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

Nicholas Thompson thompnickson2 at gmail.com
Mon Jul 17 16:00:44 EDT 2023

By the way, not all designers are individuals.  Foxes design the behavior
of rabbits and rabbits design the behavior of foxes, but I wouldn't be
quick to call foxes an individual or rabbits an individual.  Natural
selection designs but it is not itself designed to do so.

On Mon, Jul 17, 2023 at 2:05 PM Nicholas Thompson <thompnickson2 at gmail.com>

> Hi, Russ,
> I have a non-scientist friend to whom I sometimes show my posts here for
> guidance.  I showed him some recent posts and he wrote back, "Wow, Nick!
> You are really swinging for the fences, here!"  He and I know that one who
> swings for the fences, rarely hits the ball, let alone the fences.
> So please can we precede in little tiny steps.
> You raise the question, _ *what makes an agent?*.
> This expression is ambiguous in just the way I was trying to highlight in
> my response:
> It could mean, *(1) What are the conditions that bring an agent into
> being? *
> Or it could mean, *(2) What are the conditions that require us to
> identify something an agent?.*
> The first (I think) is the explanatory question; the second, the
> descriptive question.   Wittgenstein was said to have said that something
> cannot be its own explanation, and I believed him.  Whatever else might be
> said about the relation between explanations and descriptions is that
> descriptions are states of affairs taken for granted by explanations.  If
> you ask me why the chicken crossed the road, my answering your quest
> commits me to the premise that the chicken did indeed cross the road.
> A definition is *explanatory *when it  describes a process which explains
> something else and which, itself, is in need of explanation.
> So:  Can I come back to you with a question?   Which of the two meanings
> did you intend.  And if you were looking  to define agents in terms of the
> internal mechanism that makes agency possible, what precisely is the state
> of affairs, behavior, what-have-you, that such agents are called upon to
> explain.!
> For me agency is design in behavior, and an agent is an individual whose
> behavior is designed.  All of this has to be worked out before your
> explanatory question becomes relevant, What is the neural mechanism by
> which such designs come about?
> nick
> On Sun, Jul 16, 2023 at 3:18 PM Russ Abbott <russ.abbott at gmail.com> wrote:
>> Nick,
>> I just asked Eric for examples. Your examples confuse me because I don't
>> see how you relate them to agenthood. Are you really suggesting that you
>> think of waves and puddles as agents? My suggestion was that you need some
>> sort of internal decision-making mechanism to qualify as an agent.
>> I don't know anything about the carotid sinus.
>> Your thermostat example strikes me as similar to my flashlight example. I
>> might put as: a thermostat senses the temperature and twiddles the controls
>> of the heating/AC units in response.
>> I'm not sure where you are going by labeling my discussion explanatory. I
>> wasn't thinking that I was explaining anything, other, perhaps, than my
>> intuition of what makes an agent.
>> -- Russ
>> On Fri, Jul 14, 2023 at 8:06 PM Nicholas Thompson <
>> thompnickson2 at gmail.com> wrote:
>>> Some examples I like to think about:
>>> Waves arrange pebbles on a beach from small to large
>>> A puddle maintains its temperature at 32 degrees as long as it has ice
>>> in it.
>>> The carotid sinus maintains the acidity of the blood by causing us to
>>> breath more oxygen when it gets to acid.  (I hope I have that right.
>>> An old-fashioned thermostat maintains the temperature of a house by
>>> maintaining the level of a vial of mercury attached to a bi-metallic coil.
>>> Russ, the objection would have with your definition is that it is
>>> explanatory.   An explanatory  definition identifies a phenomenon with its
>>> causes, bypassing  the phenomenon that raises the need for an explanation
>>> in the first place?   What is the relation between agents and their
>>> surroundings that makes them seem agentish?  Having answered that question,
>>> your explanation now comes into play.
>>> The thing about the above examples that makes them all seem agenty is
>>> that they keep bringing the system back to the same place.  The thing about
>>> them that makes them seem less agenty is that they have only one means to
>>> do so. Give that thermostat a solar panel, and a heat pump, and an oil
>>> furnace and have it switch from one to the other as circumstances vary, now
>>> the thermostat becomes much more agenty.
>>> Does that make any sense?  I think the nastiest problems here are (1)
>>> keeping the levels of organization straight and (2) teasing out the
>>> individual that is the agent.
>>> Nick
>>> On Fri, Jul 14, 2023 at 7:29 PM 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 <http://job.in> 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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