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Winning Argument: As a “New” Critique of Reason, Argumentative Theory Is Trite but Useful

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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couple arguing in silhouetteNow and then, scientists tout an idea so crushingly obvious that I assume I’m missing something. Case in point: the anthropic principle, which proclaims that reality has to be as we observe it to be because otherwise we wouldn’t be here to observe it. I’ve always been baffled as to why smart people, like Stephen Hawking, take this tautology seriously.

I had a similar reaction, at first, to "argumentative theory," a trendy new explanation of why human reason so often leads people astray. The cognitive psychologists Hugo Mercier of the University of Pennsylvania and Dan Sperber of the Jean Nicod Institute in Paris assert that our reasoning ability, like speech and other cognitive tools, evolved back in the Stone Age, and natural selection favored reasoning not for solitary truth-seeking but for arguing with others. In other words, Og, our primordial forefather, would enjoy more, ahem, reproductive success by persuading his band mates that he’s right—Chew a horny toad and your mate will bear you a son!—than by actually being right. We, Og’s ancestors, share his "confirmation bias," the tendency to concoct as much evidence or pseudo-evidence as possible for our points of view and to ignore contrary evidence.

"Skilled arguers," Mercier and Sperber contend in a recent article in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, "are not after the truth but after arguments supporting their views." When we argue with each other the clash of viewpoints can lead to something approximating truth; hence the effectiveness of democratic governance, the adversarial legal system and science. But we may also end up believing in geocentrism, penis envy, string theory, parallel universes and gigantic earthquakes that split the planet open so dead people can fly to heaven. (These are my examples, not those of Sperber and Mercier.)

My initial reaction to argumentative theory was that it’s just a truism dressed up in cognitive-Darwinian lingo. Don’t we all intuit in grade school that parents, teachers and preachers are telling us things—God loves you! Liver is good for you! Americans are the best people in the world!—that might not be true? We figure out that people often try to rationalize beliefs that they adhere to for emotional, arational reasons Once we recognize this tendency in ourselves we might reject religion and become agnostic science journalists who soon learn that even world-famous scientists often succumb to confirmation bias.

Some smart people are nonetheless impressed by argumentative theory. The science impresario and book agent John Brockman highlighted it on his Web site, The journalists Chris Mooney, Sharon Begley and Jonah Lehrer have touted the work of Sperber and Mercier, as have the psychologists Steven Pinker of Harvard University and Jonathan Haidt of the University of Virginia. Haidt calls Mercier and Sperber’s theory "powerful" and Pinker agrees that it is "original and provocative."

I suspect that some folks like argumentative theory less because of its intrinsic merits than because it appeals to their intellectual biases, just as the theory might predict. For example, Sperber and Mercier explain the idea in terms of evolutionary psychology, which excels at packaging cliches—Guys are more promiscuous than gals because guys don’t get pregnant!—as deep insights into human nature. Hence scientists like Pinker and Haidt, who employ evolutionary explanations themselves, may favor argumentative theory out of loyalty to their much-maligned field.

Jonah Lehrer seems to like argumentative theory because it bolsters his postmodern view of science. And the theory provides a handy way for journalists like Begley and Mooney to explain why so many people stubbornly refuse to believe in human-induced global warming, the theory of evolution and other obviously true propositions. In fact, anyone can utilize argumentative theory in this way. When confronted by someone who refuses to accept your point of view, you can just shrug, shake your head and say, "You’re not rational, you’re argumentative."

After much reflection, I’ve decided that I like argumentative theory, too, for a couple of reasons: First, my objections to it stem in part from my own bias—which I admit may not be entirely rational—against evolutionary psychology and other genetically oriented approaches to human behavior. Second, and more importantly, argumentative theory—if it becomes widely discussed—may help us recognize our own biases as well as those of others. History demonstrates that certainty on the political left or right, among scientists as well as religious fundamentalists, can lead to trouble. Anything that promotes self-doubt, as argumentative theory should, can’t be all bad.

But I still think the anthropic principle is a dumb idea.

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  1. 1. aaamiri 9:34 am 05/30/2011

    No one wins an argument since the truth remains the same all the while. If you are in side with the truth then you are triumphant and if you are opposing the truth then you are nothing but wrong and will be among the losers.

    Why do people argue? Either they don’t know what the truth is or are showing their troubles and disapprovals in the form of argumentation.

    People have to live together even thought they might not like everyone they meet and as they cannot openly show their oppositions and dislikes they tend to show it in argumentation.

    What if argumentation gave us false pride and not self-doubt? I think we come to self-doubt by studying and thinking in silence and then discussing matters with knowledgeable people of understanding.

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  2. 2. tharter 10:28 am 05/30/2011

    Hey, anyone who can see through the silliness that is the ‘Anthropic Principle’ must be right! ;)

    Ah, we humans are a silly bunch.

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  3. 3. hmercier 2:36 pm 05/30/2011

    Dear John Horgan,

    Thank you for reporting on our work. I’m sorry to hear that you think our theory is obvious but, given that this seems to be mostly a subjective judgment, there’s not much I could do to make you change your mind.

    Allow me simply to correct a potential misconception of our work. When you say that "Og, our primordial forefather, would enjoy more, ahem, reproductive success by persuading his band mates that he’s right–Chew a horny toad and your mate will bear you a son!–than by actually being right." this is actually not what we’re saying. We claim that when reasoning produces arguments, it makes sense that it should have a confirmation bias. But we also say that reasoning should be more objective when it evaluates argument. When it evaluates arguments, the goal of the audience is to decide which argument is good so as to accept well supported conclusions and, in general, acquire better beliefs. This is the main reason why groups can do so well: because arguments are critically examined, the best arguments carry the day, and the best arguments tend to support the best beliefs (*tend to*, there are obviously exceptions).
    In other words, we do not deny that overall people have an incentive to have relevant, true beliefs. However, when they are trying to convince someone their goal is not to change their own beliefs, but, well, to convince someone. Happily, in a normal discussion, the roles of speaker and listener alternate. One second you are trying to convince someone and the next someone is trying to convince you–and there you are apt to change your mind, if the arguments are good enough.

    Finally, I share your hopes for that the theory "may help us recognize our own biases as well as those of others," although I’m afraid the later is going to be much easier than the former!


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  4. 4. markvp 2:49 pm 05/30/2011

    When you consider other research that showed that people tend to go along with what most people of the group say, you have a dangerous mix of two effects that allow falsehoods to be believed. It probably starts with a few people that repeat what the ‘winner’ of the argument says, and many others may follow.


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  5. 5. TreeLuvBurdpu 6:01 pm 05/30/2011

    From every schoolyard spat to the history-altering philosophical arguments spanning millenia I have noticed one thing: Just because you won the argument does not mean you are right.

    I am fascinated by this topic. And why shouldn’t I be? We are engaged in it right now. At the focus of this topic we assert beliefs. One of us may persuade others, some not even participating, and the ideas propagate outwards to other threads on other topics.

    But the article seems to understate the role of right and wrong. We shun these two words these days. The author John Horgan even says, "History shows that certainty [...] can lead to trouble".

    But does the reviewed article assert that the purpose of arguments is to influence others actions?

    There are many social consequences of "losing" the argument. Socially, there is the whole side effect of being viewed as fallacious. "How can we trust Peter if he was wrong last time?" This inevitably introduces the issue of trust. Is the speaker trustworthy? Can we use what he is telling us as knowledge, thereby taking a shortcut to acquiring the knowledge ourselves? Using other’s knowledge as our knowledge may seem like something you want to avoid, but we do it all day long and continuously. So we must understand trust and how we validate it.

    But the title of the review article including the phrase, "critique of reason", indicates that the reviewer believes that reason is something one uses to win arguments, and neglects it’s other uses such as building skyscrapers, complex machinery, agricultural systems, improving medicine and hygiene, power and lighting, and generally illuminating our world.

    You can’t win an argument if there is nothing to be won. You can’t be wrong unless there is a right. Reason may influence arguments but that presumes that the people involved are reasonable. If argument theory is true it would only prove what we already know; that reason is not automatic, but must be achieved. That is hardly a fault of reason.

    When you critique reason with sub-reason it seems to validate reason.

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  6. 6. sleeprun 7:07 pm 05/30/2011

    The blog author just doesn’t understand evolutionary theory-based explanations and models of behavior. Nor does he, nor do any of us, understand his own negative emotional reactions to such ideas.

    So claiming complicated ideas to just be "dumb" — usually gets an audience. Our brains like it a whole lot better when it tells us ideas we don’t understand are "dumb" than awareness that we ourselves most often are muddle headed.

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  7. 7. necessity 6:13 am 05/31/2011

    "reality has to be as we observe it to be" is a toutology? I thought this was the standard definition of naive realism

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  8. 8. AmmonHennacy 7:16 am 05/31/2011

    Its heartening to see that people are baffled by the anthropic principle, because it suggests that the postmodern critique is finally dead. The anthropic principle makes a strange kind of sense for those of us who had to watch resources poured into a critique that argued there is no there out there. Like the 60s, you just had to be there, man. Except there was no there to be…

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  9. 9. JayRichards 3:11 pm 05/31/2011

    I like argumentative theory since it explains why "skeptics" so easily believe Darwinian just-so stories. But wait. Argumentative theory also explains why I believe argumentative theory, so I guess I should doubt it. Never mind.

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  10. 10. dudleybrooks 3:40 pm 05/31/2011

    It saddens me how much more "dumbed down" SA becomes every year. Horgan’s comments about the Anthropic Principle are an example.

    There are two points of view in modern physics about why the values of the various constants of nature have the precise values they do have, when (possibly) they might have other values. One is the view that there are lower-level principles of physics from which those values can be predicted — that is, they cannot possibly be anything else — and that one aim of physics research is to find those principles and show how they mathematically predict those values. The other view is that those values just "happen" to be the ones in this universe, and that, in particular, we observe those values because other values would give rise to a universe in which intelligent life could not occur; and hence it is pointless to try to explain the values from lower-level principles. The latter is what the Anthropic Principle asserts, and it is not even remotely a tautology, it is a very good statement of a particular view about the nature of physics: it is the claim that things happen to be the way they are, versus the claim that things must be the way they are.

    Actually, there are two versions of the Anthropic Principle: The weaker one asserts that that’s just the way things happen to be in *this* universe, and that we just happen to live in this universe. The stronger one asserts what I said above: that in a universe with different constants, the conditions necessary for intelligent life could not happen. So the weak version asserts that there is essentially no explanation at all of why things are the way they are, while the stronger one asserts that there *is* a reason, but not the "underlying principles" reason that some physicists are looking for.

    It may be that none of the three views above makes falsifiable predictions (unless the "underlying principles" people actually manage to find those principles). So that may put the discussion in the realm of metaphysics rather than physics. But the Anthropic Principle (either one) is still a statement of a *meaningful* viewpoint, not a tautology, and not ridiculous.

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  11. 11. sleeprun 9:56 pm 05/31/2011

    Agree about the "dumming down." Think it’s only this blogger however. Plus, if you want more readers only one way to go. Pretty soon will have posts on how all advanced science is just hogwash and pop culture can solve all ills.

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  12. 12. TreeLuvBurdpu 12:29 am 06/1/2011

    Blogs. I am guessing the quality issue has something to do with the upheavals the publishing companies have gone through in the last decade and especially since the mainstreaming of blogs.

    Out-of-work writers sitting at home working for a few dollars.

    There is a glut of content.

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  13. 13. dudleybrooks 11:01 am 06/1/2011

    My first paragraph was rude and I apologize for it. Please (try to) ignore it.

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  14. 14. kristi276 7:27 pm 06/1/2011

    I think. Therefor Iam. I think? Why do people argue? Since we are not the Borg and people do have the ability to form their own opinions and come up with thier own conclussions on different subjects, not everyone is going to agree on what ever the subject is. How do you get twenty co-workers to agree on a single resaurant? Like trying to herd cats.

    The author of the article states that when people argue they are missing the truth that eludes them, but if both can be wrong none can be right. Is it my way of the highway (cliche)? We argue our point of view because we have the ability to reason and come up with our own conclussions on a subject that we feel for. Like Skywalker who deems that we should all should get together for the good of all, and agree on what needs to be done. Confronted by the fact that this is what is actually happening, he retorts that some one strong should force them to agree. Like who? Some one strong. Like a dictator?

    Mine is not to reason why, mine is just to stir and fry.

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  15. 15. bucketofsquid 5:19 pm 06/13/2011

    First, it is spelled tautology. Secondly, the first rule of the tautology club is the first rule of the tautology club.

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  16. 16. bucketofsquid 5:23 pm 06/13/2011

    My understanding of the Anthropic Principle is that its adherents find it too difficult to figure out an explaination so they just gave up.

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  17. 17. bucketofsquid 5:26 pm 06/13/2011

    Am I the only one that noticed the silouettes illustrating the blog post are kind of freaky looking?

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  18. 18. Raghuvanshi1 11:49 am 06/25/2011

    Why we argue?Why we want some one? I is not complete without you.Can man live alone? do anything without anybody`s help?Man is social animal.What is the purpose man`s living?We live only for creation.From birth to death man struggle for creation.Man`s ultimate aim is survive any condition.Death give meaning to our.We argue with each other how to survive .Why we want to win in argument simple answer is we want overcome the fear of death.

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  19. 19. croca818 4:46 pm 07/1/2011

    Argumentative, is more to stop violence, its the alternative too. A little argument may give you a lot of information of other, may keep you safe. may not even be true and a bit off fun. Survival.

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  20. 20. fafajardo09 9:07 pm 07/1/2011

    the writer clearly is affected with confirmation bias. and that is his point.

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  21. 21. tickleme 3:47 pm 07/21/2011

    I can see the sense in the Anthropic Principle even if it does seem to be a tautology…

    Could Emmy Noether’s theorem also be a tautology…?

    Thanks Much.

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  22. 22. tickleme 3:48 pm 07/21/2011

    I can see the sense in the Anthropic Principle even if it does seem to be a tautology…

    Could Emmy Noether’s theorem also be a tautology…?

    Thanks Much.

    Link to this

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