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Via Negativa (Week 12 of Wisdom)

Chess grand masters win because they don’t make a mistake. Poker players win because they don’t lose their stack. Investors get rich because they don’t go broke when others do. Athletes become stars because they don’t get injured. 

It is wiser to follow advice that warns you of what not to do rather than tells you what to do. A prescription or a “how to” book is telling you one way of doing something. It is very likely that this one way doesn’t work.

Imagine you bought a book that wants to teach you how to be a successful entrepreneur. The book’s prescription would only need to fail once (it will fail many times even if the advice was sound due to the infinite number of variables that play into the success or failure of a business). Whereas learning via negative knowledge is, in contrast, constructive. You only need to know that your theory fails once to know that it isn’t perfect.

“For the Arab scholar and religious leader Ali Bin Abi-Taleb (no relation), keeping one’s distance from an ignorant person is equivalent to keeping company with a wise man.”

Nassim Taleb

In fact, much of psychological knowledge is negative knowledge. I am referring here to the replication crisis in the social sciences. We may not know that willpower is a muscle, as Roy Baumeister suggested, after replications of this experiment failed, but we do know the inverse – that it is not true that willpower is a muscle.

The spirit of Via Negativa, as you can tell, is skepticism. Indeed, the roots of this way of thinking, according to Taleb, comes from the “skeptical-empirical” medical schools of the post-classical era in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Instead of affirming a proposition, it takes a more defensive and shrewd position. Assume you are allergic to some kinds of cheese but not others. Instead of trying to figure out which cheese to eat, simply avoid cheese. If you want to become better at socializing, don’t try to look for clever things to say, but avoid saying stupid things.

If you want to be more organized, don’t spend more time creating the perfect schedule, but avoid time-wasters that will give you more time to become organized.

Of course, you cannot always operate via negativa. At some point, you need to have positive rules. But as a starting point, begin with elimination rather than addition.

2 replies on “Via Negativa (Week 12 of Wisdom)”

Reminds me in a way of how Western medicine commences a diagnosis – by a process of eliminating, one-by-one, the worst case possibilities.

"A gilded No is more satisfactory than a dry yes" - Gracian

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