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

Russ Abbott russ.abbott at gmail.com
Sun Jul 16 15:06:19 EDT 2023


Thanks for your thoughtful additional thoughts. To make it easier for me to
understand where you are going, would it be possible to include a
prototypical example for each of your categories?


-- Russ

On Fri, Jul 14, 2023 at 5:30 PM David Eric Smith <desmith at santafe.edu>

> 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.
> Eric
> 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> 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>> 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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