Free Energy Principle and Vedanta — Part 1 of 2

Pratyush Kumar Panda
4 min readNov 24, 2018

Here is a list of parallels between the free energy principle (FEP) attributed to Karl Friston and the Vedantic text from the 1300s called Drg Drshya Viveka (DDV). These are only cursory curiosities. Perhaps the only motivation is the inescapable one of reducing entropy.

  1. In FEP, the (biological) system under discussion is separated from its environment by what is called a Markov blanket that separates internal states from external ones. Indeed, such a separation arises primarily because of sensory perception through and within the system. DDV in its first verse establishes an identical separation between the seen (drshya) and the seer (drg). It goes on to say that such differentiation (viveka) is both natural and intelligent.
  2. To model a complex system like a human, FEP applies a hierarchy of interacting Markov blankets starting from individual cells to the entire individual. DDV also approaches the differentiation (viveka) between the seer and the seen hierarchically, starting from the objects outside to sense organs, then from sense organs to the mind, and finally from the mind to what is called the witness (sākshī). Furthermore, as a spiritual practice, DDV prescribes that an identifying ego (ahankāra) should identify with the witness alone and not with the preceding entities.
  3. In the information theoretic sense, minimising surprise bounds the expectation of entropy and thereby overcomes the natural tendency to disorder as dictated by the second law of thermodynamics. In this light, it may be said that the only imperative of conscious entities is to slow the march of time as is inevitably marked by growth in disorder. This is in harmony with the Vedantic impetus of moving from the ephemeral (which Swami Vivekananda eloquently called the wreckage on the shore of time and space) to the eternal.
  4. The key insight in FEP is this: The only objective of the system is to maximise evidence of internal models or equivalently to minimise surprise. All other goals of acting, desiring rewards, and avoiding penalties are formulated as minimising surprise under priors (on the embodied entity and the world). This is identical to the position taken in Vedanta that the essential human endeavour is to maximise knowledge, or technically to remove ignorance caused by the veiling power (āvarana) of a mysterious Māyā.
  5. An interesting consequence of the single objective mentioned above is that the intelligence of a sentient entity is an intricate function of the characteristics of the environment. For instance, given that we live a world strongly arranged by space as conditioned by a strong gravity, much of the inference we do depends on spatiality in what is referred to as spatial cognition. Thus, intelligence within mirrors the world without. This is an essential principle of the Vedantic principle of equating the microcosm to the macrocosm. The apparent variety in the macrocosm and consequent difference from the microcosm is said to arise due to the projecting power (vikshepa) of Māyā.
  6. A common argument against FEP is the dark room problem, which wonders why we do not sit in a dark room and die; this would be a state of minimal surprise and thus optimise the defining objective of FEP. The counter-argument is quite clear: An embodied entity has several priors — some inflexible (unmodifiable within the available action space) — which make this solution non-optimal. For instance, our bodies need food every 6 hours and the lack of it would increase surprise. For an entity as per FEP, this would trigger a chain of actions (mental and physical) to resolve the surprise by seeking food. This argument is essentially the same as that of conditionings (vāsanās or karmā) in Vedanta, which states that we are involuntarily thrust into cycles of perception and action based on our prior conditioning. The Vedantic goal of samādhi or nirvāna is reached by exhausting these vāsanās, or equivalently marginalising prior distributions. So, while sitting in a dark room appears as an adversarially simple null hypothesis for FEP, Vedanta contributes an interesting alternative asymptote to FEP: It is not a dark room, but a bright one, the brightest one, or indeed brightness itself. In this state, the environment is not closed out, but every entity in the environment is abstractly perceived to be part of one homogeneous whole.
  7. Perhaps, the most satisfying analogy, however, is brought out by the notion of ‘epistemic affordance’. From FEP it follows that if the environment of an entity is familiar or sufficiently abstracted, every external entity has epistemic affordance, i.e., there is a potential to resolve reducible uncertainty. This relates to one of the most salient findings of Vedanta in DDV which states that every seen object is to be related in terms of five qualities: (a) it exists (asti), (b) it is perceived (bhāti), (c) it is dear (priyam), (d) it has a name (nāma) or equivalently a denotation, and (e) it has a form (rūpa) or equivalently sensed states. The most baffling of these five is (c) “it is dear”. The spiritual prescription goes thus: If we can filter out the differences in name and form from perceived entities, then each such perception is an opportunity to see the essential, universal, and eternal principles of (a), (b), and (c) and through and in them see the eternal reality (Brahman). It may be observed that this has a correspondence with epistemic affordance. Curiously Friston uses the word ‘joyful’ in relation to epistemic affordance, much reminiscent of priyam.

The second part of this article will discuss topics of subjective depth as expounded in Vedanta which may enrich the objective concepts of FEP.

Some references:

  1. FEP in English: https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/wpZJvgQ4HvJE2bysy/god-help-us-let-s-try-to-understand-friston-on-free-energy
  2. Pop-sci introduction to FEP: https://www.wired.com/story/karl-friston-free-energy-principle-artificial-intelligence/
  3. Lecture series on DDV:

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