I recently discovered Kevin deLaplante’s great podcast The Critical Thinker (link). An episode that recently got my interest discusses Mercier and Sperber’s argumentative theory reason, a theory of human reason that I used in my doctoral research.
Similarly to my approach of mobilising insights from both social and psychological/cognitive sciences to understand and enhance knowledge practices, deLaplante draws on research findings from psychology when considering scientific methodology, how people consider and use evidence, and in providing information relevant to critical thinking.
The bit of the episode on Mercier and Sperber’s theory that most strongly got my interest is the way he uses their theory to consider the dogmatism that people adopt often exhibit and explore whether this can be viewed as “adaptive” (in an evolutionary sense).
As part of this he makes a useful distinction between being ‘ultra-dogmatic’ and moderately dogmatic. Someone who adopts an ultra-dogmatic stance unreflexively rejects all evidence and arguments that challenge their beliefs and actively resists all attempts at rational persuasion even if good reasons are presented. Being ultra-dogmatic can have significant benefits such as having stable beliefs (this may also provide a wide range of psychological benefits) and it may help to attract aligned collaborators who share these beliefs. Indeed, I often see related work being done by actors to signal their suitability for collaboration to potential collaborators. However, it can also have major costs such as being insufficiently open to persuasion by good reasons which would enable adoption of better beliefs or aid with making better decisions. In contrast, someone who is ‘moderately dogmatic’ resists persuasion (i.e. resits altering their beliefs) – e.g. by exhibiting epistemic vigilance – but also remains open to persuasion by good reasons and compelling evidence. deLaplante explores such positions in relation to Mercier and Sperber’s theory of reason.
I found this to be an interesting and useful distinction because I sometimes too simplistically view dogmatism as a ‘bad thing’ (often focusing on the ultra-dogmatic positions people can adopt), whereas moderate forms can be appropriate in some circumstances.
For more on deLaplante’s take on the argumentative theory of reason see his great video: