Part #1 of 2
What is Intelligence?
I intend to show how intelligence is best understood by getting well away from ideas based on human intelligence. I shall work from humans down to primitive life-forms and then the atom itself. I hope to demonstrate a useful definition of intelligence, but there are some essential underlying ideas that need to be discussed first.
I shall start by turning the question around. The question to be answered now is:
What is Stupidity?
Take the situation where most people agree that doing a particular thing is exceedingly dangerous. Suppose that somebody does exactly that thing. Suppose also that onlookers don't see the problem. Wouldn't we agree that this is very good example of stupid behaviour?
Let's analyse this. We all know that unsupported objects fall to Earth - fact 1. We all know that falling objects can cause injuries - fact 2. It is widely known that, as far as big lumps of masonry are concerned, the bigger they come, the harder they fall - fact 3. Heavier things do not fall faster than lighter things - but just because they are heavier, have more mass, are things of some substance as one might say, they tend to make a squishier mess of things that falling objects tend to make a squishy mess of - fact 4.
What we can now say of the workman and onlookers in the example in the link given is this: they ignored the facts. Isn't it stupid to ignore facts? When we call somebody an ignoramus, we are using an English word which comes from the Latin ignoramus, meaning 'we ignore it'. Whoever is in danger and takes no action to avoid it is indeed an ignoramus. Whoever can see water within reach and is thirsty, but takes no action is an ignoramus.
Conclusion: anybody who has the necessary information to interact with his or her environment in a life-enhancing way, but chooses to ignore the facts is an ignoramus, a stupid person. They are more ignorant than a Doctor of Daftness with a dodgy diploma.
Working definition of stupidity
Stupidity is a failure to act in a life-enhancing or life-sustaining way, given the information necessary to so act.
The Basics of Intelligence
We can now invert our working definition of stupidity and derive a working definition of intelligence.
Intelligence is the ability to use information in order to interact with an environment.
By itself, that statement would assign intelligence to just about everything that might be said to interact with its environment. More refinement is needed.
Let us compare a chemical crystal and an axolotl. You may find it remarkable that both the axolotl and a crystal can repair themselves. If you grow a crystal in a solution, break a bit off and then put it back in the solution - it will repair itself! I first came across this in an article by Isaac Asimov entitled "The Self-Repairing Robot". It was probably published about 1958/1959 in Galaxy Magazine.
To the point. We will probably agree that in both cases the mechanism is in some way 'automatic'. Surely a crystal doesn't have any intelligence in even the slightest degree? Agreed. And in the case of the axolotl growing new limbs, surely it doesn't do it through intelligence, or even instinct - it's just an automatic process, surely? Agreed.
But. A crystal can only grow as a uniform structure, and an axolotl limb - or indeed any biological component - can only grow as a uniform structure if there is some sort of directing mechanism. That mechanism exists, and is explained sufficiently by the laws of chemistry, most particularly physical chemistry. I'll come back to that bit soon. In the meantime I'll just observe that neither the crystal nor the axolotl can 'unrepair' itself and then repeat the process. There is no recycling mechanism, no way to empty the information bucket and fill it with new information. Also, there is just the one bucket, and when it's full it's full. Period.
A Modified Working Hypothesis
Intelligence is the ability to gather and use information repetitively in order to interact with an environment.
Rock Bottom Intelligence
If you study how atoms combine to form molecules, you will find that it is all down to the behaviour of electrons. Now, in very simple terms, electrons have a most peculiar habit. They don't slide or glide to new positions. They jump. An electron is either here in this region, or it is there in that region. If there is anything between the quantum levels of the electron, we can't know. We can only get information out of an electron if that information is already in the electron. But the electron only 'knows' about levels, islands of structure in a sea of chaos. It travels between them without any sight of or contact with the ocean. It is oblivious to the sea. It is ignorant of the sea. It only 'knows' about levels. Let's give the electron an A+ for levels and a Z- for being ignorant of everything else.
(Note to quantum physicists: Yes, yes! Energy packets. I know. Look, this is prose. Poetry even. It is not a treatise on quantum physics. Hey, why am I even telling you this? Look, you're a quantum physicist. You probably already figured that my words are a deliberate over-simplification. After all, it's not as if you are'nt intelligent.)
So, there are mechanisms which appear to be intelligent. But are they 'really' intelligent? Whilst it would be wonderful if I could show that every fundamental particle, or even just the electron, proton and/or neutron exhibits intelligent behaviour, sadly I must decline. Fundamental particles exhibit 'behavioural' properties which, when combined in specific ways, have an ability to interact with their environment in such a way as to appear to be intelligent according to our working hypothesis.
Having worked down to the atom, I work my way back up again in a follow-up in which I relate intelligence to the observation and manipulation of information.