These heady days of artificial intelligence imply that we have a full understanding of intelligence in its native form. Apparently it has something to do with the ability to solve problems. Or at least to get good grades in school. Or to appear bright, quick, and agile in dealing with mental issues.

We rate individuals on a scale of intelligence where a score of 100 is judged to be normal. I once saw a vanity plate in Harvard square, IQ 205, so I assumed the driver of that car had a higher intelligence quotient than 204. If we can measure it that finely, and can make machines having artificial intelligence, surely we must recognize the real McCoy when we meet it face to face, mind to mind.

But since every person on Earth is unique in having a different immune system, nervous system, upbringing, education, work history, emotional life, reservoir of life experience, etc., I wonder how we can claim to measure intelligence as if it were the same mental quality across all those fundamental variables.

For myself, I find that my performance on a specific task depends on the situation I am in at the time, and also on whether or not I have been in that situation before. My mind is a mix of facets, elements, or dimensions of conscious and habitual experience. These facets come into play in varying degrees and proportions, so that on each occasion my mind is composed to meet the needs of the moment. That is, I find my so-called intelligence is present on a sliding scale. Or, put differently, is composed of different facets as called up in me by different situations.

As I was starting to think of writing this blog, I happened to be reading the 1874 edition of Charles Darwin’s book on human evolution, The Descent of Man. In the third chapter, Darwin compares the “mental powers of man and the lower animals.” I took those mental powers to be an early treatment of what today we might collectively refer to as intelligence. I perked up and paid close attention to what Darwin had written to see how his list of mental powers compared with the one I have been compiling under the guise of dimensions of consciousness or, as I now say, situated intelligence.

In my system I break consciousness into three main divisions: perception, judgment, and action. Perception deals with sensory input to the mind, judgment deals with determining the meaning of such input as a preparation for action, and action itself deals with how we go about forming an apt response to that input. These three divisions of mind connect our continuous loop of engagement with the world so, like the old serpent Ouroborus depicted as biting its own tail, our actions come full circle and we are in a position to compare the bite of perception in the context of our intended action, allowing us to revise our stance in making another round of action unto subsequent perception. That act of comparison is what we are conscious of at the moment so, as I see it, is the fundamental basis of what we call intelligence.

How do my 2014 dimensions of consciousness stack up against Darwin’s 1874 treatment of mental powers shared by people and animals? His point, of course, is that human minds have evolved from animal (primate) minds, so our mental powers are variations on the earlier powers possessed by our ancestors. Those variations can be either elaborations or diminutions, depending on the developmental pressure applied by our need to fit into the particular environmental situations we face from year to decade to century to millennium. Our sense of smell and pedal dexterity, for example, have decreased from what they were in the wild, while our vocalizations and manual dexterity have increased.

Grouping Darwin’s mental powers according to my distinctions between Perception, Judgment, and Action, I discover under the heading of Perception the following mental powers in common: same senses in man as primates, curiosity, anticipation, foresight, dread, danger, attention, distraction, senses of pleasure and pain, memory required for recognition, wonder, and sense of beauty.

Under the heading of Judgment: choice, instincts, intuition, abstraction, conception, association of ideas, episodic memory, cunning, deceit, deliberation, imagination, dreams, emotions (affection, alarm, ennui, fidelity, gratitude, jealousy, happiness/misery, love, magnanimity, passions, revenge, ridicule, suspicion, sympathy), reason, language (cries of pain, fear, surprise, anger, murmurs mother to child, song), self-consciousness, sense of humor.

Darwin glosses entire repertoires of behavior under Action, along with self-improvement. In the following chapter, he deals with the common powers of sociability, social instincts, social virtues, judgment on conduct, and transmission of moral tendencies.

His conclusion in 1874 is that the “intellectual powers” “of the higher animals, which are the same in kind with those of man, though so different in degree, are capable of advancement.” Wayfarers that we are today, up on two legs and following our inclinations, our modern intelligence is living proof of Darwin’s belief.

The question now is, can we transfer that advancement to our machines so that they serve as the next stage in the trend we have begun? Taking us with them, or leaving us behind?

I will follow up that query in my next blog.

Copyright © 2012 by Steve Perrin

What do these men all have in common?

  • Slobodan Milosevic
  • Muammar Gaddafi
  • Osama bin Laden
  • Saddam Hussein
  • Mao Zedong
  • Kim Jung Il
  • Augusto Pinochet
  • Pol Pot

Yes, all tyrannical personalities. And all dead.  In the annals of life on Earth, each of us—including those men I have listed—stands as a distinct human personality unlike any other. Our childhood rearing is unique, our education is unique, our job histories, our aspirations, accomplishments, memories, feelings, values, sex lives—all unique. Because our loops of engagement are singular in each case.

What we share is our individuality. Some have been applauded in their time, others feared, condemned, or despised. Many have died violent deaths or been judged harshly by those they abused. But my point here is that none of them is inherently good or evil. Each is the product of the life that he lived, the outcome of a unique loop of engagement that made him turn out as he did. If any other genetically different person had experienced such a life, he would likely have turned out much the same.

Goodness or badness is a judgment by others, not an inherent attribute or personality trait. In putting such people to death for whatever reason, we are killing them for being what their life experiences have made them—as our own unique experiences have made us.

Taking the life of anyone for being who they are at a time of weakness is a form of absolute tyranny in itself, often stemming from personal animosity or hatred toward someone whose actions are shaped by his or her lifelong experience in particular places with particular people in particular eras. Taking violent action against people we don’t agree with is a crude form of asserting our supposed superiority over others, when in truth our diversity is founded in each case on our living under conditions specific to ourselves.

No one is conceived or born under the influence of evil stars such as Shakespeare may have drawn Caliban, Richard III, or Iago. We may become evil by living under evil circumstances—by being abused as children, for instance, or by being denied basic needs in our formative years, or serving a battle-stressed life in the military. In the list above, no one is inherently evil without having lived a life of cruelty, need, or abuse. We know that suffering post-traumatic-stress disorder does not make a veteran evil, though he may commit acts perceived and judged as such. Yet when it comes to tyrants, we make them pay for their crimes rather than lead them through a bout of truth and reconciliation as we saw in South Africa at the end of apartheid.

Instead of doing violence to such persons, we would do better to help them in viewing the results of their actions as others see them. Which is far easier to say than to do. We do not readily take responsibility for our engagements because each of us believes that he or she knows what life is about, and lives it as it is meant to be lived. It is difficult to imagine that we make ourselves happen as we do because of a loop of engagement set in motion by our being who we are, where we are. Or that we are so accustomed to living such a loop that we do not see that we ourselves are the figure behind the curtain pulling the levers that control us.

But in fact we make ourselves happen every second of our lives according to lessons learned through earlier experience. We mindlessly cling to ways that are familiar, believing we have no alternative available to us. It’s back to the future in every case, our fate being a foregone conclusion over which we assume we have little control. 

Rather than condemn tyrannical personalities to death or solitary confinement, I think it would be better to have them confront their atrocities so that they may ultimately come to transcend them. Rage has never brought about a good end. I offer both the felling of the Twin Towers and the American invasion of Iraq in retaliation as classic examples. Suicide by jihadis precludes truth and reconciliation, so their earthly salvation is moot.

Rather than punish those who offend us, we do better to help them see that their loops of engagement will lead to a bad end. By taking responsibility for what they have done, they can distance themselves from the habit of violence they picked up when young and go beyond it in seeking a life of reconciliation and forgiveness.

Sorry to sermonize, but I see so much needless violence in the world, I wanted to say something because violence breeds only violence, and we never break out of the loop. Y’r friend, –Steve