Valedictory address

Kodi B. Arfer and Zachary Piso
Created 3 May 2011

Allegheny College's class of 2011 had three valedictorians: yours truly, Zach Piso, and Kimberly Fierst. On 3 May 2011, at an awards ceremony about two weeks before graduation, Zach and I delivered a joint address on the vague theme of intelligence. The subject matter is very heterogeneous for such a short speech, but I like how I managed to explain everything that I thought was really big and really important in three paragraphs.

In the grand tradition of killing mosquitoes with elephant guns, I avoided having to speak into a piece of paper (because of my eyesight) by memorizing my parts.

Zach: When Kodi and I sat down to discuss this speech, I realized that I barely knew anything about him. What was evident from early on, and which I would venture to guess about anyone in this room, was that he was intelligent. Yet I should admit that I saw no reason why this needed to be the case—we had vastly different experiences at the college, yet we both attributed our success to those experiences. So I got to thinking about what we mean when we describe a person or a course of action as intelligent, and I soon realized that intelligence has almost nothing to do with what you "know", and almost everything to do with how you organize your experiences into coherent behaviors. And the most I could say about what makes something coherent is that it responds to problems as they arise—or even better, problems before they've arisen.

Kodi: So the sort of intelligence we're concerned with here has less to do with IQ tests than with judgment and decision-making. In a word, we're talking about wisdom. Experimental psychology, which rarely fails to be depressing and a bit misanthropic, tells us that our judgments can be biased by the way a situation is framed, by our preference for confirmation over falsification, and even by our desire to maintain a flattering self-concept. Mitigating such fundamental problems will require not just a deep knowledge of the problems themselves and the raw wits prerequisite to such knowledge. It'll also require the intelligence to use this knowledge wisely. Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, "Believe in yourself", but I say unto you, "Know thyself". We will need willpower, foresight, and prudence to protect ourselves from our own deficiencies.

Zach: We overcome these deficiencies not only as individuals but also as communities, where intelligence takes on a new form. There's a well discussed phenomenon that the meaning, or the staying power and success, of an idea has little to do with the conscious intent behind that idea. Different disciplines approach this paradox from different angles; English students underplay the author's intent, psychologists explore the unconscious reasons behind a choice, sociologists analyze the structures and histories of a culture that go beyond the awareness of the individuals within that culture. In environmental philosophy, about the only subject about which I know even a small amount, longstanding societies engage in ecologically sustainable practices often out of unscientific traditions. Yet the particularly fascinating aspect of these unconscious habits is that they are unambiguously intelligent. For individuals, we might expect a great deal of intelligence, given that human beings are in the privileged position of possessing minds. Of course, our actions are all too frequent thwarted by the sorts of cognitive biases that Kodi has already mentioned. However, despite these biases, compounded over and over in the aggregate of populations, we still witness the emergence of intelligence throughout civilization.

Kodi: See, however much we wax nostalgic for the good old days when men were men and the close-door button in an elevator actually closed the door, we have to admit it's getting better all the time. Literacy rates are rising—slowly. Fermat's last theorem and the Poincaré conjecture were proven—eventually. And there's something to be said for technology. An extremely nearsighted albino like me would be in trouble without computers. Most importantly, human knowledge as a whole is growing. Many intuitively appealing but incorrect ideas, like geocentrism and the theory of luminiferous aether, have been repudiated. And many counterintuitive but scientifically powerful ideas, like plate tectonics and evolution by means of natural selection, have become mainstream. Astronomers weren't too attached to the planethood of Pluto to realize it no longer made sense and let it go. Cantor's set theory eventually won out. By the time Zach and I have bought our respective farms, many currently popular ideas will have died likewise, superseded by newer, stranger, stronger theories. Humanity's collective understanding of reality slowly grows more comprehensive. The scientific method actually works. Who woulda thunk?

Zach: The scientific method as well as democracy are similar in that they structure self-corrective inquiry. What distinguishes these promising practices is that they engage in robust and frequent conversations that thrust competing ideas to the forefront of our attention. We do not explicitly choose among these options, but instead some happen to emerge that warrant regard and imitation. There is no magic to this—we see the same sort of emergent intelligence in ecosystems filled with organisms without the advantage of mind in the first place. There the complex tapestry of interdependence coordinates the rich but recently waning biodiversity of the planet. Our human systems are no different; we too depend on the interplay of diversity through the engagement of conversation, and it is through these everyday conversations that intelligence emerges.

Kodi: So what can we do to foster this large-scale kind of intelligence? For one thing, we need to worry about things in proportion to their permanence. Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, "Live in the present", but I say unto you, "Live for the future". The present is, after all, only one moment among vigintillions. I like to use an analogy from real analysis. A sequence is a progression of numbers with no end, only a beginning. Generally, when mathematicians talk about sequences, they're really concerned with the ultimate fate of each sequence, with what can be said about every element after some point. What comes before that point is finite and of little consequence. Who cares if the first eight million elements of a sequence are zero? If starting with the eight-million-and-first the sequence increases unfailingly and without bound, we say that it tends to positive infinity. And that's what we want to aim for, too: a positive infinity, a time when ignorance and bias and insufficient understanding can be said to belong to the past. We should live not for experience and sensation, which are ephemeral, but for consequences. We should think big.

The crowd obligingly laughed when I meant to be funny, but I also thought I heard something when I said "Cantor's set theory eventually won out." Perhaps it was a haughty [sic] guffaw from a constructivist.

And yes, the use of the word "vigintillions" was a deliberate Lovecraft reference.