What is intelligence?

by Neil Rickert

People often talk about intelligence, but it is hard to say what it is. We measure IQ (Intelligence Quotient), but it isn’t entirely clear what that is measuring. This is illustrated by the Flynn Effect, which shows that IQ seems to be increasing over time. Some people have suggested that IQ is sensitive to culture, and I’m inclined to agree with that.

So what is intelligence? In this post, I shall give some of my own opinions. I don’t think there is a consensus answer to the question.

Biology and intelligence

I am inclined to think of intelligence as biological.

Take a pot plant on your window sill, and rotate it around. The plant will begin to change its growth patterns toward the new direction of light. The pot plant appears to have the ability to change its behavior so as to adapt to changes in the environment. Mechanical objects don’t do this.

Yes, AI systems can respond to some changes in the environment. But they only respond in ways that are part of their programming. Biological organisms, even lowly plants, seem better able to adapt to such changes.

From my point of view, an ability to adapt is intelligence.

A recent post in the online Nautilus magazine looks at the intelligence of the octopus.

The octopus does not have a brain like ours. Its neural system is distributed throughout the body, including its arms, rather than being mainly concentrated in the head. The way that intelligence evolved in the octopus seems to be pretty much independent of the way that it evolved in humans. Yet they appear to be very intelligent creatures.

The tree of evolution bears many fruits and many flowers, and intelligence, rather than being found only in the highest branches, has in fact flowered everywhere.

Intelligence and logic

There has been a strong tendency to connect intelligence with logic. I am inclined to believe that this has been a mistake. Logic itself is mechanistic; it is the following of rules. But an intelligent person knows when it makes more sense to break the rules. I have never been convinced that logic in itself is intelligent.

Logic is a useful tool for systematically studying a problem. We can think of logic as a way of systematizing. We can use logic to systematize how we apply our intelligence. And that can be a useful way of amplifying our intelligence. That’s probably why people think of logic as being part of intelligence. But, as best I can tell, we only use it to systematize human intelligence. There does not appear to be any intelligence coming from the logic itself.

The field of artificial intelligence is based on the idea of using logic to produce intelligence. I remember when a speaker gave a talk on AI at our campus. He introduced his topic by saying that we had already automated clerical tasks. And now we were automating intellectual tasks. But it seemed to me that the AI systems were mainly automating the clerical aspects of intellectual tasks.

Yes, AI can do some rather impressive things. And machine learning can also be impressive. But machine learning seems to be very different from human learning. When I am at the checkout counter of the grocery store, I still notice that the computer systems can only recognize the items by means of the UPC codes on them and by looking up those codes in a database.

Trial and error

If often seems to me that a lot of human learning depends on trial and error. We test out our ideas to see what works. In a way, logic is mostly a method of systematically using trial and error for certain kinds of problems.

Trial and error is really an example of pragmatism, or doing what works. And it often seems to me that pragmatism is practical intelligence. Evolution itself is pragmatic, in the sense that natural selection goes with what turns out to work.

In order to use pragmatism, you do need a measure of whether what you are trying to do is actually working. And it seems to me that our emotions often provide that measure. Fear, anger and depression are indications that something is not working. Happiness and satisfaction are indications that things are working. So perhaps our emotions are more important than we have realized. Perhaps they are the way that our biology helps us evaluate what we are doing.


16 Comments to “What is intelligence?”

  1. Dear Neil,

    I enjoyed reading your article entitled “What is intelligence?“, and I agree with you that intelligence and biology are intimately connected, so are intelligence and science, but no so much as intelligence and logic, as you pointed out.

    It can also be very revealing to explore intelligence and art as well as intelligence and music, not just in humans but also in nonhumans, even including some unique takes on, and certain premises with respect to, interspecies communication, as discussed in great detail in one of my latest posts entitled “Do Animals Create Art and Music? đŸŽĩ🐕đŸŽļ🐒🎹🐘đŸ–ŧđŸŦ🎨“, available at

    Do Animals Create Art and Music? đŸŽĩ🐕đŸŽļ🐒🎹🐘đŸ–ŧđŸŦ🎨

    You are welcome to join the discussion at my said post and offer your feedback, insight, doubt, opinion or the like.

    Once again, I commend you for composing this thought-provoking post. May you have a lovely week ahead in which to ponder further on the perennially interesting and wide-ranging topics on intelligence!

    Yours sincerely,

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Intelligence is definitely tricky to define. It’s not as much of a definitional morass as consciousness, but it doesn’t seem far behind. I don’t think there is anything biological about it in principle. The only difference is that biological intelligence often remains far beyond the artificial kind. But that gap is constantly shrinking.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. In conversation, upon meeting new persons, or even when listening to interviews, we can detect when a person seems to possess an inner resource to grasp things perceptively and connect them to other thoughts, a kind of sensitivity for ideas. I equate this more closely with intelligence than I do various biological evidences, such as manual dexterities, sculpting with clay, juggling, or hitting 3-pointers from midcourt with barely any separation from a defender. Though I greatly admire all those things too.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Agree with you about emotions and I think they are the ultimate source of all evaluation. Damasio argues that they arose first in evolution, for the purpose of tracking physiological states, in a way that motivates the animal to act to maintain homeostasis.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This is an interesting brief take on a very complex topic. You’ve stimulated my thinking. I quickly came across an article citing 4 types of intelligence: mental, emotional, somatic, and intuitive. Another mentioned 7 types: linguistic, logical, bodily-kinesthetic, spacial, musical, interpersonal, and intrapersonal.

    And the Oxford dictionary definition is simply “the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills.”

    I agree that intelligence and logic aren’t as closely connected as many contend.

    And thank you for the octopus reference. Octopuses fascinate me. I wrote about them in 2019 ( “Can I Really Get My Arms Around This Animal?”).

    Liked by 1 person

  6. This: ‘So perhaps our emotions are more important than we have realized. Perhaps they are the way that our biology helps us evaluate what we are doing.’
    Brilliant! At the synapse level, electrical impulses provide the ‘digital/logical’ while the chemical soup used to ferry information across the synapse is the ‘analogue’ part of the process. Human brains depend on /both/ so it makes perfect sense that the same pairing occurs at a macro level.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I am about to state some facts about myself directly connected to your post, Neil. Please read them in the way they are intended — for discussion purposes only. In grade 3 I was given a test that was not being given to my fellow classmates. I had no idea why. But I did what I was told, and completed the test. The next 9 years of my life were a strange mix of heaven and hell. It turned out, I discovered later, it was an IQ test, and apparently I passed with colours flying. I was suddenly being treated differently than other kids, but at the time I did not know why. What I did know was that outside the classroom I was suddenly being bullied by all the bullies in school. I doubt they knew why, either, they just knew that teachers were treating me as special, and they didn’t like not being treated like they were special too.
    In about Grade 6 a similar test was given to the whole class. We were told it was a test to measure our Intelligence Quotient, but that meant little to us students. That I “passed” that test too seemed normal to me, I loved writing tests, and if my mark was not the highest in class it was always very close to the top. That was my norm.
    The funny thing was, while some teachers treated me as if I was special, other teachers treated me as if I were cheating. It took a while, but I finally figured out they disliked that a “damn little Indian” should be outscoring all the white kids. That was my first run in with racism, though I did not know that word at the time.
    What the teachers did not know was, in my mind, I loved to be at school because for 6 hours a day I was not at home having the shit beat out of me by my sperm donor. The classroom was the only place in the world where I felt safe. And somehow I equated passing tests as the best way to keep me in school. My older brothers and sisters were all taken out of school early, and forced to get jobs to help support the family.
    So, what was behind my IQ score, which I learned at the time was 189. I broke into my teacher’s desk to find that out. Learning it was 189 boggled my young mind. I thought the best possible mark a person could get on a test was 100. I did not know what 189 meant, but I knew it had to be something good.
    I was in Grade 11 when I finally ran away from home for good. I left on my 16th birthday, the age when a cop told me I could no longer be taken back home. I had to transfer schools because of where I was living with my sister. At my new school I was just a regular student. I didn’t have to fear going home. And while I passed my final exams with flying colours, in Grade 12 the next year I stopped paying attention (I had discovered girls, and I had discovered girls were not impressed by hign test scores) and my grades fell horribly. In fact, I was called to the principal’s office for the first time in my life. What he said to me caused me to drop out of school. “I was told you were nothing but a little cheater. Now you’re helper can’t help you anymore, can he! You’ve barely got passing grades here. You’re nothing but a fucking dumb Indian after all.”
    I wasn’t cheating, unless I was letting other kids cheat off me. They paid me to let them do that! But my high marks were driven by fear. Once the fear was removed I didn’t care anymore. (At least not till years later!) Did fear really give me a high IQ? Or was it something else?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve been meaning to visit your blog for a long time, Neil. I finally get here, and the first thing I see is a post on IQ. What a wonderful welcome, lol.

      Liked by 1 person

    • An interesting story.

      I was usually near the top of the class. And I had to deal with bullies. It seems that the bullies do not like people who do well in school. On the other hand, learning how to avoid the bullies has probably been useful throughout life.

      “Did fear really give me a high IQ?”

      You were motivated to learn. And how well you learn is part of what IQ measures.

      Liked by 1 person

      • The question was rhetorical, lol. Obviously fear has/had nothing to do with intelligence, and especially not IQ, which is a whole ‘nother matter.
        I was just trying to suggest that the right motivation could affect one’s willingness to learn. the brain is the brain, and studies show they all pretty much work the same. What is not the same is the Humanness Quotient. Some humans have no inclination to learn, while others have a strong inclination to learn. One of my high school friends spent most of his school life as a bully, barely scraping by with C and D grades. Yeah, he beat me up a lot. Then in Grade 9 something changed. Instead of beating on me, he started asking questions. He was literally sick of being a dunce, as he called himself. We became friends, and he watched how I went about learning. I could not explain to him what it was I did, learning just came naturally to me. But he watched, and somehow he learned. He went from a C average in Grade 9 to an B+, average in grade 10, and was sporting an an A average when I left that school and basically disappeared. When I ran into him years later he had become a teacher. Everyone had expected him to end up in prison. What it was that changed in him I never knew, but I watched the changes happen. He took over his life, and that led him to a happiness he never thought he could have. He was always an angry kid before that.
        So, does IQ really mean anything? Maybe, but it does not ensure success or failure. When I dropped out of school I became a hippie, and I finally found happiness. In society’s eyes I was a failure, but I succeeded in ways I could never have predicted. I have no idea what my friend’s IQ was, but no teacher ever paid any attention to him so I suspect it was pretty average. Yet once he set his mind to learning, and got rid of all his bad habits, he turned into a success by society’s standards.
        So, unrhetorically, what does that teach us about intelligence?

        Liked by 1 person

        • In a way, you are making the same point as I was making in this post. Intelligence isn’t some innate ability that some folk possess. It is more likely that most people have the needed innate abilities. It’s a matter of motivation on how we use those abilities. I tend to connect that with emotion, because I see our emotional systems as very much involved in motivations.


  8. I like Annie’s contribution from the Oxford Dictionary: the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills.

    Personally, I see absolutely no justification in “measuring” that ability … except perhaps for medical reasons in handicapped children. As one gets older, it could be done as a voluntary test to satisfy personal curiosity, but to use it as a measuring stick against others is highly discriminatory. And as illustrated by rawgod’s case, it definitely shows the damage it can cause when done in school! Which brings up another point … the “results” should most DEFINITELY not be shared to anyone except the individual.

    Liked by 1 person

%d bloggers like this: