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The Enigma of Reason

4.11  ·  Rating details ·  714 ratings  ·  119 reviews
Reason, we are told, is what makes us human, the source of our knowledge and wisdom. If reason is so useful, why didn't it also evolve in other animals? If reason is that reliable, why do we produce so much thoroughly reasoned nonsense? In their groundbreaking account of the evolution and workings of reason, Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber set out to solve this double enigma. ...more
Hardcover, 384 pages
Published April 17th 2017 by Harvard University Press
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Jul 27, 2020 rated it it was amazing
The First Rule of Rationality: There are No Rules of Rationality

Reason is one of those terms, like time or God, which seems obvious until it’s taken seriously. It then dissipates into a semantic haze with no solid meaning whatsoever. No one can find it outside the language which postulates and defines it. Reason, that is, is a purely linguistic phenomenon. And even within language its content is elusive.

Think about it. Reason cannot be logical deduction because deduction requires premises that a
Thore Husfeldt
May 25, 2017 rated it really liked it
Reasoning, as we know today, sucks. People are able to convince themselves of all kinds of bullshit, and the smarter we are and the longer we think, the more stubborn we seem to become. The function of Reason seems to be to justify our intuitions, not matter how silly they are.

Many recent books include delicious descriptions of these fallacies of reason, such as Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion or Greene’s Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Ga
Clif Hostetler
May 29, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: philosophy
Reason is the “super-power” of humans when compared to the cognitive powers of other living things on earth. Supposedly it is the distinguishing facility that is uniquely human. If so, why does reasoning lead to such divergent conclusions? What's so super about a faulty power? That's the enigma of reason.

A variety of psychological tests have repeatedly shown that reasoning is more likely to confirm things that we want to be true, or which we already believe, than it is to arrive at a neutral and
Aug 24, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is an interesting read if you struggle (like me) with understanding societal inclinations to disregard science and data and facts. The assessment is really good overall, research analysis is done very well with appropriate parameters. I'd definitely recommend this one. This book compliments with "The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone" by Steven Sloman, Philip Fernbach."

Cognitive dissonance and Confirmation bias is a flaw in reasoning; Of the many different forms of faulty-thinki
Oct 01, 2017 rated it liked it
The Enigma of Reason posits that the evolutionary function of reasoning is not to enhance individuals’ ability to arrive at better solutions to problems, but rather to provide social, group benefits. This is a striking proposition, and one that is reasonably well-developed over the course of this engaging book. The authors argue that the well-known deficiencies of human reasoning in achieving logical solutions – primarily exemplified by confirmation bias – demonstrate that the function of articu ...more
Sep 04, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Really loved this book! Can't believe two French academics could write so beautifully in English. Not an easy read exactly, but far from impenetrable- it takes a little work to read but ideas are explained slowly and carefully and convincingly. Basic premise is that the ability of humans to reason is more of a communications skill, evolved to help us make arguments and evaluate arguments made by others. In most cases, in non-social situations, people don't reason at all - we act intuitively. Bra ...more
Gary  Beauregard Bottomley
May 23, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Humans are special because we make our reason about our reasons. Proust will say that we are the only animals that can doubt our own reason.

We justify what we are doing otherwise we would not be doing it (unless we are pathological) and we infer the best we can from what we believe we know or think we know, and we use our representations of our representations to explain ourselves to ourselves or others. As Hume said we understand our desire but we don’t control the desires of our desires. The
Carl Nelson
Apr 16, 2017 rated it it was amazing
A persuasive and well argued claim for the interactionist view of reason in contrast to the intellectualist view of reason. By this view reason evolved to support social interaction including the statement of claims and their evaluation by others. Thus reason advances through arguments with audiences who critically engage the claims and their reasons.
Farha Crystal
Jun 06, 2018 rated it really liked it
We feel exuberant arrogance over other animals considering our cognitive capabilities as well as reason.
But, reason has flaws otherwise why do we experience cognitive dissonances and Confirmation Bias? Why are people better at seeing the flaws in others’ arguments than their own?
Why do people divide over issues like climate change, gun control, or abortions? Is it the result of an intelligence gap?
But, sometimes intelligent people do interpret facts to further their own biases. Don't they?
Eric Curiel
Some interesting ideas but falls short of a thoroughly convincing argument

This is not an easy book to read. I would only recommend it for people who are truly curious about the current state of play of cognitive science debates.

My main problem with it was its conceit to put forward a model aimed at replacing the Dual Process Model, when in reality it would work better and seamlessly as a complement. However, in its attempt at dethroning the DPM, much insight to be gained from the proposed inte
Dec 28, 2018 rated it really liked it
Is reason enigmatic? Before cracking this book, I thought reason rather straightforward, an extension of logic. And what is more cut and dry than logic?

Well, it turns out the authors have a much different view. Reason, they argue, is part of a mental module, similar to other interpretive modules in our brains. Further, reason's evolutionary role is explained by the way we form communal solutions, in other words, a supplement to communication. We use reason to build consensus.

I found the authors'
Dec 22, 2017 marked it as to-read
Referenced approvingly in the New Yorker article, Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds .

Also, the Guardian Science podcast episode, The evolution of reason: a new theory of human understanding, was partially an interview with one of the authors.
Rachel Bea
Jun 03, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Will be re-reading sections of this while I still have the book from the library. Excellent, engrossing, and persuasive text. Some of it is a little beyond my understanding but the many colorful examples helped me grasp the ideas throughout.
Malek Atia
Mar 24, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Best book this year so far
Feb 12, 2021 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I will begin by saying that I probably only understood 60% of what was written.

Our misunderstanding of the nature of reason is very astounding, I did not expect how easy it is for us to be reasonably unreasonable. The book discussed the many theories about reason and how our brain functions when we try to think and other aspects of what we unconsciously do when we try to reason. It also discusses some fallacies we use in our lives that we may not even notice.

Overall, it’s a good book that I sh
Riley Haas
Jan 25, 2020 rated it it was amazing
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/i
Daniel Schulof
May 05, 2017 rated it it was amazing
A fantastic book. Presents a very compelling alternative to (expansion of?) the Kahneman-ian dual systems model of cognition and a compelling enough evolutionary explanation for the existing state of human cognitive affairs.

The core concepts can be difficult to get your head around (due to the similarity of some terms, the relevance of several meta- concepts, and the overall novelty of the stuff to non-professionals), so I was grateful for the clear, concise, and engaging writing -- this is a ve
Steve Whitney
Jun 27, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Just simply the best book on Cognition and Reason I have read in over 20 years. With that said I do wonder about how the scope of the theory seems to explain every problem about reason and reasoning. I am also left wondering how the theory would explain why people continue to vote against their best interests. If the development and purpose of reason is social and if politics is largely conducted within a social venue, why do we not elect the best candidate for the majority of the people all of ...more
May 04, 2017 rated it really liked it
A compelling case for an interactionist perspective of human reason.

"The ability to produce and evaluate reasons has not evolved in order to improve psychological insight but as a tool for defending or criticizing thoughts and actions, for expressing commitments, and for creating mutual expectations. The main function of attributing reasons is to justify oneself and to evaluate the justifications of others" (p.186).
Jul 04, 2019 rated it really liked it
Interesting book, but you must 'close read' to really get the most out of it.
My take away was, as I suspected, that 'reasoning' seems to be use by many people to make 'cognitive dissonance' less uncomfortable. We don't want to see or really understand another's view (as much as we might say we do), what many of us want is to do is have someone with a different conclusion see and agree with our conclusion, thus we 'reason' with them.
Erin Joslin
Nov 23, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Human rationality evolved to help us persuade, not to help us make decisions, and that is WILD! and has kind of changed the way I think about everything! That said, I would highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to do a deep dive into why humans are like this/wants to really understand their own head, but I’d recommend a summary of this book to anyone else because it’s really the succinct main ideas here that make this book so worthwhile
Mustafa Mehmetoglu
A very good book on human reasoning. The enigma here refers to the flaws of human reasoning such as confirmation bias, as well as an evolutionary explanation of reasoning and how such a flawed feature could be selected in natural selection.

The authors explain their model of human mind as it relates to reasoning, and then provide the evolutionary function of reasoning: To justify ourselves and to convince others. With this view, the "flaws" of reasoning become expected features of it: We do expec
Jul 10, 2019 rated it really liked it
'The study of books is a languishing and feeble motion that heats not, whereas conversation teaches and exercises at once. If I converse with a strong mind and a rough disputant, he presses upon my flanks, and pricks me right and left; his imaginations stir up mine; jealousy, glory, and contention, stimulate and raise me up to something above myself; and acquiescence is a quality altogether tedious in discourse.

The argumentative use of reasons helps genuine information cross the bottleneck that
Feb 10, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
It was a random book catching dust on my shelf, which I bought after seeing it in multiple recommendations lists, not knowing what is it about.
Then I got hooked while reading the intro! I understood right away the importance of its theory and how it helps me solve a problem I was grappling for a while.
Kahneman, Tversky, Thaler and others have shown the buggy nature of our reasoning and decision making. They always portrayed it like a useful tool in the wrong time and environment, like a plow in
Jan 18, 2018 rated it really liked it
Very thought-provoking. If you've read Kahneman's "Thinking: Fast and Slow" (which you probably should, if you haven't already), this book provides quite an important contrast. One reason I'm not giving it five stars is because I did find it to be a bit repetitive. It was also unnecessarily technical at times, although I guess the book may have been written with psychology majors in mind. ...more
Ken Muldrew
Feb 08, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The Enigma of Reason, by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, presents a radical new theory of what human reason is, and why we have it. For all of human history, and probably long before that, reason has been held up as the highest achievement of the human mind; the magnificent innovation that allowed humans to dominate the earth. It is reason that has allowed the giants from among our predecessors, towering intellects like Einstein and Newton, to lift the veil on the heavens so that we may glimpse an ...more
Chris Branch
Jul 17, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
I didn't realize before starting this book that it would be a direct challenge to the "dual system" model of reason, which I found largely convincing when described by Daniel Kahneman. However, even as I agreed with much of Kahneman's book, I had some issues with it; for example, when presenting the case of how System 1 (intuitive) thinking gets things wrong, Kahneman references a study in which irrelevant information is taken into account when it shouldn't be (Thinking, Fast and Slow, p. 153). ...more
Hilde Sandum
Jul 29, 2018 rated it it was ok
I found the theme of this book very interesting when i first started reading it, but I have to be honest and say that I probably won't finish this book; it is just too difficult for me too understand all the designations - seems more like a book for academics.
What I did understand though, was interesting.
Oct 20, 2019 rated it really liked it
This is another book that is in my training wheelhouse. Here are just some of the takeaways I gained:
• Levels of reason are embedded in several categories of inference (p. 6): inferences, intuitions, intuitions about representations, intuitions about reasons, and reasons. In this light, the authors discuss that there are, in particular, layers of intuition where it is not just our own intuition but reliance on the intuitions of others. And, sometimes we rely on reasons to justify preconceived or
Gintarė Macenytė
Feb 10, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites
The book itself validates the claim of Mercier and Sperber - exchanging arguments indeed leads to better outcomes. Very inspiring and challenging at the same time!
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“It is based, however, on a convenient fiction: most reasons are after-the-fact rationalizations. Still, this fictional use of reasons plays a central role in human interactions, from the most trivial to the most dramatic.” 4 likes
“Whereas reason is commonly viewed as the use of logic, or at least some system of rules to expand and improve our knowledge and our decisions, we argue that reason is much more opportunistic and eclectic and is not bound to formal norms. The main role of logic in reasoning, we suggest, may well be a rhetorical one: logic helps simplify and schematize intuitive arguments, highlighting and often exaggerating their force. So, why did reason evolve? What does it provide, over and above what is provided by more ordinary forms of inference, that could have been of special value to humans and to humans alone? To answer, we adopt a much broader perspective. Reason, we argue, has two main functions: that of producing reasons for justifying oneself, and that of producing arguments to convince others. These two functions rely on the same kinds of reasons and are closely related.” 2 likes
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