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June 17th, 2019
The concept, practice and framework of working up from first principles is becoming quite popular.
Although, that is perhaps, a bit too generous. In fact, it definitely is. It’s way too generous considering the way we operate. Let’s redefine a little bit.
The concept of working from first principles is popular. The popularity of this concept as an actual practice is a whole different story. It’s akin to the innumerable people who say things like “I’m very rational.”
Now imagine wandering into some sort of fantasy sci-fi novel like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and looking up the word ‘irrational’, or ‘naïve’ or ‘misguided’ in a dictionary of this universe. It’s reasonable that you’d find a little cartoon of a human with a word bubble proclaiming “I’m rational’.
Self-serving humor aside, the concept of working from first principles is a very attractive one, because if a person can actually create a framework of thinking that even has a slightly higher fidelity to first principles than other people, success in any endeavor is far more likely.
The idea of First Principles is lifted from the scientific field of Physics, but originally it gestates from Aristotelean philosophy.
The hope and gist of first principles thinking is that if we can boil down the facts of any situation down to their most essential and indivisible factors we can then reason up from those factors in a way that has a higher fidelity to the facts of reality.
It’s important that these factors cannot be reduced any further. For example we can imagine for a moment wandering through an open-air market and finding a beautiful silver ring. Say that the cost of a silver ring might be $100. But then we weigh the ring to find out exactly how much raw silver is in the ring and compare that to the price of raw silver which is bound to be a tiny fraction of the cost we have initially encountered. Then by subtracting the cost of raw material from the initial cost, we can see what the artisan charges for their labor, craftsmanship and artistic expression with regards to the finished ring. We can then further investigate how much time the artisan spent turning the raw silver into the finished product, then divide the profit by the number of hours and find an hourly rate for this silver ring.
Whereas one person who comes along in the market and finds interest in the ring might think that the $100 price tag is the irreducible factor regarding the ring, another person can employ some version of the logic above and find that the instance of the ring and it’s price tag can be boiled down and distilled into a few more indivisible factors.
For example, if the price of silver is extremely low, say $1 for the quantity involved, and we somehow come to find out that the artisan has figured out a method to produce 10 rings a second, then $99 for less than a 1/10 of a second of work might seem like a bit of an unfair trade. To translate this into an hourly rate, the artisan is paying themselves $3,564,000/hour. This is of course assuming they can sell as many rings as it takes to make in one given hour of work. Suddenly buying a ring that is so easy to make and which has such a cheap price regarding base materials seems like a huge rip-off. Only fools and rich love-struck dummies would pay such an outrageous fee.
$100 for an exceptionally beautiful silver ring in an exotic open-air market doesn’t actually sound half bad.
Hopefully this little example of the silver ring illuminates just how convoluted our thinking can be regarding our “reasoning”.
Reducing situations to first principles is difficult and often requires a lot of thoughtful follow-through on a cognitive level. When we make a decision based on our emotional reaction to the situation, which is just about how all decisions are made, we are most definitely not employing the concept of first principles thinking.
This Part I about First Principles is merely to serve as a tiny and quick introduction so that Part II can have the right context. Part II merely hopes to explore the ramifications of a question: What does first principles thinking mean when we think about language?