Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Better Decisions or Winning the Argument: What is the Purpose of Reasoning?

The “argumentative theory of reasoning” suggests that our human capacity for reasoning has not evolved to find the truth, the most accurate answer, or the best decision. Rather, it proposes that the purpose of reasoning is to win arguments.

In “Reason Seen More as Weapon Than Path to Truth” (New York Times, June 14, 2011), Patricia Cohen provides a brief overview of the theory. Among other observations, the article notes:
Groups are more likely than individuals to come up with better results … because they will be exposed to the best arguments. … [T]he arguing and assessment skills employed by groups make democratic debate the best form of government for evolutionary reasons, regardless of philosophical or moral rationales. … [R]easoned discussion works best in smaller, cooperative environments rather than in … adversarial system[s], in which partisans seek to score political advantage rather than arrive at consensus.
The full article is worthwhile. It reviews research on reasoning, inference making, argumentation, group reasoning, the confirmation bias, belief formation and perseverance, and decision making. Overall it supports the case for small-group decision making.

Why Do Humans Reason? Arguments for an Argumentative Theory,” by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, Vol. 34, No. 2, pp. 57-74, April 2011.

The commentaries that accompany the article – some supportive and some counter – are extremely valuable. Those interested in dialogue and deliberation should look in particular at “Deliberative democracy and epistemic humility” by Kevin Chien-Chang Wu (pp. 93-94).


  1. Hi Sandy. Very exciting set of ideas and references here! Thank you!

    Your link to Cambridge Journals Online doesn't work for me, even after I registered with them. I was able to find the article by searching their site for "argumentative theory of reasoning", but then I got sticker shock at the price of the article ($45!). Fortunately, there seems to be a wealth of more recent (and free) material out there just by googling the phrase (e.g.

  2. Yes Jeff, a good find. This site provides a good summary of "the argumentative theory of reasoning"

  3. You may be interested in my take on argumentation theory from the point of view of Rittel's argumentative model of planning, for which I have done some work on the follow-up issue of evaluation of planning arguments (e.g. in the Dec. 2010 issue of 'Informal Logic' -- "The Structure and Evaluation of Planning Arguments"). I am now working on the concept of a game teaching this approach -- both to familiarize children with planning argumentation and eventually as a real planning tool. The basic idea there -- besides proposing an approach to the issue of assessment of such arguments -- is not that of 'winning' an argument, but to use argumentation to modify and improve planning and policy proposals to the point where they become acceptable if not preferable to the status quo to all affected parties.
    Thorbjoern Mann (

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  5. Mercier and Sperber "argue that the main function of reasoning is indeed social but by serving the social interests of individuals rather than the collective interests of the group. To reap the benefits of communication while limiting the risk of being misled, receivers must exercise what we have called epistemic vigilance." (96)

    Such vigilance from unhealthy influence might find itself in the adage "people don't care how much you know until they know how much you care." This point calls upon the need for a subtle social contract of trust before argument can be effective. The success of an argument, then, is not in the end of dialogue but rather in changes that are accepted within others.

    As for the beneficiaries, it seems quite possible that the message might be remembered by while the messenger might be forgotten.

    Tom Flanagan

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Any comments?