So, some backstory here: this was another one of those 3k-4k word essays that I gave up on and then extracted a part out. I may turn the rest into next week’s post.
A reader emailed me and told me that I should have turned the content of this post to a list. So here it is.
When reasoning from first principles, you may fail if:
- You have flawed assumptions.
- You make a mistake in one of your inference steps. (An inference step is a step in the chain of reasoning in your argument).
- You start from the wrong set of principles/axioms/base facts.
- You reason upwards from the correct base, but end up at a ‘useless’ level of abstraction.
The first two are reasonably easy to spot — they’re basically the sort of analytical criticism that most of us are taught in schools. It’s the third and fourth ones that I’m more concerned about, because you can have a set of completely true axioms, and a completely coherent, tightly argued case, but then you turn out to get everything wrong anyway.
I realise this is also the source of my ‘test against reality’ principle, and the general distrust I have of management consultant-style frameworks thinking. Whenever someone makes a detailed, coherent argument, I usually say: “makes sense; let’s see.” — and this is why.