Socrates said that the life that is unexamined is not worth living. (Plato, 1986) Since humans are endowed with the ability to reason, it is only natural that we ask questions of our own intelligence. How do we know what we know, and what constitutes knowing? What distinguishes human intelligence from that of the lizards, or antelopes? By knowing the self, will it lead us to a better understanding of our reality? Will knowing the extent and limitations of our own intelligence lead us to a more meaningful life? Seemingly, while exploring the depths of human intelligence, there are more questions than answers. When considering human intelligence, one must keep in mind the nature of the study of knowledge, neuropsychology and introspection, while trying to distinguish between human and animal intelligences. While doing so; science, psychology and philosophy merge, and the clear lines that normally divide the disciplines will blur.
Firstly, it is important to consider the acquisition of knowledge and how it can be validated. Rene Descartes said in his first Meditation: “Whatever I have up till now accepted as most true I have acquired either from the senses or through the senses” (7:18). Descartes first thought that knowledge had to come through the senses. However, as we know today through scientific study, that the senses can be flawed and what we think is true might not be so. So the question then becomes; how can we know truth from knowledge, or is knowledge a prerequisite of truth? If we are taught from a young age that clouds are yellow, and honeybees are purple; does this detract from the truth of the clouds or the bees? Whether or not they are yellow or purple does not take away from its purpose in the natural world. A bird does not need to label the tree as such in order to make its nest there. Overall, the human gift of “reason” does not add or detract from the ability to function in the physical world. All distinctions or discrepancies we encounter are strictly by- products of our thought processes and not a natural law.
Human intelligence differs from other animals in that we have an independent consciousness, which seemingly guides us in our day to day activities. With human consciousness comes the notion of free will, which is a heavily debated topic within intellectual and philosophical circles. The theory of free will suggests that human beings have an advantage over other animals on the planet, being that consciousness allows us to freely choose a course of action. While other animal’s just react instinctively and without the freedom to choose a course of action. Research has proven that the human brain absorbs and records all sensory information about our environment at all times.The brain decides, without our knowledge, what to relay to the conscious aspects (Eagleman, 2011). In essence, we are at the mercy of our brain and what it decides is important enough to bring up for conscious consideration. That being said, there is little room for free will. The most notable difference would be the fact that humans feel they have control over their emotions and lives, whereas animals do not have the capability to do so.
Another school of thought, states that the only aspect of intelligence that can be validated and accepted without debate; is that only the self exists, and by turning out attention inward can we discover true intelligence. In other words, we can only know whatever we think, see or experience for ourselves as true. Philosopher John Searle states, “How can conscious experiences like your pain exist in a world that is entirely composed of physical particles and how can some physical particles, presumably in your brain cause the mental experiences?”(Searle, J 2004) The physical laws of science apply to all matter, of which the brain is made up of. If we take this theory and apply it to the other members of the animal kingdom, we will find that humans are exclusive again in the area of meta-cognition. The horse does not consider its own existence or question its reality. The horse accepts the reality it has been presented with, and the only critical thinking that it exhibits is for survival, which can be attributed to evolution.
Lastly, by studying the nature and limitations of human intelligence we can improve our lives and add more meaning to it. If all of our brain processes are hardwired to react in certain ways to specific situations; it will be easier for us to forgive one another and live together in relative harmony. As in the case of mental illness, the patient did not intend to lose touch with reality; it just happened. The same goes in our day to day lives with our interactions with others. Conflict begins with a view that we are separate from one another, the animals and the planet. When we look at the animal kingdom we can observe that birds flock together, schools of fish swim together and a pride of lion’s hunts and lives together with the collective goal of self-preservation. What they have is an innate intelligence that was born with them, and not conscious decisions. Unlike the other animals we share the planet with, humans have the power to calm and tame the mind from its relentless need for entertainment and mental chatter. Once we quiet the mind, we tame the ego and all appears calm and transitory in nature. The fact that we can think in this way, and have the ability to train the mind, sets us apart from our animal neighbors. By learning about the mind and how it works, the information has the potential to enrich our lives, by giving us purpose.