IDEAS / Bill Meacham : Intelligence

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Cognition is how we acquire knowledge. Intelligence is what we do with it.

By Bill Meacham / The Rag Blog / July 19, 2012

Cognition, which I talked about last time, is how we acquire knowledge. Intelligence is what we do with it. Human intelligence — and, I assume, the intelligence of some other species such as apes, dolphins and whales — consists in the ability to entertain in thought something that is not happening at the moment and consequently to tailor behavior to the specific features and nuances of a particular situation. Less intelligent animals have far less flexibility.

A gazelle on the plains of Africa has, we can imagine, quite a vivid appreciation of its surroundings. What looks to us like uniform grasslands is to it a rich tapestry of differentiated food patches. In this sense its visual cognition is rich. But it has only a limited repertoire of what to do with that richness, a repertoire evolved to be universal to the species and applicable uniformly across the environment in which it lives.

By contrast a bushman hunting the gazelle uses arrows that are tipped with a poison found only on the larvae of a certain beetle. Cosmides and Tooby say, “Whatever the neural adaptations that underlie this behavior, they were not designed specifically for beetles and arrows, but exploit these local, contingent facts as part of a computational structure that treats them as instances of a more general class.”(1)

In contrast to non-human animals, we have the ability to improvise our behavior in response to local, contingent facts, facts most likely not true for all humans and in all the environments in which humans find themselves. Eskimos hunting seals have no knowledge of poisonous beetles.

The capacity of other animals to process information is limited. It has evolved to handle features of the world that were true across the species’ range and throughout many generations, enough that they selected for the adaptations we find in such animals today. “These constraints narrowly limit the kinds of information that such adaptations can be designed to use: the set of properties that had a predictable relationship to features of the species’ world that held widely in space and time is a very restricted one.”(2)

We humans, in contrast, can recognize and respond to a far greater set of environmental cues. We can envision far more possibilities and are far more flexible in our behavior. In short, humans can plan. Humans, say Tooby and Cosmides, are “intelligent, cultural, conscious, planning animals.”(3)

By planning, we mean creating cognitive representations of past, present and future states of the world, evaluating alternative courses of action by representing consequences and matching these against goals…(4)

More succinctly, psychologist Steven Pinker gives this definition of intelligence:

…the ability to attain goals in the face of obstacles by means of decisions based on rational (truth-obeying) rules.(5)

Intelligence requires three things:

  • A goal or goals to be obtained.
  • Knowledge about how the world works, beliefs that turn out to be true and workable in practice. These provide rules of inference that guide thinking.
  • The ability to apply the knowledge in flexible ways, depending on circumstances, to reach the goals.

Planning — the application of intelligence — is an evolved adaptation for improvising novel sequences of behavior to reach targeted goals. Human intelligence widens the range of environments in which we can survive and reproduce.

The scope problem

Planning involves imagining different scenarios and, importantly, the ability to distinguish imagined, remembered, and anticipated scenarios from what is actually happening in the present situation. Cosmides and Tooby call this the “scope problem,” how to distinguish facts and valid inferences that are true within a certain imagined scenario from those that are true in other scenarios or in the actual world.(6) In the language of computation, this means

the capacity to carry out inferential operations on… suppositions or propositions of conditionally unevaluated truth value, while keeping their computational products isolated from other knowledge stores until the truth or utility of the suppositions is decided, and the outputs are either integrated or discarded.(7)

Our ability to keep things separate in this way enables all sorts of advanced behavior:

This capacity is essential to planning, interpreting communication, employing the information communication brings, evaluating others’ claims, mind-reading [the ability to understand others’ beliefs, intentions and desires], pretence, detecting or perpetrating deception, using inference to triangulate information about past or hidden causal relations, and much else that makes the human mind so distinctive.(8)

Cosmides and Tooby postulate a capacity they call “scope representation,” the ability to identify under what conditions information can be treated as accurate and inferences as valid.(9) Because we can represent their scope independently, we do not confuse our considerations of possible strategies, memories of past situations, anticipations of the future, imaginings of possible scenarios and the actual conditions we find ourselves in.

Those who do confuse these things we readily identify as aberrant. Schizophrenia can be interpreted as a failure of mental boundaries in which, for example, a person experiences their desire to do something as a command to do it.(10)

The capacity to represent the scope of our plans, perceptions and imaginations separately is at the foundation of literature, and story-telling generally. Humans in all cultures love stories. In stories we can mentally rehearse or represent various social situations without having to actually encounter them. We can find out how others — the characters in the stories — handle these situations and hence learn successful and unsuccessful strategies for ourselves.

As Cosmides and Tooby put it, “individuals are no longer limited by the slow and erratic flow of actual experience compared to the rapid rate of vicarious, contrived, or imagined experience.”(11)

This ability to decouple various scope representations enables quite a number of human faculties, including the following:

  • Theory of mind [see below] and prediction of behavior, the ability to guess with some accuracy what another person is thinking or feeling and to anticipate correctly what they will do. Motives, feelings, beliefs and perceptions imputed to the other are decoupled from our own.(12)
  • Representation of goals. The goal state is decoupled from the present state of affairs.(13)
  • Making plans to accomplish goals. Plans for the future are decoupled from the present.(14)
  • Simulating the physical world. Simulations are decoupled from the actual world.(15)
  • Creating and enjoying fiction. The fictional world is decoupled from the real world.(16)
  • Remembering episodes of our own past and maintaining a sense of our identity through time. Memories are decoupled from our present experience of the actual world, and personal memories are decoupled from general knowledge gained through other means.(17)

Theory of Mind

Of these, theory of mind is one of the most interesting, because it entails much that is strikingly human. Humans have been called “ultrasocial”(18) and “obligatorily gregarious.”(19) We live in large cooperative societies in which hundreds or thousands of people enjoy the benefits of division of labor. We must have ongoing and extensive contact with our fellows in order to survive and thrive.

To succeed at this we must understand our fellow humans as having subjectivity like our own. The term “Theory of Mind” refers to the ability to attribute mental states — beliefs, intentions, desires, pretense, knowledge, etc. — to ourselves and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, and intentions that are different from our own.(20)

We do this all the time. We see someone striding purposefully and assume they are going somewhere to do something they consider important. We see a smile and assume the person is pleased, or a scowl and assume they are displeased. We see someone cross the street to avoid a barking dog, and we understand that they do so precisely in order to avoid the dog.

We assume that the salesperson in the store will sell us the goods we want, and that other people walking on the sidewalk with us will generally stay on the sidewalk. Depending on context, we view the offer of candy as friendly or a threat.

Philosophers may ponder how we can have knowledge of other people’s mental states, to which we have no direct access, but in fact we assume such knowledge all the time and life together would be impossible without it. Of course we can be mistaken or deceived, but mistakes and deception would not be possible without familiar assumptions that most often turn out to be correct.

Researchers have found several stages in the development of theory of mind in infants and young children as well as animals.(21)

  • If something appears to move on its own, our minds interpret it as an agent.
  • If it appears to move toward something, we take that thing to be its goal.
  • If it changes direction flexibly in response to what is happening in its environment, we take it to have some degree of rationality or intention (in the sense of intending to accomplish something).
  • If its action is followed closely in time by another object’s action, we take the second action to be a socially-contingent response to the first.
  • And if something is a goal-directed agent that shows some degree of flexible response, then we know that it can cause harm or comfort to other agents and possibly to ourselves.

These judgments are automatic, a form of hot cognition, not something we stop to think about. They form the basis of our well-developed ability to get along in groups of others like us. We, like all social animals, have the skills to detect who cooperates and who cheats, who is kind and who is dangerous, who is dominant and who is submissive. Humans have these skills to a greater degree and have the ability to fine-tune them with greater precision than other animals.

Where chimps and bonobos can understand that individual A knows where some food is hidden and individual B doesn’t and consequently expect different behavior from the two,(22) humans can easily grasp much more complicated scenarios. We quite understand that when Hermia loves Lysander but has been commanded to wed Demetrius; and Demetrius wants Hermia; and Helena, Hermia’s friend, wants Demetrius; but a magic potion causes Lysander to fall in love with Helena rather than Hermia, then much hilarious confusion can ensue.(23) No ape could possibly keep up.

(To be continued …)

[Bill Meacham is an independent scholar in philosophy. A former staffer at Austin’s ’60s underground paper, The Rag, Bill received his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Texas at Austin. Meacham spent many years working as a computer programmer, systems analyst, and project manager. He posts at Philosophy for Real Life, where this article also appears. Read more articles by Bill Meacham on The Rag Blog.]

1) Cosmides and Tooby, “Consider the source,” pp. 53-54.
(2) Ibid., p. 54
(3) Tooby and Cosmides, “The Past Explains the Present”, p. 420.
(4) Ibid. p. 406.
(5) Pinker, How the Mind Works, p. 62.
(6) Cosmides and Tooby, “Consider the source,” pp. 57-58.
(7) Ibid., pp. 59-60.
(8) Idem.
(9) Ibid., p. 64.
(10) Ibid., p. 80.
(11) Ibid., p. 74.
(12) Ibid., pp. 74 ff.
(13) Ibid., pp. 79 ff.
(14) Ibid., pp. 82 ff.
(15) Ibid., pp. 85 ff.
(16) Ibid., pp. 89 ff.
(17) Ibid., pp. 93 ff.
(18) Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis, pp. 47 ff.
(19) de Waal, Primates and Philosophers, p. 4.
(20) Wikipedia, “Theory of Mind.”
(21) Hauser, Moral Minds, pp. 313-322. Also Steen, “Theory of Mind.”
(22) Hauser, Moral Minds, pp. 337-341.
(23) Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Plot summary at’s_Dream as of 30 Nov. 2010.

Cosmides, Leda, and Tooby, John. “Consider the source: The evolution of adaptations for decoupling and metarepresentation” in Metarepresentations: A Multidisciplinary Perspective, pp. 53-115, ed. Sperber, Dan. New York: Oxford Press, 2000. Also available as an on-line publication, URL = as of 25 May 2009.
de Waal, Frans. Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006.
Haidt, Jonathan. The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. New York: Basic Books, 2006.
Hauser, Marc D. Moral Minds: The Nature of Right and Wrong. New York: Harper Perennial, 2006.
Pinker, Steven. How the Mind Works. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1997.
Steen, Francis F. “Theory of Mind: A Model of Mental-state Attribution”. On-line publication, URL = as of 25 August 2009.
Tooby, John, and Cosmides, Leda. “The Past Explains the Present: Emotional Adaptations and the Structure of Ancestral Environments.” In Ethology and Sociobiology, 11, 375-424. New York: Elsevier Science Publishing Co., 1990. Available as an on-line publication, URL = as of 26 May 2009.
Wikipedia. “Theory of Mind.” On-line publication, URL = as of 25 August 2009.

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1 Response to IDEAS / Bill Meacham : Intelligence

  1. Bro Bill, I’m glad you’re using both your knowledge and your intelligence to explain some of this stuff to us low-brows.
    May it contribute to viable adaptations!

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