Are we humans all just agents in a model?

Metaphysics and Models

agentdef700x400I was struck this week by the diagram shown on the left in the image here, which comes from an Argonne National Laboratory document about agent-based models. These computer models apply complexity science by setting up a virtual environment populated by autonomous entities programmed to follow certain decision-making rules. Unlike simple probabilistic models, agent-based models can produce emergent phenomena (e.g., Arab Spring) that were not anticipated even by the people who set up the model.

This particular diagram defines an “agent” as distinct from a “function” or an “object.” A function, like taking the square root of something, is just a force in the world that acts upon anything it encounters. When it acts in one place it is indistinguishable from the same function enacted in some other place. For example, the square root function, whenever and wherever it encounters the number 4, produces a result of 2.

But what if a function has memory? What if it can retain knowledge of the specific interactions it has had in the past? Then it becomes an object—a bounded entity with a past, present, and future rather than simply a ubiquitous force in the world. But its behavior still follows the single function, or set of functions, it contains.

What makes an agent different from an object, then, is that it has autonomy. It has several options for how it might behave in a given situation, and it gets to make a choice. This is why agent-based models can produce emergent phenomena: When many individuals make a new choice, the entire system can change in surprising ways.

Part of the reason I was so taken with this discussion is that I have often thought of human development as passing through three realms: the realm of the body, of the mind, and of the soul. And this seems to match the diagram presented here. For example:

  • When consciousness resides in the body, the human is essentially a “function”—a physical impulse (e.g., sex, violence) that is essentially indistinguishable from one person to another.
  • When consciousness resides in the mind, the person becomes an “object” crafted by certain experiences in space and time that condition their behavior going forward.
  • When consciousness resides in the soul, however, that conditioning has less of a grip on behavior. The person accesses all options that any person would have in a situation, and has greater power over their own lives and over the world around them. One becomes an “agent” in the highest sense of the word.

When a Function Becomes an Object, and Vice Versa

Of course, the other thing on my mind this past week has been the racial violence gripping the nation, and I think the different behaviors we’ve seen reflect the distinctions outlined above.

I was at the rally in Washington, DC last Thursday evening, and I would say I was acting as the “function” of social protest. My body marching down Pennsylvania Avenue was indistinguishable in this respect from the other bodies. The point was simply to form a very large crowd of bodies to register public discontent.

But I did note some “objects” in the crowd. For example, I saw an African-American woman holding a Trayvon Martin sign to which she had attached a sheet of paper that said, “I have used this sign far too many times.” This woman had become an “object”—a function plus memory. Through multiple protests over time she is creating a story and a unique point of view that transcends my more simplistic desire to make the crowd just a little bit bigger.

I’ll speak of “agents” below, but first it’s worth noting that the distinction between “function” and “object” is also relevant to how we think about Jeronimo Yanez (the cop who shot Philando Castile) and Micah Xavier Johnson (the Dallas shooter). Everyone is now desperate to learn about each of these men, to figure out in each case, “Why did he do it?” as if their actions are the result of characteristics that are specific to them as individuals, as objects.

But what if they were acting not as objects but as functions? Maybe Yanez was acting simply out of fear (racial or otherwise)—a fear that he is himself now trying to understand. Johnson was certainly acting out of anger. Fear and anger are just functions; they are ubiquitous forces in the world just like the square root. The implication here is that I don’t need to know about the “objects” that Yanez and Johnson are to recognize the “function” their actions represent. If it hadn’t been them, it would have been someone else.

Agents Amidst a Racial Crisis

Going forward, we will see people show up on this issue as functions, objects, and possibly agents. People will protest, and the “function” of popular discontent will manifest itself in typical ways with varying degrees of violence. And as “objects,” many people will express their conditioned beliefs on TV, saying predictable things and looking like uncanny caricatures of themselves.

But what about the “agents”? Who will exhibit the autonomy that distinguishes a choiceful “agent” from a mere “object”? Where, for example, is the police officer who will deviate from the script enough to say that these shootings, while perhaps justified in retrospect by case law and tactical training, should not have happened in the first place, and that the policing profession needs to own their role in the crisis of trust between law enforcement and communities of color? Who among the protesters will embrace Officer Yanez as a fellow human whose life, like so many lives, has been destroyed by the toxic racial dynamics we have all tolerated for so long?

Of course, the responsibility in this situation is not evenly distributed among the parties. Those with power must take the first step toward reconciliation, and in the case of African-Americans, there is still a lot of anger and indignation for which space needs to be held.

To answer the question in the title of this post, no, we humans are not all just agents in a model. But we can aspire to be. At our basest levels we are just functions that act out upon the world around us, in the moment and with little consideration of past or future. At higher levels we are objects that take on an identity of our own and craft a unique experience over time. But at our highest levels we become agents—making surprising choices and doing the unexpected. When afraid, we extend a hand. When angry, we forgive. When ashamed, we repent and make amends. And by doing so we contribute in our own small way to the emergent phenomenon of a better world.