Via Negativa

A few months ago I read Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. It’s a fascinating book, and one I recommend reading, though with the warning that his writing style is a bit on the abrasive side, and the contents are far from light reading.

One of the things that has really stuck with me in the months since I finished it is what he calls “Via Negativa”. By this he means that if we have a problem or something that we want to improve, the default approach to solving or improving should be to stop doing something, rather than adding something. for example, if you have a chronic disease such as diabetes, you should probably stop eating refined sugar and stop doing things that stress you out, rather than adding medication. (He’s not against medication per se, just the massive, flagrant use of medication as an additive approach, while ignoring all the things we should be stopping) Or as another example, good parenting should not be about continually finding more things for your child to do and participate in, but about finding ways for there to be fewer demands on your child, so that she can find her own interests.

In other words, adding more medications, more activities, more rules, more vitamins, more tactics, more of anything, even if it does provide some benefit, isn’t going to help much until you stop doing all the things that are harming you, and preventing you from getting where you want to be. Stopping the bad is more powerful than adding the good.

I’ve talked previously about the confirmation bias, how we tend to only pay attention to things that confirm what we already think is the case. Scientific inquiry tries to get around this by using disconfirmation; a scientist’s job is to disconfirm their hypotheses, so that they aren’t caught in the trap of seeing only what they want to see in their results. It was Taleb’s discussion that made the connection for me that this powerful approach of disconfirmation is much more broadly applicable; most hypotheses can’t ever be fully and completely proven to be the case, we can just compile a huge amount of data that doesn’t disprove it. And yet, even if you have a hundred data points that seem to indicate that a hypothesis is correct — or at least doesn’t disprove it — as soon as you have a single data point that clearly shows the hypothesis is false, you must conclude that the hypothesis is false.

So again, removing things to see whether that improves the situation, is better than adding things, to see whether that improves it.

The other thing this connected to for me was wisdom from about 2500 years ago. I’ve been studying Taoism for the last fifteen years or so, and there was a passage in the Tao te Ching that always puzzled me (actually there are still many passages in the Tao te Ching that puzzle me, but this is the only one that’s relevant to this discussion).

It goes: “To pursue the academic, add to it daily.

To pursue the Tao, subtract from it daily.

Subtract and subtract again

To arrive at nonaction.

Through nonaction, nothing is left undone.” (Translation by R.L. Wing)

Suddenly, this made a whole lot more sense to me. What Lao Tse is saying here is that when we are learning something, that is, pursuing the academic, we add to our knowledge every day as we study. This is a good and necessary thing, but academic study doesn’t teach you how to live your best life, how to be the best and most effective you possible. To do that, we need to look carefully at our actions, habits, and assumptions, taking each one and asking: What if this were not true? Is this truly helpful? And so, unless there is strong evidence to say that the action or habit or assumption is definitely true or helpful, stop doing it, stop believing it, and see what happens.

It’s kind of like Kondo’s book The life-changing magic of tidying up, where every possession is looked at carefully to see whether it is needed or loved, and if it doesn’t fall into either of those categories, it’s gotten rid of. Except in this case, you’re doing it with thoughts and actions, instead of physical items.

So go see what you can stop doing, stop assuming. Ask yourself why you are doing things, thinking things, believing things, and stop if you can’t come up with a better answer than “Someone told me to.” I have a list I’m going to be working on, myself.