Needs and the Principle of Least Effort

Dr. Borchardt:

If I understand correctly, in TSW you describe a need (in the univironmental context) as something that is achieved with the least amount of motion (equilibrium). The satisfied need (a change in the univironment) results in a change in behavior. However, I am confused by those who exhibit the "need" to achieve certain goals that would seem to exceed "the least amount of motion." For instance, people who push themselves to extremes: skydivers, thrill seekers, or even monks who test the limits of their endurance. Have I misunderstood the concept of need and behavior?

Frederic Frees


Thanks for the question. You are not the only one. This is from one of the reviewers of TSW: “Some of Borchardt’s particulars are not as universal as he implies—for instance, “all our planning is motivated by the desire to minimize human effort”…” http://scientificphilosophy.com/reviews.htm This is what I wrote in response:

“[Note that the reviewer missed a major point of the book in the first part of the last sentence. Univironmental determinism concludes that “all our planning is motivated by the desire to minimize human effort" by including both the microcosm (the individual) and the macrocosm (the environment) in the analysis. The well-known Principle of Least Effort, like Newton's First Law of Motion, assumes that microcosms, like Newton's inertial objects, cannot, by themselves, increase their motion beyond that which they already possess. That also would be a violation of Conservation, the First Law of Thermodynamics, which states that matter and the motion of matter neither can be created nor destroyed. Thus, whenever human effort does not appear to be minimized, one can be sure that important factors have been ignored. I may not take the shortest path to the store because my brain contains the idea (matter in motion) that some extra exercise is good for me.]”

When I am flying down a double black diamond slope at Squaw Valley every molecule in my body is moving at the velocity allowed by the univironment. The fact that my brain thinks this is a good thing to do must be included in any scientific analysis of why I do it. The enjoyment of the exhilaration and the beauty of the mountain is a need for me in almost the same way that I need food. Those little synapses just keep firing away across those old familiar pathways until I spend the cash and go up that mountain. The “feeling of freedom” derived from such activities must not be missed. What I can’t do is to follow a “principle of greatest effort”—an imagined instance in which I could expend more calories than I have in my body or that are available to me in my immediate surroundings. In other words, we never can do activities that are physically or mentally impossible no matter how much “free will” we think we have.

The deterministic Principle of Least Effort was first described in detail by Zipf (1949), who appropriately modeled it after the Principle of Least Action in physics. It became popular in library science (Mann, 1987), where its use in information seeking is rather obvious: find the answer in the nearest book and go home. In sociology, the struggle between determinism and indeterminism is not always lost by the determinists (e.g., Harris, 1979), but the popularity of the “free will” doctrine does its damage there as it does throughout society. Whenever we believe that there are no mechanical causes for action, we cease to look for them.

One neat thing about the Principle of Least Action is that the harder it is to apply, the more useful it becomes. Whenever people go out of their way to expend great effort to achieve some goal, we may inquire as to their “motivation.” “Motive,” like “motility,” implies something in motion. If we can find out what that is, we can either sponsor it or discourage it. Great achievers must have a stronger motivation or “drive” than any of their achievements. To claim, instead, that motivation is a manifestation of an acausal free will is a total copout leaving us without answers to the biggest questions.

It is sometimes good to check one’s own motivation, as I started to do in my blog of 8/21/07:

Why me?
From a reader and his brother:

"Your book is epic. We're still wondering how YOU came up with it or did some advanced alien actually write it!"

Thanks for the kind words. Actually, no aliens were harmed during the making of The Scientific Worldview (TSW). Some were contemplated, but readily dismissed for lack of physical evidence. Being on the same page, however, you and your brother probably have come across many of the same inputs that I experienced. The trick was to keeping moving, not getting bogged down in an all-consuming career that would allow little time for drawing stuff together. Another factor was my lack of indoctrination in conventional philosophy, combined with my disappointment with the inability of the Missouri Synod to handle the contradictions posed by science. Fundamentalism tends to force one to make either/or choices--a thread that clearly is evident in The Ten Assumptions of Science (TTAOS) and TSW. I suppose that I could be accused of being a "scientific fundamentalist" by those who would rather mix and match so as not to be upset by the contradictions posed by present views. I would rather be known as the most radical scientific philosopher instead.

Harris, M., 1979, Cultural materialism: The struggle for a science of culture: New York, Random House, 381 p.

Mann, T., 1987, A Guide to Library Research Methods: New York, Oxford University Press, 224 p.

Zipf, G.K., 1949, Human behavior and the principle of least effort: An introduction to human ecology: Cambridge, MA, Addison-Wesley, 573 p.

1 comment:

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