Is there any Intelligence in the Universe?

Jeff CarreiraPhilosophy

I have been reading more about Behaviorism, including the article that Carl sent us by Robert Epstein, so that we could get a little clearer here about exactly what we are looking into.  Maybe I will start with a few definitions of some of the basic learning mechanisms of Behaviorism.

Classical Conditioning – Pavlov’s dog:  A dog salivates when it sees food. You ring a bell every time you bring the food out and pretty soon the dog salivates when he hears the bell. You have created a conditioned response. In other words, the dog has been conditioned to salivate to the sound of a bell.

Extinction – when you stop bringing out food when you ring the bell, eventually the dog stops salivating when he hears the bell. (This is what allows us to lean what to ignore.)

Operant Conditioning – (the kind Skinner pioneered) You put a pigeon in a box that has a door operated by a lever. The pigeon flaps around until it accidently hits the lever. The bird is rewarded by having the door open. If you keep putting the bird in the box, eventually it starts hitting the lever faster and faster – i.e. it learns to hit the lever to get out of the box.

Shaping – is creating complex behaviors from simple ones. First you learn to pick one foot up, then you learn to put it down on the ground in front of you, then to shift your weight on it, then to do the same with the other foot and soon you have learned to walk.

Robert Epstein’s paper on Generativity explains how a combination of the simple learning mechanisms can become creative. Let’s say that a chimp has separately learned how to step up onto a box, how to climb a ladder, how to climb through a window and how to put objects on boxes. Then we lock the monkey in a room with an open window too high to reach with either the box or the ladder. Given enough time the monkey might try using the ladder, then try the box and eventually he might start putting the ladder on the box until he would be able to climb out the window.

If you think about this in terms of tremendously intricate skills combining over and over again that would give you an enormous amount of creative potential. Think about how many words you can make with the alphabet, and how many sentences you can make with those words and how many novels you can write with those sentences. Still I wonder, are there higher forms of novelty that are not accounted for in this? – I mean no matter how many novels you write, words alone will never build a house. I can see how behaviors can pile up infinitely, but in the end they will only be behaviors…and that I think gets me to my deeper question…

Summary: Classical conditioning showed us how automatic biological and psychological responses (i.e. salivating in the presence of food) could be transferred to new stimuli (i.e. ringing a bell). In this way animals can be conditioned to respond to an infinite number of stimuli. Operant conditioning showed how circumstance itself could act as the conditioning agent and how life is constantly conditioning all of us by the rewards and punishments that it affords in different situations. Generativity is exploring how the complexity of multiple layers of conditioning can produce novel behaviors that appear creative in nature. My question is, are they really creative? And to answer that I think we have to get clearer about what we mean by creative. And to get clearer about the nature of creativity we must examine the “metaphysics” upon which Behaviorism (which I see as representative of a “hard” deterministic view) is built upon. For the sake of clarity, I am sure that not all (and perhaps very few) behaviorists believe in hard determinism, but still the complaints against that school of thought are mainly against that potential implication.

The essence of the difference between a Behaviorists point of view and a more traditional Psychological point of view can be illustrated like this. In the example with the chimp above the Behaviorist would describe the monkey’s actions in terms such as: the behavior of trying to reach the window by using only the ladder was attempted and fell into extinction, the behavior of using the box also fell into extinction, the behavior of putting the ladder on the box was sufficiently shaped through reinforcement to lead the chimp eventually to place it upright and then the chimp climbed the ladder and left the room. In this picture there is no need for the chimp’s interior workings to be employed as part of the process. This is the sense in which I meant that Behaviorism denies interiority, not simply denying the existence of thoughts and ideas, but denying the “willful agency” of the thinker.) In this description there is no “intelligent being” included in the picture. In a more traditional psychological view you might say: The chimp thought to try standing on the ladder and realized that it wouldn’t work, then she tried the box and realized the same. Then it occurred to the monkey that there might be some way of using the ladder on top of the box and so she tried a few different placements until she found the right one. This description relies completely on there being someone to talk about. Someone with ideas and volitional power.

In the traditional psychological description there is an “actor” in this case a chimp with thoughts and motives and insights and ideas and experiments. In the Behaviorists model there is no need for the “actor” there are just behaviors and reinforcers that interact over time to create new behaviors. There doesn’t have to be “anyone” in there scene figuring anything out. Now if you are only working with non-human animals this doesn’t get you into too much trouble, but when Skinner started to generalize this to describe all human behavior he ran into a heap of resistance (some of which I have expressed.)

This is the question I want to get at. Is there a somebody or not? And I don’t mean do behaviorists think so or not, I mean is there one.  And I also don’t mean only the separate self. The question herinise is universal and it is the heart of the friction between behaviorism and other forms of psychology, and between science and religion, and strong Darwinists and Intelligent Design folks. It is the question of whether there is any intelligence behind this universe or not. Is the universe a deterministic unfolding of cause and effect – or is there some form of universal intelligence at work. Is that universal intelligence the same intelligence that we as human beings experience in ourselves?

About the Author

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira is a mystical philosopher and spiritual guide. He is the author of eleven books on meditation and philosophy. He teaches online programs and leads retreats throughout the world that teach people how to let go of their current perceptual habits so they are free to participate in the creation of a new paradigm. To put it simply, he supports people to live a spiritually inspired life, free from the constraints of fear, worry and self-doubt, and aligned with their own deepest sense of meaning and purpose.
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