Free Energy and the Self: An Ecological–Enactive Interpretation

Topoi 39 (3):559-574 (2020)
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According to the free energy principle all living systems aim to minimise free energy in their sensory exchanges with the environment. Processes of free energy minimisation are thus ubiquitous in the biological world. Indeed it has been argued that even plants engage in free energy minimisation. Not all living things however feel alive. How then did the feeling of being alive get started? In line with the arguments of the phenomenologists, I will claim that every feeling must be felt by someone. It must have mineness built into it if it is to feel a particular way. The question I take up in this paper asks how mineness might have arisen out of processes of free energy minimisation, given that many systems that keep themselves alive lack mineness. The hypothesis I develop in this paper is that the life of an organism can be seen as an inferential process. Every living system embodies a probability distribution conditioned on a model of the sensory, physiological, and morphological states that are highly probably given the life it leads and the niche it inhabits. I argue for an ecological and enactive interpretation of free energy. I show how once the life of an organism reaches a certain level of complexity mineness emerges as an intrinsic part of the process of life itself.



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