Philosophical and Mathematical Conceptions of Agency

Simon McGregor

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Workshop on 23rd of August, 2016.


In some sense, the property of cognitive systems that would seem to make them interesting to observers is that they have a propensity for adaptive behaviour. Hence, many researchers make the behaviour of adaptive agents their primary focus. This approach has the additional advantage that the variables in a model can be identified with well-known physical variables, rather than intangible mental states. 

However, the move from cognitive states to adaptive behaviour does not solve the definitional problems of cognitive science; it merely shifts them to the problem of defining what makes a physical event an agent, or a physical event an action.


This workshop is intended to facilitate intellectual discussion and debate on questions such as the following:

1. "What naturalistic criteria distinguish an agent from a non-agent, or distinguish active behaviour from passive physical response?"

2. "What, if any, are the relationships between: agency and cognition? agency and rationality? agency and causation? agency and thermodynamics?"

3. "Is agency a single binary property, or are there degrees and types of agency?"

4. "What mathematical tools are likely to be necessary to provide a formal theory of agency?"

An online reading and discussion group will also be available to registrants. The organisers welcome advance input from potential participants: questions; topics that individuals are interested in; or perspectives that individuals want to disseminate. Email correspondence should be directed to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


Workshop Organiser

Simon McGregor is an interdisciplinary complex adaptive systems theorist. His research background spans minimal simulated agents, neural networks, philosophy of agency, artifical evolution, robotics, emergence of autocatalysis, and cognition in chemical networks. He thinks academics  should spend more time talking to others outside their field, and is committed to the principle of open, participant-centred discussion.


Workshop Schedule

Morning Session (talks and preparation for afternoon discussions):

09:30 - 09:50        Welcome & introduction. 
09:50 - 10:30        Speaker: Sasha Ondobaka, Institute of Neurology, UCL
10:30 - 10:35        Chat break
10:35 - 11:15        Speaker: Laurent Orseau, Google DeepMind
11:15 - 11:25        Chat / Refreshment break
11:25 - 12:05        Speaker: Prof. Lee Cronin, Regius Chair of Chemistry, Uni. Glasgow
12:05 - 12:30        'Question posing’ and working group formation.

Lunch Break (working groups invited to discuss their question informally over lunch)

12:30 - 13:30        Lunch

Afternoon Session (discussions):

13:30 - 14:00       Continued working group discussions.
14:00 - 14:15       Working groups summarise their discussions for other participants.
14:15 - 14:30       Chat break.
14:30 - 15:15       Panel-led open discussion begins.
15:15 - 15:30       Refreshment break
15:30 - 16:15       Panel-led open discussion continues.
16:15 - 16:45       Summing-up and plans for follow-up.

End of Workshop