Between pebbles and organisms: weaving autonomy into the Markov blanket

Synthese 199 (3-4):6623-6644 (2021)

Abstract

The free energy principle is sometimes put forward as accounting for biological self-organization and cognition. It states that for a system to maintain non-equilibrium steady-state with its environment it can be described as minimising its free energy. It is said to be entirely scale-free, applying to anything from particles to organisms, and interactive machines, spanning from the abiotic to the biotic. Because the FEP is so general in its application, one might wonder whether this framework can capture anything specific to biology. We take steps to correct for this here. We first explicate the worry, taking pebbles as examples of an abiotic system, and then discuss to what extent the FEP can distinguish its dynamics from an organism’s. We articulate the notion of ‘autonomy as precarious operational closure’ from the enactive literature, and investigate how it can be unpacked within the FEP. This enables the FEP to delineate between the abiotic and the biotic; avoiding the pebble worry that keeps it out of touch with the living systems we encounter in the world.

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