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 principle of inertia is central to the modern scientific revolution. By postulating this principle Galileo at once identified a pertinent physical observable (momentum) and a conservation law (momentum conservation). He then could scientifically analyze what modifies inertial movement: gravitation and friction. Inertia, the default state in mechanics, represented a major theoretical commitment: there is no need to explain uniform rectilinear motion, rather, there is a need to explain departures from it. By analogy, we propose a biological default state of proliferation with variation and motility. From this theoretical commitment, what requires explanation is proliferative quiescence, lack of variation, lack of movement. That proliferation is the default state is axiomatic for biologists studying unicellular organisms. Moreover, it is implied in Darwin’s “descent with modification”. Although a “default state” is a theoretical construct and a limit case that does not need to be instantiated, conditions that closely resemble unrestrained cell proliferation are readily obtained experimentally. We will illustrate theoretical and experimental consequences of applying and of ignoring this principle.