Critical thinking is humanity’s greatest weapon in times of crisis. Always has been; always will be.
Our creative mind allowed us to venture forth from the caves and thrive. It has driven human progress. As I wrote here, it’s not human brawn that’s going to defeat the coronavirus and overcome our economic turbulence — it’s human imagination.
With that in mind, what process can we use to center and calm ourselves to think and reason critically and logically about the challenges that lie before us?
Simple: First Principles Reasoning.
First Principles Reasoning involves a serious of onion-peeling questions in the Socratic tradition. It’s the type of reasoning espoused by Aristotle and used by Elon Musk.
There are two types of reasoning employed by humans:
- Reasoning by Analogy
- Reasoning by First Principles
An example of the former might go something like this:
- Stars are extremely hot.
- The sun is a star.
- The sun is extremely hot.
Easy enough, right? Makes sense.
But what about when Reasoning by Analogy is applied in this way:
- 400 people who ate red meat had heart attacks.
- I eat red meat.
- I am likely to have a heart attack.
Now, it might be your assumption that these conclusions are correct, but there are a number of ways this could go wrong.
So, let’s apply First Principles Reasoning to this situation.
Here is a very simple way of looking at this type of reasoning:
- Start with our assumptions.
- Check the premises of those assumptions.
- Identify and uncover the truths and evidence.
So, first, instead of accepting things as fact, look at them as assumptions. This will open your mind up to the possibility that what you believe might not be the only way.
Then, check the premises of these assumptions. For example:
- What’s the evidence to support your assumptions?
- Is it based on a study?
- Who funded the study?
- Does that funder have an agenda?
- Of those 400 people who had heart attacks, how many were smokers?
- Of those 400 people who had heart attacks, what else was in their diets?
- Of those 400 people who had heart attacks, what was their age?
- And on and on and on…
Once you’ve utilized these questions to peel back the onion, start identifying and uncovering the truths and evidence.
- Of those 400 people, 100 were smokers.
- Of those 400 people, 250 either smoked or went to a fast food burger restaurant twice per week.
- Of those 400 people, a certain percentage also were on a cocktail of X, Y,Z pharmaceuticals.
You see, First Principles Reasoning makes it more difficult to suffer from groupthink. It prevents decisions being made based on your tribal beliefs, rather than actual evidence.
It forces you to attack your assumptions and challenge the foundations upon which they are built.
It is a process, as Aristotle wrote, of systematically inquiring until you break a problem down to its first principles:
“In every systematic inquiry 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.”
Like him or not, Elon Musk has figured out a way to make reusable rockets at a fraction of the cost of the way we used to manufacture them. When he first had the idea to make these rockets, the “experts” told him it was too expensive. So he applied First Principles Reasoning, as he explains in this interview:
“So I said, okay, let’s look at the first principles. What is a rocket made of? Aerospace-grade aluminum alloys, plus some titanium, copper, and carbon fiber. Then I asked, what is the value of those materials on the commodity market? It turned out that the materials cost of a rocket was around two percent of the typical price.”
As Musk told Kevin Rose:
“The normal way we conduct our lives is we reason by analogy,” he said. “[With analogy] we are doing this because it’s like something else that was done, or it is like what other people are doing. [With first principles] you boil things down to the most fundamental truths … and then reason up from there.”
We all should hope and demand that those making policy to deal with coronavirus are employing this type of critical thinking.
But there’s little we can individually do to control that.
What challenges are you facing in your life right now? Career? Financial? Relationship? Health?
How can you apply First Principles Reasoning to calmly pause, break down your assumptions, and build them up from the foundations?
Right now — this type of critical thinking will be your greatest weapon.