New Scientist published an article entitled “Hints of intelligence in dumb drop of oil.” An online version is available here. (They gave it a different title online.)
Andy Clark, a philosopher at the University of Edinburgh, UK, is quoted as commenting “Whatever intelligence is, it can’t be intelligent all the way down. It’s just dumb stuff at the bottom.”
My strong suspicion is that it’s actually dumb stuff all the way up, too. The difference is that the tool we’re using to decide what’s intelligent and what’s dumb is itself part of that same continuum, so it’s impossible to say categorically “I am intelligent but that blob isn’t.”
Take a dumb example: someone who is tone deaf. Get them to sing something and record it, and then play back the recording not only to them but to an audience that consists solely of tone deaf people.
Chances are no-one is going to notice anything wrong with the performance. However, play it to someone who isn’t tone deaf (preferably someone with perfect pitch) and they’ll spot the tunelessness immediately.
The analogy is poor because it doesn’t adequately underscore that to be able to accurately determine intelligence in us, the judge has to be made of something different from the stuff of which we are made.
We are no more equipped to judge our own “intelligence” than a group of tone deaf people is equipped to judge the performance of someone who is also tone deaf.
This also explains the many contestants who get weeded out of American Idol and Pop Idol/X Factor and who are absolutely convinced they’re better than sliced bread, by the way.
Back to the boring drivel interesting monologue/monolog discussion.
Many years ago I saw a time-lapse video of a microscope view of a single cell on a substrate as it divided into two daughter cells (macrophages, as I recall).
The two cells appeared to move in different directions, but when the vectors of their movement were corrected for their individual orientation immediately after division, both were in fact following exactly mirror paths (in different directions).
That is, they were following a predefined course, dictated by the internal cellular structures known as microtubules. Eventually, as they encountered different obstacles in their respective paths, their movements lost that mirror-image synchrony.
But the basic principle is that, all other things being equal, “life” as we know it is purely mechanical (electromechanical if you like). Living things react the way they do because they’re programmed to. They’re automatons, and so are we, but the levels of complexity involved completely mask that simple fact.
To all intents and purposes we’re self-determining, individual and unique. Except…
If we were genuinely so, then stererotypes would not exist. Cartoonists could not draw caricatures of different “types” of people, we would not be able to group things into collections of “alike”, we wouldn’t even be able to say “Oh, yeah, I know the type” when someone describes an encounter in a bar.
We’re able to do such things because we have huge numbers of aspects of our nature in common. We are animals that work with patterns – it’s how we survive – and from those patterns we can make general (sometimes specific) predictions of the immediate future and so act accordingly, based on our programming.
Those patterns arise because certain elements do the same things under the same circumstances; obeying their “programming” in the same way that a car engine revs when you press on the accelerator because it’s “programmed” to – there’s a connection between one and the other.
In a wider sense, the same is true of the Universe. While deep down it’s chaotic at the quantum level, ultimately it all has to make sense in order for the higher levels of organisation to work. I suspect that quantum weirdness (about which I am singly unqualified to talk) will eventually turn out to have a structure that we have not yet discerned.
One of my favourite/favorite analogies lies in the use of a lower dimensional space to demonstrate how a higher dimensional object would appear to be completely irrational to us.
Imagine that we take a flat sheet of paper, and let’s call that a Universe. Draw little shapes on it and give them names – they’re the inhabitants of the two dimensional universe that we have created. They can “see”, but only in the same plane as the paper – they can’t “look out” from the surface of the paper, so they can only see each other (and that terrifying place, the Edge Of The Universe).
Suppose we now take a horseshoe magnet, and place it on the sheet so that instead of lying flat on the surface, it’s standing perpendicularly to it. Imagine then what the inhabitants might see.
They’d see the perimeters of two rectangles that are not connected in any obvious way. They can’t see the horseshoe itself, only the contact points on the paper. Those points are the intrusion into the two dimensional universe from a higher dimensional space, if you will.
Now move the horseshoe around, sometimes in circles, sometimes pivoting one arm of the shoe so that the other describes a circle around it, sometimes moving the magnet so that the contact points move in parallel and in synchrony with each other. You might even lift one or both arms off the paper briefly, and then place them back down again (the equivalent of particles popping in and out of existence, as far as the inhabitants of the Universe are concerned).
For the inhabitants of the two dimensional Universe, those rectangles exhibit quantum weirdness. We can see what the connection between them is, but that’s because we exist in a higher plane – a three dimensional one (at least).
The trick is to imagine how something that exists in a higher dimensional plane would appear to us if it intruded into our world – it’s almost impossible (it certainly is for me, which is why I have to resort to simplifying things by removing one dimension).
When it comes to quantum entanglement – the spooky action at a distance that Einstein didn’t like, whereby two electrons can be made to enter a state such that even though they may be a huge distance apart, an observation made on one has an immediate effect on the other – the explanation that works for me is that there must be a hidden connection between them, at one or more dimensions above the three (or four) in which we exist. Technically Time is the fourth dimension, but I have a pet theory that Time is actually two-dimensional. That’s another story for another pointless ramble fascinating one-sided conversation.
Of course, I could be totally wrong – not to say batshit insane 🙂
But I enjoy bouncing things like this around – undertaking Gedankenexperimenten of my own. I always have, probably always will. Even if I’m way off the mark. It’s one of the things I like about Science in general and speculation in particular (even if I’m wildly uninformed – I still enjoy it, and no-one can tell me to go boil my head not to :)).