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How can mindless mathematical laws give rise to aims and intention?
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March 17, 2018

CATEGORY: Wandering Towards a Goal Essay Contest (2016-2017) [back]
TOPIC: The Necessary Agency by Robin Berjon [refresh]
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Author Robin Berjon wrote on Mar. 6, 2017 @ 16:52 GMT
Essay Abstract

We start from issues with teleogical accounts of nature. From there we proceed to simplify the notion of purpose and intersect it with the information theory of individuality to obtain agency. We observe how such a grounded notion of agency relates to other aspects of biology and philosophy.

Author Bio

Robin Berjon is CTO of, a science publisher. He has worked extensively on defining the technological standards that collectively make up the Web. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, two daughters, and a vicious cat.

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Lorraine Ford wrote on Mar. 6, 2017 @ 21:50 GMT
Hi Robin,

Re the "vicious cat":

The article How to make your cat happy at
-happy.html might help.

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Author Robin Berjon replied on Mar. 6, 2017 @ 21:56 GMT
Thanks, but she's not unhappy — she's just vicious :)

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Gavin William Rowland wrote on Mar. 8, 2017 @ 07:14 GMT
Dear Robin

Apologies for the criticism, but this one fell away for me. Starting nicely (I wish I had your writer's toolbox!) you followed a well-trodden path of emphasising the teleological aspects of objectively observable systems, and then just touching on conscious intention. At that stage "poof!" the magic happens...or is supposed to. It doesn't really work for the core problems of consciousness. More exploration of the subjective would be nice.

Of course, others may disagree.



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Author Robin Berjon replied on Mar. 8, 2017 @ 14:51 GMT
Dear Gavin,

please do not apologise for criticism, if I didn't want any I would simply keep this to myself. And thanks for liking the writing at least!

I think that the core issue here is that based on what you say we would appear to disagree as to what the very problem at hand is. I do not believe that it is related to the problem of consciousness at all (except perhaps in the very limited sense that conscious entities we know of are purposive, but that's barely a link).

My take is that in order to be scientifically interesting, the question of teleology needs to be treated far ahead of that of consciousness. The issues might interact somewhere down the line — but not yet.

I would be curious to hear what makes you think that consciousness needs be involved in this problem.


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Anonymous wrote on Mar. 10, 2017 @ 11:43 GMT
Dear Robin

Thanks for inviting me to elaborate further. My view is that the teleology you describe is very different to that seen in consciousness. Indeed, i think it is debatable whether biology can be seen as teleological at all. Biological systems, while very complex, are not generally seen as evolving "for" a particular purpose. They are considered merely to be the product of environmental pressures, with innumerable other failed models having fallen along the wayside. Of course, that is debatable, but the question in fact asked about "mindless mathematical laws" - I think we are talking here about the laws and constants of the universe. You did mention these briefly early on, but by the time you got to the crux of your argument it was couched in abstract or biological terms. While you tend to inflate the sense of purpose in nature, you deflate the nature of conscious free will by making statements thus:

"A similar reasoning applies to our view of agency. By establishing it atop gradual, continuous measures rooted in simpler constructs we make the case that there is no mysterious teleologic force that uniquely distinguishes purpose, intention, or will any more than there is an élan vital categorically distinguishing living from nonliving systems. Aims and intention appear naturally, necessarily, as processes aggregate"

I think the essay question is asking us to address the stark difference between the "mindless" laws of nature and the "aims and intention" and therefore volition, motivation, decision making etc of the mind. By the end of your essay i felt you had minimised the mindlessness of nature and omitted the province of mind, and had thereby dismissed the problem as inconsequential.

Glad I didn't offend :)



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Author Robin Berjon replied on Apr. 7, 2017 @ 21:28 GMT
Dear Gavin,

I disagree that I dismiss the problem as inconsequential. The approach I took essentially looks for a continuous spectrum of individualised function such that you cannot all of a sudden find "aims and intention" where they did not exist at a simpler level, but rather you can note properties that gradually look like something that we would recognise as aims and intention. Like life, it is not a boolean property but something that you can have more or less of. I find that makes its arising less mysterious.

I have since read a similar line of reasoning (but much clearer) in "Complexity and the Arrow of Time". Here is an extract:


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Ines Samengo wrote on Mar. 13, 2017 @ 02:01 GMT
Hi, Robin, thanks for the good writing. I resonate with the minimal approach to goals and agency that you have proposed, and with many of your comments. I myself have focused more in the role of the observer, but I daresay that even in spite of the different focus, many of the ideas look quite similar. I will (slowly) look up some of the references you mention.

thanks for the good read!


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Author Robin Berjon replied on Apr. 7, 2017 @ 21:41 GMT
Dear Inés,

thank you very much. Indeed, our approaches are similar and I very much like many of your ideas. I was particularly interested in the way in which you brought Fredkin into play, with garbage variables.

Also, you state that "The task of the observer is to design the borders of the subsystem so as to allow ordered degrees of freedom to be progressively incorporated, and/or disordered ones to be eliminated." I wonder how that might be combined with the intrinsic approach to the same coarse-graining that I based on information-theoretic notions of individuality.

Thanks, and best of luck!

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Anonymous wrote on Mar. 13, 2017 @ 12:19 GMT
Nice essay Berjon,

Your ideas and thinking are excellent on the definition of life etc. Some of your good quotes...

1. That is, we tacitly assume that biological systems and structures are ‘for’ something: for example, eyes are for seeing, wings are for flying, and ribosomes are for making proteins. By contrast, in physics we would not say that an electron, or a turbulent eddy,...

view entire post

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Satyavarapu Naga Parameswara Gupta replied on Mar. 13, 2017 @ 12:22 GMT
This is my post only, I was logged out

Best Regards

=snp. gupta

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Simon DeDeo wrote on Mar. 15, 2017 @ 14:51 GMT
Dear Robin,

It is fun to see a number of essays (Larissa's as well, on the animats) wrestle with the problem of defining "information processing" in a deeper, more rigorous fashion. And it's exciting to think that OK, we may actually be getting beyond what computer scientists have done in the past, which is to define computation as something useful to a third party.

Perhaps because computer scientists had to cleave off from the engineering department, they've been very reluctant to examine the underlying "physics" of their field—the study of the causal/mechanistic structures that underlie computation, and the generic properties we expect them to have.

It would be fun to apply the paradigm from the Information Theory of Individuality paper to a few toy examples. You could give some of your functions to agents in a little interacting system and give it a shot. I'd be curious to see what would happen, and whether the results would be illuminating. It would make a fun little paper.



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Author Robin Berjon replied on Apr. 7, 2017 @ 22:48 GMT
Dear Simon,

it is certainly true that I regularly find that discussions of information could benefit from, as it were, "a hacker's touch", or at the very least a dabbling in the implications of actually implementing a given idea. In fairness though, I am not sure that computer scientists are necessarily the worst offenders. Cosmologists maybe? :)

I have been thinking indeed about experimenting in silico with these ideas, but writing this up has made painfully clear to me that I am missing solidity in a number of important intellectual tools, so I'm teaching myself more of the basics that I need — it might therefore be a few months before I return to this.

I very much enjoyed your paper, it is very rich in ideas and highly stimulating. I wanted to take the time to write some more detailed feedback before the end of this phase but I'll admit that it's still percolating through my brain. At any rate many thanks for that!

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Anonymous wrote on Mar. 19, 2017 @ 12:26 GMT
Thank you for this well written and referenced essay.

From the comments here it seems that you intended to leave questions of the nature of consciousness out of your essay. The appearance of free will in the last part is therefore a bit confusing to the reader

Maybe you could have split the last chapter to two, "Conclusions" and "For Further Study"?

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Miles Mutka replied on Mar. 19, 2017 @ 12:31 GMT
Miles Mutka, not anonymous

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Author Robin Berjon replied on Apr. 7, 2017 @ 22:11 GMT
Dear Miles,

you are right, maybe that is confusing. I think that it largely depends on writing traditions. In the classic French essay one is expected to use the conclusion to "open things up", and that's essentially what I'm doing here. (Also, I wrote it up in a hurry, so there's no doubt it's far from clear in places :)

Thanks a lot for your feedback!

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Cristinel Stoica wrote on Mar. 29, 2017 @ 00:35 GMT
Dear Robin,

I enjoyed reading your essay, and the approach you proposed to "make the case that there is no mysterious teleologic force that uniquely distinguishes purpose, intention, or will any more than there is an élan vital categorically distinguishing living from nonliving systems." Also, your proposal to see free will not as an on-or-off property, and not as the absence of determinism, but rather as a metric of purposiveness, as a specifically parametrised measure of individuation".

Best regards,


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Author Robin Berjon replied on Apr. 7, 2017 @ 22:13 GMT
Dear Cristinel,

thank you very much for your kind words, I have to say that I very much liked your essay as well, as commented there :)

Kind regards,

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Dizhechko Boris Semyonovich wrote on Apr. 7, 2017 @ 07:59 GMT
Dear Sirs!

Physics of Descartes, which existed prior to the physics of Newton returned as the New Cartesian Physic and promises to be a theory of everything. To tell you this good news I use «spam».

New Cartesian Physic based on the identity of space and matter. It showed that the formula of mass-energy equivalence comes from the pressure of the Universe, the flow of force which on the corpuscle is equal to the product of Planck's constant to the speed of light.

New Cartesian Physic has great potential for understanding the world. To show it, I ventured to give "materialistic explanations of the paranormal and supernatural" is the title of my essay.

Visit my essay, you will find there the New Cartesian Physic and make a short entry: "I believe that space is a matter" I will answer you in return. Can put me 1.


Dizhechko Boris

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Lorraine Ford wrote on Apr. 8, 2017 @ 01:20 GMT

I was impressed by your essay, and your approach to analysing and discussing the issue of agency and purpose. It is an excellent contribution to this essay contest.



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Joseph Murphy Brisendine wrote on Apr. 26, 2017 @ 21:59 GMT
Very sorry that I missed this excellent entry before voting closed :/ Frankly, the variance of the entries was so high that I just lost motivation, but this was an awesome entry and I flatter myself to say that it is similar in spirit to my own. Great work!


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Author Robin Berjon replied on Apr. 27, 2017 @ 00:58 GMT
Hi Joe,

many thanks for those kind words :) I'll admit I had missed your entry as well — not only is there indeed high variance (which does contribute to the charm however, I love this contest) but I find the forum quite painful to use, such that engaging in discussions here is a lot less natural than it could be. I wish they would use something a decade or two more modern.

Off to read your essay — best of luck!

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