The aim of this paper is twofold: (1) to assess whether the construct of neural representations plays an explanatory role under the variational free-energy principle and its corollary process theory, active inference; and (2) if so, to assess which philosophical stance - in relation to the ontological and epistemological status of representations - is most appropriate. We focus on non-realist (deflationary and fictionalist-instrumentalist) approaches. We consider a deflationary account of mental representation, according to which the explanatorily relevant contents of neural (...) representations are mathematical, rather than cognitive, and a fictionalist or instrumentalist account, according to which representations are scientifically useful fictions that serve explanatory (and other) aims. After reviewing the free-energy principle and active inference, we argue that the model of adaptive phenotypes under the free-energy principle can be used to furnish a formal semantics, enabling us to assign semantic content to specific phenotypic states (the internal states of a Markovian system that exists far from equilibrium). We propose a modified fictionalist account: an organism-centered fictionalism or instrumentalism. We argue that, under the free-energy principle, pursuing even a deflationary account of the content of neural representations licenses the appeal to the kind of semantic content involved in the aboutness or intentionality of cognitive systems; our position is thus coherent with, but rests on distinct assumptions from, the realist position. We argue that the free-energy principle thereby explains the aboutness or intentionality in living systems and hence their capacity to parse their sensory stream using an ontology or set of semantic factors. (shrink)
The processes underwriting the acquisition of culture remain unclear. How are shared habits, norms, and expectations learned and maintained with precision and reliability across large-scale sociocultural ensembles? Is there a unifying account of the mechanisms involved in the acquisition of culture? Notions such as “shared expectations,” the “selective patterning of attention and behaviour,” “cultural evolution,” “cultural inheritance,” and “implicit learning” are the main candidates to underpin a unifying account of cognition and the acquisition of culture; however, their interactions require greater (...) specification and clarification. In this article, we integrate these candidates using the variational (free-energy) approach to human cognition and culture in theoretical neuroscience. We describe the construction by humans of social niches that afford epistemic resources called cultural affordances. We argue that human agents learn the shared habits, norms, and expectations of their culture through immersive participation in patterned cultural practices that selectively pattern attention and behaviour. We call this process “thinking through other minds” (TTOM) – in effect, the process of inferring other agents’ expectations about the world and how to behave in social context. We argue that for humans, information from and about other people's expectations constitutes the primary domain of statistical regularities that humans leverage to predict and organize behaviour. The integrative model we offer has implications that can advance theories of cognition, enculturation, adaptation, and psychopathology. Crucially, this formal (variational) treatment seeks to resolve key debates in current cognitive science, such as the distinction between internalist and externalist accounts of theory of mind abilities and the more fundamental distinction between dynamical and representational accounts of enactivism. (shrink)
We present a multiscale integrationist interpretation of the boundaries of cognitive systems, using the Markov blanket formalism of the variational free energy principle. This interpretation is intended as a corrective for the philosophical debate over internalist and externalist interpretations of cognitive boundaries; we stake out a compromise position. We first survey key principles of new radical views of cognition. We then describe an internalist interpretation premised on the Markov blanket formalism. Having reviewed these accounts, we develop our positive multiscale account. (...) We argue that the statistical seclusion of internal from external states of the system—entailed by the existence of a Markov boundary—can coexist happily with the multiscale integration of the system through its dynamics. Our approach does not privilege any given boundary, nor does it argue that all boundaries are equally prescient. We argue that the relevant boundaries of cognition depend on the level being characterised and the explanatory interests that guide investigation. We approach the issue of how and where to draw the boundaries of cognitive systems through a multiscale ontology of cognitive systems, which offers a multidisciplinary research heuristic for cognitive science. (shrink)
In evolutionary biology, niche construction is sometimes described as a genuine evolutionary process whereby organisms, through their activities and regulatory mechanisms, modify their environment such as to steer their own evolutionary trajectory, and that of other species. There is ongoing debate, however, on the extent to which niche construction ought to be considered a bona fide evolutionary force, on a par with natural selection. Recent formulations of the variational free-energy principle as applied to the life sciences describe the properties of (...) living systems, and their selection in evolution, in terms of variational inference. We argue that niche construction can be described using a variational approach. We propose new arguments to support the niche construction perspective, and to extend the variational approach to niche construction to current perspectives in various scientific fields. (shrink)
We review some of the main implications of the free-energy principle (FEP) for the study of the self-organization of living systems – and how the FEP can help us to understand (and model) biotic self-organization across the many temporal and spatial scales over which life exists. In order to maintain its integrity as a bounded system, any biological system - from single cells to complex organisms and societies - has to limit the disorder or dispersion (i.e., the long-run entropy) of (...) its constituent states. We review how this can be achieved by living systems that minimize their variational free energy. Variational free energy is an information theoretic construct, originally introduced into theoretical neuroscience and biology to explain perception, action, and learning. It has since been extended to explain the evolution, development, form, and function of entire organisms, providing a principled model of biotic self-organization and autopoiesis. It has provided insights into biological systems across spatiotemporal scales, ranging from microscales (e.g., sub- and multicellular dynamics), to intermediate scales (e.g., groups of interacting animals and culture), through to macroscale phenomena (the evolution of entire species). A crucial corollary of the FEP is that an organism just is (i.e., embodies or entails) an implicit model of its environment. As such, organisms come to embody causal relationships of their ecological niche, which, in turn, is influenced by their resulting behaviors. Crucially, free-energy minimization can be shown to be equivalent to the maximization of Bayesian model evidence. This allows us to cast natural selection in terms of Bayesian model selection, providing a robust theoretical account of how organisms come to match or accommodate the spatiotemporal complexity of their surrounding niche. In line with the theme of this volume; namely, biological complexity and self-organization, this chapter will examine a variational approach to self-organization across multiple dynamical scales. (shrink)
This paper presents a version of neurophenomenology based on generative modelling techniques developed in computational neuroscience and biology. Our approach can be described as _computational phenomenology_ because it applies methods originally developed in computational modelling to provide a formal model of the descriptions of lived experience in the phenomenological tradition of philosophy (e.g., the work of Edmund Husserl, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, etc.). The first section presents a brief review of the overall project to naturalize phenomenology. The second section presents and evaluates (...) philosophical objections to that project and situates our version of computational phenomenology with respect to these projects. The third section reviews the generative modelling framework. The final section presents our approach in detail. We conclude by discussing how our approach differs from previous attempts to use generative modelling to help understand consciousness. In summary, we describe a version of computational phenomenology which uses generative modelling to construct a computational model of the inferential or interpretive processes that best explain this or that kind of lived experience. (shrink)
When someone masters a skill, their performance looks to us like second nature: it looks as if their actions are smoothly performed without explicit, knowledge-driven, online monitoring of their performance. Contemporary computational models in motor control theory, however, are instructionist: that is, they cast skillful performance as a knowledge-driven process. Optimal motor control theory, as representative par excellence of such approaches, casts skillful performance as an instruction, instantiated in the brain, that needs to be executed—a motor command. This paper aims (...) to show the limitations of such instructionist approaches to skillful performance. We specifically address the question of whether the assumption of control-theoretic models is warranted. The first section of this paper examines the instructionist assumption, according to which skillful performance consists of the execution of theoretical instructions harnessed in motor representations. The second and third sections characterize the implementation of motor representations as motor commands, with a special focus on formulations from OMCT. The final sections of this paper examine predictive coding and active inference—behavioral modeling frameworks that descend, but are distinct, from OMCT—and argue that the instructionist, control-theoretic assumptions are ill-motivated in light of new developments in active inference. (shrink)
Active inference offers a unified theory of perception, learning, and decision-making at computational and neural levels of description. In this article, we address the worry that active inference may be in tension with the belief–desire–intention model within folk psychology because it does not include terms for desires at the mathematical level of description. To resolve this concern, we first provide a brief review of the historical progression from predictive coding to active inference, enabling us to distinguish between active inference formulations (...) of motor control and active inference formulations of decision processes. We then show that, despite a superficial tension when viewed at the mathematical level of description, the active inference formalism contains terms that are readily identifiable as encoding both the objects of desire and the strength of desire at the psychological level of description. We demonstrate this with simple simulations of an active inference agent motivated to leave a dark room for different reasons. Despite their consistency, we further show how active inference may increase the granularity of folk-psychological descriptions by highlighting distinctions between drives to seek information versus reward—and how it may also offer more precise, quantitative folk-psychological predictions. Finally, we consider how the implicitly conative components of active inference may have partial analogues in other systems describable by the broader free energy principle to which it conforms. (shrink)
There is a steadily growing literature on the role of the immune system in psychiatric disorders. So far, these advances have largely taken the form of correlations between specific aspects of inflammation (e.g. blood plasma levels of inflammatory markers, genetic mutations in immune pathways, viral or bacterial infection) with the development of neuropsychiatric conditions such as autism, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and depression. A fundamental question remains open: why are psychiatric disorders and immune responses intertwined? To address this would require a (...) step back from a historical mind–body dualism that has created such a dichotomy. We propose three contributions of active inference when addressing this question: translation, unification, and simulation. To illustrate these contributions, we consider the following questions. Is there an immunological analogue of sensory attenuation? Is there a common generative model that the brain and immune system jointly optimise? Can the immune response and psychiatric illness both be explained in terms of self-organising systems responding to threatening stimuli in their external environment, whether those stimuli happen to be pathogens, predators, or people? Does false inference at an immunological level alter the message passing at a psychological level (or vice versa) through a principled exchange between the two systems? (shrink)
The target article “Thinking Through Other Minds” (TTOM) offered an account of the distinctively human capacity to acquire cultural knowledge, norms, and practices. To this end, we leveraged recent ideas from theoretical neurobiology to understand the human mind in social and cultural contexts. Our aim was bothsynthetic– building an integrative model adequate to account for key features of cultural learning and adaptation; andprescriptive– showing how the tools developed to explain brain dynamics can be applied to the emergence of social and (...) cultural ecologies of mind. In this reply to commentators, we address key issues, including: (1) refining the concept of culture to show how TTOM and the free-energy principle (FEP) can capture essential elements of human adaptation and functioning; (2) addressing cognition as an embodied, enactive, affective process involving cultural affordances; (3) clarifying the significance of the FEP formalism related to entropy minimization, Bayesian inference, Markov blankets, and enactivist views; (4) developing empirical tests and applications of the TTOM model; (5) incorporating cultural diversity and context at the level of intra-cultural variation, individual differences, and the transition to digital niches; and (6) considering some implications for psychiatry. The commentators’ critiques and suggestions point to useful refinements and applications of the model. In ongoing collaborations, we are exploring how to augment the theory with affective valence, take into account individual differences and historicity, and apply the model to specific domains including epistemic bias. (shrink)
This paper aims to address the relevance of the natural sciences for transcendental phenomenology, that is, the issue of naturalism. The first section distinguishes three varieties of naturalism and corresponding forms of naturalization: an ontological one, a methodological one, and an epistemological one. In light of these distinctions, in the second section, I examine the main projects aiming to “naturalize phenomenology”: neurophenomenology, front-loaded phenomenology, and formalized approaches to phenomenology. The third section then considers the commitments of Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology with (...) respect to the three varieties of naturalism previously discussed. I argue that Husserl rejected strong and weak forms of epistemological naturalism, strong methodological naturalism, and ontological naturalism. The fourth section presents the argument that Husserl endorsed a weak, conditional form of methodological naturalism. This point is illustrated with Husserl’s proposal of “somatology,” a natural science apt to study the corporeality of the lived body. The final section addresses the complementarity and respective limits of the transcendental phenomenological and the natural scientific frameworks. I argue that, on Husserl’s account, the function of transcendental phenomenology with respect to the natural sciences is to provide them with an epistemological foundation and an ontological clarification. I suggest that certain natural sciences can be understood, within the transcendental phenomenological framework, as “sciences of constitution,” that is, as sciences investigating the contribution of real structures acting as conditions of possibility for the occurrence of certain kinds of comprehensive unities in lived experience. (shrink)
In their target paper, Bruineberg and colleagues provide us with a timely opportunity to discuss the formal constructs and philosophical implications of the free energy principle. I critically discuss their proposed distinction between Pearl and Friston blankets. I then critically assess the distinction between inference with a model and inference within a model in light of instrumentalist approaches to science.
Open peer commentary on the article “A Moving Boundary, a Plastic Core: A Contribution to the Third Wave of Extended-Mind Research” by Timotej Prosen. Abstract: We argue that the free-energy principle (FEP) can indeed be used to articulate a conception of the boundaries of cognitive systems that meets the desiderata of third-wave extended-mind research. We point out that Markov blankets under the FEP definitionally constitute the means through which internal and external states are coupled, and so do not isolate systems (...) from their environment. We argue that the nested, multiscale boundaries of the FEP formulation are indeed plastic and open to re-negotiation. Finally, we appeal to the formulation of niche construction under the FEP to argue that the extension of cognitive boundaries in this formulation is both synchronic and diachronic. (shrink)
Cognitive Gadgetsoffers a new, convincing perspective on the origins of our distinctive cognitive faculties, coupled with a clear, innovative research program. Although we broadly endorse Heyes’ ideas, we raise some concerns about her characterisation of evolutionary psychology and the relationship between biology and culture, before discussing the potential fruits of examining cognitive gadgets through the lens of active inference.