The success of artificial intelligence, though limited, suggests that intelligence is a rather mechanical operation. To the extent that we humans have prided ourselves, or felt ourselves set apart by our intelligence, this should be a bit of a blow.
It is apparent, however, that the goal of making machines intelligent — e.g. developing computer programs that can beat us at chess or Jeopardy — is a distinctively human one. Computers have yet to set their own goals. So while we now share the domain of abstract intelligence with computers, the domain of intending is more uniquely our own.
To intend is to reflect upon a range of possible ends, select one based on some criteria or standard, and develop strategies to achieve that end. Machines certainly don’t do this (though undoubtedly, based on some human’s intention, a program that simulates intentional behavior has been or will be developed). Some animals exhibit intentionality of a kind, but the range of goals and strategies developed by other animal species is extremely limited relative to those developed by humans.
As it is, we humans uniquely have the opportunity to ask the question “to what should I aspire?” We have the opportunity to think through the various possible ends available to us, to reflect on our life in relation to these possibilities, to make a choice, and to work toward the realization of that choice. We also have the ability to change our mind with the passage of time, and to re-envision our ultimate aspirations.
Intentionality itself can be either externally or internally directed. Wisdom can be worldly or spiritual. We can aspire to such things as power, possessions, prestige; or we can aspire to such as truth, beauty or goodness. We live in an externally driven culture, but my experience has been that internally directed intentionality actually delivers the greater and more dependable set of goods.
People may say “you ought to aspire” to this or that. But that “ought” will never carry the force of logic. An ought only has logical force within the context of a goal. Thus, if your goal is X, and it is necessary to do Y to achieve it, it logically follows that you ought to do Y. But in seeking our ultimate goal, we are outside of such a context. Reasoning can help us, but not lead us to our end. We certainly can and should be open to the testimony of others, but we cannot trust it completely, we need to also be sceptical. In making such a choice, our feelings, our imagination, our intuition, and our intelligence each has something to contribute. To identify our ultimate aspiration is something of a quest; to realize that aspiration is an even greater quest.
To be able to identify and choose our highest aspiration is a wonderful freedom, but it can also be difficult and even frightening. It is not surprising, perhaps, that most people short-change that freedom and simply follow the herd. Joseph Campbell, in writing about one’s personal quest, told people to “follow their bliss.” Later he retracted this and said that perhaps he should have said “follow their blisters.”
As an older person who has both followed his bliss and earned a lot of blisters along the way, I want simply to say this: some of us questers do find what we are looking for, and find that it is even better than we had hoped when we set out on our quest. So don’t short-change your aspirations!
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.