“Every act of creation is first an act of destruction.” – Pablo Picasso
This past weekend I drove with my daughter from St. Louis to Lewiston, Maine to drop her off at college. Our 20-hour route took us through Erie, Pennsylvania (we stopped and had Chipolte), which is where fighter pilot and military theorist John Boyd was born and raised. If you don’t know about John Boyd, you are missing out — he was extraordinary.
A Bit About John Boyd
Boyd’s achievements are varied:
- He was a top fighter pilot in the Air Force and an instructor at the top Air Force fighter training school.
- He created the Energy-Maneuverability Theory of aerial combat that had a big effect on the design of fighter aircraft. The lightweight F-18 and F-16 fighters were a result of his E-M Theory.
- His “Aerial Attack Study” revolutionized aerial combat and became the primary manual used to train fighter pilots in combat tactics.
- He changed how modern warfare is conducted with his OODA Loop theory. Use of the OODA Loop led to the quick and decisive success in the First Gulf War in the early 1990s.
Boyd on Creation and Destruction
One of Boyd’s most important contributions is a 7-page essay on how new theories and worldviews are created called “Creation and Destruction.” The paper required years of research and took over four years to write. It is a heavy read — each paragraph is packed with important concepts and the essay relies on Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, and the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Here’s a link to a pdf of the paper if you’d like to read it (I think it’s worth the effort). The gist of the paper is that in order to create we must first destroy. Here’s an outline of his thoughts on this topic:
- We carry around concepts in our heads of how the world works and what reality is. These mental concepts help us make sense of the world. As we go through life we develop these mental models so that they comport with observed reality.
- These mental models are generated in two ways: (1) from the general-to-specific — take a general rule and apply it to individual situations and (2) from the specific-to-general — take a specific situation and extrapolate its applicability broadly.
- The general-to-specific relies on deductive reasoning and is what we do when we use analysis. The specific-to-general uses inductive reasoning and uses synthesis.
- In creating mental models, Boyd posits that we take individual instances and structure them into general rules. We then compare general rules to the reality that we experience through individual instances. These individual instances don’t always follow the general rule (he proves this through Godel, Heisenberg, and Entropy), so we must break apart the general rule into its component parts and take these concepts, plus new ones, reshuffle them and see how they can come together into a new mental concept that is closer to reality.
- Boyd saw this process of creative synthesizing and analytical destruction as a process of calibration — to make a theory closer to reality. In his essay he says that the process is one of “Structure, Unstructure, Restructure, Unstruction, Restructure . . . repeated endlessly in moving to higer and broader levels of elaboration.”
[My short summary doesn’t really do the paper justice]
Let’s look at an example.
According to his biography by Robert Coram, when Boyd lectured on this topic he used the following example (this is taken directly from the biography):
“Imagine four separate images. Let’s call them domains. Each domain can be easily understood by looking at its parts and at the relation among the parts.” Boyd’s four domains were a skier on a slope, a speedboat, a bicycle, and a toy tank.
Under “skier” were the various parts: chair lifts, skis, people, mountain, and chalets. He asked listeners to imagine these were all linked by a web of relations, a matrix of intersecting lines.
Under “speedboat” were the categories of sun, boat, outboard motor, water skier, and water. Again, all were linked by the intersecting lines.
Under “bicycle” were chain, seat, sidewalk, handlebars, child, and wheels.
Under “toy tank” were turret, boy, tank treads, green paint, toy store, and cannon.
The separate ingredients make sense when collected under the respective headings. But then Boyd shattered the relationship between the parts and their respective domains. He took the ingredients in the web of relationships and asked listeners to visualize them scattered at random. He called breaking the domains apart a “destructive deduction.” (Today some refer to such a jump as “thinking outside the box.” But Boyd believed the very existence of a box is limiting. The box must be destroyed before there can be creation.) The deduction was destructive in that the relationship between the parts and the whole was destroyed. Uncertainty and disorder took the place of meaning and order. Boyd’s name for this hodgepodge of disparate elements was a “sea of anarchy.”
Then he challenged the audience: “How do we construct order and meaning out of this mess?”
Now Boyd showed how synthesis was the basis of creativity. He asked, “From some of the ingredients in this sea of anarchy, how do we find common qualities and connecting threads to synthesize a new and altogether different domain?”
Few people ever found a new way to put them together. Boyd coaxed and wheedled but eventually helped the audience along by emphasizing handlebars, outboard motor, tank treads, and skis. These, he said, were the ingredients needed to build what he called a “new reality”—a snowmobile.
How to Use Boyd’s Creation and Destruction Loop
It is comforting to have a mental model or a general rule that helps us make sense of reality. But the risk is that we become ideological or dogmatic in our beliefs and that we don’t continue to compare our worldviews to reality. It is uncomfortable to break apart and destroy our general rules. Taking all the component parts and reshuffling them and putting them back together again takes a lot of brainpower. But to have an accurate view of the world requires a constant cycle of destruction and creation because the world changes and our views must change as well.
One of my favorite quotes is by John Maynard Keynes: “When the facts change, I change my mind — what do you do, sir?”
We all cling to our beliefs and resist destroying them in order to go through the process of synthesizing new ones. Examples of this abound throughout the Covid pandemic: facts have changed over the last 18 months as what we know about the virus has progressed and variants have emerged, but many of us still cling to beliefs formed when the facts were different.
To be a better thinker and to have an accurate view of reality we must constantly question our beliefs. How do they not reflect reality? How can we break apart the mental concepts we hold in our heads and put them back together?