Gödel, Destruction, and Creation

One of the most common questions that comes up when people first approach D&C, other than, perhaps, “What in the heck is he talking about??” is why he invokes the three concepts from math & physics: Gödel’s Theorem, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, and the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

I usually hear one of two answers:

  1. He’s showing off
  2. They are analogies

The correct answer is “3. None of the above,” but I could be argued into partial credit for answer number 1. He was a fighter pilot, after all.

Start off with the need for decisions:

Decisions must be rendered to monitor and determine the precise nature of the actions needed that will be compatible with the goal. To make these timely decisions implies that we must be able to form mental concepts of observed reality, as we perceive it, and be able to change these concepts as reality itself appears to change. (p. 1 in the edition posted to our Articles page)

So the system he’s concerned about is a very specific one: The set of concepts we have for representing some aspect of reality as we observe it and the match-up of those concepts with reality.

The key to understanding D&C is to keep firmly in mind that this is the system he’s concerned with: our set of concepts for understanding reality. Where do they come from? How do we change them?

The reason he brings up the three theorems/laws from math & physics is to point out that our set of concepts as a system is subject to the same laws as any other system.  In particular, it cannot completely represent reality. Mismatches will arise.

To avoid such a discomforting position implies that we should anticipate a mismatch between phenomena observation and concept description of that observation. Such a notion is not new and is indicated by the discoveries of Kurt Gödel and Werner Heisenberg. (p. 4)

In our attempt to deal with these mismatches, we make our system more and more complex (this is what Chuck Spinney is illustrating with Evolutionary Epistemology, available at http://chuckspinney.blogspot.com/p/reports-by-chuck-spinney-others.html and scroll way down. If you haven’t looked at EvEpis, now would be a great time.)

At some point, we’re spending so much energy trying to fix our set of concepts to better represent reality (we’re “intruding into the system”) that we can’t keep up with what’s going on outside and we become confused and our thinking becomes disordered. Note that such energy is not available for doing useful work. It’s entropy, in other words.

Accordingly, whenever we attempt to do work or take action inside such a system—a concept and its match-up with reality—we should anticipate an increase in entropy hence an increase in confusion and disorder. (p. 6, emphasis added)

You can see this in some organizations, where they spend so much time and energy on trying to fix their internals — tinkering with and adding to rules, regulations, org charts, perq/compensation schemes,  for example — that they can no longer develop products and services that customers want to buy. You may also have noticed that they tend to have radical disagreements about what is happening externally, out in reality (e.g., in the marketplace).

At that point, when it’s clear that what we’re doing now isn’t working, we need to stop tinkering and create a new set of concepts.

By doing this—in accordance with Gödel, Heisenberg and the Second Law of Thermodynamics—we find that the uncertainty and disorder generated by an inward-oriented system talking to itself can be offset by going outside and creating a new system. (p. 7)

One recent example of this in industry is how lean production is replacing mass production as the set of concepts for manufacturing things. The two are not compatible — you either employ one or the other or possibly something else, but nobody has ever started with mass production (like GM in the 1980s, for example) and by adding more rules and procedures, ended up with a lean system. Note the part about “going outside.” The two “aha!” moments in the creation of lean production were ideas from the weaving industry and American supermarkets (the system was largely invented by the Japanese after WW II).

Destruction and Creation” is the bedrock upon which the rest of Boyd’s edifice rests. As I have preached before, Patterns of Conflict, Strategic Game, and Organic Design should best be looked upon as examples of the process he outlines in D&C. They are interesting examples, and they offer solutions to real-world problems, but they are not the be all and end all and certainly should not be taken as dogma. If they were complete — if we should spend our time learning them rather than studying how they were built — then the very heart of Boyd’s life work would be wrong.

2 thoughts on “Gödel, Destruction, and Creation

  1. Chet, as always great work.
    Finally had a conference similar to the one we were attempting a couple of years ago in Reagan Library. Gen Brown was there to talk Team of Leaders and General Honore was lead off dinner speaker. Conf subject was “collaboration.”

    Of note in regard to D&C, Russ highlights the point that the first thing a leader must do when facing a catastrophic situation is to determine which laws/rules he must break. It was most interesting (both amusing and painful) to hear him discuss how in the midst of the calamity, official entities tried to play by the rules. To hear Russ, is to hear a man, wiiling to make up the rules he needed to get things done, then do it.

    Having just finished “Admirals” (the Navy 5 stars in WWII), the description of Nimitz stepping off the flying boat in Pear Harbor a few days after the attack, and Honore’s helicopter entry at the Superdome are almost identical.

    • Ed,

      Thanks – great comment.

      I would be surprised if Boyd had heard of Gen Honore, but I suspect he would have heartily approved of his concept of leadership. For example, an aircraft went down within his AOR when he was commanding NKP. Boyd had gathered up a group of folks responsible for various aspects of SAR when he was interrupted by a junior officer. “Sir, here are the regs for SAR.” Boyd, as he tells the story, informs that officer that they’ll worry about the regs after they get the pilots back, and if he returns to the meeting, Boyd will throw him and the regs out the nearest open window.

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