[FRIAM] What is an agent [was: Philosophy and Science}

David Eric Smith desmith at santafe.edu
Fri Jul 14 20:30:01 EDT 2023

I have had a version of this problem for several years, because I want to start with small-molecule chemistry on early planets, and eventually talk about biospheres full of evolving actors.  I have wanted to have a rough category system for how many qualitative kinds of transitions I should need to account for, and to explain within ordinary materials by the action of random processes.  Just because I am not a(n analytical) philosopher, I have no ambition to shoehorn the universe into a system or suppose that my categories subsume all questions even I might someday care about, or that they are sure to have unambiguous boundaries.  I just want a kind of sketch that seems like it will carry some weight.  For now.

Autonomy: One early division to me would be between matter that responds “passively” to its environment moment-by-moment, and as a result takes on an internal state that is an effectively given function of the surroundings at the time, versus one that has some protection for some internal variables from the constant outside harassment, and a source of autonomous dynamics for those internal variables.  One could bring in words like “energy”, but I would rather not for a variety of reasons.  Often, though, when others do, I will understand why and be willing to go along with the choice.

Control: The category of things with autonomous internal degrees of freedom that have some immunity from the slings and arrows of the immediate surroundings is extremely broad.  Within it there could be very many different kinds of organizations that, if we lack a better word, we might call “architectures”.  One family of architectures that I recognize is that of control systems.  Major components include whatever is controlled (in chem-eng used to be called “the plant”), a “model” in the sense of Conant and Ashby, “sensors” to respond to the plant and signal the model, and “effectors” to get an output from the model and somehow influence the plant.  One could ask when the organization of some material system is well described by this control-loop architecture.  I think the control-loop architecture entails some degree of autonomy, else the whole system is adequately described by passive response to the environment.  But probably a sophist could find counterexamples.

One could ask whether having the control-loop architecture counts as having agency.  By discriminating among states of the world according to their relation to states indexed in the model, and then acting on the world (even by so little as acting on one’s own position in the world), one could be said to express some sort of “goal”, and in that sense to have “had” such a goal.  

Is that enough for agency?  Maybe.  Or maybe not.

Reflection: The controller’s model could, in the previous level, be anything.  So again very broad.  Presumably a subset of control systems have models that incorporate some notion of a a “self”, so they could not only specifically model the conditions of the world, but also the condition of the self and of the self relative to the world, and then all of these variables become eligible targets for control actions.  

Conterfactuals and simulation: autonomy need not be limited to the receiving of signals and responding to them with control commands.  It could include producing values for counterfactual states within the controller’s model, of playing out representations of the consequences of control signals (another level of reflection, this time on the dynamics of the command loop), and then choosing according to a meta-criterion.  Here I have in mind something like the simulation that goes on in the tactical look-ahead in combinatorial games.  We now have a couple levels of representation between wherever the criteria are hard-coded and wherever the control signal (the “choice”) acts.  They are all still control loops, but it seems likely that control loops can have different enough major categories of design that there is a place for names for such intermediate layers of abstraction to distinguish some kinds as having them, from others that don’t.

How much internal reflective representation does one want to require to satisfy one or another concept of agency?  None of them, in particular?  A particular subset?

For different purposes I can see arguing for different answers, and I am not sure how many categories it will be broadly useful to recognize.


> On Jul 15, 2023, at 8:28 AM, Russ Abbott <russ.abbott at gmail.com> wrote:
> I'm not sure what "closure to efficient cause" means. I considered using as an example an outdoor light that charges itself (and stays off) during the day and goes on at night. In what important way is that different from a flashlight? They both have energy storage systems (batteries). Does it really matter that the garden light "recharges itself" rather than relying on a more direct outside force to change its batteries? And they both have on-off switches. The flashlight's is more conventional whereas the garden light's is a light sensor. Does that really matter? They are both tripped by outside forces.
> BTW, congratulations on your phrase epistemological trespassing! 
> -- Russ
> On Fri, Jul 14, 2023 at 1:47 PM glen <gepropella at gmail.com <mailto:gepropella at gmail.com>> wrote:
>> I'm still attracted to Rosen's closure to efficient cause. Your flashlight example is classified as non-agent (or non-living ... tomayto tomahto) because the efficient cause is open. Now, attach sensor and effector to the flashlight so that it can flick it*self* on when it gets dark and off when it gets bright, then that (partially) closes it. Maybe we merely kicked the can down the road a bit. But then we can talk about decoupling and hierarchies of scale. From the armchair, there is no such thing as a (pure) agent just like there is no such thing as free will. But for practical purposes, you can draw the boundary somewhere and call it a day.
>> On 7/14/23 12:01, Russ Abbott wrote:
>> > I was recently wondering about the informal distinction we make between things that are agents and things that aren't.
>> > 
>> > For example, I would consider most living things to be agents. I would also consider many computer programs when in operation as agents. The most obvious examples (for me) are programs that play games like chess.
>> > 
>> > I would not consider a rock an agent -- mainly because it doesn't do anything, especially on its own. But a boulder crashnng down a hill and destroying something at the bottom is reasonably called "an agent of destruction." Perhaps this is just playing with words: "agent" can have multiple meanings.  A writer's agent represents the writer in negotiations with publishers. Perhaps that's just another meaning.
>> > 
>> > My tentative definition is that an agent must have access to energy, and it must use that energy to interact with the world. It must also have some internal logic that determines how it interacts with the world. This final condition rules out boulders rolling down a hill.
>> > 
>> > But I doubt that I would call a flashlight (with an on-off switch) an agent even though it satisfies my definition.  Does this suggest that an agent must manifest a certain minimal level of complexity in its interactions? If so, I don't have a suggestion about what that minimal level of complexity might be.
>> > 
>> > I'm writing all this because in my search for a characterization of agents I looked at the article on Agency <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2019/entries/agency/> in the /Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy./ I found that article almost a parody of the "armchair philosopher." Here are the first few sentences from the article overview.
>> > 
>> >     In very general terms, an agent is a being with the capacity to act, and ‘agency’ denotes the exercise or manifestation of this capacity. The philosophy of action provides us with a standard conception and a standard theory of action. The former construes action in terms of intentionality, the latter explains the intentionality of action in terms of causation by the agent’s mental states and events.
>> > 
>> > _
>> > _
>> > That seems to me to raise more questions than it answers. At the same time, it seems to limit the notion of /agent/ to things that can have intentions and mental models.  (To be fair, the article does consider the possibility that there can be agents without these properties. But those discussions seem relatively tangential.)
>> > 
>> > Apologies for going on so long. Thanks, Frank, for opening this can of worms. And thanks to the others who replied so far.
>> > 
>> > __-- Russ Abbott
>> > Professor Emeritus, Computer Science
>> > California State University, Los Angeles
>> > 
>> > 
>> > 
>> > On Fri, Jul 14, 2023 at 8:33 AM Frank Wimberly <wimberly3 at gmail.com <mailto:wimberly3 at gmail.com> <mailto:wimberly3 at gmail.com <mailto:wimberly3 at gmail.com>>> wrote:
>> > 
>> >     Joe Ramsey, who took over my job.in <https://linkprotect.cudasvc.com/url?a=http%3a%2f%2fjob.in&c=E,1,ZIav2qEBYSxLGqvQX4FG0oAWBKSkcEB9rSfJj-XKpOD9tHOyXksq2ZtBESmsULaSupUC7vk04BazrglG4D-b7AP92McmfQb5aRH7KAKg&typo=1> <http://job.in <https://linkprotect.cudasvc.com/url?a=http%3a%2f%2fjob.in&c=E,1,w5L6ESqFsG_k1WjqiiZd-LW-FNq3wwseGECZMZpifzAWAZM_vc-u9gIIo8UiMeTxSEok1oAHiNRRSoxGNvuXGZ1IeBm5Vevc1u6F8lxy4zQ,&typo=1>> the Philosophy Department at Carnegie Mellon, posted the following on Facebook:
>> > 
>> >     I like Neil DeGrasse Tyson a lot, but I saw him give a spirited defense of science in which he oddly gave no credit to philosophers at all. His straw man philosopher is a dedicated *armchair* philosopher who spins theories without paying attention to scientific practice and contributes nothing to scientific understanding. He misses that scientists themselves are constantly raising obviously philosophical questions and are often ill-equipped to think about them clearly. What is the correct interpretation of quantum mechanics? What is the right way to think about reductionism? Is reductionism the right way to think about science? What is the nature of consciousness? Can you explain consciousness in terms of neuroscience? Are biological kinds real? What does it even mean to be real? Or is realism a red herring; should we be pragmatists instead? Scientists raise all kinds of philosophical questions and have ill-informed opinions about them. But *philosophers* try to answer
>> >     them, and scientists do pay attention to the controversies. At least the smart ones do.
>> > 
>> -- 
>> ꙮ Mɥǝu ǝlǝdɥɐuʇs ɟᴉƃɥʇ' ʇɥǝ ƃɹɐss snɟɟǝɹs˙ ꙮ
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