There is nothing we might hold so close, so intimate to our sense of self-worth or purpose in the world than that unique constellation of perceptions and beliefs to which we might attribute the value or significance of our own intelligence. Intelligence itself is a difficult concept to rigorously or unambiguously define, such that in attempting to do so we more often aspire to capturing measurable properties that unwittingly reflect (and self-validate) the implicit biases of our own particular place in cultural and historical time and space. (IQ Tests are, for instance, really only an attempt to objectively measure an individual’s capacity to perform well in an IQ Test – itself shackled to a particular contingent range and narrow definition of intelligence). If we are to attempt to understand the essential nature of human intelligence, which is in general and as a matter of taxonomy the way we relate (to) objects in language as isolated and therefore grammatically intelligible entities, this is always already to assume (or project) intelligence as an individuated, enclosed and consistent conceptual island in an archipelago of Others.
The attributed ontological independence and conceptual isolation of an idea of “intelligence” is a resonant property of communications systems (such as language) in which shortcuts, generalisations and the convenience of referential abbreviation is perhaps a necessary evil. It is also quite possible, indeed – probable, that in attempting to isolate and identify unique properties of human behaviour that unambiguously exhibit intelligence that we find ourselves unable to escape the aggregate influence of assumptions and expectations we acquire from our own cultural and historical contexts. In his Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy, Bertrand Russell noted that while all meanings are circularly defined in reference to all other meanings, we must to achieve anything at the very least agree upon a starting point, place a stake in the ground from which to build an edifice of understanding, however transient or contingent that structure may turn out to be.
For all of the caveats regarding bias and cultural context-infused assumptions concerning the nature and value of human intelligence, it is almost certain that the property of intellect serves a primary (if not axiomatic) role of logical problem-solving. Those that inherit, cultivate or acquire an aptitude to solve problems in the most efficient (i.e. rapid or algorithmically concise) ways are likely to find that this capacity provides them, their family or their extended community with a distinct advantage in the endemic existential competition with which all living beings are faced. While the individual possession of a certain degree of demonstrable problem-solving talent indicates an identifiable or even notionally measurable instance of aptitude and intelligence, it is always only ever sensibly defined as aptitude as demonstrated within a specific context.
Intelligence as defined (or at the very least – as definable) as an aptitude to efficient problem-solving in a particular context seems to be a sensible solution to the matter of identification of the concept. If intelligence is defined as an aptitude to efficient problem-solving in a particular context or environment, and if the degree to which any individual can be said to possess or manifest acquired or inherent intellectual powers is always already only measurable or observable as oriented towards a behavioural display in that context, what happens when the context changes and that bundle of problem-solving heuristics that any individual possesses are no longer well-suited to their circumstances? This is of course what happens at any moment or extended period of significant social, cultural and (by literal extension) technological change.
Where intellect may once have been measured by the successful cognitive imprinting and entrainment of rote-learned facts, it has now become much less a matter of knowing the facts themselves as of knowing where (and how) to find those facts. The technological hyper-extension of our mental faculties now no longer requires us to uniquely possess or remember all of the facts or (even) methods of problem-solving as these are through technological means now always readily to hand. The logic of possessing intelligence, or of being a putatively intelligent person is now a matter of being able to spontaneously develop the methods for constant reconfiguration of strings and patterns of symbols. An investment in rote-learning or adherence to single structure and inflexible system of thought with which to stave off the endemic entropy and stochastic uncertainty of the world – this is now less necessary than ever before.
It may even be that the iterative fracture of personal intelligence into constantly adaptive realignment to improvisatory narratives and heuristics is an explanation for the sweeping tide of authoritarianism we are globally witnessing. The functional disassembly of messages (and meanings) into superficial abbreviations and staccatto narrative communications methods is a direct reflection of the methods of thought and thinking that we are entraining ourselves to value and to copy. When the narratives are compressed in such a way as to valourise brevity and concision, other than a general trend towards superficiality and inconsequence – the implicit complecity and structure of narrative (and of narrative intelligence) is displaced elsewhere.
The ongoing uncertainty and distrust in the grand narratives and rationales of democracy (for instance) generates an unconscious turn towards authoritarianism – the irony being that the more superficially isolated and individuated we become, the more we unconsciously orient our biases towards unity, in whatever convenient forms it manifests. This could never be a single causative factor for an authoritarian turn in global culture but is very likely an element in this complex and distributed system of information, narrative, intelligence and communications technology within which we are all embedded.
The greatest problems that human intelligence is yet to solve lie ahead of us. Not least of these problems shall undoubtedly be negotiating the intricate and recursive complexities of a world in which the technological hyper-extension of our mind has risen up and engulfed those very same minds and is now reshaping and selecting for specific psychological and neurophysiological characteristics. Through a looking glass, darkly…