Living models or life modelled? On the use of models in the free energy principle

Thomas van Es
Adaptive Behavior


The free energy principle (FEP) is an information-theoretic approach to living systems. FEP characterizes life by living systems’ resistance to the second law of thermodynamics: living systems do not randomly visit the possible states, but actively work to remain within a set of viable states. In FEP, this is modelled mathematically. Yet, the status of these models is typically unclear: are these models employed by organisms or strictly scientific tools of understanding? In this article, I argue for an instrumentalist take on models in FEP. I shall argue that models used as instruments for knowledge by scientists and models as implemented by organisms to navigate the world are being conflated, which leads to erroneous conclusions. I further argue that a realist position is unwarranted. First, it overgenerates models and thus trivializes the notion of modelling. Second, even when the mathematical mechanisms described by FEP are implemented in an organism, they do not constitute a model. They are covariational, not representational in nature, and precede the social practices that have shaped our scientific modelling practice. I finally argue that the above arguments do not affect the instrumentalist position. An instrumentalist approach can further add to conceptual clarity in the FEP literature.