A Drive to Survive: The Free Energy Principle and the Meaning of Life

Research output: Book/ReportBook

Abstract / Description of output

Since its initial introduction in 2005, Karl Friston’s free energy framework has been developed, defended and applied across thousands of papers every year. Among its most interesting, and most controversial, aspects is the claim that free energy minimization underpins the purposive behaviour of living agents, in terms of their drive towards self-preservation.

The core commitment of this proposal is that biological survival can be described in terms of a single probabilistic principle: that any living system must occupy the same ‘most likely’ set of states or patterns of activity over time. Such a claim is relatively straightforward, yet the free energy literature's complexity and rate of development have previously made this central idea difficult to identify and evaluate. By presenting the free energy principle in an accessible manner, that presumes no prior mathematical knowledge, this book aims to deliver the first extended critical analysis of the strengths and limitations of Friston’s proposal.

Firstly, I show that the free energy principle’s capacity to account for the biological origins of purposiveness, intentionality and goal-directedness, is undermined by its applicability to any stable inanimate system. A growing recognition of this triviality has already begun to initiate a reframing, such that advocates of the free energy principle now increasingly present it as eliminating, rather than explaining, the idea of a distinctively biological form of purposiveness. This, I propose, gets things the wrong way around. The triviality of free energy minimization does not undermine the idea that there is a difference in kind between living agents and ordinary machines, but rather reflects that the framework is better suited to modelling the latter. This is because free energy minimization, and related formalisms, cannot describe the essential features that distinguish the organismic manner of existence, namely: 1) a potential for unpredictable and ongoing developmental changes and 2) a precarious dependence on continual material turnover. It is only in virtue of this intrinsic instability that living systems can be described as autonomous agents, acting towards the goal of their own continued survival.
Original languageEnglish
PublisherMIT Press
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 1 Nov 2024

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • free energy principle
  • enactivism
  • organicism
  • cognitive Science
  • active inference
  • agency
  • biological autonomy
  • phenomenology
  • predictive processing


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