First principle thinking is the basis of solving a problem by questioning your ‘initial’ analogy or assumptions. The practice of breaking down the problem to its acute elements. It allows you to build new knowledge, information which engenders creative solutions. One of the greatest philosophers of our history Aristotle, who advocated his efforts towards his philosophical work in ‘the first principle thinking’ has been described in Terence Irwin book called Aristotle’s First Principles.
In every systematic inquiry (methodos) where there are first principles, or causes, or elements, knowledge and science result from acquiring knowledge of these; for we think we know something just in case we acquire knowledge of the primary causes, the primary first principles, all the way to the elements. It is clear, then, that in the science of nature as elsewhere, we should try first to determine questions about the first principles. The naturally proper direction of our road is from things better known and clearer to us, to things that are clearer and better known by nature; for the things known to us are not the same as the things known unconditionally (haplôs). Hence it is necessary for us to progress, following this procedure, from the things that are less clear by nature, but clearer to us, towards things that are clearer and better known by nature. (Phys. 184a10–21)
Simple conventional thinking is for the norm. We are conformed to the analogies, to the ideas, to the possibilities of others. It hinders our growth if we fail to raise any questions. Individuals who are avid users of first principle thinking are innovators. They stem original thoughts and find solutions which adds value. One of the most profound users of this principle is Elon Musk.
What is first principle thinking?
To acquire clarity on this subject, let’s explore a few examples that I’ve come to encounter.
In this interview, Kevin Rose interviewed Elon Must during which he stated:
Well, I do think there’s a good framework for thinking. It is physics. You know, the sort of first principles reasoning. Generally I think there are — what I mean by that is, boil things down to their fundamental truths and reason up from there, as opposed to reasoning by analogy.
His example highlights why its important to think with first principle thinking.
Somebody could say — and in fact people do — that battery packs are really expensive and that’s just the way they will always be because that’s the way they have been in the past. Well, no, that’s pretty dumb – Because if you applied that reasoning to anything new, then you wouldn’t be able to ever get to that new thing you can’t say, “oh, nobody wants a car because horses are great, and we’re used to them and they can eat grass and there’s lots of grass all over the place and there’s no gasoline that people can buy”
He further enlightens us with his example on the cost of a battery.
Historically, it costs $600 per kilowatt-hour. And so it’s not going to be much better than that in the future. So the first principles would be, what are the material constituents of the batteries? What is the spot market value of the material constituents? It’s got cobalt, nickel, aluminum, carbon, and some polymers for separation, and a steel can. So break that down on a material basis; if we bought that on a London Metal Exchange, what would each of these things cost? Oh, jeez, it’s $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.
Similarly to the approach employed by a military strategist: John Boyd. He suggested the use of first principle using a simple framework. Let’s explore this to provide clarity.
Imagine you have three things:
- a bicycle
- a skier behind the motorboat.
- a military-grade tank
Using first principle thinking, let’s dismantle these elements into their constituent parts.
- a bicycle has the following constituents – the seat, a pair of wheels, handlebar and gears
- a motorboat has the following constituents – the hull of a boat, a motor and a pair of skis.
- a military tank has the following constituents – a cannon gun, a pair of metallic threads and the outer plating.
From the individual constituent of the three elements – ask yourself what can we create?
By utilizing the following:
- Bicycle – seat, handlebar
- Military Tank – a pair of metallic threads
- Motorboat – a motor and a pair of skis
You can create a snowmobile. Applying the deconstructive approach of what we already know and building new innovation is the means of thinking from the first principle.
5 Step-method of establishing First Principle thinking
- Explain the idea – what’s the premise for your thinking?
- Challenge the current basis of the idea – gain a level of understanding if the idea could be approached from a different direction.
- Provide evidence – if the idea has any weight, gather evidence to prove it.
- What are the implications of the idea? – is it worse or better? Does it provide any value?
- What are the alternatives, if the idea doesn’t work out? – Is there’s a Plan B? Have you gained perceptive from others by asking for negative feedback to explore what they didn’t like about the idea?
Going back to the basics, we enterprise a beginner’s mindset. We engender a mindset of ‘how to achieve‘. Past analogies are not ideal; they rely on previous experiences. In the constantly changing environment, exploring innovation and frontiers are the result of first principle thinking.
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I am a writer and a graduate engineer working in Leicester, UK.