Yesterday’s quote on the Page-a-Day calendar of Zen sayings was:
The torch of doubt and chaos is what the sage steers by. Chuang Tzu.
If you Google that quote, you can find lots of references, even a book by that title. I’m not terribly familiar with Chuang Tzu, a younger contemporary, so the legend goes, of the much better known Lao Tzu. But I know that Boyd was heavily influenced by classical Taoism. The sources for Patterns of Conflict, for example, include Gary Zukav’s The dancing Wu Li masters and Fritjof Capra’s The tao of physics. I might possibly be somewhat to blame — I sent him his copy of Alan Watts’ Tao, the watercourse way (a great beach read, incidentally) — but he had other associates who were much more familiar with Taoism and Zen than I.
His study of these ancient ideas reinforced his natural tendency towards harmony and flow on the inside to produce non-differentiable, that is, abrupt, jerky, and disorienting, change on the outside. These ideas come through explicitly on charts 12 and 117 of Patterns of Conflict and underly practically all the rest of his work, particularly his notion of “operating inside the OODA loop.”
Several years back, my colleague Mark Safranski edited a short work, The John Boyd Roundtable, with a foreword by Tom Barnett. For the cover, he chose an illustration I had done for my chapter:
Note “Taoism” at the top of the rightmost column. [This is a slightly edited version of the cover of the 2008 book.]
As you can see from the figure, Boyd’s basic method was to examine a problem from as many different angles as he could, “across a wide variety of domains,” as he put it, looking for “invariants,” concepts that were common to all of them (albeit, perhaps, in different forms). He was not, incidentally, looking for analogies between them, but that’s a theme for a different post. This method stands out in his 1976 paper, “Destruction and Creation.” Look over at the leftmost column, where the domains included quantum physics, thermodynamics, and the foundations of mathematics. At the bottom of the column is the common concept he found, something like “You can’t determine the character or nature of a system within that system, and attempts to do so will increase confusion and disorder.”
The reason that the Eastern stuff is all the way over on the right is that you’ll search Patterns or Strategic Game or any of his briefings in vain for one mention of Zen or Taoism, with the sole exception of the Sun Tzu text. But although Boyd was reading about Zen and exploring books on Taoism other than Sun Tzu, I think they affected him differently than did the domains further over to the left.
For example, Boyd had the invariant at the bottom of the leftmost column as early as 1976. For the next 20 or so years, he kept finding confirmation. Great. But there’s a danger in this: A person tends to find what they’re looking for. We call this “incestuous amplification,” and it’s represented in the OODA “loop” sketch by that IG&C feed from orientation back to Observations.
By the end of his life, though, Boyd could say, “I’ve found this thread running from 500 BCE through the 1980s, including my own experiences in the cockpit. So I really do have a concept for increasing confusion and disorder that I can apply to opponents in a conflict. Pump it up!”
In other words, steering by the torch of doubt and chaos.
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