Biology & Philosophy

, Volume 31, Issue 5, pp 685–704 | Cite as

Why we reason: intention-alignment and the genesis of human rationality

  • Andy NormanEmail author


Why do humans reason? Many animals draw inferences, but reasoning—the tendency to produce and respond to reason-giving performances—is biologically unusual, and demands evolutionary explanation. Mercier and Sperber (Behav Brain Sci 34:57–111, 2011) advance our understanding of reason’s adaptive function with their argumentative theory of reason (ATR). On this account, the “function of reason is argumentative… to devise and evaluate arguments intended to persuade.” ATR, they argue, helps to explain several well-known cognitive biases. In this paper, I develop a neighboring hypothesis called the intention alignment model (IAM) and contrast it with ATR. I conjecture that reasoning evolved primarily because it helped social hominins more readily and fully align their intentions. We use reasons to advance various proximal ends, but in the main, we do it to overwrite the beliefs and desires of others: to get others to think like us. Reason afforded our ancestors a powerful way to build and maintain the shared outlooks necessary for a highly collaborative existence. Yes, we sometimes argue so as to gain argumentative advantage over others, or otherwise advantage ourselves at the expense of those we argue with, but more often, we reason in ways that are mutually advantageous. In fact, there are excellent reasons for thinking this must be so. IAM, I suggest, neatly explains the available evidence, while also providing a more coherent account of reason’s origins.


Reasoning Evolution Cooperation Bias Cognitive bias Intention Intention-sharing 


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Carnegie Mellon UniversityPittsburghUSA

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