Why we argue: response to Mercier and Sperber.

Author:Hicks, Darrin
Position:FORUM
 
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We endorse Mercier and Sperber's (2011) claim that the evolutionary function of reasoning is contextualized argumentation--and in particular, group (social) rather than individual argumentation--in which each participant seeks to support his or her own arguments rather than to confirm truth, understood as transcendent to the argumentative context. We contend, however, that their account is too narrowly drawn, in that it does not go on to ask what the comparable function of argumentation itself is, or how argumentation enables "the exceptional dependence of humans on communication" to be "more reliable and hence more advantageous" (pp. 57, 60). That is, granted that we reason in order to argue, why do we argue?

We contend that we argue in order to fulfill two distinct (but not separable) needs: inquiry (ascertaining what is or should be the case) and collaboration (the work done by relational humans as they seek to solve problems). Argumentation as inquiry is oriented explicitly toward ascertaining facts that--as Mercier and Sperber claim--will support an arguer's views rather than those of other participants in a particular argumentative context. However, we diverge from their analysis of this function in regard to the role that truth plays in inquiry. Their contention that arguers "are not after the truth" (p. 57) suggests that they presume an understanding of truth as transcendent to an argumentative situation; as the achievement of correspondence with events and objects in the world. This conception of truth as a property of propositions that provide a linguistic "mirror" of the world has been extensively criticized in contemporary philosophical and rhetorical scholarship.

However, the prevalence of the confirmation bias suggests that arguers presume a second conception of truth, characterized by coherence with their already established beliefs and values. Both conceptions rely on processes of "intuitive inference" that provide the ground for the "reflective exploitation" that is "display[ed] in human communication" and, Mercier and Sperber note, is "the very function of reasoning" (p. 59). But neither conception requires the collaborative interaction that the empirical research cited by Mercier and Sperber demonstrates is more effective for "reasoning proper"--accomplished in contextualized social argumentation "within the framework of the evolution of human communication"--in contrast to the reliance upon processes of "intuitive...

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