Via Negativa



[...] 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'