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

Ben Zweibelson, PhD
10 min readApr 15, 2022
image source: https://www.standard.co.uk/hp/front/ever-seen-a-flock-of-sheep-hold-up-traffic-in-central-london-behold-the-history-of-the-london-traffic-jam-8932900.html

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…

Ben Zweibelson, PhD

Philosopher of Conflict; Director for the U.S. Space Command’s (USSPACECOM) Strategic Innovation Group; Author of 'Understanding the Military Design Movement'.