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14 April 2022

Understanding Emergence: How Complexity Theory Requires Getting Out of the Military’s Favored Newtonian Box

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Original blog post can be found here:

The above image is similar to one I saw at a car museum in the Black Forest a few years ago, and it has stuck in my head for a useful way to explain a few critical aspects on complexity theory to military audiences. Emergence is an essential quality of complexity, and not at all found in simplistic or complicated system settings in the particular manner of ‘complex emergence’ that we will discuss for military strategic, operational and organizational considerations. Again- I want to emphasize this point: in complexity theory, there are forms of simple and complicated emergence that do occur in those systems- such as how a sand pile can be carefully created and measured down to individual particles of sand, but the collapse rate and sequence is emergent and cannot ever be repeated the same way. Simple emergence can be found in a mechanical wrist watch, where as time continues to be shown to the owner, the watch parts never change, but the configuration of where a time and date is presented is perpetually showing something the watch has never done before. These forms of emergence are not the focus here. We want to consider emergence in complex systems, because that is where humans create war and security challenges, and subsequently military forces attempt to force simplistic and complicated decision-making methods that are insufficient at addressing complex emergence at all. They can work with simple emergence, which is part of the problem with why militaries struggle with their methods as well. We conflate one for the other, and lack the depth of understanding why this is so backwards.

Modern military forces fail to appreciate emergence in complex systems that is essential to framing any holistic appreciation. Cilliers explains that “complex systems display behaviour that results from the interaction between components and not from characteristics inherent to the components themselves. This sometimes if called emergence” (Cilliers, 79). In the photo above, it is obvious that some chaos-like interactions between the old “legacy travel mode” of horse and carriages are in tension with the “novelty” emergence of automobiles, coupled with emerging transportation requirements such as traffic code and rule updates, signal lights, dedicated lanes, fuel stations, as well as new concepts such as automobile insurance, and later still the rise of highway systems, population shifts, increased road fatalities, seatbelt regulations, and even airbags.

One fascinating thing about emergence in complex systems is that in hindsight, one can readily (even perhaps seductively) apply systematic logic to reverse-engineer clear, linear-causal relationships linking emergent actions back to earlier (now apparent or seemingly obvious) precursors. Yet this is part of the fascinating paradox of how humans remain alive only within a linear time/space reality where as things are emerging, we ourselves are absolutely unsure, unwitting, unprepared, and even unwilling to see the transformation unfold.

Let’s go into a deeper primer on emergence and use the horse and car image to guide the journey a bit. This excerpt is from an upcoming military planning and design monograph (pending publication late 2022):

Emergence in complexity is the observation of an effect that lacks a sufficiently clear or apparent “cause” as normally understood in how the system behaved previously (the legacy state of that system). Due to the very nature of emergent things and events, new language and concepts must be created to address the emergence, along with new methods, practices, and even entire transformations of what was previously the established system. Emergence is essentially paradoxical- the emergent properties remain changeless but also changing; they are unpredictable yet inevitable in every type of system. Emergence is both independent from the system from which it generates or arises, but also entirely dependent upon it. Complex systems are sensitive to initial conditions where even exceedingly small activities might propel a system off into dramatic transformations that will express in nonlinear, emergent, and dynamic fashion.

Complex systems also are prone to become unpredictable, moving in ways and patterns that “are not reducible in the previous description of the system’s behavior. These emergent novelties represent points of bifurcation.”[1] This means that nearly all of the analytical models, language and logic featured in NATO-OPP and JPP do not really address complexity. Rather, they relegate a complex reality down to a complicated or even simple system framing so that established Newtonian rationale concerning warfare can continue to be utilized. Military activities are therefore inappropriately understood in a manner that permits ‘A plus B leads to C’ logic for linear-causal (systematic) analysis.

Emergence is both an effect, an event and new process where the cause is not visible or readily apparent. When we question what emergence is, we really are thinking about causation and causality. In simple systems, the cause links directly to the effect in a clear “input-output” relationship that is reliable, uniform, predictable, and controlled. This encourages systematic logic; the sort of systems thinking where standard operating procedures and best practices really work well.[2] However, there are some weak forms of emergence that do occur in simple or complicated system settings, such as in a closed system frame where a physical target (a hardened bunker) is struck by an explosive projectile, or a tactical end-state is accomplished with employing a drone strike on a selected individual tracked to a known physical location. “Simple emergence”[3] is defined as a fixed, machine-like system where emergence only occurs in a set behavior sort of manner.

Now, returning to the horse and car image above, where do we observe emergence and complexity? Much of it is obvious in retrospection, where today we take so much of the automobile-empowering world for granted… because for the vast majority of us enjoying a digital, high-technology lifestyle, the internal combustion engine is a given part of that reality (despite that device itself being challenged with the rise in electronic vehicles, AI systems, alternative energy sources, and more). The massive emergent leap was a shift away from muscle-powered locomotion that was the cornerstone of the entirety of past human civilization in some form (the Incas built vast road networks for Llamas to carry them and goods, while the Spanish Conquistadors brought horses back to the Americas as the earlier native horses were wiped out (along with many other species) in the initial push of Homo sapien across the Bering Strait around 20,000 years ago. The internal combustion engine (along with early competitors such as an automobile using steam power, another with early electric battery power) would unlock a non-muscle powered mode of individual transportation for humans with vast improvements in power, speed, reliability, and technological advancement.

As a species, we Homo sapiens are exceptionally creative, in that we are alone in our ability to manipulate both our external environment to our desired advantage, but to shape a socially constructed second level of reality where humans alone collectively maintain things such as money, law, religion and also war. Only humans conceptualize an organized form of violence that has unique political and societal requirements that differ from other forms of violence, whether individual, collective criminal, or across nearly all other species, a predator-prey or related natural violent dynamic. We humans are uniquely creative in how we are destructive. The cleverest of the apes have gained technological and informational riches that today provide amazing lifestyle capabilities far beyond any natural order contexts, as well as the ability to vaporize all life on the planet’s surface in a matter of minutes. We have emerged from what was a backwaters, unimportant ape species to the dominant life form atop all food chains (except when we wander dangerously) and able to wittingly or unwittingly completely alter our ecosystems and even beyond the limits of this planet in ways no other life has been able to prosper. The emergence of automobiles from a world conditioned for centuries of horse carriages is but a simple shift in a series of amazing emergent evolutions in our complex natural world; a world where a second reality of socially shared complexity sits atop.

One challenge with emergence in complexity is that it requires us to think differently, and to consider creatively how we might transform reality (either natural or socially constructed) in ways never-before-imagined; to be able to leap on the shoulders of all preceding generations to move yet further into an uncharted direction unreachable and likely unrealizable by our own species alive not a generation or two before. Thus, human ingenuity is an essential yet hard to define/explain aspect of our reality. The society that was well aware and comfortable with horse-drawn transportation would struggle with every single emergent quality of the rise of automobile locomotion, to include the traffic mess featured in the photo above. While Thomas Kuhn spoke of scientific paradigm shifts (where Newtonian physics would give way to Relativity only after much resistance, debate, friction and infighting), social paradigms are different. With social paradigm theory (a subsequent emergent field beginning in the 1970s after the initial scientific paradigm concepts of the 1960s), social scientists would frame how we understood reality as well as how we insisted it could not be.

In military organizations, we prefer to retain the scientific paradigm of Newtonian physics as how we explain what war is (philosophically), as well as how warfare is waged (methodology, purpose) within such a universalized construct (all wars, forever, always and everywhere). This is due to over three centuries of modernization where natural science theories, models, language and methods would be incorporated or mimicked into ‘military science’ as well as the forms of institutionalized professionalization (academies, doctrine, education and training). Emergence is not understood within modern complexity theory, but through Newtonian frames where systematic logic (input leads to recognized output; A plus B should lead to C) is held up as how war exists and within this all humans must obey the “rules” within. This includes creativity, and how our species ought to understand and engage in warfare.

In a recent Wall Street Journal article (see: A New Way to Measure Creativity — WSJ), Alison Gopnik discusses the challenges of studying creativity and how attempts to ‘measure’ it is rather paradoxical. Humans are studied through psychological testing of individuals on a hypothesis. A large population of individuals are tested the same way so that regardless of individual anomalies, broad patterns might be observed that could clarify (or invalidate) the hypothesis. This can work with many human behaviors, but ‘creativity’ is the unique act of spontaneously generating something novel, “something no one could predict beforehand”- meaning any creativity test devised by even the most creative psychologist ran into the “pull oneself up by one’s own bootstraps” paradox of emergence in complex systems. Novel means “never-before-seen or even conceptualized”- in that a truly creative act is one by itself, the first in linear time where nothing before had knowingly/wittingly been the established precursory link. This does not work well within systematic logic, or how modern militaries prefer to make sense of the world so that they can execute activities considered purposeful to the role of an instrument of military power for a nation state. Creativity should be a tool, one that can be identified, measured, and subsequently rendered into a step or requirement within a strategic or perhaps planning effort.

It seems paradoxical that the very notion of creativity- something emergent and novel (never-before-seen or conceptualized) must also be planned as a predetermined ‘ends’ nested with sequenced ‘ways’ and ‘means’ so that modern military forces might “be creative.” One dominant counter-argument to this perspective on creativity is that no human action is ever distinct and not dependent upon one or many other pre-existing concepts. The latest hit dance song is just a creative variation on older ideas, dating back to the Electronic Dance Music (EDM) phase that came out of the ashes of the extinct Disco Era of the 1970s, that which gradually grew from an earlier Swing Band period of the 1950s, which itself drew heavily from earlier folks blues, folk music and gospel such as from Lead Belly and other blues pioneers. And they drew from earlier musical innovators- creating a never-ending web of nonlinear creative ideas and inspiration perhaps stretching back to the very first drum beats of prehistoric humans around a fire.

Is creativity something unique to the context and part of the ever-changing experience of “being human”…in that war is an unfortunate yet integral part of human existence, and as long as humans are clever and creative, war will continue to change and transform? Or is creativity something dependent upon the totality of human existence, in that a fine yet intricate web of linear and nonlinear casual relationships push all innovative actions forward only through the collective weight of things past done and known? To attempt to answer part of this question, we should return to the photo of the horses and cars. Are we thinking about complexity and emergence in a useful manner for security affairs set within an increasingly complex (perhaps chaotic, or as Antoine Bousquet termed it, ‘chaoplexic’ see: reality? I would suggest that as long as our military doctrine, methodologies for decision-making, as well as our shared mental models and language (as well as metaphors behind the words) continue to draw almost exclusively upon Newtonian physics and natural science mimicry, we cannot “think about creativity and change” outside of linear-casual, systematic ways. We end up demanding that the horse carriage be made a bit more better- so that the horse is faster, or the carriage lighter… we cannot comfortably stretch ourselves to let go of obsolete or outdated concepts to accept the emergence of the car.

[1] Tsoukas and Hatch, 989.

[2] Paparone, “How We Fight: A Critical Exploration of US Military Doctrine”; Paparone, The Sociology of Military Science: Prospects for Postinstitutional Military Design; Ben Zweibelson, “One Piece at a Time: Why Linear Planning and Institutionalisms Promote Military Campaign Failures,” Defence Studies Journal 15, no. 4 (December 14, 2015): 360–75.

[3] For purposes of this basic design education, this definition combines Type 1 and Type 2 ‘simple emergence’ for brevity. The distinction between the two is that Type 1 has no feedback while Type 2 has a scale-preservation and peer-to-peer (parts in composition) feedback. The steam engine and watch are Type 1, while the hourglass sand is Type 2.

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