Retroduction – Why Ken’s Wrong

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, 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 Now and Work Backwards

Detectives do the same thing. They arrive at the scene of the crime, gather all the information they can and then work backwards to try to work out 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 detective will probably think of more than one explanation for the crime scene and start investigating each of them. Our doctors usually ask us to have some tests done to narrow down the correct diagnosis.

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 single, 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.

Ken Wheeler is very fond of using the word retroduction, possibly 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 that it’s a vital concept to him.

Even so, it’s hard to find anything in the Angry Photographer’s work that specifically defines retroduction. This passage is about as close to a definition as exists.

“All retroduction of course is actualization. Objective negation leads to subjective synthesis.” Once again, the choice of words makes things less clear rather than, well, definitive, but the key word here is “negation.”

Wrongly Thinks that Retroduction is Process of Elimination

Ken Wheeler is under the mistaken impression that retroduction is another word for 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 are not.

One analogy he uses involves the proverbial “needle in a haystack.” As the Theoria Apophasis creator 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.”

We have to wonder why any sane person would destroy a hundred dollars worth of hay to find a ten cent needle. Leaving that aside, burning the haystack is not an example of retroductive reasoning, at least as logicians define the term.

“Arguments By Means of Similarities are Imposters”

As Kentucky Ken’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 would be useless in trying to find a lost object. Someone would use retroduction, for example, if they found an object and asked themselves, “How did this get here?”

A more apt analogy would be to discuss the work of a sculptor or woodcarver. These artists remove everything from the stone or the block that detracts from their vision of the intended result.

Wrong About What the Word Retroduction Means

Regardless, Ken Wheeler is wrong about 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 tends to use a lot of words interchangeably. That’s another thing that makes his videos and writings incoherent and unintelligible.

In the case of retroduction, the YouTuber incorrectly assumes that it’s synonymous with Via Negativa, a term he appropriates from the fifth century thinker Proclus without much accreditation. Related terms he spouts include objective negation, theurgy, disobjectivication, neti-neti, negative theology, and apophasis.

Negation Seems Apt Given His Negative Attitude

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.

Ken Wheeler also lifts the word “theurgy” from Proclus. Proclus believed that there were specific rites and invocations established by the gods by which humans can bring themselves closer to “the One.”

These rites fell into three levels. The first level involved changing physical phenomena, like changing the weather or healing the sick using rituals, hymns, and prayers. The second level uses similar kinds of prayers and invocations to lift the soul to the level of the gods and the divine intellect.

Claims to Practice the Highest Level of Theurgy

Not surprisingly, the Theoria Apophasis creator claims to practice the third and highest level of theurgy, which establishes unity with the One itself. A big part of the third level is negation, along with mystic silence and faith.

This claim is another of Ken Wheeler’s grandiose delusions through which he claims to receive “wisdom” from “the One.” He attributes many of his odd and demonstrably false notions to this arcane process, while dismissing new age practices as “occult nonsense” in the same breath.

The reason we know he’s nowhere close to applying advanced theurgy is that Platonists like Proclus rejected enlightenment through independent study. Plato himself taught that when learners rely solely on reading random books instead of trained 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.

“Having the Show of Wisdom Without the Reality”

The Angry Photographer occasionally turns up his nose at Sherlock Holmes, claiming that Holmes relies on mere deductive reasoning. If he had ever read the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, he’d have come across this 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, and it shows that he knew all about the process of elimination.

However, what Ken Wheeler is really talking about is called negative theology or the Via Negativa. In other words, we can discover the nature of God by thinking about all of the things that aren’t God.

Logical Problem with Using Negation in Argumentation

A related 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.

Of course, there’s a logical problem with this approach when we try to use it in the realm of argumentation like Ken Wheeler. If I say I’m not a tree and also not a car, that doesn’t say anything about me, and it certainly doesn’t prove I exist.

To be fair, scholars don’t use negative theology to convince audiences in the misguided way Ken Wheeler does. They view it as a way to gain a deeper spiritual understanding, not a cheap debating trick to win pointless arguments.

Cheap Debating Trick to Win Pointless Arguments

So, the idea of proving that something exists merely by listing off a bunch of characteristics that it 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.

The Theoria Apophasis creator is very fond of ancient languages and mottos. Yet, he seems never to have heard the Latin phrase “negatio probat nihil” – “negation proves nothing.”

Wrong In Three Different Ways

So, when it comes to retroduction, Ken Wheeler is wrong in three different ways. He doesn’t know what the word means, he thinks he’s mastered theurgy by loitering in the library instead of listening to qualified teachers, and he doesn’t grasp why proof by negation is a logical fallacy.

However there is something we can conclude through negation. Ken Wheeler is not educated, not credible, not honest, and not objective. This is conclusive proof that he’s not worth watching or reading.

Ken’s Evidence

Commens: Digital Companion to C.S. Peirce
Negation in the Language of Theology: Some Issues
The Unknown God: Negative Theology in the Platonic Tradition
Purple People Eater
Metaphysics – Why Ken’s Wrong
Magnetism – Why Ken’s Wrong

Published by David Morton Rintoul

I'm a freelance writer and commercial blogger delivering content services to selective business to business marketing clients. I have extensive experience in content creation, technical writing and training, working as a consultant and later in management roles with many of Canada's most successful organizations. Specialties: Content Marketing, Social Media, Technical Writing, Training and Development

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