Sunday, 31 March 2013

The art of intelligence

No doubt I am far from unique in being convinced that intelligence is a somewhat misleading idea, even though it isn’t easily avoided.

Apart from the IQ bit, there are social aspects too. One of the most interesting to me is how intelligence seems to be something of an art, which like any other art may be pursued with varying degrees of skill and enthusiasm and from various motives. Also, as with any other art the proficiency achieved is commensurate with effort expended. 

No doubt that there may be such a thing as inborn cognitive talent supposedly measured by IQ testing, but to my mind IQ is limited, misleading and by no means uniformly applicable across the intellectual arena. Some professors seem to be comparative dunces outside their speciality – making them a fertile source of government advisors.

Putting IQ to one side, it seems to me that if we devote time to some intellectual pursuit, we acquire the art of being intelligent, or of of seeming intelligent. There is no real difference.

It's a complex and diffuse effect and gains are not confined to our chosen pursuit, but intelligence is an art. There are a number of obvious reasons too.

Firstly and most obviously, if we count reading as an intellectual pursuit, and it is difficult to see why we would not, then we account for the commonplace observation that a well-read person is almost invariably regarded as intelligent. 

In addition, intellectual pursuits such as reading tend to have diffuse boundaries, so other social skills are acquired. Linguistic dexterity seems to be one of the most important.

Intellectual pursuits also put one in contact with other people with the same interests but their own range of ancillary interests, a social effect which hones the art of intelligence. It even works for politics in that otherwise stupid or inexperienced people may still acquire the art of intelligence.

Stupid and intelligent are not mutually exclusive. It is possible and indeed quite common to apply the art of intelligence to any number of stupidities.

So unfortunately, the art of intelligence can be taken too far. Even if only pursued as a hobby, is the art of intelligence always a Good Thing? For example :-

  • Does intelligence cause serious social and political errors via delusions of a knowable future? 
  • Does intelligence cause even more errors through extreme social and political complexity?
  • Does intelligence sometimes hide malign intentions?
  • Does intelligence sometimes hide amoral behaviour?

Of course it does.


Anonymous said...

What is intelligence? Is it 'gumption', or 'sticking power', or persistance or the result of training and experience? One place I worked had an allegedly very intelligent (and smelly) chap of whom it was said 'Oh X's intelligence is entirely artificial'. Certainly this fellow was opinionated and good at producing chop logic arguments based on half-truths and wrong information. People of this type, if rather bossy, tend to be managers with the illusion of effectiveness. Well trained and persistant but lacking the gumption and the humility to see that just possibly one might be wrong.

Then consider the lawyer paid to produce an interpretation of law that suit his client's purpose. Were those drafting the law malign or is the lawyer re-interpreting the law malign?

Then consider Richard Feynman's analysis of the Challenger disaster. He had training, experience, gumption etc etc but also the intelligence and independence to look under the surface. The paperwork reports presented to him were mostly management flannel - by looking under the surface he exposed the reality.

So, you are right AK, intelligence is easily and often misused - probably more often than it is put to useful purposes. I wonder why.

Sackerson said...

Can of worms, AKH. But even Eyesenck (I think) admitted that intelligence could be increased by practising on his IQ tests. And hasn't it been reported that young people today score higher on such things than previous generations?

Sackerson said...

PS Sorry for Eysenck typo, does that show I'm stupid?

Eyesenck you...

Nigel Sedgwick said...

On intelligence: I suggest consideration under four headings, in judging the intelligence of people - as it is and as it is perceived.

1. Axioms. The basic premises ( in my terminology effectively defining a single composite objective function) that determine what is the 'good' to be maximised.

2. Knowledge. The acquired evidence as to what is true and what is untrue about the natural world (perhaps universe) and about human society.

3. Rational Deduction. The logical though processes that go from the axioms and knowledge to a conclusion in specific circumstances.

4. Persuasion. The ability to convince other people that one is correct. This, of course, does allow for hidden axioms that place personal advantage over the common good, to a greater or lesser extent, leading to attempts (perhaps successful) in persuading other people to act against their own self-interest.

Best regards

A K Haart said...

Roger - I wonder why too. I think there is something elusive we need a word for, but if we had one it would become corrupted by misuse.

Sackers - I think Eysenck's admission shows a problem with IQ, but I think the problem is as you say, a can of worms.

Nigel - it seems to me that your four headings are axioms. I think axioms are interesting, because we all have them and often they are not up for discussion and the really interesting question is often - why not?

The trouble is, the very word "axiom" seems to make for a dry discussion which may not quite capture the problem in terms of daily experience.

Nigel Sedgwick said...

AKH writes, in many ways quite properly corrective of my too-simple expression of view: "Nigel - it seems to me that your four headings are axioms. I think axioms are interesting, because we all have them and often they are not up for discussion and the really interesting question is often - why not?"

I agree that two of my axioms are indisputably: (i) the acquisition of knowledge is valuable, and one's action should not be in conflict with one's knowledge of what works (in the world); (ii) rational logic is the only good way of moving forward from the combination of one's axioms and one's knowledge.

I also acknowledge that I view persuasiveness as distinctly important, and separate from knowledge and rational deduction. However, I would rank it as somewhat less important than the other two.

I would, however,view all three as of a higher ranking that other axioms that are personally chosen. This is because differentiation between other axioms becomes irrelevant if knowledge and rational thought are not valued at least as highly as those other axioms.

Finally, concerning the meaning of axioms, these are (IMHO) the self-evident truths of Jefferson and the USA Declaration of Independence. They are not derivative of other things, by rational thought or by knowledge: they are self-evident (or not as the case may be). In so far as they are not self-evident between individuals, they are either inadequately refined as to their basicality across a variety of circumstances. Or they are an (overwhelming) factor of disagreement in terms of moral outlook, which would lead to opposition to the view that the other party possesses worthwhile (comparative) intelligence!

I can predict that my view above is probably somewhat weak as to wording (as was my earlier attempt): but I think we are getting there by stages.

Best regards

A K Haart said...

Nigel - I don't see anything wrong with your wording - it's a tricky subject and we are only blogging.

I think disagreements over moral outlook are often fundamental and as you suggest they can lead to deep and often fractious disagreements.

It seems to me that another problem is how those with axes to grind are often more persistent than those who are more detached so we can't remove the human element.

James Higham said...

Ah but we can't just say we were only blogging. :) Those such as Nigel take what we say seriously and we need to defend each point in turn.