Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Forum: Argument Scholars Respond to Mercier and Sperber's Argumentative Theory of Human Reason: Introduction

Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Forum: Argument Scholars Respond to Mercier and Sperber's Argumentative Theory of Human Reason: Introduction

Article excerpt

In spring 2011, a study about argument began to receive media attention from outlets as diverse as the New York Times, the Chronicle of Higher Education, international newspapers, Wired, The Wilson Quarterly, Psychology Today, and the New Republic (Cohen, 2011; Fendrich, 2011; Fine, 2011; Lehrer, 2011; "A Reason for Reason," 2011; White, 2011; Wieseltier, 2011; see also Begley, 2010). French cognitive social scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber's (2011) study, published in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences, examined the function of humans' ability to reason and advanced an argumentative theory of reasoning. They used function in its "biological sense" wherein the "function of a trait is an effect of that trait that causally explains its having evolved and persisted in a population" (p. 59). With this definition in mind, they concluded: "The main function of reasoning is argumentative: Reasoning has evolved and persisted mainly because it makes human communication more effective and advantageous" (p. 60).

Mercier and Sperber (2011) argued basic human reasoning is not a method by which one "improve[s] knowledge and make]s] better decisions" but is "to devise and evaluate arguments intended to persuade" (p. 57). Whereas previous conceptualizations of reasoning cast it as building knowledge and improving decision-making, Mercier and Sperber questioned this account given countless incidents of reasoning are marked by poor decisions and flawed reasoning. They argued that the most compelling evidence demonstrates reason is not in the service of truth, but instead demonstrates that reason aids in the search for arguments to support one's belief. For example, the expansive research on confirmation bias proves people seek out and interpret evidence that reinforces an existing belief. Mercier and Sperber posited human beings embrace arguments that are consistent with their perspectives and remain precariously apt to ignore arguments that are inconsistent with their points of view. Ultimately, Mercier and Sperber concluded that human beings evolved the capacity to reason in order to argue and that their argumentative theory explains both those instances where reason prevails and instances when reason fails.

Included in the issue publishing the study was "Peer Commentary" from 24 scholars, spanning the disciplines of philosophy, political science, education, psychology, and linguistics. Not one of the commentators was from the field of argumentation studies. Peer commentary varied widely, both agreeing with, and critiquing, the argumentative theory. However, only two noted that, if the answer to the question "Why do humans reason?" is "to argue," then another question should be asked: "Why do humans argue?" Psychological scientist Wim de Neys (2011) asked: "What is the (biological) function of argumentation? …

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