Thursday, May 5, 2011

Why We Reason

I am fascinated by the human brain. How a few pounds of gray matter filled with neurons, synapses and gateways and a bunch of other stuff (note my keen scientific vocabulary) can make us who we are is too cool for school.

As a mystery writer, I explore the human condition by starting with this question: What happens when things go wrong, especially when we think no one is watching? That question has implications for both plot and character, but the real answer is that it depends on what happens in our brains.

We've all been taught that our ability to reason is what separates us from other animals and that the reason we reason is to figure things out. Mystery writers depend on readers who want to do exactly that, and many do, though there are plenty of other reasons to love the genre. But, we may be wrong about why we reason.

Jonah Lehrer writes some of the best pieces on these topics in a blog for Wired titled The Frontal Cortex. His latest post, The Reason We Reason highlights a new theory of reasoning by a couple of guys named Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber who hypothesize that the function of reasoning is argumentative, to devise and evaluate arguments intended to persuade and not to figure things out and make good decisions.

That could explain a lot, beginning with why so many of us are second-guessers, quick to challenge even the most well-established facts if they don't fit comfortably with our world view. A couple of recent situations prove the point.

Some people who don't believe President Obama is an American citizen were unpersuaded by the release of his long-form birth certificate, arguing (reasoning?) that it could be a fake. I wonder if some of these people are also demanding the release of the photographs of Osama Bin Laden's body to prove that he's really dead.

Like I said, the brain is an interesting place to hang out.

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