Did We Evolve To Argue?

File this one under ‘Stuff I Wanted to Blog About This Summer but Didn’t Find the Time’.

There was an interesting article in the New York Times last June titled, Reason Seen More as Weapon Than Path to Truth which describes a theory by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, researchers in the cognitive sciences. The theory basically states that human reason evolved to “help us convince others and to be careful when others try to convince us”, not necessarily to discover the truth or accuracy of a belief. I find the idea fascinating because it underlines one of the fundamental flaws of the belief that human cognitive mechanisms are solely the product of evolutionary processes   – namely if our ability to think was the product of evolution alone, then there is no reason to believe that our beliefs are particularly rational. This has been articulated thoroughly by Alvin Plantinga, but here the authors take it in a different direction:

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. Gary F. Marcus, for example, a psychology professor at New York University and the author of “Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind,” says distortions in reasoning are unintended side effects of blind evolution. They are a result of the way that the brain, a Rube Goldberg mental contraption, processes memory. People are more likely to remember items they are familiar with, like their own beliefs, rather than those of others.

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.

Mr. Mercier, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, contends that attempts to rid people of biases have failed because reasoning does exactly what it is supposed to do: help win an argument.

“People have been trying to reform something that works perfectly well,” he said, “as if they had decided that hands were made for walking and that everybody should be taught that.”

This theory, like others based on the assumption that human cognition evolved naturally is as likely as any other speculation about the development of human reason. If it’s true, it means atheists are as presumptive in their ideas as Christians, and as likely to cling to their beliefs regardless of the evidence to the contrary. This renders the notion that they have come to their beliefs in a more ‘rational’ manner moot, as in reality they simply were convinced by a skilled debater, and are simply now following their propensity to defend their beliefs. The idea that there is truth or reality to be discerned is moot – we are all mere products of our cognitive development. There is no basis for an atheist to argue that he or she can rise above this.

Indeed the only confident and consistent way to argue for the ability to discern truth is if one believes one has been given cognitive equipment to do so; this could only be the case if a designer of human minds actually exists.

Of course if atheists are correct, then what is true about this matter is an argument we can never have.

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23 Responses to Did We Evolve To Argue?

  1. Sabio Lantz says:

    If it’s true, it means atheists are as presumptive in their ideas as Christians, and as likely to cling to their beliefs regardless of the evidence to the contrary.

    Whether Mercier’s theory is correct or NOT, atheists are as inclined to the same cognitive biases as theists.

    There is no basis for an atheist to argue that he or she can rise above this.

    I agree, many atheist fool themselves in feeling smugly secure in their hyperrationalism. We are all fooled by ourselves. Atheist just aren’t fooled into thinking there is some all powerful, interfering being that actually cares about them and will help them. But I know they have lots of other delusions. We all do.

    Indeed the only confident and consistent way to argue for the ability to discern truth is if one believes one has been given cognitive equipment to do so; this could only be the case if a designer of human minds actually exists.

    That didn’t make sense. I can not see how any of that necessarily follows.

  2. jackhudson says:

    That didn’t make sense. I can not see how any of that necessarily follows.

    It neccesarily follows that this would be the only logically consistent claim.

    Thanks for the comment!

  3. Sabio Lantz says:

    @ jackhudson,
    That was a pretty curt reply and not clear. Spell out the logical syllogism — I must be missing something. Or if you don’t want dialogue, feel free to ignore of course.

  4. jackhudson says:

    Sorry Sabio, not trying to be curt, thought that would help clarify.

    Okay – so if I claim the processes that produced my cognitive facilities weren’t inclined to allow me to determine the truth or accuracy of a belief, I can’t say that I know my belief in something is true or accurate – because my beliefs are a product of my cognitive equipment.

    If I say the process which produced my cognitive facilities was inclined to allow me to determine the truth or accuracy of a belief, then I can say my beliefs are true and accurate as a matter of logical consistency.

    The idea that human minds were designed to determine the truth or accuracy of a belief is consistent with the belief that one’s beliefs are true and accurate.

    The idea that human minds were developed through evolutionary processes to determine the truth or accuracy of a belief doesn’t appear to be consistent with the belief that one’s beliefs are true and accurate.

    Thus, if I say, “I believe there is a designer who designed my mind” such a belief is logically consistent with the notion that our minds are capable of discerning true and accurate beliefs. I can confidently say my belief in a designer is reliable.

    However, if I say, “I believe my mind is the product of evolutionary processes” such a belief is not logically consistent with the notion that my mind are capable of discerning true and accurate beliefs. I can’t be confident my belief in a evolution is reliable.

    I hope this helps clarify.

  5. Sabio Lantz says:

    @ Jack
    Well, I am still having trouble understanding you:

    Believe in an all-powerful, all-loving, intervening god (your type, I imagine) does not preclude have an easily deceived mind. The Hebrew and Christian Bible are full of stories of self-deception. A Christian could attribute these faults to “The Fall” while an Atheist could attribute it to the vagaries of evolution.

    Don’t you agree.

    To even begin to approximate truth (a hard task) takes discipline and the “counsel of many” [read, many experiments, not just one for atheists].

    The belief that one’s beliefs are invariably true and accurate would be highly arrogant — atheist or Christian.

    Right, you’d agree, no?

    Do we disagree on something here?
    May I suggest you stick to addressing what I am saying and not to some imagined atheist. That may clarify our discussion.

  6. jackhudson says:

    Well, I am still having trouble understanding you:

    Believe in an all-powerful, all-loving, intervening god (your type, I imagine) does not preclude have an easily deceived mind. The Hebrew and Christian Bible are full of stories of self-deception. A Christian could attribute these faults to “The Fall” while an Atheist could attribute it to the vagaries of evolution.

    Don’t you agree.

    Well sure – the existence of God doesn’t guarantee that we either have reliable cognitive facilities, or that we will use them reliably – but to believe that are cognitive machinery is reliable requires us to believe the process by which we acquired such machinery is reliable – and the existence of a competent designer is consistent with such a belief.

    To even begin to approximate truth (a hard task) takes discipline and the “counsel of many” [read, many experiments, not just one for atheists].

    Well, if we can’t say our cognitive equipment is reliable, it isn’t only ‘hard’, there is no reason to belief it’s possible – or can knos if it is possible.

    The belief that one’s beliefs are invariably true and accurate would be highly arrogant — atheist or Christian.
    Right, you’d agree, no?

    I didn’t claim that I thought my beliefs were invariably true. I don’t know anyone who does. I am not sure how you got that out of what I said.

    Do we disagree on something here?

    May I suggest you stick to addressing what I am saying and not to some imagined atheist. That may clarify our discussion.

    I have no idea what you believe; I am just trying to make clear what is necessary to be confident in one’s cognitive equipment. If you need more clarity, I am glad to give it.

  7. Sabio Lantz says:

    I am just trying to make clear what is necessary to be confident in one’s cognitive equipment.

    One can not be confident in one’s cognitive equipment. That is my point. Other animals can make decisions which work out to be true enough to help them survive and so can we. We are all approximating truth albeit to very different degrees, but we are all susceptible to all sorts of biases. Heck, some biases are so strong (like optical illusions) that you really can’t think past them.

    So, do you think we can “be confident in our cognitive equipment”? If so, tell me what would be your needed proof to show that you shouldn’t be confident.

  8. Sabio Lantz says:

    Well sure – the existence of God doesn’t guarantee that we either have reliable cognitive facilities, or that we will use them reliably – but to believe that are cognitive machinery is reliable requires us to believe the process by which we acquired such machinery is reliable…

    Again, animal use their cognitive facilities reliably — but so what? Planets orbit Suns reliably, but so what? I think you have made some huge jumps in logic that even other Christians would fault you on.

  9. jackhudson says:

    Using one’s cognitive facilities to percieve the world (as animals do), and trusting that those facilities can reliably discern true beliefs are two different things. Perception and reaction are critical to survival – beliefs aren’t neccesarily so.

    So a certain argument from naturalism can be made that our cognitive abilities developed as the result of evolution, since that would be neccesary for survival – but whether we can accurately assess the truth of our beliefs is another thing. As the researchers above contend, our survival may have to do more with our ability to convince others to agree with our position rather than evaluate whether our position is correct.

    The reliability of belief evaluation depends on whether there is something inherent in the process which forms our minds which would require this reliability.

  10. Sabio Lantz says:

    Again, do you think your beliefs are reliable?
    Always, sometimes, never?

  11. jackhudson says:

    I think my cognitive equipment is reliable with regard to evaluating my beliefs; whether I use it reliably all the time is another question.

  12. Sabio Lantz says:

    Research has clearly shown that our evaluation of our own beliefs is unreliable. For support of this, one of may books would be: “Intuition: Its Powers and Perils” by David G. Myers (Professor of Psychology at Hope College — a Christian, btw)

    Some Hebrew writers knew this too:
    “He that trusteth in his own heart is a fool” — Proverbs 28:26

    Again, what would it take to show you that this Hebrew writer was right?

  13. Sabio Lantz says:

    Just a few examples from the book:
    “Belief persistence” (in spite of counter evidence). Both atheist and Christians and Hindus …. can be shown to have this for all manner of things — it is how the mind works.

    Fundamental attribution error:
    to underestimate a situation and overestimate inner dispositions.

    Misreading our own minds:
    Often we don’t know why dw do what we do

    Overconfidence
    our intuitive assessments of our own knowledge are routinely more confident than correct.

    Framing
    Judgments flip-flop depending on how the same issue or information is posed.

    and the list goes on. That is what I would call unreliable cognitive equipment.

  14. Sabio Lantz says:

    @Jack
    Does your argument go like this:

    (1) We have reliable cognitive equipment (RCE)
    (2) Only a perfect, creator could make RCE
    (3) Therefore, there is a perfect creator

  15. jackhudson says:

    Research has clearly shown that our evaluation of our own beliefs is unreliable. For support of this, one of may books would be: “Intuition: Its Powers and Perils” by David G. Myers (Professor of Psychology at Hope College — a Christian, btw)

    Some Hebrew writers knew this too:
    “He that trusteth in his own heart is a fool” — Proverbs 28:26

    Again, what would it take to show you that this Hebrew writer was right?

    I do think the Hebrew writer is right, but he isn’t saying “You can never know if something is true” because to say that would undermine the very truth of the statement he is making – or the ability of readers to know it is true. He is saying you can never know what is true apart from God – which suggests our cognitive equipment wasn’t designed to be used apart from a relationship with God.

    Just a few examples from the book:
    “Belief persistence” (in spite of counter evidence). Both atheist and Christians and Hindus …. can be shown to have this for all manner of things — it is how the mind works.

    Fundamental attribution error:
    to underestimate a situation and overestimate inner dispositions.

    Misreading our own minds:
    Often we don’t know why dw do what we do

    Overconfidence
    our intuitive assessments of our own knowledge are routinely more confident than correct.

    Framing
    Judgments flip-flop depending on how the same issue or information is posed.

    and the list goes on. That is what I would call unreliable cognitive equipment.

    Again, the problem with saying that your cognitive equipment is wholly unreliable is that you are arriving at that conclusion by using your cognitive equipment! So while it is certainly true our cognitive equipment has the capacity to be unreliable (otherwise, we wouldn’t have differing beliefs) if we consider it to be wholly unreliable without the possibility of correcting its errors, then there would be no way to know this either.

    @Jack
    Does your argument go like this:

    (1) We have reliable cognitive equipment (RCE)
    (2) Only a perfect, creator could make RCE
    (3) Therefore, there is a perfect creator

    No, the argument isn’t so much an argument for the existence of God as it a defeater of naturalism (or materialism):

    1. The ability to discern the truth of a belief requires reliable cognitive equipment.

    2. There is nothing inherent in evolutionary processes to suggest our ability to discern a true belief is reliable

    3. Therefore, we cannot say our belief that human minds are the product of evolutionary processes alone is true.

    The corollary to this is that the belief that one’s mind was designed to reliably evaluate beliefs is consistent with the claim that one’s belief in a designer is reliable.

  16. Sabio Lantz says:

    @ Jack

    Couple Points:

    Point 1

    I never said “wholly” unreliable. Again, I must remind you to read me and not imagine some conversation with an imaginary atheist in your head.

    Indeed, I asked you a question you did not answer:

    Again, do you think your beliefs are reliable?
    Always, sometimes, never?

    So, to get anywhere (it appears we must take this slowly), am I correct in assuming your answer would be “sometimes”?

    Point 2

    our cognitive equipment wasn’t designed to be used apart from a relationship with God.

    Also in proverbs the writer says something to the effect “There is wisdom in the Counsel of many.” I am sure the writer is not discussing the heavenly hosts, but instead, many people. Likewise, science, in order to get around the offend unreliable human cognitive abilities, uses many people, many studies, many different angles to approach truth.

    I see no safety guard on our cognitive equipment whatsoever for listening to a god.

    Likewise, imagine all the folks imagining they are listening to all the gods you don’t believe in and declaring their wisdom because they feel they are now useing their cognitive equipment with that divine check. You would consider them bizarre only because they don’t have your god. But think of all sorts of Christian nuts have done it over the centuries and present day that you’d too probably say were off the mark too. All that is subjective. That is why the counsel of many and science are so powerful.

    Our cognitive skills are too defective to accept subjective talk with some god to be reassuring.

    Hope that helps.

  17. jackhudson says:

    I never said “wholly” unreliable. Again, I must remind you to read me and not imagine some conversation with an imaginary atheist in your head.

    Well I was trying to make a distinction that you left unclear. I don’t believe my cognitive equipment is on the whole unreliable though it can be used in an unreliable fashion, like any equipment.

    Indeed, I asked you a question you did not answer:

    Again, do you think your beliefs are reliable?
    Always, sometimes, never?

    I only hold beliefs that I consider to be reliably true. Not all beliefs I have ever held turned out to be true or accurate.

    So, to get anywhere (it appears we must take this slowly), am I correct in assuming your answer would be “sometimes”?

    Yes, in retrospect.

    Also in proverbs the writer says something to the effect “There is wisdom in the Counsel of many.” I am sure the writer is not discussing the heavenly hosts, but instead, many people. Likewise, science, in order to get around the offend unreliable human cognitive abilities, uses many people, many studies, many different angles to approach truth.

    Sure, but again, holding the belief that “There is wisdom in the Counsel of many” is itself a belief that requires cognitive evaluation. And trusting the counsel of others would also require that one trust the cognitive equipment of others. And the belief that science can aid in evaluating beliefs is itself a belief – which again requires that at the foundation we can reliably discern the truth of a belief. All forms of knowledge, as much as they are derived from certain beliefs or propositions, at their foundation rely on our cognitive equipment being capable of evaluating beliefs.

    So if the researchers in the post above are correct, there isn’t actually wisdom in the counsel of many – since the ‘many’ would themselves be inclined to argue for their own positions. And we would be inclined to hear those bits of information that support our position, including scientific findings. And so such a view of the development of our cognitive equipment would undermine it’s reliability.

    I see no safety guard on our cognitive equipment whatsoever for listening to a god.

    Well if God exists, and He designed our cognitive equipment, and did so in a fashion that it operates best when He is included in our considerations, then obviously this would be how we would think best.

    Likewise, imagine all the folks imagining they are listening to all the gods you don’t believe in and declaring their wisdom because they feel they are now useing their cognitive equipment with that divine check. You would consider them bizarre only because they don’t have your god. But think of all sorts of Christian nuts have done it over the centuries and present day that you’d too probably say were off the mark too. All that is subjective. That is why the counsel of many and science are so powerful.

    Well I don’t deny that science and consulting others isn’t helpful, but it is irrelevant to the discussion if our cognitive equipment isn’t inclined to be reliable with regard to belief evaluation in the first place, as I noted above. Also, as we know science and the multitudes have been tragically wrong before, so those factors can also be seen as potentially unreliable as well.

    Our cognitive skills are too defective to accept subjective talk with some god to be reassuring.

    It’s not clear how you could know this if your cognitive equipment were that flawed.

    Nonetheless, I have no idea what you mean by ‘subjective talk with some god’ – the fact that some people have wrong beliefs about God or gods does not mean that it is less necessary to consult the actual designer of our minds as a means of insuring our ability to evaluate beliefs.

  18. Sabio Lantz says:

    @Jack

    I only hold beliefs that I consider to be reliably true. Not all beliefs I have ever held turned out to be true or accurate.

    I must be misreading you. This sounds like you are saying ridiculous like: “I use to hold inaccurate beliefs, but now the only ones I hold are true ones.”

    We are starting to spin our wheels here. You are not carefully listening to what I am saying and I don’t care to argue for arguements sake. If anything sank in, great, if not, fine.

    To summarize:

    (1) Our cognitive skills are defective but useful, especially using methods we have developed over millenium to safe guard them — science being one and counsel of many being another.

    (2) Expecting subjective hearing of a god’s voice as a check on our cognitive defects is an example of the worse defect.

    (3) Awareness of beliefs (imperfect as that awareness is) could evolve without intervention by some super brain (god). Your contrived argument fails.

  19. jackhudson says:

    I must be misreading you. This sounds like you are saying ridiculous like: “I use to hold inaccurate beliefs, but now the only ones I hold are true ones.”

    Yes, you are misreading me, and I am not sure you yet understand the central and essential point.

    In response to your question I am making the rather straight forward point that I know some of my past beliefs were in error. I don’t believe in of my current beliefs are in error – no rational person does, because why would anyone hold a belief he knows to be in error? This does not mean it isn’t possible that some of my current beliefs are in error.

    But all of this is irrelevant to the main and essential point you seem not able to comprehend – if our cognitive equipment weren’t capable of discerning whether a belief was true, then we could not know anything truly about our beliefs – whether some are in error, whether some are now true. In short a conversation like the one we are having right now is moot.

    We are starting to spin our wheels here. You are not carefully listening to what I am saying and I don’t care to argue for arguements sake. If anything sank in, great, if not, fine.

    To summarize:

    (1) Our cognitive skills are defective but useful, especially using methods we have developed over millenium to safe guard them — science being one and counsel of many being another.

    Everything we have ‘developed over the millennium’ was a product of the same cognitive equipment, now utilizes the same cognitive equipment, and is based on certain beliefs which, if our cognitive equipment is in error are irrelevant. It’s like admitting your calculator gives bad results, but you are confident in the numbers because you ran them multiple times, and use other bad calculators to check the numbers – all you end up with is multiplying the error!

    The methodology is only as good as the equipment you use to take the measures. Our primary bit of equipment is our mind, and if it evolved, there is no reason to expect it is accurate with regard to belief evaluation. This doesn’t mean it isn’t reliable for survival, but we know the ability to evaluate belief correctly doesn’t appear to be essential to survival.

    (2) Expecting subjective hearing of a god’s voice as a check on our cognitive defects is an example of the worse defect.

    I agree, that is why I think one should always hear God’s voice objectively.

    (3) Awareness of beliefs (imperfect as that awareness is) could evolve without intervention by some super brain (god). Your contrived argument fails.

    Awareness of belief isn’t in contention here – obviously we know we are aware of our beliefs. It has to do with knowing we have the ability to evaluate the truth of our beliefs based on the development of our cognitive equipment. This very statement shows you still don’t understand this.

    This is what you must show if I am wrong Sabio:

    1. Evolutionary processes are capable of developing in us the ability of discerning accurate beliefs because such an ability was essential to our survival.

    2. If evolution did not or could not do this, you must show that there exists an external measure, not dependent on our cognitive abilities, by which we can evaluate the truth of our beliefs.

    Absent that, the only logically consistent way to contend that we can assess the accuracy or truth of a belief is if we believe we were given that ability by an entity that designed our minds.

  20. Sabio Lantz says:

    You keep admitting that our cognitive equipment can and does continually make errors. Yet you say:

    It’s like admitting your calculator gives bad results, but you are confident in the numbers because you ran them multiple times, and use other bad calculators to check the numbers – all you end up with is multiplying the error!

    Your analogy is poor.

    Think of this: Though computers fail in calculation far less easily than humans, in spacecrafts they will have three computers analyse the same situations and then check each other for safety reasons. Even that is not perfect, but heck, we have to be pragmatic.

    You are right when you said:

    Our primary bit of equipment is our mind, and if it evolved, there is no reason to expect it is accurate with regard to belief evaluation.

    Well I agree only if you meant it can’t be 100% accurate. Which it isn’t.

    You wrote:

    I agree, that is why I think one should always hear God’s voice objectively.

    Are you referring to the Bible (what you would call “God’s Word”) when you say this? Because there is not way to “hear” a god’s voice objectively. Or are you just *that* special?

    You said,

    “we have the ability to evaluate the truth of our beliefs based on the development of our cognitive equipment.”

    But we can never be certain of truth — we can test a belief and see if we think it works or works well-enough to satisfy us — but “Certainty” is never ours. And I think many of your fellow Christians would agree.

    I don’t have to show you what “evolutionary processes are capable of. Nice try on that “must”. Besides I have already shown that our ability to discern accurate beliefs is limited in and thus needs safeguards (and a god whispering in your ear is not one of them). The evolution could produce that sort of faulty but *useful* faculty is not surprising because evolution does not generate perfection, but just good-enough fit.

    So it seems we disagree. You think I don’t get what you are saying and I just think you don’t get it, nor want to.

  21. Sabio Lantz says:

    ooops, forgot to close the last blockquote (forgot the backslash) — please correct if you would.

  22. Actual stories about science….

    […]Did We Evolve To Argue? « Wide as the Waters[…]…

  23. NoOne says:

    Sabio, you’re not as smart as you think. Your arguments are pointless. Go grab a sandwich and get over yourself.

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