Stephen Hawking was considered one of the smartest people living.

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Of the notable themes that were integrated into the reporting of the recent death of physicist Stephen Hawking, one considered who would now replace him as the world’s smartest person. This characterisation of Hawking was engendered to a considerable extent through his groundbreaking work in theoretical physics, undertaken alongside his thirty year tenure as the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University (a role once fulfilled by Isaac Newton).

Perhaps an even more important factor in Hawking being so present in the public consciousness, however, was his endeavour in A brief history of time (1988) to introduce physics to those in the population with no specific scientific expertise. In becoming a bestseller, this book could be said to have significantly contributed to the creation of “brand Hawking.” This is despite the book being documented as the most unread bestseller ever.

Following Hawking’s death, in considering some kind of transition regarding who might now be perceived to be the world’s smartest person, Newsweek’s Janice Williams reported on the likely contenders. Whilst not explicitly allocating such a title to Hawking, in this article Williams notes, and indeed perpetuates, the view that Hawking was at the very least, one of the most intelligent people in the world:

Smartest man alive?…Stephen Hawking was considered one of the smartest people living, best known for his theories and work on black holes, which changed the world’s view of the universe (Janice Williams, 2018).

What is being quantified?

In positioning Hawking as one of the smartest people in the world, Williams directs our attention to the sense of a collective, or a widespread, agreement on such a topic. Those who portrayed Hawking in this way, are seemingly legitimately, according to Williams, basing their opinion on how his work shifted our perspective of the universe.

Williams offers no contestation as a result to the apparent consensus upon which she reports that Hawking was one of the world’s most smart or intelligent people. Integrated within her brief description of Hawking indeed are the signs or parameters that exhibit extraordinary intelligence. For example, most people in the world, it could be assumed, would not be able to explain what a black hole is. As Williams notes, not only could Hawking conversely explain black holes, he changed scientific explanations of black holes. That Hawking is described as reconfiguring the human conception of such an intellectually challenging concept, duly serves characterisations of him as being more intelligent than most humans.

There is, nevertheless, a certain contradiction regarding this comparison of his intelligence with that of each member of the world’s entire population, if we grant the earlier supposition that most people in the world would not actually know what a black hole is. If this is the case, can it be justified that Hawking “changed the world’s view of the universe,” as Williams put it? If the majority of the world are not familiar with black holes, to whom is Hawking’s intelligence actually comparable?

With this consideration in mind, would it instead be more appropriate to state that Hawking changed how his fellow scientists viewed black holes and the universe? Was Hawking’s scientific brilliance, which might have ramifications for all humans on Earth, nevertheless restricted to changing the view of a very particular audience rather than that of the entire world?

This speaks to the possible relativity of intelligence. If one does not comprehend Hawking’s work because of a lack of familiarity with the concepts in question, does this mean that Hawking is functioning at a greater level of intelligence? Or is his work simply heralding a different kind of intelligence to that which someone has who does not work in his scientific field. Or in short; can intelligences be compared?

In trying to compare the respective levels of intelligence that individuals have, IQ tests are often referred to as a default measure. However, if IQ test results are used to determine who are the “smartest people in the world,” this does not support William’s claim that Hawking was one of them. Hawking famously never officially took an IQ test, nor reported an IQ test score. Indeed, he criticised individuals who broadcast the results of their own IQ tests as being an incontestable indicator of their intelligence. Furthermore, what is reported unofficially to be Hawking’s IQ level, is in fact regularly exceeded, even by eleven year olds!

Describing Hawking as one of the most intelligent people in the world, as Williams does, therefore assumes a quantifiable measure via which all such intelligences can be compared. An IQ test does not provide that measure. This is evidenced by the aforementioned reasons, and supplemented by the concern within the scientific community that the viability of the IQ test as a marker of “increased intelligence” is problematic.

In stating that Hawking is one of most smart or intelligent people in the world, Williams endorses the notion of there being more, or less, intelligence in particular individuals. What is being quantified within Williams’ commentary on Hawking is intelligence. The concern regarding this quantification though is that Williams has not clarified the components via which she, or the consensus upon which she reports, is measuring and comparing that intelligence.

If intelligence is quantifiable, there must be measurable units of intelligence which comprise its quantification. These units, in being counted, aggregated, and compared, condition there being a quantity of the thing or the experience in question. Measurable units of quantified intelligence are not, however, identified by Williams.

How, then, might we consider whether Williams could possibly identify measurable units of intelligence?

Can intelligence be quantified?

Henri Bergson posits that the tendency to quantify things or experiences derives from social influence. This is because such quantification occurs through the measures and representations that have been installed by the institutions, perspectives, and languages, of human, collective existence. The sciences, and the social sciences, exemplify this quantifying tendency, in symbolising the world via calculable, comparable data. The integration of the sciences and the social sciences could therefore be helpful in determinations of Williams‘s possible identification of measurable units of intelligence.

What must also be taken into consideration, though, is Bergson’s complementary concern that from this tendency are said to emerge quantifiable constructions of features of the world and our experience of it that might not really be quantifiable. This speaks to the tension between (i) what is perceived to be the socially constructed quantification of a thing/experience, versus (ii) what is presumed to be the real-natural state of a thing/experience.

In terms of intelligence, we can review four positions which operate from within this tension. This will allow us to appraise how Williams might identify the units which comprise an intelligence that she assumes is quantifiable, and the responses that she would face. Click on each position below to expand/contract its supporting argument:

1. Extreme social constructionist. The social construction of intelligence misrepresents what is real-natural about intelligence.

i. Williams engages studies of intelligence to evidence the measurable units of intelligence.

ii. [Science study “y”] studies the physiological changes that are experienced when intelligence is reported to be experienced…or…[Social science study “z”] studies the behaviours that a society has defined as indicating intelligence.

iii. Does [Science study “y”] or [Social science study “z”] identify measurable units of these physiological changes or behavioural patterns that comprise intelligence?

If no…

iv. Williams does not identify measurable units of quantified intelligence.

If yes…

v. Williams identifies measurable units of quantified intelligence.

The extreme social constructionist responds…

vi. The sciences are socially constructed institutions/perspectives.

vii. Socially constructed perspectives misrepresent what is real-natural about the world.

viii. [Science study “y”] or [Social science study “z”] is a socially constructed perspective of intelligence.

ix. Even if measurable units of quantified intelligence are posited by [Science study “y”] or [Social science study “z”], such units misrepresent what is real-natural about intelligence.

x. The intelligence that Williams quantifies misrepresents what is real-natural about intelligence.

This position is that scientific experimentation, techniques, perspectives, and theories, could have been developed in myriad ways, depending on relevant social influences. Consequently, the resulting scientific results must be dependent upon how society has shaped them. This contingently social factor in the production of scientific truths is contrasted from what are posited to be the necessarily timeless truths or realities of the world. By looking at intelligence through a contingently socially constructed lens (the sciences are interpreted to be such lenses), the extreme social constructionist’s position demands that the measurable units that might be posited scientifically regarding intelligence, never represent intelligence as it really, naturally is.

2. Exclusive social constructionist. The social construction of intelligence is all that intelligence ever is.

i. – vi. as per position 1.

The exclusive social constructionist responds…

vii. Intelligence is also a social construction.

viii. If intelligence is a social construction, and the sciences are social constructions, the scientific study of intelligence measures the only reality of intelligence.

ix. Does [Science study “y”] or [Social science study “z”] identify measurable units of this intelligence?

If no…

x. Williams does not identify measurable units of quantified intelligence.

If yes…

xi. Williams identifies measurable units of quantified intelligence.

This position is that intelligence is a concept that societies have created. Societies define the criteria for what comprises intelligence accordingly. These criteria, either physiological, behavioural, or both, are the signs of intelligence. If a society conceives of intelligence by such signs, and intelligence is considered to be nothing but its social conceptualisation, then the measurement of these signs is duly interpreted to measure intelligence’s reality.

This differs from the extreme social constructionist position that is presented above in one key regard; the exclusive social constructionist avoids the supposition of a separate natural reality of intelligence that the social construction of it must explain, access, or discover. Rather, for the exclusive social constructionist, intelligence is a concept that is believed to only ever have a social reality.

This latter point presents the greatest issue with this position. Will it be adequate for Williams (or indeed for anyone), to state that intelligence is only a contingent, social construction, with no other reality? If Williams wishes to argue that intelligence has a reality beyond how a society has come to conceive of it, she then needs to tackle the contestation in position 1 from the extreme social constructionist.

3. Real-natural social constructionist. The social construction of intelligence is a part of what is real-natural about intelligence.

i. – vi. as per position 1.

vii. What is socially constructed is a part of what is real-natural.

viii. If what is socially constructed is a part of what is real-natural, [Science study “y”] or [Social science study “z”] is a part of what is real-natural.

ix. Does [Science study “y”] or [Social science study “z”] identify measurable units of intelligence.

If no…

x. Williams does not identify measurable units of quantified intelligence.

If yes…

xi. Williams identifies measurable units of quantified intelligence.

This position is that what is real-natural expresses itself in social ways. Society, which is a part of what is real-natural, declares through its languages and customs (including its scientific studies), that this feature (intelligence) of what is real-natural is quantifiable. The social construction of intelligence in quantifiable terms is a part of what is real-natural about intelligence. This interpretation resolves the problem of a real-natural world that social perspectives only misrepresent, as found in the extreme social constructionist’s position.

If what is social is real-natural, and vice-versa, then not only is the social construction of intelligence a part of what is real-natural, but also, what is real-natural about intelligence is a social reality. If the real-natural, as society, is said to conceive of intelligence quantifiably, and to identify intelligence’s measurable units, then what is real-natural about intelligence is that it is quantified via measurable units.

Not incidentally, this position intersects most coherently with what might be referred to as the “realist” position. The realist would posit that our scientific impressions of what is real-natural do accurately represent what is real-natural. This point must be qualified with the observation that the realist might baulk at the definition of scientific production merely as a contingent, socially constructed, institution. Given that Counting sheep is occupied with Bergsonian-inspired concerns regarding the tendency to socially (mis)construct all features of the world quantifiably, this realist position, in avoiding themes of social constructionism, is not included in these considerations.

4. Incorrect real-natural social constructionist. The social construction of intelligence is a part of what is real-natural about intelligence, but is incorrect about intelligence.

i. – vi. as per position 1.

vii. What is socially constructed is a part of what is real-natural.

viii. If what is socially constructed is a part of what is real-natural, [Science study “y”] or [Social science study “z”] is a part of what is real-natural.

ix. Does [Science study “y”] or [Social science study “z”] identify measurable units of intelligence.

If no…

x. Williams does not identify measurable units of quantified intelligence.

If yes…

xi. Williams identifies measurable units of quantified intelligence.

The incorrect real-natural social constructionist responds…

v. [Science study “y”] or [Social science study “z”] is a part of what is real-natural and is incorrect that intelligence is quantifiable.

vi. Williams does not identify measurable units of quantified intelligence.

Alternatively, the interpretation might be that what is real-natural, socially posits that intelligence is quantifiable when actually it is not. The curiosity in this position is that what is real-natural is presenting as a social form of the real-natural, which in perceiving a feature (intelligence) of what is real-natural, is incorrect about that feature (intelligence) of what is real-natural.

What is forwarded in this position is not that incorrect socially constructed quantifications of intelligence represent a mutual exclusion between (i) the social, scientific, perspective/construction of intelligence, and (ii) what is real-natural about intelligence. Instead, as per position 3, both the social construction of intelligence, and what is real-natural about intelligence, are simultaneously social and real-natural. Whilst units of measurement do not exist for this feature (intelligence) of what is real-natural, what is socially constructed is not said to be excluded from what is real-natural when conceiving of intelligence incorrectly (quantifiably).

Rather, what is being forwarded in this position is that what is real-natural comprises all possible social perspectives/constructions of this feature (intelligence) of what is real-natural. Every social perspective/construction, according to this position, comes from nowhere but from what is real-natural, after all. One of these perspectives/constructions is that which posits that intelligence is quantifiable, even when there are actually no measurable units comprising such quantification, and therefore no quantification of intelligence whatsoever.

A reason that such units of measurement do not exist, and that the quantification of intelligence is incorrect, could relate to the way in which intelligence manifests. Williams perceives a difference in the degree or size of the intelligence that manifests. However, for this position it could be stated that intelligence emerges environmentally, structurally, and circumstantially. With each set of different circumstances comes a different kind, rather than a different magnitude, of intelligence.

If the kind of intelligence that manifests is contingent upon the environment in which it manifests, there can be no standardised units across differently manifested intelligences. This problematises the possible quantification of, and comparison between, an individual’s manifestations of intelligence over time. Similarly it contests the possibility of comparing the intelligence between different individuals. Each instantiation of intelligence is instead qualitatively incomparable, if it is deemed to manifest circumstantially.

If Williams, and indeed the consensus of opinion that she reports, was to be receptive to this position, the notion that Hawking is one of the most intelligent people in the world would need to be revisited. In repositioning Hawking, his work’s contribution, rather than its relative position on a hypothetical scientific ladder, could become the focus. This kind of shift in interpretation would not compromise the significance of the scientific achievements on which he worked. Instead, such works could be celebrated for what they changed and produced, rather than for how they were piloted by the intelligence level of their celebrity author.



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