First Principles: The Building Blocks of True Knowledge - Farnam Street - Deepstash
First Principles: The Building Blocks of True Knowledge - Farnam Street

First Principles: The Building Blocks of True Knowledge - Farnam Street

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What is first-principles thinking?

First-principles thinking is one of the best ways to reverse-engineer complicated problems and unleash creative possibilities. 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.


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We tend to reason by analogy

How many times did we hear the phrase "We’ll do that because it’s always been done that way"? Personally, I would say many times.

When we reason by analogy we build our "reasoning" on top of impure assumptions and conventions. We tend to do this simply because it is easier and more straightforward.


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What is the difference between analogy and first-principles?

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.


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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!



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How are we used to learning?

So much of what we believe is based on some authority figure telling us that something is true.

This way of learning applies to schools, where most teachers try to transfer knowledge to us through a mechanical process that doesn't involve reasoning which leads to poor skills in problem-solving-based subjects such as maths, physics, logic...


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An analogy with trees

It is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree — make sure you understand the fundamental principles, i.e., the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang on to.


743 reads



Software engineer by 🌞 and sleepyhead by 🌑. Software architecture. Distributed systems. Personal productivity. Cats.


I have always been against reasoning by analogy and this article explains very clearly why that way of reasoning is fundamentally broken.

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