Is Intelligence A Property Of Reality?
How might we explain the intelligent behavior of incredibly small creatures?
Questions about the nature of intelligence began to arise in my mind while I was learning about CRISPR, an emerging genetic engineering technology.
Bacteria Are My Teacher
CRISPR is built upon what bacteria have been doing for many millions of years. Bacteria defend themselves from viruses by grabbing a bit of DNA from an invading virus, and storing the virus DNA in the bacteria's own DNA. This allows the bacteria to recognize the virus the next time they see it, and provide the appropriate defensive reaction.
Bacteria are selecting particular information from their environment, storing that information, and then referencing the stored data as needed. When we do things like this we call it a data management operation, and consider it an act of intelligence.
Bacteria have no brain or nervous system. And their bodies are very small, about 10 microns or so. To put that in a more familiar context, it takes 25,400 microns to make an inch. Bacteria are very very small. Way too small to see with the human eye.
And so I got to wondering how such an incredibly small creature, with no brain or nervous system, can engage in behavior which we would label as intelligent if we were doing it.
Trees are another example. I recently heard a tree expert on National Public Radio explain how trees can share information about threats, share resources, fight wars, identify their own offspring etc. Trees don't have brains or nervous systems, there is no "me" at the heart of the tree making decisions. And yet, there is clear evidence of behaviors which we label as intelligence when we do such things as trees are doing.
A Theory Of Intelligence
In the attempt to explain this puzzle to myself, I'm exploring the following theory. I don't claim this theory is original or true, it's just what's on my mind.
What if intelligence is like the laws of physics?
The laws of physics are not a property of any particular thing within reality, but a rather property of reality itself. These laws are expressed in a seemingly infinite number of varied circumstances. So bouncing a ball might seem to be an entirely different phenomena than the orbit of a planet, but the same laws govern both the movements of the ball and the planet.
What if intelligence is like the laws of physics? What if intelligence is not a property of any particular individual or species, but rather a property of reality as a whole, a property which is expressed in many different ways in many different circumstances?
To illustrate, particular life forms could be compared to TV sets. Some TV sets can display the TV signal in high definition color, while other TV sets can display only in low resolution black and white. Both sets display the same signal, but the display of the signal varies depending on the type of equipment being used.
What if creatures are not the source or owner of intelligence but rather function as receivers, much as a television set reads and interprets a signal from beyond itself?
What if the conception "my intelligence" and "your intelligence" is mistaken? What if nobody can own intelligence just as nobody owns the laws of physics?
Another line of investigation might be to look beyond any particular creature or species to the overall environment which shapes their development, evolution.
Charles Darwin is one of the most famous scientists for his discovery of evolution. But what if Darwin hadn’t just discovered evolution, but had actually invented evolution? Surely this would be widely considered to be the most brilliant accomplishment in the history of science, yes?
Of course Darwin didn’t invent evolution. Nature did. Reality did. So this automated process of managing all life on Earth so that it is continually in tune with the environment, which would have been labeled super highly intelligent if a human had created it, was instead created not by any human, nor by any other creature, but instead by nature itself.
What if we refuse to label the creation of evolution by nature an act of intelligence for no better reason than we like to think of ourselves as the only source of intelligence in the known universe? Why should the creation of evolution be labeled brilliant if we did it, but when nature does the very same thing we consider it to be a function of blind mechanical processes?
What if the fact that we don’t consider reality as a whole to have the property of intelligence is really nothing more than more evidence of our own lack of intelligence?
What About Religion?
First, I’m not religious, but….
What if some religious people (probably not those simply chanting memorized slogans) are intelligent and sensitive enough to have had some experience of the global intelligence being proposed here. Please note the word experience.
But these religious people weren't able to conceive of the intelligence they were perceiving as not having a source. And so they filled that hole with a human like character which made sense to them. Or maybe they created a relatable human like character called God to describe this phenomena because such a “dumbing down” was what was necessary to convey this theory to the population of uneducated peasants who were the primary audience for ancient religious writings. You know, if you were trying to explain sex to a four year old, you’d have to dramatically simplify the story.
If true, then perhaps what these religious people perceive may be as real a part of the natural world as the laws of physics, but their attempt to explain what they perceive is not expressed in the language of our modern science based era. And of course, many religions seem to excel at demolishing their own credibility, so that surely doesn’t help.
The Question Of Proof
At this point a reader might very reasonably ask for proof that this theory of intelligence is true. This is just what a reader should do, and I support such a demand, and readily admit that I can not provide the requested proof, or anything close. Again, like I said at the top, this is just what’s been going through my mind lately, that’s all.
But I would have a request of such a reader too. Please prove that all of reality is just a big dumb mechanical apparatus lacking any property of intelligence.
My experience over a couple decades of writing on such subjects is that challengers to theories such as are being explored here typically consider their mechanical view of reality to be the default position. They usually haven’t really thought about this assumption very much if at all, they just take the mechanical apparatus theory to be an obvious given.
So, in their minds, if a religion, philosopher or other interested party is unable to prove some theory other than the mechanical apparatus theory, then the mechanical apparatus theory automatically wins by default.
Nobody Wins By Default
Well, um, no, sorry, that is not how reason works. That perspective is not reason, but rather ideology. Lots of folks are confused about the difference.
Reason works like this. A claim is a claim is a claim, and all claims bear their own burden of proof.
Can I prove my theory that intelligence is a property of reality as a whole? I surely can’t.
Can those who consider the universe to be a blind mechanical apparatus prove their theory? Same answer as I gave. No, they can not.
So what we are left with for now is not answers, but just questions. And if seeing that and admitting it keeps our minds open to new discoveries, that might be evidence that we’re not chimps after all.
What's A Better Word For This?
Finally, one of the big obstacles presented by this theory is that we've always used the word "intelligence" to refer to a property of a particular individual or species. This common use of the word no longer works in the theory being presented here. So, we need a new word to describe some intelligence-like phenomena which is proposed to be a property of reality as a whole.
Global intelligence? Universal intelligence? God? Or should we abandon the word intelligence altogether and reach for some new label? I have no idea really...
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