Problems with Intelligence
It may come to most people as an unpleasant shock that our genetic makeup, our DNA, which makes us human is almost 99 percent the same as our nearest ape relative, the Chimpanzee – and more so its Bonobo variety found today in the jungles of the Republic of Congo. So, what genetic ingredients are packaged in that one percent that set us so dramatically apart from our ape cousins? Without doubt the most significant difference is our elevated cognitive capacity, our unique intellect.
I recently published the updated version of my book, Necessary Illusions, with the subtitle, Coping with the Dilemma of Intellect. Perhaps that subtitle should have been the main title of the book, as our heightened cognitive capacity or intellect has proven to be more than a blessing as we prefer to believe; it has been a curse, as well, with devastating potentials!
Intelligence has been the most potent or consequential tool or, better put, weapon of competition, survival and supremacy for the Homo sapiens species, the anatomically and intellectually modern human. And, as we are finding out, our recent successes in the development of artificial intelligence, AI, which can far surpass our own natural mental processing capabilities, are already creating great causes for concern for its potential to be weaponized.
Long before the creation of the AI, we discovered the use of explosives that could be used in mining and construction industries, which also had potentials for demolition, destruction and killing as weapons of war. We invented the application of nuclear energy, which could fuel our peaceful energy requirements, and had the potential to wipe out our human civilization in its entirety. And now we have the AI, which with all its tremendous beneficial applications in the fields of science, technology, medicine, etc., also has, like the case in the nuclear industry, the potential to be used nefariously in the wrong hands.
But, let’s pause here for a second and recall the fact that we still share some 99 percent of our genes with our “uncivilized” cousins, the chimps! This might help explain why we inevitably think that the “wrong hands” belong to those who don’t like us, or those we don’t like; and how it is that those others have similar feelings toward us in return! Hmmm: It sure makes you wonder. Pure animal instinct; isn’t it? Always remember that 99 percent figure!
Now, let’s get back to that one percent in our DNA that differentiates us intellectually from our wild cousins. To see what it must have been like before our line branched off from the tree of evolution, we may visit any group of Bonobos living along the banks of the Congo River in Central Africa. They appear to be living rather peaceful lives as long as their larger and more aggressive kin, the regular chimpanzees, stay on the opposite side of the river. Both they, and the other chimps, continue doing their thing; foraging, playing, mating, sometimes fighting, and raising their newborns with no apparent indication of a deep concern over the meaning or purpose of all that. Life goes on and they all, one by one, reach their end with never a thought of where they came from, where they might be headed after dying, whether they had lived a virtuous life, or what legacy they might leave behind! They might look up at the night sky before falling asleep, but never wonder about what might have been behind the creation of the cosmos. They do have a social structure of sorts, a system of hierarchy that they have adopted and adapted to, which must have worked for them to survive as a functioning group for generations.
The human young are almost the same way before reaching an age in adolescence when some of the concerns mentioned above begin to occupy their minds. Fortunately for most mature members of the Homo sapiens species, us, preoccupation with finding answers to profound philosophical questions of existence is a pastime they cannot afford. Most of us simply carry on with our daily routines, and pay little attention to our subliminal and often irritating urge to seek answers to higher level philosophical questions. For some the response is: Who cares, anyway? For the more curious, religious teachings and sophomoric explanations do the job of creating illusions through which the toughest questions find simple answers that put their minds at ease.
Then there are a stubborn few, we could refer to them as the “philosophers,” who refuse to leave good enough alone! These are our deep thinkers who are viewed as visionaries whose lofty intellectual status and highfalutin pronouncements make any approach to access their wisdom by the pedestrian seekers an unpleasantly difficult task. Most of us have a hard time understanding what they mean; and those who claim they do are, more than likely, pretending.
“Cogito ergo sum,” proclaimed the 17th century French polymath, philosopher, Rene Descartes: “I think, therefore I am.” C’mon, man! Did you doubt your own “being” to be compelled to prove that you really are? I don’t think our cousins, the Bonobo chimps, would ever wonder about their “being.”
This kind of “philosophizing” goes on today among some highbrow academics, as well as some lay people who have the leisure time and access to certain hallucinogens that allow their minds to soar above the tangible realms.
There are multitudes of questions that our intelligence-struck species has to deal with: Who am I, why am I here, what is the meaning of existence, why is there something rather than nothing; and even a higher level question; why do I ask why? Most of such whys could be substituted by the phrase How is it that…? In other words, we could be seeking and expecting to find a scientific, physical explanation for a question, such as Why do I ask why? The explanation would take us through the fields of cultural anthropology and evolutionary psychology, and the anatomy of the electrochemical circuitry of the brain.
But there are other “whys” that our stereotypically mature male figures with fluffy beards and wire-rimmed spectacles would insist cannot be answered through scientific, physical explanations. Like some theoretical physicists who try to impress you by flashing weird mathematical formulae describing what might be going on inside a Black Hole, these philosophers are also hiding their own confusion behind strangely worded phrases and unfamiliar, concocted “isms”, which leave you even more confused than they are.
For example, let’s take the question: What is the meaning or purpose of life? Somehow our philosophers are not satisfied by the simple explanation that humans have a psychological need to see reason and purpose in everything as the extension of their own observations and experiences in their daily routines. Therefore, when the reason or purpose is too complex to be evident, they resort to some unseen metaphysical source for explanation. But no; to be admired and regarded as philosophers worthy of the title, they must come up with some ambiguous, otherworldly jargon, call it sophistry, to keep their own mental treadmills in motion.
I must make something clear here: I am using the term philosophy in this short essay, not in its broader general meaning as the love of knowledge as did our ancient thinkers, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle or Avicenna, or the theologians. Their theses or speculations actually belonged in the domains of sociology, psychology and various physical sciences. For example, the polymath scientist Avicenna’s fantastic cosmological speculations regarding the structure of the heavens fell apart after the invention of the telescope, and as astrology gradually gave way to astronomy.
I prefer to think of philosophy today as an endeavor to explain what might lie beyond the domain of the tangible, measurable physical sciences. My position is that there is no reason to believe such a mysterious metaphysical domain exists at all; and, if such a domain does exist, deserving of a philosophical explanation, then such explanation alone would demystify the mystery and brings it down to the level of the various scientific disciplines. And if the attempts fail to explain a concept that remains unexplainable, resorting to the comfortably ambiguous realm of metaphysics is no more than treading water or pontificating on the nonsense. Confusing enough?!
This is why I referred to our over-inquisitive intellect as a human dilemma; an infliction that our luckier distant cousins in the wild do not suffer from!