The Mind of Society

(This is the thirteenth part of the ‘From Neural Is to Moral Ought’ series and a rather abstract one at that.)

57: Social Hierarchical Agents

A Hierarchy of Predictors

Recall that Part 4 of this series (‘Rules, Hierarchy and Prediction’) considered the merits of ‘rule utilitarianism’ and ‘act utilitarianism’ and proposed a mixture of the two in which the fast lower levels of crude (‘rule-utilitarianism’) predictions would be followed first but possibly get over-ridden by the slower higher levels of more refined (act-utilitarianism) predictions. An analogy was made between this and Karl Friston’s ‘Variational Free Energy’ model of the brain as a ‘hierarchy of predictors’.

This Hierarchy of predictors was described previously (and most recently in ‘Bubbles’) with the bubble diagram, right. Obviously, the brain cannot just be broken down into a collection of linearly-connected processes. This is just a gross abstraction for explaining how different collections of neurons interact. Felleman and Van Essen’s well-known diagram, below, is a better representation, showing connections between parallel processes, approximately allocated into levels. But that is still a gross abstraction.


All processes/levels are making predictions of what is below and selecting appropriate action. The resulting action of the agent will be some combination of the actions of the separate processes, with action determined by some much more than others. These processes can be seen as competing with one another but it is all for the common cause of choosing the best course of action for the whole agent.

Part of trying to predict events in the environment is the attempt to uncover hidden states. An example of hidden states given by Friston is the state of the control of the voicebox of another bird, determined via its chirping. This is in order to extract the sound that the other bird is trying to make so as to reveal its intention).  Uncovering hidden states allows us to go some way towards ‘getting inside the mind’ of others – working against the ‘predictive tide’ within other agents (described elsewhere by as an uphill task, to use a different analogy).

Getting ‘inside the mind of others’ is much easier for us to do for those agents immediately around us – those that we have been able to learn about through our considerable interaction within a common, shared, local environment – those that are familiar (family-er) to us.

And they share the same environment and so are trying to make the predictions.

Social Hierarchical Predictors

Social Hierarchical Predictors

This ‘family’ of downward predictors now looks a bit like a single agent, except that the individuals are only linked through communicating with each other in a common ‘local environment’, rather than the rat’s nest of interconnectivity in the Felleman and Van Essen diagram. (The information embedded within a process of one individual is not directly available to any other individual and so, according to Giulio Tononi’s theory, there is no ‘integration of information’  and hence we cannot think of the individuals as being part of a greater consciousness.) But we are still able to think of this ‘family’ and their collective extension extension of mind) into the local environment as forming a ‘super-agent’, trying to compete against the wider environment in order to survive. We can consider that the boundary between agent and environment has shifted. Agency has been extended. The relationship is of ‘us’ versus ‘them’.

This can be represented diagrammatically as shown above. The legend to this diagram is:

  • All arrows shown are from a predicting process towards the environment being predicted, which is the source of surprises which are to be minimized.
  • ‘I’ is an agent (I=me!), comprising various processes at different levels, I1…I5.
  • Similarly, ‘U’ is an agent (U=you!), also comprising various processes at different levels, I1…I5.
  • I and U share a local environment E1.
  • Beyond this is the larger environment, E2, in which there are other predictive agents, V, W and X, themselves comprising various processes, V1…X3.
  • Of course, all everything is ultimately part of the same environment E.
Marvin Minky's 'The Society of Mind'

Marvin Minsky’s ‘The Society of Mind’


  • I, U and E2 can be considered to be a ‘super-agent’ (the in-group – ‘us’), acting in the environment E2.
  • But equally, V, W, X and E2 can also be considered as a super-agent (the out-group – ‘them’).

In ‘The Society of Mind’, Marvin Minsky explores the idea that the brain can be divided into separate processes that interact like a society of people. Here, I go in the opposite direction, looking at how a group of people can be considered as a group of brain processes – an extension of processes from an individual to many individuals.

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One Response to The Mind of Society

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