Via Negativa: The Process of Making Good Decisions By Eliminating Bad Ones

“We cannot explain everything. We know more about what something is not than what something is. If there would have been no word for colour blue, it would still have existed in reality. It would only have been absent in linguistics. But since we don’t have a word for it, we couldn’t define or comprehend it. But we still could say what it is not. It is not orange. It’s not an elephant, etc. This method of knowledge is truer and more rigorous than positive knowledge.”

— Nassim Nicholas Taleb

I detest self-help books. Not only because they promise easy and simple methods to happiness, weight loss, innovation, popularity, finding love, making friends, building businesses, but also because they are so additive in nature. Their focus is more upon what to do, what to inculcate, what to learn, and what to add, rather than the opposite. The focus is rarely upon what to avoid, what to reduce, what to unlearn, and what to subtract. There are no “how not to” books with titles like, “10 things to avoid.”

Because we naturally know more about what is wrong, what is bad, what is harmful, what won’t work, more than we know about what is right, what is good, what is beneficial, and what would work. For example, it is hard to say if a skilled person would succeed at a certain task, but we can be certain that a person without the required skill would definitely fail.

Our knowledge and inherent understanding of downsides is far more robust than what we know about upsides. You can safely bet that a pilot who has undergone intensive training in Microsoft Flight Simulator would bring the plane down if allowed to fly a real aircraft, whereas a professional pilot with 30 years of experience is still always exposed to some amount of risk of crashing a flight.

Similarly, the greatest discoveries are made after a lot of failures. India got her independence after failing for over a 100 years. Ray Kroc struggled to get his footing until he was in his 50s before hitting it off with McDonald’s. Even Edison was suggesting towards this idea when he said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” The sheer number suggests that the human experience comprises of more information about what doesn’t work than what works.

Therefore, the correct method of getting a good idea is by eliminating a lot of bad ideas. After all, “The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas,” said Linus Pauling. This method of “subtractive epistemology” (i.e., the process of obtaining knowledge via subtraction) is also called Via Negativa.

Via Negativa is a method used in apophatic theology that focuses on what cannot be said about God directly in words. Because understanding God’s positive qualities is a task deemed impossible for the finite minds of humans, the apophatic attempts to approach god by negation, i.e., by focussing on what he is not, rather than what he is.

Similarly, there are many other things we cannot know of, calculate with precision, capture in human language or within the models available to us. But if we cannot express what something is exactly, we can say something about what it is not. Thus, we may not say with certainty what would work, but we have a pretty clear idea of what would not work.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb defines Via Negativa as, “The principle that we know what is wrong with more clarity than what is right, and that knowledge grows by subtraction. Also, it is easier to know that something is wrong than to find the fix. Actions that remove are more robust than those that add because addition may have unseen, complicated feedback loops.”

One small negative observation can disprove a positive statement, while millions can hardly confirm it. Even after observing millions of white swans you cannot confidently claim that all swans are white, but observing a single black swan can disconfirm your claim instantly. Disconfirmation is more rigorous that confirmation. This is the very philosophy of falsification advocated by Sir Karl Popper. Negative knowledge is far more robust than positive knowledge. In decision making, it makes sense to focus on it more.

“I have used all my life a wonderfully simple heuristic: charlatans are recognisable in that they will give you positive advice, and only positive advice, exploiting our gullibility and sucker-proneness for recipes that hit you in a flash as just obvious, then evaporate later as you forget them.”

— Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Antifragile

Most business plans are made, how-to books are written, and policies are designed by charlatans pretending to be experts. The learning of life is more about what to avoid. For e.g., avoiding cigarettes, junk food, toxic relationships, slow friends, overconfident confidants.

Warren Buffett advices the same when he says that the first rule of investment is, Never lose money. The second rule is, Never forget Rule 1. Since we now what is fragile, eliminating fragilities by reducing downsides is in itself a good winning strategy. For example, removing a bad hire or a bad leader is thus far more effective than adding good hires or appointing good leaders. Similarly, not doing what we know is wrong is far more effective than doing what we think is right. As Charlie Munger says:

“It is remarkable how much long-term advantage people like us have gotten by trying to be consistently not stupid, instead of trying to be very intelligent.”

Not going bust, not losing friends, not making stupid decisions, and not having any downsides are effective steps towards achieving antifragility—a state of a system when it gains more from disorders, stressors, and shocks.

Therefore, the primary learning is to study failures rather than successes. A good practice is to do rigorous postmortems. Study why a plan didn’t work, why a business went bust, and why your neighbour left her husband. There’s hardcore empirical knowledge in failure, because success can often happen at random.

When Michelangelo was asked about how he carved the masterpiece of all masterpieces, the statue of David, his answer was: “It’s simple. I just remove everything that is not David.” Focus on obtaining negative knowledge, because perfection is simply the practice of eliminating the unnecessary and the unimportant.

But human beings are inherently blinded by their biases. We often get fooled by randomness, and get swayed by our own narratives and definitions. We fail to recognise the good when something bad isn’t happening. Learning by elimination doesn’t come naturally to us.

Remember, as light means the absence of darkness and knowledge means the absence of ignorance, good should be defined as the absence of bad. Similarly, success means the absence of failure; keeping one’s distance from the ignorant is equivalent to keeping company with the wise; and as Steve Jobs has said, focus is about ignoring a thousand good ideas.

“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.”
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