Intelligence and wisdom

From: Eliezer S. Yudkowsky (
Date: Tue Jul 16 2002 - 09:09:15 MDT

Gordon Worley wrote:
> Q: So, does intelligence equal wisdom?
> A: It has become cliché on SL4 to say that intelligence does not equal
> wisdom. Many of us have been well aware of this for quite some time.
> Please, avoid pointing this out unless the alternative is being drawn
> and quartered (and maybe not even then). This is also a rather silly
> thing to say, since for all you know greater intelligence *does* equal
> greater wisdom. With humans we get the opinion that the two are
> uncorrelated, but the sample is too small to make non trivial factual
> statements about greater intelligences (aside from the errors of
> extrapolation).

I don't *think* that intelligence equates to the characteristics we call
"wisdom" for all minds in general, but in humans, it looks like if you
throw more intelligence and knowledge at the brain than it is
evolutionarily prepared to handle, it turns wise. Evolution is
accustomed to puppeteering most of the gaussian curve for intelligence,
but it doesn't know how to control people who are actively aware of
evolutionary psychology. People like that weren't around in the
environment of evolutionary adaptedness. Arguably the entire presence
of cultural knowledge and historical book-learning about human nature,
as opposed to sung legends, is a condition which evolution is not
prepared to handle.

An example: Evolution is set up to create altruistic justifications for
selfish actions; it was an evolutionary advantage, in the ancestral
environment, to have altruistic principles for PR purposes but not live
up to them. (Oversimplified, I know...) If you take those same
adaptations in an environment where there exists explicit cultural
knowledge of the way in which evolution puppets humans, a human with
sufficient native computational ability at reflectivity (self-awareness)
can use that cultural knowledge to perceive evolution's puppet strings
and cut them. From our perspective, the ability of evolution to distort
our altruistic principles to selfish ends is reduced. Evolution relies
on us believing certain things that aren't true in order to puppet us.
If you have enough intelligence and some of the right knowledge, it
supervenes to cut those strings. That's wisdom.

I can't prove that this is a necessary chain of events given sufficient
intelligence. It might be so, especially given transhuman intelligence,
but I can't prove it. There may be a sensitive dependency on the
initial conditions of a conscious decision to prefer altruism to
selfishness, live up to your principles, care about the truth, and
prefer rationality to rationalization. But given those decisions - and
I don't think they need to be particularly well-enforced to begin with -
increased intelligence should supervene to produce increased wisdom in

Evolution is set up to turn our own intelligence against itself by
rationalizing instead of ratiocinating - a particularly perverted aspect
of being human, I've always felt - and this may not change, much, across
most of the gaussian curve. Increased computational abilities may not
result in an increase in real intelligence, if better ratiocination is
simply matched by better rationalization. But there's no reason why
evolution would be set up to successfully turn transhuman intelligence
against itself, or to operate against a human mind actively aware of
evolution and fighting it. Neither of these causes are present in an
ancestral environment.

Some people have only met "intelligent" people whose rationalization
matched pace with their ratiocination, and they come away with the idea
that intelligence is just a greater ability to rationalize wrong ideas;
increased facility with verbal argument but no actual increase in
smartness. In my experience this is what people have in mind when they
say "Intelligence does not equal wisdom", and for this reason I really
dislike that statement. It's a way of giving up on rationality itself.
  If macho rationality consists of mistaking facility with verbal
argument for intelligence, then this is the equally wrong mirror image
of macho rationality - the idea that intelligence has nothing to do with

The problem of discussing "wisdom" is that everyone's had at least a few
thoughts they consider "wise". In many cases they've gone through a lot
of hell to acquire whatever lesson they learned, and they really don't
want to hear that they've learned the wrong lesson from it. If you have
the misfortune to meet an "intelligent" person who's learned the lesson
that facility with verbal argument isn't smartness but rather "a fancier
kind of stupid", as Spider Robinson put it, good luck ever convincing
them that there's any kind of intelligence that actually works! They've
given up their pride to come to that conclusion, they've been hit over
the head by stark reality, they've gone through hell to arrive at that
one crumb of wisdom and by damn they've earned the right to be smug
about it. If you're foolish enough to think there's any kind of
intelligence that really works, you must not have gone through what they
did; you must be too proud to admit your own folly; you must not be
wise. I don't know how to dig people out of that trap.

Eliezer S. Yudkowsky                
Research Fellow, Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence

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