Tuesday, June 26, 2012


The success of artificial intelligence, though limited, suggests that intelligence is a rather mechanical operation.  To the extent that we humans have prided ourselves, or felt ourselves set apart by our intelligence, this should be a bit of a blow. 

It is apparent, however, that the goal of making machines intelligent -- e.g. developing computer programs that can beat us at chess or Jeopardy -- is a distinctively human one.  Computers have yet to set their own goals.  So while we now share the domain of abstract intelligence with computers, the domain of intending remains unique to us. 

To intend is to reflect upon a range of possible ends, select one based on some criteria or standard, and develop strategies to achieve that end.  Machines certainly don’t do this (though undoubtedly, based on some human’s intention, a program that simulates intentional behavior will be developed).  Some animals may have a vestigial kind of intentionality, but if so, the emphasis would be on vestigial.

As it is, we human uniquely have the opportunity to ask the question “to what should I aspire?”  We have the opportunity to think through the various possible ends available to us, to reflect on our life in relation to these possibilities, to make a choice, and to work toward the realization of that choice.  We also have the ability to change our mind with the passage of time, and to re-envision our ultimate aspirations.

Intentionality itself can be either externally or internally directed.  Wisdom can be worldly or spiritual.  We can aspire to such things as power, possessions, prestige; or we can aspire to such as truth, beauty or goodness. 

People may say “you ought to aspire” to this or that.  But that “ought” will never carry the force of logic.  An ought only has logical force within the context of a goal.  Thus, if your goal is X, and it is necessary to do Y to achieve X, it logically follows that you ought to do Y.  But in seeking an ultimate goal, we are outside of the context of an ought.  We certainly can and should be open to the testimony of others, but there is no ultimate logic to dictate our choice.  In making that choice, our feelings, our imagination, our intuition, and our intelligence each has something to contribute.  Consciously choosing one’s ultimate goals is a decidedly holistic affair.

To be able to make such a choice is a wonderful freedom, but it can also be rather hard and even frightening.  It is not surprising, perhaps, that many people forsake that freedom and simply follow the herd.

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