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Sunday, September 27, 2009

Volitional intelligence

I have an hypothesis about the cause of the obvious differences in the ”actualized intelligence” of the various members of the human race. I have to say right off the bat that this is really just speculation - but we have to begin somewhere. And I do have some, albeit very limited, empirical evidence for the ideas that I present below.

My hypothesis is, to put it bluntly, that the obvious differences in various individuals´ actualized intelligence are due almost exclusively to volition. I do not think that “nature” and “nurture” play any major role in determining people´s realized intelligence - leaving aside cases of persons with damaged brains (e.g. Down´s syndrome and the like) and relatively rare cases of children whose minds are crippled by a literally terrifying environment while growing up.

Most psychologists today assume that intelligence is determined by a combination of nature and nurture. While most Objectivists, as I understand it, believe that there is a large component of volition involved in intelligence - but that there is an upper limit to a person´s intelligence which is set by heredity and which explains the modest intelligence of most men. So most Objectivists, as I understand it, believe that the majority of “common men” cannot, and never could have, become intellectual giants on the order of Ayn Rand, Aristotle, Isaac Newton etc. "It is not their fault" most Objectivists would say.

Well - just exactly why should we expect the ideas above to be the case?

How much do men´s hereditary physical potentials vary from individual to individual? Not so terribly much. How much faster than a “common man” can an Olympic sprinter run? Maybe he can run 100 yards in a little under 10 seconds. While a typical “common man” could probably, if he takes care of his health (e.g. if he doesn´t smoke, if he does not let himself become obese, if he exercises to a reasonable degree, etc.) run 100 yards in about 15 seconds or so at the age of 20 or 30. And an Olympic athlete might run the mile in a little under 4 minutes - while a typical “common man” might take 6 minutes to do it at the age of 20 or 30. So an Olympic athlete is apparently born with just roughly an ability to run around 50% faster than a typical “common man”. Well - why should we expect the differences in men's potential intelligence to be enormously much greater than the differences in their potential physical abilities such as that of running fast?

What if mankind´s common men are born with 50% of the "potential intelligence”, (i.e. intellectual potential), that Ayn Rand was born with? Would not that make each and every one of them have the potential to become, say, a thinker on the order of a modest genius such as Thomas Jefferson or a Thomas Edison? And if so, why don´t they become great achievers, like said Thomas Jefferson or Thomas Edison? I find the idea that the potential intelligence of all men with normal brains does not vary by more than, say, 50% quite plausible. And in that case, every man would have at birth the potential to become an intellectual giant. And in that case, the only explanation that I can see for the fact that the vast majority of men fail to become intellectual giants and great achievers is their own volition.

I do know for sure that the overwhelming majority of men are born with the potential to become much smarter than they do become - and that all of these men, waste said intellectual potential volitionally. For it is perceptually obvious that the vast majority of men choose persistently to avoid any major intellectual effort. Most men only make use of a modest fraction of their mind´s innate potential.

Ayn Rand once remarked (in the introduction to the 1943 edition of the Fountainhead) that she thought the only real difference between her and the rest of the members of the human race was that she was more honest than they were.

I would put it slightly differently. I would say that what set Ayn Rand apart from most other men was not a unique genetic endowment but “merely” that Ayn Rand, from a very early age, chose to think hard. I believe that it is probably volition which makes a genius like Ayn Rand and Aristotle. I do not think that the geniuses of mankind were just lucky to be blessed with radically better brains than the rest of us.

This idea occurred to me for the first time in the year 2009, when I was thinking about my own childhood. I recalled an incident which had occurred in the early summer of the year 1967. I remembered clearly that I was standing either on the front lawn, or in the driveway adjacent to it, of my best friend´s house on a sunny afternoon. I was 13 years old at the time. I was alone and I was thinking about the idea that God had created the universe ex nihilo, an idea which I had heard in church. I contemplated that idea. I asked myself “How could something come to be out of nothing? After all, nothing is just nothing. It does not have any attributes.  And if it has no attributes - how then can it have any effects? If it is nothing, then what aspect of it can cause any particular effect instead of some other particular effect? What part of nothing gave rise to the light and what other part of nothing gave rise to the waters, according to that story in Genesis?” I kept on thinking thoughts along those lines - and I came to the conclusion that the universe could not have come to be out of nothingness. The universe must always have existed. I formulated my conclusion in these words “What is just is. Period.” I realized, although I do not remember whether I put it in these exact words “You cannot explain the universe, i.e. what is, by reference to anything else. For there is nothing else. So the existence of that which exists is just an irreducible brute fact.”

So I had discovered the axiom of existence entirely on my own, at the age of 13! I had achieved the feat which had taken the genius of Parmenides to achieve before me.

Why did I do what I did?

I did it because, on that particular occasion, I chose to contemplate the question of whether existence could come about out of nothing.

But why did I not do more? Why did I not continue to think about metaphysical questions such as the nature of existence?

Because I just chose not to. But if I had chosen to, maybe I could have gone on to become a great philosopher. I mean that seriously. If I had followed up on my independent discovery of the axiom of existence - then I might eventually have discovered the axiom of identity. And if I continued to work hard enough, cognitively, I might have discovered the axiom of causality, the axiom of consciousness - and who knows what else. After all, if I had it in me to discover the axiom of existence on my own, at the tender age of just 13, I might also have had it in me to discover the next logical stepping stones in the development of the science of philosophy.

This is just speculation - but it does seem to be within the realm of the possible to me.

Why did I not carry out more thinking about “deep” metaphysical issues, after that single cognitive incident?

Well, you cannot say that any factor makes a person choose not to think. But you can say that a certain factor motivates him not to. The factor which motivated me not to think was my preference for the feeling of "ease" (to borrow a term from the pragmatist philosopher William James) which comes with cognitive coasting. I had automatized a preference for that state during the earlier years of my childhood. Only if I saw that a major value was attached to the deep metaphysical issue at hand would I have felt motivated to continue to get off my butt and carry out some more hard thinking.

So I saw no great significance in the discovery I had made. I did realize that I had found a good argument against the religionists´ idea that their hypothesized God had created the universe ex nihilo - so my commitment to atheism was established. But that was the only implication which I saw. I did not realize that there was any reason to care all that much about the subject matter which is metaphysics. Since I did not see any strong reason to continue thinking about abstract issues - and since I was inclined to take it easy in the realm of cognition - I did not follow up on my discovery - and so I therefore passed up whatever opportunity I had to achieve more.

So I strongly suspect that I wasted an awful lot of opportunity for personal achievement - and that I did so volitionally.

Ayn Rand would have acted differently in the same situation. She had automatized a preference for the "state of dis-ease" in early childhood. She experienced awareness of reality as such as being such a really major value that she would be inclined to continue to get off her butt and carry out hard thinking even when the subject matter had no obvious value-significance. Ayn Rand´s had developed a character trait which consisted of the policy "I will think on principle - because awareness of reality is a value on principle".

Most people have automatized the evaluation that the effort involved in any particular act of hard thinking is never worth it unless a major value is obviously involved. Ayn Rand had automatized the opposite evaluation - that the effort involved in hard thinking is always worth it even if only some value might be involved.

Me - I was in between at the age of thirteen.

Ayn Rand´s default position was: "Get off your butt and do it! ("it" being "think!") The mere possibility of a reward is worth it!" The majority of the members of mankind have the opposite position as their default mode: "Take it easy! Nothing is ever worth the effort!"

Me - I was inconsistent. I would get off my butt and put forth major cognitive effort - but usually only when I saw the potential payoff clearly and that payoff was sufficiently major in my hierarchy of values.

I am not writing about this childhood incident in order to boast. Because, after all, it does not reflect well on me that I wasted an awful lot of my potential by dint of my morally bad choice not to think. The reason I am relating this incident from my childhood is that it constitutes a clue to a possible fact of reality - namely that maybe all of us have an awful lot of intellectual potential in us when we are children. And that most of us simply choose to waste that potential - volitionally.

Well - if so, why do we make that bad choice? (Why do most of us make that bad choice, that is to sayAyn Rand was one of the rare exceptions who did not.)

Well - I made the bad choice I made, because I just did not see any compelling reason to invest time and effort in thinking about a subject that did not have any obvious practical significance to my own life. I was the kind of kid who would only choose to think when I saw a pressing need to do so. A weak signal that I ought to think was not enough to induce me to get off my butt.

I wonder if it is not the case that every child gets into situations on occasion, while growing up, in which it has an inkling on the very edge of its consciousness that there is reason to think hard about “abstract” issues? But that since it is not obvious  (being merely on the edge of the kid´s consciousness) that the abstract issues really are important enough to be worth contemplating, most children for that reason choose not to think about them?

But perhaps just a few children, children such as Ayn Rand, are so alert or so fastidious that they do “pick up” on that signal at the very edge of their consciousness - the weak signal which is that hard thinking about abstract subjects is worth the time and effort. And they proceed to do so. And that choice leads to a heightened awareness of reality - the pleasure of which these rare children come to associate with the act of thinking. And so the "Ayn Rand-type of child" automatizes a preference for the "state of dis-ease" - because, unlike most children, it comes to value the awareness of reality more highly than the "pleasure" of relaxing while in the "state of ease".

In other words - some individuals become habituated in early childhood to being more inclined than others to choose to think. And these individuals proceed to become the geniuses of mankind.

I believe that this idea of mine is compatible with Ayn Rand´s theory of free will. For it is an issue of habit. Individuals do often automatize certain choices. It happens all the time, figuratively speaking.

For example:

A thief is inclined to choose to steal. That is a habit he has developted. A liar is inclined to choose to lie. That is a habit he has developed. And the majority of the members of mankind are inclined to choose not to think. For that is a habit which they have developed and automatized in early childhood.

That is my hypothesis.

Now, men who are inclined to choose to steal, to lie or not to think - they are not determined to make said bad choices. So my hypothesis does not constitute a denial of volition. My hypothesis merely affirms the existence of a certain species of habit.

So - to sum up: 

Some men develop a preference in early childhood for the feeling of ease which comes with non-effort. Whereas others, a small minority of them, develop a preference in early childhood for the heightened awareness of reality which comes from major mental activity.

Most men come to prefer to take it easy in the realm of cognition almost all of the time - whereas a few men develop a preference for the awareness of reality which results from the effort of thinking almost all of their waking time.

The former category of men are the "cognitive slackers". The latter are the pro-active thinkers. The former men are those who have developed passive minds. The latter are the men who have developed active minds.

Hard thinking about abstract subjects becomes second-nature to the small minority of children who choose to engage in hard thinking. They learn, and they automatize, effective thinking skills. They begin to acquire a foundation of knowledge, at an early age, upon which they can build still more knowledge. They develop an interest in one or more abstract subject matters (such as philosophy or fiction writing or physics or whatever) - which motivates them to continue to learn more about those subject matters. In short, they develop the fitness of their minds through habitual (and volitional) repeated mental exercise - in a way similar to the way athletes develop their physical fitness through repeated physical exercise.

My "volitional intelligence" hypothesis states that the small minority of men who choose to develop active minds raise the level of their own intelligence over time by dint of cognitive exercise.

I hold that this hypothesis of mine, related above, provides a plausible possible explanation for the difference between geniuses like Ayn Rand on the one hand, and most of the rest of us on the other. I believe that intelligence in almost all cases comes down to volition - and nothing, or very little, else.

In case you are wondering - I do not mourn the fact that I strongly suspect that I wasted an awful lot of my potential when I was young. The bad choices which I have made in my life were not metaphysically given before I made them - but now that I have made them and they are in the past they are metaphysicall given, in a sense, seen from my point of view today. For there is nothing I can do now to change them. So I have no valid reason to fret about those past bad choices and to let the rest of my life be ruined by regret. I just bear in mind the fact that I am doing a pretty good job of living my life now - and that is what counts.

There is the phenomenon of envious mediocrities on the political left, i.e. the "moderns", i.e. the egalitarians, who deny that monetary wealth is earned by dint of virtue - i.e. by dint of volition. They deny it because they wish to defend their fragile pseudo-self-esteem from the threat posed by the idea that their own failures to get wealthy themselves are volitional. They do not wish to admit to themselves and others that their own lack of wealth is their own fault.

Well, we should not be like them and deny my hypothesis that intelligence is almost exclusively volitional, if further investigation turns out to show that this is indeed the case. So what if my hypothesis reveals that almost all of us have, when we were young, wasted an awful lot of our own potential by dint of our own volition? We should recognize the facts of reality, whatever those facts are - regardless of any emotional and psychological considerations.

Honesty always pays. We should not fake reality in order to protect our alleged self-esteem. If our alleged self-esteem requires the faking of reality, then it is only pseudo-self-esteem - and then it is not worth having.

Me - I just love my volitional intelligence hypothesis! Since it constitutes the strongest possible answer to those whining, snivelling envious mediocrities whom I loathe and despise!

And  more importantly - I love my volitional intelligence hypothesis since so much is possible if intelligence is in fact volitional! The benevolent implications of the volitional intelligence hypothesis make me feel good - just like the benevolent universe premise made Kira feel at peace with the universe when she was bleeding to death in the snow at the end of We the Living.

1 comment:

  1. Hey - I'd like to chat with you about Ayn Rand - I'm a 19 year old college student. Please email me!