First Principles Explain a Lot

Hickson Compact Group 92, a group of five galaxies. Composite image created from pictures taken by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope. Click to embiggen.

Examining very closely even something quite trivial in the light of general principles helps in understanding the world. It’s a way for us ordinary humans to explain, and to understand what is and why it is so.

For extraordinary humans — say a Newton or an Einstein — close observation of something trivial coupled with clarity of thought lead them to explain not only the phenomenon at hand but the discovery of general principles that explain the non-trivial and the unobserved.

Newton examined the fall of an apple, so the story goes, and figured out that the reason it did so was the same that explains the orbits of astronomical bodies. Now that I know the laws of motion and gravitation, I too can understand to some limited extent natural phenomena using those principles which I could not have discovered.

We ordinary people are not capable of discovering first principles such as the theory of evolution through natural selection or relativity or the laws of motion. But we are quite capable of learning general principles, and then rationally applying them to understand some particular aspect of the world we observe.

Certainly one can live a life without ever bothering to understand the world. But I believe that it will be a poor sort of life for the individual. The real trouble, though, is that if a significantly large proportion of the people are generally uninterested in understanding the world or are too ignorant about what is, then society itself will be poorer — materially and intellectually — than it would otherwise be. We the people collectively create the world we live in. If the individuals comprising the collective are ignorant and consequently foolish, the collective suffers.

When I was totally ignorant of the first principles of economics, I could not have understood why most government institutions fail so spectacularly. Indeed, I would not have even realized that they do fail. I would have just accepted that that’s the way it is, and there’s no reason to expect anything better. Now that I know the fundamental principles of economics, I can understand and explain why government institutions fail to do what they are supposed to do, why politicians are too often ignorant, power-hungry, incompetent and greedy.

From all the above generalities let me move on to a concrete example. It’s what motivates this line of thinking. Next bit.

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