Sunday, May 4, 2008


Got into an interesting discussion with someone about the definition of "intelligence." As I understood him, he seemed to think that our concept of "intelligence" was something of an illusion, because animals (and, presumably we also) simply follow the laws of nature as applied through the genetic preprogramming we bring to the table and the stimuli we experience. Thus, he argued, there was no fundamental difference between the behavior of animals and the the behavior of the weather, except for the degree of complexity in the system.

Not wanting to get into an argument about free-will/determination, compatibilism/incompatibilism, or materialism/dualism, I argued that even if we are simply highly complex systems, we are fundamentally different than the weather, because we have the capacity to act with respect to preexisting desires. We don't just act in response to stimuli -- we interpret those stimuli with respect to desired outcomes (e.g. survival, happiness, reproduction, spiritual fulfilment) -- all things which the weather cannot do. In other words, we don't just see a hamburger -- we see the hamburger with respect to our own desire to eat, or our own desire not to die of heart disease, and act according to our desires.

The weather does not have preprogrammed ends or desires. We do. And that's what makes us intelligent.

Seems like there are three ways to view intelligence:

1) Illusion, as what appears to be intelligence is merely the systematic function of a highly complex system -- a system that reacts with 100% predictability based on genetic preprogramming and physical stimuli.

2) An external, spiritual "soul" that exists independently of the body.

3) The sum of an organisms desires, thoughts, memories, and plans that we bring to our physical stimuli. Whether or not these are purely material or an ethereal "soul," they are what makes us intelligent.


Matt Ackerman said...

An original observation, and a debate that I have run into many times. I think what needs to be realized is that intelegence might be an abstract mathmatical property that the weather and most organisms do not possess, but we and any other intelegent organisms do. In much the same way as intelegent aliens would arive at the same science as us, they would have simmilar kinds of minds, because minds are simply what works.

ungtss said...

Interesting thought ... can you help me understand better? What do you mean by "mathematical property?" Do you mean that in the sense of 'it performs calculations?' or 'it can be mathematically derived?' or something else?

Matt Ackerman said...

I'm afraid I'm being purposefully vague, because I don't have the slightest idea what the actual properties are, but I will try to explain. Any algorithm that you design to perform addition ultimately performs the same transformation to the data in the end regardless of all other considerations, since it is defined as addition on the basis of the way it transforms data. It is possible, and according to my intuition likely, that there would be some set of fundamental data operations which were necessary and sufficient for intelligence. If, for example, addition falls into this category, and I have no idea if it does, then we could say things which are incapable of addition cannot be intelligent.

ungtss said...

Interesting idea -- could well be. Myself, I tend to leave room for an "emotional" aspect to intelligence -- and I can't fathom how that could be reduced to data manipulation. Would be interested to see any efforts to experimentally duplicate emotion with numerical operations, tho.