Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Is there such a thing as intelligence?

What a feeble thing intelligence is, with its short steps, its waverings, its pacings back and forth, its disastrous retreats! Intelligence is a mere instrument of circumstances. There are people who say that intelligence must have built the universe — why, intelligence never built a steam engine! Circumstances built a steam engine. Intelligence is little more than a short foot-rule by which we measure the infinite achievements of Circumstances.

F. Scott Fitzgerald - The Beautiful and Damned (1922)

The most problematic aspect of the EU referendum debate was the shallow nature of so many arguments. It was an important and high profile debate, but for some reason shallow was the preferred depth. Intelligence was not required - but why?

To begin with, intelligence is obviously a useful notion for elite classes to maintain their ascendancy. Nobody wants to be ruled by Mr Stupid or preached at by Bishop Dork even though we often are. So we have to pretend and elites usually attempt to appear passably intelligent even when they are not. Many struggle to keep up the charade, but they try, they do try. 

To help the charade along, a superior type of education is used to make the whole idea of elite intelligence more plausible. The natural intelligence of good breeding is supposed to be nurtured by deluxe educational methods. This costs more money than most people have which is no great surprise because that’s the whole point. Intelligence has to be somewhat exclusive.

Yet imagine if you will, a politician who says something so obviously stupid that even the mainstream media have to take note. Imagine that same politician having to back down at some later date when the stupidity becomes politically embarrassing. Not uncommon is it? I’m thinking of Naseem Shah as a fairly recent example, but there are many, many more and will be many, many more in future.

Unintelligent behaviour seems to be remarkably common even in political life where one might assume that maintaining the charade is one of the most basic requirements. Yet a lack of intelligence is particularly easy to spot if the political party you don’t support happens to be in office. We know their lot can’t be intelligent because the intelligence is mostly on our side isn’t it?

It won’t do though will it? Unless one has the hide of a rhinoceros the bias is just too obvious. Loop back to our politician who says something stupid. If he or she is also seen as a crafty political operator, then the stupidity becomes either a political slip or a cunning facade hiding devious intentions. The notion of elite intelligence is preserved.

But that won’t do either. A simpler explanation is that stupid behaviour is a sign of stupidity. Occam’s Razor don’t you know.

Perhaps so, but an even simpler explanation is that there is no such thing as intelligence. Behaviour, learned or imitated is either effective or ineffective but we don’t find out which until we launch it onto the public domain. Trial and error with its short steps, its waverings, its pacings back and forth, its disastrous retreats!

Hence all that political backtracking we enjoy so much and this is the key point, the glaringly obvious clue, the reason why political classes fly kites. They can’t foresee public reaction where there is no good precedent. They have to experiment on a small scale and learn from the outcome. Naseem Shah’s observation about Israel was one such experiment. A naive one, but still an experiment. She did not foresee the outcome because she couldn’t foresee it because she didn’t have the intelligence to foresee it because there is no such thing as independent intelligence.

Intelligence is another aspect of our tendency to focus on the individual rather than the individual’s controlling environment. Intelligence is mainly a feature of those controlling environments, not so much individuals. We use imitation and cooperation to engineer intelligent environments without needing to be intelligent ourselves because we can’t be intelligent in a vacuum, without sounding boards, without feedback, without the environment.

This is what political types foster and rely on. This is why they make so many obvious blunders. They are not intelligent outside their controlling environment. Nobody is. We engineer intelligent environments by trial and error and by modifying our behaviour accordingly but we don’t need much individual intelligence to do it. Trial and error does it for us.

Except when we deny the errors. That's when hard landings take over.


Demetrius said...

In my time what I found remarkable is how it is that people may be highly intelligent in some things but very stupid in others.

Sam Vega said...

Excellent post. Another one of yours that seems to be the culmination of long careful thought.

One problem is that we have over-emphasised intelligence as a virtue. Everything politicians do has to somehow exemplify intelligence, and this turns out to be counter-productive as they then resort to subterfuge, denial, and bullshit. Maybe we need to emphasise the other useful mental traits: a capacity for hard dogged work; courage; communication skills; an ability to spot bullshit. And what about insight, in the sense of "Ah, so this is how Europe/Parliament/government actually works"?

What do we think "intelligence" actually is, in the abstract? I've always thought it had something to do with the ability to spot patterns. It is a concept in danger of dissolving into unhelpful generality, along the lines of "the ability to do what I approve of".

Henry Kaye said...

Intelligence to me is the ability to think. What that thinking is directed to is anybody's guess.

Anonymous said...

Intelligence - possibly just an immense pile of reflexes built layer upon layer and joined up by time and experience.

Politics seems to lack a good experimental laboratory. A good experiment is apt to wipe the smirk off the most confident experimenter's face and result in a lot of fancy theorising ending up in the bin. To enter the laboratory is to submit oneself to an examiner who cannot be fooled. On the other hand, a politician's reflexes seem particularly designed or selected to fool any questioner. With the data manipulated and the experiment constantly changing there seems little hope of sanity.

A K Haart said...

Demetrius - that's the controlling environments at work.

Sam - thanks and you are right, we have over-emphasised intelligence as a virtue. Two key aspect of intelligence seem to be spotting the errors in trial and error and in spotting that there has been no genuine trial to generate any errors.

Henry - I'm sure the ability to think is tied up with the ability to criticise too.

Roger - I'm sure it is an immense pile of reflexes and the lack of a political laboratory ensures they are never tested against anything which cannot be manipulated. Political parties show us how peer review can be such a crock too.