Winning is Neither Linear nor Deterministic


Sun Tzu's Sun Tzu's Rules teach the cognitive methods by which the best decisions are made in complex, dynamic, non-linear, non-deterministic situations that arise in human relationships. By non-linear, we mean that the whole situation is greater than the sum of its parts. By non-deterministic, we mean that outcomes are not mechanical, but a product of probabilities. In this article, we talk about the difference between the linear, deterministic thinking that we are taught in school and the adaptive thinking that we need to be successful in human competition.

Linear, deterministic thinking is also known as "logical thinking." Logical thinking depends on the idea that the laws of nature determine the progress of events. In the flow of linear thinking, future events are caused by past events in a deterministic, mechanical way. Results are the cummulative effect of each event along the way, nothing more or less. Events act upon objects, which are shaped solely by those events.

A process or any object under control of a process is determined by its component parts. The character of the process or object is the accumulation of the character of its parts, nothing more or less. To understand any system or object, we simply have to take it apart into smaller parts and understand each piece. This is known as reductionism. The result of linear thinking of reductionism is planning, the predetermination of a series of activities resulting in a specific object. The resulting plan is executed one step at a time, transforming one condition into another in a completely predictable manner.

Deterministic Think and Its Successes

This thinking began with Newton's discovery of the laws of motion. While people had always known that there were mysterious forces at work in the universe, the emphasis had always been on their mystery. Starting with Newton, the emphasis began to shift to the idea that these laws could be completely known through reductionism. In the seventeenth century, Descartes in Meditations laid the philosophical basis for determinism. During the following age of discovery and invention, scientific activity focused on uncovering the laws of nature. Economic activity focused on harnessing these laws at first in machines and then in factories. Increasingly, people were taught linear thinking and planning. The result was unimaginable gains in efficiency in every human activity from farming and the production of manufactured goods.

The economic success of logical thinking lead to its extension into all aspects of life. It was assumed that scientific and mathematical systems would eventually completely describe nature. Simon-Pierre Laplace's "scientific determinism" proposed that all events have a cause and effect and the precise combination of events at a particular time create a specific result. This idea took many forms. Biological determinism said that all behavior, belief, and desire were fixed by genetics. Theological determinism said God decrees all human actions in advance. Environmental determinism holds that the physical environment determines culture.

The Death of Choice

The logical thinking of determinism, however, had a surprising victim: the value of each person's everyday decision-making. In all its forms, determinism raises questions about free will. The line of cause and effect extends backward in time as well as forward. This means that decisions are the mechanical effects of previous events not free choices. Our decisions result solely from our genetic biology, our upbringing, our training, and our social circumstances. This meant that there was no morality, as once understood. Criminals don't choose. They are merely victims of the conditions that direct them. Both Nazism and Communism were based on the idea their regimes were the inevitable result of the natural forces of social history.

Choice was a victim in another way as well. The mechanistic economy was a mass economy. The individual's decisions and opinions were devalued in every way. As workers, factory workers were cogs in a machine. As consumers, inexpensive, standardized products decreased market choices. The economics of mass production drove most alternative choices out of the market because they could not be produced efficiently. People could choose any color they wanted as long as it was black. Mass media and advertising sold a standard ideal. The era of organization required the efficiency of uniformity and the mass man.

Reaching the Limits of Determinism

However, a funny thing happened. As Sun Tzu teaches, this world of organization and sameness gave birth to a new world of creativity and endless alternatives.

Just as Newton's physics gave rise to mechanical, logical determinism, scientific progress in quantum theory and mathematics eventually undermined it. In the 1920s and 1930s, Einstein's Relativity, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, and Gödel's Incompleteness Theorems made it clear that the laws of nature were not all deterministics. At their root, there were probabilities involved. In the 1960s, thanks to the work of Lorenze and others, we also discovered chaos, complexity, and emergence. Emergence shows new properties could arise from the whole in unpredictable ways. These discoveries put conscious awareness back at the center of the reality. The "observer" was the measure of all things, in a very real sense, creating reality by recognizing it.

Through the rest of the twentieth century, the central importance of human creativity, decisions, and choice began to overwhelm the idea of physical determinism. Advances in computer science, information theory, and finally the study of complex adaptive systems completely undercut the deterministic model. Most of the natural world including all competition was not mechanical at all. Competitive pressures created more and more market choices. Information technology shifted people from physical work to mental work. The very visible failures of planned economies arose because innovation could not be predicted or planned. Gradually, non-linear adaptive models of thinking are replacing the strangle hold of the linear philosophy. The rise of Sun Tzu's adaptive thinking is part of this on-going change.