Ideas as basic building blocks when working from first principles.. Neil Keleher.

Ideas as First Principle building blocks

The qualities of ideas that make them useful for working from first principles

Working from first principles is a way of thinking that is well suited to solving problems. As an example of this, when Elon Musk want to get into building rockets and sending people to mars, he found out that rockets where very expensive. As an option he looked at buying a ballistic missile and repurposing it. But then he looked at the material cost of building a rocket and realized that the actual materials weren't that expensive. He then decided he could build a rocket himself for a lot cheaper than buying one premade.

So working from first principles is a way of thinking that helps you look at problems and/or systems from different points of view. Sometimes you are forced into looking at things from different perspectives. The point of this article is to look at the essence of working from first principles so that it comes a bit more naturally.

Language learning with a first principles mindset

If you are working on language learning, thinking from first principles can make learning a lot easier becuase it gives you a tool for thinking and analyzing that is beyond your native language.

As an example, in Chinese there is one word that is used to denote both lending and borrowing. So how then do you know who is the borrower and who is the lender? With first principles thinking you can look at the situation as a directed relationship. The object being lent of borrowed (it could be a library book, it could be money) goes from the lender to the borrower and the actual word order is what denotes the relationship. So rather than using special words to denote the difference the word order itself is what differentiates the two.

So first principles thinking can be about moving beyond language and thinking in terms of the things that language actually describes.

Part of fixing problems is understanding them

While being a programmer doesn't necessarily make you good at working from first principles, it can do. And actually, if you are a good programmer, i.e. one who knows how to break a potentially big program into smaller parts, then you probably already have the basic framework for thinking in terms of first principles.

Likewise if you like to dabble in mechanics or electrics or electronics, particularly if you like taking things apart and putting them back together again and figuring out how things work, then first thinking again probably comes naturally.

And if you are an artist, or artisan, particularly one who can paint or draw or create without working from models of the thing you are drawing, then here again, first principles can come naturally.

Programming may tend to naturally orient one towards first principles thinking because you have to know what it is that you are trying to do in order to program. And when you run into problems, which you invariably do when programming, it forces you to look at your code, and understand what is happening so that you can fix it.

And that's a lot of what first principles thinking is about. It's about understanding what you are working with.

The aquisition of understanding is a (never-ending) journey

The better you understand, the more you can change your point of view with respect to what you are working with, the better your understanding and the easier it is to fix problems,

People who benefit from thinking from first principles

So first principles thinking is for people who are artists, engineers, mathemeticians, scientists, people who in general have to deal with change or model things so that they can effectively deal with change or model or predict what changes will happen.

Names, indexes and the thing that they point to

I mentioned that first principle thinking is a way of potentially moving beyond language or thinking in terms of the things that a language describes.

So for example, my name is Neil. And people who know me or are talking about me will refer to me by name. Or if someone finds my yoga website or a youtube channel and want to learn more about me they search on google for me by name. My name is a potential indexing term to look for information about me. Or it's a term to refer to me in conversation, again an indexing term.

Without me being actually there, my name is a way of "pointing" to me. But it isn't actually me.

People who know me (or have read about me) may actually have a mental image or model of me when my name comes up. But it is their model of me, and it will have attributes that they associate with me based on their experiences of me; but it won't actually be me.

Now the better a person knows me, the better their model of me will be, the more accurate it will be. It still won't be me, but the person will have a better idea of how I will respond to certain questions or situations.

People who don't know me that well may hear my name and associate me with someone else that has the same name. As an example of this, I used to have a dislike for a particular person with the name Steve. And so I automatically disliked anyone else with the name Steve. But then I ended up with a very good friend who was named Steve and I realized that not all people named Steve are dislikable (at least for me.)

I came to this realization from meeting other people named Steve. This forced me to question my assumptions and change them.

I bring all of this up because we all have these imaginary constructs of people we deal with. The better we know the person the better the construct. The more we have experiences with these people the better the constructs. Our experiences can constantly test our assumptions and either break them or make them stronger.

The general term I use to refer to these constructs is "idea".

Ideas are models

When we meet someone or read about them or hear about the, we build up an idea of that person.

In the same way we can, based on experiences, build up ideas of the things that we use.

For me the idea of my apple computer is that it is a thing that I can get on and do all the things I need to without worrying about windows explorer or edge having to reboot to get the latest software update. It's also the idea of a thing that once allowed me to hookup an external monitor via the hdmi port in a previous operating system but that doesn't allow me to do it with the operating system I'm currently on!

So my model, my idea of apple is of a somewhat delicious looking apple from one angle but it has a worm hole in it when viewed from the other. So I try to eat around that hole.

The idea of Canada, where I grew up is a place, that while beautiful is also beaurocratic, expensive and really cold in the winters (but at least they have central heating.) Meanwhile Taiwan, while it has its problems, is so easy to live in. It's so friendly even the immigration people are nice, I always feel like I've done something wrong when I go back to Canada.

These are the ideas that I have of these places.

Note that these ideas are both something real, whether computers, countries or people. But they are also imaginary. i.e. something that is in my head built up of my experiences with them.

Or perhaps I should say that they can point to things that are real. And they can point to things that are imaginary.

Moving beyond language limitations

Ideas are also something that can go beyond language.

So as an example of this, when talking about concepts (ideas) we might say that a language doesn't have a word for a certain concept. We tend to associate words with ideas. But if we don't have a word for a concept we can still explain it. Which means that we know what the idea is. It's just that there is no single word in our language that points to it. And so ideas are something that are beyond language. They can be real things, cars, computers, trees, plants, but they can also be imaginary, i.e. in our heads. Or they can be both, an imaginary construct that points to something real.

The point of this is that an idea is something that can be imaginary or real. The most important quality about an idea is that it is definable or recognizeable. And that's what makes it useful as one of the basic building blocks for working from first principles.

The qualities that make ideas special

The important quality of an idea is that it is clearly defined or clearly definable or recognizeable.

Ideas can be made up of other ideas. The usual recent examples of this is Elon musk.

He looked at rockets in terms of the materials that made them up and the cost of those materials. Likewise he looked at batteries in terms of the materials that made them up and the cost of those materials.

In either case, he realized the materials were quite cheap, cheaper than the finished product.

Note that it's obviously important how these materials are put together and that's another important part of working from first priniciples, but the important thing here is that ideas can be broken down into smaller ideas.

Also note that Elon looked at other ways of getting to Mars. For example he looked at repurposing the rockets from ballistic missiles. He may also have gone shopping to see if there was a market for rocket components.

But the point is, the point of view that worked with regards to giving spacex a viable start was looking at the cost of the raw materials. this point of view gave him the insight, the understanding that building the rockets himself was the least expensive starting point.

Ideas can be differentiated in different ways

At any level, the thing about ideas is that they are easy to recognize or define.

Because ideas are something that we hold in our heads (even if they are used to "model" things that are real) it's possible to divide big ideas into smaller ideas in different ways.

Elon could have broken a rocket down differently. Instead of saying "well, it's a shell, it's a storage tank for propellant, it's a crew capsule, it's the actual booster engines" he broke it down in terms of material. And this was a good approach since he was looking at how to get to Mars with a limited budget.

When it comes time to actually designing and building rockets, the break down is going to be different.

And that's one of the big advantages of working from first principles. You can break things down in different ways depending on what it is that you are trying to understand or do at the time.

An idea is a definable or recognizable element of understanding

In terms of understanding, the idea is a key definable or recognizeable element.

At each level of differentiation or integration, the idea is something that is clearly definable or otherwise recognizeable.

An idea doesn't have to have a name or a label (unless we are trying to communicate the idea to someone else or otherwise store it externally (i.e. outside of ourselves) for perusal at a later date.) It just has to be something that we can recognize or identify either with our senses or our imagination.

Ideas can be imaginary or real

That's an important point too. Sometimes we use ideas to represent things that are real. As a result it helps if we can sense them first. But, ideas can also be imaginary. In either case they are something that is clearly definable or recognizable.

React

And just as a final note, I'm taking a web design course and the course component I'm now on is learning to use "React".

In the introduction to components, the instructor talks about one of the benefits of React is that you can use it to break up a large website into smaller, more compact and re-usable components.

And that's a lot like what ideas are (and a lot like the benefits of thinking from first principles). You can use them to break complex systems down into smaller (potentially reusable) smaller parts.

As with using React, we can choose how we break a system down into smaller component parts.

A system is an idea

A system can also be viewed as an idea. It's an idea that contains lots of other ideas. The better you understand these smaller ideas that make up a system the easier it is to understand what the sytem does.

Smaller ideas make larger ideas easier to digest

In the same website design course, the presenter points out that:

research has shown, the longer you have to scroll, the longer a file is, the harder it is to understand the code that is in it.

And so components (ideas) allow us to split a large file or website (or system or complex system) into smaller ideas (components).

Applying this same thinking, this same understanding, to complex systems in general, when we break them up into smaller ideas, we can then get a better understanding of the system in terms of those smaller ideas.

Or even better, if we are short on time, we can focus on learning the part of the system (the isolated ideas) that we need to know right now.

As an example of this, with the course I'm studying, because each section focuses on something particular, i.e. React, I can choose the part of the course (the "complex system") that I want to study.

Defining smaller ideas for ourselves

The reason for understanding the concept of the idea is that when a system isn't already broken down into component parts, we can do that ourselves.

The important point is that of having the ability to split or divide (or differentiate) something large into smaller "bite sized" pieces.

Defining ideas that can be re-used

In programming in particular, there are component libraries which allow you to use pre-programmed components in different projects. Even if not working with these libraries, say we are just writing our own program from scratch, we can create functions which we can re-use over and over again.

And that too can be a benefit of working from first principles (and a benefit of using a general term like the term "idea".) It makes it more possible for components to be re-used in different contexts.

In either case, the key is being able to define ideas, where possible, based on function or the potential change that they create.

Ideas are a way of capturing the essense of complex systems

Ideas are a way of simplifying and capturing the essence of complex systems. In the same way a heading captures (or tries to capture the essence in an attention grabbing way) of the article it heads.

And actually this has been one of the biggest areas in which I've failed to use first principle thinking effectively. My headings and page titles tend to fail in their ability to capture the essence of an article. This in part because I thought bare minimum wording was better for search engine optimization.

But that is the nice thing about first principle thinking. With a bit of practice you can begin using it anywhere. And the question then can be, how to practice?

Practice thinking from first principles by learning to see clearly defined ideas

Anytime you have mental capacity to spare, take the time to notice differences.

For example, walking to my usual coffee shop I noticed the pattern of tiles on the pavement. The lines in particular and how they created separation or clearly delineated ideas.

The labelling in this case isn't important, what is important for this exercise is using your eyes and the congnitive software behind it to notice differences.

Notice differences in color due to light and shadown.

Notice the lines that demark bands of color on someones hat.

Notice the outlines of a coffee cup against the back ground of a computer viewed from the side.

Notice the actual lines in the grain of the wooden table you are working on.

Notice the lines in the material of the burgundy shirt (blouse?) the person in front is wearing.

This is a lot like the way artists see the world. They see at this level of detail because often they try to capture it. And if they are woking quickly they might not look at the details but instead capture impressions of shape or movement, the key lines that capture the essense of a posture or object or facial expression.

What they are seeing is clearly defined or recognizeable ideas.

Published: 2021 01 20
Ideas as basic building blocks when working from first principles.. Neil Keleher.

Zero Parallax

First principles

Basic principles

ideas as units of meaning: and as the potential for change