The Literalist Fallacy & the Free Energy Principle: Model building, Scientific Realism and Instrumentalism


Disagreement about how best to think of the relation between theories and the realities they represent has a longstanding and venerable history. We take up this debate in relation to the free energy principle (FEP) - a contemporary framework in computational neuroscience, theoretical biology and the philosophy of cognitive science. The FEP is very ambitious, extending from the brain sciences to the biology of self-organisation. In this context, some find apparent discrepancies between the map (the FEP) and the territory (target systems) a compelling reason to defend instrumentalism about the FEP. We take this to be misguided. We identify an important fallacy made by those defending instrumentalism about the FEP. We call it the literalist fallacy: this is the fallacy of inferring the truth of instrumentalism based on the claim that the properties of FEP models do not literally map onto real-world, target systems. We conclude that scientific realism about the FEP is a live and tenable option.

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