On Philosophy

December 9, 2007

Agency

Filed under: Mind — Peter @ 12:00 am

Although there are plenty of agents in the world we recognize that most of the world is best described as inanimate (meaning without agency, not motionless). While things such as rivers, storms, and fires may at times seem to act alive we know better, we know that they aren’t thinking, that they aren’t agents. But, once upon a time, that was not a typical way of looking at the world. Once upon a time everything was an agent, and all activity could be attributed either to agency, and thus desire, or things being acted upon. Some have even suggested that it is more natural to view the world in that way, that we are hard-wired to project agency into the world (because an over projection of agency was better than an under projection for purposes of survival), and that it is only by fighting that tendency we arrive at the view of the world as mostly inanimate that we do. I would argue that projecting agency into the world is also natural in another way. Obviously whenever we answer a “why?” question further such questions will be raised, and people tend not be completely satisfied with the answer to one until they are all answered. Attributing agency to the world gives an intuitive way to end this chain of questions, because once we attribute desires to explain why things happen we are naturally inclined to stop asking “why?”, because we don’t ask that question about our own desires. We are accustomed to the fact that our desires are simply bare facts, and thus are less tempted to ask why agents have the desires that they do, and more willing to just accept it.

Given that perhaps it is reasonable to ask why we stopped projecting agency into the world. Perhaps the reasons were purely pragmatic, because while cutting off the possibility of further questions is intellectually satisfying that is not how progress is made. And it might also be simply because we stumbled upon successful explanations of the world that didn’t involve any kind of agency. But those facts alone don’t necessarily stop us from treating the world as full of agents. We could, for example, treat the fundamental particles as agents, and explain why they follow the laws that they do by claiming that they desire to follow those laws. The fact that certain particles are attracted or repelled from each other almost calls out for a psychological explanation. Or we could attribute agency to the universe as a whole, explaining why things occur as they do because of the universe’s desire for the fundamental particles to move in the patterns that they do. Obviously this would entail accepting agents with some bizarre desires, but that doesn’t seem completely out of the question since back when the universe was originally explained in this way it was hypothesized that earth desired to be near other bits of earth, a desire that is fairly close to the kind we would have to attribute to the fundamental particles.

Part of the reason we aren’t inclined to take that route is probably because it would make the desires of the agents essentially unfathomable. Which is a problem as we would be thus making more intellectual work for ourselves by adding agency than we would by leaving it out of the picture. Usually we conceive of agency by uniting the desires of the agent under certain umbrella goals that reflect how things can go well or badly for them. But, while we might assign desires to things such as fundamental particles, there is little hope of devising goals that those desires might serve, because the desires will be a random looking mess that are justified not because they make sense but because they work when it comes to predicting what the particle will do. It is hard to imagine what things going well or poorly for a particle could even mean. Certainly they aren’t striving for existence, because some particles possess “desires” that lead to their own destruction. And it is equally hard to attribute goals to the universe as a whole as well. Not necessarily because it is unimaginable to do so, people often credit the universe with caring about their existence, with wanting humans and life in general to thrive. When it comes to the universe the problem is simply that none of these overall goals is compatible with the way the universe actually “acts”. If the universe is an agent it is one that is indifferent to the plight of the beings within it, because it makes the particles obey the same laws in every circumstance, never deviating from the laws, no matter what is going on. Thus if the universe as a whole were to have goals they would have to be completely alien, such as the goal of constructing a “beautiful” (by some standard) pattern of particle interactions.

That is one problem with projecting agency into the world in modern times. But I suspect the most significant reason that we no longer are tempted to project that agency is because we have developed more refined ideas about the nature of agency. As we constructed more complicated machines it became obvious that there was a difference between behavior and agency, lots of things could display complicated behavior but agency requires a mind, which we know our machines lack because we didn’t put one in while constructing them. And minds are complicated things, they aren’t just going to be found everywhere. Moreover by being complicated minds are the sorts of things we now demand explanations of, and so if we were going to start attributing minds to particles or the universe we might legitimately wonder where their minds were and how they worked.

But what exactly is this new conception of agency, and why are we willing to attribute it to cats and dogs but not tables and chairs? Obviously there are many differences between those things we treat as agents and those that we treat as simply complicated machines, but I think they key difference is that agents display a certain flexibility that things lacking agency do not. Just because an agent responded a certain way in one situation doesn’t mean that they will respond in that exact same way in the future, the agent learns and their behavior changes. If acting in a certain way frustrates their desires they will cease acting that way in the future, and, conversely, if something is particularly successful they will tend to try it again. In fact it might be argued that it is from this flexibility that we deduce what amounts to things going well or poorly for an agent; things that they adapt to avoid mean that they count as things going poorly for them, while things they adapt to seek are things going well. This also entails that there is a continuum between things that lack agency and those that possesses it, because things can be adaptive to a number of different degrees, but in normal situations the things we encounter lie clearly on one side of the divide or the other, and so we rarely find ourselves in a puzzling situation where we can’t determine whether something is an agent.

This division is more than an arbitrary one, what is a productive strategy is substantially different when it comes to dealing with agents instead of non-agents. And that is a pragmatic reason not to project agency onto the world, because if we did we would tend to approach the world with unsuccessful strategies. Obviously when it comes to things that lack agency they are completely predictable, if they behaved a certain way in one situation they will behave the exactly the same way if a similar situation arises in the future. But, on the downside, this also means that there is no way we can change their behavior except by directly taking measures that affect those things (such as damaging them or changing them), or by affecting the rest of the world so as to control what situations arise. Agents, on the other hand, are not as predictable. Admittedly on some level agents may be composed of mechanical components, and thus be predictable in some principled way. However, for all practical purposes they are unpredictable, because if you take your eyes off them for even a second there is always the possibility that they will have experiences that will affect how they behave, invalidating your predictions. On the other hand, because of their mutability, the behavior of agents can be controlled more subtly. A sufficiently intelligent agent can be reasoned with, bribed, or threatened, and less intelligent agents can be trained. And that is why it is an extremely bad idea to treat the universe, or inanimate things in general, as agents. No matter how much you threaten or bribe them they will act in the same way they always have.

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