Philosophical Wanking

Scott Adams asks, Is the Big Bang Intelligent? His argument is based on the idea that meta-authorship is the same as authorship. That is, since the Big Bang caused the existence Scott Adams and Scott Adams created Dilbert comics. the Big Bang must have created Dilbert comics. And since Dilbert comics are obviously the product of intelligence, the Big Bang must therefore be intelligent.

The next day, he listed the major objections and his responses to them. The ones that I immediately pounced on were:

Objection 2: The Big Bang had no intentions. Intelligence requires intention.

To which he responded:

You can't have intentions without free will. And free will is an illusion, according to plenty of prominent scientists and big thinkers. At best, free will has never been defined in any way that would not apply equally to a human or a coin sorting machine.


Objection 3: According to evolution, unintelligent processes can cause emergent phenomena, such as intelligence. The Big Bang was an unintelligent process, and the intelligence emerged later.

To which he responded:

By this reasoning, people are not intelligent either. People are a collection of dumb molecules. The intelligence we exhibit is an emergent property of people, not a quality of the people themselves. No molecule in a human body is itself smart.

(I've trimmed this for brevity, although I think I've caught the gist of the argument. Go read it for yourself if you don't believe me.)

The problem is that his responses to these objections hinge on the vagueness of the definition of the word intelligence and they only work because he's weaseled it in ways that invalidate certain objections.

Wordnet defines intelligence as:

The ability to comprehend; to understand and profit from experience

Now, this may not be the precise, correct definition of intelligence, but I'll assert that things which do not meet the criteria of the above definition are not intelligent. That's pretty clear from the way people use the term.

Adams' response to objection #3 says:

  1. Intelligence is an emergent phenomenon of the various (unintelligent) components of a human being.
  2. Humans are an emergent phenomenon of the Big Bang.
  3. Therefore, the Big Bang is intelligent.

This is sort of like saying,

  1. I spray-painted my computer red.
  2. Therefore, I am red.
  3. And so is the Big Bang.

That is, he's gone and redefined intelligence as being a phenomenon that emerges from something, then backtracked to the Big Bang as the thing that everything emerged from.

But that's a crock. Intelligence is a property that some things have and others do not. People have it, because they have the ability to comprehend; to understand and profit from experience. The Big Bang does not.

His response to objection #2 is a similar shell game, only with the meaning of intent. Wordnet defines intent as:

Purpose: an anticipated outcome that is intended or that guides your planned actions.

Even if he's right and free will is an illusion, that doesn't remove intent. I intend to go get a low-fat yogurt from the fridge. Whether I do that because of a long chain of cause and effect or as a result of the promptings of my immortal soul is irrelevent. I intend, as defined above. The Big Bang did not.


The real problem with this debate is that it's using made up words with the same spellings as well-known words and the made-up words mean something almost the same.

Aside #1: Adams' argument against free will is completely bogus. It's the classic appeal to authority fallacy. That is, the fact that a bunch of smart people believe something does not in any way support the truth of falseness of the claim. There could be any number of reasons for that, including batshit-insanity. The only thing that matters are the actual arguments said people have to support your point.

Aside #2: This post started out as a comment to the linked article and got posted there in an earlier form. I decided to blog it as well because it was a pretty long piece of writing and I wanted to hold on to it.

The reason it got long was because these sorts of arguments--where someone has gone and redefined certain words--are incredibly frustrating and I got an enormous amount of satisfaction calling bullshit on Adams' arguments. I will now spend the rest of the day in peace, having temporarily quieted the terrible rages that I keep bottled up within me.

#   Posted 2007-02-02 16:47:00 UTC; last changed 2014-05-03 22:53:53 UTC