First Principles (Week 35 of Wisdom)

Man, by nature, is an imitation machine. Those who think originally are rare, but it is their ideas that transfigure society.

Thinkers that belong to this category are Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, Kant, Nietzsche, Derrida, Freud, Jung, Girard. Aristotle taught that a first principle was “first basis by which a thing was known.” Descartes’ cogito ergo sum revolutionized our understanding of skepticism. Hume changed how we think about empiricism. Kant changed our relationship with rationality. Nietzsche subverted our understanding of morality. Derrida provided a new lens with which to critique the written word. Freud discovered the unconscious and Jung discovered the archetypal contents of the unconscious. Girard uncovered the mimetic mechanism.

Regardless of whether any of these thinkers are right in the final analysis (they are almost certainly wrong), they all defied the initial presuppositions that society took for granted – they were unconventional thinkers, contrarians, and their work led to new patterns of thinking that would change the world. In addition to these teachers, Jesus, Buddha, and Ghandi did the same in the political, non-academic realm, in the way that they opposed existing power structures with radically different tools.

In the modern era, Elon Musk, Peter Thiel, and Nassim Taleb are the contrarians. Musk’s discovery that raw materials required to create rocket ships were cheap (only 2 percent of the final price of a rocket) birthed the idea of Space X, a commercial space travel company. Thiel’s understanding of the damning nature of competition allowed him to establish near monopolies in multiple industries. Taleb’s explication of the limitations of scientific knowledge (episteme versus techne) by introducing the idea of the Black Swan, changed how we view risk.

The average person takes a lot of what is passed down to them for granted – this usually works for a while but there is an implicit risk that is only exposed with time. When you refuse to ask yourself what you know with certainty, when your foundations are approximate truths or borrowed (or not properly understood) truths, then you risk building a knowledge structure that is held together by weak premises. The structure itself may be sound (your reasoning could be perfect), but the false presuppositions will doom the structure to a painful collapse. It is better to be skeptical at the start than to have to be skeptical in the end, when it becomes too late to rebuild your knowledge structures.

A useful idea, if you want to engage in first principles thinking, is to sketch a hierarchy, so that you understand and visualize how the different components of a system make up the whole, and which parts are dependent on each other. Once you have done this, it becomes easier to identify which component ought to be your starting point.

Of course, the danger of first principle thinking is that you may be wrong. In fact, you probably will be. Contrarians are first principle thinkers – the reason why they are contrarians is that they have chosen to question elementary assumptions that people take for granted, but there is usually a good reason why those assumptions are there in the first place. If ideas have survived the test of time and are revitalized by each subsequent culture, there must be some value in these ideas, that to the contrarian, may not be so obvious.

To be a bad contrarian is to try to superficially uncover the beliefs of society. For example, one may think about the question of whether religions are useful and wonder if they cannot be easily replaced by communities or belief systems that can mimic the effects of religions. If you assume that religions only exist to relieve existential angst and provide a sense of community, for example, then you may conclude that being a supporter of a sports team, that provides both of these needs, can be an adequate replacement for religion. But if you are wrong in this deconstruction of religion and of human psychology – if there are deeper meanings to be found in religious symbols, myths, and rituals, then your first premise was wrong. This is what it means to be wrong, in a profound way.

In that sense, the contrarian is either very right or very wrong. In other words, they have either uncovered a truth that everyone is missing, or they have believed in a falsehood that no one else is a victim to.

There may be two ways around this problem. The first is to avoid reasoning from first principles when it comes to complex subjects such as man’s relationship to religion and restrict your reasoning process to either simpler subjects. The second is to tackle a subject that you have the most complete understanding of. If you want to start from the very beginning, you had better have a good idea of which generally accepted hypotheses you are forsaking, and why you are forsaking them.

To reason from first principles entails a deep understanding of a subject. There is a reason why the contrarians that have made a serious impact on society are all people who are highly knowledgeable about what they are talking about. To simply change how you think, as mentioned above, is a necessary but insufficient precondition for first principles thinking. There is no substitute for the difficult and messy groundwork of acquiring knowledge.

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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