Modelling ourselves: what the free energy principle reveals about our implicit notions of representation

Synthese 199 (3-4):7801-7833 (2021)
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Predictive processing theories are increasingly popular in philosophy of mind; such process theories often gain support from the Free Energy Principle —a normative principle for adaptive self-organized systems. Yet there is a current and much discussed debate about conflicting philosophical interpretations of FEP, e.g., representational versus non-representational. Here we argue that these different interpretations depend on implicit assumptions about what qualifies as representational. We deploy the Free Energy Principle instrumentally to distinguish four main notions of representation, which focus on organizational, structural, content-related and functional aspects, respectively. The various ways that these different aspects matter in arriving at representational or non-representational interpretations of the Free Energy Principle are discussed. We also discuss how the Free Energy Principle may be seen as a unified view where terms that traditionally belong to different ontologies—e.g., notions of model and expectation versus notions of autopoiesis and synchronization—can be harmonized. However, rather than attempting to settle the representationalist versus non-representationalist debate and reveal something about what representations are simpliciter, this paper demonstrates how the Free Energy Principle may be used to reveal something about those partaking in the debate; namely, what our hidden assumptions about what representations are—assumptions that act as sometimes antithetical starting points in this persistent philosophical debate.



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