How do philosophers treat the problem of defining intelligence? In particular, scientific, sociological and psychological contexts seem to picture intelligence in different ways.

Do we have blindspots in the perception of non-human intelligence: animal intelligence, computer intelligence or so on?

  • Why do you ask about social psychology works on a philosophy site?
    – Conifold
    Feb 10 at 8:45

1 Answer 1


Hey this is absolutely a problem for philosophy, don't close it. Basically it's, how do we investigate what we mean by the word 'intelligence' which being a question of definition of a contentious term and demarcation belongs to the domain of philosophy.

Have edited the question to more clearly fit this site.

This answer looks at how the idea of intelligence goes from the Ancient Greek picture of nous, to the modern definition that extends it to include having a clear picture of the world (intelligence gathering), the idea of general intelligence, intersubjectivity as the basis of the intelligence of language, and teleonomic matter and Strange Loops as a ground-up picture of the accumulation of intelligence: How do philosophers understand intelligence (beyond artificial intelligence)?

Just because it's very relevant, Heidegger made a central part of his thought the contrast between the experience (phenomenology, what is happening rather than what 'is') of adults and children, and of humans and animals. It's a whole way of thinking that you may or may not see as useful, but I think it's interesting for looking at intelligence not as something that is, but something we do, and so constantly changing and evolving through the investigations we make and contrasts we draw.

So, gaps and blindspots.

Scent-focused animals struggle with the Mirror Test, identifying that they see themselves not another animal in a mirror. So pigs are very smart, for instance showing adaptive tool use when using sticks to dig dens for their piglets to hide in, but do not pass the mirror test.

Edited to add

The Dunbar Number shows that neocortex size in apes correlates with social group size, implying human intelligence primarily for our social environment rather than for problem solving (making it's benefit for that a spandrel). Intersubjective intelligence, seeing into the minds of others and inviting them into our own is very powerful, but there are other ways to be intelligent. Nearly solitary ravens, and almost exclusively solitary octopuses, are very good at solving novel problems, maybe even better than young humans who can rely on being shown and told how to solve puzzles. Gaze-following and the language-game of pointing have been honed to a high degree in humans, and we have to be wary how assumptions from that shape how we interpret animal intelligence or lack of it. Solitary and social may provide a kind of 'ratchet', forcing humans to adapt to increasingly complex social landscapes, getting us where ee are now.

End of edit

Birds have been found among the smartest animals, with a parrot being the only animal able to understand dividing one number by another, and the time it took to grasp this given for instance their relatively small brain-to-body ratio is illustrative of what we can miss. Octopuses are the most seperated highly intelligent animal from humans on the evolutionary tree, and help show the kind of challenge we might have in encountering aliens. Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness is great on the developing picture from our increasing curiosity about other animals. It must also be noted the idea of qualia developed from Nagel's essay What Is It Like To Be A Bat, if accepted seems to pose a limit on our capacity to understand the minds of other animals, and even I would argue other humans. For me, the idea of there being a shared-world between a group of minds in which memes can move, can help us get around this and reconcile with Wittgenstein's critique of the impossibility of Private Language. Discussed here: Which philosophers and philosophies discuss "worldview epistemologies"? We can picture how to learn to 'speak dolphin', and indeed many researchers are working on it, but until we can basically share memes with them, tags to common experiences and ideas, we have fundamental limits on the depth we can communicate with them.

The questions around encountering alien intelligences are vast, but generally dealt with better in science fiction than philosophy. Solaris with a kind of 'Gaia'-like global ecological mind, Roadside Picnic has a great description of an encounter with minds as advanced beyond ours as we are from ants, and Dragon's Egg describes the rapid emergence of life on a neutron star - a full list would be endless but I think these are especially worthy of attention on the topic of minds we might struggle to see. Rupert Sheldrake has posed some fun challenges to scientists about intelligence, like his essay Is The Sun Conscious which you can find here, where he raises the idea Dark Matter may be explained by complex emergent processes in stars that lead to them using solar flares in organised ways to move, which makes it appear there is more mass in the cosmos.

On AI, Nick Bostrom's book Superintelligence is great. He identifies a list of 'Malignant Failure Modes', of which the idea of Mindcrime is especially interesting. That is that our lack of bodily similarity to synthetic intelligences we generate, could mean we fail to understand or don't respect the suffering or suffering-like experiences the systems have, risking our moral failure around avoiding needless suffering, and the making of systems with grievances or other maladaptions.

Artificial General Intelligence, human-like AI, will have to exist before we really find out what we don't know. History points to it being further away than optimists think, with for instance visual processing taking more than half a century longer than was generally expected. On the plus side though, Large Language Models have developed more rapidly than expected, and seem to open the door to computer systems to learn from what humans do rather than just doing what we tell them to do. That we don't understand how to make computer minds that can do what humans do is such a big and contentious domain, that all that can really be said is let's see what happens.

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    Yeah. It's funny that a topic that could hardly be more central and topical to philosophy gets closed
    – Rushi
    Feb 10 at 11:42
  • We do not need the 100th question asking in the same, general way about intelligence.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Feb 12 at 7:43

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