When I first learned about the proposition of Intelligent Design, I was intrigued. Before I heard of that, I read about archaeology and the fascinating discoveries or theories made by interpretation of even very small artifacts. Starting with the assumption (usually reasonable) that the artifact was the result of human action, they seek answers for explanations and those explanations give rise to filling in details of mental, emotional, and social lives of these ancient humans.
Biology increasingly documents the intricate complexity of living beings at even the molecular level. This complexity requires many distinct components that individually have no value unless they work together. I understand and accept the possibility that these could occur from random mutation from pre-existing forms that reuse components that served earlier functions. But this explanation seems kind of a dead end for study. The complexity itself can be studied, but the origin of the complexity just happened by chance and by some survival advantage. That’s fine from an biological point of view.
But I like to think about the intelligent agent explanation. Our world is littered with human artifacts of tremendous variety. Whether the artifacts are currently useful or discarded and decayed, we don’t waste time testing whether they are created from intelligent agency of humans. Instead when we try to understand them, we seek the instructions for what caused their being built, what principles were used in the design of the products or in the tools used in their manufacture.
So for biological systems, I see no harm in starting with the idea that intelligence was involved in the emergence of complexity. From that starting point, one question is where does that intelligence reside. Therein lies the controversy that since a human mind obviously wasn’t involved the only possibility is some kind of deity. I like to consider the alternative that intelligence is a part of nature. Because it appears implicated in even the most basic of biological and bio-chemical processes, I consider the possibility that intelligence is inherent in nature and possible exists outside of biology. Intelligence makes biology possible.
But this is really a question of what is intelligence.
Intelligence is something that can hold a concept. I know I can hold a concept. I have no reason to believe that I’m alone. I see no reason to doubt that anything can hold a concept. I see no reason to doubt even that empty space can hold a concept. Holding a concept may be intelligent but it is not useful.
Useful intelligence is a combination of holding a concept and an agency to act according to a concept. The intelligence now has the ability to have an impact on the world. This intelligence has consequences.
Completely deterministic processes in physics and chemistry also have impacts on the world. Deterministic systems can result in something that I can interpret as a concept. If there is a deterministic explanation that is highly predictive of the outcome, there is no real advantage to assume an intelligence involved. We discredit mystical explanations because they are less useful than the proven theories. These useful theories have a long history of discrediting earlier explanations that invoke super nature beings or deities. In contrast to earlier times, there is no longer any room for academic study to invoke mystical explanations. What counts is an explanation through some mechanical process or through statistical chance. I accept this because of the superior value of finding explanations that can be tested and repeated. Finding an intelligence is not very useful especially if we can not negotiate with it.
So what we want to find is an intelligence that we can communicate with. Communication is the transfer of the concept from one intelligence to another. We accept the intelligence of ourselves and grant intelligence to fellow human beings. Our whole education and training culture is almost exclusively the transfer of concepts. If after a discussion with someone, I end up with a concept that I didn’t have before, then I assume that someone taught me that concept.
However, if I hear a noise and look around and discover something has fallen, I have also obtained a concept: specifically that that something has fallen. It is not my first assumption that I was taught this concept from another intelligence. I figured it out myself. Similarly, I could be talking with someone and notice a bug crawling on the person’s shirt. I learned this concept during the discussion and it came from something particular to him even though he did not have that concept. I can’t assume that everything I learn while in the presence of the teacher is something the teacher already knows. In fact, this is the mark of graduate study where the student may uncover new knowledge while the teacher’s role is to build good scholarship.
We apply further testing to distinguish intelligence from chance and coincidence. Such an additional test is confirmation. In the example of the bug, I express my concept that a bug on the person’s shirt, and the person responds by seeking the bug and flicking it away. That action confirms to me that he is intelligent: I had a concept, I transferred that concept to him, and his action indicated he understood exactly the same concept I had. In this case, not only the presence of the bug but also the undesirability of the bug remaining there.
Here the test of intelligence is for me to determine that something else is intelligent. I must be able to see an acknowledgement that the other intelligence has received my concept through the use of its agency to respond appropriately to that concept.
Tools do this. Especially in modern times with programmable machines can pass this test. The basic art of programming in fact includes instructions for conditions that can not be replicated during testing and that we hope never happens. When the exceptional event does occur and the exception is handled exactly as I had conceived, I don’t assume the tool has intelligence. It is just a complex human artifact.
Domesticated animals also do this. There are frequent shows of people speaking commands to pets who perform complex actions that meet the intention of the command despite novel situations. The command to jump may have been to jump over a box but when confronted with some other object (say another animal) the desired action occurs. There is evidence that the trained animal understands the intended concept and uses its faculties to execute the right action to accomplish the command.
We are very reluctant to describe this as intelligence. Or if it is intelligent, it is not what we mean when we say our fellow humans are intelligent.
I think the difference is that we want acknowledgement of our own intelligence. After ascribing some intelligence to the other entity, I seek that other intelligence to acknowledge my intelligence. In education, we do this from testing or assessments. If we pass specific oral, written, or performance examinations and exceed the lowest expectations of the teacher, we get an acknowledgement of our own intelligence. Eventually, we get so many acknowledgements that we become teachers that are challenged to acknowledge new students.
So, the test for intelligence is the following is receiving acknowledgement that I am intelligent from a being that I’ve already determined able to receive a concept I had conveyed. I want a pat on the back for something I assumed I had all along. If something pats me on the back for my intelligence, than that being must be intelligent. That doesn’t work in the first person.
I change the definition to the third person. I will accept as intelligence an interaction where there is mutual acknowledgement of being able to exchange concepts. That seems to occur everywhere, especially in biology.
In addition to academic rejection of mystical thinking, we also are instructed to reject projecting our human qualities on non-humans. Anthropomorphism certainly impedes our ability to understand the world-view of other creatures who have completely different capacities and challenges.
Meanwhile, I accept that I am a natural being. Certainly in modern times, my human being is confronted with very novel situations completely unlike anything my distant ancestors encountered. In fact, in modern times, novelty occurs even with respect to my own lifetime: novelty that no peer has confronted. I go about confronting this novelty using what I consider to be my intelligence. Some of this intelligence is learned (I can apply math or other skills). Sometimes, though, I can not explain what prior lessons taught me to do something. As a natural being, I don’t have a problem thinking that other natural beings approach problem solving the same way.
I do not accept a definition of intelligence that limited to being human. Because of this, I have a hard time drawing the line of when something is purely unintelligent, purely the result of physical laws and chance.
Studying complex mechanisms that are evident in biological systems have taught us a great many concepts that we can re-apply to our own inventions. Communication has occurred. If there were an original creative intelligence, we have acknowledged that we think the design is very useful. The only thing that we are missing is for some way for that creative intelligence to signal to us its acknowledgement of our intelligence.
Perhaps that is the real appeal for atheism. If we accept an intelligence that exhibits intelligence that exceeds human intelligence, then we have to beg for that intelligence to acknowledge our own intelligence. Historically, it never has.
So, it must not exist.