2017, Books, Non-Fiction

The Enigma of Reason (2017) by Hugo Mercier, Dan Sperber

I liked it so much, I bought the book!

For the last few thousand years, humans have been telling ourselves that we are very, very smart. Humans created a system to show those smarts off and then argued about how logical or illogical everyone was. That’s because we also realized we were driven by other things rather than just “logic” or “rationality” or “reason”. But for most of this time, the smarter people assumed that “smarter” meant more rational/logical and everyone else was more irrational/illogical, which was often considered the same thing as “emotional”. There was a gender component to this of course and then where was an ethnic one (which later became “racial”). (And there was a class component to, but that should go without saying.) Basically, for most of human history, we’ve viewed humans as at least dualities between reason and emotion (if not more complicated views with other competing drives).

But in the 20th century experimental psychology and the cognitive revolution supposedly settled this issue: we have (at least) two systems in our brain, we are told; one which is older than the other. The old system, “the lizard brain”, is intuitive and loves heuristics. The new system, the neo-cortex, is deliberative and logical.

What we all failed to notice is this is just the same old duality only explained a different way. The problem is why would humans evolve with two different ways of thinking, one of which severely undercuts the other? Why would that be an evolutionary advantage?

This book provides the answer: “reasoning” is just intuition; there aren’t two different thinking systems in the brain, there’s only intuition. The authors provide a host of evidence which challenges the traditional dualistic view ((or “intellectualist” view as they call it) and which has basically been ignored.

Why would humans have evolved to be extremely irrational? We didn’t. We evolved to persuade each other. This elegant explanation finally explains why cognitive biases exist if we’re supposedly so good at logic and rational thought in only some circumstances. Really, the truth is, we’re good at arguing.

Almost everything about this is very compelling. The one criticism is some of the evidence feels a little less developed than it could be, though this is because this idea is rather new. Also, they almost completely ignore arguing on the internet, which I think will fail to satisfy a lot of people. (I don’t think this undermines their case, but it is something they could have addressed given how most people currently associate arguing online with people becoming more polarized).

I don’t know what I’m talking about – I’m hardly up on the psychology of reasoning literature – but, to me, this is the most important book on the nature of human reasoning you could read. It’s a complete paradigm shift, and one that feels like it will still be true or mostly true in a century.


PS: The history of Western Philosophy is, in part, a history of men creating elaborate philosophical systems in relative isolation from society. These systems have at least a few things in common: they are often internally inconsistent, they are eminently impractical and they often justify the status quo they were written in. The idea that humans cannot reason successfully in isolation is in part supported by the idiocies of people like Hegel.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.