INTELLIGENCE – Artificial vs Natural

The dictionary defines intelligence as "the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills." I have also heard it defined, in an even more stripped-down version, as "the ability to learn." Without going into the overwhelming research on the subject, or its controversial political sideshow—resistance to dumbing us down to the level of our primate cousins—let us consider what the role of intelligence might mean, in Zen. We learn, from Master Dogen, that insight in Zen has little or nothing to do with conventional intelligence; but that "human faculties may be sharp or dull," from the Harmony of Difference and Equality (J. Sandokai).

If we take the latter, simpler definition, we can expand the meaning of intelligence to include so-called "lower" animals, obviously. But with a little more liberal attitude, may even countenance the behavior of a tree, as exhibiting the ability to learn. That is, a root grows through the soil, and encounters a blockage, such as a stone, or another root. The tree does not keep pushing against the stone, like a human being, beating her or his head against the wall. Instead, it follows the route of least resistance, by going around the impediment. You might argue that there is no recognition, by the tree, of what is occurring, that indeed, it does continue pushing, but that it is the yielding of the relatively softer soil, that enables its change of direction. And, of course, you would be correct, insofar as that analysis goes. We do not attribute intent to a tree, after all, let alone the stone.

But intelligence does not exist in a vacuum, any more than does any other attribute of existence. If there is such a thing as intelligence, it interdependently co-arises, as Buddhism argues, which is the nature of any trait of being. So we would say that the tree and the soil, the stone, the sun, the rain, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, are all interacting together. Intelligently.

The person who suggested this essay (she knows who she is) had an experience that put her in mind of AI—or perhaps virtual reality—when she misremembered an incident, one that took place while visiting ASZC. She "remembered" seeing two miniature statues of monks, sweeping the floor in the zendo; and thought they represented Kanzan and Jittoku, the famous dancing monks, or sennin; which latter term means an "immortal one," often referring to hermits, in China and Japan. In fact, there is only one actual miniature monk. I know, because I put him there, as a reminder that we are always sweeping—always polishing the mirror—whether we know it or not. But how did she remember two—when there was only one? She was a bit concerned, as we all are, in Zen, about the reliability of our own perception as to reality. As she put it, "the idea that 'reality' could be created; that you would imagine the experience, and think it was real; but really, it was created by AI (artificial intelligence); and the experience was just in your 'mind.' This is so like me thinking I had seen the Dance of the Sennin characters at ASZC, but really didn't."

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is a compelling concept, perhaps even more so than natural intelligence. We approach it, alternately, with a childlike delight—as exemplified by R2-D2; or with dread, and fear and loathing—as the looming Singularity. Per a contemporary form of AI (i.e. groupthink), the online sangha of Wikipedia:
The technological singularity is a hypothetical event in which artificial general intelligence (constituting, for example, intelligent computers, computer networks, or robots) would be capable of recursive self-improvement (progressively redesigning itself), or of autonomously building ever smarter and more powerful ...

... and end up taking over, and putting us retards in our place, or eliminating us altogether. WE'RE ALL GONNA DIE! But seriously...

There is a theory of memory getting a lot of press lately, used to rationalize such bizarre anomalies as Ronald Reagan remembering that he was actually in combat, in the wars he starred in, in movies; or Hillary Clinton's remembering being under fire, while jetting around the world as Secretary of State. These are not considered examples of early onset dementia, necessarily; nor simply selective memory, on steroids. The new theory proposes that memory is more plastic than we have thought; and can be erased, or even partially written over. We actually "remember" things that never happened. It represents a kind of creativity, actually.

If we were to apply this idea to the Zen model of consciousness, we would have to bring it down to the present moment. And that would suggest, that what we remember of the immediate past—e.g. when I began writing this dissertation; and/or when you began reading it, which is even more immediate—we do not remember accurately, in all probability. In fact, if we consider that, in both instances, we were both preoccupied with this commentary; and what it may mean; it is clear that we were, honestly, unaware of most of what else was going on at the time. And therefore, cannot really remember it. But there is another, more compelling example, of how we are, or are not, aware of what-all is going on in our awareness at any given moment, that I have experienced, while writing the same thing over and over and over again.

In writing—and rewriting, and re-rewriting—the manuscript that I just finished (thank Buddha); a consistent, and repeat, phenomenon occurred. I would be rereading (and rereading, etc.) when it would occur to me, that it would be really appropriate to add a comment here—at just this part of the text. Nine times out of ten—as we like to say, but no one really counts—if I did so, I would find, in the next paragraph or two down the text, that there would be the very comment! that just came to mind. So I would have to go back, and delete the duplicate comment. Except that it would rarely be an exact duplicate; so I would have to decide the best combination of the two versions; and further, whether it really fit better in one location, or the other.

This whole process, as you may imagine, was slowing me down quite a bit; and I was growing more frustrated by the day, that the hopefully final revision was taking so long. So I began to pay close attention, each time an additional comment would pop into my head. Instead of just doggedly plugging it into the text, I would scroll down a bit, and sure enough, there it was. Or a version that was slightly different, from the one present in my recollection. This also applied to quotes from the Zen literature, maybe more so. This threatens terminal redundancy.

But the relevance here, I think, is that one of two things was happening, neither of which I was fully aware. And so, for one thing, I am not sure which was actually the reality. Either I was subliminally remembering the comment, from having already written it, during one of the last drafts of the text, but not remembering that I had written it; or, I was reading ahead on the unconscious level, but not recognizing that I was doing so at the moment; and so imagining that I was initiating the comment in real time.

I tend to favor the latter, because it is more flattering to my intelligence, rather than the former, which only indicates that I have a poor memory; and, worse yet, as regards my own prior thinking, on a subject. Which threatens terminal dementia. And so is the more likely of the two to be true. But my preference for the former, that my mind is taking in far more information at any one time, than I am aware of, has some basis in science, and is supported by some research that I learned of early in my career in consumer research for new product development, one of my many professional apprenticeships.

In speed reading, as I learned from a company in Chicago that both my first wife, as well as my older brother's first wife, worked for. It was called the Reading and Speech Clinic, which my ex would sometimes call the "Speeding and Reach Clinic," when answering the phone. Where, among other luminaries, it turned out, the future Mayor Daley—son of the contemporaneous Mayor Daley—came to improve his reading and speech. As an aside, and probably not connected to either Mayor Daley, one of the partners later tried to commit suicide, shooting himself in the head with a handgun. However, the cartridge was faulty, and lodged in his temple, only knocking him unconscious. I have often wondered what it must have been like, to wake up in a hospital the next morning, with the worst headache you had ever experienced, and realize that you are the ultimate failure. You can't even get suicide right.

But the point of this for this essay, is that speed reading trains the mind to not get stuck on a given word, or phrase, at a time, laboriously pronouncing it on a subliminal level, and then on to the next, stringing together a bunch of disconnected ideas into a coherent whole. Instead, we learn to scan the text, at first one line at a time, from left to right (in Western languages, anyway); and then zigzagging faster and faster (sliding a blank paper down the page is recommended for training the eye and brain to speed up); until finally we begin to scan down the page instead, the eye centered on the vertical axis. The theory is that the brain subliminally registers the left and right sections of the sentence, filling them in, analogous to the way if fills in the "blind spot" in each retina, like a built-in Photoshop. Try it sometime.

So I like to think that my mind was actually seeing, and unconsciously registering, the comment coming up in the text, before I became conscious of it. I suspect that a little of both processes were in effect, as in some cases, the text was not yet showing on the screen, as I scrolled down. But in other cases, it definitely was. In either case, I could not pay sufficient attention to know for sure, as I was distracted by the text in front of my eyes. Which is the point for us here, in considering our restricted attention span and space, in Zen.

Fortunately, with the miracle of "command-find," today, we are able to quickly scan the entire document, finding all the repeats; and make our choices as to where we want them, and where we do not. This is an example of how the mind works, as well as how a word-processor works. Clearly, the latter has an advantage over the former, thanks to the prescient programming of the geeks. So, this is also an example of the wonderful utility of "machine intelligence"; as a complement to the human using the machine. As well as of the humbling experience, of confronting our relative inability to organize our process, as well as the machine, or app, can do it.

The "memory" of the digital monster also comes in handy, in enhancing our productivity—in such tasks as the writing of this very Dharma Byte. I can, and will, use the ability to "cut and paste," quoting from my own manuscript—having quickly found all of the sections wherein I said (wrote) something, hopefully intelligent, about intelligence.

A few have relevance, in my opinion, to the topic of this paper. And so I will freely quote from myself, without the bother of attribution, or footnotes. This ability, to simply republish what I have already written, in another context; not only allows me to insert a plug for the book, but saves a lot of time and effort. For example, the following, where I wax sanguine on "going beyond," a phrase of high praise, from one of my design teachers, and lead up to a comment on intelligence, with salient points on learning:
In Zen, going beyond redefines what is typically meant by how something works. We go beyond in our Zen practice, when we give up preconceptions about how Zen works.By now, it should be clear that approaching Zen in the same way that we approach learning in general, definitely does not work. You may recognize parallels to the arts, crafts and sciences, including higher learning, and specialties, such as PhD and MD training. These disciplines are often taught in apprentice mode, where observation and intuition play as great as, or a greater role than, intellect. In general, we tend to regard learning as assimilating information as knowledge to be applied, regurgitated, or critiqued, but as Master Dogen says:

Going forth to the ten thousand things is delusion
The ten thousand things coming forth and manifesting through the self
     is enlightenment

Going forth means pursuing any subject, particularly a new one, in the information-gathering mode. Our discriminating mind runs its routine of comparison, categorization and analysis, the source of the "ten thousand things." Such analytical processing usually works, in most areas of knowledge-based learning. But not for Zen. As the same Ch'an poem reminds us:
Here thought feeling knowledge and imagination are of no value

Not only is the acquisition of knowledge of no value, at this extreme of Zen experience, but even thought, feeling and imagination fail us. These four elements of awareness form a model of conventional intelligence, each of which is connected to the three others, but all to no avail, when it comes to Zen wisdom. Nonetheless, such modeling enables us to see the relations between the labels, and the underlying truth to which they are pointing.

So, how intelligence works—in the natural sense, as in human beings; as well as in the artificial sense, as in machines—is a central question, in Zen as well as in science. It is difficult to imagine that we would be able to design, and build, machines capable of intelligence; without understanding how our own works. Or, conversely, it may be that developing artificial intelligence, turns out to be the way we come to truly understand human, or any other, intelligence. This is an unusually gnarly problem, reminiscent of the snake biting its own tail. Or better, the dog chasing his, which stays always just out of reach of his fangs. The beginning of solving any problem, is defining the problem. On problem-solving, another dimension of intelligence, I will again liberally quote from the person I was, when I wrote this:
You were probably taught, at an early age, to look at life situations as problems to be solved, primarily through the application of logic. We are challenged by our parents, peers, teachers and colleagues, to develop a solution, or multiple solutions, for the ever-changing problems at hand. Much of what passes for education amounts to exercises in problem-solving. Many forms of entertainment, such as board and computer games, puzzles of all kinds, Rubik's Cube, and television and radio shows, such as Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune, and their many imitators, are challenges to our playful, problem-solving proclivities.But we are also encouraged to codify methods for solving life's problems, dependably and repeatedly, preferably predictably; as they arise, applying skillful means on a daily basis. "How can we keep this from happening again?" is the common reaction, especially when a tragic accident, or a natural disaster, occurs. Problem-solving is also central to our standard methods of measuring intelligence. Measurable intelligence reigns supreme, if controversial, as a cultural ideal. Public education pays overweening tribute to this idea, by "teaching to the test."

So, intelligence is pretty useless, unless it is put to the test. But in Zen, the "test" is existence itself, with its attributes of impermanence, imperfection, and insubstantiality, et cetera; the central traits of Buddhism's suffering, or dukkha. When it comes to solving this "problem," the causes and conditions of our very existence; intelligence—as conceived and defined—fails the test. Something else, more robust, must be called into play. We can apply our knowledge, i.e. of the inadequacy of knowledge; and our skills, i.e. zazen; to the solution to this all-encompassing, seemingly intractable problem. In doing so, we may end up redefining intelligence, to include something outside of ourselves; with which we are interdependently arisen. But please do not read into this prediction a Trojan horse, with God lurking inside. Permit me one more self-quote:
An unseen Intelligence, directing the process from behind the scenes, like the Wizard of Oz, would amount to A head upon a head, an old Zen expression. In this view, the very body and activity of life, itself, is the body and activity of God, or the Cosmic Buddha, or whatever label you prefer. But there is no necessity for another, separate manifestation of God, outside of the present reality, from the standpoint of Zen.

If you can accept this premise, then Intelligence itself may be seen as an attribute of Existence, itself. That is, the universe itself is intelligent. Evolution may then be regarded as a discernable pattern, witnessed by human intelligence; manifesting universal Intelligence, in the act of creation.

These quotes are taken out of context. Of course, it would be difficult to quote anything, and include the entire context. This means you would have to actually be there—saying the original comment, at the original time and place—where it first occurred. In other words, it wouldn't be a quote. This is another place where intelligence—which comes up with concepts such as "quoted out of context"—fails.

However, in this case, fortunately, you can do something about it. You can get a copy of the book when it is published. This is intelligence in action. Or enlightened self-interest.

Thank you for indulging my musings. And don't give up. We don't need intelligence, to get at true intelligence, that Master Dogen says is developed in Zen practice. Thank Buddha.