First Principles: The Building Blocks of True Knowledge


Hatched by Glasp

Aug 05, 2023

4 min read


First Principles: The Building Blocks of True Knowledge

In every systematic inquiry (methodos) where there are first principles, or causes, or elements, knowledge and science result from acquiring knowledge of these First-principles thinking is one of the best ways to reverse-engineer complicated problems and unleash creative possibility. Sometimes called “reasoning from first principles,” the idea is to break down complicated problems into basic elements and then reassemble them from the ground up. It allows them to cut through the fog of shoddy reasoning and inadequate analogies to see opportunities that others miss.

“I don’t know what’s the matter with people: they don’t learn by understanding; they learn by some other way—by rote or something. Their knowledge is so fragile!” — Richard Feynman

The difference between reasoning by first principles and reasoning by analogy is like the difference between being a chef and being a cook. If the cook lost the recipe, he’d be screwed. The chef, on the other hand, understands the flavor profiles and combinations at such a fundamental level that he doesn’t even use a recipe. He has real knowledge as opposed to know-how.

If we never learn to take something apart, test the assumptions, and reconstruct it, we end up trapped in what other people tell us — trapped in the way things have always been done. When it comes down to it, everything that is not a law of nature is just a shared belief. Money is a shared belief. So is a border. So are bitcoins. After three “whys,” though, you often find yourself on the other end of some version of “we can take this offline.”

“Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge.” — Carl Sagan.

How we started and where we are today - Google

Working from their dorm rooms, Larry Page and Sergey Brin built a search engine that used links to determine the importance of individual pages on the World Wide Web. They called this search engine Backrub. Their vision was clear: to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. In August 1998, Sun co-founder Andy Bechtolsheim wrote Larry and Sergey a check for $100,000, and Google Inc. was officially born.

Even in the beginning, things were unconventional for Google. Their initial server was made of Lego, showcasing their innovative and playful approach. They weren't afraid to break the mold and think outside the box. This was further exemplified by their first "Doodle" in 1998, a stick figure in the logo announcing to site visitors that the entire staff was playing hooky at the Burning Man Festival. This commitment to embracing uniqueness and challenging traditional norms became ingrained in the company's culture.

Google's famous motto, "Don't be evil," captured the spirit of their intentionally unconventional methods. They understood that true innovation often requires questioning the status quo and going against the grain. By approaching problems from first principles, they were able to reimagine the way information is organized and accessed on the internet. They didn't rely on existing frameworks or analogies but sought to understand the fundamental elements of their vision.

As Google grew and expanded its services, it continued to apply the principles of first-principles thinking. From developing Gmail to creating Google Maps, each product was built from the ground up, reevaluating the core elements and challenging preconceived notions. This approach allowed them to uncover new possibilities and deliver products that revolutionized the way we interact with technology.

Actionable advice:

  • 1. Embrace first-principles thinking: Don't be afraid to question the assumptions and beliefs that underpin a problem or situation. Break it down to its fundamental elements and rebuild it with a fresh perspective.
  • 2. Challenge the status quo: Don't settle for the way things have always been done. Seek out unconventional methods and approaches to find innovative solutions. Be open to taking risks and stepping outside your comfort zone.
  • 3. Foster a culture of curiosity: Encourage your team to ask questions and explore new ideas. Create an environment that values learning and growth, where individuals are empowered to think critically and challenge existing norms.

In conclusion, first-principles thinking is a powerful tool for unlocking true knowledge and driving innovation. By breaking down complex problems into their basic elements and rebuilding them from the ground up, we can overcome the limitations of traditional reasoning and discover new possibilities. Google's journey from a dorm room project to a tech giant is a testament to the transformative power of this approach. So, let us embrace first-principles thinking, challenge the status quo, and foster a culture of curiosity to shape a future defined by true knowledge and creativity.

Hatch New Ideas with Glasp AI 🐣

Glasp AI allows you to hatch new ideas based on your curated content. Let's curate and create with Glasp AI :)