The torch of chaos

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.

Basic OODA Loop No Blue.001

From The Essence of Winning and Losing, 1996.


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.

All of Boyd’s works are available for free download from our Articles page.


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14 thoughts on “The torch of chaos

    • Steve,

      Thanks. I think you’re right.

      Spinney coined the term “incestuous amplification” to emphasize that the process is often self-reinforcing. Much more than just a bias, it can escalate to the point where it locks Orientation, so that only a very narrow range of actions becomes possible or even plausible.

    • Another way to look at it is that confirmation bias is the mechanism and incestuous amplification is the result. Boyd loved making up definitions — it can be a lot of fun, and maybe even useful, so long as you don’t take them too seriously.

  1. Still thinking about the Observation, Orientation, phases, and why systems and campaigns,
    like Hilary Clinton’s fail. It’s possible to observe and research, but then ignore, rationalize, or minimalize certain realities, to cherry pick and process only what sounds good to you, and then proceed on a per-conceived and therefore screwed orientation, lacking a sound foundation in empirical reality. We see this a lot, and This is one BIG reason they fail.

  2. At the core of that, was Boyd’s devotion to truth, in the unforgiving. life or death arena of air combat, he could not afford wishfull thinking or any distortion in perception and analysis.

    If you can find the time, I recommend this;

    • I’ve spent hours watching Boyd in action. He’d discuss pretty much anything with anybody, so long as you were bringing data / facts / logic to the table. He didn’t have a lot of patience for debating ideologies.

  3. Never actually met the man, but from what I’ve studied and can gather from others who did,
    including you Chet, was exactly that, he was not one to suffer fools.

    Unfortunately it’s “Ideology” and underpinning bias, preconceived agendas, and ambitions that sabotage the OODA process particularly, and including at the Orientation stage. Therein lies the detachment between Boyd, who lived on unbiased observation and orientation, with those within his circle, and others who subsequently attempt to mimic his methodology, and fail so miserably, in places like Afghanistan, Iraq,
    Libya, Syria, and the USA itself, today.

  4. What portion, of Boyd’s strategies, and analysis could we apply to the outcome of this Presidential election ? Preferences aside.
    Your thoughts ?
    My 2 cents worth, and not to give him too much credit because I doubt Trump has ever heard of John Boyd and Co.
    Trump in observation, and in reading the public’s sentiments, specifically the profound frustration with the establishment, and the same old lines, and then making the DECISION to apply that, and in testing the rhetoric, standing back, and then upping the ante. Not to give too much credit, but you could call it all very boydesque.
    In the end though, I think it came down to him (Trump’s ) own gut level sense for the situation, as he too is frustrated, by what he hears and sees coming from the establishment, and simply articulated that, in a way that managed to come across to enough voters,

  5. 1) Observe, and accurately percieve the wide spread public dis-enfranchisement with the
    2) Orient, he taps into his own viceral and reactionary personality traits, to align with that
    3) Decide, His plan to deliver a message of an alternative, being anti-establishment, and political outsider.
    4) He delivers his message. in an over the top showman ship style, that rivets the media
    to him, at the practical exclusion of any rivals. He incestuously amplifies that attention,
    in making outrageous statements, further capturing media attention.

    5) Sit back, analyse the short term result, it works, and with each itteration
    he ramps it up, and gets more outragous, and garnishes more noteriety
    and attention, this futher resonates among a significant percentage of voters.

    Now, did he do all this, ever having heard of Col. John Boyd ?
    Very likely not, but Boyd’s model is amply demonstrated, in this case.

  6. Carrying forward along the same lines, in this discussion.
    I want to further explore the assertion why it is that things fall apart.
    I remembered a quote, that explains why the observation, orientation, and decision process fail. It begins with skewed and unrealistic bias in Observation, which in turns produces
    flawed Orientation, and Decisions. it starts even before that, with a per-concived agenda, not to be confused with a realistic goal.

    The late great Bruce Lee, covers much of what I am trying to get across,
    Read the quote, then think about botched and failed campaigns, and his
    explanation will make sense.

    “The great mistake is to anticipate the outcome of the engagement; you ought not to be thinking of whether it ends in victory or defeat. Let nature take its course, and your tools will strike at the right moment.”

    ― Bruce Lee .

    • Following up, I think that on an even more fundamental level, it’s the grossly unrealistic
      expectation of those who fail, that in this universe, governed by quantum uncertainty
      at the tiniest level, that we can completely shape and control our own reality. Although
      quantum effects dilute, as we move up in scale and proportion,. the fundamental uncertainty remains.
      And so, the departure point becomes self delusional.Observation, Orientation
      and Decisions are then garbage in, garbage out. Without a firm foundation in
      empirical reality.
      This is where Boyd’s devotion to truth in perception served him well in
      the air to air, and later bureaucratic combat enviroement.
      My 2 cents for what its worth..

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