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Culture & Religion

Human Reasoning Is a Mixed Blessing

Individual reasoning can often lead to mistakes—Newton dedicated himself equally to alchemy—while reasoning in groups has been shown to produces better results. Why?

What’s the Latest Development?


When given a logic puzzle, individuals are more apt to arrive at the wrong answer than if they are working in a group of people. History abounds with examples: Newton dedicated himself as much to alchemy as he did to developing his physical laws; Napoleon’s decision to invade Russia was ill-informed by reason, yet the International Space Station is a triumph of collaborative reasoning. So how is it that reason is at once a blessing and a curse? Just as our lungs extract oxygen better from air than water, reasoning functions better in groups. 

What’s the Big Idea?

Why does reasoning function better in groups? Philosopher Hugo Mercier appeals to evolutionary reasoning for an answer: “…reasoning evolved for argumentation: so that we can convince others and to examine the arguments they offer us. Reasoning would be adapted to work in dialogue, when people exchange arguments, and not within the confines of a solitary mind.” Reason has a hidden social function, says Mercier. As a problem solving tool, it functions to coalesce a group around a common problem and to solve it more effectively. 


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