What we do
open positionsblog

Unsolicited personal reflections on the concept of intelligence

We are what we think and we think through what we are. (V.G.)

What does it truly mean to be intelligent? It's a question that has puzzled philosophers, scientists, and everyday individuals alike for centuries. Despite our efforts to define intelligence, it remains an enigmatic concept, veiled in ambiguity and subjectivity.

Consider this simple experiment: ask the person next to you what they believe intelligence entails. Their response is likely to vary significantly from your own interpretation. This mundane exercise highlights the vast array of perspectives surrounding intelligence and underscores the challenge of establishing a definitive definition.

In this article, I embark on a quest to unravel the mysterious essence of intelligence. My goal is not to offer a novel definition—such an endeavor eludes even the most discerning minds—but rather to explore the diverse conceptualizations of intelligence. I seek to deepen our comprehension of this intricate phenomenon and foster receptivity to alternative viewpoints that may enrich our societal and professional landscapes.

Intelligence, at its core, defies facile classification. It encompasses a spectrum of cognitive faculties, ranging from problem-solving and critical thinking to creativity and emotional intelligence. Yet, attempts to encapsulate its essence often falter, constrained by the constraints of language and the biases inherent in human perception.

Moreover, intelligence is not a static attribute but a dynamic and multifaceted phenomenon that evolves over time and manifests diversely across individuals and cultures. What may constitute intelligent behavior in one context may be deemed irrelevant or foolish in another.

As I navigate the labyrinthine terrain of intelligence, I am reminded of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein's assertion: "The limits of my language mean the limits of my world." Indeed, our comprehension of intelligence is intricately linked to the language we employ to elucidate it, yet language alone cannot fully capture its complexity.

In our quest to comprehend intelligence, we must embrace ambiguity and uncertainty, acknowledging that our pursuit of knowledge entails posing insightful questions as much as discovering definitive answers. By embracing diverse perspectives and engaging in meaningful discourse, we can begin to glimpse the rich tapestry of human intelligence and its profound ramifications for our lives and society at large.

Let us embark on this voyage together, not in search of a singular truth, but in celebration of the boundless diversity and intricacy of the human mind. For it is through our collective exploration of intelligence that we may uncover new realms of thought and potential, enriching our understanding of ourselves and the world we inhabit.

PART 1: a concept that we all use and no one knows how to define

Defining intelligence is akin to navigating through a labyrinth of perspectives, each offering a glimpse into the multifaceted nature of this elusive concept. Yet, amidst the plethora of definitions that abound, we find ourselves grappling with the fundamental question: What does it truly mean to be intelligent?

One commonly cited definition posits that intelligence is the ability to solve problems. While this characterization captures one facet of intelligence—problem-solving—it fails to encompass the full spectrum of intelligent behaviors that humans and other beings exhibit. Indeed, intelligence extends beyond mere problem-solving to encompass a broader capacity: the ability to behave effectively in new and unfamiliar situations.

But is intelligence merely an academic pursuit, relegated to the realm of abstract theorizing? Far from it. Understanding the nature of intelligence is paramount, for it allows us to recognize and appreciate the diverse forms of intelligence that exist within and beyond our own species. By acknowledging the intelligence inherent in other beings, we open ourselves to the possibility of harnessing and enhancing the resources that they offer.

Yet, current definitions of intelligence often fall short, constrained by anthropocentric biases that tether our understanding to human-centric perspectives. We equate intelligence with traits and capabilities that are uniquely human, such as language proficiency, tool usage, and artistic expression. However, upon closer examination, we discover that many non-human beings exhibit similar behaviors, challenging the notion of human exceptionalism.

Moreover, our tendency to measure intelligence based on the complexity of behaviors overlooks the intrinsic value of all forms of intelligence, regardless of their manifestation. Intelligence is not a relative concept contingent upon the ability to perform certain tasks; rather, it is an absolute quality that transcends species boundaries.

The anthropocentrism inherent in our definitions of intelligence blinds us to the rich tapestry of intelligences that permeate the natural world. It leads us to overlook the remarkable cognitive abilities of non-human beings and to impose our own cognitive framework upon the universe at large.

In essence, the quest to define intelligence is not merely an intellectual exercise but a profound journey of self-discovery. It challenges us to confront our preconceptions and biases, inviting us to embrace a more inclusive and expansive understanding of intelligence—one that celebrates the diversity and complexity of life itself.

We are the measure of what exists and the dimension in which we decline things.

PART 2: Limits of the anthropocentric nature of the definition of intelligence

The anecdote of Nello Cristianini's cat and Carl Sagan's message to potential extraterrestrial beings serves as a poignant illustration of the limitations imposed by our anthropocentric perspectives. Despite our assumption that any intelligent being, whether terrestrial or extraterrestrial, should be able to comprehend the message, the cat's indifferent response underscores the fallacy of our human-centric expectations.

In crafting the message aboard the Pioneer probes, Sagan and his team operated under the assumption that any intelligent entity capable of intercepting the probe would possess a level of cognitive sophistication comparable to our own. However, the cat's lack of interest in—or perhaps comprehension of—the message calls this assumption into question.

The cat's indifference highlights the inherent biases embedded within our definitions of intelligence. We tend to equate intelligence with human-like cognitive abilities, such as language comprehension and abstract reasoning, thereby overlooking the diverse forms of intelligence that exist across the spectrum of life. Just as the cat's cognitive processes differ from our own, so too may the cognitive processes of extraterrestrial beings diverge from our expectations.

Moreover, the cat's behavior underscores the importance of humility in our quest to understand intelligence. Rather than imposing our own cognitive framework onto other beings, we must approach the study of intelligence with an open mind, acknowledging that intelligence may manifest in myriad ways that defy our conventional understanding.

Ultimately, the tale of Nello Cristianini's cat prompts us to reconsider our assumptions about intelligence and to embrace a more inclusive and nuanced perspective—one that recognizes the inherent value of all forms of intelligence, whether human, feline, or extraterrestrial. In doing so, we may come to appreciate the richness and diversity of intelligence in the universe, transcending the confines of our anthropocentric worldview.

Carl Sagan holding the Pioneer plate. Credit: NASA

The "Cristianini's cat test" offers a thought-provoking perspective on the nature of intelligence and challenges our assumptions about it. By demonstrating that even a creature evolved on Earth may not comprehend human-designed messages, it prompts us to reconsider our anthropocentric view of intelligence and recognize the diversity of cognitive processes in the natural world.

The concept of "alien intelligences" extends beyond extraterrestrial beings to encompass the varied cognitive capacities found on our planet. From the complex communication systems of social insects to the problem-solving abilities of cephalopods, non-human intelligences abound in nature. Embracing these diverse forms of intelligence requires us to confront our biases about human superiority and adopt a more inclusive understanding of intelligence.

Sagan's message, though intended for potential extraterrestrial recipients, also reflects our human-centric worldview. By crafting a message based on our own cognitive framework, we inadvertently project our biases onto hypothetical alien intelligences. However, the existence of non-human intelligences challenges this anthropocentrism and urges us to reconsider our place in the universe.

The notion of "universal intelligence" seeks to impose human-like cognitive abilities on all forms of intelligence, terrestrial or extraterrestrial. Yet, this overlooks the unique cognitive adaptations of different species and fails to appreciate the richness of intelligence in all its forms. Instead of imposing a singular definition of intelligence, we should celebrate the diversity of cognitive processes found in nature.

Our understanding of intelligence is limited by our cognitive constraints and linguistic biases. The hierarchical structures prevalent in human society reflect our anthropocentric view of intelligence, yet they fail to capture the decentralized and collective intelligence observed in many non-human species. Recognizing and respecting the diversity of intelligence in the natural world is essential for fostering a more inclusive and holistic understanding of cognition.

PART 3: alien intelligences

The assumption that aliens possess inherently superior intelligence due to their technological prowess or fictional portrayals stems more from anthropocentric bias and speculative fiction than from empirical evidence. This notion overlooks the vast diversity of cognitive capacities that may exist across different species and environmental contexts.

Intelligence is not solely defined by problem-solving abilities or technological achievements. It encompasses a broad spectrum of cognitive processes, adaptive behaviors, and interactions with the environment. While humans may excel in certain domains like language and tool use, other species demonstrate remarkable intelligence in areas such as social cooperation, navigation, and sensory perception.

Comparing intelligence across species proves challenging due to variations in sensory modalities, ecological niches, and evolutionary trajectories. Each organism has evolved unique cognitive adaptations suited to its specific environment and survival requirements. Therefore, assessing non-human intelligence through human-centric criteria disregards the diverse ways in which intelligence manifests in nature.

Acknowledging the presence of intelligence among various species does not necessitate ranking them on a hierarchical scale with human intelligence at the summit. Instead, it involves appreciating the complexity and diversity of cognitive processes observed across different life forms. Embracing a more inclusive understanding of intelligence allows us to better comprehend the richness of the natural world and our interconnectedness within it.

PART 4: The multidimensionality of intelligence

Teleological intelligences - Teleological intelligences refer to the concept that intelligence is inherently goal-oriented, always serving the purpose of achieving objectives within a dynamic environment. This perspective broadens the scope of intelligence beyond problem-solving to include reflexes, planning, reasoning, and learning as the means through which agents adapt to their surroundings and ensure the survival of their species.

The hypercube of intelligence - Imagine intelligence as a sphere suspended in an empty room, its position defined by coordinates on three spatial dimensions (x, y, z). Each dimension represents a facet of intelligence, with various cognitive processes occupying different points within this conceptual space. For instance, a squid's intelligence may occupy a distinct region inaccessible to human intelligence due to differences in communication modalities, such as the absence of color-based communication in human language. No single dimension holds precedence over others; rather, each dimension contributes to the overall complexity of intelligence, much like different aspects of an athlete's preparation contribute to their performance.

Idiot intelligences do not exist - The notion of "idiot intelligences" is a misnomer that undermines the inherent value and diversity of cognitive abilities across species. Human intelligence cannot be deemed superior to other forms of intelligence, as each serves a unique and indispensable role in its respective ecological niche. Comparing intelligences across species is akin to comparing dissimilar entities like pears and apples in an intelligence test. The prevalence of so-called "idiotic intelligence," such as that exhibited by plants, challenges our anthropocentric biases and underscores the effectiveness of diverse adaptive strategies in ensuring survival and proliferation.

Aliens have always been here - Furthermore, the search for extraterrestrial intelligences need not extend beyond our own planet, as Earth is teeming with examples of diverse cognitive capacities. Stefano Mancuso's research on plant intelligence illustrates the complexity inherent in different forms of intelligence, expanding our understanding beyond conventional human-centric perspectives. By acknowledging the intelligence present in non-human species, we gain insight into the multifaceted nature of intelligence and its diverse manifestations across the natural world.

PART 5: Emergent properties and collective genius

The importance of understanding what we are talking about - Understanding the parameters of the intelligent universe enables us to identify its inhabitants and comprehend the diverse ways in which intelligence is expressed through emergent behaviors and properties. This understanding is crucial for developing interaction models that foster what Linda Hill, Greg Brandeau, Emily Truelove, and Kent Lineback refer to as "Collective Genius."

Emergent properties and collective genius - Collective genius is a captivating concept that arises when a group of individuals collaborates to produce outcomes surpassing the capabilities of any individual member, thereby manifesting emergent properties. Emergent properties are phenomena that emerge unexpectedly within complex systems and cannot be explained solely by aggregating the abilities of individual members. In essence, the whole transcends the sum of its parts, showcasing the power of collective collaboration.

Factors That Contribute to Collective Genius - Several factors contribute to the emergence of collective genius, as highlighted by the research of Hill, Brandeau, Truelove, and Lineback. These factors include the diversity of skills and knowledge within the group, effective communication among members, and a collaborative environment that fosters mutual learning. The diversity of skills and knowledge fuels creativity and innovation within the group, while effective communication ensures that all ideas are shared and valued without bias. Moreover, a collaborative environment encourages mutual learning, enabling members to build upon each other's contributions and insights.


It seems that our fixation on our own intelligence has blinded us to the existence and potential of other intelligences in the world. Despite our efforts to create artificial intelligences, we remain narrowly focused on human-like traits and behaviors. However, all living beings exhibit teleological and autonomous behaviors driven by innate goals and sensory information.

Alien intelligences, while different from our own, possess the capacity to thrive in dynamic environments through decision-making, strategic planning, reasoning, and learning—capabilities akin to our own. Therefore, it is essential to acknowledge that these alternative intelligences can offer valuable insights and inspiration for generating new ideas and forms of social organization. By expanding our perspective to embrace the diversity of intelligences in the world, we open ourselves to a wealth of innovative possibilities and enrich our understanding of intelligence as a whole.

Article source: Linkedin Article by Vincenzo Gioia

Get in touch with us
Vincenzo Gioia
Similar posts
The mechanic's hammer and generative artificial intelligence Artificial "Intelligences" (AIs) have always attracted me for the fascination with which they […]
Read more
Introduction OpenAI continues to innovate in the field of artificial intelligence, and the ChatGPT-4o version represents a significant step forward […]
Read more
Introduction Artificial intelligence (AI) has profoundly transformed the way we interact with technology. Two of the most advanced and well-known […]
Read more
1 2 3 31
Subscribe to the newsletter
Iscriviti alla newsletter
Privacy policy
Copyright 2024 Frontiere
Headquarters in Via Oslavia, 6 - 00195 Rome, RM | C.F. and VAT 17464921000
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram