On The Utility Of First Principles Knowledge

How can we get to the root of the knowledge of something? In a way that lets us apply first principles knowledge to solve problems? (See the previous article on using first principles to reduce complexity.)

To explore this let us use an analogy. In an imaginary world we live in a village together. The villagers need water to survive and there is a river flowing 10 minutes walking distance away. The culture and traditions of the village have developed in such a way that in order for each individual person to get water to drink, they themselves go to the river to drink. This is very time consuming. Young people, old people, babies and the sick and elderly all have to go there to drink. If they can’t make the walk they will die of dehydration. This is because nobody in the village has questioned their common sense knowledge or rule of thumb that has been established. The way to get water is by walking to the river.

This is not only dangerous for those that cannot make the walk. It is also a very time consuming activity. Every morning people walk there to drink first thing. Before eating they walk there, and in total about five times per day. This amounts to a lot of time spent on getting water. But this is accepted by everyone. It has always been like this.

What if someone in the village started questioning the status quo? They might think that ”the point of going to the river is to drink. If I could find a way to bring and store water I could spend less time walking to drink per day.”

And thus reasoning have started. What knowledge the individual has opens possibilities. If this person knows about technology like buckets, carved out from wood, connecting that idea with the want to carry and store water, might provide a possible solution to make the situation better.

They might then build on this idea with other knowledge. What if the strongest people in the village carry the water in return for other goods like food and shelter, effectively supplying the village with water supply? What if there are animals that can augment this?

If there is knowledge in the village about how water flows and that it is possible to dig out canals, another possibility might open up. What if they set up a project to dig out a canal that reaches the village?

What this kind of thinking allows is for the villagers to question anything with a deeper understanding for how things work. With knowledge they can question rules of thumbs, status quo and traditions. It is not merely a theoretical tool for philosophers. It can make a difference of life and death for villagers. And it can free up time for other productive work and leisure, improving the quality of life of the inhabitants.

The two inputs that are needed for this are knowledge and a desire and courage to challenge the accepted. How to gain those is a topic for another post. 

The opposite of first principles thinking would be for the villagers to build on their accepted knowledge and not question it. For example how can they solve the problem of people dying of thirst, when they can’t make the walk, with this mindset? For example they can carry them to the river. This would be optimizing based on accepted knowledge. It may improve the situation. But it is fundamentally a worse solution than those available with a deeper knowledge and courage.

How do you increase your knowledge so that you can improve the quality of life in society? How do you increase your desire and courage to challenge the accepted?

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