Agent versus Environment: An Analogy

Agent versus Environment: An Analogy

This posting forms part of the talk ‘Intelligence and the Brain’. Here, I look at the demarcation between an agent and its environment, with reference to Karl Friston’s ‘Variational Free Energy’ theory.

Agents are frequently considered as objects that can move around an environment but movement is not necessarily required. Philosophically, agency is concerned with action. Here, I am considering agents more as holders of intelligence (acting on the environment) than as mobile things. It is not essential for an intelligent agent to move around – particularly if it can extend itself to control subordinates out in its environment such as robots/drones as discussed previously).

The ‘Variational Free Energy’ theory provides a bridge between:

  • the relatively simple behaviour of neurons, and
  • the overwhelmingly complexity of organisms (controlled by their overwhelmingly complex brains).

I want to provide a visual analogy between the rather abstract concept of intelligence and the more accessible notion of height in a landscape:

  • In a landscape, there is a tendancy for things to move downwards due to gravity.
  • In thermodynamics, there is a tendancy for things to move towards increased disorder.
  • Intelligence has been presented as counteracting entropy.

In the analogy, higher intelligence is equated with a higher position on a hill (a higher altitude).

The bridging between the (conjectured) low-level Bayesian inferencing of neurons and the high-level intelligence of organisms is achieved by the hierarchy of inferers applying the basic method over and over again. A canal lock can’t raise a boat very high but put a lot of them together and the result can be impressive (‘a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step’ – Lao-Tzu).


Caen Hill locks, near Devizes: The main flight of 16 locks raises boats approx 40 metres in a distance of less than 1 kilometre.

The result is

  • a great creation accumulation of knowledge, and
  • a great accumulator of knowledge.

It is like the accumulator is hoarding knowledge up into a large pile, a bit like the earth piled up at the man-made mound of Silbury Hill (below).


Silbury Hill, near Avebury: A 40-metre high man-made hill built approx 4750 years ago (a bit before the first Egyptian pyramids).

But note that within the hierarchy the prediction is always acting downwards. At any point on the surface of the ‘information mound’:

  • There is a slope: an ‘information gradient’.
  • What is up-hill is able to make predictions about what is below it.
  • What is down-hill is not able to make predictions about what is above it.


A silly ‘philosophical’ question: where does a hill begin? Where is the demarcation between ‘hill’ and ‘land around the hill’? With Silbury Hill, there is a fairly clear base of the hill, on flat land. In a natural landscape, it is not so easy to make this demarcation.

The point: We are not able to demarcate between an agent and its environment. There is a continuum:

  • ‘higher’ brain functions (such as in the Prefrontal Cortex),
  • ‘lower’ brain functions (such as in the Striate Cortex V1),
  • the body,
  • bodily extensions (a mobile phone),
  • the self-made habitat (house, car).
  • the locality, with objects constructed/used by the agent, through to.
  • the wider environment.

At any point in the hierarchy, upwards is ‘more agent and less environment’ and downwards is ‘more environment and less agent’. That is all that can be said.

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One Response to Agent versus Environment: An Analogy

  1. Pingback: Free Energy and Free Will | Headbirths

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