The argumentative theory of reason (and public intellectuals)

 
TheAnal_lyticPhilosopher
 
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01 June 2018 12:49
 

I recently came across something that might be of interest here—the argumentative theory of reason.

After discussing the empirical literature in the cognitive science of judgment, Merier and Sperber make the following observation about the nature and function of reason:

“These results raise a problem for the classical view of reasoning. In all these cases, reasoning does not lead to more accurate beliefs about an object, to better estimates of the correctness of one’s answer, or to superior moral judgments. Instead, by looking only for supporting arguments, reasoning strengthens people’s opinions, distorts their estimates, and allows them to get away with violations of their own moral intuitions. In these cases, epistemic or moral goals are not well served by reasoning. By contrast, argumentative goals are: People are better able to support their positions or to justify their moral judgments.”

Why do humans reason? Arguments for an argumentative theory (2011), p. 68.

The theoretical background for this claim is more or less as follows.

In cognitive science it is generally said that cognition is composed of two systems: a fast, intuitive system I (unconscious inference) and a slower, deliberative system II (conscious reasoning).  Under one school, system I has inherent heuristics and bias that cause systemic deviation from the epistemically sound results of system II, meaning that system II is the storehouse of rationally established, justified true beliefs about the world, with the corollary that it evolved to serve as such—i.e. it evolved to serve as the guarantor, as it were, of true, accurate belief.  According to Mercier and Sperber’s argumentative theory, however, system II is subject to its own ‘heuristics and biases’; it also systemically deviates from true, accurate representations of the world because it evolved not to insure accurate beliefs per se but to present reasons for the beliefs one already has.  Under this theory, then, reason is an instrument of justification before it is an instrument of discovery or empirical validation.  This is not to say that reason can’t be used for the latter, only that in most people, most of the time, it isn’t used that way.  Instead it’s used to establish or justify existing beliefs in the eyes of others, or more generally to defend one’s own beliefs in one’s own eyes, not insure accurate beliefs per se.  The main difference the argumentative theory offers over the older view of system I and system II: under the old school of reason as intrinsically epistemic system I is the intrinsic distorter away from the epistemically sound system II, while under this new approach system II is no more epistemically sound than system I, subject as it is to its own systemic biases intrinsic to its function, a function evolved for different reasons than those asserted by the older school.  And again, that different function is ‘reasoning in order to argue for a belief,’ not to reasoning to derive accurate beliefs per se.  To quote the conclusion of the article:

“Some of the evidence reviewed here shows not only that reasoning falls short of delivering rational beliefs and rational decisions reliably, but also that, in a variety of cases, it may even be detrimental to rationality. Reasoning can lead to poor outcomes not because humans are bad at it but because they systematically look for arguments to justify their beliefs or their actions. The argumentative theory, however, puts such well-known demonstrations of “irrationality” in a novel perspective. Human reasoning is not a profoundly flawed general mechanism; it is a remarkably efficient specialized device adapted to a certain type of social and cognitive interaction at which it excels.”  That interaction is argument—i.e. presenting and evaluating reasons for belief, not testing the veracity and basis of belief itself.

To my mind, this argumentative theory offers a potential explanation for the behavior we see in most public intellectuals, particularly those who wave the banner of reason and rationality over their own heads while implying—or even explicitly saying—that great swaths of the populace are irrational or unreasonable, particularly those they disagree with.  In the final analysis, right or wrong on an issue, these intellectuals are in the argument game: they are preoccupied with coming up with arguments for their beliefs, not for determining the conditions under which those beliefs can be tested or determined true.  And more tellingly, perhaps, these intellectuals don’t appear to be in the problem solving business as much as in the business of arguing for positions about problems.  In any event, their main proficiency (if not stated preference as well) appears to be hyper-rationality in argument as opposed to reliance on or the development of good intuitions, which is precisely what is to be expected from those who advertise the use of “reason,” if the argumentative theory of reason were true.  For if true, “reason” is for presenting reasons for belief instead of an examination of the basis of belief itself.  In this respect, public intellectuals are doing exactly what reason is supposedly for—looking for better arguments to strengthen a position that is presumed right, with the circular presumption that the intuitively based belief is right because of the arguments.  Admittedly, the relation between intuition, belief and argument is complex; much more needs to be said.  But as a beginning, the argumentative theory of reason explains perhaps the most salient fact observable in public intellectual behavior, to wit: they never change their minds, a phenomenon that’s all but impossible if one is both intellectually honest and trying to solve problems.  But in arguing for established belief—especially when it is presumed that argument establishes belief—not changing one’s mind is what is precisely what would be expected because in argument the foundation of belief is assumed and defended, not explored and challenged.  In any case, the argumentative theory of reason offers the germ of an idea for differentiating intuitions that pose and explanations that solve problems from arguments defending an intuitive belief—a difference, it seems, worth exploring in a forum where arguments and beliefs are exchanged about problems that need to be solved.

[ Edited: 04 June 2018 04:10 by TheAnal_lyticPhilosopher]
 
LadyJane
 
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01 June 2018 19:04
 

I think it’s time to ratchet up the radical honesty and start approaching these threads like a trolley experiment.

“Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it and I shall move the world.” - Archimedes

 
 
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02 June 2018 04:44
 

A “trolley experiment”? 

For my part, everything I post here is an experiment in being free from the grips of an idea.  I write them out in order to be no longer possessed by them; to be able to consider them as an object, as something found, not created.  Sometimes something gets sacrificed, sometimes not.  Is this the dilemma you are referring to—the moral philosopher’s quandary over killing one to save five?

[ Edited: 02 June 2018 05:23 by TheAnal_lyticPhilosopher]
 
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02 June 2018 14:00
 
TheAnal_lyticPhilosopher - 02 June 2018 04:44 AM

A “trolley experiment”? 

For my part, everything I post here is an experiment in being free from the grips of an idea.  I write them out in order to be no longer possessed by them; to be able to consider them as an object, as something found, not created.  Sometimes something gets sacrificed, sometimes not.  Is this the dilemma you are referring to—the moral philosopher’s quandary over killing one to save five?

Intellectual triage.  Kill the one to save the five and salvage the thread.  So to speak.

Thoughtful and disciplined writing is rare.  Humility and openness for learning is lacking.  A lot of what goes on at this forum is an exercise in futility.  I like your approach.  To be free from the grip of the talon gives a grander view of the birdie.  Although we may not create the idea from scratch we arrange and rearrange them to our understanding and run it by another set of eyeballs to see if it takes.  Like a pen is a shepherd and the words are the sheep.  All creativity is lost on public intellectuals complacent in their station in life.  The pressure is off and the ink wells are dry from the wick dipping private following willing to finance the endeavour.  Some folks don’t even see the birdie.  They simply mimic the tweet.  I imagine they’d think for themselves if they could just get a grip.

 
 
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03 June 2018 04:25
 

For the sake of saving two ideas from intellectual triage, two problems in the originating post can be observed: just what is this thing, the “public intellectual,” and if both intuition and reason (system I and system 2) are so unreliable because of intrinsic bias, how the f**k do we ever come to have reliable, accurate beliefs about anything?  Regarding the first…

There is precedence for operationalizing the “public intellectual”: Richard Posner’s Public Intellectuals: A Study in Decline (2001).  This book was written at the dawn of the Internet, and for him, a public intellectual was an academic who ventures from their specialty to write or speak on politically charged or otherwise ideological issues of public concern.  So for him, a public intellectual was first and foremost an academic; the hybridization of being a public figure and an academic was his theme.  Furthermore, his analysis was “economic,” in that it framed the issue in terms of supply and demand, market failure, and so forth, and for this reason, Posner’s precedence is of little direct value here.  Also, he has in mind something quite different than what I intend; his focus is the public intellectual as a moonlighting academic.  In this context, a public intellectual is not necessarily, or even usually, an academic.  Rather they are a public figures producing and consuming “symbolic goods” in a “market” for their ideas and opinions.  Without embracing fully Posner’s market analysis, this much seems worth keeping.  A “public intellectual” in the context here is someone who markets their opinions on issues of public concern for consumption in “the marketplace of ideas”.  Actual money may or may not be directly involved, and the scope of “public concern” can vary, meaning some issues have a smaller demographic than others.  But as will be seen in a second, most public intellectuals make their living producing in this marketplace of ideas, or in some way permitting easy crossover into public intellectual life.

So some examples:  Sam Harris.  Joe Rogan.  Eric Weinstein.  Mariam Namazie.  Abby Martin.  Ezra Klein.  Glen Greenwald.  Fahreed Zakaria.  Douglas Murray. Dinesh D’Souza.  Nicholas Taleb. Christina Hoff Sommers.  Michael Shermer.  And so forth.  The public intellectuals I have in mind are rarely, if ever, academics, and their prominence in the marketplace of ideas occurs along with the rise of—and in some respects is a result of—the widening of the public space through the Internet (Fahreed Zakaria and Dinesh D’Souza are exceptions).  Rogan, Harris and Klein all have popular podcasts.  The rest write freely on their own websites and in Internet journals or magazines, and so forth.  Many are featured in debates that eventually reach You Tube but never air in traditional media.  While there is occasional cross-over with traditional journalism (Zakaria and Klein), there is also emphasis on media outlets that owe their rise mainly to the rise of the Internet, and in any case, it’s this rise and these intellectuals I have in mind.  The rise of some even has a name now:  the “intellectual dark web”, with “web” stressing the non-traditional media of these intellectuals.  In any case, its public intellectuals vying in the marketplace of ideas expanded with the rise of the Internet that comes to mind here.  These are the ones who seem to be in the argument game; who never change their minds; who seem less about exploring the foundations of belief than about defending their own beliefs against all comers; who seem less about framing problems in terms that afford sensible solutions than in framing problems in such a way that some other approach to a problem is wrong.  They are the ones whose very existence in the marketplace of ideas seems based on the presumption of being right, usually at the expense of someone else in the same marketplace who must be wrong.  And so forth.  These are the public intellectuals who seem to embody the argumentative theory of reason in such detail.. 

Ok, so that’s an attempt to clarify an idea the specificity of which was sacrificed in the original post.  The second one—just how do we get reliable explanations and bona fide solutions if both intuition and reason are so intrinsically biased—will take more work, though the issue can be framed simply enough.

[ Edited: 04 June 2018 04:13 by TheAnal_lyticPhilosopher]
 
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03 June 2018 09:53
 

The second weakness in the originating post—though perhaps less a weakness per se than an implication desperately requiring elaboration—goes more or less like this: if both intuition and reason are unreliable modes of sound, accurate “beliefs” because of systemic bias intrinsic to their operations, then how the f**k do we explain having beliefs that are both sound, reliable and accurate?  If both reason and intuition are out, then what’s left—and not just “what’s left” in the sense of new names for the same basic operations?  We have accurate beliefs; that is indisputable.  Both intuition and reason are prone to bias; this is indisputable as well, if the vast amount of evidence in the cognitive science of judgment is taken seriously.  So what then?  How do we get true beliefs if our two cognitive systems for belief formation are so intrinsically flawed?  If both the heuristics and biases theory of intuition and the argumentative theory of reason are true, how then can reliable, sound, accurate beliefs be explained?  And surely we have them.

The first place to look for an explanation is the evidence that intuition and reason are intrinsically prone to systemic bias.  What does “intrinsic” and “systemic” mean here?  Does it mean ‘every time they are used,’ like a warp in a lens intrinsically distorts what’s viewed through the lens, or does it mean “intrinsic” as an ever-recurring possibility, as though the warp sometimes appears in the lens, can always sometimes appear in it, but does not always do so?  Both common sense and only a cursory look at the evidence in the cognitive science literature is all it takes to show that latter sense of “intrinsic” must the case.  That is, as a body, the evidence of systemic bias in intuition and reason only supports “intrinsic” in the second sense.  To state the matter another way: the evidence of systemic bias in system I (intuition) and system II (reason) only supports the idea that intuition and reason are sometimes biased, not that they are intrinsically and systemically so—a position so straightforward, really, one wonders why it needs to be brought up here.  But it does, because according to both theories, intuition and reason are systemically flawed because of tendencies intrinsic to their modes of cognition, hence the existence of “heuristics and biases” in judgment.

The existence of occasional bias—“intrinsic” in the second sense, not the first—is as indisputable as the fact that bias occurs, for in every study examining judgment under uncertainty, some of the participants in the sample get the answers wrong, and some don’t.  Every study.  Yet from this the following extrapolation occurs: intuition (system I) is systemically biased because of heuristics and biases in intuitive judgment, or reason (system II) is systemically biased because of its intrinsic function—not, sometimes intuition or reasoning misfires in a predictable, apparently systemic way.  The difference is crucial; the fallacy of reification is direct.  For all the evidence directly says is that some people intuit or reason poorly some of the time, not that reason and intuition themselves are poor belief generators, and this suggests an entirely different interpretation of the evidence than intrinsic heuristics and biases in judgment.  Since the evidence that only some people exhibit these heuristics and biases some of the time is even more overwhelming than the evidence that the biases themselves exist (for the former is the basis of the later claim), an alternative reading of the data is warranted.  What might that reading be?

I suggest the following: the “systemic” bias we see in both intuitive and rational judgment is not the result of intrinsic biases or distortions in intuition and reason as such but rather to their deployment in a certain kind of people prone to intuit and reason poorly.  And these people are prone to be poor in more or less the same ways.  And that’s about it.  What the heuristics and biases literature and the argumentative theory literature show is that some people suck at intuition and reason, not that intuition and reason systemically suck.  Why this more parsimonious reading of the evidence is not mainstream is beyond me, but there it is.  Neither intuition nor reason are intrinsically or systemically biased, only intuiters and reasoners are, and even them, only to degrees (otherwise they wouldn’t be able to survive long enough to show up for the study).  This reading of the data has a direct implication for the original post. 

Simply put, public intellectuals—as operationally defined in the first triage—are of the kind prone to “systemic bias” in the use of reason, i.e. reliance on argument.  They self-select into the marketplace of ideas because that kind of intellectual—one given to argument, not examination of the foundation of belief—is most adapted to survive, given the preferences of the consumer.  Who is this consumer?  Well, everyone who listens to podcasts, who reads Internet media outlets, who attends these speaking events or watches them on YouTube.  What is to be said of their preferences?  How do they relate to the self-selection of public intellectuals?  Well, they are just as prone to the “systemic biases” in intuition and reason as the ones who fail to get right answers in these studies.  In fact, they are the population from which the majorities in these samples are drawn.  For without a doubt strong or even overwhelming majorities get the answers wrong in these studies of judgment, so it seems highly plausible that public intellectuals, as notable examples of these biases themselves, are drawn to their consumers just as the consumers are drawn to public intellectuals.  They are, in short, made for each other; they thrive off of and promote each other in their “systemically biased” use of reason.  In any case, this is the germ of an idea that follows from clarification of the second triaged element: in the bad reasoning we see in public debate, we are seeing kinds of people rise to the fore, not reason itself misfiring.  People mis-reasoning, not reason systemically flawed.  This has implications that I’ll leave on the table for someone else to take up, or to take up myself another time.  But for triage sake, the initial work is done.

[ Edited: 04 June 2018 04:17 by TheAnal_lyticPhilosopher]
 
burt
 
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03 June 2018 10:14
 

Mercier and Speber have refined their arguments in a 2017 book, The Enigma of Reason. Their basic point, that reason didn’t evolve to promote better decision making and development of better beliefs but rather as a means of assisting coordination and communication in Paleolithic groups is… reasonable. As is the argument that reason is often post hoc. But I don’t go along with their modular view.

 
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04 June 2018 07:34
 
TheAnal_lyticPhilosopher - 01 June 2018 12:49 PM

I recently came across something that might be of interest here—the argumentative theory of reason.

After discussing the empirical literature in the cognitive science of judgment, Merier and Sperber make the following observation about the nature and function of reason:

“These results raise a problem for the classical view of reasoning. In all these cases, reasoning does not lead to more accurate beliefs about an object, to better estimates of the correctness of one’s answer, or to superior moral judgments. Instead, by looking only for supporting arguments, reasoning strengthens people’s opinions, distorts their estimates, and allows them to get away with violations of their own moral intuitions. In these cases, epistemic or moral goals are not well served by reasoning. By contrast, argumentative goals are: People are better able to support their positions or to justify their moral judgments.”

Why do humans reason? Arguments for an argumentative theory (2011), p. 68.

. . .

Yes—that’s what reasoning amounts to. To expect some result other than review-style activity from reasoning—finding out the reasons for things—seems like a futile chore, akin to expecting subtle brilliance to be a direct result of a corporate meeting.

While it’s true that our emotions often guide us into harmful or at least invalid territory, some of our emotions inspire insight and other creativity. Since such insights/projections are indeed inspired by, at times, complex emotional reaction, we do well to review even the apparent best of them, using our ability to reason. It may appear to be a terribly flawed setup, but it seems to work pretty well sometimes, wouldn’t you say?

 
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04 June 2018 10:34
 

One exception may be a multidisciplinary approach to bioethics. I have at times been forced, as a hospital ethics chairman, to reach a conclusion that is contrary to my initial impression after listening to counter-arguments and considering strict application of ethical principles.  But, on the whole, I agree with the sentiments presented by the OP.

 
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06 June 2018 06:33
 
nonverbal - 04 June 2018 07:34 AM

Yes—that’s what reasoning amounts to. To expect some result other than review-style activity from reasoning—finding out the reasons for things—seems like a futile chore, akin to expecting subtle brilliance to be a direct result of a corporate meeting.

While it’s true that our emotions often guide us into harmful or at least invalid territory, some of our emotions inspire insight and other creativity. Since such insights/projections are indeed inspired by, at times, complex emotional reaction, we do well to review even the apparent best of them, using our ability to reason. It may appear to be a terribly flawed setup, but it seems to work pretty well sometimes, wouldn’t you say?

As for working “pretty well sometimes,” I like this formulation:

We are intrinsically sheep like.  That isn’t meant as an insult it is genetically ingrained in our very nature.  It is only with the vigilant application of reason from individual to individual, from generation to generation, from century to century, from millennia to millennia that we find ourselves here, on the shoulders of giants, and still haven’t a clue about a lot of things.  Everything we do is based on what came before and until we acknowledge this simple fact of life, fake news will rain down, as it always has, and we will form a human umbrella to shelter us from it.  Depending on who we’re willing to bring into the fold.

 
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06 June 2018 06:57
 

burt:

For my part I think the modularity thesis proposed by evolutionary psychology is (to be charitable) wrong, and I was disappointed to see it referenced in their otherwise sensible explanation.  The idea that in a couple of hundred thousand years dozens (if not hundreds) of “adaptive” mutations occurred in the brain, then just mysteriously stopped at the end of the Paleolithic age, leaving us with a Paleolithic-mind making its way in a modern environment…well, not only is this the just-so story that it is; it’s one that doesn’t even make sense.  Given the known mutation rate, it’s not possible that so many “adaptive” mutations would both occur and spread in the human population in that short a time, much less just stop after occurring at such an extraordinary rate. In any event, I think the work done by Tomasello’s group at the Plank Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology is far more persuasive.  They too have an evolutionary view, but they are able to show at the basis of “mind and culture” just a few foundational functions at work, not “massive modularity.”  And they don’t say these functions “evolved in order to solve adaptive problems”—the fallacy evolutionary psychologists rely on.

EN

It sounds to me like you would be one of those who in the studies got the answers right.

[ Edited: 06 June 2018 07:06 by TheAnal_lyticPhilosopher]
 
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06 June 2018 07:09
 
TheAnal_lyticPhilosopher - 06 June 2018 06:33 AM
nonverbal - 04 June 2018 07:34 AM

Yes—that’s what reasoning amounts to. To expect some result other than review-style activity from reasoning—finding out the reasons for things—seems like a futile chore, akin to expecting subtle brilliance to be a direct result of a corporate meeting.

While it’s true that our emotions often guide us into harmful or at least invalid territory, some of our emotions inspire insight and other creativity. Since such insights/projections are indeed inspired by, at times, complex emotional reaction, we do well to review even the apparent best of them, using our ability to reason. It may appear to be a terribly flawed setup, but it seems to work pretty well sometimes, wouldn’t you say?

As for working “pretty well sometimes,” I like this formulation:

We are intrinsically sheep like.  That isn’t meant as an insult it is genetically ingrained in our very nature.  It is only with the vigilant application of reason from individual to individual, from generation to generation, from century to century, from millennia to millennia that we find ourselves here, on the shoulders of giants, and still haven’t a clue about a lot of things.  Everything we do is based on what came before and until we acknowledge this simple fact of life, fake news will rain down, as it always has, and we will form a human umbrella to shelter us from it.  Depending on who we’re willing to bring into the fold.

Obviously, we’re glorified apes, at best—on a good day!

 
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06 June 2018 08:45
 
TheAnal_lyticPhilosopher - 06 June 2018 06:57 AM

burt:

For my part I think the modularity thesis proposed by evolutionary psychology is (to be charitable) wrong, and I was disappointed to see it referenced in their otherwise sensible explanation.  The idea that in a couple of hundred thousand years dozens (if not hundreds) of “adaptive” mutations occurred in the brain, then just mysteriously stopped at the end of the Paleolithic age, leaving us with a Paleolithic-mind making its way in a modern environment…well, not only is this the just-so story that it is; it’s one that doesn’t even make sense.  Given the known mutation rate, it’s not possible that so many “adaptive” mutations would both occur and spread in the human population in that short a time, much less just stop after occurring at such an extraordinary rate. In any event, I think the work done by Tomasello’s group at the Plank Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology is far more persuasive.  They too have an evolutionary view, but they are able to show at the basis of “mind and culture” just a few foundational functions at work, not “massive modularity.”  And they don’t say these functions “evolved in order to solve adaptive problems”—the fallacy evolutionary psychologists rely on.

EN

It sounds to me like you would be one of those who in the studies got the answers right.

Not a fan of modularity at all. Prefer neural dynamical systems and pattern recognition.

 
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06 June 2018 08:45
 
TheAnal_lyticPhilosopher - 06 June 2018 06:57 AM

burt:

For my part I think the modularity thesis proposed by evolutionary psychology is (to be charitable) wrong, and I was disappointed to see it referenced in their otherwise sensible explanation.  The idea that in a couple of hundred thousand years dozens (if not hundreds) of “adaptive” mutations occurred in the brain, then just mysteriously stopped at the end of the Paleolithic age, leaving us with a Paleolithic-mind making its way in a modern environment…well, not only is this the just-so story that it is; it’s one that doesn’t even make sense.  Given the known mutation rate, it’s not possible that so many “adaptive” mutations would both occur and spread in the human population in that short a time, much less just stop after occurring at such an extraordinary rate. In any event, I think the work done by Tomasello’s group at the Plank Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology is far more persuasive.  They too have an evolutionary view, but they are able to show at the basis of “mind and culture” just a few foundational functions at work, not “massive modularity.”  And they don’t say these functions “evolved in order to solve adaptive problems”—the fallacy evolutionary psychologists rely on.

EN

It sounds to me like you would be one of those who in the studies got the answers right.

Not a fan of modularity at all. Prefer neural dynamical systems and pattern recognition.