The title of this article sounded oxymoronic when I first typed it, because why would a dummy have any curiosity in first-principles.
Dummies generally slide onto a life-raft floating downstream the river of life, benefitting from the slight aberrations in and misunderstanding of the status quo, rather than jumping-off and swimming upstream beyond the point of entry to challenge the status quo.
But the catch-phrase dummies as used by book-publisher Wiley’s refers to taking on complex concepts and making them easy to understand. Assuming the proximal development through studying a subject-matter leads a dummy to escape its preordained qualification.
So, I should lighten up.
I find myself a dummy of sorts, as I struggle with using the term first-principles, a term famously tossed around these days by technocrats Elon Musk (hats off), Jeff Bezos, and Peter Thiel. I associate with the term more from a discerning Feynman perspective – not to fool yourself – and therefore not with the definition’s many bastardizations and self-serving derivations.
First-principles are generally defined as a proposition or assumption that cannot be deduced from any other proposition or assumption. That specific definition suggests first-principles are the highest-order assumptions one can conjure up, and worse, it infers absolutism of its normalization. Neither is accurate, as you can glean from Learn To Think (a must-read before proceeding).
Meaning, from the aforementioned definition, I could easily assert a God exists as the manmade personification of the highest power, and call that a first-principle from which all consequences of human life are derived. Never mind we now have about one-hundred gods, none of which flexed their demonstrable power over two-thousand years ago. Meaning, all theologies are manmade manacles.
In the words of Feynman, once again, we, humans, so full of our intellectual capacity, are the easiest to fool.
The first in first-principles is really not the first, but merely a moving target towards a better understanding of nature’s cause. First-principles are, at best, humanity’s best and evolving interpretation, and highest normalization of nature’s truth. A mere proxy of truth, allowing human reasoning to derive a plethora of consequences from said cause. In that order only, as dictated by nature’s entropy.
The absolutism inferred by the antecedent “first” is incompatible with a universe evolving around relativity. First of what? No declaration of absolutism survives the nature of relativity. Hence the weakness of the definition of first-principles is much more than innocent jellybean semantics. The definition is as weak as stating the world is flat when it is – in fact – round.
So, first principles are not first and not principles at all. In the same way Spanish Moss growing all over Hilton Head Island is neither Spanish nor moss.
Principles are derived from a theory. A theory, in turn, derived from an observation of nature’s undeniable truth.
As in Einstein discovering how stars appeared in a different place during a solar eclipse, leading to his theory of general relativity. Such a theory then defining the principles around which everything in our universe appears to evolve, with mathematical formulae providing useful computational approximations and predictions of consequential outcomes.
The term first-principles should more accurately be called second-principles, for the highest-order principles are nature’s, not, nor ever, our suboptimal interpretation of them.
Nature controls us, we do not control nature. And for humanity to improve its adaptability to nature’s entropy we must seek to better understand and subjugate to the principles not we define but we merely borrow from nature.
I hope you enjoyed how I used human solipsism to apply a sneaky double entendre to the title of this article. First-principles are indeed for dummies, and only useful when you realize they are in the endless pursuit of nature’s truth, at best, second-principles.