Via positiva / Via negativa

Via positiva         -     Via negativa
Is                         -      Is not
Ideal                     -     Real
Future                  -     Past
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

The Via Negativa (also called the Apophatic Way) focuses on explaining the nature of God by focusing on what God is not (‘apophatic’ comes from the Greek term ‘to deny’).

The via negativa is based on the fundamental belief that ‘God’ is beyond human understanding and description – ‘He’ is completely ineffable. This belief in the ineffability of God is derived from the Neoplatonists (later interpreters of Plato), such as Plotinus and Augustine. The Via Negativa itself is found particularly in the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius and Moses Maimonides.

Any attempt to use human language to describe God is anthropomorphic. He saw it as necessary for the less intelligent, but it was still a ‘second-best’ approach as “the sun is hidden to eyes that are too weak to comprehend it.”

[Amy Trumpeter]
‘What is the Via Negativa?’

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