On Premises

April 29, 2021

Premises are assertions taken at face value that serve as the bedrock for other ideas. They are, however, most useful to me as a tool to uncover new perspectives I wouldn’t have considered beforehand.

I’ll put two examples from very different domains: politics and science.

First, politics.

Watch this talk from Peter Thiel and Mike Pompeo on China; It’s very good. As a liberal, you would find some of their ideas unfathomable: closed borders, trade tariffs, America First. Yet, it’s actually a very sensible position, as long as you agree with their premises.

You see, conservatives look at the world as an essentially hostile environment. One in which a country must remain in a permanent state of battle to preserve their national interests over those of other nations. It’s very much a zero-sum view marked by the cold war and, most recently, the advent of China. Most importantly, under this premise, stringent nationalism is not only a sensible position but the inevitable logical conclusion one must reach.

On the other side of the spectrum, liberals tend to see the world as a closed system of mutual economic interdependence, one which ensures cohesion and cooperation between nations even if they might have divergent political interests1. Notice how this premise renders the conservative argument illogical: You cannot defend trade tariffs in a world where economic interdependence is the key tool to ensure peace and prosperity.

Crucially, we must realize that the political differences with those that disagree with us don’t lie in the specific policies, but almost always stem from a fundamentally different view of the world2. Argue with the premise, not the policy.

Now to the second example, science.

Science provides a representation of the universe that is in accordance with the evidence, but that might not be the actual reality3. In fact, it almost surely never is. This representation sits on top of some keys assumptions — read: premises — that simply happen to match the available data.

Take gravity. In 1687, Newton portrayed a view of the universe based on masses exerting invisible forces at a distance. The premise, that is: masses exert forces at a distance, was in fact the approximation Newton needed to fit his theory to the available evidence of the time — apples falling from trees, planets orbiting around stars —and so we took it at face value. It wasn’t, in any case, the true fact of the matter.

So much so, that some 200 years later, Einstein provided a completely different account of the world. Masses, as it happened, didn’t apply forces at a distance, but instead deformed a geometric entity called Spacetime, and the movement of bodies across it was what we perceived as gravity. The premise was so different it completely changed what we think gravity is: no longer a force4, instead, the description of deformations over Spacetime5.

Thinking on the premises underpinning scientific theories makes you keenly aware of science’s role as an approximation to reality, not its ultimate description.

  1. I’m hardly the first one to point out the essentially different worldviews of liberals and conservatives. For further reading, I will point you to this book.

  2. Can you think about the premises that underpin extreme ideas? Racism, xenophobia, homophobia?

  3. When discussing matters of reality one can often end up in an epistomological nightmare of a discussion. Please refrain your mentions to Kant on my twitter feed.

  4. You will often hear physicists talk how you are, by virtue of being on earth, permanently falling at an accelerating pace of 9.8 m/s2. Such a statement is nonsensical under Newton’s worldview.

  5. Other example of useful premises in science are: the Bohr model of the atom, formulas of fluid mechanics, mathematic axioms.

Hi there 👋, I’m Gerard, I write about thinking tools and big ideas. I also work at Shopify and publish the best I read on Twitter.

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