Not what it is rather what it is not

I first heard the term “via negativa” in Taleb’s Antifragile. I thought it time I dig a little deeper into the idea.

The term itself is theological in origin. In essence we have two ways of knowing God. Either “via positiva” where we can describing all the positive attributes of God, or “via negativa” where we talk about all the attributes that God is not. In the “via negativa” approach we accept we do not know God.

My interest in the term is based on ideas in general rather than the specific idea of God. In theory at least “via negativa” allows us to develop strategies to deal with ideas that cannot be understood (either by a description in words or a mathematical model). If you have read my other posts then you can see how this relates to finding ways to create meaningful experiences.

I need something to work on. I’d like to avoid Theology. Something simpler to get started. OK I’ll start with the experience of “flow” when riding my mountain bike.

I don’t need to think logically what to do next. I don’t need to consider my body position. There is no me and the bike. I have no concept of time. My day to day worries disappear.

This works well? I think so. What is interesting I’ve said nothing directly about the experience of “getting in the zone” but it still allows me to talk about it indirectly. Useful tool when the usual “via positiva” approach isn’t working.

Taleb takes the concept further and uses “via negativa” as a strategy for what to do.

The entire idea of *via negativa* is that *omission* [avoidance of harm, removal of drugs, corn syrup, cigarettes, gluten, carbs (by fasting), gym instructors, tail risks, etc.] does not have side effects and branching chains of unintended consequences -hence robust.

It is interesting. Back to my mountain biking example. One thing you learn early on is not too look at the rocks or other obstacles. A great example of “via negativa” in action.

Taleb’s next point is interesting.

But big corporations [evil pharma, pepsi] and consultants cannot make money from removing; they only benefit from adding.

When I think about software development in this context you can see how backlogs, feature requests etc. work to increase complexity and ultimately kill the experience of using the software. Be interesting to build a backlog of things to “take out” of the software.

There is clear links also with complex systems thinking. A “via negativa” approach allows things to emerge. Like a gardener pruning and weeding, the elements of your solution that are discordant with your desired outcome are removed. However I think we need to be careful of that interpretation. “Via negativa” isn’t about doing something negative, it’s about what you don’t do.

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