Elon Musk’s “First Principles” Thinking According to Kabbalah


By Yonatan Gordon

While new buzz words tend to float about, there is a new one making waves that relates clearly to the language of Kabbalah. Although the correspondences between modern day happenings, and the timeless wisdom of Kabbalah, are not always so clear at first, Elon Musk’s “first principles” term probably tops this year’s list in the clarity category.

First let’s quote from a transcript of a recent interview where Musk spells out the approach:

I think it’s important to reason from first principles rather than by analogy. The normal way we conduct our lives is we reason by analogy. [With analogy] we are doing this because it’s like something else that was done, or it is like what other people are doing. [With first principles] you boil things down to the most fundamental truths…and then reason up from there.

Before I suggest an answer, I’ll start with a hint. It relates to one of the ten sefirot … okay the first of the intellectual sefirot… Indeed, “first principles” sounds a whole lot like the flash of lightning, eureka moment experience indicative of the sefirah of “wisdom” (חָכְמָה). As for the evolutionary or axiomatic process, what Musk calls “analogies” that “reason one thing out of another”? This takes us to the second intellectual sefirah of “understanding” (בִּינָה). As we will soon see, the “one thing out of another” expression is directly from the Talmud.

Let’s now explain these two approaches according to how they manifest in the psyche.

“First Principles” in Kabbalah

“Wisdom” (חָכְמָה) is the male-principle at work in one’s intellect. It’s the innovative and essentially unpredictable force that produces those spontaneous insights which we nurture to maturity through the companion power of understanding, the female principle of intelligence.

Kabbalah explains how through self-nullification to God, one’s mind becomes a conduit for Divine wisdom, which expresses itself through flashes of spontaneous intuitive insight. As bolts of lightning, these flashes of insight may lack gravity and permanence, but nevertheless serve to spark one’s subsequent pursuit of meaningful knowledge.

“Reasoning by Analogy” in Kabbalah

“Understanding” (בִּינָה) is the cognitive force that absorbs the nuclear seed of wisdom and articulates it into fine detail through a process of associative analysis referred to as “understanding one thing out of another.”(Chagigah 14a.) This process of understanding entails more than just deductively extracting a model of reality from the “genetic” shorthand of wisdom; it also involves the ability to intuit a more inclusive reality than that encoded within wisdom itself.

The Need for Both

The male and female sefirot of wisdom and understanding are depicted in the Zohar as “two inseparable companions.” Every thought we experience is predicated upon the collaboration between these two cognitive principles.

Their sustained interaction is the precondition for the subsequent birth in one’s soul of the character attributes, appropriately called “children” in Kabbalah.

Giving Birth to Products

In order to explain the need for the coupling of both wisdom and understanding, thankfully Amazon.com was generous enough to provide us with an example earlier in the week. Remember, we are discussing the union of the male “wisdom” and the female “understanding,” in order to give birth to children, or in our case, functional products that will hopefully interest people.

The example from the past few days is Amazon Prime Air, the proposed drone delivery service that is supposed to make deliveries to your door in under thirty minutes.

The problem, as many journalists pointed out, is that while the idea is exciting, the actionability of it is questionable. For one, the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) currently does not allow unmanned drones to be flown for commercial purposes. Couple that with a few other technicalities (like making sure packages aren’t dropped on people, or that hackers don’t take over the fleet to drop products on their doorsteps instead), and you have an idea that appears to be more a publicity stunt than a practical way to deliver packages faster.

Here is how one journalist put it:

Bezos could have picked any trendy technology to get his company’s name in the news [on the night prior to Cyber Monday] and entice tech blogs with easy traffic: He could have said that Amazon was now accepting Bitcoin, or orders through Google Glass, or 3D printing your deliveries of baby wipes and socks. But instead he chose Prime Air.

The article then goes on to quote a Wired.com piece entitled “Even if the Feds Let Them Fly, Amazon’s Delivery Drones Are Still Nonsense” that explains some of the financial and legal reasons for why the marketing doesn’t add up to the message. In Musk’s language then, the case of the Amazon drone is an example of “first principles” thinking that didn’t add up when it landed in a “reasoning by analogy” world.

A Second Look at “First Principles”

While I agree with the journalist quoted above, that Amazon could have announced any of those things to drive PR and sales, the choice that was made teaches us an important lesson for our discussion. Namely, that creative thinkers with novel ideas rely on others to turn those dreams into reality. The primary example of this is a marriage, whereby the “first principles” or wisdom-oriented husband, relies on his “reasoning by analogy” understanding-oriented wife to take his one idea, and nine months later, give birth to it.

In a company, this translates to the CEO putting forth his ideas, and using his product development team as a sounding board to ascertain what is possible and what isn’t.


For those interested, in previous articles, I explained the “first principles” (then primarily called “core ideas”), behind two of the aforementioned technologies. As with “first principles,” these articles don’t presuppose the real-world ramifications for these ideas. Just that these are attractive, PR-worthy inventions, and here’s what Kabbalah has to say about it.

Google’s Project Glass: Seeing Wonder with the Eyes

3D Printing: Part 1: How to Print Advice, Part 2: Printing Public Interest, Part 3: Quantitative vs. Qualitative Printing

Sefirot section courtesy of “Anatomy of the Soul” by Harav Yitzchak Ginsburgh. 

Photo: psmag.com


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