A Momentary Lapse of Reason(ing): Arguments, Justification and Good News

Have you heard of The Argumentative Theory of Reasoning? It is a recent breakthrough in […]

David Zahl / 5.13.11

Have you heard of The Argumentative Theory of Reasoning? It is a recent breakthrough in the study of cognition, and a theory we can really get behind. Essentially an attempt to answer the question, why are human beings so good at reasoning in some areas and so bad at it in others? The researchers, who somehow appear to have transcended the very theory they’re propounding, have decided to challenge the most basic assumptions about the role and function of reason. What they’ve come up with is that reason, rather than being some objective, truth-oriented pursuit, is instead a social phenomenon. Moreover, and more importantly, the goal of all reasoning is actually argumentative – i.e. convincing others of your point of view. If this sounds familiar, that’s because it’s an extension of “confirmation bias,” in which we evaluate data (or experience, or bible verses, or NY Times articles…) with the goal of confirming what we already believe. And while it doesn’t quite take into account the emotional aspect of decision-making (Herr Brooks has that covered), there’s a lot here to chew on. A recent article on Edge relates an interview with researcher Hugo Mercier, who spells out the theory at some length and touches on some of the political and scientific implications, ht JD:

“Reasoning was not designed to pursue the truth. Reasoning was designed by evolution to help us win arguments. That’s why they call it The Argumentative Theory of Reasoning. So, as they put it, “The evidence reviewed here shows not only that reasoning falls quite short of reliably delivering rational beliefs and rational decisions. It may even be, in a variety of cases, detrimental to rationality. Reasoning can lead to poor outcomes, not because humans are bad at it, but because they systematically strive for arguments that justify their beliefs or their actions. This explains the confirmation bias, motivated reasoning, and reason-based choice, among other things.”

Fully aware of the irony of what I’m about to say, it’s tough not to see Argumentative Theory as confirmation that the Bible is on to something in its understanding of human beings. Namely, that the need or urge or desire to justify ourselves – to prove and establish our value, to “make our mark”, to contend for our existence – is at the very core of who we are. Indeed, any attempt to explain human behavior, whether it be theological or psychological or artistic, that doesn’t locate the whirlpool of self-justification at its center is bound to fall flat. Or worse, it is consigned to being simply a nice idea with little to no bearing in reality.

We don’t go on and on about justification on this site (by faith, by works, by faith in works, by works of faith, by good taste, etc) because we’re arbitrarily smitten with some historical movement (the Reformation, for example) or because we have a denominational axe to grind, we go on and on about it because we see it as the issue in both human life and, thankfully, Christianity. Like it or not, we are all lawyers, constantly collecting evidence and arguments for and against ourselves – just ask those who are closest to you. And rather than being some reductive scheme, the Gospel tells of us a God who is not oblivious to the oppressive legalities of how we function, and even deigns to address/absolve them (in the most profound and loving way possible). That, to me, is argument enough.

In the meantime, be sure to watch the video of Hugo Mercier talking at more length about these discoveries. Or just listen to Rod the Mod: