Using the ancient technique of reasoning from first principles: a hack for creativity & problem solving

Reasoning from first principles is an ancient problem solving technique that breaks down a complex problem to its most fundamental truths.

First principles can be traced to ancient Greece and specifically the Aristotelian method of questioning the root of things as well as to Socrates and Socratic Questioning. In less ancient times it was used by Descartes to form the Cartesian Doubt (read more about questioning at the end of this article). Modern day writers such as Nassim Nicholas Taleb & Peter Thiel further the use of reasoning from first principles.

We get through life by reasoning with analogies, which essentially means doing what other people do with slight variations. As a species this has worked well for us. Using beliefs and prior knowledge has worked well. Why change that on the individual level?

Coming up with creative solutions to problems is the fundamental drive of courageous people. Using the first principles strategy is worth using when trying to come up with a unique solution to a foreseeable problem.

Reasoning from first principles allows us to break free of assumptions and see the underlying truths behind those assumptions. It allows us to find new paths and not go down the same old ones that were directed by unchallenged assumptions.

In short; it’s a hack for creativity, finding new opportunities, and problem solving.

Some examples of modern day first principle thinkers

If you were to sum up Peter Thiel’s book ‘Zero to One’, it would be about reasoning from first principles to find new opportunity; instead of working One to N, work from Zero to One. Instead of working from analogies, work from first principles.

Elon Musk provides another modern day example of someone who is capable of first principles thinking and has applied it to form creative solutions. His background is in physics which is a first principle discipline by nature. Being able to think about how things function rather than the form, or analogy as Musk says, is key to making use of first principles.

“I think it’s important to reason from first principles rather than by analogy. The normal way we conduct our lives is we reason by analogy. [With analogy] we are doing this because it’s like something else that was done, or it is like what other people are doing. [With first principles] you boil things down to the most fundamental truths…and then reason up from there.” — Elon Musk

When Elon Musk brainstormed how to get rockets for SpaceX, his first instinct was to buy rockets from Russia. The costs would have made SpaceX unprofitable so he needed to find another solution.

Musk started working on first principles of rocket propulsion and figured out that building a rocket with the raw materials and buying the materials on the open market would be cheaper than buying a pre-built rocket.

This is oversimplifying the task at hand, building space rockets is rocket science, but the point is that to get to a solution Musk had to keep dividing the problem until he got to the raw materials of rocket propulsion itself and thus the first principles of rocket science.

Rocket building costs were high in the first place because the people who were building the rockets were stuck in a mindset about how they should be built. The mindset is basically “it is going to be done this way because it has been done this way before”. They did not go back to the first principles of rocket propulsion to figure out that building a rocket could cost much less if you buy the raw material on the today’s open market.

Another example is from an interview Elon Musk did with Kevin Rose on first principle thinking and battery analogy.

Somebody could say, “Battery packs are really expensive and that’s just the way they will always be… Historically, it has cost $600 per kilowatt hour. It’s not going to be much better than that in the future.”

With first principles, you say, “What are the material constituents of the batteries? What is the stock market value of the material constituents?”

It’s got cobalt, nickel, aluminum, carbon, some polymers for separation and a seal can. Break that down on a material basis and say, “If we bought that on the London Metal Exchange what would each of those things cost?”

It’s like $80 per kilowatt hour. So clearly you just need to think of clever ways to take those materials and combine them into the shape of a battery cell and you can have batteries that are much, much cheaper than anyone realizes.”

Simply boil things down as far as they can go then ask the question “is this still true?” Relying on analogies and the thought that things are the way they are because they have always been that way leads to biases and is the antithesis to first principles thinking.

Understanding first principles is much easier than actually implementing

Case in point, Roman soldiers carried leather bags for travel and also had chariots and wagons with wheels yet it took until 1970 for the first suitcase with wheels to be invented.

Why the 2021 Texas Power Crisis is an example of relying on analogies instead of first principles

In February 2021 Texas suffered a major power crisis from the result of 3 winter storms. There were warnings that this would happen ahead of time but deregulation left any incentive to prepare (source) as well as relying on the simple analogy that Texas is too far south to worry about a major winter storm freezing the electric grid.

It actually would not have taken much digging to find similar storms sweeping across Texas and causing similar power problems: 2011 & 1989 in particular.

The warnings were there for any first principle thinker but it is much easier to ignore and to go along with analogies. Courageous leaders though would not depend on analogies and would insist on first principle thinkers to solve the foreseeable problem ahead of time.

Analogies can’t replace true understanding

Relying too much on what has already been told to you does not allow creative thinking. It is easier to think with analogies, that is why they exist, but to break through to unique solutions one must stop relying on analogies.

Techniques to help reason from first principles

Avoid incremental thinking

Incremental thinking is when you go from 1 to N instead of 0 to 1. It’s thinking that is dealing with improvements of what already exists instead of inventing or coming up with creative solutions.

The gulf between what people currently see as possible and what is actually possible is filled with first principle thinkers.

Remove the noise by ‘ignoring the urgent but not important’

Nassim Nicholas Taleb is a first principle thinker and his thoughts illustrate the problems of noise versus signal. It is easy to consume information to the point that decisions are indecisive and stress levels are high. Working beyond the initial noise, ignoring the urgent but not important, is working towards first principles.

Constantly responding to what is urgent but not important saps energy and depletes focus. The news, emails, phone calls, social media browsing, to-do lists and similar distractions feed our desire to work from analogies instead of first principles.

Using questions to reason from first principles

A video about the “5 whys”

Use The Cartesian Doubt

Knowledge in the Cartesian sense means to know something beyond not merely all reasonable doubt, but all possible doubt.

Its another way of saying to unlearn what you think you know so you stop assuming everything you know already is true. Take your ego out of the equation.

  • Accept only information that you know is true
  • Break down these known truths into smaller truths
  • Solve the simple problem first
  • Make complete lists of further problems

Socratic Questioning

  • Examine the idea and its origin (Why do you think that? Explain it further.)
  • Challenge the assumptions (Is this always true? Are there cases when this is not true?)
  • Look for evidence (Why do you think that? Show me examples.)
  • Consider alternative approaches (Show me a counterargument.)
  • Examine the consequences and implications (If this is true and then this happens then what…)
  • Question the question (Why was the question important to ask in the first place?)

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Zachary Caudill

Founder & CEO @ CodeBru | Entrepreneur, Soft. Engineer enjoy meeting & partnering with digital entrepreneurs while traveling the globe.