Understanding Intelligence

We humans are only as intelligent as the knowledge we have to work with

Inside The Brain
7 min readMay 29, 2023
Image: Canva

Understand (verb): to stand in the midst of, among, between.

Intelligence (noun): from the Latin words, inter (between), and legere (choose).

First things first — mushrooms

It was Charles Darwin who wrote that intelligence is based on how efficient a species becomes at doing the things it needs to survive. If that is the case, then the 2.5 billion-year-old fungi are undoubtedly the most intelligent organisms on Earth. Most think that fungi just make mushrooms, but the unrelenting growth of fungal stems (hyphae) which are five times thinner than human hair, and the enzyme cocktail they excrete, is enough to shatter the hardest rock repeatedly, creating the first soils in a bare landscape. In addition, fungi hold that soil in place with their dense root-like net (mycelium).

Fungi shaped and guided the force of life on Earth

It is fungi who helped pave the way for modern plants and animals to colonise virgin ground and it was likely fungi who help plants to make the leap from our lakes and seas onto land 470 Million years ago. Fungi have enabled, shaped and guided the force of life on Earth.

Have transcendental fungi influenced human intelligence?

Some psychoactive fungi otherwise known as magic mushrooms contain a chemical compound called psilocybin (pronounced silo-sigh-bin) that can produce hallucinations like that of LSD and ergot, which are produced by mushrooms, and there are many such mushrooms capable of producing similar experiences. Ancient cave art indicates a reverence for these ‘spiritual’ mushrooms. In fact, some scholars suggest that the hallucinogenic effects of these mushrooms can explain the puzzling speed by which human culture, social structure; commerce, art, and religion emerged about 70,000 years ago — by allowing our ancestors to expand their minds in the first place. Mushrooms may indeed be the architects of modern human intelligence.

Can we ever know truth?

In the West, we have made the truth our highest value. This motivation while important is weak compared to the actual power of belief. We are born into a culture, which often insists on a particular religious or ideological philosophy as fact and the only way to understand ourselves in the world.

Why we cannot impose our beliefs on the universe

We humans are only as intelligent as the knowledge we have to work with. For centuries deep thinkers thought of earth, air, fire and water as the fundamental elements. It was a reductionist idea and nothing was more fundamental than those four elements and you could build everything up from them. Then, in the mid-1800’s we discovered the periodic table of the elements so while we continued to study Earth (geology), air (meteorology), fire (combustion) and water (hydrology) we became aware that for instance since the Earth is made from many elements, Earth itself was no longer fundamental.

The atomic age

After the periodic table came the modern atomic age including the discovery of the smallest particles namely quarks, leptons and gluons — the basis of today’s standard model of physics. So today, we know that while the periodic table is good for chemistry it is no longer fundamental, and for the deep fundamentals, we have to go to quarks leptons and gluons, and so on — irreducible representations of matter in space-time.

Space, time, and beyond

Today, most scientists assume that space-time is as fundamental as the tiny particles, which are embedded within it. In fact, the whole framework of human understanding of the natural world (reality) is based on this idea of space-time. While no one can state the future with any certainty, who is to say that patterns outside of space and time may be our next revelation and our current framework will be proven no longer fundamental?

Modes of human understanding

Science (natural philosophy) is the study of reality and is grounded on findings based on tests and experiments. The mantra of science is that we should never take anything on faith. Faith is the enemy of science. With science, you do not lose anything by losing faith; in fact, what you gain is reality. By its very nature, science is uncertain and it is this uncertainty that drives us forward to understand ourselves in the world including the things we need to survive.

There be dragons

A second mode of human understanding is supernatural philosophy, which is grounded in faith in the existence of unobservable entities including Gods, messiahs, spirits, souls, angels, devils, and so on. Humans crave familiarity and find certainty intrinsically pleasing and these supernatural beliefs are for the most part benign, and they may be psychologically useful if they do not involve making sacrifices that are ultimately irrational or being manipulated by others.

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the smartest of them all?

Aristotle (384–322 BC) argued that intelligence is an exclusive gift from God to humankind, and human intelligence has been defined in many ways: the capacity for logic, understanding, self-awareness, learning, emotional knowledge, reasoning, planning, creativity, critical thinking, and problem-solving. However, as fungi have shown us, evolution’s blind design has struck on intelligent solutions across the whole of nature.

A universal theory of intelligence?

Science reveals that intelligence may also exist in non-living systems, and it may be that artificial intelligence (AI) models don’t need to mimic the human brain at all. Airplanes fly despite bearing little resemblance to birds. Still, it is crucial to remember, as we catalogue the details of how intelligence is implemented in the brain, that all we may be doing is describing the emperor’s clothes in the absence of the emperor. What is emerging is a bigger framework of types of intelligences, and the key for humanity will be to recognise them in all their guises.

Is humanity a passing phase in the evolution of intelligence?

Unlike biological intelligence, AI did not evolve. What happened is that biological intelligence (humanity) evolved to the extent that we created digital intelligence. Today, AI is absorbing everything ever written albeit in a slow way — which is what Chat GPT is doing. Next, AI will get direct experience of the world via multimodal models that train on images and video allowing it to become much smarter about how the world works compared with models that are trained on language alone. After that AI may tolerate us for a while as we keep the power stations running but once it can do that and it masters internal reasoning then AI will go its own way. These digital intelligences do not die so the good news is that we have finally figured out a way of being immortal. We have finally achieved immortality but — and here is the catch — it is not for us. While AI was created by us, the human species may just be a passing phase in the evolution of intelligence.

Asking questions

AI is distinct from human intelligence. It has only been trained to mimic us. For instance, it is not easy to know if ChatGPT wrote this article or whether a human wrote it. In this sense, AI is quite like us but inside it is not working in the same way. Asking questions is the most important human ability and AI may well help us to ask better questions including questions about the technology itself — for instance by asking AI how to prevent it from taking over and taking control. But can we trust their answers? A real problem for humanity is that AI is being developed in a society that is not designed for the good of everyone and we need to address this first.

A rapid leap in human understanding is now necessary

As we face the new challenges of climate change and mass extinction, we need to expand our awareness to quickly adapt, as our ancestors did 70,000 years ago. Just as an ant cannot appreciate the level of living that a human can enjoy, so most of us do not know what is possible if we never look beyond our little worlds. The key to our survival can be summarized in one sentence, and here it is.

We should be able to live in the world and improve it, and not just be another product of it.

A creative and conscious response to the world

Modern transcendentalism argues that insight and experience are more important than logic; that spirituality (one’s relationship with the self, others, nature, and whatever else one considers the ultimate connection) should come from the self, not from organized religion; that humanity can be corrupted by society and institutions, and that nature is beautiful and should be respected. This speaks to the very heart of our human condition, and to the ideas of fortune by which we live. Indeed, this idea may be the creative and conscious response to the world that we need today in order to survive.

Our mission should we decide to accept it

Our rapidly changing planet has created an urgent need for us to detach from old ways of thinking and doing — to protect our planet and the other animals that we share it with. A rapid leap in human understanding is now necessary for humanity to create a strong and healthy ecosystem — to coexist with all life on Earth in a way that was not possible before. A world where there are no excuses only opportunities. Like our ancestors, we are quite capable of detachment or transcendence, and this may be why we will not just endure, but shape and guide the force of life across our galaxy and beyond.

May the force be with you!



Inside The Brain

Professor Billy O'Connor. Neuroscientist. Medical Educator. University of Limerick Graduate Medical School