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'Winning Arguments' - Apex of Human Reason?

By       Message Robert S. Becker     Permalink
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What!   Cognitive research posits our highest intelligence evolved to serve the noxious, low-down Karl Rove credo that put W. in the White House, twice!  That our vaunted human reason didn't specialize in problem-solving, the creation of great art, nor elevating us from the jungle -- but this mundane result -- to win arguments?  Forget truth, goodness, and the exceptional American way -- let alone the affirmation that reason and wisdom are enshrined in majority rule.  Okay, I extrapolate to politics, but not by much. 

Evolution aside, this explanation clarifies how politics devolved into theatre and stage-managing, how sound bites and wedge issues allow a rightwing minority to dictate national policy.  Item: gerrymandered GOP House dominance, up to their ears in contradictions on taxes, deficits, job creation, the role of government, and imperialistic war-making.  Politicized "reason" (and language amplified by media) now browbeats a critical mass into shouting the most palpable nonsense -- when it should be showing critical masses their middle-class status is getting stripped clean. 

Hey, can progressives join this scheme -- funding entertaining, deranged Michele Bachmanns, think tanks pumping out partisan research, or a leftwing media to gull the gullible?  Oh.  We believe in education and enlightenment, even rationality, evidence, and wobbly evolution. To our horror, the modern era dramatizes what happens when reason, science and logic are depreciated -- Tea Party suckers (or worse extremists) fall prey to lower impulses -- fear, faith alone, prejudice, passions, instincts, or rapturous fundamentalism. 

If true, this new psychology turns logic upside down, turning reason into just another "compulsion" that defines public opinion.  Conclusive proof aside (absent in the superficial NY Times sketch), this research suggests that rationality, the glory of secular humanism, did not evolve to defeat stupidity or superstition, even the vagaries of organized religion.  Them's fighting words I'd think to the moral philosophers filling this site, though not foreign to charismatic columnists, politicians, lawyers, preachers, and teachers in the persuasion business.  From the Times:


Reason Seen More as Weapon Than Path to Truth   By Patricia Cohen

 . . . Rationality, by this yardstick  . . . is nothing more or less than a servant of the hard-wired compulsion to triumph in the debating arena. According to this view, bias, lack of logic and other supposed flaws that pollute the stream of reason are instead social adaptations that enable one group to persuade (and defeat) another. Certitude works, however sharply it may depart from the truth.

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"Reasoning doesn't have this function of helping us to get better beliefs and make better decisions," said Hugo Mercier, who is a co-author of the journal article, with Dan Sperber. "It was a purely social phenomenon. It evolved to help us convince others and to be careful when others try to convince us." Truth and accuracy were beside the point.

This thesis raises more questions than it answers: did reason (elevating cause and effect, logic, methodology, patterns) not precede complex language (required for argument)?   When did brains exactly conquer brawn -- and has it yet?  Would parsing facts occur to our half-dressed forebears?  Did some early hominid fudge to convince the muscle-bound dimwit to share his wife and treasure?  Wouldn't high attentiveness to pressing reality (hunting, warfare, threats) be critical to our survival, vs. making your group buy your spiel?  

If reason serves a "hard-wired compulsion," then our species remains at its core irrational, prey to winning verbal battles above all.  If reason didn't make better decisions about life and death struggles, what did, and how fast -- drugs, trance states, shamans, lightning flashes, mythology, or prophets talking with burning bushes on mountain tops?

Undermining secular humanism   

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The notion that our aggressive, self-centered species applied reason to dominate is no great surprise, testament to clever elites who forever rise to the top.   Nor, for one trained in classical rhetoric, am I offended that argument (as in oratory) aims to persuade, delivered by good-hearted, heroic champions or ruthless agents who deceive for their "higher ends."  But early man must have trusted verisimilitude when survival depended on truth, not lies -- that is a saber-toothed tiger, not a phantom, Iraq never had WMDs, and low taxes do not spur job growth.

Okay, team, if not reason -- and confidence in evidence, logic, methodology, with adaptive feedback to correct errors -- what distinguishes us from past, misguided flat-earthers, let alone today's God-anoints-me types declaring one man-made book literally, perfectly true?   If secular humanists can't trust reason, imperfect as it is, what separates us from brutes, rocks, rock stars and Republicans pandering for president?  Or allows us to brag about civilization, even hold the glimmer of hope against disruptive Tea Party idiocy?  No, no, I must refudiate such folly or despair.

Evolving, Debating Cavemen?

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For a decade, Robert S. Becker's rebel-rousing essays on politics and culture analyze overall trends, messaging and frameworks, now featured author at OpEdNews, Nation of Change and RSN. He appears regularly at Dissident Voice, with credits (more...)

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