The free energy principle: it’s not about what it takes, it’s about what took you there

Biology and Philosophy 36 (2):1-17 (2021)
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Abstract

Philosophical writings on the free energy principle in the life sciences often give the impression that minimising free energy is sufficient for life. But minimising free energy is not a sufficient condition for life. In fact, one can perfectly well conceive of a system that actively minimises its free energy, and for this very reason moves inexorably towards death. So, where does the assumption of this entailment relation come from? There is indeed an entailment relation, but it goes the other way around: life entails minimising free energy. Put another way, if you exist, now, under the right conditions, it is because you’ve done something like minimising your free energy. However, the question of whether you will exist tomorrow cannot be settled purely by resorting to the fact that you will minimise your free energy to get there. The simple point I make in this paper is that the free energy principle is not concerned with the sufficient conditions of existence, but rather with what must have been the case, given that you exist. It’s not about figuring out what it takes to be alive; it’s about figuring out what took you there.

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Axel Constant
University of Sussex