A guest blog by Major Kasia Stich, 12-02 Scholars Seminar on the “Local Dynamics of War”
Our military operating environments are incredibly complex. Not only are we asked to solve problems in unfamiliar areas, but we are surrounded by other actors with varying backgrounds, beliefs and agendas often in disagreement with our own. In A World of Becoming, William Connolly introduces us to a new way of looking at our environment and a philosophy than can help us respond to challenges which develop and change under the pressure of time, ethics and politics (Connolly, 16).
Although a professor of political science at The Johns Hopkins University, Connolly does not limit himself to traditional political theory to advance his philosophy. Instead, he draws from a wide range of disciplines to describe open systems and how they intersect and interact (Connolly 12). Although traditionally applied to the physical sciences, he brings complexity theory to bear on social sciences, thereby shedding new light on how the world operates (Connolly, 17).
Connolly describes his theory as follows: “A world of becoming—consisting of multiple temporal systems, many of which interact, each with its own degree of agency—is a world in which changes in some systems periodically make a difference to the efficacy and direction of others” (Connolly, 27). By advocating this theory, Connolly challenges our notion that we are principally rational actors with a monopoly on agency in the world; he asserts instead that agency is more pervasive than we often recognize.
We must understand several concepts to appreciate his theory’s richness. First, he offers the idea that agency is not perfect, nor is it limited to humanity. Instead, there are force-fields, or patterns spread throughout the natural world, which display varying degrees of agency. These force-fields have the ability to change and be changed since they are open systems able to interact with each other Connolly, 5).
Connolly denies that events result from either efficient causality (i.e. A causes B) or transcendent purpose and instead advocates emergent causality (i.e. B is irreducible to A or any other specific event or group of events). To understand emergence, we must embrace a broader understanding of time and the ways that the past can influence the present. Time occasionally “brings new things into being” that are unexplainable and unpredictable using efficient causality, intention, probability, or cycles. Instead, they appear through the convergence of factors over time (cf. Connolly’s “The Immanent Frame” blog). Along these same lines, Connolly challenges us to recognize the power and complexity of our own perception. He asserts our perceptions are made up of layers of intersensory memory (obtained over time) that are infused with anticipation and are normative (Connolly, 48).
Connolly also complicates our understanding of ethical, philosophical, and theological creeds. While belief and spirituality are certainly factors at play in the universe, Connolly challenges us not to attribute actions or outcomes merely to any one creed as it is “less than determinable” (Connolly, 77). Because creeds arise in our already filtered circumstances, individual interpretation is always at play. Secondly, not every individual possesses the same sensibility, or an idiosyncratic way of believing, thinking, and acting that conjoins with a creed; therefore, beliefs are not always applied identically. Finally, an existential faith is the embodiment of creed (creed plus sensibility) and is subject to creativity and application (Connolly, 76). We would therefore be foolish to consider them static, or all-encompassing.
Once we grasp the concept of the world as becoming, we can “infer from connected experience, while remaining alert to possible surprises that may overturn some of those inferences” (Connolly, 35). These unexpected outcomes can result from partial connections in space and time and pre-adaptations or seemingly inconsequential matters (i.e. litter) already present (Connolly, 36).
Although it appears lofty at first, Connolly’s exploratory philosophy has real application in our areas of operations. While some military professionals may be discouraged by an outlook that embraces our lack of control over the environment, recognizing such complexity and unpredictability should ultimately help, not hinder, planning and operations. First, using this world view encourages us to look at many more variables and possible outcomes. We may, therefore, be more flexible when surprised by “litter” that affects the environment in unexpected ways (Connolly, 36). Secondly, we can also learn from his encouragement to engage individuals with opposing views. Such conversations, especially when admitting belief’s contestability and biases, can be fruitful (Connolly, 91).
Finally, dwelling thoughtfully on the infinite factors and possible outcomes in our environment may decrease our tendency for myopic solutions to problems as well as provide “expectation management” which can combat our tendency to look for a “quick win.” Enduring operations, frequent reassessments and adjustments would not, therefore, be indications of poor planning, but rather an appropriate, nuanced and considered approach (Loode, 81).