11:18 AM on June 14, 2011


"This is simple-minded, at best."

You should probably read the article before asserting things like that.

"Surely people argue over objective facts sometime, no? In that case, either one side is right and the other is wrong, or they are both wrong."

Not only does this assume that facts are objective, knowable and communicable. While they are in some cases, they are not in many others.

"Arguments are (ideally) a way of gaining knowledge; if they don't impart knowledge they are not successful. Divining motive is a diversion."

This is a nonsense assertion based on your feelings about what is good, and is not based on how arguments actually function.
posted by klangklangston at 11:19 AM on June 14, 2011 [9 favorites]


If argument was just a formal game with no reference to logic or underlying reality, it would look very different than it does.


It would probably look a lot like theology at that point.
posted by DiscountDeity at 11:20 AM on June 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


Some people argue just to win. This was my buddy before he met his wife. Now he and she argue to have make-up sex.

I swear, they have argued—loudly—over everything from Umberto Eco to Donnie Darko to which putter at the Sherman Oaks Castle Park is the best. They stop talking to each other, cross their arms and grumble. But soon enough, they exchange smoldering looks, and then it's off to the races. (I'm very glad they're not my roommates any more. I would get no sleep while they "discussed" their "disagreements.")

So yeah, there may be an evolutionary advantage there.
posted by infinitewindow at 11:22 AM on June 14, 2011 [7 favorites]


They're wrong.

They might be right, but that's not the real reason they published the paper.
posted by straight at 11:23 AM on June 14, 2011


I don't know, the article gave me the sort of feeling I used to get when my father's best friend would chuckle, "Mate in five" during a game of chess.

On one hand, I'm pretty certain I'm more interested in what is right rather than who is right. That said, I'm honest enough with myself to admit that I mostly want to know the Truth to use as a shield and/or club as necessary when encountering Falsehood.
posted by Mooski at 11:24 AM on June 14, 2011


It would probably look a lot like theology at that point.

A lot of 'em do.
posted by weston at 11:25 AM on June 14, 2011


I evolved to reify the just-so fallacy.
posted by srboisvert at 11:25 AM on June 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


Some people argue just to win. This was my buddy before he met his wife. Now he and she argue to have make-up sex.

Let's hope argumentativeness isn't a dominant gene, or their kid's going to be insufferable.
posted by Edgewise at 11:25 AM on June 14, 2011


Oh Mr Klangston you know you are the person I first thought of when this headline popped up in my rss feed.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 11:30 AM on June 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


“The most important thing in an argument, next to being right, is to leave an escape hatch for your opponent, so that he can gracefully swing over to your side without too much apparent loss of face” - Sydney J. Harris
posted by Lanark at 11:31 AM on June 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


Now some researchers are suggesting that reason evolved for a completely different purpose:

The premise of the article, implied here, is badly flawed, unless perhaps the author meant something slightly different semantically and wholly different in fact. Evolution doesn't have purposes, as far as I know, so if we correct that part for them, I guess the statement would be more like:

Reason was an advantageous trait because...

But even then, we're also imputing a strong heritable component to certain kinds of discourse, a position which entails the assumption of a plethora of ostensibly unsettled questions being decided in favor of the theory. On the other hand, perhaps the idea isn't that it's genetically heritable, or not only genetically heritable, but culturally heritable instead or in addition to that. But I saw no discussion of these possibilities in the article. The actual article, despite its beginning, is about reason as an intersubjective and social phenomenon, which is a very different discussion. I'm not sure if the author intentionally conflated the evolutionary psych approach with a merely descriptive psychosocial framework.
posted by clockzero at 11:32 AM on June 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


We've done this before. Here is a good summary.
posted by AceRock at 11:32 AM on June 14, 2011


Please no XKCD, we've seen it.

Speaking of which, I'm pretty sure this study has been on the blue before. Not via a paywall, though.
posted by DU at 11:33 AM on June 14, 2011


How, then, do the academics explain the endless stalemates in Congress?

Simple: The people vote for gridlock to minimize the damage the silly bastards can do.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 11:36 AM on June 14, 2011


You should probably read the article before asserting things like that

I did read the article. They claim that reason's purpose is to win over opposing groups, not gain knowledge. I simply disagree. Socrates would probably disagree, too.

I also said that arguments that didn't further knowledge were unsuccessful. It really doesn't matter what the arguers' motivations are.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 11:38 AM on June 14, 2011


Has anyone told Stephen Colbert about this yet?
posted by luminarias at 11:38 AM on June 14, 2011


Let's hope argumentativeness isn't a dominant gene, or their kid's going to be insufferable.

Quick side note: If argumentativeness were controlled by a single gene with two alleles (argumentative and not), their kid would more likely be insufferable if the argumentative allele were recessive. Here's why:

If the argumentative allele is recessive, and both parents are argumentative, that means both parents have two copies of the argumentative allele, and the child is guaranteed to be argumentative. But if the argumentative allele is dominant, then the parents could potentially be heterozygous (phenotypically argumentative because they have one copy of the dominant argumentative allele, but also carry a recessive non-argumentative allele). Then, their children have a chance of getting two copies of the recessive non-argumentative allele, thereby turning out non-argumentative.

Yes, I am a great deal of fun at parties; why do you ask?
posted by Jpfed at 11:43 AM on June 14, 2011 [10 favorites]


Arguing started on USENET, which predates the Internet, despite the slowness involved with exchanging newsfeeds over UUCP. All the Internet did was shorten the time from "you're wrong!" to "you and your opinion suck!".
posted by tommasz at 11:44 AM on June 14, 2011


I have no doubt that people sometimes argue for sport, and sometimes even competitively for the feeling of winning. I catch myself doing it enough and that's interesting to me, because it's at odds with my image of myself as a person who is neither particularly competitive or combative.

It's probably not an inherently bad thing when combined with a healthy dose of self-awareness and monitoring to distinguish circumstances in which arguing competitively is at odds with what you really want to accomplish (solving a problem, building consensus, exploring an issue), middling cases where you do want to "win" in the sense that you persuade or influence someone, and cases where you're free to treat it as a match.
posted by weston at 11:46 AM on June 14, 2011


What did a pre-reason debate consist of? Wild assertions of non-sequiturs?

penis butterfly unbroken

i win
posted by Greg Nog at 11:46 AM on June 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


It's not the rationality of your argument that causes the robot's head to explode.
posted by StickyCarpet at 11:47 AM on June 14, 2011


grobstein:

Popular statements of this view are logically incoherent. If arguments were just "to win," instead of referrring at some level to facts of the matter, there'd be no reason to listen to them -- but their ability "to win" depends on people listening.

I think I agree with you about the usefulness and consistency of the argumentative theory of discussion overall, grobstein, but I disagree with your assertion here. Argumentation can entail the identification and/or description of facts while doing nothing to advance understanding or interpretation, can't it? Doesn't a lot of winning-centric deliberative activity such as that described in the article involve the development of irrational orientations toward facts? Or am I misunderstanding you?
posted by clockzero at 11:51 AM on June 14, 2011


What did a pre-reason debate consist of? Wild assertions of non-sequiturs?

My hair is a bird. Your argument is invalid.
posted by straight at 11:54 AM on June 14, 2011 [6 favorites]


Socrates would probably disagree, too.

I don't know. A lot of things about Socrates are suddenly making sense now.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 12:04 PM on June 14, 2011


The quin method to winning every (in-person) argument:

Walk into the room. As the other person starts debating with you, get as close to them as possible.

Reach in your pocket and pull out a live grenade. Remove the pin.

Stare at them. When they question the reality of the grenade, stare at them. When they say you are bluffing, stare at them. When they question your sanity, stare at them.

Try to blink as little as possible.

Eventually, they'll come around to seeing things your way. They always do.
posted by quin at 12:04 PM on June 14, 2011


Let's hope argumentativeness isn't a dominant gene, or their kid's going to be insufferable.

It's also possible that the arguments are a form of play for them, although they might not fully realize it. That the make-up sex as an element of it at times, kinda implies a sort of s&m thing, although at perhaps the lowest setting possible, even if 'actual' s&m would not appeal to them. I've seen it with couples I've known too. Most of the time things don't go well over time. Weird, but when the right kind of arguers get together, it can actually work.

Statement. Refutation. Let the dance begin. Point. Counterpoint. Evidence is presented and sources criticized. Attack. Parry. Cha Cha Cha. Stalemate. Non-related embarrassing fact. Defensive overreaction and counterattack. Original point of argument lost in the fog of war. Each retreats to their corners. Silence. Submissive peace offering. Grudging acceptance. Then things get all... funky. Waka chika bow wow...
posted by chambers at 12:06 PM on June 14, 2011


Rationality is a tool used by irrational beings (all of us), is pretty much the way I see it.
posted by Bookhouse at 12:11 PM on June 14, 2011


Also, this quote:

“Reasoning doesn’t have this function of helping us to get better beliefs and make better decisions,” said Hugo Mercier, who is a co-author of the journal article, with Dan Sperber. “It was a purely social phenomenon. It evolved to help us convince others and to be careful when others try to convince us.”

is unbearably fatuous. First of all, he doesn't bother establishing what the standard for "better" is, rendering the entire formulation meaningless; also, his ludicrously confident assertion about the prehistorical past is completely speculative in an empirical sense, since we have a very limited ability to prove or disprove it; and finally, he apparently failed to consider that the "convincing" type of communication may not constitute reasoning at all, so perhaps the entire discussion is moot.

I mean, that's just my opinion. Maybe I'm misunderstanding.
posted by clockzero at 12:17 PM on June 14, 2011


While not entirely fool-proof, and certainly not immune to blinding rage, for the most part I do sincerely argue with someone in the hopes that one of two things happens: they listen to me and concede that I am right, or prove me wrong with facts or previously unconsidered logic. Dispelling ignorance; my own or someone else's is my sincere goal 99% of the time. (That other 1% is when I just want to be a dick.)
posted by Dark Messiah at 12:20 PM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Eventually, they'll come around to seeing things your way. They always do.

When I was young, I married a Baptist. Insofar as I could determine, their basic theology is that if you hold someone underwater long enough, he will come around to your way of thinking.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 12:25 PM on June 14, 2011 [9 favorites]


"I did read the article. They claim that reason's purpose is to win over opposing groups, not gain knowledge. I simply disagree. Socrates would probably disagree, too."

That's a fine appeal to authority. Socrates also believed that poetry and music should be banned from the ideal Republic.

"I also said that arguments that didn't further knowledge were unsuccessful. It really doesn't matter what the arguers' motivations are."

And this is false on its face — arguments that don't convince are unsuccessful. Furthering knowledge is orthogonal. You're asserting a personal preference as a universal truth.
posted by klangklangston at 12:31 PM on June 14, 2011


The article is in the Arts section of the newspaper and not surprisingly the writer does not handle the material very well. First, the idea is not that reasoning enables groups to "persuade and defeat" another group in a debate -- very few evolutionary theories operate on the level of the group -- rather that reason may have evolved to allow individuals to better persuade other individuals to do what they want, and also to resist persuasion if not in one's best interests.

A lot of times when evo-psych comes up around here, people are quick to label ideas in the field as "just-so stories" or as "untestable", explaining that we can't prove or disprove adaptive hypotheses, and true enough we can't go back in time and perform experiments and observe evolution in real time. But you can still make strong arguments with good evidence for adaptive hypotheses.

In this case, the researchers have come up with several specific predictions that their theory would lead to if correct and have tried to test them. That's how a lot of this research works, and is in my opinion perfectly valid. If you come up with good predictions and good tests such that if the predictions were true, it would be very difficult to use a competing theory to explain the results, and if the predictions are not true then it would falsify the hypothesis, then you can make progress.

Now, you may disagree with their specific predictions, or how they test them (I find both pretty weak here actually), but you can't call the hypothesis "untestable".
posted by AceRock at 12:47 PM on June 14, 2011


I did read the article. They claim that reason's purpose is to win over opposing groups, not gain knowledge. I simply disagree.

In other words, things with which you "simply disagree" are "simple-minded, at best"? I think your reasoning skills may be an evolutionary step or two behind.
posted by pardonyou? at 12:56 PM on June 14, 2011


Haha, some of you are using rational arguments to point out why the hypothesis is incorrect.

I think I have commented in more than one thread (and much more often, written a comment, then deleted it and posted nothing) that rational arguments don't win arguments. This world would be a more reasonable and a much better place if that were untrue.

The fact of the matter is that everything outside of purely logical pursuits, such as mathematics, is tainted by irrational human beings. Being logically and factually correct mean nothing if people dismiss your arguments.

It really is about being the most persuasive. Sometimes that means threats and fear, sometimes it means charm, sometimes it means tribalism, but it always means irrationality.

Yes, I know that being wrong does not mean being right. The thing we all need to understand is that the outcomes to the most important issues (and the least) don't hinge on being wrong or right.
posted by Xoebe at 1:03 PM on June 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


I disagree with your assumption that I have seen the XKCD in question and also that I have a NYTimes account and furthermore I challenge you to a duel of both wits and Galaga!
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 1:05 PM on June 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


This is very likely to be an American thing.
posted by effugas at 1:05 PM on June 14, 2011


This idiot expected to find people who argue just to lose?
posted by Ardiril at 1:15 PM on June 14, 2011


what
posted by grobstein at 1:16 PM on June 14, 2011


In this case, the researchers have come up with several specific predictions that their theory would lead to if correct and have tried to test them.

Yeah, see that's where I'm stuck. For example, this:
Prediction #1. If reasoning evolved so that we can argue with others, then we should be reasonably good at arguing.
Just makes my head spin with it's circularity. And I feel that way with most of their predictions. I don't know, this whole thing just feels very off to me.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 1:16 PM on June 14, 2011


When the argument results in one side changing their mind, it's unlikely to be the type of shouty fighty my brain is bigger argument that we think of when we say "argument". The helpful, cordial type of argument is usually called "discussion".
posted by LogicalDash at 1:28 PM on June 14, 2011


I'm sorry I stirred up such a negative reaction. At the risk of looking stupider (won't be the first time), I'd like to expound.

First, the Socrates mention was an aside, not an appeal to authority. But if I were to appeal to an authority on reason, it would be Socrates.

Second, "simple-minded" was a poorer choice than "simple" or "shallow". Reason is a deductive framework. It can be used to argue, but it also serves as a logical way from point A to point B. To say that it's primary purpose is to coopt others misses half the equation, I think.

Just an opinion, of course.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 1:34 PM on June 14, 2011


What did a pre-reason debate consist of? Wild assertions of non-sequiturs?
Did? Past-tense? You must be from Mars.
posted by roystgnr at 1:39 PM on June 14, 2011


bias, lack of logic and other supposed flaws that pollute the stream of reason are instead social adaptations that enable one group to persuade (and defeat) another. Certitude works, however sharply it may depart from the truth...Looking at a large body of psychological research, Mr. Sperber wanted to figure out why people persisted in picking out evidence that supported their views and ignored the rest — what is known as confirmation bias — leading them to hold on to a belief doggedly in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence. Other scholars have previously argued that reasoning and irrationality are both products of evolution. But they usually assume that the purpose of reasoning is to help an individual arrive at the truth, and that irrationality is a kink in that process, a sort of mental myopia....What is revolutionary about argumentative theory is that it presumes that since reason has a different purpose — to win over an opposing group — flawed reasoning is an adaptation in itself, useful for bolstering debating skills.

and this perhaps forms the basis of right wing talk tv/radio and its effectiveness in convincing people that global warming is not happening or man made, the earth is 5,000 years old, and Obama is foreign born.
posted by caddis at 1:43 PM on June 14, 2011


Haha, some of you are using rational arguments to point out why the hypothesis is incorrect.

This is perfectly consistent. What is inconsistent is those who are arguing for the theory being correct. This thread seems to be divided into these two fairly distinct classes.

Posts by members of the first category are interesting to read for each other: they cite facts and arguments explaining why this theory is self-defeating and inconsistent with research and anecdotal experience.

Posts by members of the second category are somewhat uninteresting to read by members of the first, inasmuch as they are of the form "all arguments are gibberish because..." If a category-one person enjoys pointing out why such statements are self-contradictory, that's fine, but if the speakers really believe what they are saying (whatever that might mean, given that it is logically incoherent), then there is no real point in speaking to them.

Posts by members of the second category are presumably entirely uninteresting to each other, since they are of course all engaging in gibberish, as they believe and assert. But they apparently have some affective appeal, like non-linguistic vocalization.

Finally, it appears that posts by members of the first category are especially annoying to members of the second. It must be frustrating to see all these people who think they are engaged in meaningful arguments that get somewhere new, when you "know" that such a thing is impossible and that all such speech is gibberish. In any case, it does seem to produce a certain amount of hostility -- though interestingly, the arguments made by the "argument is all just social" folks are (from the point of view of category one) pretty weak. If you think chess is just about memorizing, you'd better be a pretty good chess player to back it up.
posted by chortly at 1:45 PM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Reason is a deductive framework. It can be used to argue, but it also serves as a logical way from point A to point B. To say that it's primary purpose is to coopt others misses half the equation, I think.

The idea that reasoning can be used to as "a logical way from point A to point B" does not really undermine the researchers argument, because they are arguing for an ultimate explanation or function for reasoning -- why it evolved -- while you are talking about a proximate one -- what it can be used for now once it has already evolved.

Again, I think the researchers have a ways to go before they can make a strong case for their theory, but you may be talking about different things here.
posted by AceRock at 1:53 PM on June 14, 2011


It seems a bit of a strech to say that we only evolved to be rational to win arguments. Especially since being rational doesn't actually help you win arguments in the first place.
posted by delmoi at 1:56 PM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


It seems a bit of a strech to say that we only evolved to be rational to win arguments. Especially since being rational doesn't actually help you win arguments in the first place.

If I may engage in some adaptive storytelling here, what might explain this is some sort of evolutionary arms-race where as people get better at arguing/persuading, they also get better at defending against arguments/persuasion -- that is: poking holes in others' arguments. We may be at the point in the arms race where we're better at poking holes in other people's arguments than we are at actually arguing.
posted by AceRock at 2:00 PM on June 14, 2011


I did read the article. They claim that reason's purpose is to win over opposing groups, not gain knowledge. I simply disagree. Socrates would probably disagree, too.


Just because you or I or Socrates can be critical of rhetoric used for purposes of persuasion and self-interest, doesn't mean it's not effective or it wasn't effective in Socrates' times, in fact, maybe that was exactly why it bothered him so much, don't you think?

This theory doesn't sound at all new or suprising but I'm not reading it as some kind of cynical absolute view that "everything we do is motivated by selfishness and manipulating others", or even as a complete negation the evolution of reasoning as a tool to gain knowledge. Seems to me in fact that "winning arguments" vs "attaining knowledge of the truth" is a false dychotomy in terms of purposes. What is "the truth"? What is "objective"? That's one big philosophical can of worms. You really don't want to open it.

Unlike a lot of other evo-psych theories, this one does makes a lot of sense and I can see the useful applications of it too. It would indeed be great if more subjects in schools were taught also through debate.
posted by bitteschoen at 2:04 PM on June 14, 2011


The idea that reasoning can be used to as "a logical way from point A to point B" does not really undermine the researchers argument, because they are arguing for an ultimate explanation or function for reasoning -- why it evolved

But how do we (or they) know that reasoning didn't evolve because it helped us get from "point A to point B" better? To me it seems to make much more sense to think of "reasoning to argue" as the later development over reasoning to problem solve.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 2:07 PM on June 14, 2011


But how do we (or they) know that reasoning didn't evolve because it helped us get from "point A to point B" better? To me it seems to make much more sense to think of "reasoning to argue" as the later development over reasoning to problem solve.

Their idea is that this is the conventional assumption and that the more we learn about how people reason and make decisions, the less sense this assumption makes. Their idea is that the "Argumentative Theory of Reasoning" better explains phenomena in psychology like the confirmation bias as well as a lot of the findings in behavioral economics -- people making most decisions, even important ones, based on quick and dirty heuristics and emotion rather than logic or rational thought (and then coming up with reasons justifying those decisions).
posted by AceRock at 2:11 PM on June 14, 2011


Could someone please force this thing to META? Then we could be arguing about arguing about arguing.
posted by philip-random at 2:23 PM on June 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


people making most decisions, even important ones, based on quick and dirty heuristics and emotion rather than logic or rational thought (and then coming up with reasons justifying those decisions).

Yes, I am familiar with that literature. What I was trying to communicate was a definition of reasoning that was not the same as rationality, but rather reasoning as "figuring things out," which can be done a variety of ways, including the kinds of quick and dirty heuristics that you're talking about, or more formal logical, rational "reasoning" systems.

Part of the problem her I suspect is a vocabulary one, because in re-reading their propositions, I am hard pressed to figure out exactly what they mean by reasoning anyway. This is part of my overall problem with this theory.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 2:46 PM on June 14, 2011


Even if 99% of the time, arguments are just about winning, that other 1% shows that arguments can, in some circumstances, serve as tools to discover truth. If it can happen 1% of the time, then there are circumstances which are conducive to "real" arguments. If such circumstances exist, they can probably be replicated and expanded, particularly if some of those circumstances are internal, and affected by one's intentions.

I don't think anyone objects to the idea that many arguments are made in bad faith, with the intention not to discover (or transmit) the truth, but simply to win. It's only the claim that all arguments are of this form that seems mistaken. As long as the 1% exists, fine, science and liberal arts and rationality can continue as before: a subset of society that uses arguments to discover and further the truth, and builds institutions and norms that encourage such discovery. As the screen you're reading this on shows, even having a minority of honest arguers seems to have worked fairly well for us.
posted by chortly at 2:48 PM on June 14, 2011


I am hard pressed to figure out exactly what they mean by reasoning anyway

I agree with you. As far as I can tell, their working definition is something along the lines of -- reasoning is a form of inference in which a conclusion as well as the premises leading to that conclusion are made conscious.

Here is the original paper if anyone is interested.
posted by AceRock at 3:10 PM on June 14, 2011


When I was young, I married a Baptist. Insofar as I could determine, their basic theology is that if you hold someone underwater long enough, he will come around to your way of thinking.


I was raised Baptist (currently agnostic) and this is the funniest thing I've read all day. Thank you.
posted by DiscountDeity at 3:21 PM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


I don't think anyone objects to the idea that many arguments are made in bad faith, with the intention not to discover (or transmit) the truth, but simply to win. It's only the claim that all arguments are of this form that seems mistaken. As long as the 1% exists, fine, science and liberal arts and rationality can continue as before: a subset of society that uses arguments to discover and further the truth, and builds institutions and norms that encourage such discovery.

Mmmmm...I think I probably agree with you on the whole, but I would draw a distinction --- it seems to me that often we are not aware that we are arguing "in bad faith only to win," and that therefore one cannot neatly cull the sheep from the goats, the few, the brave, the good arguers whose disputes advance society, from the bad arguers who would bend us toward false idols. The founts of both reason and passion are in our brains. Even in science there are plenty of examples of those who clung to usurped theories long after new evidence emerges which casts doubt on them. So I don't know if it's so easy as saying "so long as the good people exist we'll be allright." We may truly feel ourselves to be good even as we act rather badly indeed...
posted by Diablevert at 3:32 PM on June 14, 2011


I don't think it's about separating sheep from goats, Diablevert - the 99/1% split almost certainly occurs in each individual person as well. Arguing about something you already have strong, fixed ideas about? You're probably just arguing to win. Arguing about something your ideas aren't so fixed about? Well, then something productive can happen. It's not "so long as the good people exist" so much as "so long as everyone isn't totally fixed in their ideas about everything."
posted by mstokes650 at 3:46 PM on June 14, 2011


What did a pre-reason debate consist of? Wild assertions of non-sequiturs?

I assume people took their weens out and waved them at each other threateningly while making lightsaber noises.
posted by elizardbits at 4:10 PM on June 14, 2011


Couldn't this be a bit self-fulfilling though? It's not usually called an argument when people are bothering to think through the other side's viewpoints, even if they're wildly different. It's just a conversation.
posted by Zalzidrax at 4:40 PM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


This seems so true as to be obvious, especially online where the stakes are low.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 5:14 PM on June 14, 2011


That's a fine appeal to authority. Socrates also believed that poetry and music should be banned from the ideal Republic.

That's a fine ad hominem.
posted by speicus at 5:54 PM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Could someone please force this thing to META? Then we could be arguing about arguing about arguing.

I was tempted to post a MeTa complaining about the fact any post containing the word "argument" in it will have at least one Monty Python reference in the first few comments. But then I remembered that pet-peeve-filter is one of my pet peeves and so I couldn't really make that argument with the goal of winning. That just seemed wrong, so I gave up.
posted by TedW at 7:28 PM on June 14, 2011


What did a pre-reason debate consist of? Wild assertions of non-sequiturs?

Did? Past-tense? You must be from Mars.


I had the same response, political discourse in my country is currently making its way (down) through completely made up numbers regarding global warming, ridiculous over the top claims about how a tax is unconstitutional due to something to do with asset depreciation, and horrible sound bite politics ('stop the boats!', 'working families!'). I'm pretty sure complete non-sequiturs aren't that far away.

See also: the wookie defense
posted by Hello, I'm David McGahan at 7:55 PM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


it seems to me that often we are not aware that we are arguing "in bad faith only to win," and that therefore one cannot neatly cull the sheep from the goats, the few, the brave, the good arguers whose disputes advance society, from the bad arguers who would bend us toward false idols.

Arguing about something you already have strong, fixed ideas about? You're probably just arguing to win.

I guess it's this Freudian turn that I object to. You think you are arguing in good faith in an effort to learn the truth, but really, deep down, you are just trying to gain the social points. And of course the more you argue against it, the more you just prove the point, right?

But I didn't mean to be claiming that good argumentation was a matter of pure will and honest intentions. Ultimately it doesn't really matter what your intentions are, which is why this whole business is silly. It's like arguing that no one really cares for anyone else, because ultimately we all seek to maximize our own utility, and thus any act of altruism is just an act of self-satisfaction. Tautologically true, perhaps, but who cares? What matters is helping others.

With arguments, what matters is whether you are doing the correct procedure, not why you are doing it. If you assert things you can back up with evidence, and stop asserting things when others provide counter-evidence or point out logical contradictions, that's good argument (roughly speaking), regardless of why you are doing it. (That's why it doesn't matter for global warming whether some emails showed climatologists to be assholes.) Since we already know the ought -- and even know techniques to make people better practitioners of it -- what the is is is really not very important.

Which is not to say that yet another over-generalization of Tversky with some evolutionary just-so thrown in tells us much about the is either -- weak claims of testability notwithstanding.
posted by chortly at 8:42 PM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Part of the problem her I suspect is a vocabulary one, because in re-reading their propositions, I am hard pressed to figure out exactly what they mean by reasoning anyway.

Indeed, but they do spell it out a bit more in the paper that AceRock linked to upthread:
R1. Different definitions of reasoning
In the target article, we defined reasoning as the mental act of constructing or evaluating an argument that is at least partly explicit. In particular, it must contain both a conclusion and reasons to accept this conclusion, even if some of the steps leading from these reasons to the conclusions are left implicit. In this sense, reasoning is in contrast with ordinary intuitive inference, a process that yields a conclusion without articulating the reasons to accept it. So far, our definition is close enough to philosophical and commonsense use of the term reasoning and at odds with the now widespread use in psychology of “reasoning” as a mere synonym of inference. Needless to say, several definitions of reasoning may each target a phenomenon worth studying.
(and then they go on discussing other definitions)

I've only been skimming through the paper but it is already a lot more helpful in understanding what they're on about that a short article, of course. It also contains all the commentary from other researchers and their own responses so that helps clarify the definitions too.

From what I've read so far I still get that impression that it's much less provocative or controversial or extreme as a theory as it's made out to be in the article (doesn't that always happen?) and that it seems less about some total dychotomy between argumentation and knowledge, and a lot more about reasoning as a function of social communication really. Less headline-catchy but eh more 'reasonable'...
Humans are immersed in a flow of socially transmitted information
and are highly dependent on it. For communication to have evolved, it had to be advantageous to both communicators and receivers (who are, of course, the same individuals but acting in two different capacities). What makes communication advantageous to receivers is that it provides them with rich information that they could not, or not easily, have obtained on their own. For this, the information they receive has to be genuine information; that is, close enough to truth. What makes communication advantageous to communicators is that it allows them to achieve some desirable effect in the receivers. For this, the information they emit has to be conducive to this effect, whether it is true or false.
It's an interesting read, whenever I find the time to go through the whole thing... (I have to say the coolest/funniest thing I saw while skimming through is this, first time I come across it: "Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD)". It's in one of the commentaries by another researcher who points out that that's the limit of these studies, involving only that type of participant, and even worse a subset - college students - whose reasoning skills may be affected by drugs and video games!)
posted by bitteschoen at 12:40 AM on June 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think I was about thirteen when I realised that argument is best used to persuade observers, not opponents. On the increasingly rare occasions I get into serious arguments (as opposed to routine internet play-fighting) I always bear this in mind. The participants in an argument are generally too invested in their respective points of view and the tactics of the debate to really be open to persuasion. Observers are better-placed to be more dispassionate, and actually weigh up the merits and weaknesses of each side's case.

This isn't a hard-and-fast rule, of course - I have been involved in arguments where minds have been changed, including my own - but more often than not it seems to apply.
posted by Decani at 2:49 AM on June 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


There's a phrase I've always loved for people like this, the "always right but seldom correct", I may have even read it here on MeFi, but I don't recall when/where.

'Sweet Dreams' by Split Enz.
posted by ovvl at 4:47 AM on June 15, 2011


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