Dear Terry, Bob, Loet

Thank you for sharing those important thoughts about possible choices for the 
definition of agency.

I would like to add one more perspective that I find in Pedro’s article which 
makes a distinction between matter-energy aspects and informational aspects of 
the same physical reality. I believe that on the fundamental level of 
information physics we have a good ND simplest example how those two entangled 
aspects can be formally framed.
As far as I can tell, Terrys definition covers chemical and biological agency.
Do we want to include apart from fundamental physics also full cognitive and 
social agency which are very much dominated by informational aspects (symbols 
and language)?
Obviously there is no information without physical implementation, but when we 
think about epistemology and the ways we know the world, for us and other 
biological agents there is no physical interaction without informational 
Can we somehow think in terms those two faces of agency?
Without matter/energy nothing will happen, nothing can act in the world but 
that which happens and anyone registers it, has informational side to it.
For human agency (given that matter/energy side is functioning) information is 
what to a high degree drives agency.

Do you think this would be a fruitful path to pursue, with “agency” of 
elementary particles and agency of social institutions as two limit cases?

All the best,

Gordana Dodig Crnkovic, Professor of Computer Science
Department of Computer Science and Engineering
Chalmers University of Technology
School of Innovation, Design and Engineering, Mälardalen University
General Chair of is4si summit 2017<>

From: Fis <<>> 
on behalf of Loet Leydesdorff 
Organization: University of Amsterdam
Reply-To: "<>" 
Date: Friday, 20 October 2017 at 08:40
To: 'Bob Logan' <<>>, 
'fis' <<>>
Subject: Re: [Fis] What is “Agent”?

Dear Bob and colleagues,

I agree with the choice element. From a sociological perspective, agency is 
usually defined in relation to structure. For example, in terms of 
structure/actor contingencies. The structures provide the background that bind 
us. Remarkably, Mark, we no longer define these communalities philosophically, 
but sociologically (e.g., Merton, 1942, about the institutional norms of 
science). An interesting extension is that we nowadays not only perceive 
communality is our biological origins (as species), but also in terms of 
communicative layers that we construct and reproduce as inter-agency 

The relation with the information issue is not obvious. I worked on this a bit 
in the first half of the 90s:

  *   "Structure"/"Action" Contingencies and the Model of Parallel Distributed 
Processing, <> Journal for the 
Theory of Social Behaviour 23 (1993) 47-77.
  *   The Production of Probabilistic Entropy in Structure/Action Contingency 
Relations, <> Journal of Social and 
Evolutionary Systems 18 (1995) 339-56.

Loet Leydesdorff
Professor emeritus, University of Amsterdam
Amsterdam School of Communication Research (ASCoR) <> ;
Associate Faculty, SPRU, <> University of Sussex;
Guest Professor Zhejiang Univ.<>, Hangzhou; 
Visiting Professor, ISTIC, <> Beijing;
Visiting Fellow, Birkbeck<>, University of London;

From: Fis [] On Behalf Of Bob Logan
Sent: Friday, October 20, 2017 6:11 AM
To: Terrence W. DEACON <<>>
Cc: fis <<>>
Subject: Re: [Fis] What is “Agent”?

Dear Terry and FIS friends - I agree with all that Terry has said about agency. 
I do wish to however to point out that an agent has choice and a non-agent has 
no choice. I would suggest that the defining characteristic of an agent is 
choice and therefore an agent must be a living organism and all living 
organisms are agents. Agents/living organisms have choice or are capable of 
choice or agency and they are the only things that have choice or can interpret 
information. Abiotic non-agents do not have information because they have no 
choice. We humans can have information about abiotic objects but those objects 
themselves do not have that information as they have no mind to be informed. 
That includes this email post, it is abiotic an has no agency. It has 
information by virtue of you reading it because you are able to interpret the 
visual signs with which I have recorded my thoughts. Marshall McLuhan would add 
to my comments that “the user is the content” as well as saying that Shannon’s 
work was not a theory of information but a "theory of transportation”. I think 
of Shannon’s work in a similar light. I also do not regard Shannon’s work as a 
theory of information but it is a theory of signals. Shannon himself said his 
theory was not about meaning and I say what is information without meaning and 
that therefore Shannon only had a theory of signals.

Another insight of McLuhan’s that of figure and ground is useful to understand 
why we have so many different definitions of information. McLuhan maintained 
that one could not understand a figure unless one understood the ground in 
which it operates in. (McLuhan might have gotten this idea from his professor 
at Cambridge, I. A. Richards, who said that in order to communicate one needs 
to feedforward [he coined the term btw] the context of what one is 
communicating.) The different definitions of information we have considered are 
a result of the different contexts in which the term information is used. We 
should also keep in mind that all words are metaphors and metaphor literally 
means to carry across, derived from the Greek meta (literally ‘across') and 
phorein (literally 'to carry'). So the word information has been carried across 
from one domain or area of interest to another. It entered the English language 
as the noun associated with the verb 'to inform', i.e. to form the mind. Here 
is an excerpt from my book What Is Information? (available for free at<>):
"Origins of the Concept of Information - We begin our historic survey of the 
development of the concept of information with its etymology. The English word 
information according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first appears in 
the written record in 1386 by Chaucer: 'Whanne Melibee hadde herd the grete 
skiles and resons of Dame Prudence, and hire wise informacions and techynges.' 
The word is derived from Latin through French by combining the word inform 
meaning giving a form to the mind with the ending “ation” denoting a noun of 
action. This earliest definition refers to an item of training or molding of 
the mind.” This is why abiotic objects have no information as I claimed above 
because they have no mind that can be informed.
I hope that by informing you of the origin of the word information I have shed 
some light on our confusion about what is information and why we have so many 
definitions of it. It might even shed some light for that matter as to what is 
an agent. Got the ticket? If so that makes me a ticket agent. I hope you get 
the joke. all the best - Bob


Robert K. Logan
Prof. Emeritus - Physics - U. of Toronto
Fellow University of St. Michael's College
Chief Scientist - sLab at OCAD<>

On Oct 19, 2017, at 7:11 PM, Terrence W. DEACON 
<<>> wrote:

AUTONOMOUS AGENCY: The definition I propose for autonomous agency It is open to 
challenge. Of course, there are many ways that we use the term 'agent' in more 
general and metaphoric ways. I am, however, interested in the more fundamental 
conception that these derived uses stem from. I do not claim that this 
definition is original, but rather that it is what we implicitly understand by 
the concept. So if this is not your understanding I am open to suggestions for 

I should add that it has been a recent goal of my work to describe an 
empirically testable simplest model system that satisfies this definition. 
Those of you who are familiar with my work will recognize that this is what I 
call an autogenic or teleodynamic system. In this context, however, it is only 
the adequacy of the definition that I am interested in exploring. As in many of 
the remarks of others on this topic it is characterized by strange-loop 
recursivity, self-reference, and physicality. And it may be worth while 
describing how this concept is defined by e.g. Hofstadter, von Foerster, 
Luhmann, Moreno, Kauffman, Barad, and others, to be sure that we have covered 
the critical features and haven't snuck in any "demons". In my definition, I 
have attempted to avoid any cryptic appeal to observers or unexamined 
teleological properties, because my purpose is instead to provide a 
constructive definition of what these properties entail and why they are 
essential to a full conception of information.

CENTRALITY OF NORMATIVE PROPERTIES: A critical factor when discussing agency is 
that it is typically defined with respect to "satisfaction conditions" or 
"functions" or "goals" or other NORMATIVE properties. Normative properties are 
all implicitly teleological. They are irrelevant to chemistry and physics. The 
concept of an "artificial agent" may not require intrinsic teleology (e.g. 
consider thermostats or guidance systems - often described as teleonomic 
systems) but the agentive properties of such artifacts are then implicitly 
parasitic on imposed teleology provided by some extrinsic agency. This is of 
course implicit also in the concepts of 'signal' and 'noise' which are central 
to most information concepts. These are not intrinsic properties of 
information, but are extrinsically imposed distinctions (e.g. noise as signal 
to the repair person). So I consider the analysis of agency and its implicit 
normativity to be a fundamental issue to be resolved in our analysis of 
information. Though we can still bracket any consideration of agency from many 
analyses my simply assuming it (e.g. assumed users, interpreters, organisms and 
their functions, etc.), but this explicitly leaves a critical defining 
criterion outside the analysis. In these cases, we should just be clear that in 
doing so we have imported unexplained boundary conditions into the analysis by 
fiat. Depending on the goal of the analysis (also a teleological factor) this 
may be unimportant. But the nature and origin of agency and normativity remain 
foundational questions for any full theory of information.

On Thu, Oct 19, 2017 at 12:47 PM, Stanley N Salthe 
<<>> wrote:
Here is an interesting recent treatment of autonomy.

Alvaro Moreno and Matteo Mossio: Biological Autonomy: A Philosophical

and Theoretical Enquiry (History, Philosophy and Theory of the Life Sciences 

Springer, Dordrecht, 2015, xxxiv + 221 pp., $129 hbk, ISBN 978-94-017-9836-5


On Thu, Oct 19, 2017 at 11:44 AM, Terrence W. DEACON 
<<>> wrote:


On Wed, Oct 18, 2017 at 6:00 PM, Koichiro Matsuno 
<<>> wrote:
On 19 Oct 2017 at 6:42 AM, Alex Hankey wrote:

the actual subject has to be non-reducible and fundamental to our universe.

   This view is also supported by Conway-Kochen’s free will theorem (2006). If 
(a big IF, surely) we admit that our fellows can freely exercise their free 
will, it must be impossible to imagine that the atoms and molecules lack their 
share of the similar capacity. For our bodies eventually consist of those atoms 
and molecules.

   Moreover, the exercise of free will on the part of the constituent atoms and 
molecules could come to implement the centripetality of Bob Ulanowicz at long 
last under the guise of chemical affinity unless the case would have to 
forcibly be dismissed.

   This has been my second post this week.

   Koichiro Matsuno

From: Fis 
[<>] On 
Behalf Of Alex Hankey
Sent: Thursday, October 19, 2017 6:42 AM
To: Arthur Wist <<>>; FIS 
Webinar <<>>
Subject: Re: [Fis] What is “Agent”?

David Chalmers's analysis made it clear that if agents exist, then they are as 
fundamental to the universe as electrons or gravitational mass.

Certain kinds of physiological structure support 'agents' - those emphasized by 
complexity biology. But the actual subject has to be non-reducible and 
fundamental to our universe.


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Professor Terrence W. Deacon
University of California, Berkeley

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Professor Terrence W. Deacon
University of California, Berkeley
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