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Deconstructing intelligence through science

January 24, 2010

The deconstructivist’s view of intelligence gets scientific data added to its repertoire!

An oil drop – an inanimate material – exhibits “intelligence”.

DYED pink and doped with acid, the small, inanimate drop of oil is deposited at the entrance to the maze – and immediately sets off towards the exit. A few minutes later, it emerges at the other end. No one would equate this apparently astonishing problem-solving with intelligence. But new theories on human intelligence and the brain suggest the simple molecular processes governing the oil droplet’s apparently smart behavior may be fundamentally similar to those that govern how we act.

A decade ago Toshiyuki Nakagaki, now at Hokkaido University in Sapporo, Japan, reported that the slime mould Physarum polycephalumNature: “this implies that cellular materials can show a primitive intelligence”. could negotiate a maze to reach food at the exit. Boldly, his team wrote in

Bartosz Grzybowski, a chemist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, has shown that a simple oil droplet floating on top of an aqueous solution can also navigate a complex maze – in this case to reach an acid-soaked lump of gel at the exit (see ‘Intelligent’ oil droplet navigates chemical mazeMovie Camera).The droplet moves because the gel sets up a pH gradient within the maze. The acid changes the surface tension of the oil droplet, but because of the pH gradient, it affects opposite sides of the droplet unequally. The surface tension is different at the slightly more acidic “front” of the droplet than at the back. This difference is what is ultimately responsible for moving the droplet towards the maze’s exit (Journal of the American Chemical Society, DOI: 10.1021/ja9076793).

Nakagaki is unwilling to extend the notion of intelligence to the oil droplet. “It is nonsense for me to consider intelligence in non-living systems,” he says. But Andy Clark, a philosopher at the University of Edinburgh, UK, suggests that this does not do Grzybowski’s set-up justice. Much of biology boils down to chemistry, Clark points out. “The mere fact that it’s just physical stuff doing what it does can’t be a strike against the droplets,” he says. “Whatever intelligence is, it can’t be intelligent all the way down. It’s just dumb stuff at the bottom.”

Everyone “knows” that we’re made of inanimate material at the chemical level. Yet man’s egotism continues to bar it from making the connection between itself and “material” – living and non-living are psychological constructs, with the only empirical difference being the ability to procreate… which is still only inanimate material exhibiting chemically induced interaction… and so it can be said we’re only more complex materials than the materials we identify as inanimate. All other differences that separate our selves from the “external” world are delusions of our psyche… and the purpose of these delusions? To aid in how we interact with the “external” world so that we may procreate efficiently.

But why procreation? I suppose it may be as fundamental a fact of nature as gravity or inertia. So we don’t really know why… we do know how. In fact to ask beyond “how” is insanity or in other words, answering the why is an impossibility because we have shown no evidence of the kind of ability needed to truly satisfy a “why” question – all pretending answers are blatant fantasies such as religion… or in the case of a measured, calculated, empirical and testable response, is a “how” answer! 😛

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