Tuesday, September 27, 2011

"Limitless" and the Limits of Intelligence

Is intelligence the most important criterion for success and happiness? This, at least, is the message that the 2011 Hollywood movie “Limitless” would like to pass to millions of young people around the world. The storyline is stunningly simple and can be summarised in one sentence: a stupid, unhappy and unsuccessful man takes a pill and becomes intelligent, happy and successful.

Truth be told, this film’s plot is disappointingly mediocre, full of silly inconsistencies and improbable twists. As Salon.com’s reviewer wittily wrote, the “movie's veneer of knowing slickness is more than canceled out by a thick, fatty layer of stupidity”.[1] The purpose of this essay is therefore not to make another review; rather, this is a good opportunity to revive the age-old question of the value of intelligence in society. It seems obvious, perhaps, that the better furnished we are, both physically and mentally, the more likely we are to be happy and successful in society. However, we should not presume that this is true with respect to intelligence.

Despite the advances in neuroscience, human intelligence remains an elusive quality. We instinctively tend to think it is innate, yet we also know that we can improve some of our mental skills by practice. Intelligence is clearly not a single trait of the mind, but many, like the myriad reflections from a diamond. In its most obvious representation, it is the capability of the human brain to compute: to understand and process information quickly and accurately. But intelligence is also a brightness of mind, a desire for speculation, a depth of spirit, as well as the capability to perceive patterns, imagine solutions and think hypothetically. In sum, intelligence is not easily defined and we can perhaps only state that in the most general sense, intelligence is awareness of the world.

Despite this multi-faceted aspect of the mind however, we actually never use more than a fraction of our higher mental powers during the course of our lives. Regardless how generously we have been endowed, we are often not very aware of the world. Life is simply too short and too absorbing for most of us to produce anything of intellectual value. Our most obvious shortcomings are physical; our few intelligent moments are constantly interrupted by the biological necessities of daily life. Sleeping, eating, dressing, resting, urinating, cleaning and many other such basic activities make it impossible to sustain rational thought for more than a few hours at a time. As George Santayana said, “Enterprise crowds out reflection.”[2] For most people, family engagements, routing work and entertainment usually fill up the rest of the day.

It is true though, that we have tools today that could help us handle the knowledge of the world. We often have the feeling that by using the internet for instance, we can understand society in a historically unprecedented way. However, most of the time we do not make use of this capability, and when we do, the amount of available information is so vast that we can only hope to master a fraction of it.[3] The modern need for specialisation is a result of this inability of ours to gain a suficient amount of expertise in more than one or two narrow fields of knowledge. The modern world has thus made it blatantly evident that the human mind is limited. It is not surprising that we rarely hear people say today, as Hamlet did, that man is “noble in reason” and “infinite in faculties.”

With these conditions in mind, it seems quite remarkable that intelligence is often thought to be essential for happiness and success in the world. Let us nevertheless look at the possibility, in turn, that intelligence leads to happiness and to success.

To claim that intelligence leads to happiness is to say that awareness of the world is connected with positive emotions. However, insight into the ways of society can sometimes be a harrowing and shocking experience. Intelligence cannot always be pleasant if it means getting an inkling of the cunning plans that men devise against each other. As Lord Byron once wrote,"Sorrow is knowledge, those that know the most must mourn the deepest, the tree of knowledge is not the tree of life." Couldn’t then a certain dullness of mind be a blessing in disguise, if it would protect us from a painful worldly exposure? Ignorance is bliss; something might be said for living in incognisant isolation from the endless tragedies of mankind. To be numb to the world and only perceive the immediate familiar surrounding should then be more relaxing and lead to more happiness than to possess an intellectual consciousness. Indeed, we tend to find happiness during moments when intelligence is useless, for instance when we watch the sun rise with our friends or when we close our eyes and listen to Beethoven’s 9th symphony.

We should also consider that since man is first and foremost a social animal, the happiest man is not the most intelligent man, but the one who is most similar to others. Above average intelligence is by definition uncommon; it is therefore not likely to be conducive to happiness. The more intelligent is an individual compared to the average level of society, the less he is likely to be understood, or his interests shared, by others. Furthermore, intelligence is needed to perceive the limits of intelligence. Socrates knew he was a wise man because he knew he knew nothing. Bright individuals are therefore more likely to be tragically aware of their own rational shortcomings, in particular in today’s complex society. The intelligent person should therefore, all other things being equal, be less happy than the person of average intelligence.

It does not seem obvious, therefore, that intelligence leads to happiness; on the contrary, there are several reasons why intelligence could lead to unhappiness. But if intelligence doesn’t lead to happiness, can we at least say that it is a prerequisite to success?

To say that intelligence is essential for success, i.e. money, power, and social status, is to say that life in society requires and rewards intelligence. Yet, while intelligence is needed for the development of a rich inner life, it is arguably not an important requirement for attaining success in society. Intelligence may certainly contribute to success, but other criteria seem far more important; such as to be diligent, determined, outgoing, attractive, connected, ruthless, and lucky. Successful individuals are those who are rewarded for possessing some of these traits to a higher degree than others. Henry Adams, who had the privilege of obtaining extraordinary insight into the lives and thoughts of the most successful men and women of his time, considered that “in life one could get along very well without ideas, if only one had social instinct.”[4] If we agree that human nature is invariable, there is no reason why this observation should no longer be valid.

Success generally does not require intelligence because modern society is mainly complex from a quantitative, not qualitative, perspective. That is, the sheer number of interrelated activities in the modern society is impressive and even overwhelming, but most tasks that are needed in order for this (or any other) society to function do not demand much serious thought. If it were possible to review on the one hand all existing tasks and on the other hand the capabilities of all people in a society, it would become clear that there is a large intersection between these two groups. Most people can perform most of the tasks in society providing that they have, in some cases, a certain preparation or experience. Only few people cannot perform the majority of all tasks, and only few tasks cannot be performed by most people. As John Stuart Mill said, man is so built that there is a constant tendency for the “beliefs and practices” of the world to “degenerate into the mechanical.”[5] Although it is not the conventional wisdom, the truth is that most of what man does during the course his life tends to be of a relatively simple and repetitive nature.

This routine character of most human activity is reflected, for instance, in the content of standard human communication. Most messages that individuals exchange between each other contain little or no reflection; they are mostly futile, transient, and superficial. As Henry Thoreau said, “Just so hollow and ineffectual, for the most part, is our ordinary conversation. Surface meets surface. When our life ceases to be inward and private, conversation degenerates into mere gossip.”[6] This is of course still the case today, despite the spread of education, and the typical attention span can now often be counted not in minutes but in seconds.[7] We thereby implicitly acknowledge that we usually do not expect those who communicate with us to say much of interest.

The only two fields of study that arguably require superior intelligence, and often clearly distinguish some men and women from the rest, are philosophy and mathematics. In comparison, all other fields can be said to be “practical”. In these two areas, only intelligent minds can succeed. In adjacent fields of study, such as economics, history, physics or statistics, an ordinary mind can be enough to be successful, provided the appropriate efforts are made. Subject-matters that borrow even fewer methods from these two essential areas can usually be relatively easily absorbed by the ordinary person. Indeed, most professions are only very loosely related, if at all, to these two fundamental fields and need little or no thinking ability to be performed successfully.

Contrary to popular belief, intelligence thus neither contributes much to happiness nor to success in the world. Intelligence is a unique gift when used for thought and speculation, but in the mindless hustle and bustle of daily life it is usually not a very useful quality. The film “Limitless”, like most of the popular media, unfortunately tries to make the exact opposite case. It not only conveys the erroneous idea that happiness and success are the exclusive prerogative of intelligent people, insinuating that ordinary minds are not bright enough to play the game of life. But it also makes the mistake of suggesting to both ordinary and intelligent people that it is futile to make efforts since Nature’s gifts are omnipotent. This is hardly the message, to say the least, that should be provided to the youth that this film targets, and which Western society is crucially counting on for economic growth and intellectual innovation in the next decades.


[2] G. Santayana, The Last Puritan, p424. (Scribner’s and Sons, 1936).

[3] See for instance, N. Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains.

[4] H. Adams, The Education of Henry Adams, p53. (Oxford World Classics, 1991). Henry Adams was the grand-son of President John Quincy Adams and member of one of the most famous political families in the US.

[5] J.S. Mill, On Liberty, p62. (Everyman’s Library, 1992.)

[6] H. D. Thoreau, Life without Principle.

[7] See for instance, “The Incredible Shrinking Sound Bite”, Boston.com, Jan 2, 2011, by Craig Fehrman.  (http://articles.boston.com/2011-01-02/bostonglobe/29339490_1_sound-bites-quotations-presidential-election)


  1. Great article, I could not agree more.

    PS : for purists read it while listening to Beethoven's 9th symphony !

  2. People of higher intelligence tend to eschew worldly values. Also the higher your intelligence, the more you can see the system (capitalist systems) inherent flaws and weaknesses so you are less likely to attribute 'success' to yourself. Since your success is taking place in a historical context of a severely flawed system.