Intelligence: an operational meaning
by Jim Walker

Originated: 18 Sep. 2004
Additions: 07 Nov. 2007

The meaning of intelligence

I do not intend here to define the ultimate meaning of intelligence but rather a starting point from which to provide an operational, useful, way to use the term. No one has yet provided a complete description, yet alone all the types of intelligences that exist. The psychologist, Howard Gardner, for example, identified up to 9 different types of intelligences that exist in the human alone. Indeed, there may occur types of intelligences that we have no way (as yet) to determine. It might prove ultimately impossible to pin down the meaning of intelligence simply because, at some level, intelligence requires creativity which, if attempted to define, contradicts the very notion of creativity! Perhaps like pornography, we know it when we see it. I will therefore stick with a very basic meaning of intelligence.

The dictionary meaning defines intelligence as "the capacity to acquire and apply knowledge by means of thought and reason." Note, this meaning leaves out many other capabilities which we might also consider intelligent. For example an artist who creates an abstract painting does not necessarily need to acquire knowledge nor even apply it through reason, yet we label many artists as intelligent or genius. [1] However at least one common denominator seems requisite for all known types of intelligences to occur: thinking. To have intelligence means having the ability to think. All forms of thinking (excluding, perhaps extremely insane forms of thinking) results in some kind of intelligent action, even if it may seem very low intelligence to us. The neurological understanding of the mechanisms of intelligence remains unclear but I suspect that we will discover that the terms "intelligence" and "thinking" will prove entirely synonymous.

Usually intelligent actions aim to solve a problem for a goal or to fulfill a desire but what has the capacity to acquire knowledge? Most people assume that only humans and supernatural entities have intelligence, but does intelligence require biological or superstitious agencies at all? I submit that most people confuse intelligence with consciousness or awareness, yet the operational meaning of intelligence doesn't require consciousness at all.

A key to understanding intelligence requires the understanding of its basic mechanism for obtaining it: thinking. Again, most people confuse thinking with consciousness and awareness, probably due to the fact that most people believe that only humans (and gods) have the capacity to think. But do only humans think? I submit that anything with a brain, thinks. Natural selection evolved brains because brains allow an organism to gather knowledge about the outside world and to utilize it to help them survive. In spite of past philosophers attempts to put humans on the pedestal of life and to declare that only humans think, research into brain biology over the past 30 years has shown that even a lowly worm has the capacity to think and reason at some basic level. And because nervous systems developed into simple brains and simple brains evolved into complex brains, so did the capacity to think and acquire knowledge. And since intelligence comes from mechanisms that think, so also does intelligence evolve-- along with the brains that hold intelligence.

The very task of acquiring knowledge predisposes an initial ignorance before obtaining and applying knowledge. This means that any intelligent entity must also possess limitations and unknowns about the universe before it can gather information and knowledge. Nowhere does intelligence require consciousness, or self-awareness in order to achieve the capacity to acquire knowledge and apply it (although it could certainly enhance it).

Ever since natural selection evolved us, a new kind of brain capable of simple thinking emerged through our inventions-- computers. Unconscious computers, for example, can meet all the requirements for simple intelligence. Computers can think (calculate) by performing logical rules within algorithms, gather information (knowledge) about its environment though sensors, and apply its acquired knowledge for an unconscious goal. To achieve a goal means to gather information about the environment (knowledge) and to make predictions from that information.

Alan Turing and especially, Hilary Putman, first proposed the computational theory of mind that linked human thinking to a form of computing. Thinking then, means a dynamic system able to manipulate abstract symbols, regardless of whether they occur in nervous systems, brains, computer programs, or neural nets.

To gather information requires senses, or sensors and the ability to attach labels to the sensed perceptions and to manipulate these labels to make predictions (algorithms, thinking). Biological intelligence evolves out of multi-cellular bodies with senses, nervous systems or brains (wet-ware). Non-biological forms of intelligence require sensors, electrical networks or computer brains (hardware).

From everything we know about intelligence, one thing remains clear: intelligence requires some kind of central processing system-- a brain. Whether the brain consists of biological or electrical components, it must have the capacity to acquire and apply knowledge by means of thought and reason.

Where we find intelligence

The only kind of intelligence that we know of comes in two forms: non-conscious and conscious. These forms occur in either of two types of physical vessels: biological life-forms and mechanical-electrical devices invented by humans. They actually exist, and both types occupy a limited space in the universe on a tiny planet called Earth. We know of no other forms of intelligence. We have not a shred of evidence that intelligence (as we know it) exists elsewhere in the universe, beyond it, or in a supernatural world.

Three types of biological vessels can carry intelligence (and possibly four): biological-non-conscious, biological-conscious, and mechanical-electrical-non-conscious. (We have not yet invented a mechanical-electrical-conscious intelligence yet.)

Examples of intelligence:

1. Insects building a nest (consciousness uncertain)

2. Animals foraging for food. (conscious, but some philosophers still debate this)

3. Apes climbing a tree. (some self-consciousness)

4. Humans inventing a machine. (self-conscious)

5. Robots performing mundane tasks (unconscious)

6. Computer algorithms solving a navigational problems (unconscious)

7. A chess program beating the world's best grandmaster (unconscious)

All of the above examples require some form of brain with the capability to think.

Note the progression of biological intelligence always stem from non-conscious intelligence to conscious intelligence (evolution), never the other way around (creationism). The arrow of time (entropy) puts non-conscious intelligence always before conscious intelligence on the past-future time scale. Millions of years ago, only simple celled life-forms existed, then came multi-celled life, then multi-celled life with simple brains, and then more complex brains, and finally brains with self-awareness and consciousness-- dolphins and apes (humans get classified within the ape family). All of these biological life-forms contain recipes of DNA, the mechanism of replication which carries with it intelligent expressions (phenotypes).

In the last few thousand years, a new replicant evolved out of biological life- memes. Memes propagate similar to genes but they can pollinate through brains in animals that have social cultures. Humans happen to have the most developed meme transfer methods as they have invented ways to store information in books, tapes, computer disks, CDs, and have even invented machines to manipulate them in dynamic ways. These man-made dynamic manipulations has resulted in a new media for intelligent evolution. Instead of biological intelligence transferred through DNA made brains, we now have begun to see the evolution of mechanical-electrical intelligence. Like biological evolution, mechanical-electrical intelligence also began from non-conscious means. It remains for us to see whether these meme-machines will develop consciousness and self-awareness.

Although the four forms of intelligence above appear to describe discrete categories, the actual evolution from non-conscious to consciousness does not occur within aristotelian dichotomies, but rather through a continuum. You might ask yourself at what level of evolution does consciousness exist in animals. We have little problem with seeing evidence of consciousness in humans, apes, dolphins, or even cats and dogs, but what about insects, microbes and viruses? Trying to pigeonhole just where non-con consciousness ends and consciousness begins only misses the mark and can lead us to create reification fallacies.

Even though describing categories of intelligence in general terms helps us understand the broad ranges, viewing the evolution though a time continuum gives us a more accurate way to understand its development.

One might also ask what consciousness has to do with intelligence. Since we know that computers have intelligence and no consciousness, why should we even classify intelligence with consciousness at all? Consciousness has more to do with feelings and emotions (qualia) than it does with intelligence. In fact you can even train yourself to eliminate thought (and thus no intelligence) through mediation or biofeedback techniques, at least briefly, but you will still feel. It appears that consciousness evolved later in complex brains, perhaps even as an emerged property of brain chemistry.

As to the problem of defining artistic intelligence, it may simply come in the form of attaching thinking with feeling. Instead of obtaining knowledge about the outside world, the artist (at least on some level) relies on inner feelings. Artists use their inner feelings and emotions in combination with thought and action (craft) in order to express their emotions and feelings. Painting, dancing, acting, or whatever artistic media you choose, you must do it through qualia (feelings, emotions), thought (where to place your brush, color, or movement), and apply it in some media format.

The God meaning of intelligence

Interestingly, the people who speak most about godly intelligence fail to give an operational meaning for intelligence. In its most common expressed form, a religious believer will define god's intelligence as possessing supreme knowledge (omniscient). The shift from Creationism to Intelligent Design theory gives, perhaps the most evasive and yet empty example for the meaning for intelligence. In spite of the long held belief that a monolithic entity possess an extreme form of intelligence, we never hear a good argument to exactly what the term intelligence means. It does no good to define intelligence as omniscience because this term only describes the end result of intelligence, not intelligence itself. Moreover we have no way to test for omniscience.

Revealingly, nowhere in the Bible does it use the term "intelligent" in reference to God. In fact, nowhere in the KJV Bible does it even use the word except in one verse (Daniel 11:30) where it uses "intelligence" in reference to information about an enemy.

We know about intelligence because we observe it in ourselves and in others. Many times people project this idea to inanimate objects and fictions that they want or need to believe in (religions). I suspect that most religious people confuse intelligence for what they think of as a conscious entity (an entity that has feelings coupled with awareness). A personal god. Surely Christians believe that their god possess a super-consciousness, an entity that has awareness of everything in the universe, a grand peep-master that sees and judges everything people do. And it comes from this super-consciousness that they also believe, incorporates intelligence. In other words, they believe that one cannot exist without the other: to have intelligence means to have consciousness and to have consciousness means having intelligence. In spite of this fantasy, our only model for intelligence comes from our own limited intelligence. And since believers always think of their gods as supreme or unlimited (but how would they know?), they naturally assign extreme intelligence-consciousness to their object of worship. But notice that nothing above provides a meaning for intelligence itself (it consists entirely as circular reasoning).

If a god does possess intelligence then it cannot exist as omniscient because intelligent beings must possess uncertainty in order to acquire knowledge (If you know everything, then you can't acquire knowledge because you already have all of it). And if an entity knew everything, then it would have nothing to do!

Clearly intelligence does not require consciousness, nor does it require feelings or emotions, and yet religionists hold this very idea as somehow important to their theology. I submit that they haven't a clue as to what they mean, and this, perhaps, explains in part why religion has never had the capacity to explain any of the world's phenomena. Religion has everything to do with self-consciousness, not intelligence, and self-consciousness without intelligence produces the very delusions derived from their beliefs.


[1] Those who have read Alfred Korzybski's view of over-under defined terms might see the limiting factor of the word intelligence here. A label can never include all and varying differences of objects, properties and their reactions.