Sunday, May 29, 2011

I Thought I Was Wrong Once, but I Was Mistaken

The surest way of ruining a youth is to teach him to respect those who think as he does more highly than those who think differently from him.

- Nietzsche

If argumentative theory is true, though, it seems like it would take quite a radical shift for people in general to start valuing the input of those who disagree with them:

Here we have a radically different idea that stands apart from the common wisdom in psychology, cognitive science, and even in philosophy. In Western thought, for at least the last couple hundred years, people have thought that reasoning was purely for individual reasons. But Dan challenged this idea and said that it was a purely social phenomenon and that the goal was argumentative, the goal was to convince others and to be careful when others try to convince us.

And the beauty of this theory is that not only is it more evolutionarily plausible, but it also accounts for a wide range of data in psychology. Maybe the most salient of phenomena that the argumentative theory explains is the confirmation bias.

Psychologists have shown that people have a very, very strong, robust confirmation bias. What this means is that when they have an idea, and they start to reason about that idea, they are going to mostly find arguments for their own idea. They're going to come up with reasons why they're right, they're going to come up with justifications for their decisions. They're not going to challenge themselves.

And the problem with the confirmation bias is that it leads people to make very bad decisions and to arrive at crazy beliefs. And it's weird, when you think of it, that humans should be endowed with a confirmation bias. If the goal of reasoning were to help us arrive at better beliefs and make better decisions, then there should be no bias. The confirmation bias should really not exist at all. We have a very strong conflict here between the observations of empirical psychologists on the one hand and our assumption about reasoning on the other.

But if you take the point of view of the argumentative theory, having a confirmation bias makes complete sense. When you're trying to convince someone, you don't want to find arguments for the other side, you want to find arguments for your side. And that's what the confirmation bias helps you do.

The idea here is that the confirmation bias is not a flaw of reasoning, it's actually a feature. It is something that is built into reasoning; not because reasoning is flawed or because people are stupid, but because actually people are very good at reasoning — but they're very good at reasoning for arguing.

One of the things I like about having a tiny blog is that the conversations in the comments tend to be more nuanced and interesting. I keep saying I would much rather have a few people who argue intelligently with everything I say than a few dozen sycophants who tell me how great every post is. I mean, I know it's a fruitless, despairing job trying to find holes in my airtight arguments, but I certainly appreciate you guys trying anyway! Keep on keeping me honest!