Gray sky thinking: John Boyd’s entropy machine

Smithsonian Channel. “The Intense Dogfight Between a U.S. Pilot and an Iraqi MiG” (2018). Screenshot altered.

In his “Destruction and Creation” (1976), the military strategic theorist John Boyd describes what he calls a dialectic engine. He begins by noting that, as decisional agents, we develop and use concepts and models in order to navigate our environments better, but which nevertheless change as rapidly as we navigate them. (One of Boyd’s paradigm cases for this situation is provided by the dynamics of aerial dogfighting, and he himself was a well-respected fighter pilot and instructor for the USAF.)

In general, the goal of conceptually modeling navigation in this way is “to improve our capacity for independent action.” Put differently, it is intended to help us exercise and retain agency in complex decisional environments, rather than being outmaneuvered and overwhelmed (either by competitors, or by the sheer weight of complexity or entropic accumulation).

To help improve this capacity, Boyd maps out a process of concept creation that has two parts.

First, he identifies a dynamic of conceptual breakdown, or what he calls destructive deduction. He describes destructive deduction as the process of breaking apart the correspondence relation between a comprehensive whole and its full complement of particulars: “In other words, we imagine the existence of the parts but pretend that the domains or concepts they were previously associated with do not exist.” This frees up all the particulars from prior conceptual subordination, but also leaves them in a state of disorder.

So, Boyd articulates the second part of the process, which he calls constructive induction. In constructive induction, we “synthesize constituents from, hence across, the domains we have just shattered. Linking particulars together in this manner we can form a new domain or concept.” This is a mosaic or patchwork process, in which disparate pieces from broken knowledge systems are sutured into chimeric and novel assemblages.

He also emphasizes the relationship between the two processes: “It is important to note that the crucial or key step that permits this creative induction is the separation of the particulars from their previous domains by the destructive deduction.” Ultimately, this dynamic of destruction and creation (“the process of Structure, Unstructure, Restructure, Unstructure, Restructure is repeated endlessly”) allows us to map out features of our decisional environment even as those features change rapidly around us.

But there’s a problem. He writes: “any inward-oriented and continued effort to improve the match-up of concept with observed reality will only increase the degree of mismatch,” because relational systems like concepts and observations, each refining the other in a closed loop, generate entropy. Entropy increases in closed systems.

As such, Boyd argues that we need to destroy our concept formations first in order to free up their particulars for repurposing into new concept formations. He writes: “the uncertainty and disorder generated by an inward-oriented system talking to itself can be offset by going outside and creating a new system” (emphasis mine).

This leads him to the rather striking conclusion that “an entropy increase permits both the destruction or unstructuring of a closed system and the creation of a new system […]” In other words, entropy isn’t just the doom of a concept, or a system of concepts, but also the necessary fuel for the construction of its progeny.

Hence, Boyd offers a model of a conceptual update machine that runs on the very entropy it generates.


Michael Uhall is a political theorist. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Illinois. He can be found @noirmaterialism, or e-mailed directly at uhall2@illinois.edu.

2 responses to “Gray sky thinking: John Boyd’s entropy machine

  1. This from Alexander Cockburn in A Colossal Wreck:

    “Boyd had noticed that as an opponent is continually outlooped he becomes progressively disoriented and eventually loses all ability to respond rationally. This loss was most vividly demonstrated b the fact that outlooped fighter pilots sometimes simply flew into the ground. When he was a fighter pilot instructor at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada in the 1950s, Boyd, applying his own principles, became known as “40-Second Boyd,” by reason of the standing bet he had with any pilot that he could beat them in a mock dog fight in forty seconds or pay $40. He never lost.

    Put in these Schematic terms, Boyd’s OODA [observation, orientation, decision, action] loop might seem to be simply a commonsense precept, like many military mnemonic. But the radical implications became apparent when Boyd applied the concept to the design of aircraft, which is where he began to tread on some sensitive toes. The military and its prime partners, the defense contractors, were mighty happy with the orthodoxy that a plane that was a faster, more heavily armed and more freighted with complex gadgetry was the proper weapon to procure. The more complex the plane, of course, the more contented were the arms builders, as they pocketed the taxpayers’ dollars.

    Boyd conceived of a simple lightweight fighter plane appropriate to his doctrine of OODA loop maneuverability. The Pentagon high brass and their business allies resisted bitterly…

    In its ultimate form this briefing took thirteen hours to deliver, as Boyd gave enthralled audiences – often military officers – what amounted to a unified field theory of human activity, ranging from the tactics of fighter combat to the rivalries of economic and political systems. The briefings were open to anyone interested. Among the keenest students of Boyd were a bunch of young Republicans including Newt Gingrich, who lost no time in inviting Boyd to lecture at the Republican Campaign Academy, Gingrich’s staff college. Though Boyd would have been equally willing to instruct Democrats in the art of war and maneuver, not a single one ever bothered to show up at his talks. Boydians would say that they certainly paid a price as the Democrats were consistently outmaneuvered in the early 1990s.” (p.79-80)

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