Friday, January 4, 2008

First Principles

This entry shall contain some philosophization. Philosophization, sidedness, get it?

What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of deriving mathematical results from first principles, instead of basing new results on published results? Both techniques are useful. I found it easier to get the information I needed to design a program to count tetrahedron overlaps by assuming points do not lie on lines instead of assuming they always lie on lines as in (widely published) incidence geometry. I do not doubt someone more familiar with incidence geometry would find it easier to use than I do. Both techniques, using first principles and using published results, encourage insight and interrelationships between different parts of mathematics. I already tied sidedness geometry to linear spaces, and I can imagine eventually learning enough about incidence geometry to find how sidedness and incidence geometries relate. The inspiration for trying to relate incidence and sidedness is that they are so obviously similar. So far these are advantages for both the first principle technique and the published result technique.

The difference between first principles and published results is that a hypothetical person who is intelligent, but hitherto illiterate, could understand an argument from first principles, but the same hypothetical person could never understand an argument based on published results. I am much closer to such an hypothetical person than a professional mathematician, so I admit a bias toward first principles. Perhaps the general public is closer to that hypothetical, intelligent but hitherto illiterate, person than a professional mathematician, and for that reason my bias is mitigated. However, I do find myself peculiarly deficient of memory when reason will suffice. For some reason, I associate this peculiarity of mine with creativity. Thus, in my mind, I consider first principles to be more creative than I imagine reasoning from published results would be.

Mathematics is all about abstraction, generality, and precision. That is, start with nothing, end up with everything, and make no mistakes along the way. With credentials like that, why don't we have more mathematicians in the white house? Both creativity and abstraction are, to borrow a phrase from Marvin Minsky, suitcase words, meaning many different things. Since I do not have a superior understanding of the complexities of abstraction, I must rely on my intuition that first principles are similar to abstraction. Since even I was able make a connection from first principles to linear space, I must assume connections to linear space are not the most general. However, my fantasy is that the number of overlaps is always prime. Now that would be a promising path from nothing to everything! As to precision, I draw from personal experience. In my profession, we discourage designers from verifying their own designs; we prefer for the verification to be done by someone else. Similarly, the correctness of my, and presumably other people's, proofs would be assisted by the attention of others. Since results derived from published results are more likely to be reviewed by others, a result from first principles has less chance for such review. While first principles are more abstract than published results, published results are more well reviewed than first principles, so neither has superior advantages.