Pragmatic reason and brain science.

Author:Rowland, Robert C.
Position:FORUM
 
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Brain science research by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber (2011) claiming that humans developed the capacity to reason in order "to devise and evaluate arguments intended to persuade" (p. 57) produced a strong reaction because, as Patricia Cohen (2011) noted in The New York Times, the research seemed to undercut the link between reason and what she labeled "the search for truth" (p. C1). The research, especially the fact that argumentation researchers from Aristotle to the present day were not cited, also seemed to suggest, as Tom Hollihan (2011) observed in his keynote address at the 2011 Alta conference, the "need to increase the impact of our discipline within the academy" (p. 18). The oddity is that a close reading of the original research suggests that the conclusions drawn by the authors and the reaction to the essay both reflect a misreading of the underlying research.

Although Hollihan is clearly right that argumentation scholars should try to show the relevance of their research in the public sphere, the Mercier and Sperber essay and responses to it do not demonstrate so much a failure of argumentation researchers as the insularity of brain science research. The "Editorial Policy" (2011) of the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences limits commentary to "qualified professionals in the behavioral and brain sciences" (n.p.). It is also noteworthy that it is not only argumentation scholars who were not cited in the journal, but also major figures whose importance no one would deny including: Aristotle (2007), Jurgen Habermas (1989); see also Calhoun, (1992), and Stephen Toulmin (1958, 1972). Mercier and Sperber seem to believe that only brain researchers have anything to say about argument; this may explain why they do not fully recognize the implication of their own argument.

The core claim of Mercier and Sperber (2011) is that "reasoning contributes to the effectiveness and reliability of communication" because it "increases both in quantity and in epistemic quality the information humans are able to share" (p. 60) and, therefore, the primary function of reasoning is not "to improve knowledge and make better decisions" (p. 57), but to make people more effective arguers. The confused nature of the argument should be obvious in even the short summary I have provided. The claim as Cohen (2011) summarized it, that "reason evolved for a completely different purpose" other than discovering knowledge (p. C1), is undercut by Mercier and...

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