Thursday, December 16, 2021

On intelligence

The Uncertainty Principle: It proves we can’t really ever know what’s going on

If you’re dumb by design you can never fully know it. I’ve had the desire to write on the stupid approach to intelligence. Often when writing I’ll have this unwelcome inclination to sound like a good orator or otherwise clever. I fight this instinct because it goes against the general purpose of what would be an objective and scientific approach to inquiry. The purpose of language is only to communicate and an essay expressing a philosophy doesn’t have the same urgency for perfection a peer-reviewed paper might. Simplicity is the ultimate tool, and an excess of syllables unnecessarily complicate a message. I believe this impulse is indicative of how intelligence is perceived as a whole.

The easiest way to attack problems with our interpretation of intelligence is to look at IQ. Previously, I always looked at IQ with suspicion, as wasting time and rigorously preparing for an intelligence test seems “low iq,” before we get into the vain impulse to brag and socially peacock around your intelligence with a ranking or numerical score. After looking at the criticisms these feelings were confirmed. The test doesn’t work for several reasons. Namely, you can tell this because there’s a huge degree of variance even between people’s own test scores when taken multiple times. Also because it has a great ability to identify dumbness, but is wildly varying in the higher numbers on any quantitative scale (NN Taleb). One of those scales for example would be survivability and how you measure this is anyone’s guess. In my opinion an IQ test can’t work for the same reason we generally can’t predict the future. But say you were going for survivability, you could do some sort of base measure, a nuts and bolts estimate to do with a person’s financial success. Already, this seems an incredibly weak underpinning as we aim to predict a person’s ability to navigate an unknown, virtually infinitely complex future world.

But it gets worse. Tying a person’s success to their ability to survive, or their ability to earn which is our flimsy but best chance of a correlation (with all its variability and noise), is predicated on an assumption that survival is intelligent. Interestingly, the great philosophers like Alan Watts or Albert Camus often reduced the sum of philosophy to the question of suicide. It makes sense. A philosophical interpretation of existence will be examined best through the contrast of not existing. Whether to live, they determined, was the essential question. When judging intelligence, it’s clear Isaac Newton and Einstein are near the top of the known persons. But there’s an additional qualifier here if you’re looking at it through that philosophical lens, they were the smartest people who were also convinced for whatever reason to be driven and motivated in their pursuits toward an end. This version of intelligence is dependent on success predicated by ambition. Surely there’s been many equally intelligent people indifferent to any pursuit that would have them seen written into the pages of history, and others undoubtedly were intelligent and yet met existence, understood it, but saw futility or went without curiosity and committed suicide or otherwise resigned themselves in life.

Undoubtedly, the great intelligent men of history also had a bit of luck on their side not to fall to some misfortune or plague. It makes me question, were Julius Caesar and Genghis Khan really great men or were they just the best bold visionaries who also didn’t happen to take an arrow to the chest. Maybe T.E. Lawrence stood up to gunfire and survived, but if that’s true, certainly many more people who thought their existence was divinely-ordained were shot dead and never written about. In light of this, a lot of success is due to luck and explained by survivorship bias.

This echoes of the “great man theory,” which basically suggests a few persons of extraordinarily talent drove and explain history. I dismiss this because it credits the crest of the wave while ignoring every other part of the process. It seems more probable the conditions created by the collective enabled these individuals and made those high water marks inevitable. That doesn’t mean certain people’s discoveries didn't save us decades. I only wish to dispel the gross reductionist view and venerate to some degree the nameless everyperson for their part in the process.

In short we give too much credit and not enough. There’s an unquestioned belief that progress is possible and that it is good. That life, progress and its pursuits are innately intelligent for seemingly no other reason than we are alive and therefore compelled to stay so. Call it the life-bias, but if we’re to exist it seems important to remember this contrast to retain the right perspective and take life unserious and in stride and revel in its novelty. To recognize intelligence in any other way is likely stupid and to miss the point entirely.

This could explain the stereotype that smart people are miserable. It’s easy to infer more complex people will have greater difficulty and less resources when it comes to solving their more complex needs. Naval asks a great question, though, “If you’re so smart, why aren’t you happy?” A great question for many not-so-smart smart people. But there is also an alternative, the masochistic intelligent who invite painful thoughts and situations into their lives as a form of discovery, and help mediate or navigate future trauma and pain. In short, the reason some watch horror movies or TV shows about sociopaths.

Intelligence seems to come with undue focus. There’s no correlation between it and morality. There’s a lack of appreciation for the wide, diverse systems that enable the experiments, conversation, and conditions for the inevitable leaps in science. There’s not enough challenge to the unproven yet widely held assumption that progress is the imperative collective goal. There’s a lack of study in the idea that the intelligent individual might meet the complex problems of the world with indifference.

Often people fall for the trap of cult of personality and for them intelligence can be defined by self-proclaimed genius, genius itself being a word of mythical quality. From what I can understand true genius is essentially not quantifiable. Some self-proclaim, some don’t want credit, some saw into the future enough they created solutions and prevented wars before they began, some understood the game of life and decided not to play it.

In considering my desire to write this my motive may be simply the miscalibrated view of intelligence. I see no innately intelligent or rational component in engaging in existence over not. I see no intelligent correlation in ambition over indifference. I see a vast disparity between con artists who claim to be geniuses to place themselves in that light, versus others smart enough to see fame and accreditation are often overrated or not worth pursuing. I see an excessive amount of credit go to problem solvers and not enough credit go to people who prevent problems from ever starting. I see the vast majority of the attention on the “great men,” less so on the collective’s daily contributions and inventions without which those great men would not exist in equal capacity. I see an unscientific acceptance of science as an irreproachable and final authority, and this elitism doesn’t seem a wise way to advocate wisdom.

There’s an entire world slowly, day by day inventing and perfecting ideas that get engineered into the reality, and the same with creating the complex systems to keep these emerging inventions running smoothly and compatibly with the inventions of the past, while leaving room for things to be expanded upon in the future. It seems an impossible task in a world of billions but this also means you have that many more minds working towards solutions. This world has another side defined by what it doesn’t do and doesn’t create, alongside with what measures are taken to exclude unfavorable outcomes. By the time you include ambition or desire to participate in life itself, it seems impossible to quantify and current measures are uninspiring and unwise.

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