- Scott H Young - https://www.scotthyoung.com/blog -

Book Club: The Enigma of Reason (April 2018)

This month we read The Enigma of Reason [1].

In the book, Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber consider a double enigma:

  1. If reason is so valuable, such a boon to our cognition, why did it evolve only in human beings?
  2. Second, if reason is supposed to be so good, why are we so bad at it? Why do we suffer from so many cognitive biases and mental illusions that undermine its ideal power?

This book tries to explain this double enigma. Importantly it turns over thousands of years of assumptions about the role reason plays in human affairs and what we should expect it to be for. Far from just a philosophical treatise, the book also has major implications for how you can use your reason to think better, and the answer may not be what you expect!

If you would like to stream audio on your browser, click here listen on Soundcloud [2]

The first idea I discuss is the claim that reason is the superpower that we claim it to be…

I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that over the last 30 years, psychologists have been discovering that we deviate from rationality, that we are not the perfect creatures of reason that we like to think that we are. Consider the confirmation bias: where we seek out evidence that supports our pre-existing opinions even when disconfirming evidence is the thing we need to form truer beliefs… In the words of Dan Ariely, we are “Predictably Irrational.” [See my discussion on that book here [3].]

We don’t use reason for the task it was evolved for, argue the authors, but rather, we are mis-ascribing what the real purpose of reason is. To explain further…

It has a specific domain that it operates in. It is not a cognitive superpower but rather, reason has the input of taking reasons (justifications or explanations given) and evaluating whether or not they are good. In doing so, it is also providing intuitive judgement.

Reason versus reasons — what’s the difference?

Reason as a faculty (meaning the ability to make deductions, the thing that we do when we are being logical, we do when use critical thinking) and reasons (meaning a certain type of linguistic or maybe a representational kind of object that gives a justification for something) have been treated quite differently both in psychology and philosophy, so, even though it may seem obvious to pair the two, what Sperber and Mercier are arguing is that this is not how it has traditionally been looked at.

Despite the similarities of the words, they do refer to quite different concepts. So, ‘Reason’ is this general faculty, it’s an ability we have to make correct decisions about things, but reasons on the other hand, are usually sentences that involve a proposition and then a justification (i.e. “because”) with it. What the argue is that Reason takes reasons into account when evaluating that statement.

Reason is a specialized function…

It doesn’t exist in other animals because other animals don’t need it. They can come up with correct beliefs and decisions about things by only using the inferential model. Again, reason itself is not generating these beliefs. It is delegating itself to those modules so the purpose of reason, is an add-on that is used to communicate why you might want to do something in order to justify your behavior, why you want to do something or why you think something is correct — to other people. Reason is not there to do the calculations; it is there to communicate. In fact, it’s mostly for social consumption.

When the tail wags the dog…

This is the idea that although we believe we are in charge what we are really doing is explaining our behavior after the fact. But rather than reason being a distinct process, a uniquely human process, the center of the soul if you will, if you see it as just being a specific module and, just like all the other modules, it has inferential processing and is itself opaque, we understand that these are just linguistic constructs. So reason is simply coming here to offer an answer as to why we do what we do. In fact, we often don’t have access to the true motivations of our own behavior.

What does this mean for you?

If we properly view the domain of reason to be social, it means that correct beliefs and correct assumptions, are rarely going to come from solitary thinking. Rather, discussion and debate are the proper domain of reasoning. The cooperative process is probably the true situation of reason and really it shines. This also suggests that to be smarter, you want to find the right environments. You want to be where discussions about things are happening and you have intelligent consumers of the reasons and justifications that you give and you have people who are themselves suggesting good reasons so that when you evaluate them you can come at better decisions.


This book should also have us rethinking what we are. If you view reason as being just like any module and having quite specialized cognitive function, I think that it no longer makes sense to view us as rational creatures. Rather it’s proper to identify that we (if there is such a thing) should encompass all of these things and not just this reasoning impulse. Rather, each person presents their side and we as an audience evaluate them.

Click here to watch the Book Club wrap up on YouTube [4], here [2], to listen to it on Soundcloud, or here [5], for iTunes.

Feel free to join in on our Facebook Group Discussion [6] I’d love to discuss this book with you there. For May, we’ll be reading The Selfish Gene [7] by Richard Dawkins.