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Is free-energy minimisation the mark of the cognitive?

  • Kiverstein, Julian1, 2
  • Sims, Matt3
  • 1 Amsterdam University Medical Centre, Meibergdreef 9, Amsterdam, 1105AZ, The Netherlands , Amsterdam (Netherlands)
  • 2 University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam, Netherlands , Amsterdam (Netherlands)
  • 3 University of Edinburgh, George Square, Edinburgh, Scotland , George Square, Edinburgh (United Kingdom)
Published Article
Biology & Philosophy
Springer Netherlands
Publication Date
Apr 01, 2021
DOI: 10.1007/s10539-021-09788-0
Springer Nature


A mark of the cognitive should allow us to specify theoretical principles for demarcating cognitive from non-cognitive causes of behaviour in organisms. Specific criteria are required to settle the question of when in the evolution of life cognition first emerged. An answer to this question should however avoid two pitfalls. It should avoid overintellectualising the minds of other organisms, ascribing to them cognitive capacities for which they have no need given the lives they lead within the niches they inhabit. But equally it should do justice to the remarkable flexibility and adaptiveness that can be observed in the behaviour of microorganisms that do not have a nervous system. We should resist seeking non-cognitive explanations of behaviour simply because an organism fails to exhibit human-like feats of thinking, reasoning and problem-solving. We will show how Karl Friston’s Free-Energy Principle (FEP) can serve as the basis for a mark of the cognitive that avoids the twin pitfalls of overintellectualising or underestimating the cognitive achievements of evolutionarily primitive organisms. The FEP purports to describe principles of organisation that any organism must instantiate if it is to remain well-adapted to its environment. Living systems from plants and microorganisms all the way up to humans act in ways that tend in the long run to minimise free energy. If the FEP provides a mark of the cognitive, as we will argue it does, it mandates that cognition should indeed be ascribed to plants, microorganisms and other organisms that lack a nervous system.

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