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The Self-Defeating Argument About Intelligence


Alexander Wissner-Gross, a physicist at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Cameron Freer, a mathematician at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, have developed an equation to describe intelligent or cognitive behaviors. They suggest that intelligent behavior can be explained as an impulse to control events in the environment.

The mathematics are rooted in the theory of thermodynamics. The model relies on entropy, the mathematically-defined thermodynamic quantity accounts for the flow of energy through a thermodynamic process. Entropy predicts that isolated systems spontaneously evolve towards thermodynamic equilibrium – the state of maximum entropy. The rotting of dead bodies is an thermodynamically driven process, for example.

The software simulates a physical process of “trying to capture as many future histories as possible” to analyze a complete set of possible future outcomes. “Causal entropic forces” are the motivation for intelligent behavior, they propose.

In simpler words, they are suggesting that living things try to keep as many options open as possible and that’s how intelligence evolved. Man learned to walk upright and use tools, for example, to allow himself more possibilities.

On a brief tangent, I reject that intelligence can ever be mathematically modeled. Why? Because of free will. The test of a mathematical model is its predictive ability. We model what happened so we can predict what will happen next. If the model has no predictive value, then it’s wrong because lack of predictive ability indicates the natural system was modeled incorrectly. Can models predict human behavior? Only in large generalities for isolated behaviors, but not absolutely. The stock market has made that abundantly clear. (So does raising a two-year-old.)

But all of that aside, here’s the line that concerns me in the popular Live Science magazine write up.

“Wissner-Gross suggested that the new findings fit well within an argument linking the origin of intelligence to natural selection and Darwinian evolution — that nothing besides the laws of nature are needed to explain intelligence.”

This fundamental, yet unproven, idea that intelligence is a function of atoms colliding should concern all of us. It means that man’s thoughts and choices are no more mental than marbles colliding as they fall off a table, and love is just chemicals in the brain. Nothing new really, but seriously de-humanizing. How can we really be held responsible for our choices if we are slaves to physics?

And this fundamental premise is self-defeating in a monumental way.

If a person argues that he can mathematically model intelligence because that intelligence came from atoms colliding with each other as the laws of nature dictates, then how does that person know that what he argues is true?

How does anyone know what is true? What is truth?

Such a proposal demolishes the idea of intelligence altogether and renders it something mechanical and meaningless.

I doubt that the people purporting this fundamental premise as possibly true would agree, but even if they were right and intelligence is a matter of preserving as many future histories as possible, wouldn’t declaring that man is just a genetic slave of his environment mean that the number of possibilities is already predetermined?
(Image credit: Tumisu via Pixabay)

Dr. Stacy Trasancos

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Stacy A. Trasancos is a wife and homeschooling mother of seven. She holds a PhD in Chemistry from Penn State University and a MA in Dogmatic Theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary. She teaches chemistry and physics for Kolbe Academy online homeschool program and serves as the Science Department Chair. She teaches Reading Science in the Light of Faith at Holy Apostles College & Seminary. She is author of Science Was Born of Christianity: The Teaching of Fr. Stanley L. Jaki. Her new book, Particles of Faith: A Catholic Guide to Navigating Science (Ave Maria Press) comes out October 2016. She works from her family’s 100-year old restored lodge in the Adirondack mountains, where her husband, children, and two German Shepherds remain top priority. Her website can be found here.

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