Reasoning by Analogy Sucks

A better way to make decisions

June 30, 2023

When you need to make a decision, there are different ways how you can reason to reach conviction on the choice you are making. One is to reason by analogy - which is rarely helpful. The other is to reason by first principles - a more reliable approach to make better decisions. I frequently catch myself using the former rather than the latter. Which is why I want to write about my thoughts surrounding decision making.

An inherent truth about making a decision is that you are always making a tradeoff. If you are saying yes to one thing, you are simultaneously saying no to an infinite number of alternative things you could be doing. This imbalance of choices makes decision so hard.

Further, you are always working with limited information in an ambiguous environment which contributes to the difficulty of making decisions. There is rarely one correct answer per se. Consequentially, it is impossible to know what the optimal decision is objectively at the moment in time when you are making the decision. Hence, a component of subjectivity is introduced in each decision making process. It's what you call your gut feel. You know when a decision feels right, or wrong. Without you being able to pinpoint why based on logic. The moment we cannot control everything with our thinking mind and we are taking some sort of probabilistic chance, an emotional component kicks in that clouds the decisions we are making. Some deeply rooted fears and doubts start appearing. You are in a position lacking orientation where orientation is the thing that is required from you. And this is what tends to cloud and distort your reasoning - in the moments where it shouldn't.

The logical component to decision making, reasoning, is what the prime driver behind decision is. Yet, it's clouded by an emotional component to some sorts are information is not perfect and the environment ambiguous. There are two main modes of reasoning:

1) reasoning by analogy
2) reasoning by first principles

Reasoning by analogy is when you look for a similar pattern, comparable situation, or any other external point of reference related to the decision you are making. The sources of this referential information could be your personal experience, a story from a friend, or a lesson you learned from a book. In all cases what is true is that the information you are referring to is most likely not applicable to your exact situation and hence on the verge of irrelevance to the decision you are making. There is a nearly infinite amount of variables that have played a role in the analogy you are referring to, hence the decision that was made in the analogy you are referring to was situational. You either cannot know the full motives and drivers at play in an analogy from someone else or the situation is likely different from the one you are in at the moment of making the decision. Most great advice is situational. Specific to the context. Chances that some significant factors that are relevant to the decision at hand vary to a significant degree are extremely high. So basing your reasoning entirely on the emotional comfort of trusting referential information that has worked in *some* context is a fallacy. Luckily, there is a better way.

Reasoning by first principles is when you look at the most fundamental truths you know with certainty and reason from there onwards. It is more difficult because evaluating what is known with certainty is not trivial. You need to differentiate between noise and signal. Diving deeper below the symptoms that may be showing down to the causes. And this is more taxing mentally than implying referring to an analogy. Yet, this also guarantees to yield a better outcome in the decision making progress as you are basing your choice on real information.

Another argument to consider is that reasoning by analogy will never allow you to make something original. If you are just mimicking choice that have been made before you are limited to what has been. Contrarily, reasoning from first principles allow you to come up with something new. You are reviewing the situation with fresh eyes, allowing you to come up with something new. We free our mind from the shackles of the mundane and routine, allowing us to envision what could be, rather than what is.

Ultimately, both of these modes of reason are just paradigms - guiding principles helpful when making decisions. But with every theory, the reality is more chaotic, messier, and uncontrollable. So instead of attempting to introduce an unrealistic standard into your decision making, it should be obeyed as a guiding principle in one's life. Asking the right questions is the first step to allow for breakthroughs. And doing this from the perspective of first principles is what allows you to make better decisions. Go make them.