Thoughts on the Wired article on Karl Friston

There’s a lengthy article at Wired about professor Karl Friston, one of the more recent superstars in the popular-science pantheon. Interestingly, the article is far more interesting for its psychological or philosophical aspects, for its striking window on the motivations behind Friston’s general worldview—and that of a great many scientists working today—than it is for evaluating the actual meaning, utility, or novelty of Friston’s theories. (We may flatter ourselves to imagine that Friston, himself a psychiatrist by training, would not begrudge our focusing on inner motives.)

Perhaps the most striking tendency in Professor Friston, far more pronounced even than in most other scientific reductionists, is his predisposition to a kind of overpowering univocality: everything that exists must be the absolutely deterministic unfolding of a simple, completely unambiguous code, which cannot be seen as in any way provisional or open to growth or disagreement. While Professor Friston himself is undoubtedly a charming and brilliant individual, this urge to univocality, at times, attains to such intensity and such unreflectiveness that the effect seems even monstrous.

We are introduced, for instance, to Friston’s “obsession, dating back to childhood, with finding ways to integrate, unify, and make simple the apparent noise of the world.” As a tangible example, we are given a recounting of one of Friston’s most cherished moments—his childhood conclusion that wood-lice on a suddenly-upturned log do not move faster in order to seek the shade, but simply run faster when they feel the sun. Friston deems this

“…his first scientific insight, a moment when ‘all these contrived, anthropomorphized explanations of purpose and survival and the like all seemed to just peel away,’ he says. ‘And the thing you were observing just was. In the sense that it could be no other way.'”

Yet there is something odd here, a sort of ghost at the feast. For although we are meant to see this as an object-lesson in young genius triumphant, the article actually quietly mentions that Friston’s conclusion is, in fact, still unproven. It may well, in fact, be untrue—yet this simply does not matter, because it must first be weighed to satisfy the pre-existing demand for absolute simplicity and absolute determinacy. “It could be no other way“—that, one senses, is the true motive from which all the rest flows, not from the actual world or even from data about that world. This is an emotional kernel—a psychological preference of Friston’s, not a deduction. Here is another example:

“When Friston was in his mid-teens, he had another wood-lice moment. He had just come up to his bedroom from watching TV and noticed the cherry trees in bloom outside the window. He suddenly became possessed by a thought that has never let go of him since. ‘There must be a way of understanding everything by starting from nothing,’ he thought. ‘If I’m only allowed to start off with one point in the entire universe, can I derive everything else I need from that?'”

In a way, there is nothing new at all here. We have the solipsistic dream, quite common in physics and science generally, of “deriving” everything about life and reality from a single principle (or in Friston’s case, from nothing at all)—what Nietzsche pinpointed as the Socratic urge to “correct existence”.

Yet there is something especially chilly in this moment, in the way that Friston, possessed by his univocality daemon, completely disregards the cherry trees for themselves and simply subordinates them—along with the whole universe—under a matrix of assumed, abstract formalisms, to be created by himself alone. It is at this point that one feels one is in the presence not just of a need to simplify (or perhaps oversimplify) reality, nor yet to “correct” it, but of a kind of all-consuming demand that seeks to crush reality down to whatever level of simplicity will allow it to be controlled or contained.

This is where we sense the monstrous element in Friston’s psychology—the realm that William Blake called “Single vision, and Newton’s sleep“, and also the realm of the totalitarian, for whom there simply must be a framework, a simplification, that eliminates all things that are ambiguous, changing, that cannot be formulated or controlled.

* * *

In light of all this, it gives one special pause to consider that Friston first made his mark in the refinement of brain imaging—a suite of techniques that, it now turns out, have unleashed a deluge of underpowered, irreproducible, or simply misleading but highly fashionable “findings” and theories-du-jour about the brain, which are often treated as if practically dispositive. It is as if we here see, in actual research practice, the proliferation (and fruits) of that compulsion so exemplified in Friston: make the theory, then jam everything else in the world into it. Indeed, nothing better sums up this mentality than Friston’s own words:

‘“We sample the world […] to ensure our predictions become a self-fulfilling prophecy.”’

Self-fulfilling prophecy, as the basis for a new science of mind! Again it seems undeniable that an inward, psychological drive or need has been projected on the outside world, something like: “since self-fulfilling prophecies are all we produce or care to see, they must form the entire world of thinking in general”. We also here see the sway of unreflectiveness—hardly Friston’s alone but pronounced in every quarter—in that what is set up as “genius” increasingly is codified as the exclusion of contradicting possibilities from consciousness. We shoehorn Nature into the theories that give us the most thrill or prestige, and jam our fists in our ears to keep out the rest. To which one can only say: if such a mindset really is the great new hope of neuroscience, then neuroscience is yet due for a great deal more meandering and mishap—however fashionable.

(Incidentally, one sees similar tendencies even farther advanced in physics, specifically with string theory, where theorists now rather blatantly choose tribal loyalty, and loyalty to a project of univocal “unification”, even in the face of empirical disconfirmation.)

This is the territory of dueling university press-releases, of the thrilling, jargon-y sound-bites of science journalism and popular physics bestsellers, of that nihilistic awe where, without knowing what we are being asked to believe in, we are nonetheless enjoined to marvel in it. It is the territory that John Horgan, in his ever more prophetic-seeming 1996 work The End of Science, called ironic science: scientific-sounding theorizing that furnishes a sense of mystery, beauty, and grandeur, while lacking in testability, sublimity, or often even minimal comprehensibility. We have uneventfully slipped into the era of science according to the Three Wise Monkeys.

* * *

Friston’s rise to wider scientific stardom over recent years stems, however, not from his contributions to brain-imaging methods, but from his ostensible magnum opus, the Free-Energy Principle, which proposes to reduce all life and cognition to a minimization of free-energy—essentially analogous to “surprise”, or entropy. Again, much like string theory, in every quarter where it is discussed, the Free-Energy Principle is not so much simply noted for its difficulty and abstruseness, as it is renowned for it. For example, the article in question recounts, with a kind of admiration, how whole workshops of high-end physicists and engineers have failed to come to grips with the idea.

Faced with such accounts, which all seem to take great pains to establish the gorgeously incomprehensible profundity of Friston’s Principle, a mischievous thought occurs. Might the reality be the exact opposite—that the Free-Energy Principle is actually too simple, so that the “thought-leaders” and such who extol it and so valiantly pursue it must convince themselves of its awe-inspiring difficulty and depth in order to get the required narcissistic reward from pursuing it? After all, no one in a cognitive elite worthy of the name could truly pride themselves on understanding something that was merely simple or intuitive. And yet, on the face of it, the idea of “minimizing quantity X, in a system separated by boundary B, using gradient descent of an information measure Y” seems extraordinarily unoriginal; it is, rather, a trope, emblematic of that computational flavor of reductionism that is so favored in today’s most widely-disseminated “explanations” of the nature of reality—the “holographic universe”, the “universe-as-simulation”, and so forth.

There is a risk in critiquing, even in broad outline, a theory one does not understand in every detail (though in this incomplete understanding, it appears I am joined by nearly everyone in the world, possibly including Friston himself). At any rate, given the many unsettlingly totalizing and circular tendencies implied in so many of Friston’s remarks, motives, and experiences, and the strange celebration of abstruseness and evasion of simple testability that beshroud his Free-Energy Principle (which surely make it a prime candidate for “ironic science”), it may be no great surprise that equally disturbing questions come to mind when we contemplate the Free-Energy Principle’s implications.

For instance: does not the idea of explaining life as seeking an ultimate minimum of anything, free energy or otherwise, imply also a tendency towards eventual convergence and stoppage at that minimum? What happens if, somehow, that goal is achieved?

If the quantity being minimized is surprise, in particular, then the Free-Energy Principle suddenly stands forth as an uber-totalizing kind of intellectual heat-death, as all minds eventually coalesce into a trap of their own perpetually self-fulfilling expectations. But a war against Surprise is a war against wonder, against renewal—both things we all know living things, at their healthiest, actively seek. In other words: Friston’s Principle is the exact embodiment of the viewpoints indicated above in his own remarks—of the overpowering urge to simplify down to a simple, absolute, final state of belief, beginning from a single and invariable point of view, after which all further thought and experience becomes unnecessary. It is hardly neutral or objective at all.

If this is so, we should beware that the Free Energy Principle may be far less a theory of life, or thought, than its exact opposite—a theory of how to make these things dead.

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