Review: The Social Origins of Folk Epistemology

The paper reviewed here is ‘The social origins of folk epistemology’ by Hugo Mercier and available here. The paper is one of a series in the journal ‘Review of Philosophy and Psychology’ and I thought it interesting because Mercier develops an evolutionary argument for some of the properties of ‘reasoning’. Mercier presents his arguments very clearly and includes any additional material that might be needed by the reader thus avoiding the need to refer to additional papers (except perhaps for the explanation of the tests which are used to examine reasoning). In the introduction, Mercier presents two views of the function of reasoning. In the first, reasoning is to be used in discussion with others (or more specifically in arguments and persuasion) and in the second is used in rule-based systems to compensate for the innaccuracies that can sometimes result from intuition. The definition of reasoning is important for the discussion and he refers to tasks such as the Wason Selection Task which essentially tests the subject’s ability to use deduction (see here). Mercier cites the arguments of others who have proposed how reasoning might have developed in the progression from animals to humans. I thought perhaps it was entirely possible that non-human species are capable of reasoning. There certainly seems to be some evidence emerging in that direction particularly in chimpanzees. If that were so, then some of Mercier’s arguments would need to be amended since they are contingent on the assumption that reasoning has evolved specifically in humans and that it must be consistent with other unique properties of humans (strictly speaking this is not entirely true as Mercier does argue that reasoning does not take place in ‘most’ other animals although the explanation of ‘most’ is not expanded on at a later point). If considered in this manner, then it could be argued for instance that the process of deduction or more general features of logic are in turn dependent upon cause and effect (I have argued this elsewhere). These in turn are evident in the physical world and a ‘knowledge’ of how the physical world works is a necessary part of survival for most species (this statement is contingent on the definition of knowledge and I have used it here to exclude simple organisms without a nervous system which is capable of storing knowledge although even here it could be argued that ‘knowledge’ about the world is stored in the ‘successful’ genes contained within DNA).

However we can be certain that humans are able to reason as defined above and so it does seem like a sensible starting point. He argues that reasoning doesn’t necessarily replace other cognitive functions and as such would have an additional ‘cost’ – meaning that additional resources have to be allocated to the reasoning process (presumably genes, neurotransmitters, electrochemical energy in nerve transmission, time for neuronal firing and so on). I would argue here though that just because there is cost, it does not necessarily mean that it serves a necessary function for survival. Adaptation to the environment particulary in more complex organisms may not necessarily be an entirely ‘efficient’ process. He goes onto discuss communication and suggests that it is more complex than at first glance. Quite specifically he refers to deception and suggests that people have evolved mechanisms for detecting deceit.

The next stage in Mercier’s argument is quite interesting. He essentially argues that persuasion is an important part of communication and for this to take place, the person has to have an understanding of the other person’s beliefs and knowledge. It is the process of gauging these as the starting point for communication which requires a specific cognitive process which he suggests is reasoning. He then goes onto look at how reasoning has been used in groups and how in some situations the group may arrive at better decisions than the individual and in others worse decisions.

In summary, I thought Mercier’s paper was clearly argued and that he developed a particularly interesting argument around a role for reasoning in persuasion. If this holds then it would have implications for social cognition.


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