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

Russ Abbott russ.abbott at gmail.com
Mon Jul 17 17:44:16 EDT 2023

Hi all,

I asked what I thought, naively, was a fairly simple question, namely
something like Nick's question (2): "*What are the conditions that require
us to identify something [as] an agent?*" I wasn't intending to be
prescriptive and wouldn't have used "require us." I was more musing to
myself: What properties/conditions would lead me to label something an
agent? If I/we came up with something that felt satisfying, I would then
want to know whether others would be similarly inclined to label things
that satisfied those properties, and only those things, as agents.

I now feel like I'm being offered enormous pools of sophisticated
scholarship. As Eric says in a message that arrived as I was writing this,
there is so much good stuff in your replies that I feel overwhelmed by the
amount of work I would have to do to reply intelligently. I almost wish we
were carrying on this conversation via Twitter (or Threads). I could
probably handle posts of 256 characters!  With that as a preliminary
disclaimer, here are some Tweet-like comments.

*Glen,* I deliberately didn't include a finger/hand/arm to press the
flashlight's button. The button press in my view serves as an external
event that the flashlight "senses" and to which it responds by turning on
its light. Also, I wouldn't insist that agents have the means to replenish
their energy supplies. All, agents (in my view) expend energy, which must
be renewed if they are to continue to act. Since there are so many ways
energy supplies can be recharged, the particular way that serves a
particular agent is, in my view, a necessary but relatively unimportant

*Nick,* as I said, I intended something like your question 2. I'm not
asking an agent to explain itself or to explain how it acquired the means
to act as an agent.

*Dave,* I wouldn't require the properties I'm seeking as defining an agent
to reflect only externally observable behaviors. In fact, I would expect
any collection of agent-defining properties to include something about what
goes on in the agent. I'm not sure why you want to exclude such properties.

*Stephen,* My interest is not in things that are agents because they act on
behalf of something else. A would categorize agents in agent-based models
as simulated agents. Most agent-based models ignore the energy agents
expend and how it is renewed. Software agents other than ABM agents seem to
me to be objects (as in object-oriented programming) with internal
threads--which enable them to act on their own. That seems like an
important distinction. Objects can act in response to external triggers,
i.e., calls to their interfaces, but only objects with internal threads
have the means to initiate actions autonomously. I would consider the
agents (e.g., turtles, etc.) in NetLogo valid agents. They have the
equivalent of threads that are run every clock tick. They don't require
that other agents interact with them in order to act.

-- Russ

On Mon, Jul 17, 2023 at 1:00 PM Nicholas Thompson <thompnickson2 at gmail.com>

> 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>
> wrote:
>> 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
>>>>>> -. --- - / ...- .- .-.. .. -.. / -- --- .-. ... . / -.-. --- -.. .
>>>>>> FRIAM Applied Complexity Group listserv
>>>>>> Fridays 9a-12p Friday St. Johns Cafe   /   Thursdays 9a-12p Zoom
>>>>>> https://bit.ly/virtualfriam
>>>>>> to (un)subscribe
>>>>>> http://redfish.com/mailman/listinfo/friam_redfish.com
>>>>>> FRIAM-COMIC http://friam-comic.blogspot.com/
>>>>>> archives:  5/2017 thru present
>>>>>> https://redfish.com/pipermail/friam_redfish.com/
>>>>>>   1/2003 thru 6/2021  http://friam.383.s1.nabble.com/
>>>>> -. --- - / ...- .- .-.. .. -.. / -- --- .-. ... . / -.-. --- -.. .
>>>>> FRIAM Applied Complexity Group listserv
>>>>> Fridays 9a-12p Friday St. Johns Cafe   /   Thursdays 9a-12p Zoom
>>>>> https://bit.ly/virtualfriam
>>>>> to (un)subscribe http://redfish.com/mailman/listinfo/friam_redfish.com
>>>>> FRIAM-COMIC http://friam-comic.blogspot.com/
>>>>> archives:  5/2017 thru present
>>>>> https://redfish.com/pipermail/friam_redfish.com/
>>>>>   1/2003 thru 6/2021  http://friam.383.s1.nabble.com/
-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: <http://redfish.com/pipermail/friam_redfish.com/attachments/20230717/2f94c688/attachment.html>

More information about the Friam mailing list