The Life & Mind Seminar Network

Defining Agency

Posted in Seminars by xbarandiaran on July 6, 2009

Xabier Barandiaran, Ezequiel Di Paolo and Marieke Rohde have recently submitted the final version of a paper of interested to this blog: “Defining Agency. Individuality, Normativity, Asymmetry and Spatio-temporality in Action“, to be published soon on a special issue on Agency edited by Marieke Rohde and Takashi Ikegami on Adaptive Behavior Journal. The paper provides a explicit definition of minimal agency, hoping to be applicable to modellers and to provide a step forward to clarify and deepen into essential aspects of agency with a very special focus on the background of this blog: biological grounding of cognition, autopoiesis, enactive cognitive science, dynamicis approaches, etc.


ABSTRACT: The concept of agency is of crucial importance in cognitive science and artificial intelligence, and it is often used as an intuitive and rather uncontroversial term, in contrast to more abstract and theoretically heavy-weighted terms like “intentionality”, “rationality” or “mind”. However, most of the available definitions of agency are either too loose or unspecific to allow for a progressive scientific program. They implicitly and unproblematically assume the features that characterize agents, thus obscuring the full potential and challenge of modeling agency. We identify three conditions that a system must meet in order to be considered as a genuine agent: a) a system must define its own individuality, b) it must be the active source of activity in its environment (interactional asymmetry) and c) it must regulate this activity in relation to certain norms (normativity). We find that even minimal forms of proto-cellular systems can already provide a paradigmatic example of genuine agency. By abstracting away some specific details of minimal models of living agency we define the kind of organization that is capable to meet the required conditions for agency (which is not restricted to living organisms). On this basis, we define agency as an autonomous organization that adaptively regulates its coupling with its environment and contributes to sustaining itself as a consequence. We find that spatiality and temporality are the two fundamental domains in which agency spans at different scales. We conclude by giving an outlook to the road that lies ahead in the pursuit to understand, model and synthesize agents.
KEYWORDS: Agency, individuality, interactional asymmetry, normativity, spatiality, temporality.

<p style="text-align:center;"><a href=""><img class="aligncenter size-thumbnail wp-image-138" title="defining_agency_screenshot" src="" alt="defining_agency_screenshot" width="150" /></a></p>

4 Responses

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  1. Nathaniel Virgo said, on July 7, 2009 at 1:16 pm


    I’m not sure but I think there’s an error in your reasoning about the asymmetry in interactions between an agent and its environment. It seems to me that if one were to include every possibility in the equations on page 4 then one would have to add this additional possibility:

    click for equation

    In other words, in addition to there being a subset of the parameters that can be affected by the agent over a finite time to achieve a large effect, there is also a subset of parameters that can be affected by the environment in a similar manner.

    An example: the diver stands at the edge of the cliff, preparing to dive. At this moment an otherwise insignificant rock fall occurs, plunging the diver to her death. This seems to me quite symmetric with the possibility of the diver performing a successful dive. (This is before the introduction of norms into the argument, so the fact that there is a reason for the diver’s action and not for the envronment’s cannot be relevant, unless I’ve misunderstood something)

    On a more philosophical level it seems odd to try to define agency in terms of modulation, since the term has strong agentive connotations in itself. I’m not convinced that it’s possible to truly define modulation without reference to an agent that is doing the modulation. It would seem more natural to me to define modulation in terms of agency rather than the other way around. Specifically, your argument would seem much stronger to me if you said the asymmetry was due to the presence of normativity on the part of the agent but not on the part of the environment.

    • Ezequiel said, on July 8, 2009 at 2:55 pm

      Thanks, Nathaniel. Just quickly (I’m travelling at the moment). You’re right about the second equation, and we mention this somewhere in the paper (at least in a previous version! now I’m not sure), and it is precisely the requirement of normativity that saves the day. (We say that the requirements are not independent and they mutually cover each other’s weak points).

      This is what we try to hint at in the section on the relation between the requirements, they’re not fully independent, which is something to be discovered only when after a first attempt at formulating them. (This makes it a progressive dialectical exercise, not a purely analytical one).

      However, there’s no error in the definition of asymmetry just because there may also be modulations that originate in the environment. Overall, what asymmetry requires is that, in as much as the system is acting as an agent and at that time, the modulation described in our equations should be the case. As for modulations of the coupling occurring due to something that is not the system, these are perfectly admissible (in these cases we can describe the agent as being the passive receiver of an action or the sufferer of an event). As long as the system is not somehow engaging in a modulation that originates and depends on itself, then it is not acting as an agent at that moment. Conversely, for it to act as an agent, it must establish (at that moment!) the necessary asymmetry as described.

      You may be right that the word modulation can have agential undertones. But it is the milder term we could find to describe what the DeltaP equation describes. It’s amply used in physics and non-linear systems theory to be clear (from this context) that it implies no agency, just a system that occasionally does this change in the constraints that define its current coupling with the environment.

      If you have a better word, please let us know!


  2. xabier barandiaran said, on July 7, 2009 at 3:43 pm

    Hi Nathaniel!

    [argggg I lost a long comment that I have to rewrite/recall now!]

    First of all thanks for pointing to one of the weakest points of the definition. As we acknowledge in the conclusions it is openly problematic and requires more work.

    But it is a necessary requirement: notice that there can be system-environment couplings that are “sensitive” to the norms defined by the system and yet, are not agentive.

    – A cat taking care of ther kittens
    – A patient in being operated in a hospital

    In both cases the coupling is “in accordance with” or “sensitive to” the norms defined by the system, but neither the kitter or the patient are agents. So the normativity condition is satisfied but there is no agency (from the side of the system, the environment is in such cases composed of agents).

    It seems to me that some form of modulatory asymmetry should in principle be possibly measured without involving an apriori agency attribution. Think for instance on two coupled oscillators where one is said to exert a stronger influence over another, i.e. it is modulating it, without it being a requirement that the first oscillator be considered an agent.

    Perhaps correlational measures could be combined with interventional ones that perturb the system and explore not only what actually happened (a succesion of past events) but what would happen under differente conditions (counter-factual). Check out
    where Bertsinger et al. propose an information theoretic perspective that includes perturbations to the system. Infortunatelly we didn’t include any of this in the paper but my guess is something like this could be applicable to provide a nice criteria for modulation.



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