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Did the human capacity to reason evolve as a mechanism to acquire truth? Or was it only in the service of winning arguments?

This is the question at the center of an article by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber in The Journal of Behavioral and Brain Sciences. Described by the New York Times, the article observes that language and reason have little to do with “truth and accuracy.” Quoting Mercier:

Reasoning doesn’t have this function of helping us to get better beliefs and make better decisions. It was a purely social phenomenon. It evolved to help us convince others and to be careful when others try to convince us.

The position of Mercier and Sperber would appear to provide an evolutionary explanation for all manner of rhetorical devices and tendencies. Individuals, for example, have a tendency to ignore data that does not support their case. This phenomenon is called confirmation bias. In a sense, reason isn’t an instrument by which to acquire truth. Instead, it’s perhaps more ambiguous. Reason is a means by which to convince others, change their minds. Reason is coercive.

Mercier and Sperber’s argument has inflamed some elements of the academic community. Darcia Narvaez, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame diminished the theory as a moment of academic fashion:

[it] fits into evolutionary psychology mainstream thinking at the moment, that everything we do is motivated by selfishness and manipulating others, which is, in my view, crazy.

Others have remarked that Mercier and Sperber’s argument is in fact an example of the wisdom of crowds or the aim of deliberative democracy, described by Rawls and Habermas. Jonathan Haidt, a professor at UVA quoted by the Times, suggested as much:

Their work is important and points to some ways that the limits of reason can be overcome by putting people together in the right way, in particular to challenge people’s confirmation biases.

Mercier and Sperber appear to be heading in this direction, as well. Their article points to the advantages of group dynamics in the development of strong arguments. The group, after all, is equipped to present and vet many perspectives in rapid succession. The group could conceivably pick apart instances of confirmation bias and illuminate flaws in reasoning. According to Mercier and Sperber,

At least in some cultural contexts, this results in a kind of arms race towards greater sophistication in the production and evaluation of arguments. When people are motivated to reason, they do a better job at accepting only sound arguments, which is quite generally to their advantage.

Yes. Reason may be coercive, but Mercier and Sperber seem to be saying that with enough reason, enough speech, the group should arrive at a better outcome. Indeed, it’s reminiscent of the logic underpinning the metaphor of the marketplace of ideasthat more speech and more argument might spawn better speech. Justice Holmes, who coined the phrase in 1919, would be proud.

The marketplace metaphor, however, is flawed. As we’ve seen at other times, through the views of Ronald Coase, Justice Stevens, and others, an efficient market in speech does not equate to some Spenserian concept of survival of the fittest.  Indeed, Mercier rather off-handedly observed, “It doesn’t seem to work in the U.S.” Which leaves us with a question, just what is this metaphor we call the marketplace of ideas? Is the mere presence of a group itself sufficient to present and vet a variety of arguments? How do economic resources distort the marketplace of ideas?

it is pictures rather than propositions, metaphors rather than statements, which determine most of our philosophical convictions
–Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature

Metaphors in law are to be narrowly watched, for starting as devices to liberate thought, they end often by enslaving it.
Benjamin Cardozo

We exist in a free marketplace of ideas, or so we might say. The Supreme Court’s recent opinion on Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission sought to protect that marketplace by curbing regulations on corporate spending on political speech. As the Court opined, these regulations constituted censorship, and “the censorship that we confront is vast in its reach.”

The majority opinion of Citizens United v. FEC has been framed in many ways. President Obama observed in his State of the Union, “the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests.” Lawrence Lessig characterizes it as indicative of the progressive and now explicit capture of our elected institutions by corporate interests. And perhaps more sinister, Ronald Dworkin, writing for the New York Review of Books, speculates that the majority repositioned the case, accelerated its consideration, and designed the decision to aid the Republican party in the 2010 election season.

The Supreme Court’s majority countered that these concerns are moot to hysterical. Instead, they asserted that the proper function of the free marketplace of ideas relies on liquidity, and what better way to increase liquidity than to throw out the McCain-Feingold bill, undermine longstanding bans on direct campaign contributions that date back to 1907, and otherwise tear down the restrictions that had kept corporate spending in check. The free marketplace for ideas, after all, would yield the fittest through rude competition. The question before the court was only whether that marketplace was free. From there, the Roberts Court could presumably “call balls and strikes.” Read the rest of this entry »

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