This is a summary of a paper by Colonel Boyd on concept formation with some of my own ideas about how the cycle of deductive destruction and creative induction relates to incremental reading and incremental writing.
In Destruction and Creation Boyd discusses how we form mental concepts in the face of an uncertain and changing environment.
Boyd starts by discussing why we form concepts in the first place.
"Naturally, as we go through life we develop concepts of meaning (with included constituents) to represent observed reality." - Colonel Boyd in Destruction and Creation
According to Boyd, we create concepts to help us make sense of reality and to improve our capacity for independent action.
Boyd suggests that there are two processes that underlie the mechanism of concept formation: 1) [Destructive deduction], and 2) [Creative induction].
The first step in the formation of new concepts is the "destruction" of old concepts, a process Boyd terms "destructive deduction".
"We can start from a comprehensive whole and break it down to its particulars..." - Colonel Boyd in Destruction and Creation
The "comprehensive whole" Boyd is referring to is a concept we have already stored in our mind. The concept groups some particular constituents of reality based on their similar features. The concept is like a set that subsumes a collection of particulars based on them sharing some common [conceptual denominator].
The first step we take to create new concepts is to sever the connection between the old concept and the particular instances it subsumes.
"Suppose we shatter the correspondence of each domain or concept with its constituent elements. In other words, we imagine the existence of the parts but pretend that the domains or concepts they were previously associated with do not exist. Result: We have many constituents, or particulars, swimming around in a sea of anarchy. We have uncertainty and disorder in place of meaning and order." - Colonel Boyd in Destruction and Creation
The process of [destructive deduction] separates the underlying instances from the old concept. What is left is an ungrouped collection of constituents which are left to float in what Boyd terms a "sea of anarchy".
There are many overlaps between Boyd's [destructive deduction] and the text processing functions in incremental reading. In incremental reading, extracting parts of an article and creating flashcards is analogous to Boyd's destructive deduction.
"Suppose we shatter the correspondence of each domain or concept with its constituent elements." - Colonel Boyd in Destruction and Creation
By extracting a section from an article or book, you are shattering the correspondence of the extracted section with its original context. Likewise, when you turn those extracts into atomic flashcards, you are stripping away as much unnecessary information as possible to leave behind the essence of some relation or idea. ^6dbdba
"Result: We have many constituents, or particulars, swimming around in a sea of anarchy. We have uncertainty and disorder in place of meaning and order." - Colonel Boyd in Destruction and Creation
Rather than remaining attached to their parent articles, extracts and flashcards are left to float around freely in the "sea of anarchy" of your learning queue. The decontextualised extracts and flashcards are randomly interleaved with topics spanning the entire spectrum of knowledge stored in your collection. While some worry about "losing the bigger picture", I argue that the separation between article extracts and their original context is essential if your goal is to create new ideas and concepts, as opposed to merely regurgitating what you've read. ^bf95cb
Having broken down an old concept into its constituent parts, the next step is to regroup the parts into new concepts in a process called "creative induction".
"... we proceeded from unstructured bits and pieces to a new general pattern or concept." - Colonel Boyd in Destruction and Creation
New concepts are formed by grouping disconnected parts based on some common qualities, attributes or operations that exist between some or many of the parts swimming around in the sea of anarchy.
One of the major complaints learners have when using a spaced repetition system or incremental reading is that breaking things down into atomic parts can cause them to "lose the bigger picture". But to the extent that this is actually the case, I believe it is a good thing! In order to create concepts that are novel and generate ideas with a new quality, you must first destructively decompose old articles and concepts into their underlying particulars, and then recombine them into new articles and concepts. ^af1083
Creative induction can be considered as proceeding in the opposite "direction" to destructive deduction. Creative induction proceeds from the particular parts to a new comprehensive whole, while destructive deduction takes the comprehensive whole and shatters it back into its parts. The "constructive" process of incremental writing can also be considered as the opposite of the "destructive" process of incremental reading.
Through reviewing the extracts and flashcards in the "sea of anarchy" of your learning queue, you notice similarities between some of the individual pieces. You begin to group extracts and flashcards with similar themes together, not reassembling old articles like a jigsaw puzzle, but mixing and combining parts from many different sources, adding your own ideas and observations, creating an entirely new quality. You group disjoint particulars into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, paragraphs into chapters and so on. Gradually, you build back towards a "comprehensive whole". ^7cd0d6
Boyd stresses that an essential part of concept formation is ensuring that the new concepts we form are 1) internally consistent, and 2) match up with reality.
"Recalling that we use concepts or mental patterns to represent reality... the emerging pattern of ideas and interactions must be internally consistent and match up with reality." - Colonel Boyd in Destruction and Creation
Internal consistency is when all the domains of your knowledge are consistent with eachother. The domains "integrate" without contradiction.
Spaced repetition actually comes with a built-in mechanism for automatic contradiction resolution.
When you review a certain spaced repetition card over time, you want the underlying action of retrieval at each review to be exactly the same, since this will maximize the increase in the stability of the memory.
You want the vectors of electrical activity in your mind to flow identically across the target synapses at each review.
Competitive memory interference occurs when the action of retrieval differs between reviews.
Imagine you have two cards with contradictory information:
Q: French: What does "le chat" mean?
A: the cat
Q: French: What does "le chat" mean?
A: the dog
The cards are contradictory because the prompt is the same in both cases, but the answer to each card is different.
Over time you might fail each card 50% of the time because you are reinforcing a different answer at each review. Due to the competitive memory interference between the two answers, the intervals on the cards will gradually shrink until you are shown both cards on the same day.
This massively increases your chance of recognising that there is a contradiction in your knowledge.
The process is slow, but does not require you to actively search for contradictory cards. Through the process of competitive memory interference you systematically remove contradictory information from your collection over time.
In addition to the automatic contradiction resolution built in to spaced repetition, SuperMemo has another feature called "neural review" that can be used to "stress-test" the internal consistency of the new concepts and ideas you have created in your writing.
When you activate neural review, you will be shown "surprising" links and information, potentially from distant nodes in the semantic network of your knowledge. This will rigorously test the degree to which your new ideas and concepts can be integrated into the sum of your knowledge without contradiction. If you notice contradictions, you know that you need to revise your old beliefs or the new concepts you are building.
In addition to internal consistency, we also need to ensure that our new concepts match up with reality. Since an increase in internal consistency does not necessarily lead to an increase in external validity, we need to explicitly check that our new concepts match up with reality.
Spaced repetition is all about optimally spacing the reviews of information to maximize the volume of retrievable knowledge stored in memory whilst minimizing the cost in time.
By maximizing the amount of retrievable knowledge in your memory, you increase the probability that you will realize when there is something in reality that falsifies or provides evidence to the contrary for one of your beliefs.
Without using a spaced repetition system to maintain high retrievability of your core ideas in memory over time, you run the risk that when you encounter falsifying evidence in reality, you won't notice that it falsifies one of your beliefs because you aren't able to retrieve it.
You might think that this is not so important for something that directly falsifies one of your beliefs, since it would be more obvious, but what if instead it is a more indirect falsification through a "dependency of a dependency" of one of your beliefs. The only way to maximize the probability that you notice such indirect falsification is by maximizing the retrievability of your core beliefs through spaced repetition.
The dual processes of destructive deduction and creative induction can be repeated in cycles over time to maintain the internal consistency and external validity of your models in an uncertain and changing environment.
Having published an article into the real world and having received feedback from readers, you can chop the article back up into extracts and atomized flashcards and add them back into the learning queue.
By re-severing the link between the constituent parts of the article and the concept it represents, you are in effect recycling your new concept back into the cycle of creation and destruction, ensuring that your models of reality remain internally consistent and externally valid over time.