Intelligent, but artist
He nailed it in his high-school tests, and nailed it again in his university entrance examination. Highest possible marks everywhere. But, according to headlines, “he wants to be a playwright, not a scientist.”
Oh, how meaningful a contraposition can be!
His was a wonderful achievement, but the bodies of the news stories were not dedicated to how he had been able to accomplish it, what his study techniques are or his motivations. No, they were primarily focused on what he wants and doesn’t want to be. Such a plot twist was the real news.
This is Spain, last June. His name: Carlos Rodríguez, that snotty swot in the picture below. Specifically, he wants to make musicals, he’s on it, and I’m glad he is. However, I don’t want to make do with the crude facts of this story. In fact, I don’t believe in crude facts. But the latter is another story and shall be told another time.
Let’s go straight to the point then. As you, wise dear reader, have already figured out, I’d like to spotlight the conditions that make it possible to understand the contraposition “playwright, not a scientist” as a plot twist, and the best way to do this is by extracting the message encrypted with fine subtlety in the quote. That’s how we will face without interference the storyline behind the reporting. Let me proceed to the reformulation: “This guy is intelligent BUT he wants to study art.”
Oh, how meaningful a BUT can be!
Two main (totally compatible) assumptions can be read in this “BUT.”
The first one has to do with the strong co-implication in our cultures between science and intelligence. We all agree that practicing science entails intelligence. And I guess that’s generally correct. BUT (Oh, how I like buts!) this implication is many times presented the other way round, with intelligence entailing (searching desperately, demanding) science as if they were other halves, which is a completely different idea.
Everyday comments and tacit agreements make plain that modern societies have established a ranking across which different disciplines are distributed according to the level of intelligence they are supposed to require, with medicine and sciences very relevantly occupied with calculus and the physical world (physics, computation, technology, engineering, mathematics) at the top, immediately followed by the economic branch of social sciences, the “social” categorisation of which locates it a step behind the medallists, but high anyway in the gradation (after all, money makes the world go ‘round). If we continue descending, we will next find allegedly “softer” natural and life sciences such as biology, geology (if anybody knows what it really is) and ecology. One less step to the fourth position and we will be surrounded by most of the remaining social sciences (sociology, anthropology, geography, communication) together with psychology (cause, you know, social and psychological processes are as easy to look through as cellophane). Then, if our pride and prejudice can’t prevent it, we can still descend one more level to find philology and history (classic humanities) together with education (even a fool could do that!). And, finally, in the lowest position, the arts will be waiting for us.
[Note: The ranking above isn’t intended to be exhaustive.]
Music, painting, sculpture, dance, narrative, poetry, acting, photography. In these cases you are generally allowed to be talented, and creative, but not intelligent (with the exceptions of award-winning novelists and, perhaps, opera composers of ages past). And your talent and creativity will not be presumed except for additional data on your achievements. You are also allowed to be a genius, but that is exceptional.
Nobody will immediately think you’re intelligent, nor of course a genius, when your mother explains you are an actress. If you work in robotics, however, the beat of intelligence will spontaneously sound in their heads. Being an actress will only inspire admiration if you are at least a rising star in TV or Hollywood (it goes without saying that theatre is discarded) and, even so, not due to an attribution of intelligence. Being a mathematician, on the other hand, will provide you with an awe-inspiring quasi-genius aura wherever you are and independently of your professional degree of excellence. And that’s the gospel truth.
Let’s do some mental experiments
Now, I understand the need of differentiating between scientific and artistic tasks. There certainly are very relevant differences between them, but the idea of intelligence belonging only to realm of the former and creativity to that of the latter is arguably wrong.
I particularly like the way arguably intelligent Artificial Intelligence specialists approach the definition of intelligence nowadays. It would be something like “the ability to collect information from the environment, to process the information and implement an appropriate response.” Usually, the kind of response that requires information processing is said to be “a complex goal,” so we could also use Max Tegmark’s short formulation: “the ability to accomplish complex goals.”
What do you think, dear reader? Does it feel intuitively appropriate or, on the contrary, seems too simple? If you pick the second option, that will probably have to do with the fact that there is no mention to memory and, most importantly, to consciousness or self-awareness.
Indeed, I think the definition is simple but, the way I see it, that’s where its attractiveness resides. Precisely because, among other things, it helps us distinguish intelligence from consciousness or self-awareness.
Indeed, intelligence and consciousness, even though they are connected wherever they coincide, are not the same thing. I will even take the risk of hypothesising that consciousness is a part, a tool possibly, of intelligence in conscious beings, but in no way the same thing.
Let’s imagine that I, while doing an intelligence test, recognise the logical pattern in the following list:
abc, ade, afg, ahi, ajk, alm,
If I do recognise it, I will know as a consequence how to continue the list:
Then, I will no doubt be aware that I have recognised the pattern, but will I be aware of how I’ve recognised it?
Sure (and yet not so sure), I will be able to explain what makes that pattern the pattern it is, but will the process of recognising the pattern as the pattern it is have happened in my consciousness? The answer is no. I have simply read the list, and then the pattern has been made present in my consciousness.
If you, dear reader, suddenly ran into someone you last saw twenty years ago and recognised her despite the changes of time, would you suppose that the very act of recognition is something you have done consciously? If the answer is affirmative, you are wrong. When you recognise someone, it is the result of the process of recognition what comes to your consciousness, not the process itself. The information processing, similarity seeking and pattern recognition are all computations that your brain has done by itself and without your awareness. Even if, in the beginning, the person would have looked familiar to you but didn’t know why, even if you had been looking at the person for a while in the search for a response to why she seemed familiar, the initial “looking familiar” would have been a spontaneous, not searched-for happening in your consciousness. The calculations would have been carried out by your brain without your consciousness to control them. And the act of staring at the person in search for the cause of the familiarity feeling would have been more like a petition by your consciousness, a question, than like a process of comparison of a very big number of data directed by your conscious dimension.
Again, once the process is finished, you will probably be able to explain the connections of the present image with that of the past (perhaps the form of her face or the colour of her eyes or the way she moves or all this together), but that will be possible only after the process has ended, once the information has been delivered into consciousness from beyond.
[Note: In daily life we do not think of the capacity of recognising people as a matter of intelligence despite the fact that this is an ability unequally distributed among humans. In the AI field, however, face recognition is considered a high achievement in intelligence development. Why this difference between one dimension of live and the other? Well, that’s precisely the main question in this article.]
In the last example (promised…), two students listen equally carefully to their teacher, but only one of them is able to understand the lesson. Let’s imagine that their degree of consciousness has been equal. None of them was half asleep, nor distracted, nor under the effect of drugs or any other impairment. Let’s also assume that their cultural level and the particular things they knew just before the class were exactly the same.
So, both students have been equally aware in their listening to their teacher’s explanations, but neither of them could tell you what exactly she has done right to understand in one case and wrong to not understand in other. In each one’s consciousness, understanding has just happened or not happened. What explanation would you suggest for this difference in results? Probably that the intelligence of the student who has understood the lesson is better suited to such lesson than that of the other student.
See? No reference to consciousness has been needed to diagnose a dissimilarity between intelligences.
What I have been trying to boringly show with these theoretical experiments is that the pattern recognition in the first two examples and the understanding in the third are computations carried out by each subject’s brain beyond her awareness and direction. In fact, if we were able to perceive and direct those processes, the creation of AI would be a piece of cake. We would just have to translate our own mental acts into instructions.
Inspiration and control
If I were you, I would also be asking myself why the foregoing distinction is relevant to the topic with which we stared. Here’s the answer. While scientific intelligence tends to be conceived as a process of discovery directed and controlled by the scientist, artistic creativity tends to be perceived as moments of creation dependent of that diffuse thing called inspiration. These associations, at the same time, imply an image of the scientist as active in their search, with the artist being presented as passive receptors. This opposition between intellectually active (responsible, controlling, rational, absolutely aware) scientists and intellectually passive (erratic, effortless, led by irrational impulses, subjected to randomness) artists lies behind the opposition intelligence / creativity presented at the beginning.
Well, I’m sorry, but most of the scientist’s information processing, including deduction, induction and formulation of hypothesis will happen out of their conscious direction. As a result, scientists are also subject to inspiration or, to call it differently, and making a direct allusion to an important figure, the “Eureka effect.” These moments of revelation can even happen when the scientist is not thinking about her work, when she is, just like the legend about Archimedes, taking a bath and relaxing. This is perhaps the clearest proof of the fact that information processing is hidden from our awareness and that what makes itself present in consciousness are the results of such processing, but what I want to stress now is the presence of inspiration in science. And I’m not leaving it here.
Karl Popper, someone very unlikely to understate the role of logical thinking in science, recognised that there is a mysterious aspect to the formulation of original complex hypotheses that falls outside the realm of logic. Not in vain, Einstein himself stated that “physical concepts are free creations of the human mind, and are not, however it may seem, uniquely determined by the external world.” He also asserted the need of “creative imagination” to “raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle” and bring “real advance in science.”
At the same time, and creating a revealing contrast, we can quote Picasso claiming that “inspiration exists, but it must find you working.” Usually, artists are immersed the process of searching “solutions to complex goals” just like scientists. Solutions that will come from outside consciousness. Some of them perhaps, but not all, as strokes of inspiration. But that should be no impediment to call them intelligent. In fact, it is not even so clear that the artist is creating as opposed to discovering. How about if we think of the artist as someone experimenting with the unrealised possibilities of her culture, as someone dedicated to discover those possibilities?
That’s a question we could explore, but it will have to wait. For now, we still have to address the second assumption behind our headline. And that will happen be next time. Now I have to leave or I’ll be late to see Les Miz for the fourth time in my life (Hamilton was sold out, but that last live “One day more” in One Day More is always priceless).