What IS ‘Intelligence’?

This morning as I was doing my usual scouring of the news in multiple sources, I came across a story titled, “The Search for Intelligent Life Is About to Get a Lot More Interesting.”  Of course, I could tell from the accompanying picture that the story was about the search for life forms on other planets and in other galaxies, but for some reason that headline struck me as humorous.  My first thought was that we should be searching for intelligent life here on Planet Earth rather than spending trillions of dollars to look farther afield, and my second thought was … how will we know if we’ve found intelligent life – how do we actually define ‘intelligent’ … or do we?

Some would equate intelligence with knowledge.  But in my view, simply gaining knowledge, storing facts and figures, does not define intelligence.  It’s more a matter of what you do with that knowledge, how you use it to live your life, to improve the lives of others. You can have the onions, peppers, chicken and all the ingredients for a lovely chicken soup, but if you don’t know how to put them together and cook it, you don’t have chicken soup for supper.  There are a whole lot of what my late ex-husband used to call ‘educated fools’ out there who know a lot, who have Ph.D.s in a variety of subjects, but who I would not classify as intelligent.  Since I’m trying to be nice, I won’t name any names.

Humans have unique capabilities, but simply having them doesn’t indicate that humans are necessarily more intelligent than other species … only that with our opposable thumbs, we are able to do such things as build skyscrapers and invent computers.  But where is the value in that if we don’t apply our capabilities to improving, but rather use them to destroy?

Merriam-Webster defines intelligence as:

(1): the ability to learn or understand or to deal with new or trying situations; the skilled use of reason

(2): the ability to apply knowledge to manipulate one’s environment or to think abstractly as measured by objective criteria (such as tests)

The Oxford English dictionary defines intelligence as:

  • The ability to learn, understand and think in a logical way about things

All pretty vague, don’t you think?  I have my own ideas about what constitutes intelligence, but I thought it might be fun (and enlightening) to toss this out for discussion first.  Leaving politics out of the equation for the moment, how do you define intelligence?  Does it come in degrees?  For example, is intelligence simply having the good sense to get out of the house when it’s on fire, or is it more in-depth than that?  Is that simply instinct?  And what part does instinct play in intelligence?  What role does education play in intelligence?

If you feel inclined to play along, feel free to be as serious or as silly as you like in your comments, but again – no political discussion at this juncture … maybe later, but not right now, okay?

110 thoughts on “What IS ‘Intelligence’?

  1. Pingback: What IS ‘Intelligence’? - A Little TOO Picture Imperfect

  2. I love discussions like these! It reminds me of class. Well, since we live in a postmodern world (I’m working with the post-structuralism), it depends on how you want to describe it. However, I love the definition you used and the humor with the soup (well, I found it funny and amusing). Intelligent is what you can use w/ it. Also adding to your definition, let’s use pi—you can know 3.141596…but can you use it? Do you know when to use pi? Does it make your answer better now that you know all those numbers? It seems also like the United States values potential intelligence (IQ) and liquid intelligence instead of functional intelligence and long-term intelligence. Irritating. 😦 Love this article though!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. What a cool subject….
    But…..
    I could ‘nerd’ for Britain on the question of Intelligent Life ‘out there’ with lotsa links regrading scientific views and opinions.
    There again…..
    Anyway, what’s the big deal with this Intelligence ‘thing’ anyway in the scheme of Life as LIFE.
    We’ll be gone one day and LIFE will still be rolling on, so what’s the big deal about ‘smarts’….huh???…..

    ‘Hey, lookit my fancy calculations which fill up loadsa boards and prove that quarks….Guys where you rushing off too?’
    ‘There’s a (bad word) big tsunami gonna hit in…’
    ‘Awww crap!!’
    SPLASH! SCRUNCH! …….blooop!

    And that’s before we get around to …..Well ….he who got the smaller popular vote in two presidential elections……

    (Or the religious view…….
    ‘You guys! I gave you this gift…that gift…..Gave you messages…Several chances…and you still screw up? Seriously?????’)

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks, Michael! It seems to me that if we were truly intelligent, we would spend those billions and trillions of dollars making sure that EVERYONE on the planet had plenty of healthy food, a warm home, and other basic needs such as health care and an education. That, to me, makes much more sense than building rockets and spaceships. xx

      Liked by 1 person

      • You are so right, Jill! It is clear that Russia has broken the rules, but it is horrible to believe one can put down Russia by military actions. If this truely will happen, we will have China as the next enemy. ;-( There are some people on earth thinking they are better than the rest. xx Michael

        Liked by 1 person

        • I sometimes try to imagine a world without enmity, a world where all nations are as one, all working together to solve the problems created by our centuries of neglecting the environment and ridding the world of poverty. It could be done … but not as long as we have nearly all nations taking up arms against one another, sometimes even against their own people. As you know, I am not religious, not a believer in a higher power or deity, but if I were, I would have to be asking why he/she made humans so irritable, so selfish and arrogant that they work against their own best interests. Sigh. I hope you’re having a lovely weekend! xx

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  4. Jill, good post. I will begin with the quote attributed to Mark Twain – common sense is not all that common. I have long been a believer that intelligent people realize how little they know. The ones who vastly overstate their intelligence are the ones who say they know it all. False bravado can also apply to those who tell you how smart or expert they are. A final thought takes me back to the ones who know how little they know – they never stop learning,

    Keith

    Liked by 4 people

      • Thanks for the reference. I had no idea what the Dunning- Kruger effect is. That is precisely the point I was trying to convey, so I am glad smarter people than me have studied it. Keith

        Liked by 2 people

        • The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias whereby people with low ability, expertise, or experience regarding a certain type of a task or area of knowledge tend to overestimate their ability or knowledge.
          Actually, such people know how competent they are — at the level of competence they are at. They just don’t know enough to realize the level of their incompetence. We should not be laughing at them, but trying to help them learn that there is more to learn. That would be one way to turn a MAGAt into a functioning citizen of a democracy.

          Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Keith! Good quote by Mark Twain and oh so true! You make a good point about truly intelligent people being aware of how much they don’t know, rather than bragging about how much they do know. Like, for example, a certain former president who constantly touted that he was a genius, perhaps the smartest person in the world, and yet the reality was that he hadn’t an ounce of common sense and could barely manage a coherent thought. I find that rarely a day passes that I don’t learn something I didn’t know before … keeps life interesting, keeps us growing, and with new knowledge, we sometimes rethink our old viewpoints and make strategic corrections in how we see the world.

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  5. HI Jill! I was thinking the same thing as you, why are we spending sooo much money on looking for intelligent life on other planets, lets try to find it here. Though may be like looking for a needle in a haystack!
    I think intelligence and common sense are 2 different things and its common sense that is harder to find! Common sense should tell you to NOT take a selfie with a wild lion, but ….. or to not pour alcohol on a fire, but… Actually that is a funny story. And you wanted a laugh right? My husband’s dear sweet mammaw hated any kind of alcohol. Well they lived back in the mountains of North Carolina and Brad’s Papa liked his moonshine. She told him over and over NOT to bring it in their house. One night she found it under the bed. A whole jar of it. The fire was blazing in their fireplace she poured the whole jar on the fire and OOOH that fire blazed!! LOL!! We can laugh since it didn’t burn the house down. The funniest thing was listening to her tell the story and hear her say how hopping mad Papa was! Tears of laughter ran down our cheeks.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Little boys never really outgrow their love of things like spaceships, so … we have the space program costing trillions of dollars and for relatively little value. Ah well … if it keeps them out of mischief here on earth, what’s a few trillion bucks, eh? 🤣

      I LOVE your story about your ‘mammaw-in-law’ and it reminds me of a story about my own mother-in-law! Her grandson, John David, lived with her for a time, after being thrown out of his dad’s home. Now, John David smoked pot, which of course my mother-in-law, Clara, did not approve! One day while she was putting his clean laundry in his dresser drawers, she happened upon a sizable bag of weed. Well, she wasn’t going to have that in her house, so she marched right outside to the barrel she used to burn papers and such, tossed that pot in on top of the paper rubbish in the barrel, and lit it afire. Now, she wanted to make darn sure every last bit of that pot went up in smoke, so she stood right there by the burning refuse watching it burn … and breathing in the smoke and fumes … and by the time the deed was done, I hear she was high as a kite and giggling like a school girl!

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        • Nope. We teased her about it for years, until finally she fell victim to Alzheimer’s and the teasing ceased. But she never even smoked a Marlboro after that … not that she did before. She didn’t smoke or drink or even cuss! However, she was the kindest person I’ve ever known in my lifetime and I cherished her.

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          • Not smoking or drinking are wise choices. Not cussingis a bad one. Actually, cussing is a beautiful word, while swearing is a stupid word. Swearing is not allowed in a courtroom, yet every person who is called to the witness stand is demanded they swear upon a Bible, as if that is going to stop them from lieing. In respect to you and some of your delicate readers, Jill, I will not use the “f” word in reference to that book, but if I am ever again called into a courtroom I will refuse to affirm that I will tell the truth, but rather I will put my hand on a Bible and let out a string of invectives that will make the court recorder blush. And I will be doing exactly what I was told to do.
            I cannot understand why so many people refuse to enjoy the freedom one gets from using cusswords. They are only words, and most of them now appear in the dictionary, which is the Bible of whatever language one is speaking, in this case English.
            Most cusswords mean exactly NOTHING! So how the hell can they offend anyone? I would advise everyone to get off their donkey and admit they have a beautiful ass!

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  6. I think there’s book smarts and then there’s street smarts. I think you need a bit of both to function in this world. The former is learned and the other is more instinctive. But equally important I think. And the ability to learn and to be curious and to apply the learnings.

    Liked by 4 people

    • I agree that you need a combination of both to survive in this world. But, I think there is a third element. I’m not sure what to call it or how to define it … instinct perhaps? And you are so right about curiosity! Curiosity and imagination … without them, would Neil Armstrong have walked on the moon? Would we have developed medicines that control medical issues such as diabetes and heart problems? Could we have even invented the automobile? No, someone, somewhere along the line, had the ability to imagine those things, and the knowledge to figure out how to do them.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I think the ‘third element’ you seek may be wisdom.

        Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon (not forgetting Buzz Aldrin, in his shadow); yet there are today a great many who firmly believe that it never happened. I watched the documentary ‘The Social Dilemma‘ the other day, and it highlights that all too often we humans implement all sorts of stuff without properly considering the implications. And then when we run into trouble, the next step is usually a reflex jump, out of the frying pan. The Internet is marvellous in many ways, but its poorly thought-out ‘design’ (BAD: broken as designed) is creating utter chaos.

        O.0 I’m in danger of going off on a rant, so I’ll dial it back with this:

        Liked by 1 person

        • I think you may well be right. According to some, Armstrong’s moonwalk was faked, the kids at Sandy Hook Elementary school were not killed, and 9/11 was a “false flag operation”, whatever the hell that means. It seems that the human species on the whole is getting less, rather than more knowledgeable or intelligent. Sigh. Loved the Monty Python clip! Thanks!

          Liked by 1 person

      • I agree with you about instinct. For me, I feel it fits more with street smarts. Something you have inherently and not learned through a book or school. But certainly nurtured by it.

        Have a nice weekend and happy Friday! 🙂

        Liked by 2 people

  7. I’ve always been fascinated by this because I have worked with people who were highly educated. They could repeat rote information and tell me what the experts say, but couldn’t assimilate it enough to turn it around and express it as their own. With all the methodologies that exist to help people ‘learn’, our educational system only focuses on a few. For promotion as enlisted personnel in the military, we were required to take written tests. Not everyone does well in such tests. There was a mechanism for taking verbal tests but some of these people were anxiety driven and just didn’t do well on tests. So, not doing well on tests, not getting promoted, not getting degrees often led others to conclude, “Hey, that’s not an intelligent person.” They were intelligent, but the methods we had for recognizing and rewarding intelligence failed them. I ended up calling them savvy. I liked working with savvy people. Hugs and cheers, M

    Liked by 7 people

    • Ooooohhhh … I like that … savvy. Sometimes, maybe savvy is more important than being able to ace a test by repeating back what you’ve been told. If you can memorize, you can ace a test. But if you can think for yourself, think outside the box, then you can survive the bolts of lightning the world will throw at you. Good thinking, Michael! Hugs and cheers to you, my friend!

      Liked by 2 people

    • Hey, Michael. I have to disagree, to a point. I can pass written tests with my eyes closed and my writing hand tied behind my back. One thing, I read the questions till I understand what is being asked. In university, The Psychology of Philosophy, my prof was very disappointed in an exam result as he corrected the papers. He decided to raise the highest mark to 100, and raise everyone else’s score by an equal amount. And then he got to my paper. My pre-raise score was 97.5. I understood what he was asking. Everyone else got a 2.5 raise in their score, which still did not even give anyone else a B-. I wish he had not told us that story, because my classmates hated me after that.
      Being able to pass tests takes regurgitation, and things like that. But to get to A++ level one has to offer more than what even the teacher/prof is expecting. Believe it or not, as a 57 year old university student who had not written an exam or paper for 30 years did not prevent me from still getting a number of A++ scores. (The downside was that in fourth year I burned out. I got my BSW degree based on my early work, but I could barely string two words together on my final project. If not for my excellent project partner I doubt I would have earned an F.)
      Anyways, there is test writing, and then there is test WRITING. If you don’t know what you are writing about, all the regurgitation/education in the world cannot make someone into a star. Savvy is a good attempt at describing some people, but I cannot say I ever thought of myself as savvy, or even intelligent. I don’t like either of those words. But then, I do not have the right word at this moment to express what I am trying to say. Old age is stealing my vocabulary from me. (Capable points the direction, but…)

      Liked by 2 people

  8. Great topic, Jill. Wish I had an answer. All I know is that the definitions in the dictionaries sound as if they’re describing computers, not humans. I /think/ that part of what makes us intelligent is the non-logical ability to see a bunch of seemingly unrelated facts or events or whatever, and somehow guess the whole to which they belong. Sadly this ability can also lead to conspiracy theories of truly imaginative proportions! At the other end though, it leads to genius. 🙂

    Liked by 6 people

    • You almost took the words rignt out of my mouth, ac. I see intelligence as being able to find the connections between seemingly unrelated individual parts, and create something even better out of it. So, according to tidalscribe, you are the most intelligent person on earth, and because I can recognize that, I am your equal.
      Unfortunately, if I am your equal, then you cannot be the most intelligent person on earth. And because I can see that, therefore I must be!
      But then, seeing as intelligence is not confined to humans (persons), as again tidalscribe reminds us when he states the case for octopus intelligence, being the most intelligent person on earth is meaningless. There are more intelligent beings on earth, and probably in the universe. Humans are but another species who calls themselves intelligent because they think they are superior in intelligence to their fellow living beings, while in a test of pure intelligence, whatever that is, we would be near the bottom. What other species is not only capable, but willing, to destroy their own species, and the environments of other species, in order to prove how superior a single member of the species is to the rest. If that is intelligence, then Trump is an uncle’s monkey — he told us he is the most intelligent person in the world, and he believes it.
      (And that jibe directed at Trump is NOT political, merely a fact that everyone but him agrees on!) (My apologies again to Nan, who knew I could not resist adding this addendum.)

      Liked by 8 people

      • LMAO!!!! I literally cackled over this one. I couldn’t agree more on ALL points, including that of Trump. Personally, I believe the only thing that truly sets us apart from every other animal in existence is out ability to make music. That is the one talent that makes homo sapiens worthwhile, imho. Sadly, so many people are tone deaf. 😉

        Liked by 1 person

        • 😉 Hey, I’m one of those tone deaf people. I
          cannot make music, I cannot carry a tune. But, I can tap out a beat and I sing wonderfully inside my head. (Fortunarely my partner is the same way. We sing duets together all day long.)
          Birds make music all the time. Cats purr. Wolves howl. (Do you have wolves in Australia? I’ve never heard mention of any.) There is no greater sound in nature than a pack of wolves howling in unison.
          I’m glad I could make you laugh. But you gave me the inspiration, so “Thank you, mate!”

          Liked by 2 people

          • -grin- My Mum was tone deaf.
            And no, no wolves in Australia. We do have dingos though, they’re about medium dog size. Not sure if they howl or not.
            I know magpies though. There’s one that comes almost every day to demand a snack, and he/she ‘sings’ to me. Actually, no, it’s more like ‘at me’. As in, ‘You’re late’, or ‘Hurry up’ so I see those sounds more as communications with purpose. Music, on the other hand, seems to be communication of emotion? Something like that.
            And you’re very welcome, mate. 😀

            Liked by 2 people

            • We have a bird feeding station that used to be crowded every day. But three years we had a huge wild fire in the old-growth forest around us, and the number of birds dropped drastically. They are just starting to recover, but with different varieties of so e species than we used to see. But the Magpies are still here, though they demand nothing. They just take.

              Liked by 2 people

              • Ugh. I’m sorry to hear you had such a big fire. We call them bushfires, but they’re the same thing…and terrifying.
                Magpies are opinionated and very sure of their own worth…lol and I love them. I’ve never been a big bird fan but the magpies who allow me to live in their territory are wonderful. 😀

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                • Yours and mine must be unrelated, lol. Ours are bullies to everyone but the ravens. Nobody bullies the ravens. They are our favourites, but they mostly only show up in town on garbage day. Since the fire the evening grosbeaks don’t eat at our feeder anymore. That is a loss. We were on their travel itinerary on their way north in Spring, and they brought their babies to fatten up on their way south at the end of summer. I really miss them. Watching babies grow is so fascinating.
                  Besides, our feeder is on our deck two feet from the french doors. We have 5 cats who are not allowed to go outside. We call this CAT TV. The cats enjoyed watching the babies too. It brought out their hunting instincts. But the birds knew they were safe. They would hop right up to the window and laugh at our cats. They understood the safety of glass doors.

                  Liked by 2 people

        • Oooooh. Slartibartfast! One of my favourite characters in the realm of so-called fiction! I think Douglas Adams had inside information, because Slartibartfast had to be real. And yes, goldfish are more intelligent than humans. And while white rats may be at the top of the chain, blue whales are not far behind.
          Funnily, the only artistic talent I ever had was drawing fjords. In grade school I could out-fjord even the people who could draw the most beautiful faces and fruitbowls…
          So thank you for supporting my assertion. I think you have a direct line into my spirit. You could NOT have found a more appropriate video to demonstrate my ideas. I hadn’t thought about Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

          Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks, Andrea! No, I doubt that any of us have a real answer. And frankly, though I know I am in the minority, I don’t consider artificial intelligence to be intelligence, because it is limited to the data that has been programmed into it … it cannot “think outside the box” when the occasion demands it. People can. They don’t always, but they can.

      I like your definition … but as you say, the downside is that some will put the seemingly unrelated facts and events together in the wrong way and before long you have a conspiracy theory backed by … intelligence?

      Liked by 3 people

      • I agree with you re AI. As for us…it seems that every single thing has a downside. Opposable thumb? Great for tool making, ends up making weapons. And so on. I don’t know whether it’s just /us/, that we can always find a destructive use for our creations, or whether it’s some kind of universal truth about good and evil going hand in hand but…meh. I wouldn’t allow humanity off planet to go make a mess elsewhere. 😦

        Liked by 3 people

        • I think that the human species is the only one with the inclination to use its tools (whether opposable thumb, brain, or mouth) for evil. Look at almost any species of animal … they don’t kill others because they don’t like the colour of another’s fur. They kill only for food or when they feel threatened. Humans kill for … sport, out of greed, or from prejudice. We are, to the best of my knowledge, the only species that does so. I agree totally with your last sentence!

          Liked by 1 person

          • Yes…and yet we’re also the only animal that consistently cares for and tries to protect other species. It’s as if we’re two completely different species smooshed into one. When society is working the way it should, the monsters are forced back into the dark places. When society starts to break down they…come out to play. 😦

            Liked by 2 people

            • Eh … that’s not quite true. A number of times I’ve seen stories about a member of one species looking after a lost or injured member of another. But I do get your point. Thing is … it seems to me that the less noble instincts of humankind are easily brought to the forefront where they stifle the better instincts. Some people I’ve known for ages to be good, caring people, suddenly have shown what I suppose were always their true colours and I no longer even recognize them! Sadly, I think I’m losing faith in humankind, but then … I remember my Wednesday ‘good people’ posts and … I’m just not sure.

              Liked by 2 people

              • -nods- a lioness who tries to care for a baby antelope, cats that help dogs. I’ve seen those stories too, but we only hear about them because they are so ‘out of the ordinary’.
                I’ve lost faith with humanity too, but only one half of it. The other half truly does have that spark of the divine. Sadly, the good people are almost always the ones who don’t push themselves forward into positions of power. Maybe because they /are/ good. Until compassion and integrity are rewarded, the good people amongst us will continue to be the silent majority. 😦

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  9. Who decides who is the most intelligent person on earth? You would have to be equally intelligent to know… Intelligence is understanding that octopus/octopuses/octopi are as intelligent as us probably, especially in their own environment and with their several brains in their arms…

    Liked by 5 people

    • Good point. And based on what criteria would one decide the most intelligent person? In many ways, I think that most every animal species is at least equally intelligent in one form or fashion. Another thing your comment brings to mind is that as humans have evolved and developed other skills, they have lost much of the animal instinct they once likely had. We no longer sense things, no longer hear or see as well, and have long since lost the ability to fend for ourselves if we were suddenly plunged into darkness with no electricity for an extended period of time. There are trade-offs. But, are the octopi intelligent in the sense we generally view intelligence, or are they merely instinctual and understand their environment? They have brains in their arms/tentacles? Seriously? I had no idea!

      Liked by 2 people

      • This reminds me of an incident from my secondary school days. I’d made a comment in an essay that ‘there are varying degrees of intelligence’. It got the red pen treatment by my teacher, who assumed that I was denigrating other students, but the point I had been trying to make was that other beings have intelligence too (but human hubris forbids recognition of that fact).

        Liked by 3 people

        • I have long believed that every species has intelligence, and humans are too wrapped up on themselves to see or understand it. I used to have a dog … I named him Gomer, because he was sort of slow in some ways, like running headfirst into a tree. But he was intelligent. I worked long hours and lived with only Gomer for companionship. When I got home at night, I usually just fixed myself a sandwich to eat. As soon as I put the sandwich on the kitchen table, Gomer would run to the front door barking his fool head off, so naturally I would go to the door, open it, only to find that nobody was there. But … by the time I got back to the kitchen, my sandwich would be gone and Gomer would be licking his lips! This went on for several nights before I finally caught on to his tricks … so now you tell me, which of us was the more intelligent? 🤣 It damn sure was NOT the human in this case!!!

          Liked by 2 people

  10. Leaving “that word” out of the discussion will be difficult for some … as I’ve found on my own blog. 🙄

    However, leaving that aside, I tend to agree with your perspective on intelligence. It definitely isn’t “book knowledge.” IMO, it has a lot to do with “figuring things out.” And I’m not referring to inanimate objects. Rather, it’s more about observing and assessing and considering how to make things/life/circumstances “come together.” Does that make sense?

    P.S. It’s a tricky word to define … 🤔

    Liked by 7 people

    • Agreed … it IS hard to discuss almost anything these days without that word creeping into the conversation! But, I wanted to have a bit of a higher level conversation, one not hindered by political opinions. And it worked! Not a breath of politics in any of the comments I’ve seen so far!

      Yes, Nan, that does make sense. It’s a matter of applying knowledge and experience to find better paths for humanity. I wish we were all ‘intelligent’ in that sense of the word!

      Yep, it’s a tricky word to define, but then … as I thought about all of this, I concluded that most words that refer to intangibles are tricky to define. Take ‘love’, for example.

      Liked by 2 people

  11. Pingback: What IS ‘Intelligence’? — Filosofa’s Word | Ned Hamson's Second Line View of the News

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