Whenever we are subjected to any statement, claim or an opinion, depending on how much critical thinking we are capable of, we either believe it, reject it or remain disinterested. If the given statement is the one we are already acquainted with, it is much easier for us to take a position either pro or contra to it. However, life is dynamic and it presents us into situations and incidents often that are entirely novel to us. In such a case, how do we tell the heads from the tails? How do we decide whether to believe it and act on it or whether to reject it? This is where the framework of first principle thinking can rescue us.
Exemplified by the legendary entrepreneur and SpaceX ideator Elon Musk, first principle thinking is what Aristotle envisaged as the best mental model to approach any new idea or issue. The great philosopher Rene Descartes too had something similar to offer while he proposed his methods of doubt: systematically doubt everything that you can possibly doubt, until you are left with what you see as purely indubitable truths. When we reason from the first principles, we save ourselves from being influenced by our biases or illogical intuitions; rather, we start by reasoning with only the most essential building blocks. Basically, if we are dealing with a machine, we start thinking in terms of each and every part, each of its functions and design, and the build bottom up. This is exactly the opposite of reasoning/thinking from an analogy. When we think from the analogy, we need an a priori design- in this case a machine that is already designed based on which we try to build a new machine. In contrast, first principle thinking allows us to distill down the whats and hows of the parts of the machine and why is each part needed. This means that, with the first principle model of mental mapping, we don’t need to see what is already there. Instead, this model enables us to create our own design from the scratch by building from the basic pieces.
When we reason with the first principles, there is a very narrow space for impurity caused by our own biases or cognitive limitations. Since the most basic truth about any issue is more or less likely to appeal universally, the first principle model avoids our personal propensity and inculcates a more rational, objective enquiry into the matter. This way, we dig any given hypothesis from a very neutral angle as if we don’t know anything except the entirely fundamental thing about it. When someone claims that compound X treats cancer, we start with what is cancer, what must be the property of any compound to act against cancer, does the compound X have any of the properties, if any, are they sufficient, and so on. With a considerably large number of questions, we shall be able to either accept or reject that claim.
Another approach to cultivate first principle thinking is in the art of asking ‘WHY?’ When we go behind the reason of things repeatedly, we get closer to the reality/truth of an issue. Take for example the rising number of rape cases across south Asian countries. When we ask why the cases are increasing, there are chances that someone would answer because ‘women are wearing revealing clothes’. Again, why does wearing short clothes cause increased rape? If so, why is it not happening in the western countries where the clothing culture is even more open? This second chain of why immediately breaks the false claim that rapes are caused by women’s way of wearing clothes. At this very moment, we realize that we need to search for another reason. After a fair amount of propositions and asking enough ‘whys’, we might eventually come to find the true reason behind the increasing rape cases. This is how the first principle thinking helps us in the realization of truth. Moreover, asking why is imperative for freedom. Why? Because it demands explanation from the authority, it asserts our pursuit of truth, and it suggests that we are not satisfied with ‘whats’ or ‘hows’.
Hence, the first principle thinking approach could be a powerful tool, especially if cultivated from childhood. It would make us more rational, more objective and less prone to our limits of understanding.