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Intelligent Design: What is “Intelligence”?

March 16, 2012

Often the very obvious fact that “intelligence” as an abstract concept has a set of non-abstract prerequisites is easily overlooked. In arguments against the proponents of Intelligent Design (ID), the atheist is usually too focused on the theory of Evolution, trying so hard to defend his own position to notice he can also go for at least a cursory attack on one of the weakest points of his opponent’s argument: the definition of intelligence.

Intelligence has many definitions and philosophers haven’t really reached a consensus on which one to consider the definitive one. I reviewed a couple of them and decided my own was perhaps the most comprehensive (it is said that I’m a bit of a narcissist), but regardless of which definition one chooses to go with, the general requirements in order for intelligence to exist are implicitly or explicitly stated in all definitions.

I define intelligence as the capacity of an animate being to consciously or unconsciously observe, discern and extract laws from its environment, simulate and predict the effects of certain causes based on the extracted laws, and optionally create or prevent those causes in its environment to achieve the simulated, predicted, and desired effects.

One can easily observe intelligence in forms of life we consider more complex. We all agree humans, dolphins, monkeys, dogs, and birds are intelligent, although to different extents. But to us it is striking at first to see a dung beetle create a ball of feces and carry it to a certain location in order to lay its eggs in it, solving problems that arise during the process. Even simpler forms of life, like single cells, white blood cells for example, can be considered intelligent as they fit in the definition I provided. However, the simpler the form of life and the fainter the amount of consciousness, the more controversial the existence of intelligence in life forms. Regardless, any form of intelligence ultimately depends on environments and their laws, as all observed intelligent life forms – controversial or not – exist in an environment: our universe with its physical laws.

Intelligence exists only where conscious or unconscious predictions are made. Prediction depends on laws. Laws are found and extracted from an environment; therefore intelligence cannot exist without an environment. It is said that God actually created even the laws of physics, so when He set out to create literally everything, was there an environment whose laws He could discern? Did He even need to abide any laws in order to create? Because eventually that’s what intelligence is all about: accordance with the environment. Basically we have never seen any intelligence where there was no environment. So how is it that we are ready to declare the first cause of our world intelligent when the required conditions are not met and we don’t know what we are referring to by “intelligent design”?

It is clear one cannot end and argument with “an intelligent agent must have been the first cause” because the word “intelligent” is completely undefined in this context. One could use X instead: “an X agent must have…” and be satisfied that he answered the question of how our world came to be.

Having considered the problem in people being satisfied with using undefined words as explanations, I believe I managed to pinpoint the faulty process the laymen utilize to attempt to understand the world. I will explain the problem later.

  1. Anonymous permalink

    Enjoyed reading your post like always!

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