Subtractive Epistemology: How to Add Value by Taking Things Away

The aim of science is not to open the door to infinite wisdom, but to set some limit on infinite error.—Bertolt Brecht

Pathological hoarding (syllogomania) is a well-known psychological disorder that can prove fatal, as in this case described by Jacob Shelton:

A 51-year-old compulsive hoarder in Spain died in early 2016 when one of his piles of garbage collapsed around him. His body wasn’t discovered until a friend … became worried after not hearing from his hoarding buddy for a while and called the police. The mass of trash … was so substantial that firefighters had to … help remove the body.

Hoarders’ collections can take up so much space in a home that, in order to move from room to room, the hoarder has to negotiate narrow paths through heaps of junk. A study by psychologists at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute Project Centre in Melbourne found in that, in Australia, almost a quarter of all deaths by fire in homes are caused by pathological hoarding.

The Benefits of Subtraction

The only way to alleviate the symptoms of pathological hoarding and improve sufferers’ quality of life is to get rid of almost all the unnecessary items. This is a vivid example of how subtraction can sometimes be, in effect, addition. And hoarding is not the only sphere in which this rule applies. For example, an accumulation of bureaucratic procedures can paralyse administrative systems; reducing their number can improve the systems’ effectiveness.

Subtraction can also be used to produce a work of art. As the philosopher Proclus of Athens once said, “Statues are made by subtraction.” When Michelangelo was asked how he had created the majestic statue of David, he is said to have replied, “It’s very simple: it was enough to remove everything that was not David.” He liked to say that he saw figures hidden in the marble, and that his only role was to bring them forth. And his four unfinished sculptures depicting slaves still partially trapped in their marble blocks show that this was indeed his approach.

Subtraction can also lead to addition in the area of human health. For example, giving up tobacco and reducing excess consumption of alcohol and sugar arguably yields more health benefits than, say, adding vitamin supplements to one’s daily regimen. Smoking is so deadly that, as Nassim Taleb details in his book Antifragile, if everyone in the world were to quit, the net health benefit would exceed the entire health benefit produced by the interventions of all the healthcare systems in the world.

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