Retroduction is one of Ken Wheeler’s buzzwords. Find out how he uses this term constantly but incorrectly and also why his underlying argument is fundamentally flawed.
Retroduction is an unfamiliar word to most of us, so let’s start by defining it. It literally means “leading back or bringing back.”
In logic, philosopher C.S. Peirce defined retroduction as, “The passage of the mind from something observed or attentively considered to the representation of a state of things that may explain it.”
In other words, we start from what we know now and work backwards to find the cause. Doctors do this all the time when they start from our symptoms and work back to which diseases may be causing them.
Start From What We Know Know and Work Backwards
Detectives do the same thing. They arrive at the crime scene, gather all the information they can and then work backwards to try to explain what happened and how.
The important thing to understand about retroduction is that it doesn’t usually lead to a definitive conclusion. As Peirce explains, “Its conclusion is usually regarded as a more or less likely conjecture.”
Our doctors usually ask us to have some tests done to narrow down the correct diagnosis. Our detective will probably think of more than one explanation for the crime scene and start investigating each of them.
Less Reliable and Less Useful than Deduction or Induction
So retroduction can give us one or more hypotheses or working theories to investigate further. However, unlike deduction and induction, it can’t provide a definitive solution to a problem.
That makes it less reliable and therefore less useful. That’s why most of us haven’t heard of it, although Ken Wheeler attributes this to a conspiracy among academics and teachers.
Contradicting conventional logic, the Angry Photographer insists that retroduction is superior to induction or deduction. For example, he occasionally turns up his nose at Sherlock Holmes, cherry-picking Dr. Watson’s catch phrase, “Brilliant deduction, Holmes!”
Dismisses Sherlock Holmes for Relying on Deduction
If he had ever read the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, he’d have come across this more famous passage. “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.”
This is probably the best known quotation from Sherlock Holmes. Conan Doyle’s archetypal detective knew all about the process of elimination, as well as deduction, induction and retroduction.
The Angry Photographer is very fond of the word retroduction, apparently because so few people have heard the term before. That gives him the opportunity to sound profound and stretch the truth at the same time.
Made Up His Own Pet Definition of Retroduction
As with most of his jargon, the Theoria Apophasis creator has made up his own pet meaning for the word “retroduction.” He says that retroduction is a “methodology for transcendence,” so we can assume it’s a vital concept, at least to him.
Even so, it’s hard to find anything in the Angry Photographer’s work that clearly defines retroduction. This passage is about as close as it gets.
“All retroduction of course is actualization. Objective negation leads to subjective synthesis.” Once again, the choice of words makes the definition less clear rather than, well, definitive, but the key word here is “negation.”
Confuses Retroduction with the Process of Elimination
Ken Wheeler gets mixed up about Sherlock Holmes and several far more important things because he confuses retroduction with the process of elimination. All he’s really saying is that the way to define God, or the soul, or the universe, is by ruling out what these things aren’t (objective negation).
One of his analogies involves the proverbial “needle in a haystack.” As the Angry Photographer puts it, “Just as a fool might, for hundreds of hours, pick thru a pile of straw (phenomena) in search of a needle (atman), the wisest of men, in mere seconds, lights a match to the phenomena (straw) which quickly burns and blows away, leaving before his feet the needle sought; and this is of course part of the expediency as core to the via negativa methodology.”
Kentucky Ken doesn’t seem to know the difference between hay and straw. We also have to wonder why any sane person would destroy a hundred dollars worth of hay to find a ten cent needle.
“Arguments By Means of Similarities are Imposters” – Plato
That’s the trouble with reasoning by analogy. As Ken Wheeler’s hero Plato put it, “Arguments that make their point by means of similarities are impostors, and, unless you are on your guard against them, will quite readily deceive you.”
Retroduction, as philosophers define it, would be useless for finding a lost object. Someone would use retroduction, for example, if they found an object and asked themselves, “How did this get here?”
As for negation, a better analogy would be the work of a sculptor. These artists remove everything from the block that detracts from the intended result.
Doesn’t Know What Word Retroduction Means
So, while demanding impossible standards of proof from Sherlock Holmes, Ken Wheeler doesn’t even know what the word retroduction means. He should know better, but that’s a purely semantic argument. There’s a much bigger concern with his arguments around the process of elimination.
The Angry Photographer uses numerous unrelated words as if they were interchangeable. That’s one ingredient in the word salad that makes his videos and writings incoherent and unintelligible.
In the case of retroduction, the Theoria Apophasis host incorrectly assumes it’s synonymous with via negativa, a term he lifts without attribution from the fifth century thinker Proclus. Related terms he spouts include objective negation, theurgy, disobjectivication, neti-neti, negative theology, and apophasis.
Wrongly Thinks Retroduction Means Negation
Yes, that’s where the title Theoria Apophasis comes from. The Greek word “apophatikon” means negation, which seems strangely apt, given the YouTuber’s negative attitude and contrarian persona.
Speaking of negation, it’s beyond ironic that Kentucky Ken constantly dismisses Albert Einstein as “a wooly-haired crackpot.” Einstein arrived at the basis of his two most successful theories through the process of elimination.
While working on Special Relativity, Einstein reflected on the relationship between the speed of light, distance and time. He came to realize that since the speed of light and distance were constant, the only remaining explanation was that “time is suspect.”
Einstein, Who Ken Rejects, Made Discoveries by Negation high
Similarly, focusing on mass, space and gravity, he realized that since neither gravity nor mass can change, the only explanation was that space changes shape. So, Ken Wheeler’s exalted technique of negation led Einstein to the groundbreaking discoveries the Angry Photographer despises.
The Theoria Apophasis creator also cherry-picks the word “theurgy” from Proclus. By theurgy, Proclus meant certain magic spells by which he thought humans could align themselves with the gods.
These spells had three levels. The first level involved changing physical phenomena, like bad weather or illness using magical incantations, charms and prayers to the gods. The second level uses similar magical practices to lift the soul to the level of the gods.
Claims to Practice the Highest Level of Theurgy
Not surprisingly, the Theoria Apophasis creator claims to practice Proclus’s third and highest level, which brings unity directly with the One. The third level of magic combines the earlier charms and incantations with negation, reflecting on all the things that can’t be divine.
This embrace of theurgy is another of Ken Wheeler’s grandiose delusions. He supposedly receives wisdom from the One, deriving his various odd and demonstrably false notions from this arcane process, yet he dismisses similar magical thinking as “occult nonsense”.
According to the Angry Photographer, the key to proximity to the One is attaining proximity to our own soul. In his mind, our soul gets diluted within our psycho-physical mind, brain and body.
Claims the Soul Is Diluted Within the Psycho-Physical
Supposedly, we can reverse this dilution and pull ourselves together by applying the opposite process, which is concentration (subjective synthesis). Kentucky Ken claims this is what ancient mystics meant by concentration rather than our conventional idea of meditation.
Unfortunately, the Theoria Apophasis host also insists that the soul is like a radio signal that never descends into the receiver of our physical body. Assuming that’s true, it couldn’t become diluted within our psycho-physical existence, any more than a radio receiver could dilute a broadcast signal.
It follows that we couldn’t concentrate or synthesize our true selves from there. These mutually contradictory premises make his entire argument about negation and the soul a logical fallacy.
“Having the Show of Wisdom Without the Reality”
We can also summarily dismiss Ken Wheeler’s claim to be applying theurgy because Platonists reject enlightenment through independent study. Plato taught that when students rely on random books instead of skilled teachers, “they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.” He couldn’t have described Ken Wheeler more accurately.
So, Kentucky Ken doesn’t understand theurgy or apply it as intended. What’s more, Plotinus, the founder of Neoplatonism, and his successor Porphyry, denounced theurgy because of its magical thinking.
Porphyry outlined the logical fallacies theurgy entails in a letter we still have. One of his objections was the notion that humans can tell gods what to do.
Theurgy Claims Humans Can Tell Gods What to Do
As he put it, “It perplexes me greatly to form a conception how they who are invoked as superior beings are likewise commanded like inferiors.” He’s far from the only one who’s felt perplexed by this nonsense over the centuries.
The main source of the Angry Photographer’s attachment to theurgy seems to be an obscure book by a later thinker named Iamblichus, called De Mysteriis. Iamblichus broke with conventional neoplatonism by promoting a superstitious embrace of the magical thinking behind theurgy.
As classical scholar E.R. Dodds wrote, “De Mysteriis is a manifesto of irrationalism, an assertion that salvation is found not in reason but in ritual.” He goes on to say, “So far as we can judge, the procedures of theurgy were broadly similar to vulgar magic.”
Scholars Dismiss Theurgy as “Similar to Vulgar Magic”
So once again, the Theoria Apophasis host has naively embraced a fake expert. To shelter his preconceptions, he has abandoned reason, taking refuge in the comfort of magical thinking.
Ken Wheeler then mashes up theurgy with what Christian mystics call negative theology. That’s the belief that we can grasp the nature of God by dismissing all the things that aren’t God.
A somewhat similar idea is neti-neti in Hindu philosophy. Neti-neti means “not this, not that.” It’s a method of finding ourselves by recognizing things that are “not self,” such as our thoughts or our feelings.
Logical Fallacy Applying Negation to Reasoning
Of course, there’s a logical fallacy with negation when we misapply it to reasoning or rhetoric like Ken Wheeler. Saying I’m not a tree and also not a car doesn’t say anything about me, and it certainly doesn’t prove I exist.
To be fair, mystics don’t use negative theology to win pointless arguments in Ken Wheeler’s misguided way. They view it as a path toward deeper understanding, not a cheap debating trick to impress the naive.
Listing off a bunch of attributes that something doesn’t have doesn’t somehow bring it into existence. The one-eyed, one-horned, flying, purple people-eater isn’t two-eyed, or hornless, or burrowing, or green, or vegan but that doesn’t make him real.
Negatio Probat Nihil – Negation Proves Nothing
The Theoria Apophasis creator is very fond of ancient languages and mottos. Yet, he seems unfamiliar with the Latin phrase “negatio probat nihil” – “negation proves nothing.”
So, on retroduction, Ken Wheeler is wrong in six different ways.
- He doesn’t know what the word means.
- He doesn’t grasp that proof by negation is a logical fallacy.
- He reasons by analogy.
- He’s unwittingly embraced discredited sources.
- He relies on magical thinking.
- He thinks he’s mastered metaphysics by loitering in the library.
However there’s something we can conclude through negation. Ken Wheeler is not educated, not astute, not credible, not honest, not rational and not objective. So it’s safe to conclude he’s not worth watching or reading.
Commens: Digital Companion to C.S. Peirce
Negation in the Language of Theology: Some Issues
The Unknown God: Negative Theology in the Platonic Tradition
Theurgy: Rituals of Unification in the Neoplatonism of Iamblichus
Purple People Eater
Metaphysics – Why Ken’s Wrong
Magnetism – Why Ken’s Wrong