From allostatic agents to counterfactual cognisers: active inference, biological regulation, and the origins of cognition

Andrew Corcoran, Giovanni Pezzulo, Jakob Hohwy

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

36 Citations (Scopus)


What is the function of cognition? On one influential account, cognition evolved to co-ordinate behaviour with environmental change or complexity (Godfrey-Smith in Complexity and the function of mind in nature, Cambridge Studies in Philosophy and Biology, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1996). Liberal interpretations of this view ascribe cognition to an extraordinarily broad set of biological systems—even bacteria, which modulate their activity in response to salient external cues, would seem to qualify as cognitive agents. However, equating cognition with adaptive flexibility per se glosses over important distinctions in the way biological organisms deal with environmental complexity. Drawing on contemporary advances in theoretical biology and computational neuroscience, we cash these distinctions out in terms of different kinds of generative models, and the representational and uncertainty-resolving capacities they afford. This analysis leads us to propose a formal criterion for delineating cognition from other, more pervasive forms of adaptive plasticity. On this view, biological cognition is rooted in a particular kind of functional organisation; namely, that which enables the agent to detach from the present and engage in counterfactual (active) inference.

Original languageEnglish
Article number32
Number of pages45
JournalBiology and Philosophy
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2020


  • Active inference
  • Adaptation
  • Allostasis
  • Biorhythms
  • Cognition
  • Complexity
  • Environmental complexity thesis
  • Free energy principle
  • Homeostasis
  • Interoception
  • Life-mind continuity
  • Representation
  • Uncertainty

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