Reasoning has always been considered a cognitive activity that is characteristic of an intelligent mind. It seems to require an extra bit of effort. You think or hear an idea and your mind takes extra time to evaluate it.
Here’s how our dictionaries define it:
the action of thinking about something in a logical, sensible way.
On the surface, its purpose is to take us closer to the truth. With its help, we either form a new hypothesis or support or destroy an existing one. Better ideas and better inventions come to light by excessive “reasoning”. But is the actual purpose of its existence really to take us closer to the truth?
Argumentative theory disagrees. According to it, reasoning evolved as a tool to convince people of one’s own arguments. and to resits convincing behavior. Lawyers are the species that use this tool in its purest form. Argumentative theory nicely explains the numerous fallacies and biases that are long considered as faults in our reasoning. Authors of the theory argue that these apparent flaws in the system, are features, not bugs.
Take the ubiquitous confirmation bias, for example. It is a simple strategy where the person trying to convince themselves of something, only looks for confirming evidence while consciously or subconsciously ignoring the evidence that goes against their initial hypothesis. Why would the person do that? Because reality is not relevant when it comes to convincing others. Sticking to one’s original position and winning others brings confidence and the subsequent feeling of power over the ones that get convinced.
Even though it was designed for a social setting, our minds have become so good at reasoning that we use it every day in our heads without the need for people that need convincing. We do it to convince ourselves. Convince ourselves of hypothesis we aren’t sure of but definitely have a “liking” for.
Celebrities that we hate, we enjoy reading news that corroborate our beliefs by showing them in low light. We never actively try and seek out some goodwill that these personalities could have potrayed. On the other hand, people that we love, we try our best to neglect their negative qualities and seek out as many positives as possible. We don’t want to face the painful fact that we could have been all wrong about someone’s character.
All of this requires mental gymnastics which our minds perform using the power of reasoning. Fallacies and biaess are just a natural byproduct of using this tool.
But reasoning has also been a useful tool for coming closer to the truth. To discover the nature of humans, living organisms other than humans and the whole Universe. Is there a way to shape our usage of this tool more towards digging the truth rather than using it to just convince ourselves or others about our likeable beliefs?
Yes, introduction of cooperative learning in education has somewhat shown us one way to achieve this. As Mercier notes about collaborative reasoning research in children:
neo-Piagetian research program relies substantially on the following paradigm: children must solve a task individually (pretest); they are confronted with the same task in pairs (test), before finally solving the task individually again (posttest). The most important factor is the way children are paired with each other: a conserver can be paired with a non-conserver, or a non-conserver of a given type with a non-conserver of another type. Children may also face an adult who tells them they were wrong and why. The most relevant finding is that the interaction very often leads to improvement at posttest, compared to a control condition in which children did not interact with a peer. This result has been observed for numerous conservation tasks or spatial transformation tasks, as early as 6 years of age (Doise & Mugny, 1984; Perret-Clermont, 1980). The benefits of collaboration for this kind of task are extremely robust.
The learning outcomes of students who are urged to cooperate by different means are compared to those of a control group. Collaboration has been found to have positive effects on learning in a wide range of disciplines—from social studies to mathematics—and ages—from elementary school onwards (Johnson & Johnson, 2007; Slavin, 1995; Webb & Palinscar, 1996).
It is not surprising that reasoning in groups would lead to formation of better arguments. These groups should consist of a heterogenous population otherwise the group can quickly disintegrate into an echo chamber.
Humanity has to be on a constant lookout for invoking such strategies in our education system and beyond. Our societies are devolving into tribal sub societies that are not concerned about discovering the truth. Winning, in the form of tweets or likes, by whatever means possible, is the norm. This hampers progress on important social issues and increases animosity towards people with unlikeable or opposing views.
In future posts, I will explore strategies that could be useful in guiding us towards the usage of reasoning that Evolution did not intend.