ET Question #1: Validity

The first question- Is there evidence to support Existential as an intelligence? This includes its theoretical soundness. Can ET be distinguished from personality characteristics such as curiosity, humor, introspection, belief, faith, spiritual awareness, etc.

Does ET fit into the puzzle of defining human intelligence?
Criteria used by Howard Gardner-
To qualify as an intelligence, each set of abilities has to fair reasonably well in meeting 8 criteria.

1-  identifiable cerebral systems
2-  evolutionary history and plausibility
3-  core set of operations
4-  meaning encoded in a symbol system
5-  a distinct developmental history & mastery
6-  savants, prodigies and exceptional people
7-  evidence from experimental psychology
8-  psychometric findings

. How does Existential thinking fare for these 8 criteria?

12 thoughts on “ET Question #1: Validity”

  1. Welcome to the Existential Discussion – We will initially focus on examining the validity of the idea of Existential Intelligence. Is it a unique, coherent and distinct form of intelligence?

  2. from Ellen Winner –

    Hi Branton
    I think that the asking of big questions is an important human ability, but I don’t know whether this could be explained adequately by a combination of other intelligences like linguistic and/or interpersonal and/or logical mathematical, etc. or whether it is only explainable as a single separate intelligence.
    That’s really my take at this point.

    Ellen Winner is Professor Emerita of Psychology at Boston College and Senior Research Associate at Project Zero. She has authored five books focusing on art education including Invented Worlds, and Gifted Children: Myths and Realities.

  3. from Howard Gardner.

    My way of thinking about existential intelligence is that it is basically a form of philosophy— akin to ontology or aesthetics— except that it grows out of issues that have particular meaning for our species- since we will all die. ChatGPT could contribute to any branch of philosophy but its contributions to existential intelligence would necessarily be somewhat inauthentic. When Sartre or Kierkegaard were pondering existence, it had a personal significance which can’t be swept aside. .. or simply faked.

    . . . as the anthropocene ends, we may be spending more time as a species contemplating who we are, why we are here, what lies ahead, is there life after the death of homo sapiens. Those are existential questions– which other animals certainly don’t ponder– and if large language instruments pondered them, we would not know whether to take them seriously– just as we would not know how to make sense of the monkeys who– as the old expression goes—keep typing till they produce the collected works of Shakespeare.

    Howard Gardner, personal communication. 1.1.24

  4. Some thoughts on Existential Intelligence – Marc Tassoul – feb 15th 2024

    Although not elaborated here, my view on an Existential Intelligence starts from Jung’s typology with the iNtuitive (as elaborated in the MBTI), and Will McWhinney’s realities, with what he called ‘Mythic’ in his book Paths of Change.

    Existential thinking involves being able to ‘story’ events around oneself and in the world. As such, for example, religious beliefs provide stories to help provide meaning to one’s experiences. So, being able to ‘story’ (as a verb) events together into one comprehensive whole, and thereby providing meaningfulness and depth to one’s experiences is my filling in of an ‘existential intelligence’.

    I very much liked reading Victor Frankl’s book, In Search of Meaning, on his experience of the concentration camps. Their ability to survive in these horrible circumstances largely depended on the stories they maintained to support events and actions. An example of such meaning and the connection to being able to survive was the use of cigarettes, not for the nicotine, but as a means of trading stuff in the camp. And when somebody took up smoking their own cigarettes, it was mostly indicative for their giving up their efforts to survive.

    One might argue that an Existential Intelligence ultimately deals with our mental images of the world around us – including symbols and what they mean or may evoke (with different meanings and connotations in different contexts / cultures / circumstances). It is also about the sacred – the use of imagery, and (so-called?) sacred writings – and the teachings we believe them to contain. But also the understanding of abstract terms, for example a term like ‘democracy’ and the adjective ‘democratic’ (again applied differently in different contexts / cultures).

    In my view, an important term in this context is the term ‘sacred’. Sacred is generally seen as indicating some religious essential symbols, e.g. the holy bible, or relics found in churches, or certain people in a religious hierarchy. I want to extend the use of the term ‘sacred’ to anything that people feel hurt by when destroyed or criticized or otherwise damaged. This can be memories, traditional stories, family objects, concepts, rituals, etc. etc. At a higher level of abstraction, one may understand these as the glue of any social grouping (e.g. family, community, nation). The ability to be ‘conscious of’, and ‘move’ in these domains of meaning, is a competence I would call ‘existential intelligence’.

    1. I definitely agree that whatever we are reaching for with the term ‘Existential Intelligence’ but have a lot to do with the pervasive human habit of story making. In fact, the human mind is constantly weaving stories as a means of incorporating and making meaning of all experience. Whether it was a wink from an unknown girl on the subway, a frown on a boss’s face or the unexpected midday darkening of the sun, the mind fills in the blanks to connect all sensory input in meaningful ways which we may recognize as stories. Certainly, the existential angst arising from the foreboding of future death is incorporated into stories that help us either to act preventatively or to accept and cope with the suffering this awareness brings, result in stories that are incorporated into religious systems. If we accept the category of existential intelligence, then we can see its contribution to the complexity and effectiveness of such stories. But it may be that existential intelligence is not the story making capacity in itself but is expressed through it.
      I agree very much with your suggestion that the ability to navigate and manipulate the stories that involve the sacred would be an expression of existential intelligence.

  5. I prefer to approach the subject of existentialism from a phenomenological angle because as I use my logic and reasoning I do get to the conclusion of absurdity.
    However, sociologists Ariela Keysar and Juhem Navarro-Rivera estimates that only 7% of the world’s population are atheists.
    If indeed we are just part of the evolution of life, then life is indeed absurd.
    Yet logic and reasoning cannot account for why we help the poor, take care of the sick, go to war on ridculous philosophical grounds and other illogical behaviours.
    Somehow a large majority of the population find their answer to the big question through forms of religion. The question is whether there are truths to those religions or is it just a coping strategy to avoid the reality of absurdism?

  6. Hi Henry,
    Thanks for the provocative and thoughtful comment. Much food for thought! It appears that the use of logic to address existential questions is woefully inadequate. Obviously religion is a great way to organize our responses to the many threats to our existence- physical, social and cultural. They have withstood the tests of time despite our human propensity to use their power for ill as well as good. Ah, the burden of human imperfection.
    Cheers. Branton

  7. This matter of spirituality and existential thinking fascinates me.

    It has been there since the dawn of humanity (and before it), but studies in there past century have achieved many discoveries, approaching supernatural to science.

    As Einstein said, we are all made of energy. We are only in the beginning of this journey, many things are there to be discovered.

    At first sight, one might say that Intrapersonal and Interpersonal Intelligences are more related to existential thinking, but looking at the other 6 I still can see relations.

    How to explain musician divine inspiration on writing a song?
    Or the transcendental connection we feel in contact with nature?

    Rather than a 9th intelligence, I’d say that we all have materialism and spirituality inside, permeating all 8 intelligences.

    When relating this to brain studies, I found this little guy called the “parietal cortex” considered to be the connection to the transcendental world. Look at this article: https://academic.oup.com/cercor/article/29/6/2331/5017785?login=false

    Arnaldo Domingos

  8. I’m not convinced about the argumentation so far concerning the existential intelligence . My first thought is that it is a special hype. For some reason (and I’m not religious although I attended a priest school), I’m still asking myself… what are they looking for? Does it have something to do with all the violence in the world? Russia-UkraÏne, Iran-Iraq, Isreal-Gaza, North vs South Korea? That mad man Trump and his friend in crime Putin? Have people lost their trust in politics? Hunger for tranquility and peace? In times of need, people once again look for something to hold on to. Is that what they are looking for? Interesting.

    Vriendelijke groet,
    Frits Schoeren

    Assn. for Multiple Intelligences

  9. I think Existential intelligence is tied strongly to anxiety, which is basically an emotional response to threats in the medium to long term future. Existential intelligence involves the process through which an individual adapts to, accommodates herself to and/or responds to future threats to continued comfortable and dynamic existence. A significant proportion of the purpose of our intelligence is related to its predictive powers. Being able to assess a current situation and predict coming threats and opportunities is key to survival. Prediction of an immediate threat gives rise to fear and the fight, flight or freeze response. Longer term threats give rise to anxiety and for humans these existential threats may be of loss of life, loss of tribe / family or loss of purpose / meaning. Hence the existential categories of death, loneliness and meaning. Humans privilege short-term dangers and reward over the long term. I guess this is due to the fact that it is within a person’s power (and I’m thinking of the time during which our hardware or gray matter evolved – so thinking of paleolithic conditions / lifestyle) to respond effectively to short-term threats and opportunities (McClure, 2004). The brain architecture of those who responded more effectively was preserved in the genome. But during this period of evolutionary shaping of human neural architecture, humans had little or no power to manipulate very long-term variables and thus no power to affect future existential threats and opportunities. How could such a capacity be preserved then within the genome? I think this is why we have such difficulty in dealing collectively with existential threats like climate change or nuclear annihilation. We have evolved to take care of short-term needs with much less concern for the long term. Feeling hot? Turn on the aircon, climate change be damned. At the same time, we obviously do have some long-term ability. Mobbs et al. (2015) suggest that the human ability to imagine and simulate the immediate future is also able to be adapted, through neuroplacticity, to simulate entirely unfamiliar environments during times of environmental change and allows humans to deal with systemic environmental change within a longer time frame. Is this related to existential intelligence? Existential intelligence allows us to respond to and adapt to long term or distal threats of various types. From out of this form of intelligence, for example religious / spiritual solutions to the painful proposition of future nonexistence (death) have been devised in the form of ideas of rebirth, reincarnation, heaven, etc. If this could be taken as contributing something to the question of existential intelligence, then articles like Mobbs et al. (2015) could also be explored in the search for a neurophysiological grounding for existential intelligence as well.
    References:
    McClure, S. M. (2004). Separate neural systems value immediate and delayed monetary rewards. Science, 306(5695), 503–507. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1100907
    Mobbs, D., Hagan, C. C., Dalgleish, T., Silston, B., & Prévost, C. (2015). The ecology of human fear: survival optimization and the nervous system. Frontiers in neuroscience, 9, 55. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2015.00055

  10. Hi Tavis,

    Wow. Thanks for the powerful message and thoughts on the importance of existential thinking. You highlight ET in response to threats and anxiety. Undoubtedly true. Is there also a “light” side to ET in response to wonder, awe and gratitude? Do these thoughts keep us safe and alleviate suffering? Are there existential thoughts at the birth of a child; dedication of a new home; death at the end of long suffering? Maybe these are less prominent or remembered because as humans we focus on the negative.

    Thanks for the prompts to take our reflections on ET deeper.

    Cheers, Branton

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