Trying to boost intelligence when we don’t even know what it is

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In a wide-ranging and thoughtful discussion, The European’s Martin Eierman asks Nick Bostrom, director of Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute about the potential for genetic engineering enhancements of the mind, and Bostrom replies,essentially, that “we’ll get used to it.”

Bostrom: If you want to develop new drugs, you have to show that they are safe and effectively treat a disease. So when you want to find ways to enhance our brain activity, you perversely have to show that we are currently sick and need treatment. You cannot say, “I simply want to make this better than before”. We need to remove that stigma.

Some would butt in, before we try to enhance “mind,” “conciousness,”or “intelligence,” hadn’t we better decide what they are? There are no scientifically satisfactory definitions for any of these concepts. (There are the push poll definitions of various factions, but that is another matter.)

This came home to me recently when I was listening to a talk on the need for science to take into account the intelligence that underlies the universe, as a generator of high levels of information. A junkyard tornado survivor myself, I was in no way inclined to dispute this fact. But I did get up and ask a question: Science can only account for what it can understand – understand in the sense of the ability to work with it to gain new information. In that sense, what is intelligence? How does it relate to information? I was hardly prepared for his response.

But first, let me be clear: By “understand,” I don’t mean “understand fully.” I am not talking about the Darwin lobby’s bulleted talking points, like “know who the Designer is.” My much mor modest goal stems from writing a children’s book recently on Newton’s Laws.

Newton did not explain gravity. No one has. He developed equations that enable us to accurately predict its effects over a wide range of everyday and space frontier applications. While critics were carping that his theory was unacceptable because gravity sounds like forbidden “action at a distance,” people with less time on their hands have used his equations eversince, to solve pressing practical problems.

Someone needs to do that for intelligence: Develop a means of accurately predicting its effects over a wide range of everyday applications. For sure, they should do that long before we talk about “enhancing” intelligence.

At the talk I mentioned above, the prof seemed not to understand my question. It may not have been clearly expressed. But it is now. Thoughts?

Denyse O’Leary is co-author of The Spiritual Brain.

7 Replies to “Trying to boost intelligence when we don’t even know what it is

  1. 1
    Mung says:

    We don’t have to know what IT is in order to devise a way to measure IT and to then perform experiments and make observations of changes revealed by the measurement apparatus.

    Science often works this way.

  2. 2
    O'Leary says:

    Yes, Mung, it does. That said, we are here discussing radical intervention without the trouble of understanding what IT is. That could be a bigger problem for humans than for forces of nature.

  3. 3
    Mung says:

    With regard to science and ethics, I’m not sure what ID has to say about that.

    It’s not as if we can invoke “the intelligent designer” to guide our ethical stance on this matter.

    I think the history of man is just chock full of man tinkering with nature. Tinkering with ourselves is just one more step on that path.

  4. 4
    Mung says:

    p.s. Does ID object to running mice through mazes?

  5. 5
    Elizabeth Liddle says:

    Intelligence isn’t one thing (at least in the context of human cognition). Intelligence tests measure a number of things, and give you a number that is a fairly good predictor of academic success.

    That’s about it.

    Plus non-specific assaults to the brain (drugs, mental illness) tend to pull it down, and certain activities (and drugs) can push it up a bit.

    Genetic engineering is unlikely to be a player for many decades to come, if ever, IMO.

    But nice to see the ID community debate the nature of Intelligence 🙂

  6. 6
    Mung says:

    But nice to see the ID community debate the nature of Intelligence

    But do we really need to understand the nature of intelligence when all that’s required is to become familiar with the effects which intelligent agents bring about?

    Do I need to doubt that your posts have as their source an intelligent cause?

    Isn’t it possible that there’s a computer out there that is generating ascii characters at random and comparing them to a dictionary of English words, discarding the non-words, and posting the resulting accumulation of words to UD in your name?

    Is there some point at which we can reject the chance+law “explanation” of the presence of yiur psots here at UD and infer from them that the best explanation is an intelligent cause?

    Is there any good reason this cannot be considered scientific?

    What good reason do you have for rejecting a ‘design’ inference?

  7. 7
    inphovore says:

    believe the model of Intelligence and Universal Intelligence may be described by the Objectified Systemic Theory.

    The nature of this theory is such that:
    * Objective Reality is Systemic in nature (a probabilistic amplitude of systemic interference one could say.)
    * Systems are composed of information and energy (matter and structure for instance.)
    * Information in systems will arrange themselves in degrees of highest order of energy capacitance (it is the model for selective stability which makes this so, those which do not destabilize removing themselves from consideration.)
    * Systems may collapse by loss of coherent structural information through chaotic or entropic influx

    Regarding the main topic, redesigning intellects for greater intelligence is at odds with a conscientious view of reality at this stage of the game. Why let alone how to improve upon the capacity of something which cannot reliably be filled by our modern conception. In an analogue of intelligence with strength (both of which have multi-dimensional aspects.) If the societal mean is in poor physical shape despite all we know about health (both its attainment and its benefit), what would pushing the capacity of intelligence provide if we widely have not well developed its cultivation. Do we push the envelope of strength? For what purpose? Winning gold metals? There is a “logical conclusionality” here regarding freakishness of nature which must be considered. {Opens up a separate line of reasoning regarding a cultivated superior intelligence becoming our masters.}

    The distinction between the capacity for intelligence and its cultivation must be clearly understood.
    The qualification of intelligence must be clearly understood (your point.)

    I believe man kind has worked out the latter (though its wider dissemination inhibits the former.)

    Intelligence is the manipulation of information (all encompassing.)
    There are many dimensions of intelligence. One may say we have not quantified all possible dimensions, and upon their qualification it may become quickly obvious that they are not necessarily inclusive in an ideal implementation of the “ultimate intelligence model”.

    For instance, a perfect memory may lead to a sophisticated inferential cognitive pattern. A weak memory may lead to a sophisticated deductive cognitive pattern. Which would you prefer? I think the best answer is a team with both, including a few other “branches” not adequately encompassed (organism reaction time for instance is a form of low level intelligence, not linked to memory or cognitive approach though having direct correlation with survival outcome in certain circumstances.)

    Circling back, this is exactly the problem you assert (though I would argue for different reasons.) Quantifying, qualifying, and finding correlative aspects of information manipulation is the basis of systemic objectification.

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