Via positiva / Via negativa

Via positiva                        -                      Via negativa
Is                                         -                      Is not
Closed                                -                      Open

[...] reasoning has not evolved in the ways that we think it has – as a process of ratiocination that is intended independently to figure out the world. Instead, it has evolved as a social capacity – as a means to justify ourselves to others.

We want something to be so, and we use our reasoning capacity to figure out plausible seeming reasons to convince others that it should be so. However, together with our capacity to generate plausible sounding rationales, we have a decent capacity to detect when others are bullshitting us.

In combination, these mean that we are more likely to be closer to the truth when we are trying to figure out why others may be wrong, than when we are trying to figure out why we ourselves are right.

This superficially looks to resemble the ‘overcoming bias’/’not wrong’ approaches to self-improvement that are popular on the Internet. But it ends up going in a very different direction: collective processes of improvement rather than individual efforts to remedy the irremediable.

The ideal of the individual seeking to eliminate all sources of bias so that he (it is, usually, a he) can calmly consider everything from a neutral and dispassionate perspective is replaced by a Humean recognition that reason cannot readily be separated from the desires of the reasoner.

We need negative criticisms from others, since they lead us to understand weaknesses in our arguments that we are incapable of coming at ourselves, without them being pointed out to us.

we likely radically underestimate the importance of the invisible and non-individually lucrative contributions that people make to the collective benefit by improving others’ ideas.

[Henry Farrell]
'In praise of negativity'

There are many things without words, matters that we know and can act on but cannot describe directly, cannot capture in human language or within the narrow human concepts that are available to us. Almost anything around us of significance is hard to grasp linguistically - and in fact that more powerful, the more incomplete our linguistic grasp.

But if we cannot express what something is exactly, we can say something about what it is not - the indirect rather than the direct expression. The “apophatic” focuses on what cannot be said directly in words, from the Greek apophasis (saying no, or mentioning without mentioning).

The method began as an avoidance of direct description, leading to a focus on negative description, what is called in Latin via negativa, the negative way […] Via negativa does not try to express what God is - leave that to the primitive brand of contemporary thinkers and philophasters with scientistic tendencies. It just lists what God is not and proceeds by the process of elimination.

The greatest - and most robust - contribution to knowledge consists in removing what we think is wrong - subtractive epistemology […] we know a lot more what is wrong than what is right, or, phrased according to the fragile/robust classification, negative knowledge (what is wrong, what does not work) is more robust to error than positive knowledge (what is right, what works).

So knowledge grows by subtraction much more than by addition - given that what we know today might turn out to be wrong but what we know to be wrong cannot turn out to be right, at least not easily.

[…] since one small observation can disprove a statement, while millions can hardly confirm it, disconfirmation is more rigorous than conformation.

[Nassim Nicholas Taleb]
Antifragile, p.301, 303

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In physics, metastability is a stable state of a dynamical system other than the system's state of least energy.

A ball resting in a hollow on a slope is a simple example of metastability. If the ball is only slightly pushed, it will settle back into its hollow, but a stronger push may start the ball rolling down the slope.


You can have something that’s very fragile but stays for a very long time.

In phase transitions - between gaseous, liquid, and solid forms - there is a thing called a metastable state. The material is already at the right temperature for, say, water to start boiling, but because there is no disturbance to it, it stays in the previous transition. If you then drop a little speck into this kettle of metastable water, it will instantly start boiling.

I think societies when they become stabilised or inactive in this way, they’re in a metastable state. And they can last there for centuries. It’s very similar to a dry forest.

[Samo Burja]
Live Players w/ Samo Burja (June 18, 2020)

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The Adjacent Possible

The concept of the adjacent possible originates from Stuart Kauffman and his work on biological evolution.

Kauffman was particularly interested in the origins of order and the mechanisms that drive self-organization. His findings are broadly applicable to any complex adaptive system, be it natural like the biosphere, or human-made like cities, the economy, or technology.

Kaufman investigates how the actual expands into the adjacent possible. The actual describes the system under investigation in its current state, with all its components and interconnections. The adjacent possible contains all the elements outside but near that system; those represent the opportunities for the current system to expand by building new connections and turning those elements into system components.

[...] expanding any realm always requires leaving its current boundaries in order to explore ‘the possibilities out there‘. But rather than chasing the most extreme or distant possibilities, successful exploration focuses on the immediate vicinity of the current boundaries: Expansion can then occur by naturally ingesting nearby possibilities, by a short stretch of the realm’s new boundaries.

Therefore, the adjacent possible is the target of successful exploration and expansion.

Innovation is no exception from that general observation. To expand the realm of what we can do, innovation explores the wellspring of novelty in the adjacent possible. This concept of the adjacent possible could therefore help us frame our evolving understanding of innovation and gain new insights.

[Ulf Ehlert]
'Exploring the adjacent possible – The origin of good ideas'

So how do you change a system which is entrained around perverse behaviour?

And this applies to culture change in organisations as much as it does to wider society change [...] From my anthro-complex perspective the following stages are necessary:

1. Map the current dispositional state of the system.  What are the attractors in play, how stable are they?

2. Within those maps identify what Kauffmann [termed] the adjacent possible, patterns of behaviour adjacent to the present but in a more desirable position.  Radical change is hard and may have unintended consequences, smaller shifts are easier to achieve.

3. If there are no adjacent possibles, or the nature of system is such that the energy cost of escape is too great, then you need to take actions that disrupt or perturb the existing attractor mechanisms to allow the adjacent possible to emerge.  Until that happens change is very difficult.

[Dave Snowden]
'The adjacent possible'

The zone of proximal development, often abbreviated as ZPD [...], is best understood as the zone of the closest, most immediate psychological development of the children that includes a wide range of their emotional, cognitive, and volitional psychological processes. 

In contemporary educational research and practice, though, it is often interpreted as the distance between what a learner can do without help, and what they can do with support from someone with more knowledge or expertise ("more knowledgeable other").

The concept was introduced, but not fully developed, by psychologist Lev Vygotsky during the last three years of his life. Vygotsky argued that a child gets involved in a dialogue with the "more knowledgeable other" such as a peer or an adult and gradually, through social interaction and sense-making, develops the ability to solve problems independently and do certain tasks without help.

Following Vygotsky, some educators believe that the role of education is to give children experiences that are within their zones of proximal development, thereby encouraging and advancing their individual learning such as skills and strategies.

'Zone of proximal development'

"I spent years trying to get my early things published,” Rosch recalls. “Journals would send them back, finding fussy little things wrong with them, and saying, ‘Everyone knows this isn’t true.’”

Why did they balk?

“If something is going to be new, it has to be exactly in the right degree of difference from what’s going on for people to say, ‘That’s interesting,’” she says. “If it’s too new, it isn’t understood.”

[Daniel McNeill & Paul Freiberger]
Fuzzy Logic, p.88