The free-energy principle states that all systems that minimize their free energy resist a tendency to physical disintegration. Originally proposed to account for perception, learning, and action, the free-energy principle has been applied to the evolution, development, morphology, anatomy and function of the brain, and has been called a postulate, an unfalsifiable principle, a natural law, and an imperative. While it might afford a theoretical foundation for understanding the relationship between environment, life, and mind, its epistemic status is unclear. Also unclear is how the free-energy principle relates to prominent theoretical approaches to life science phenomena, such as organicism and mechanism. This paper clarifies both issues, and identifies limits and prospects for the free-energy principle as a first principle in the life sciences.
Keywords Adaptation · Free energy · Life · Mechanism · Organicism
The free energy principle states that self-organization occurs through minimization of free energy, which is a measure of potential thermodynamic work. By minimizing free energy, the organism happens to also minimize surprise over its boundary, promoting chances of survival. We discuss the ethical implications of the cognitive goal in detail from an empirical point of view, highlighting the principle of least action as a physical basis of Occam’s razor, the universality of the free energy principle, and its explanation of natural selection. We explain that the free energy principle extends to groups of organisms and helps us understand group-scale adaptations and selection in biology. The free energy principle applies to all scales of organization in the organism from single cells to the entire nervous system. When this principle is taken to its logical extremes of modeling groups, populations and ecosystems, we uncover a new, evolutionarily sensible path at explaining puzzling aspects of human motivation and judgement, including ethical decisions. To minimize free energy, populations have to act to maximize gathering of information, while building effective models at mitigating changes to its dynamic structure. The free energy principle thus provides a naturalistic explanation of some of our deepest ethical intuitions, and valuable principles of social behavior. We interpret the cognitive goal that corresponds to the principle as seeking a dynamic, fruitful, yet peaceful activity that sustains the organism. This state of mind is interestingly similar to the Buddhist intuition of mental equanimity; the organism’s final goal is to be at peace and harmony with the environment. Another immediately relevant aspect is that assemblies must form to promote symbiotic, synergistic, positive feedback loops, which coincides with the findings of ecologists. Therefore, ethics naturally emerges in self-organizing systems. Assemblies of organisms must ultimately unite in macro-minds to achieve the greatest reduction in free energy, as well as building technological extensions of themselves to improve their capacity to do such, therefore the principle also predicts a post-singularity world-mind composed mostly of artificial intelligence.