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Open AccessArticle

Is the Free-Energy Principle a Formal Theory of Semantics? From Variational Density Dynamics to Neural and Phenotypic Representations

1
Division of Social and Transcultural Psychiatry, Department of Psychiatry, McGill University, Montreal, QC H3A 1A1, Canada
2
Culture, Mind, and Brain Program, McGill University, Montreal, QC H3A 1A1, Canada
3
Wellcome Centre for Human Neuroimaging, University College London, London, WC1N 3AR, UK
4
Faculty of Arts, Social Sciences, and Humanities, University of Wollongong, Wollongong 2522, Australia
5
Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience (IoPPN), King’s College London, London SE5 8AF, UK
*
Author to whom correspondence should be addressed.
Entropy 2020, 22(8), 889; https://doi.org/10.3390/e22080889
Received: 17 July 2020 / Revised: 6 August 2020 / Accepted: 7 August 2020 / Published: 13 August 2020
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. View Full-Text
Keywords: variational free-energy principle; active inference; neural representation; representationalism; instrumentalism; deflationary variational free-energy principle; active inference; neural representation; representationalism; instrumentalism; deflationary
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MDPI and ACS Style

Ramstead, M.J.D.; Friston, K.J.; Hipólito, I. Is the Free-Energy Principle a Formal Theory of Semantics? From Variational Density Dynamics to Neural and Phenotypic Representations. Entropy 2020, 22, 889.

AMA Style

Ramstead MJD, Friston KJ, Hipólito I. Is the Free-Energy Principle a Formal Theory of Semantics? From Variational Density Dynamics to Neural and Phenotypic Representations. Entropy. 2020; 22(8):889.

Chicago/Turabian Style

Ramstead, Maxwell J.D.; Friston, Karl J.; Hipólito, Inês. 2020. "Is the Free-Energy Principle a Formal Theory of Semantics? From Variational Density Dynamics to Neural and Phenotypic Representations" Entropy 22, no. 8: 889.

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