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7 July 2023

Part 3 of “War Becoming Phantasmal: A Cognitive Shift in Conflict Beyond Human Limits”

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Original post can be found here:

Scale and Complexity: Newtonian Frameworks Fail with Emergence

Until recently, war might be interpreted through a western, ancient Greek logic of natural ordering and heroic action to reach abstracted goals, or through an ancient Chinese alternative logic where non-action by anonymous or invisible war sages might usher in a natural flow of reality without fighting at all [1]. War could be explained in rigid mathematical formulas and geometry such as Vauban and Jomini, where generals could manipulate their army and the enemy as if winding a watch [2]. Clausewitz would combine natural science analysis with ancient Greek constructs of heroic action and desired ends but build upon this fusion the ideas of German Romanticism which would pontificate about complexity in war blending chemical and biological metaphors with nation states, armies, and populations [3]. A wave of counter-capitalists led first by Marx and Engels and later a series of Russian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Cuban, and other political revolutionaries would charter upon different war theory directions. Yet in all of these war theories generated over thousands of years in vastly different times and cultures, all of them placed the human decision-makers clearly in control of war.

The Newtonian stylization of warfare occurred over the last several centuries, beginning with attempts by military theorists such as Vauban and later Jomini to render warfare into mathematical precision and geometric modeling so that battles could be predicted and controlled as if it were a mechanical watch [4]. Military theorists from Scharnhorst to his most famous pupil Clausewitz and many others would ground their war theorization upon natural science inspiration and an ontology (what is real or is not) for war itself oriented toward objective universal laws that govern the universe [5]. J.F.C. Fuller, during the Interwar Period, would comprehensively integrate Clausewitzian, Jominian, and Westphalian concepts into a positivist explanation of war (breaking things into simpler parts and isolating core laws and rules to apply to reassembled wholes) in strict scientific terms and reasoning [6].

Militaries logically nest all theoretical concepts, methodological processes, models, and a generic terminology to manifest uniformly from any level up or down via a linear-causal, systematic framework. For instance, the modern military institution accepts (at an ontological level) that war is arranged hierarchically in a nested manner of linear causality [7] where “three levels of war- strategic, operational, and tactical- model the relationship between national objectives and tactical actions… they help commanders visualize a logical arrangement of operations, allocate resources, and assign tasks to the appropriate command” [8]. Joint doctrine arranges this logic hierarchically so that “strategy develops an idea” and “military strategy, derived from national policy and strategy and informed by doctrine, provides a [subordinate] framework for conducting operations” [9]. The operational level in this hierarchical arrangement “links the tactical employment of forces to national and military strategies” and tactics is “the employment and ordered arrangement of forces in relation to each other. Joint doctrine focuses this term on planning and executing battles, engagements, and activities at the tactical level to achieve military objectives assigned to tactical units or task forces” [10].

A tactical unit has a desired end-state and identified problem to solve that links directly to an operational level goal and problem set, that in turn is nested in a higher strategic level. This again reflects a Newtonian ontology adapted by the modern military institution where “the workings of our minds and bodies, and all the animate or inanimate matter of which we have any detailed knowledge, are assumed to be controlled by the same set of fundamental laws”[11]. Fuller’s declarations that “military power, like force, is a compound of mass (body) and energy (activity)… My military faith is based on an examination of the facts correlated by the scientific method” demonstrate this fixation on war being entirely contained within a natural science interpretation [12]. Yet complexity science does not support “the ability to reduce everything to simple fundamental laws” [13]. This is a profound tension between how reality exists from a complexity science perspective and how modern militaries are only willing to contemplate complex warfare with centuries-old theories, models, and methodologies.

Anderson, a Nobel Prize winning physicist, elaborates on how Newton himself likely wondered if the same matter in his hand “might obey the same laws as that up in the sky”, which would permeate across the natural sciences and then into military modernization that occurred in parallel to permit a scientific rationalization of reality via a reductionist and subsequent reconstructionist logic [14]. By freezing and isolating a complex system down to essential elements, one might reduce reality to simple fundamental laws. Yet Anderson argues that complexity science does not then permit one to reassemble complex reality by starting at those laws and expecting the laws from one level of reality to scale with increased complexity just as modern military Newtonian ‘levels of war’ suppose. Instead, complexity science finds at each level of scaled complexity entirely new properties emerging, and entirely different orderings and behaviors require different conceptualization of laws that may be irrelevant at other scales. This is easily observed in how general relativity is required to understand reality at the cosmological scale, while quantum mechanics applies at the atomic scale. Yet war is a decidedly human affair, and requires a deeper framing on emergence, complexity and scale.

In complex reality, the macroscopic level “is independent from the microscopic level, because there is a mesoscopic or intermediate level that protects and isolates one from the other” [15]. For example, humans conceptualize certain animals such as snakes to be scary, while others are considered ‘cute’ such as kittens. A snake’s digestion track, however, finds that kitten rich in nutrients if eaten, while at the atomic level, those molecules of both the kitten and the snake exist regardless of whether one is dining on the other or not. How humans socially construct reality at another scale (where some animals are cuter than others) is independent from the quantum scale, which also is independent from the cellular scale, or the biological scale (snakes and felines compete in overlapping food chains to survive). Just as complexity science makes it impossible to incorporate the behavior of biological organisms reliant on genes and proteins into the laws of particle physics [16], if war is a manifestation of human designed complexity, the hierarchical, Newtonian styled ‘levels of war’ appears oversimplified and potentially irrelevant to complex system behavior as a conceptual model for modern military decision-making.

The highest forms of emergence in complexity science directly relate to how humans create socially contextual organized violence (war) and why modern military institutions likely are extending irrelevant and obsolete mental models such as ‘levels of war’ and a myriad other Newtonian styled concepts (centers of gravity, ends-ways-means, problem-solution, centralized hierarchies) where they are increasingly ineffective or fail to anticipate disruptive and transformative events likely on the horizon for humanity. Fromm proposes a classification on different types of emergence ranging from simple emergence (type I) to strong emergence (type IV). Type III emergence, associated with complex, adaptive systems and encompasses much of complex human behavior is considered chaotic and unpredictable [17].

Such emergence occurs with the appearance of new forms and functions and the elimination of obsolete ones, mirroring Thomas Kuhn’s theory of scientific paradigm shifts [18] when a new scientific theory overtakes and replaces an outdated, inferior one. Type IV emergence is considered by Fromm to be the strongest sort of phenomenon in complexity science. Such emergence is revolutionary and transformative on the greatest conceivable scale and cannot be predicted in principle due to the profound change it ushers in. The emergence of life is one such example, and the rise of sentient beings able to generate their own culture and a socialized construction of reality upon the natural order is another example of ‘strong emergence’ that open up previously unimagined and unachievable entire realms of possibility, and with this the requirement for entirely new rules, processes, and concepts. Universal principles, laws, and processes such as reductionism are irrelevant in such contexts- they only prosper in simple or complicated systems.

The concepts thus covered on emergence, scales or planes of existence, and the military preference of a Newtonian styled, centuries old framework now converge so that the argument can be established for a phantasmal form of future war emerging today and over the coming decades. This phantasmal war construct requires entirely new theories, methods, models, and language concerning complex conflict, and while the phantasmal war frame might coexist with conventional and IW theories, none of these should retain the Newtonian styled ontological and epistemological beliefs currently unchallenged across the defense institutions worldwide. Such existing concepts might have limited value within certain highly conventional (perhaps total, high intensity or nuclear war conflicts between nation-states), they continue to show weak correlation to IW contexts and likely will be entirely irrelevant in most phantasmal war applications.

To be continued in part 4…

[1] Jullien, A Treatise on Efficacy Between Western and Chinese Thinking; Cheng Man-ch’ing, Lao-Tzu: “My Words Are Very Easy to Understand”: Lectures on the Tao Teh Ching by Cheng Man-Ch’ing, trans. Tam Gibbs (Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books, 1981), 65–69, 109, 179–80, 201, 205; Sun Tzu, The Art of War: Complete Text of Sun Tzu’s Classics, Military Strategy History, Ancient Chinese Military Strategist Deluxe Collection Edition, 1, trans. Lionel Giles (Las Vegas, NV: Amazon, 2022).

[2] Bousquet, The Scientific Way of Warfare: Order and Chaos on the Battlefields of Modernity, 46–55.

[3] Peter Paret, Clausewitz and the State: The Man, His Theories, and His Times, 1985 Paperback (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1985); Peter Paret, “Clausewitz,” in Makers of Modern Strategy: From Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age, ed. Peter Paret (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1986), 186–213.

[4] Bousquet, The Scientific Way of Warfare: Order and Chaos on the Battlefields of Modernity; Fuller J.F.C., The Foundations of the Science of War, 2012 reprinting by Books Express Publishing (London: Hutchinson & Company, LTD, 1925), 227.

[5] Robert Chia and Andreas Rasche, “Epistemological Alternatives for Researching Strategy as Practice: Building and Dwelling Worldviews” (draft chapter provided to author, 2022), 5–8; Paparone, The Sociology of Military Science: Prospects for Postinstitutional Military Design, 20, 30–31, 79, 197–98; Paret, Clausewitz and the State: The Man, His Theories, and His Times, 8, 84.

[6] Brian McLaughlin, “The Rise and Fall of British Emergentism,” in Emergence: Contemporary Readings in Philosophy and Science, ed. Mark Bedau and Paul Humphreys (Massachusetts: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2008), 19–21; Paparone, The Sociology of Military Science: Prospects for Postinstitutional Military Design, 35; John Searle, “Reductionism and the Irreducibility of Consciousness,” in Emergence: Contemporary Readings in Philosophy and Science, ed. Mark Bedau and Paul Humphreys (Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2008), 69–70.

[7] Paparone, “Critical Military Epistemology: Designing Reflexivity into Military Curricula,” 127–28.

[8] U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Publication 3–0; Joint Operations, Incorporating Change 1 (Suffolk, Virginia: U.S. Department of Defense, 2018), I–12,

[9] U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, I–13.

[10] U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, I-13 to I — 14.

[11] Phillip Anderson, “More Is Different,” Science 177, no. 4047 (August 4, 1972): 393.

[12] J.F.C., The Foundations of the Science of War, 63–64.

[13] Anderson, “More Is Different,” 393.

[14] Anderson, 393–94; Bousquet, The Scientific Way of Warfare: Order and Chaos on the Battlefields of Modernity, 11–18; Paparone, The Sociology of Military Science: Prospects for Postinstitutional Military Design, 18–21.

[15] Jochen Fromm, “Types and Forms of Emergence,” ArXiv: Adaptation and Self-Organizing Systems, June 13, 2005, 1–23.

[16] Fromm.

[17] Fromm.

[18] Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).

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