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Quark and the Jaguar

On the importance of both fundamentally understanding how a thing works, and also taking a “top-down” approach to thinking:

In addition to favoring, as a general rule, the bottom-up method of building staircases between disciplines — from the more fundamental and explanatory toward the less fundamental — I would, in many cases (not just that of psychology), encourage a top-down approach as well. Such an approach begins with the identification of important regularities at the less fundamental level and defers until later understanding of the underlying, more fundamental mechanisms.

Murray Gell-Mann, Quark and the Jaguar

Reading this was a revelation. It’s the first time I’ve clearly understood the differences in practice that I have with some of my colleagues — that is, a difference in the approach toward thinking. I am a top-down thinker: define the problem space, then whittle things downward. As Gell-Mann enumerates here, there is another, more reductionist approach that looks at the fundamentals, then works its way up. The former is more mechanistic, and the latter more explanatory in nature.

Both are valid ways of thinking, and it’s important to note that they can complement each other. Yet many times, we come to loggerheads not because of a disagreement in substance, but instead a disagreement in approach.


Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus

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