Reading The Thinking Ladder by WaitButWhy today made me think a little more on my thought process. I’ve changed from thinking based on subjective feelings to thinking from fundamental first principles.
I have my guiding principles.
What Are First Principles
Neither I nor Wikipedia can explain it, so here’s Descartes describing the concept of first principle from the preface to the Principles of Philosophy (1644):
I should have desired, in the first place, to explain in it what philosophy is, by commencing with the most common matters, as, for example, that the word philosophy signifies the study of wisdom, and that by wisdom is to be understood not merely prudence in the management of affairs, but a perfect knowledge of all that man can know, as well for the conduct of his life as for the preservation of his health and the discovery of all the arts, and that knowledge to subserve these ends must necessarily be deduced from first causes; so that in order to study the acquisition of it, we must commence with the investigation of those first causes which are called Principles. Now these principles must possess two conditions: in the first place, they must be so clear and evident that the human mind, when it attentively considers them, cannot doubt of their truth; in the second place, the knowledge of other things must be so dependent on them as that though the principles themselves may indeed be known apart from what depends on them, the latter cannot nevertheless be known apart from the former. It will accordingly be necessary thereafter to endeavor so to deduce from those principles the knowledge of the things that depend on them, as that there may be nothing in the whole series of deductions which is not perfectly manifest.
How We Think: Primitive vs Higher Minds
In summary, we have two types of minds – the Primitive Mind and Higher Mind. Think of the Primitive Mind like a hardware (iPhone/computer). And the Higher Mind like a software (iOS/operating system).
The Primitive Mind is information that is hardwired and hardcoded into us, with data transferred from generations to generations via our genes (DNA). The Primitive Mind did not change for thousands of years. It is merely adapted to perfection over generations of improvement. It is like an iPhone. Small iterations and changes, but the hardware is still the same: box like gadget with a screen.
How then, are we surviving in the technologically advanced 2019 world today? It’s the Higher Mind. The Higher Mind is the ability for us to live in advanced civilisation. It allows us to adapt quicker in our beliefs, thought process, ideologies, etc. That is how we adjust to changes. It is like an iOS update. More sophisticated adjustment to adapt to the growing usage demand of an iPhone.
Sometimes, these two minds are in conflict. Quoting WBW,
A values conflict happens when the Higher Mind has a moral objection to something the Primitive Mind is programmed to want. … There’s also the reverse kind of values conflict—when the Higher Mind values something that the Primitive Mind is specifically programmed to resist—like, say, pitching in with housework or donating to charity. Humans are so complicated for a simple reason: we’re each the product of a struggle between two fundamentally different, often contradictory forces.
How is this related to our thought process? This is basically a spectrum. Primitive Mind on one side and Higher Mind on the other. Sometimes, we give more control to specific minds to make decisions in our thinking process.
Based on the spectrum of minds, they affect how we think and reason, how to get from A to B.
Thinking Like A Scientist
The highest level of thinking is to think like a scientist. I love the sentence, “thinking like a Scientist has nothing to do with your line of work. It has to do with your thinking process.”. This resonates very well with me, because since 2012, I have been training myself to think more like a scientist. That means to understand objective facts instead of subjective opinions. It means understanding my thought process instead of the outcome. And since 2018, I began to really think like a scientist in everything I do. (Spoiler: it can get really annoying at times.)
Foundational Belief System
What does that mean? Since young, I built a foundational belief system that guides my thought process and thinking ladder. This was driven by society, education and the culture I was exposed to. I wouldn’t say that it is a bad culture per say, but it is definitely very protected, in a little bubble.
As I began to learn more and question life, this foundational belief system began to wobble, shake and fall. I began to doubt my conviction of EVERYTHING. I was also engaging in endless debates with my friends of various belief systems. Values I believed in crumbled and fall. The foundational principles left me with deep confusion as to what is right and wrong. I questioned everything around me: my core values, my hopes dreams and fears, the system and culture around me.
2013-2016 was the period my foundational belief system began to change radically. Since then, I built my belief system based on my first principles. 2017 was another year a huge segment of my foundation toppled. The beauty of something toppling and getting destroyed is that we get to build them up from scratch. This time, stronger and better because we have learnt so much.
Since 2018, I began to rebuild my foundational belief system. I consciously think from first principles and think like a scientist. (After all, economists are scientists. Years of studying economics really helped me to build better first principles in my foundational belief system.) Instead of assumptions, cultural traditions and societal norms, I deduce my conclusions and convictions from (my) fundamental principles.
Thinking like a scientist is more than just deducing what is the truth. It is the process of getting to that truth. It was
- Going back to old scripts to understand the fundamental principles.
- Questioning everything in there.
- Reading the counter-arguments, because I’m not going to believe everything I read.
- Coming up with my own conclusions about the truth and answer.
The best/worst part: the more you know, the more you being to question. It becomes this endless loop of questions and even more questions. I had to balance between what I know and what I know I don’t know.
I knew I was both right AND wrong.
It’s this weird paradox where I know that I know more than some people, but I also know that I don’t know a lot of things. But I had to be confident in my words, yet constantly doubt myself. Knowledge is a continuous effort and I always had to reassess my foundational belief system. It was confusing and so tough. But hey, I truly believe it’s worth it.
After all these years, I can conclude that being confused is a continuous state of living. Learning new information, questioning old information, questioning new information, having more questions, finding new answers, learning more information. It took me a while to get used to being confused. In 2009, I learnt that being confused is a good thing. It means that our brain neurons are reconfiguring to create new patterns (super important) in our brains as we gather new information. So, that was a state I learnt to be comfortable in. Since then, I’m always confused.
That being said, it has been a great journey thus far. Thinking from first principles is fundamental to thinking like a scientist. It is not about the truth and absolute truth. It is about the process of getting to an objective truth. I used to think with “backward induction”, as in game theory. You define the outcome you want, and find ways to get there. Since then, I’ve learnt that that is not based on first principles.
Instead, I aggregate information, strip them down to fundamental principles and build my own belief system from there, free of assumptions. Of course, this is getting shaped with time, as I absorb more information and knowledge.
Life is like building a tall skyscraper. You have to have strong foundations before building it. I built my foundation according to society and education. Then I stripped that down to rebuild it. Today, I edit my foundation once in a while, building stronger pillars, replacing old bricks and editing the materials. It is tedious, I must admit.
Sometimes I wonder why go though all this trouble when I can be like everyone else, making basic foundation and little houses from it. But my core value system is to build tall skyscrapers, and I simply can’t be like every other little house.