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Via Negativa: The Power of Knowing What Not to Do

The whale exploded on 12 November 1970. Its carcass had washed up on an Oregon beach a few days before. Not knowing how to get rid of the giant mammal, the authorities attempted to disintegrate the 8-ton beast. By blowing it up with half a ton of dynamite. When the dust settled and the pieces of dead meat stopped raining on fleeing spectators, a huge chunk of the whale was still there. News reporter Paul Linnman noted dryly: “It might be concluded that should a whale ever wash ashore at Lane County again, those in charge will not only remember what to do. They’ll certainly remember what not to do.”

The lesson learned the day the whale exploded was a lesson learned via negativa, that is, by way of negation. Via negativa is a little-known approach to improving our decision-making. Let’s take a look at what it is, how we can apply it in our everyday lives and what our exploding whale has in common with Michelangelo’s and Socrates’ way of thinking.

What Is Via Negativa?

Exploding Whale
A whale explodes

Via negativa focuses on saying what something is not, rather than trying to describe what it supposedly is. The concept has its origins in apophatic theology, a school of thought that promotes negative thinking about god. Apophatic is ancient Greek and means to deny. In Antifragile, Nassim Nicholas Taleb explains: “Via negativa does not try to express what God is […]. It just lists what God is not and proceeds by the process of elimination.”

As an example, take the question of what we’d consider a good life. It’s easier for us to say what a good life is not, to know what we shouldn’t do, to figure out how things do not work, and to criticise in general. It’s much harder to describe what something is and explain how it can be achieved let alone know the right thing to do in any given situation. Philosopher Alan Watts likened this phenomenon to an attempt at describing the indescribable. He was a master at it. But his talent is rare.

Even rarer are the people who know how to use via negativa to their advantage. At least according to Taleb. It’s somewhat paradoxical. Knowing what not to do is easy. But only the most successful people seem to be smart enough to act on that knowledge consistently. “Chess grandmasters usually win by not losing,” Taleb writes, “people become rich by not going bust […] the learning of life is about what to avoid.” We could greatly reduce our chances for failure if we consistently avoided the things we knew we should avoid.

Via Negativa In Practice

There are several ways we can apply via negativa in practice. We can use it to get into a long-term mindset, generate ideas and solutions by thinking in inversions, make subtractive changes and take intuitive shortcuts.

The Long-Term Mindset

Putting via negativa to work requires an understanding of knowledge and non-knowledge. As legendary investor Charlie Munger implied with his idea of a circle of competence, there’s by far a lot more we don’t know than we know. This applies to knowledge, skills and our ability to predict future events with certainty. But it’s the recognition of the extent of our ignorance that’s key. Angel investor Naval Ravikant applies this sentiment via negativa:

I don’t believe I have the ability to say what is going to work. Rather, I try to eliminate what’s not going to work. I think being successful is just about not making mistakes. It’s not about having correct judgment. It’s about avoiding incorrect judgments.

The Almanack of Naval Ravikant

For example, you might not know if practising will turn you into a chess grandmaster. But you can be sure about the consequences of not practising at all. Sounds obvious? Let’s hear from Munger again: “It’s 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.”

In other words, if you want to improve as a chess player, start by avoiding the obvious mistakes. Because all too often, “mistakes” and “incorrect judgements” happen when we’re tempted into false victories whose only benefit is that they soothe our egos. To “consistently not be stupid” often means to put strategic decisions over short-term gains and act with patience, restraint and perseverance.

Thinking In Inversions

Via negativa can also be used to generate ideas and solutions. Namely, by thinking in inversions, that is, in opposites. Munger also knew that it was “in the nature of things that many hard problems are best solved when they are addressed backward.” This makes inversion a powerful brainstorming technique. Instead of spending hours trying to be supremely intelligent about a project, ask yourself: What can I do to turn this into an absolute dumpster fire?

Take the example of organising a dinner with our chess friends. We start by insisting on our guests being punctual. But we communicate the wrong time. Once they arrive, we let them starve until they almost leave again. Then we serve food that’s edible but just bad enough not to be enjoyed. Whenever someone brings up chess, we cut them off. Instead, we make sure to lecture our guests about both politics and religion. We’ve also prepared a wonderful cake for dessert, which sits in plain sight but is never offered. Finally, we send our friends home abruptly by retiring to our bedroom in silence.

The benefits of this approach are twofold. It highlights all the mistakes we should avoid. And we can invert the results back into positives to organise the perfect chess dinner. Besides, inverted brainstorming is much more entertaining. But if you’re looking for a more structured way to think in inversions, you might want to try Premortem Analysis. This approach legitimises dissent by allowing for preemptive hindsight. Participants are asked to imagine their project has failed before it’s finalised and to ponder on what mistakes should be avoided.

Making Subtractive Changes

Michelangelo's David and Via Negativa
Michelangelo’s David

The result of these inverted thinking exercises can lead to another layer of via negativa: subtractive changes. As the term suggests, additive changes add something to a system. A new function to a program or yet another cringeworthy chess-themed flower bouquet on our dinner table. Subtractive changes focus on taking something away and seeing if things still work. It’s a bit like carving a chess piece, which brings me to Michaelangelo.

The pope himself once asked the Italian sculptor about his masterful creation, the marble statue of David. “How did you manage to portray him in such detail?” the Bishop of Rome wanted to know. “It’s simple,” Michelangelo replied, “I just remove everything that is not David.”

We can think of via negativa in the same way. It’s about taking away what’s not necessary without impeding form or function. Take writing, for example. Getting better at it is as much about making subtractive changes as it is about adding more words. Eliminating totally unnecessary and redundant words improves clarity. So does letting go of ideas that don’t add value to what we’re trying to convey. There’s a caveat, though.

Calling it subtractive knowledge, Nassim Taleb reiterates: “You know what is wrong with more certainty than you know anything else”. But none of this knowledge would matter if we weren’t open to being told off without becoming defensive. There’s value in being told what not to do. A final case in point is the counterintuitive wisdom of Socrates’ most powerful mental shortcut.

Via Negativa and Mental Shortcuts

Via negativa doesn’t need to be an elaborative cognitive process. In fact, most of the above approaches rely on ideas bubbling up in our minds. While we don’t know where the ideas come from, we can harness this fast and intuitive part of our brain by using heuristic decision-making. Such mental shortcuts enable us to make quick judgements. They’re efficient because they ignore information our mind deems irrelevant. While this can lead to decision heuristics being misapplied, they often lead to better results than elaborate reasoning.

In Antifragile, Taleb describes a via negativa heuristic for recognising charlatans. To identify them, Taleb suggests, we should pay attention to the kind of advice the person is giving. If it’s exclusively positive (what we should do to achieve something in life), chances are we’re dealing with a charlatan who does not possess any special knowledge and should not be trusted. A true expert, so the underlying idea, tells us what not to do, too.

Focusing on the things to avoid can also be a powerful tool for self-discovery. Greek philosopher Socrates often spoke about his inner voice, a divine intuition, a daemonic sign. As he’s quoted in Plato’s Apology, “it always forbids but never commands me to do anything which I am going to do”. In other words, his “internal oracle” would never tell him what to do. It would only raise its voice when he was about to make a mistake. Granted, this voice can often seem irrational and counterintuitive.

For instance, it told Socrates not to flee Athens when he was facing the death penalty for “corrupting the youth of Athens”. His voice remained silent on his way to court and during his defence speech. Socrates took it as a sign that “what has happened to me is a good, and that those of us who think that death is an evil are in error.” What distinguished Socrates from others was his commitment to always listen to his inner daemon, trusting that it would guide him towards the good and the truth.

Closing Thoughts

Perhaps the explosive whale disaster could’ve been avoided had the Oregonian authorities put via negativa into action. Then again, it seems to be an integral part of life to act out all the stupid things we know we shouldn’t do. Over and over again. And then one more time for good measure. Until we learn the lesson the universe is trying to teach us.

When it comes to problem-solving and critical thinking, via negativa is a powerful approach available to anyone willing to pay attention. It’s an important addition to your decision-making arsenal. So whenever you’re in doubt about the best course of action, think long-term, consider thinking in inversions, make subtractive changes and listen to your inner Socrates.