First principle reasoning

When I was young I remember wanting to be an awesome football player like Joe Montana, or an FBI agent working on the X-Files like Fox Mulder. These days I want to have the skills to identify and solve problems like Elon Musk. Musk is an interesting person. He’s created and sold numerous companies and with the profits he’s created a rocket building / space exploration company that is now the first (private) company to make it to space. He’s also built an American electric car company. While all these things make Musk an interesting person on the surface, its his approach that makes him enviable.In his TED talk Musk credits his training in physics with his ability to see and understand difficult problems. He says physics is about how to discover new things that might seem counterintuitive and physics first principle provides a good framework for thinking. The video is a good conversation between Elon Musk and TED curator Chris Anderson, I recommend watching it. Musk mentions first principle reasoning at about 19:37:

According to Wikipedia first principle in physics means you start directly at the lowest levels – at the laws. Musk provides a slightly easier understanding saying first principle is reasoning from the ground up as opposed to reasoning by analogy, which is copying what other people do with slight variations.

Musk further elaborates on first principle reasoning in this video. To summarize he says you look at the fundamentals of things, make sense of it, construct your reasoning and conclusion and (if possible) compare that to whatever is the current understanding. A part of that process involves questioning conclusions, asking whether or not something could be true. Sounds like Musk’s constantly modeling, learning, testing and re-modeling.

In thinking about my job there seems to be more reasoning by analogy than perhaps there should be (or at least its obvious to someone new). Whenever one of my developers or I ask why something is, why some conclusion has been reached – the typical response is “that’s how its done”. If I ask my test team why they do something a certain way its always “that’s how we’ve always done it” and there seems to be no desire (at least I haven’t seen it yet) to know whether something makes sense or is based on a real understanding of the problem. Perhaps there should be more modeling, learning and testing?

We all do some reasoning by analogy, in many ways it’s a much simpler way to communicate and learn but for many of us in the software engineering fields (testers and developers) perhaps we confuse reasoning methods? So how do we determine when we need to use first principles and when its ok to use analogy in reasoning? That’s the million-dollar question. I think we do like Musk: create a model, ask questions to help us learn, test and when we aren’t satisfied with the answer, we reason from the ground up.

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Jamie Larson