Destruction and Re-creation

On how to keep up with reality

In the Appendix of the book Boyd, a biography of the fighter pilot/engineer/military strategist John Boyd, is an essay written by Boyd entitled “Destruction and Creation”. The essay was Boyd’s attempt to explain and understand his own thought processes but it’s also is a great way to think about coming up with new ideas in general.

The central idea of the essay is that in order to better understand reality, we have to continually destroy old ideas and reconstruct them into new ideas.

In trying to understand his own ability to come up with a new concept (in his case Energy-Maneuverability theory), Boyd reasoned that we can change our perception of reality through this method of destruction and re-creation.

It is such a simple and beautiful idea.

The world is constantly changing. If we want to better understand the world then, we need to be constantly updating our ideas. And in order to update our ideas, we have to be willing to destroy the old ones.

What’s even more interesting and powerful about this concept is that it’s not just about getting rid of old ideas and creating new ideas in their place. Instead, Boyd argues that concepts are just a bunch of bits and pieces organized together into a higher-level order. So, when we destroy these higher-level concepts, we’re still left with the bits and pieces. By combining these with new bits and pieces (from our new observations about the world), we can organize them under new higher-level concepts that are closer to reality. Then rinse and repeat.

This is a similar idea to the idea that creativity is just a recombination of existing ideas. The key difference though in Boyd’s concept is the destruction element. Destruction and re-creation.

To best understand a system, we need to go beyond that system.

In explaining his reasoning about why destruction is needed, Boyd uses the math and science concepts of Gödel’s Proof, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, and the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Without getting into the details of each of the above, the basic notion is that they show how to best understand a system, we need to go beyond that system.

The final part of the essay that really stuck out to me is where Boyd relates his destruction/re-creation idea to individuals and groups. The small bits and pieces are individuals and the higher-level concepts are groups and organizations. Just like how we need to destroy and reconstruct higher-level ideas in order to keep up with the constantly-changing world, individuals leave existing groups and re-organize into new ones when the existing ones don’t update themselves.

Using this concept of destruction and recreation as a lens through which to look at the world, you’ll notice that this goes on a lot. Ideas, norms, cultures, jobs, organizations, governments, and even countries come and go. They get broken down and put back together in new ways.

I think this actually is a helpful way to look at the world right now. It is easy to read the news, watch TV, and scroll through Twitter and think it is all going to hell. But if we instead look at it through the lens of destruction and re-creation, we might see that we’re just in the middle of this ebb and flow of change.

There’s no denying that the destruction part can be messy. And the suffering we experience during that destruction is real. But if we look at it like John Boyd did, we might see that with destruction there is hope and opportunity.

What will the new ideas, norms, cultures, jobs, organizations, governments, and countries of the world look like tomorrow? I don’t know but it is up to us to take the bits and pieces that are left over from the destruction and put them back together into new and better forms. That sounds like an amazing opportunity to me.

Finally, if we’ve learned anything about the idea of destruction and re-creation, we must realize that the very concept of it is subject to itself. So how might we break this idea down into its components, add new ones, and combine them to come up with an even better one?

That I’ll leave for you.