First Things First

Of Blank Slates And First Principles Thinking

Christian Fregnan On

The world is very beautiful. The people living in this world even more so. Each with their varied experiences and ways to look at the world. Unfortunately, when we meet someone we are busy thinking about their net worth, their weaknesses and how their life stacks up against our own. That’s because money is the single most important yardstick of success the world understands. Jealousy and our tendency to compare ourselves with others as old as our conscious thought. In addition to being a self consuming cancer, comparison with other people is often an exercise in asymmetric information-we don’t know much about the people we compare ourselves too. People are not comparable, they are just different.

Likewise, as the old saying goes ‘we should not compare apples to oranges’ but we often do. Think about comparing the success a country like Estonia has in digitizing everything. If we start comparing Estonia to India, China or USA and ask ourselves : ‘why can’t India be like Estonia?’ , we are comparing a nation with different DNAs. Analogy is useless in many dimensions.

This article emphasizes the fact that reasoning by analogy is useful but not always. We need to adopt ‘first principles design thinking’ in cases where reasoning by analogy is not useful. This article also lays out the importance of looking at the world around us with a blank slate. In latin, a blank slate is called a ‘Tabula Rasa’. By combining these two principles ie first principles design and Tabula Rasa, we can overcome a lot of our mental biases while building something new and while looking at the beauty of the world around us.

The MIT Technology Review dedicated its 120th anniversary issue to the rise of China. China is either leading or close to leading efforts in Artificial Intelligence, Electric Cars, Quantum Computing, Genetic editing and even deep sea dredging. An important observation the magazine made was that China has been trying for decades to gain an advantage in manufacturing semiconductor computer chips but the west has a very significant advantage. However, it could get an opportunity to lead by making chips specifically for AI by adopting a Tabula Rasa or blank slate approach.

In the same vein, after Estonia was destroyed by cyber attacks, it started laying its IT infrastructure from a blank slate and it is the most digitized country in the world today. Of course, it’s smaller geography also helps. While a blank slate approach and first principles design thinking may not be applicable in all cases, they are extremely powerful design tools to overcome our biases and create something that was thought to be inconceivable. In that sense, Tesla, SpaceX, China’s foray into AI chips and Estonia’s digitization are shining examples of the shape of things such thinking can usher.

Tabula Rasa

Tabula rasa is a Latin phrase often translated as “blank slate” in English and originates from the Roman tabula used for notes, which was blanked by heating the wax and then smoothing it.

Fundamentally speaking, Tabula Rasa is a belief that people are born without in-built mental thinking. Therefore, they primarily learn from experience and perception. Thus, a blank slates approach is a nurture vs nature focus. There are other schools of thought, such as the Vedic school of thought that believes that we have evolutionary memory eg a child learning to be bipedal or the very fact that we are more conscious than our forefathers alludes to the fact that Homo sapiens have ‘some’ in-built evolutionary memory passed on from our forefathers. However, largely speaking, a lot of what we learn is by adding to a blank slate.

That is not to say nature doesn’t play an important part. Take genetics for example. Even if a south Asian male works out regularly, genetics prevents him from being the size of say a Caucasian male. In future, CRISPR or genetic editing could change that. Practically speaking, a blank slate approach is a good way to develop relationships by not judging the world with our biases.

Historically speaking, the writings of Aristotle and many stoics reflect a blank slate approach. Many Persian and Islamic scholars have based their approach on Tabula Rasa. John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding’ is a modern expression of the idea. Let us look at a few examples of this approach.

Sibyl with Tabula Rasa by Diego Velazquez, 1648 (Wikipedia)
  1. Steven Pinker, a student of language, postulates that the human mind can pick up spoken language more easily than written language.
  2. Most of our education system is based on the ‘catch em young’ approach because children’s minds are essentially empty slates. Therefore, there is a constant debate about which version of history to be incorporated which in itself is a big controversy.
  3. AI and software programmers are now looking to model the human brain with a blank slate.
  4. In the world of business, it is the quintessential newbie or innovator that tries to look at a business problem with a blank slate.

The application of a Tabula Rasa approach can be found in many facets of life. While it is rather simple to understand, this concept has profound ramifications on how we approach our lives.

Reasoning By First Principles

If you are a student of physics, you know first principles are like elementary sub atomic particles which cannot be broken down further. Likewise, first principles are those assumptions or propositions which cannot be broken down further. We can and should question them but once we have established those first principles, we start designing our world from the ground up with these first principles as base. First principles thinking is very different from reasoning by analogy. Just because A cannot do it or A could not do it in the past, B cannot do it either may not be true in all cases. We need to break down the problem into its components and then understand what we know about those components to be as absolutely true.

‘In physics, a calculation is said to be from first principles, or ab initio, if it starts directly at the level of established laws of physics and does not make assumptions such as empirical model and fitting parameters. For example, calculation of electronic structure using Schrödinger’s equation within a set of approximations that do not include fitting the model to experimental data is an ab initio approach’ — Wikipedia

The Apple Iphone is a classic example of First Principles design thinking. While it was not the first device to sport a touch screen, it became the first smartphone to herald the touch screen revolution. In fact, Steve Jobs’ thinking could be thought of as reasoning from first principles. Many people loved the qwerty keypad of their Blackberry devices. Many also thought why I should I buy a tablet? However, Jobs looked at what was possible and reasoned : why not?

Aristotle and a variety of philosophers used first principles to describe world we lived in.

A lot of the work of Albert Einstein, Ben Franklin, Leonardo daVinci and Archimedes arose from first principles. Quite frankly, first principles thinking is a derivative of an insatiable curiosity.

The Roads Less Taken

The blank slate and first principles approach are ways to train our minds to think differently and very fundamentally. Quantum physics was a result of problems that classical physics could not solve. Scientists started questioning the fundamental qualities of particles. This led to the discovery that matter can behave like a wave as well as like particles. Physics went sub-atomic and our world changed forever. Today, we are on the brink of a new dawn of quantum computing.

The concepts of Tabula Rasa and first principles design thinking are applicable to almost anything you want to build anew including your own self. The next time someone dismisses you by using the familiar words ‘you can’t do it because others cannot or because it hasn’t been done in the past’, there could be some truth to it but not always. So, for the most part, you simply ignore them.

You start with a blank slate ie without any preconceived notions. Then, you deconstruct your goal into it’s smaller, achievable components and look at each component and apply first principles ie understand what you ‘know’ to be absolutely true about those components. Then, you start working on each of them from the ground up with discipline and absolute determination. All of a sudden, what the you and the world thought was impossible becomes possible. At the very least, when you start chasing your dreams in a disciplined fashion, you will become a much better version of yourself.

This is how the world was built — when a bunch of unreasonable madmen ignored the world and the rules humans made. They challenged everything we thought to be true. For example, Copernicus challenged the view that the earth was the center of the universe and the sun revolves around the earth. The rest is history. I am not saying all the wisdom in the world should be ignored. Some of the laws of physics are immutable. However, if we always apply what we thought to be true in the past and the present to our future, we risk creating a better tomorrow. We risk looking at the world as it is not as it should be.

Writer @ The Intersection of Finance, Tech & Humanity. Stories of a Global Language: “Money”. Contributor @ Startup Grind, HackerNoon, HBR. Twitter@akothari_mba

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