Monday, April 22, 2013

Reason as a Weapon

Is the purpose of reason to achieve truth or to defeat others in argument?  Read the full text by clicking here or by clicking "Read more" below.

                                   Is Reason More a Weapon Than a Path to Truth?

                                                       W.J. Holly, Ph.D.

                On 6/14/2011, in the New York Times, Patricia Cohen published a piece entitled, “Reason Seen More as Weapon Than Path to Truth.”  Her piece was occasioned by a collection of related articles in the April Issue of The Journal of Behavioral and Brain Sciences.  A central idea, called the argumentative theory of reasoning (ATR), is that (contrary to what thinkers have assumed for centuries) reason does not exist to lead us to philosophical, moral, and scientific enlightenment.  Put differently, reason “doesn’t have this function of helping us to get better beliefs and make better decisions,” nor is its purpose to help us arrive at the truth.  To the contrary, reason evolved for an entirely different purpose, namely, to help us to win arguments, to help us persuade and defeat other groups in the debating arena.  To this end, bias, irrationality, confirmation bias, flawed (fallacious) reasoning, and stubborn certitude, all work just as well as rationality does to help us win arguments.   Reading between the lines, it seems that Mr. Mercier (one of the ATR crowd) is proposing a pragmatic or utilitarian defense of pig-headed bias and fallacious reasoning, since they do exactly what they and reasoning are supposed to do: help us win the argument.  Our rants in philosophy class against fallacious reasoning are misplaced according to Mercier:  “People have been trying to reform something that works perfectly well.”

                Part of this idea is not new.  In the time of Socrates, a man’s fortune, even his life, could depend upon his being persuasive in court – winning the argument.  Some have even claimed that this was the original impetus for the study of argument and rhetoric.  Sophists could charge impressive fees for teaching people to make the true appear false and the false appear true, or the just appear unjust and wrong appear right.  Socrates wanted to distance himself from these Sophists as being one who received no financial gain from his quest for wisdom, and he had undisguised contempt for fancy speech, for fallacious reasoning, and for those who were willing to say the thing that is not true.  So, what are we to say to Mr. Mercier and these defenders of the “argumentative theory of reasoning” (hereafter referred to as the ATR)?

                The first thing that should strike us as being odd is that ATR seems to be a teleological theory.  It tells us that rationality or the ability to reason exists for the purpose to help us win arguments.  When they tell us that our rationality exists for the purpose of helping us win arguments, presumably they are not speaking as theologians:  They are not telling us that God gave us rationality for the purpose of helping us to win arguments.  Instead, they seem to be attempting to divine some purpose from the evolutionary origins of rationality.  But, this is a murky claim at best, since one of the main beauties of evolutionary theory is that it is entirely non-teleological.  Evolution explains the complexity of organisms without any reference to intelligent design or purpose at all. 

                We can of course speak of the function of the heart as being to pump blood.  We might even say that the purpose of the heart is to help blood to circulate.  But, of course this does not mean that the heart was designed with this purpose in mind, nor is it to say that the heart has any thought, desire, or moral duty to help the blood circulate.  To say the heart has this purpose is only to say that if it did not help blood to circulate, then the heart would not have evolved.  When the heart pumps blood, it is not engaging in any goal-directed activity of its own or of its owner, and the evolutionary processes which led to the development of the heart were entirely non-conscious.            

To use another example, we might say that the purpose of the parachute on the dandelion seed is to help propagate dandelions to distant places.  But, again, this does not mean that the dandelion (or nature) has any goal of propagating dandelions or of forming parachutes so that its seed can inherit the earth.  Dandelions and their seeds have no more conscious or unconscious purposes or goals than do the ice crystals that make patterns on your windows in the winter.  Another example:  We might say that the purpose of sexual intercourse is to help propagate the species.  But, when people engage in sexual intercourse, they do it for sexual gratification, to get favors or money, or sometimes because they want a child to love, but they do it to propagate the species only in end-of-the-world science fiction stories.  Abraham is the only historical person I can recall who had intercourse so that his seed could inherit the world.  So, again, speaking of the purposes of organic structures or activities is simply an incurably misleading and derivative sense of “purpose” or “function.”     The conclusion is that it is a species of nonsense to say that the evolutionary purpose of reasoning is to win arguments.

Evolution confers no purposes on anything.  And, even if a person, Fred, were to say that the purpose of his having been born with genitals were so that he could help reproduce his species, it does not follow in the least that one of his purposes is to reproduce or that he has any moral duty to reproduce.  So, even if the champions of ATR could prove that the purpose of reasoning is to help us win arguments (purpose in the sense that we would not have evolved the ability to reason if it had not helped us to win arguments), it does not in the least follow that we would have any moral duty to win arguments, or to care about winning more than we care about truth.  Besides, even if reasoning did give us some survival advantage in helping us to win arguments, it is fantasy to think we could quantify this advantage conferred by reasoning in comparison to other possible advantages reasoning might confer, such as the ability to discern the truth about who is an enemy and who is not, truth about the most effective way to marshal forces in battle, and to cement social relations with love poems, political tracts, and so on and on.  Reason is what Descartes called a universal tool, one which offers an unlimited repertoire of possible advantages in the competition for survival of one’s gene pool, as well as an unlimited repertoire of advantages in the pursuit of things that people personally desire or decide to pursue.

We are told in P. Cohen’s piece that Mr. Sperber tried to explain why evolution did not eliminate flaws in our reasoning just as it eliminated our prehensile tail, and presumably his answer is that there must be some evolutionary advantage to flawed reasoning, confirmation bias, and other varieties of illogic:  Flawed reasoning is evolutionarily favored because it is an adaptation useful for bolstering our debating skills and winning arguments.  Perhaps the original articles (which appear to be available online, some at $45 a pop) flesh out these “theories” to give them at least marginal plausibility, but I doubt it.  There are many plausible explanations, say, why baboons lack perfect rationality without our needing to suppose that relative stupidity must give them a competitive advantage.  And, even if we could prove that relative stupidity gave one’s genes or gene pool a greater probability of propagation, it would not follow that being stupid would be one of our duties or purposes. 

Kant treats us to a similarly silly kind of speculation in the second page of SECTION I of the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals.   Here he tells us that perhaps we have misunderstood the purpose of nature in assigning reason to be the governor of our will.  He tells us that in the natural constitution of any being constituted purposely for life, any instrument intended for some end will be the most appropriate and best adapted to that end!  How propitious!  He goes on to remark that if the proper end of a person were his own preservation, welfare, and happiness, then nature would have hit upon a very bad arrangement in selecting reason to carry out this purpose, since instinct would attain that purpose far more certainly and accurately than reason can do.  Kant concludes that, since nature did not assign reason to us for our happiness, it must have assigned us reason for a different and greater purpose, perhaps to produce a will that is good, not as a means to other purposes, but as a good in itself, for which reason is absolutely necessary. 

At the risk of being tiresome, the response to Kant here is that nature has no mind, no purposes, and no plan.   Nature is not a person, so she does not endow us with instruments (organs and abilities) for any purpose she has, and adaptations that might be advantageous in one environment might suddenly mark a species for extinction when environment suddenly changes, as has happened continuously over geological periods of time.  Nor is it convincing that instinct would serve human survival better than reason.  Despite the less than perfect tool that reason is, it has led to advances in weaponry, medicine, agriculture, shelter, etc. that have greatly enhanced human competition with other humans and with other organisms.   Of course all of these adaptations are imperfect and temporary, as eventual extinction awaits all species.   But, to return to topic, whatever evolutionary forces might have given rise to powers of reasoning in people, neither Kant nor the champions of ATR have given even minimally plausible accounts of how nature could confer “purpose” on reason. 

Of course this is a sword that cuts both ways.  If neither nature nor evolution can make the winning of arguments the purpose of our rationality, neither can they make the pursuit of truth the purpose of our rationality.  For, nature and evolution are purpose-neutral and non-teleological.  Neither God nor nature has given us the faculty of reason for any purpose at all, be it to help us attain scientific and moral enlightenment or to help us win arguments.   The good news is that, even so, we are free to use our powers of rationality to pursue truth and moral goodness if we so choose, even if rationality or reason was not given to us for that or for any other purpose.  (Indeed, the Existentialist claims that not only are we free to choose our purposes, but we are condemned to be free.  We cannot blame human nature for what we are or have become.  The entire responsibility for our lives rests with us alone, since our choices help to determine what human nature and human purposes shall be.)

Years ago, I read in the Scientific American a theory that monkey intelligence developed not because it gave monkeys an advantage in weaponry, but because it made them more sexually attractive to the females, since the courtship displays of the smarter monkeys attracted more female attention.  Even if this theory happens to be the proper explanation for the initial development of advanced primate intelligence, there is no reason why this intelligence could not be used for other primate purposes, like improving hunting practices or developing music and philosophy.  Muscles developed for swinging from tree to tree also can be used for swinging clubs or for swinging incense burners.

One of the contributors, Darcia Narvaez, objects to ATR and to current mainstream evolutionary theory that holds that everything we do is motivated by selfishness and the manipulation of others; she says this is crazy in her view.  I would use a different word.  ATR is not simply crazy – it is morally offensive to claim that the purpose of reason is to help us win arguments and to manipulate people, and that unsupported conviction and the use of fallacies, lies, and distortion are equally permissible because the name of the game is simply winning the argument.  In fact, this tenet of ATR is nothing short of evil.  Those who would willingly use and advocate the use of fallacious reasoning and lies are self-declared enemies of science, morality, and their fellow human beings -- enemies of everything that we hold dear.  A person who can lie to you can lie to himself.  And, if a person can lie to himself, there is nothing (no matter how evil) that he cannot bring himself to do.  His lies and flawed reasoning will justify any evil on which he sets his sights. 

What shall we say of a person, an advocate of ATR, who not only feels comfortable in telling lies and using fallacies to win his way, but who openly preaches that this is perfectly fine as a strategy – because (as Mercier puts it) it “works perfectly fine”?    Sometimes men become corrupt; sometimes they do rotten things perhaps from temptation, from addiction or bad habits or lack of discipline, from inattention, from insufficient reflection on their actions, or from self-serving rationalizations, and we say these men have become bad men.   Even bad men, however, when forced to reflect on their crimes, sometimes can feel pangs of guilt, remorse, and shame.  But, what are we to say of the person who has become so utterly shameless that he claims that there is nothing wrong with what he has done, who actually goes so far as to champion and advocate lying and cheating because they “work perfectly fine”?  At that point, he has gone over to the dark side – he has gone over the line from just being bad to being evil.  Those who are careless with the truth end by becoming careless of human beings and their lives. 

ATR looks like a variation on the Machiavellian or Bolshevik line that the end justifies the means.  For, ATR claims that the use of fallacies and falsehoods is justified because it helps us achieve our ends of winning arguments and manipulating people. That the end justifies the means is the credo of the unscrupulous.  History is replete with the examples of self-righteous people (like V.I. Lenin) and groups who have become dangerous, murderous, and despotic because they feel entirely justified in using any means whatsoever that can help them attain their supposedly “noble” ends. 

Perhaps even more chilling than ATR’s thesis that the end justifies the means is the end that it proposes:  Winning arguments and manipulating people.   This is amazing.  ATR’s thesis is the rule of the psychopath:  Lie, cheat, use any means whatsoever to the end of manipulating and using other human beings.  Treat others as means to your ends. There is no need to feel any guilt or shame for any of this, so long as it “works perfectly fine” for you.   Indeed, these ATR folk seem part of the same crowd that recently has suggested that being a psychopath might sometimes be a good thing, since psychopaths could be more efficient, effective, and more successful as CEO’s, politicians, police, and soldiers, not being bound by morality or by feelings for other people.  When playing with ideas leads academics down such mindless and morally desolate paths as these, one can only wonder whether simple lack of seriousness can explain such a complete loss of contact with decency and common sense, or whether the poisoned “ivory-tower” halls of ivy have been invaded by certifiable psychopaths, as described in Robert Hare’s classic work, Without Conscience.

When ATR advocates the use of fallacies because of their utility in winning arguments, it gains no support from the utilitarian, John Stuart Mill.  On page 30 of On Liberty (Oxford U. edition), Mill says, “In the opinion … of the best men, no belief which is contrary to truth can be really useful.”  (So, lies are not useful even when they help us to manipulate people and win arguments.)  On page 45, discussing true opinions not properly grounded, Mill says, “this is not the way truth ought to be held by a rational being.  This is not knowing the truth.  Truth, thus held, is but one superstition the more.”  Moreover, Mill does not think that the utility of truth is just that it might help us better to achieve such goals as making a better weapon, making better toothpaste, or winning an argument. 

For Mill, the utility of the pursuit and acquisition of truth derives from what he considers to be man’s ultimate purpose – to develop as a progressive being.  On page 71, he approvingly quotes Wilhelm von Humboldt as saying, “the end of man … is the highest and most harmonious development of his powers to a complete and consistent whole.”  The powers he mentions here are moral and intellectual powers.   On page 73, Mill tells us that “Human nature is not a machine … set to do exactly the work prescribed for it, but a tree, which requires to grow and to develop itself on all sides.”  Reflecting on what constitutes a person’s comparative worth as a human being, Mill states, “It really is of importance, not only what men do, but also what manner of men they are that do it.  Among the works of man, which human life is rightly employed in perfecting and beautifying, the first in importance surely is man himself.   What a refreshing contrast to ATR’s celebration of psychopathy!

Mills’ moral philosophy is elaborated in his treatise on Utilitarianism.   We know that this is not a selfish creed, since he tells us that its foundation is acceptance of the greatest happiness principle – that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote the greatest happiness (most pleasure and least pain) for the greatest number.  But, when Mill tells us that the aim of morality is to maximize human happiness, he is no more an ordinary pleasure seeker than was Socrates.  At core, Mill is a Socratic elitist.  He begins Utilitarianism with the suggestion that Socrates defended utilitarianism against the popular morality of the sophist.  Indeed, Mill believed that there are qualitatively superior and distinctively human pleasures that are necessary for true human happiness:  “Human beings have faculties more elevated than the animal appetites and, when once made conscious of them, do not regard anything as happiness which does not include their gratification.”  Thus he asserts that “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.”  The qualitatively superior pleasures necessary for human happiness are made clear when he says that the two chief sources of unhappiness are selfishness and want of mental cultivation.  No creed could be further from the selfish, lying, manipulating creed of the ATR psychopath.   If any doubt remains where Mill would stand on the ATR thesis, see what he says in Chapter II of Utilitarianism:

“Few human creatures would consent to be changed into any of the lower animals for a promise of the fullest allowance of a beast’s pleasures; no intelligent human being would consent to be a fool, no instructed person would be an ignoramus, no person of feeling and conscience would be selfish and base, even though they should be persuaded that the fool, the dunce, or the rascal is better satisfied with his lot than they are with theirs.” 

I would like to end this discussion by citing a few passages from W.K. Clifford’s The Ethics of Belief, where he argues that “it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”  If Clifford is correct in this, then the followers of ATR who use lies or fallacies to win arguments are doing wrong because they are causing others to do wrong, and because they are undermining society’s ability to know what is true and what is not.  So, listen to his song, his ode to Truth and Reason, penned over a century ago:  

“It is not possible so to sever the belief from the action it suggests as to condemn the one without condemning the other … Nor is that truly a belief at all which has not some influence upon the actions of him who holds it.  He who truly believes that which prompts him to an action has looked upon the action to lust after it, he has committed it already in his heart. … No real belief, however trifling and fragmentary it may seem, is ever truly insignificant; it prepares us to receive more of its like, confirms those which resembled it before, and weakens others; and so gradually it lays a stealthy train in our inmost thoughts, which may someday explode into overt action, and leave its stamp on our character forever.”

“No one man’s belief is in any case a private matter which concerns himself alone.  … Our words, our phrases, our forms and processes and modes of thought, are common property … an heirloom which every succeeding generation inherits as a precious deposit and sacred trust to be handed on to the next one, not unchanged, but enlarged and purified. … An awful privilege and an awful responsibility,  that we should help to create the world in which we live.”

“Belief, that sacred faculty which prompts the decisions of our will, and knits into harmonious working all the compacted energies of our being, is ours not for ourselves, but for humanity.  It is rightly used on truths which have been established by long experience and waiting toil, and which have stood in the fierce light of free and fearless questioning.  Then it helps to bind men together, and to strengthen and direct their common action.  It is desecrated when given to unproved and unquestioned statements, for the solace and private pleasure of the believer; to add a tinsel splendor to the plain straight road of our life and display a bright mirage beyond it; or even to drown the common sorrows of our kind by a self deception which allows them not only to cast down, but also to degrade us.  Whoso would deserve well of his fellows in this matter will guard the purity of his belief with a very fanaticism of jealous care, lest at any time it should rest on an unworthy object, and catch a stain which can never be wiped away.”

“Every time we let ourselves believe for unworthy reasons, we weaken out powers of self-control, of doubting, of judicially and fairly weighing evidence.  We all suffer severely enough from the maintenance and support of false beliefs and the fatally wrong actions which they lead to, and the evil born when one such belief is entertained is great and wide.  But a greater and wider evil arises when the credulous character is maintained and supported, when a habit of believing for unworthy reasons is fostered and made permanent.  If I steal money from any person, there may be no harm done by the mere transfer of possession; he may not feel the loss, or it may prevent him from using the money badly.  But, I cannot help doing this great wrong towards Man, that I make myself dishonest.  What hurts society is not that it should lose its property, but that it should become a den of thieves, for then it must cease to be society.  This is why we ought not to do evil, that good may come; for at any rate this great evil has come, that we have done evil and are made wicked thereby.  In like manner if I let myself believe anything on insufficient evidence … I cannot help doing this great wrong towards Man, that I make myself credulous.  The danger to society is not merely that it should believe wrong things, though that is great enough; but that it should become credulous, and lose the habit of testing things and inquiring into them; for then it must sink back into savagery.”

“Habitual want of care about what I believe leads to habitual want of care in others about the truth of what is told to me.  Men speak the truth to one another when each reveres the truth in his own mind and in the other’s mind; but how shall my friend revere the truth in my mind when I myself am careless about it, when I believe things because I want to believe them, and because they are comforting and pleasant?   Will he not learn to cry “Peace” to me, when there is no peace?  By such a course I shall surround myself with a thick atmosphere of falsehood and fraud, and in that I must live.  It may matter little to me in my cloudcastle of sweet illusions and darling lies; but it matters much to Man that I have made my neighbors ready to deceive.  The credulous man is father to the liar and the cheat; he lives in the bosom of this his family, and it is no marvel that he should become even as they are.”

In conclusion, I do not believe that God or Nature has given us or our Reason for any purpose whatsoever.  At the risk of sounding like an Existentialist, I believe that it is entirely up to us to decide what sort of persons we shall be.  I ended this essay (or rant, if you will) with extensive quotation from Mill and Clifford because I believe that their vision of human excellence is one that offers true happiness and genuine meaning for our lives, and it seems to be a vision that some of these Post Modernists have never felt or known.   When I am asked to choose between ATR and classic humanists like Mill and Clifford, I break into a Woody Allen sweat, asking, “Is this a trick question?”  Would I rather be good, true, and noble … or would I rather be a user without conscience or morals, a psychopath?   What kind of a choice is this?  What have things come to that this is posed as a serious question?

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