Karl Friston has spent a lot of time recently developing the free energy principle framework as a way to explain life, behaviour and cognition; you know, biology, and it's become the cool kid on the block in fairly record time.
Crudely, the basic idea of the FEP is that living organisms need to operate within a range for a given process, or else they will be malfunctioning to some extent and might suffer injury or death. Being within the relevant range across all your processes means you are alive and doing well, and so for an organism that has made it this far in evolution those states must be highly probable. Being outside those ranges is therefore less probable, and so if you find yourself outside a range you will be surprised. Your job as a self-sustaining organism can therefore be described as 'work to minimise surprise'.
There is a problem with this formalisation though. The information-theoretic term that formalise 'surprise' is not a thing that any organism can access, so you can't work to control it. Luckily, there is another formal quantity, free energy, that is related to surprise and is always higher than surprise. Free energy is therefore the upper bound on surprise and minimising that upper bound can reduce surprise as well.
All this is currently implemented in an inferential, Bayesian framework that aligns, at least on the surface, with modern representational cognitive science. Andy Clark thinks this is the future, and Jakob Howhy has worked hard to nail this connection down so it won't move. If this is all right, and if the FEP is being successful, perhaps non-representational, non-inferential accounts like ours are going to lose.
A recent paper (Bruineberg, Kiverstein & Rietveld (2016) tries to wedge the FEP and Bayesian psychology apart to allow room for an ecological/enactivist take on the FEP. To be honest, I found the paper a little underwhelming, but it did get me thinking about things, and two questions have emerged.
Before we worry about an ecological account of the FEP, we need to know 1) whether such a thing makes any sense and 2) whether it adds anything new to the proceedings. All comments welcome - these are genuine questions and if there are answers we would love to know.
Does the FEP Make Sense?
The argument is that free energy is detectable by the organism, which makes it (in principle) something the organism can control, and that doing so leads to life as we know it.
Ecologically, this means that whatever the term 'free energy' is pointing to, it needs to be a real thing that can create perceptual information. There must be real dynamical parts and processes interacting with energy arrays to create specifying kinematic patterns that an organism can detect and use to perceive the thing described by free energy. There must, at some point, be a real thing that some light can bloody bounce off (or sound waves, or whatever). What does the free energy principle think that thing is? Without this, the FEP is of no use to an organism, at least as far as cognition and behaviour go.
Does the FEP Add Anything New?
I've been working up a post drafting a free energy description of the process of ecological perceptual learning, and while it seems to work I have yet to learn anything I didn't already know. Right now, the FEP seems like a useful descriptive framework, but not an explanatory one. So what does the FEP explain that we didn't already understand?
These questions pop out of the mechanistic mind set we find ourselves in these days. We're working on showing how our flashy theory is implemented using actual bits and pieces of stuff, and we want to know how your flashy theory does it. What are the real parts and processes in the FEP, and what do they explain rather than describe?