Monday, July 11, 2011

When They Start Falling Executions Will Commence

I argue a lot. Also, I assign students to argue a lot. Not in the, “Turn off his mic” or “I have my own TV show so I’m right” sort of arguing. But in the “Let me state my position, and I’ll listen to your position” sort of way. Still, I’ll gladly argue topics with friends (or, to be honest, complete strangers) in person or online.

I’ve recently been involved in somewhat intense debates with friends about such things as abortion rights, the death of Osama Bin Laden, and the merits of Libertarianism. I've been involved in debates with relative strangers about such things as whether one can truly practice yoga while thinking the Yoga Sutras basically religious nonsense, whether Americans can brew a true pilsner, and the importance of the Vikings resigning Sidney Rice. Why all the arguing?

There’s been some controversy of late over a recent article published in Behavior & Brain Sciences surrounding the topic of argumentation. The authors argue (!) that the human ability to argue evolved not solely as a method of seeking truth* (as most philosophers would argue [!] is the reason for reason), but as a method of convincing others of their position.

If you’re still following along with this argument about reasoning (or this reasoning about argumentation), you might see how a NYT article would summarize the theory this way: Reason Seen More as Weapon Than Path to Truth (subtitled, "People Argue Just To Win, Scholars Assert")

(R)esearchers are suggesting that reason evolved…to win arguments. Rationality… is nothing more or less than a servant of the hard-wired compulsion to triumph in the debating arena

As would be expected, the media representation of the scientific research was, to some extent, inaccurate. One author made an attempt to clarify some of the common misconceptions. When one looks more closely at the authors’ approach, you can see that their position is that argumentation (or reasoning) exists to win debates and seek truth. How might this be the case? Quite simply. When we deal with ideas than cannot be tested empirically, we search for some other test to determine if our thinking is on the right track.

Consider a simple moral claim: It is immoral to harm others (as a moral claim, that might need clarification; but for our purpose, it will serve). We cannot run a scientific test - to metaphorically look under a microscope - to know if this idea is right (or, more accurately, wrong). So how can we test this idea? We can argue with others. We can put forth our position for the claim. We can listen to the position of others against the claim. And we can weigh the quality of the proposed arguments.

I think this is the point being made by the authors. That reason evolved to support argumentation. But also that reason evolved to seek the truth*, because in certain cases, the only way to seek truth* is to compare arguments.

This all brings me to a conclusion about arguments and reasoning: Arguing is reasoned. Ha.

*Whatever the hell 'truth' might be. Although it is true that the Vikings should re-sign Sidney Rice.

Title reference here.