Before I die, I would love to write a little philosophy book on the nature of meaning and my sense of a critical realist view of the world. I'm not sure who would read or publish it, but alas, I digress... :-)
I was thinking the other day that the following phrase is a good illustration of how sloppily we often think: "She is smarter than him." This is doubly or triply sloppy. (Now mind you, it is perfectly legitimate to talk in this way because it is ridiculous to expect people to talk in philosophical propositions, although I would prefer just to say, "She's pretty smart.")
1. First, there is sloppiness in the words, "She is." What we are really saying is that in specific instances where a person might demonstrate intelligence, she demonstrates it or would demonstrate it in some greater degree than he does or would. In other words, a great number of our "s/he is" statements are really "s/he does" statements. In those cases, we are what we do.
Is he a good boy or a good girl? What we are really saying is that he or she does good or bad things in certain circumstances (or better yet, that he or she intends to do good or bad in certain circumstances). A large number of ascriptive statements along the lines of "s/he is, it is" are really extensions of "s/he does" or "they did" observations.
Of course that's assuming there is any basis for such ascriptions. "She is such a good person" sometimes can really mean, "I love my daughter no matter what she does because she's my daughter."
2. Second, there is sloppiness in the universal nature of the statement. There are people who would demonstrate greater intelligence than someone else in almost any imaginable situation. But we are really making a statistical judgment when we say, "She is smarter than him." We are saying, "In the majority of instances where intelligence might be demonstrated, she will demonstrate greater intelligence." So, again, "she is" nothing. Rather, in most cases, "she does" something.
Even here, however, this is a potentially problematic statement. We really need to specify in what context she is generally smarter than him. Is she smarter than him when doing math problems? Is she smarter than him at finding things around the house? Is she smarter than him at fixing cars? There are different kinds of intelligence.
So I think I am pretty good at seeing the big picture. I am not good at all at remembering what specific cards have already been played in Euchre (warning if we ever find each other at a New Year's Eve party). There are people who are going to be smarter (=act smarter) than someone else in so many different contexts that we are justified in saying, "She is smarter than him."
But most of the time, it is only going to be in certain areas that a person is going to statistically do the smarter thing than another. And it may be that two people do two equally smart things that are smart in different ways. Basically, intelligence is a slippery notion sometimes.
3. Which, finally, brings us to the final question. What really is intelligence? You'll notice that I get really annoyed at all you Platonists out there (like Tom Wright and all the post-liberals at Princeton and Duke) who act as if the world is really just an opportunity to talk about beautiful ideological systems. (P.S. You Aristotelians are wrong too, although greatly preferable--you know who you are Roger Olson).
Intelligence is really about ability. It is not about access to God's ideas. I have no problem using language about God's ideas as long as we know it is really only an analogy that helps us grasp a truth about God using our common language. Intelligence is about your ability to do things, thus the need to specify exactly what context we mean when we talk about intelligence.
That's enough for a cold morning, I suspect. The first sentence may have been enough for most... :-)