Which intelligence?

Phillipe Verdoux has a thought-provoking post over at IEET entitled, “If Only We Were Smarter!“.   He argues that increasing intelligence may not be as good an idea as it may seem at first blush.  As he says, the point of the piece is,

“to gesture at an apparently strong correlation between our expanding intellectual capacities and our growing (self-)destructive capabilities. This correlation appears to hold (more-or-less) historically, contemporarily and into the prognosticated future.”

Phillipe’s suggestion could be easily dismantled by arguments from boosters of transhumanistm; in due course, it no doubt will.  Indeed, in some ways the argument (showing up as it does on IEET) might be seen as a straw-man which ultimately gestures at such sentiments as Julian Savulescu’s moral obligation to enhance.

I wish to suggest an alternative view of the matter: that the challenge is not increasing intelligence per se, but rather specific types of intelligence. Looking beyond the folk psychology of intelligence, we find that intelligence is not a monolith but rather a complex and incompletely understood phenomenon which lies at the heart of modern neuroscience. The most well-known discourse on the topic is, of course, Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences which includes, at least, the following:

  • Visual-spatial
  • Verbal-linguistic
  • Logical-mathematical
  • Bodily-kinesthetic
  • Musical-rhythmic
  • Interpersonal
  • Intrapersonal

Add to this list such characterizations as emotional intelligence, ecological intelligence, cultural intelligence, swarm intelligence (usually attributed to ants, but the related concept of the wisdom of crowds has garnered quite a bit of attention recently) and their kin, and one quickly finds that the proposition that expanding intellectual capabilities is correlated with an increase in self-destructive capabilities is just a tad facile.

Phillipe’s essential premise certainly has some merit, but I suggest that the question requires framing with greater subtlety.  Which of our intellectual abilities are most adaptive for the modern world? Which of them should we strive to sharpen (be it pharmacologically, educationally, or otherwise)?  Will any of them save us from the perils that Phillipe points out we face?  Phillipe’s missive is but the start of a very interesting conversation.


4 thoughts on “Which intelligence?

  1. What a maze-solving oil drop tells us of intelligence

    Intelligence / Collective definitions

    I think there is a fundamental reliance on gut feelings. The bottom line is that even the acts of applying advanced heuristics, evaluating further or simply to gather new knowledge are ultimately executed due to purely non-intelligent processes. After all, you don’t decide how to think either? What we do is merely following ‘the line of least resistance’. Thus I don’t believe intelligence exists, beyond the ability to learn and apply it. Intelligence is not a proactive approach but simply trial and error allowed for by the mostly large error tolerance of our existence. What you learn you’ll have to apply by relying on prior knowledge, even if it is in the form of advanced algorithms. You can only hope to be lucky to learn enough in-time to avoid fatal failure. Since no possible system can use advanced heuristics to tackle, or even evaluate, every stimulus. For example, at what point are you going to make use of statistical methods? You won’t even be able to evaluate the importance of all data to be able to judge when to apply more rigorous tools. You can only be a passive observer who’s waiting for new data by experience. And until new data arrives, rely on prior knowledge.

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  3. I wonder how far we can push the idea of intelligence. It seems that we want all life-forms to wear clothes taken from the anthropomorphic wardrobe; and if some forms look badly fitted-out, well, its their own fault.

    But is intelligence like that?

    Intelligence acts on objects. Objects are particular to each species. A cat does not see a piano, it sees its own object(s). The working assumption behind intelligence is that there is a pan-species class of object.

    Until that object is defined and argued for we cannot speak about one species being more or less intelligent than another, even less about advancing the intelligence of our species. Such an advancement would simply describe a new set of objects, correlated to a new species.

    That is, the notion of intelligence is limited to individuals, while “improving intelligence of the species” promotes extinction.

    • Note that my post on the object-groundedness of intelligence is original material and part of a larger project. Do not use without author’s permission.

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