In this paper, we argue for a theoretical separation of the free-energy principle from Helmholtzian accounts of the predictive brain. The free-energy principle is a theoretical framework capturing the imperative for biological self-organization in information-theoretic terms. The free-energy principle has typically been connected with a Bayesian theory of predictive coding, and the latter is often taken to support a Helmholtzian theory of perception as unconscious inference. If our interpretation is right, however, a Helmholtzian view of perception is incompatible with Bayesian predictive coding under the free-energy principle. We argue that the free energy principle and the ecological and enactive approach to mind and life make for a much happier marriage of ideas. We make our argument based on three points. First we argue that the free energy principle applies to the whole animal–environment system, and not only to the brain. Second, we show that active inference, as understood by the free-energy principle, is incompatible with unconscious inference understood as analagous to scientific hypothesis-testing, the main tenet of a Helmholtzian view of perception. Third, we argue that the notion of inference at work in Bayesian predictive coding under the free-energy principle is too weak to support a Helmholtzian theory of perception. Taken together these points imply that the free energy principle is best understood in ecological and enactive terms set out in this paper.
Context: The evolution of perceptual systems and hence of observers remains largely disconnected from the question of the emergence of classical objects and spacetime. This disconnection between the biosciences and physics impedes progress toward understanding the role of the “observer” in physical theory. Problem: In this article we consider the problem of how to understand objects and spacetime in observer-relative evolutionary terms. Method: We rely on a comparative analysis using multiple formal frameworks. Results: The eigenform construct of von Foerster is compared to other formal representations of observer-environment interactions. Eigenforms are shown to be encoded on observer-environment interfaces and to encode fitness consequences of actions. Space and time are components of observational outcomes in this framework; it is suggested that spacetime constitutes an error-correcting code for fitness consequences. Implications: Our results contribute to an understanding of the world in which neither objects nor spacetime are observer-independent. Constructivist content: The eigenform concept of von Foerster is linked to the concepts of decoherence and holographic encoding from physics and the concept of fitness from evolutionary biology.
We distinguish between three philosophical views on the neuroscience of predictive models: predictive coding (associated with internal Bayesian models and prediction error minimization), predictive processing (associated with radical connectionism and ‘simple’ embodiment) and predictive engagement (associated with enactivist approaches to cognition). We examine the concept of active inference under each model and then ask how this concept informs discussions of social cognition. In this context we consider Frith and Friston’s proposal for a neural hermeneutics, and we explore the alternative model of enactivist hermeneutics.
Normal perception involves experiencing objects within perceptual scenes as real, as existing in the world. This property of “perceptual presence” has motivated “sensorimotor theories” which understand perception to involve the mastery of sensorimotor contingencies. However, the mechanistic basis of sensorimotor contingencies and their mastery has remained unclear. Sensorimotor theory also struggles to explain instances of perception, such as synesthesia, that appear to lack perceptual presence and for which relevant sensorimotor contingencies are difficult to identify. On alternative “predictive processing” theories, perceptual content emerges from probabilistic inference on the external causes of sensory signals, however, this view has addressed neither the problem of perceptual presence nor synesthesia. Here, I describe a theory of predictive perception of sensorimotor contingencies which (1) accounts for perceptual presence in normal perception, as well as its absence in synesthesia, and (2) operationalizes the notion of sensorimotor contingencies and their mastery. The core idea is that generative models underlying perception incorporate explicitly counterfactual elements related to how sensory inputs would change on the basis of a broad repertoire of possible actions, even if those actions are not performed. These “counterfactually-rich” generative models encode sensorimotor contingencies related to repertoires of sensorimotor dependencies, with counterfactual richness determining the degree of perceptual presence associated with a stimulus. While the generative models underlying normal perception are typically counterfactually rich (reflecting a large repertoire of possible sensorimotor dependencies), those underlying synesthetic concurrents are hypothesized to be counterfactually poor. In addition to accounting for the phenomenology of synesthesia, the theory naturally accommodates phenomenological differences between a range of experiential states including dreaming, hallucination, and the like. It may also lead to a new view of the (in)determinacy of normal perception.