Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Is Human Intelligence Special?

Our "You Animal!" show prompted this exhange between listener Chis Lehmann and Alex Kacelnik, a behavioral ecologist at Oxford University and guest on the program.

Bottom line: is human intelligence special (btw, we'll cover more of this in the show coming up: "Feather Knows Best!")?

Prof. Kacelnik,

I have a long and deep personal interest in the topic of what I call the human-animal relationship. Of course that includes the sub-topic of animal minds. Listening to you caused me to have an "aha" moment which shone some light on the struggle we (humans) have when discussing whether animals (non-human) have "intelligence." Specifically, you said:

"Just to show that an animal does something difficult does not mean that it does it having the same level of experience as we do. It is perfectly possible to do very complex things simply on the basis of simply very sophisticated programs of responding to the world."

My "aha" insight was this: we always approach this from our human perspective and with lots of references to our own abilities. which we know so well from personal experience. We find it fairly easy to prove, or to create sufficient doubt that any other animal species has the ability to respond to the world in quite the same way we do. So ... what if we turn the question around, look in the mirror and ask ourselves this question:

Q. Is human "intelligence" simply demonstrating a (more) complex programmed ability to respond to stimuli from the environment?

Prove to me that it is anything else. I mean this in the most sincere terms. If human intelligence is simply a more (differently) sophisticated form of programmed response to the environment, then we only differ from other species by degree.

Regards, Christopher J. Lehmann

Dr. Kacelnik's response:

You are right, Chris, and chaps in AI (artificial intelligence) deal with the problem repeatedly. Ultimately, we vouch for us having mental experiences because each of us knows by introspection, but we can’t tell about others.

This is related to what is called the “hard problem” of the study of consciousness. We may even have awareness of what we do post hoc, namely we do it, as zombies, and then we know that we have done it and we tell ourselves that we did it for some great motive.

Hope this helps.

- A

P.S. Have a look at this:


Ren said...

The explanation of doing things post hoc is how I see the experience of deja vu... When I'm doing something that seems oddly familiar, I remind myself that it is familiar because I just did it. That is, I have a memory of doing it, and a memory of doing it and remembering doing it.

Does that make sense?

Anonymous said...

As an English teacher for Portuguese speakers, everyday I try to instill and evoke mental images through cohesive syntax, so that English makes sense in my students’ minds. How they struggle with abstract nouns! Specially with a succession of them... It never ceases to amaze me how differently each mind learns, processes information and perceives the world. Sometimes I’m told the old cliché, that after learning a second language people see the world with ‘new eyes’. For example, the Present Perfect Tense is particularly difficult because, in the view of Portuguese speakers, this is a 'multi-functional' tense and we kind of have a different verb tense for each time situation in our existence. Most students who come to me and claim to speak English tend to avoid this tense. Particularly mysterious for them is knowing when to use it, or the Simple Past instead. Even more strangely, some of them realize that the Present Perfect tense spans from the beginning of time to this very moment and suddenly an English class becomes an inquiry over the nature of the mind, time and reality. Somehow, after some months they are able to use the Present Perfect correctly. But they cannot say ‘how’ or ‘why’ they learned it, they just ‘feel’ it.
And yet English and Portuguese have so much in common, as German, French, Spanish, Latin and Greek do. What about the mind of a creative artist who is also a creative mathematician? How do a dog, a snake, a hundred year old turtle or some blind fish from the darkest depths of the ocean experience the world? Some writers have tried it. But despite their great books, have they succeeded in describing animals’ perceptions of the world? We are immersed in ourselves and tied to personal interpretation, hence we probably cannot completely compare our points of view. From my limited point of view as a teacher, it seems that each one of us perceives the world a little bit differently. It’s like the same reality (if there is such thing) is a little bit twisted by each one’s own sense of reality. So what would reality be for different animals?

Quantum_Flux said...

Well, I view mind as being an evolutionary advantage over no mind. The ability for the mind to simulate the events in the environment around it and to make probabilistic predictions is a very important survival mechanism indeed, multiplied by all the minds put together human and animal, and that makes for a higher probability of surviving for the whole lot of life in existance.

Of course, I also assume that all animals, fish, insects, and etc have evolved minds that suit their particular living conditions. For instance, a fish is more aware of the temperature and the dissolved oxygen in water than a human is, a fly is more aware of the slightest air currents while it is buzzing around and doing all manner of acrobatic manuevers before landing upside down on the cieling. Of course, mind and brain are mechanically interconnected, and it is because of territoriality of primates in trees that gave rise to the sense of ownership and of ecconomic/fair play, in combination with a highly tuned ear and vocal chord, etc, that has given rise to the human mind.

Coutelier said...

I've often tried to think like my dog; well, sometimes when it's late and I'm sleepy and maybe slightly drunk.

I wonder about it because, I don't know about anyone else, when I think about something I have words and language appearring in my head but the dog, I'm guessing, doesn't. Unfortunately no matter how hard I try I just can't think without language; I can't get into the dogs mindset. Which I suppose would only be a setback if I had to play a dog on stage or something.