Is the free-energy principle a formal theory of semantics? From variational density dynamics to neural and phenotypic representations
2020 by the authors. 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.
Ramstead, M., Friston, K. & Hipolito, I. (2020). Is the free-energy principle a formal theory of semantics? From variational density dynamics to neural and phenotypic representations. Entropy, 22 (8),