Collective Vs Individual Intelligence : A Philosophical Discussion

Collective Vs Individual Intelligence : A Philosophical Discussion

Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt

Collective Vs Individual Intelligence : A Philosophical Discussion In his commencement speech to Carnegie Mellon University’s graduating Class of 2009, Google’s ex Chairman and CEO, Eric Schmidt, said: “None of us is as smart as all of us”. As an experienced and  highly respected businessman in the IT industry, he was emphasizing to the fresh graduates the importance of working collaboratively to enhance collective knowledge in the workplace. 

While his  wisdom is not untrue, and in fact sounds rather sagely, it is important to first understand Schmidt’s  philosophical paradigm. After all, philosophical paradigms shape how an individual views knowledge as well as his or her way of knowing what is true. A discussion on the claim, “None of us is as smart as all of us” must hence be prefaced with a discussion on fundamental philosophical paradigms, i.e. positivism and subjectivism. 

Positivism is a paradigm that accepts knowledge as true, if and only if the knowledge has been  observed and measured scientifically, i.e. knowledge has been deemed an objective entity. This implies that knowledge is tangible and exists outside of the individual, and thus this knowledge may be added, or even multiplied, when shared collectively. 

Corresponding this worldview with Howard  Gardner’s (1983) ‘Theory of Multiple Intelligences’, positivism values intelligence that is associated  with logical/mathematical appreciation over the other intelligences. This is why there is a strong emphasis on the natural sciences and other quantitative studies, e.g. computer science, physics, and  engineering. In fact, positivism is the very basis of what the natural sciences are.  

According to Railsback (2017), the natural sciences are “the concerted human effort to better understand the universe’s natural phenomena through observation”. It is an area of knowledge that  was born as a direct result of shared knowledge. To illustrate how essential shared knowledge is to the natural sciences, references can be made to the examples of Robert Hooke, Matthias Schleiden, Theodor Schwann, Rudolf Virchow, and their contributions to the collective development of Cell  Theory.

Hooke first discovered and named the cell, and then shared his newfound knowledge with the  scientific community. Schleiden looked further into Hooke’s idea of a cell, discovering that all plant  tissues were made of cells. Around the same time, Schwann discovered all animal tissues were made of cells too.

Schleidein

The two then started working together to create the first two parts of cell theory: all living  organisms are made of one or more cells and cells are the basic unit of life. Virchow added to this theory with his own research that showed all cells came from pre-existing cells. So, while they may have achieved much individually, in sharing what they had discovered, these scientists have collectively contributed even more significantly to the advancement of scientific knowledge.

Another fitting example of the importance of shared knowledge is The Royal Society. This society was one that brought together eminent scientists from all backgrounds, regardless of nationality, religion, or politics, and gave them a platform to share, exchange, and review each other’s “scientific truths”.

As a result, in 1665, just five years after the society was founded, the field of microbiology  was born. Twenty-two years later, Newton (with the help of Edmond Halley) published the Principia Mathematica and the Law of Universal Gravitation. In 1783, William Herschel built on what Pierre Lemonnier previously recorded and discovered the planet Uranus. 

Newton

The examples listed above are all products of scientific cooperation, in which individuals added to the fountain of knowledge built by those before them, those working with them, and those working  against them. Like Sir Isaac Newton once famously said, “If I have seen further, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants”.

Even as one of the most prominent and influential scientists of all time, Newton had to draw upon the collective knowledge of his community to create his own “new knowledge”. He understood that collaboration challenged the individual and brought forth fresh ideas  as well as new perspectives. Indeed, bringing people together from diverse backgrounds often leads to  new ways of thinking, greater knowledge, better solutions, and faster progress.  

Yet, some may argue that the sharing of knowledge may not be as perfect as it is often portrayed. To them, the transfer of knowledge from an individual to a community, in any form of collaborative  learning, can never be absolute. They believe some knowledge will always be lost in the transfer process because not everything can be articulated or interpreted as intended, especially given linguistic constraints and cultural nuances.

To draw an analogy from the natural sciences, during  photosynthesis, when solar energy is converted into chemical energy, some energy will always be lost as heat. To these critics, no transfer, be it in the natural world or in the world of knowledge, is ever one hundred percent efficient.  

Notwithstanding, the critics’ argument is debatable. Even if the transfer of knowledge is not absolute,  it can be concurred that sharing knowledge will invariably result in incremental knowledge, especially  in fields where knowledge is highly scientific, quantifiable, and typically collaborated, i.e. shared  knowledge will triumph over individual knowledge. Like Aristotle once said, “The whole is greater  than the sum of its parts”. So within this context, Eric Schmidt, a man of science and a likely  positivist, is correct to claim that “None of us” is, in fact, “as smart as all of us”. 

In contrast, there is an opposing philosophical paradigm known as subjectivism. Subjectivism is  premised on the belief that knowledge is beholden to the individual and is shaped by his or her own unique experiences, values, and relational interactions (Richardson and Bowden, 1989).

This implies that knowledge exists within the individual, and hence is intangible and not quantifiable. It cannot be  added or multiplied easily, making it difficult to share effectively. In fact, no subjectivist will accept  as true knowledge what has not been personally experienced.

The emphasis on individual experiences and subjective interpretations corresponds well with what Howard Gardner termed as intrapersonal intelligence. It is thus unsurprising that subjectivists are often closely associated with the arts – visual arts, music, and theatre, etc. After all, the premise of the arts is that it elicits varying responses from different individuals; interpretations of the same piece of art can be different for different people. Therefore, there is no universal perception, or “shared knowledge”, related to the arts. 

Instead, in such a field, personal knowledge is pre-eminent. For example, artistic greats like Van Gogh, Salvador Dali, and Pablo Picasso articulated their personal knowledge, resulting in amazing works.

However, their works were not the products of collaboration, nor did they result from shared knowledge; instead, they were the creations of personal knowledge and unique perspective. Personal  knowledge is based on an individual’s life experiences, and art is a medium through which he or she  tries to express his or her feelings. Therefore, the arts are essentially a powerful platform one uses to  present and share personal knowledge. 

However, it is vital to note that sharing knowledge and shared knowledge are two very different matters – sharing knowledge is the act of expressing one’s personal  knowledge to others, whereas shared knowledge is the common knowledge of the masses. 

So although the artist is sharing their personal knowledge through their artwork, everyone who experiences that piece of art will still take away different knowledge from it, and thus, cannot be  considered shared knowledge. Hence, in fields where knowledge is highly individual and non quantifiable, the claim that “none of us is as smart as all of us” no longer holds true. 

The discussion thus far indicates that “none of us is as smart as all of us” is more relevant in the  natural sciences than it is for the arts – but is there no intersection or middle ground between personal knowledge and shared knowledge? I believe it must also be acknowledged that while art is a representation of the artist’s personal knowledge, the artist’s personal knowledge would inevitably be shaped by the shared knowledge of their community. For example, the works of Pablo Picasso  featured influences from African art, symbolism, and other impressionist artists. 

The shared  knowledge of existing artistic genres helped influence Picasso’s personal knowledge which then  inspired his imagination. Many other such examples can also be found in artistic works from the 1960s and 70s, when the anti-Vietnam war movement affected artists’ personal knowledge. Artists interpreted the war and articulated their emotions and reasons through their crafts.

Allen Ginsberg

Poems, such as Wichita Vortex Sutra by Allen Ginsberg, and pop music, such as Jimi Hendrix’s Star Spangled Banner, contained graphic images of the war, evoking varying emotional responses from their readers and listeners. These examples show how shared knowledge of the community shapes personal knowledge of an artist and influences the content of his/her work. 

Jimi Hendrix

The above discussion leads to the conclusion that the claim that “none of us is as smart as all of us” should always be contextualized.

Different areas of knowledge inherently favour different  philosophical worldviews. The natural sciences thrive on quantifiable shared knowledge, whilst the  arts flourish on abstract individual knowledge. Importantly, the discussion has also informed that personal knowledge and shared knowledge are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but that they  influence and shape each other. 

Collective Vs Individual Intelligence : A Philosophical Discussion Written by Adele Su Yan Teo

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Collective Vs Individual Intelligence : A Philosophical Discussion

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