How to uncover the first principles

I read recently that data-science is replacing an MBA as a preferred qualification for careers in business. In a fast changing world, one where textbooks have lower shelf lives than a can of beans, how does one acquire knowledge that is timeless?

Behind every field of human knowledge, there are bearings that do not change – the first principles. When every game in the rule changes, these axiomatic truths do not change.

So how does one get to the first principles in any discipline? By repeatedly asking the ‘How to’ question.

When it comes to learning, one can start with deciding which subject to learn. Today, the answer is increasingly data-science. Yesterday, this answer was different. The subject realm is fluid. It has a low shelf-life.

To step higher, we ask a ‘How to’ question – How to learn a new subject? We now enter the domain of meta-learning, with concepts such as chunking, interleaving and spaced repetition. These concepts have been documented and formalized today. But they have been used by Aristortle, Chanakya and Leonardo-Da-Vinci alike. Interestingly, all of them are teachers.

To step further back, we ask another ‘How to’ question: how to meta-learn. The answers here are rooted in neuroscience. These concepts, which we are still documenting in the 21st century, have been applicable to the human species since its conception. They are the timeless truths about how our brains are wired. The scientist’s mission is to uncover these truths.

In another realm, the cook prepares a tasty dish by following a recipe. The chef studies the raw materials – different cooking ingredients and their effect on flavouring and taste. The food-scientist studies our tongues’ respond to different chemicals. Accordingly, the recipes we use today are, at most, 200 years old. We have used the same ingredients to cook for about a thousand years now. Acids have tasted sour and will taste sour for all of eternity.

In a fast-changing world, the first-principles that do not change become invaluable. So how does one get to the first principles? By asking ‘How to’.

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