Discover more from The Comma Project by Devin Baker
Addition by subtraction, and space to think
I’ve been thinking recently about a concept that profoundly resonated with me from the moment I read it in Nassim Taleb’s Antifragile - that of via negativa. Latin for “negative way,” via negativa is a historically theological approach to indirectly describing characteristics of God in a sort of process of elimination in a world where direct description and expression is out of our grasp.
But, Taleb turns this into a heuristic that quite effectively embodies the spirit of his philosophical musings on the practical nature of uncertainty, opacity, risk, decision-making, and humanity.
An example: due to the asymmetry of knowledge, in some forms addressed by Karl Popper, which Taleb uses to define his “Black Swan” problem, one single observation can disprove a statement, while millions cannot confirm it; as such, disconfirmation is more rigorous than confirmation. Since we know a lot more about what is wrong than what is right, knowledge grows by subtraction much more than addition, given that what we think we know today might turn out to be wrong, but what we know to be wrong can’t turn out to be right.
Another: due to the prevalence of the Pareto principle, or the 80/20 rule, in which a small number of sources drive the vast majority of outcomes, it becomes very obvious where to look to drive change. We often think about it in the positive / additive sense of the rule, where 20% of stocks drive 80% of returns, or 20% of individuals hold 80% of the wealth (I’m simplifying here, as the nature of today’s world drives increasingly winner-take-all effects, where the rule looks more like a 99/1 distribution). But, through the eyes of via negativa, addressing the small number of homeless individuals that drive the disproportionate share of cost to states, or the sickest fraction of the population responsible for the majority of healthcare costs, elimination can be immensely more powerful. Combined with the powerful nature of subtractive knowledge, we’re much better off dealing with the known through elimination or resolution as opposed to additive problem solving. Less is more.
Not only does this via negativa lens hold a sound logic that just feels sound and makes sense, but where I am most struck by the implications are in the more personal realm. For me, the more impactful implication of the approach is in its beautiful simplicity, which in so many ways is a symbolic defiance of the current age of overwhelm (which I’ve touched on in more length in the previous pieces, so won’t belabor the point here).
Via negative is what has made this COVID-induced reflective period so impactful - I just didn’t yet have a concept like via negativa that so cleanly encompasses the point.
I wrote about how it has been precisely the removal of our usual rituals and life as we knew it that has served to illuminate the core pieces of our life and personal value as they stand in “stark relief.” When things are so starkly illuminated, you can’t help but think about them. And when you can’t help but think about them, there are a lot of realizations that are given space to rise that otherwise wouldn’t have - some of confirmation (things we do that matter), some of change (things we do that don’t matter; or things we don’t do that do matter). But also some of confusion, where we feel something but don’t know what to make of it.
And it doesn’t really matter what the outcome is. What does matter is that space is given for reflection, especially in a world where our lives feel more full than ever.
What a gift - all enabled the via negativa way.
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