Understanding Agency

post by G Gordon Worley III (gworley) · 2014-12-17T06:35:15.744Z · LW · GW · Legacy · 32 comments

Note: In this article I refer to "constructive developmental theory" as "constructive development theory", however the former is more common and should be used instead. I changed it in the version of this on my own blog, but because I think it would add some confusion to the comments if I changed it here, I'll leave it as is but just note it so you can use the more common terminology.

I used to get frustrated with myself. I'd say existential risk was an important problem or that I wanted to live an awesome life, but then I took no action to mitigate existential risks or make my life more awesome. For a long time I had no good way to explain this, often blaming it on things like akrasia, but in late 2011 I changed. I started acting to make the world have more of what I valued in it.

I've spent a lot of the past year trying to understand what happened and how I might tell other people about it. I would probably still be searching for the right framing if not for a party a few months ago. There, Malcolm Ocean and Ethan Dickinson introduced me to Constructive Development Theory, also known as Subject-Object Theory, a cognitive development theory first described by Robert Kegan et al.. Since then I've been ruminating on the idea, and after reading Malcolm's introduction to constructive development, I realize that constructive development is the concept I need to explain my 2011 mind-shift.

In short, in late 2011 I started to spend more of my time thinking at constructive development level 4 than 3, and level 4 thinking is the minimum required to stand a real chance of making the world the way you want it.

Since that sounds like utter nonsense without context, go read Malcolm's article on constructive development. Right now. Go do it. I'll still be here when you're done. Don't even bother trying to go any further until you have read it.

In fact, you should also read the links he links before you come back, and maybe do a little research on your own, because I'm not going to bother explaining constructive development theory here: I'm just going to use it.

Before we continue, one more warning. If you're not already doing most of your thinking at least half-way along the 3 to 4 transition (which I will hereon refer to as reaching 4/3), you will probably also not fully understand what I've written below because that's unfortunately also about how far along you have to be before constructive development theory makes intuitive sense to most people. I know that sounds like an excuse so I can say whatever I want, but before reaching 4/3 people tend to find constructive development theory confusing and probably not useful, and this is admittedly a weakness. My intentions must therefore be naturally limited to convincing other folks who have reached 4/3 that constructive development theory is useful for understanding what makes them different and suggests how they can help others attain a similar level of cognitive development.

Once you reach 4/3 it becomes possible to reliably apply abstract concepts to satisfy your values because you now have the ability to spend most of your time thinking about yourself from a sufficiently distant outside view that you can manipulate the concept of "you" in a way that allows you to figure out how to apply said concepts. Since that's a bit abstract, let's see what that looks like with an example.

Consider two persons in almost any given profession, but for salience let's choose teachers. Alice and Bob both value their students' learning highly and know many techniques that will successfully help their students learn. When Alice prepares for a class, she thinks mostly about the kind of teacher she needs to be in order to help her students learn. When Bob prepares for a class, he thinks mostly about what he needs to do in order to help his students learn. Both have the same goal, yet Alice is thinking mostly at level 4 while Bob is thinking mostly at level 3. Alice is trying to solve the problem of how to be a better teacher, while Bob is trying to solve the problem of how to teach better. Both are important, and Alice must also solve the problem of how to teach better, but she now views that problem as incidental to becoming a better teacher.

To complicate matters, Bob doesn't really understand that Alice is doing something different from him, nor does their colleague Carol, who spends most of her time thinking at level 2 and trying to solve the problem of how to better perform various teaching techniques. But Carol will believe she is doing the same thing as Alice and Bob, and Bob will believe he's doing the same thing as Alice (viz. thinking about how to be a better teacher) and if you try to explain this to Bob or Carol they will likely fail to appreciate that there is any real difference.

But the difference is important: at constructive development level 4, you can be the object of your own thoughts, not just the subject. At level 3 you can be the subject but not the object of your thinking, which can be incredibly frustrating, and at level 2 you can't even fully model yourself. So level 4 thinking is the minimum required to fully reason about yourself, which is why reaching 4/3 is an important inflection point in cognitive development.

If reaching 4/3 is important and actually explains different levels of achievement in satisfying values, we should find existing discussions of reaching 4/3 but with different terminology. Eliezer seems to obliquely get at something related to reaching 4/3 in his twelfth and last virtue of rationality. CFAR talks about core skill growth, which seems to include many things related to constructive development level 4 thinking. But most concretely, we see it around chapter 65 of HPMOR when other characters realize that Harry has gained agency, something talked about widely both within and outside the Less Wrong community.

But core skill growth and agency are opaque. When a person has agency we mean something like "they make their own decisions". But of course everyone trivially makes their own decisions: their brains are not directly controlled by some outside force, no matter the pressures placed upon them. What we really mean is something more like "they think, come to decisions about what to do, and then act on those decisions in ways that may be counter to the 'default' actions they would have otherwise taken". But for someone who lacks agency this is not very helpful because it frames agency like a property one either has or doesn't, not as a thought process that can be developed. Thinking of agency as a consequence of reaching 4/3 solves this problem. Similarly, understanding core skill growth as increasing time spent thinking at higher constructive development levels makes its meaning clearer.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, agency is the thing you need to make the world what you want. You can know many techniques for increasing productivity, forming friendships, earning trust, having fun, and otherwise better satisfying your values, but without agency you will be unable to reliably apply them. This makes reaching 4/3 the most important step in your cognitive development, and the faster you can get there the better off you will be.

The challenge now is to find ways of helping people constructively develop. I think we have already made some good strides here with comfort zone expansion exercises and framing rationality as the skills that help you better optimize the world for what you value, but I also think we can do better because I know many folks who have been part of the Less Wrong community for a long time yet have thus far won very little. I anticipate better progress is possible now, though, thanks to having a useful model for understanding the most fundamental aspect of becoming stronger.

Thanks to Ethan Dickinson for offering suggestions on an early draft.

Cross posted from my blog.


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by gjm · 2014-12-17T11:52:35.771Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You have a link to an "article on constructive development", which you repeat no fewer than six times to encourage readers to go and read it.

However, the thing at the far end of the link is not an article on constructive development. It is an article about (1) two ways of responding to one's own misdeeds and (2) a notation for describing stages in the transition between two modes of thinking. (The notation is called "subject-object notation" but appears to have nothing specifically to do with the subject/object distinction. This doesn't seem to me like a good sign that the author is thinking clearly about things.)

There is a link from there to a summary of constructive-developmental theory by Peter Pruyn. It seems ... OK, I guess. I'm rather put off by the patronizing mealy-mouthedness with which the author disclaims the very idea that the later stages might be thought "better" -- in the same article in which he says that later stages indicate their capacity to cope with difficult situations, suggests that those at earlier stages are unfit for senior roles at work, calls the later stages "higher levels of consciousness", and of course classifies them as developmental stages which on its own pretty much gives the game away.

Still, congratulations on reaching level 4. (Though it seems to me there's something rather inappropriate about saying that.)

Replies from: malcolmocean, malcolmocean, gworley
comment by MalcolmOcean (malcolmocean) · 2014-12-18T16:50:26.359Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Hey, author of the post on notation here. I think that the overview of CDT by Pruyn suffers from a (common) lack of ability to distinguish "morally better" from "functionally better". The author is trying to say "people at the lower levels aren't bad people" and ends up suggesting "it's not worth trying to level up".

Replies from: gjm
comment by gjm · 2014-12-18T23:17:58.644Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Hmm. Not convinced, I'm afraid: why would anyone think (or expect others to think they think) that being lower on the scale is a moral failing? It looks to me more as if Pruyn is trying to claim that he doesn't even see people at the higher levels as functionally better. Except that very clearly he does.

comment by MalcolmOcean (malcolmocean) · 2014-12-18T17:01:13.361Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

With respect to the remark you made about my post, hmm.

I suppose, now that you mention it, that that kind of notation could also be applied to cover any arbitrary shift from being an Xian to being Yist. But I find myself averse to that usage for reasons that don't immediately come to mind. Likely it's just because I'm used to it describing a basically-one-way shift, in the context of CDT. Even though ultimately it's a symmetric notation.

I appreciate you pointing out that the thing I was posting about potentially has larger applications! :)

Replies from: gjm
comment by gjm · 2014-12-18T23:18:10.059Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You're welcome!

comment by G Gordon Worley III (gworley) · 2014-12-18T06:36:15.999Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I agree that one of the problems with constructive development theory, as you seem to hint at, is that it sets off certain alarm bells in your mind because it matches the same patterns as things which we have now concluded to be incorrect or just instruments for abuse of power.

Explicit levels are a common tactic taken to try to give rationalizations of why this person or that person of higher status "deserves" that status against human egalitarian norms, so naturally any theory that includes something like them feels a bit icky, and nothing in the material presented here does much to clear that up.

I've also not read a good explanation of constructive development theory that would make sense to someone who doesn't understand the subject-objection notation (that is, I've seen nothing that does a great job of explaining subject-object notation to someone who doesn't immediately grasp the concept and then just needs some details filled in) or who hasn't started thinking at least some of the time at level 4.

However constructive development theory certainly hasn't been as vigorously researched and written about as many other topics in psychology, and lacking any strong disconfirming evidence I'm inclined to suspect we might find good evidence and helpful explanations if we spend some more time digging into it.

I'm woefully under-skilled for the task of both rigorous scientific studies and clear explanations that will satisfy a wide audience, so my main hope is that my insights spur on a few folks who are appropriately skilled to dig deeper.

Replies from: gjm
comment by gjm · 2014-12-18T15:25:52.120Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

No, I wasn't hinting that it sets off alarm bells because it pattern-matches against other things that we've found to be wrong or harmful.

I was saying that the author of the piece in question shows signs of intellectual dishonesty: presenting this taxonomy in a way that makes it clear that he sees people at higher levels as more capable, more fit for high responsibility, etc., while also claiming explicitly not to think any such thing. This of course has little bearing on whether the theory is correct (my feeling is that like most such theories it's describing something real but putting more structure on it than the reality actually has; different people think at different levels of abstraction, have more or less detailed models of the world, care differently about others, etc., and all these things are continuously variable and dividing into "stages" is artificial) but -- and at this point I am pattern-matching -- it seems to me like it might be a sign that he, and so maybe others, may be embracing the theory for the feeling of superiority it gives as well as for its actual merits.

someone who doesn't understand the subject-object notation

I'm not sure whether that's me or not. I mean, the description in the article you linked to seems perfectly straightforward but it seems to me that the right way to think about it is that you have

  • a notation for indicating steps from A to B (A; A(B) meaning "basically A but with B beginning to creep in"; A/B meaning "a mixture of A and B, with A having the upper hand", B/A meaning "a mixture of A and B, with B having the upper hand", and B(A) meaning "basically B but with occasional bits of A")
  • the ability to use this notation when A and B are successive steps along some path of cognitive development, with a little more specificity in the meanings of the steps (e.g., the boundary between A/B and B/A being which of two frameworks you mostly use for understanding things)
  • one specific application to CDT

and the only place where subjects and objects come into it is in the fact -- which has basically nothing to do with the notation -- that CDT has this idea that you can be acted upon by things that are at too high a level of abstraction, too large a scope, for you to be thinking about them explicitly, and that important progress happens when you gain the ability to think about them rather than merely being acted on by them. Which is all very well but really isn't a reason to call it "subject-object notation".

comment by Dagon · 2014-12-17T08:31:50.087Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I completely buy into the basic idea that accepting responsibility for outcomes, and predicting in terms of actions and consequences (future-looking) rather than blame and justification (past-looking) is transformative and powerful.

I'm not sold on the complicated framework or 21-step ranking or linear approach to it.

If it works for you, great. It doesn't seem universal to me.

Replies from: gworley
comment by G Gordon Worley III (gworley) · 2014-12-18T06:44:10.661Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

On the question of universality, it actually seems to apply pretty broadly and pretty accurately to many folks. In fact, I'd actually be very interested if you (or someone) could present one or more groups of humans who cannot be well understood within this framework.

I've thought about several types of mental abnormalities humans sometimes possess, but at most they just seem to require you to understand additional complications introduced by abnormalities rather than break the constructive development theory model. However I can only think up so many things so fast, so perhaps I have missed a case in my thinking that would not yield so easily.

Replies from: Dagon
comment by Dagon · 2014-12-18T10:10:34.413Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

By "not universal", I don't necessarily mean that you can't fit most into the theory, I mean the theory doesn't help me understand most people I interact with, and it doesn't help me understand myself.

There are way more biases and weightings in decisionmaking than this binary approach to actor/acted-upon, and most actions have relationships between hundreds of things, each with different levels of influence and counter-influence.

Replies from: gworley
comment by G Gordon Worley III (gworley) · 2014-12-18T18:38:18.322Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I agree. I do not see this as a single theory that explains everything, only an important theory that explains a very important thing. Human minds are messy, real systems with lots of complexities, so of course any model will have to give up some resolution to be useful.

I'm sorry that it doesn't help you understand yourself or others better. The fact that it doesn't is a major reason why I think we need to put more effort into developing it, and I hope my posting this will increase the exposure enough to attract the attention of others who are more focused on solving the problem of helping other people better themselves.

comment by VAuroch · 2014-12-18T02:59:58.294Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This comes off as purely bragging and applause lights. And several of the applause lights aren't relevant. (that chapter of HPMoR and the 12th virtue of rationality)

Additionally, I disagree with one of the premises, which is that CDT is meaningful and useful but can only be well-understood by people who have reached a certain level in its hierarchy. I feel competent to make this judgment, because by its own description, I uncomfortably sit in level 4 (and have a very poor model of what it means to be level 3; I suspect some unpleasant circumstances and mild neuroatypicality made me leapfrog 3). And the theory does not seem to have explanatory power,

Or in short: Scrap this post and come back when you can explain it better, and don't use excuses like 'this needs higher-order thinking' ; I'll believe you have an insight but you're not conveying it now, and those excuses are just excuses.

Replies from: gworley, gworley
comment by G Gordon Worley III (gworley) · 2014-12-18T06:54:15.262Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I should also reply more directly to your comments.

I think you are right to criticize my presentation. I'm by no means an expert writer, and despite the significant effort I put into producing this article I'm not satisfied myself with the quality of the explanations, so it hardly surprises me that others feel the same way. You can view my limitations as "just" excuses if you like, but I mostly look at them as tradeoffs: I can either publish this kind of confusing thing or spend months becoming a better writer. Unfortunately for my dear readers I've chosen to leave my writing confusing rather than devote more time now to writing better, and I suffer the consequences for it as much as they do.

I'm not sure that I'm seeking applause lights. That section only got included after Ethan pointed out to me that he saw a similarity between what I was talking about and what recalled from HPMOR and CFAR. Having those, I thought it appropriate to see if Eli had written something in the sequences that was relevant, but since he mostly seems to gloss over agency and takes it as given.

Replies from: VAuroch
comment by VAuroch · 2014-12-18T09:27:10.944Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Your writing mistakes here make this worse than useless; they signal crackpottery and cultishness in such a way that not posting it would be superior to posting it in it's current form. Especially since if it's true, then by your own admission it's only comprehensible to people who don't need it, and only useful to people who can't comprehend it.

Replies from: gworley
comment by G Gordon Worley III (gworley) · 2014-12-18T19:14:12.615Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think you think I have way more influence than I do and are probably overly concerned with the image of Less Wrong I present. I guess I have little to say to that because I don't much care at the moment: I'm more interested in exploring these ideas and bettering myself and hopefully others than I am in presenting a particular image of Less Wrong.

I think the main people this article is useful for are two groups: those on the margin just about the do enough level 4 thinking that this inspires them on, and those who will understand it and by so doing better appreciate the value of constructive development theory. My main purpose in writing is to reach this latter group, because I hope that by sharing with them the explanatory power of constructive development theory for making sense of things that they may be trying to help others with, they may advance in the study of how to make people stronger, a al CFAR.

Replies from: VAuroch
comment by VAuroch · 2014-12-18T21:31:55.336Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

No, you aren't affecting the image of LessWrong. You're affecting the image of yourself and Construtcive Development Theory, which I am now increasingly convinced is pure crackpottery.

Seriously, listen to yourself. You sound like a Scientologist, here.

comment by G Gordon Worley III (gworley) · 2014-12-18T06:12:21.636Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I mean no insult to you, but if you don't understand level 3, you're almost certainly then actually spending your time thinking at levels 2 and 3 but mistaking it for level 4. This seems to be rather strongly backed up by assessment data.

Replies from: VAuroch
comment by VAuroch · 2014-12-18T09:21:57.152Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I understand that such people exist, but do not have a good model of what it is like to be one; I have decent models of specific people who approximately meet that description, but no general case. And the description of 3 and 5 are equally alien to me; I have difficulty imagining a version of myself which does not have as its driving fear "falling short of [my] own standards" (4) to a pathological degree. A large degree of my problems as a child were a consistent lack of ability to have my identity "tied to living in relationship with others in roles determined by one’s local culture" (3), be "influenced by what she or he believes others want to hear" (3), or to give respect to authority I perceived as inadequate by my own standards (luckily, I had a sufficient supply of smart teachers I did respect that I never did this enough to get thrown out of school, but it was a very near thing one year). I have been judging myself by my own personal standards since elementary school (and finding myself lacking, natch); I might be 4(2) but I'm very certainly not 3.

Also, I'll believe the assessment data when I see it. Specifically, some assessments run by people who do not subscribe to this model of development; this overview page looks pretty strongly like it's making excuses for the lack of dragon in advance, and additionally it indicates that their job depends upon believing it's true, so I'm very suspicious that they will get trustworthy results.

Replies from: gworley
comment by G Gordon Worley III (gworley) · 2014-12-18T19:23:37.453Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I agree that constructive development theory has been unfortunately ignored more than it should have been and needs more evidence surrounding it to prove or disprove it. However an aspect of the assessment tools is that they can be run by someone of any constructive development level, so it should be relatively easy to gather additional data using assessors who even actively disagree with constructive development theory. Assuming future data matches the existing data, this would suggest that the constructive development levels are are useful measurement tool, although that certainly still leaves open debate on what they assess.

I'm also not really aware of any assessments being done outside the Anglosphere, so it's also possible the whole thing will collapse under cultural differences. I don't consider it likely, but it would certainly be interesting if that happened.

comment by DeevGrape · 2014-12-18T16:25:19.341Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Author, ladies and gentlemen of the comments: http://lesswrong.com/lw/kg/expecting_short_inferential_distances/

Replies from: gworley
comment by G Gordon Worley III (gworley) · 2014-12-18T19:16:04.133Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yep, I had that in mind when I was writing, which is why I went through the trouble of offering an apology and links. I'm actually surprised that the criticism has been as light as it has been.

comment by johnswentworth · 2015-01-06T04:48:50.750Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think this post makes a good case for the usefulness of the 4 vs 3 distinction towards rationality. I can see where it potentially names a concept which feels central but hasn't been well-characterized before. Thank you for the name, and for the links!

It'd be really cool if someone could write up a more lesswrong-oriented intro to constructive developmental theory, especially focusing on (1) reproducibility throughout the spectrum, (2) any known correlates of interest, and (3) any known work on how to teach level-4+ thinking as a skill.

Replies from: gworley
comment by G Gordon Worley III (gworley) · 2015-01-14T05:28:54.091Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Maybe that someone is you.

Constructive developmental theory appears to be fairly reproducible in that inter-rater reliability is extremely high if that's what you mean.

Constructive development level is known to correlate with leadership skill. This is kind of cherry-picking, though, because no one other than management consultants has seemed to even try to apply constructive developmental theory in the real world (or if they have it failed and they didn't tell anyone).

The same management consultants have made a business of helping people reaching level 4, because they are dramatically more effective leaders than folks who primarily think at level 3 or, worse yet, level 2. Level 2 thinking is basically what gets you the typical Pointed Haired Boss of Dilbert fame. Level 3 gets you "leaders" who people like but who actually tend to have a hard time leading because they have difficulty making decisions without over-consulting others.

comment by realitygrill · 2015-01-03T19:21:04.403Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Interesting, but seems unconvincing and not very motivating.

Assuming the CDT system, I'd presume that most people on LessWrong have hit 4/3; level 4 is simply defined to be the level at which you reliably apply metacognition. Fine, but I don't see that reliably applying metacognition dissolves the problems of akrasia. Right now I'd say that level 4 is necessary, but insufficient. There's a gap. Or, at least I perceive a gap.

So here's my question: Are you unable to imagine someone who holds themselves as object having akrasia, or do you think such people cannot exist?

"I know many folks who have been part of the Less Wrong community for a long time yet have thus far won very little."

This is certainly a concern.

Replies from: gworley
comment by G Gordon Worley III (gworley) · 2015-01-04T19:59:46.648Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I actually think that no, most folks on LW have not reached 4/3, and it's what's holding them back. The same is true of the general population.

As for the gap you perceive, you're right that there is one if we limit ourselves to talking about the defining characteristics of constructive developmental levels, but constructive development tends to carry along with it a package of patterns of thought that fill that gap.

So to answer your question, yes, such a person could exist, however there should be relatively few such people who don't, in a period of a year or two, don't get over their akrasia barring any particular mental abnormalities.

Replies from: realitygrill
comment by realitygrill · 2015-01-04T20:38:58.191Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If I get you, you're saying that in practice getting to level 4 generally carries you past that gap. Like the patterns of thought accrete into a sort of momentum.

Replies from: gworley
comment by G Gordon Worley III (gworley) · 2015-01-05T06:07:50.111Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Right. It seems that whatever is actually involved in primarily engaging in constructive developmental level 4 thinking tends to come along with a package of other things, although it's not entirely clear what that package of things is.

For example, constructive developmental level is positively correlated with leadership skill.


So that gives us some ideas of things that seem to come along with higher constructive developmental levels, but sadly the literature has primarily focused on reasoning out conclusions and done very little to test if constructive developmental level correlates with stuff, which would be useful here for figuring out what to expect at particular levels.

comment by Kenny · 2015-02-23T01:08:18.909Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

One detail that I've noticed repeated in several of the links, and links of links, is the following claims:

  • The first of Kegan’s adult stages ... the Socialized Mind. ... Fifty eight percent of adults operate at or below this level of mental complexity.
  • The second adult stage Kegan terms the Self-Authoring Mind. ... Approximately 35% of the adult population is at this plateau of development.
  • The last adult stage Kegan calls the Self-Transforming Mind. ... Less than 1% of adults attain this level of consciousness.

So where are the other 6+% of adults?

Also, you could have easily explained constructive development theory here. It doesn't seem particularly complicated. In fact, I put off reading this post for a while, waiting until I'd read the links, but then read it anyway, before I'd read more than a fragment of the first link. My understanding didn't change after reading any of the links, or the links of the links.

But I can see how this could be a very useful idea, even if I think statements like this one are basically bullshit:

Kegan’s and similar theories have been validated by researchers all over the world ...

Just based on what little I've read so far, I'd peg this as roughly as 'true' as the Internal Family Systems Model - Wikiwand, which I find immensely useful.

Replies from: waveman
comment by waveman · 2016-03-30T08:35:28.739Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Most of the remainder are at level 2 ~(primary school 6-12/15YO / gangster / psychopath) or level 1 ~(toddler 2-6YO, borderline personality disorder). Note that the characterizations of these two levels are impressionistic / comic book to give you an idea.

A gentle summary and links here https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B_hpownP1A4PdERFVXJDVE5SRnc/view?usp=sharing

I personally find this framework very powerful for understanding other people, understanding myself and my development challenges and for dealing with other people.

I am forced to spend a fair bit of time in a socially deprived part of the city and I find a lot of L2 people there.

comment by NxGenSentience · 2014-12-19T00:22:23.270Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Before we continue, one more warning. If you're not already doing most of your thinking at least half-way along the 3 to 4 transition (which I will hereon refer to as reaching 4/3), you will probably also not fully understand what I've written below because that's unfortunately also about how far along you have to be before constructive development theory makes intuitive sense to most people. I know that sounds like an excuse so I can say whatever I want, but before reaching 4/3 people tend to find constructive development theory confusing and probably not useful...

I understand this kind of bind. I am over in the AI - Bostrom forum, which I like very much. As it happens, I have been working on a theory with numerous parts that is connected to, and and extension of, ideas and existing theories drawn from several scientific and philosophical subdisciplines. And, I often find myself tyring to meaningfully answer questions within the forum, with replies that I cannot really make transparent and comelling cases for, without having the rest of my theory on the table, to establish context, motivation, justification and so on, because the whole theory (and it's supporting rationale) is, size-wise, outside the word limit and scope of any individual post.

Sometimes I have tried, then squeezed it down, and my comments have ended up looking like cramped, word salad, because of the lack of context -- in the sense I presume you caution that applies to your remarks.

So I will have a look at the materials you counsel as prerequisite concepts, before I go on reading the rest of your remarks.

It is "with difficulty" I am not reading further down, because agency is one of my central preoccupations, both in general mind-body considerations, and in AI most particularly (not narrow AI, but human equivalent and above, or "real AI" as I privately think of it.

In general, I have volumes to say about agency, and have been struggling to carve out a meaningful and coherent, scientifically and neuroscientifically informed set of concepts relating to "agency" for some time.

You also refer to "existential" issues of some kind, which can of course mean many things to many people. But this also makes me want to jump in whole hog and read what you are going to say, because I also have been giving detailed consideration to the role of "existential pressure" (and trying to see what it might amount to, in both ordinary and more unconventional terms by trying to see it through different templates -- some more, some less -- humanly phenomenological) in the formation of features of naturalistic minds and sentience (i.e. in biological organisms, the idea being of course to then abstract this to more general systems.)

A nice route or stepping stone path for examing existential pressure princibles is human, to general terrestrial-biological, to then exobiological (so far as we can reasonably speculate), and then finally move on to AIs, when we have educated our intuitions a little.

The results emerging from those considerations may or may not suggest what we need to include, at least by suitable analogy, in AIs, to make them "strivers" , or "agents", or systems that deliberately do anything, and have "motives" (as opposed to behaviors), desires, and so on...

We must have some theory or theory cluster, about what this may or may not contrubute to the overall functionality of the AI; it's "understanding" of the world that is (we hope) to be shared by us, so it is also front and center among my key proccupations.

An timely clarifying idea I use frequently in discussing agency -- when reminding people that not everything that exhibits behavior automatically qualifies for agency: do google's autopilot cars have "agency"? Do they have "goals"? My view is: "obviously not -- that would be using 'goal' and 'agency' metaphorically."

Going up the ladder of examples, we might consider someone sleepwalking, or a person acting-out a sequence of learned, habituated behaviors while in an absence seizure in epilepsy. Are they exhibiting agency?

The answers might be slightly less clear, and invite more contention, but given the pretty good evidence that absence seizures are not post-ictal failures to remember agency states, but are really automatisms (modern neurologists are remarkably subtle, openminded to these distinctions, and clever in setting up scenarios which discriminate satisfactorily the difference), it seems also, that lack of attention, intention, praxis, i.e. missing agency is the most accurate characterization.

Indeed, apparently tt is satisfactory enough for experts who understand the phenomena that, in the contemporary legal environment in which "insanity" style defenses are out of fashion with judges and the public, nonetheless a veridical establishment of sleepwalking and/or absence seizure status (different cases, of course) while comitting murder or manslaughter, has, even in recent years, gotten some people "innocent" verdicts.

In short, most neurologists who are not in the grip of any dictums of behavioristic apologetics would say -- here too -- no agency, though information processing behavior occurred.

Indeed, in the case of absence seizures, we might further ask about metacognition vs just cognition. But experimentally this is also well understood. Metacognition, or metaconsciousness, or self-awareness, all are by a large consensus now understood as correllated with "Default Node Network" activity.

Absence seizures under whitnessed, lab conditions are not just departures from DFN activity. Indeed, all consciously, intentionally directed activity of any complexity that involves conscious attention on external activities or situations, involve shut down of DFN systems. (Look up Default Node Network on PubMed, if you want more.)

So absence seizure behavior, which can be very complex, involve driving across town, etc, is not agency misplaced or mislaid. It is actually unconscious, "missing-agent" automatism. A brain in a temporary zombie state, the way philosophers of mind use the term zombie.

But back to the autopilot cars, or autopilot Boeng 777s, automatic anythings... even the ubiquitous anti-virus daemons running in background which are automatically "watching" to intercept malware attacks. It seems clear that, while some of the language of agency might be convenient shorthand, it is not literally true.

Rather, these cases are those of mere mechanical, newtonian-level, deterministic causation from conditionally activated preprogrammed behavior sequences. Activation conditions are deterministic. The causal chains thereby activated are deterministic, just as the Interrupt service routines in an ISR jump table are all deterministic.

Anyway... agency is intimately at the heart of AGI - style AI, and we need to be as attentive and rigorous as possible about using the term literally, vs, metaphorically.

I will check out your references and see if I have anything useful to say after I look at what you mention.

comment by someonewrongonthenet · 2014-12-17T22:53:56.276Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


Replies from: gworley
comment by G Gordon Worley III (gworley) · 2014-12-18T06:15:30.676Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

metacognition is certainly a related thing, but i think discussion of it is generally too abstract to be directly useful for modeling human thinking without first applying it to real brains. this doesn't mean it's inappropriate, only that i think it needs to be more concrete than what is typically discussed under the topic of metacognition to be useful.