Exploration: It's All Downhill from Here


This is another mere stub that needs more development.

Piet or SC will have to provide some physicist thoughts on the least-action principle, but I like to think of it in terms of water flowing downhill in a canyon, downhill with respect to whatever constraints or boundary conditions are arrayed around and with respect to gravity...or can I say more generally if naively, with respect to where "it wants to go"?

This is a feeling I have that every local thing flows "downhill" in its context, but in flowing it can modify the contexts of all the other flowing things. I will have to phrase an experiment for this, because I think it can be felt very experientially watching people move, talk, and rivers, the sky, one's own thoughts, and feeling like there is a certain way they all flow similarly. This flow is not the happy productive "flow" you hear about in management books, as I think even being angry and uptight is still a form of things flowing downhill.

What I find mysterious, or maybe amazing, is that imagination seems to be able to set the course sometimes, somehow. It's as if action flows into the direction that a creative insight has made available.

-- JL - 28 Feb 2005


JL, this is a huge topic! Starting with the strictly physics origin of the term "least action", this is already a bit of a misnomer. It should be "stationary action", that is, if you make any change in any aspect, in first order the action does not change -- it could be a local maximum, a local minimum, or even a saddle point, like a mountain pass. If you're in the middle of a mountain pass, any step in any direction is almost flat, unlike being on a hill side, where even a single step can lead you up or down in a linear way (stepping away from top or bottom or pass changes your elevation in a way that is approximately quadratic with distance traversed).

I'm just mentioning this to illustrate how tricky it is to start with a metaphor and then expand on it. Each metaphor is partly correct and useful but can quickly become misleading. In this particular case, I do think that your notion of "flow" is related to the Chinese idea of "wu wei" (not doing; not producing any unnecessary friction in your actions) which in turn feels related to the least-action principle. But perhaps it is more productive to try to figure out what each of those means, in more detail, before trying to judge and/or extend the metaphor(s).

As to your last remark, about imagination setting the course, yes, "flow" flows from a mysterious source. We can call it imagination, but I think that is just a way of saying that the source lies outside our usual framework. It is not the normal type of imagination, in which, for example, I can imagine going to work or tying my shoes. Rather, it is much more vivid, creative, arriving from we-don't-know-where, surprisingly fully-formed and whole.

Now what does that mean? Perhaps it means that our conventional (construction of our) realm is itself derivative and incomplete. If so, how to find our way back to this more original realm? This is the central question.

-- PietHut - 01 Apr 2005

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