The Metaphysics of the Blockchain
From Aristotle to Newton to Gödel and Satoshi. A grand unified theory to answer "why now?" for the blockchain.
This is a long one. It’s also one I’ve been working on for some time. I’m going to take Thursday off since editing this has put me pretty far behind on writing. I really hope you enjoy this one, or at the very least, it makes you think. Sorry in advance for all the science :) And, as always, if you find it interesting — I hope you will consider sending it along to friends.
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Trump, Social Media and the Collapse of Objective Reality
The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. [...] We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do." - Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush, NYTimes, Oct. 17, 2004
Back in 2017, when the Trump Era was being born, I remember laughing at the phrase “alternative facts.”
Surely, we’re entitled to our own opinions.
But our own facts?
No one was going to go for this bullshit.
Reality, I was certain, was and would remain the facts recorded in the papers and broadcast on CNN. That’s the way it had been for my entire life. No carnival barker with a bad spray tan was going to shift the contours of “fact.”
Or, so I thought.
Of course, there has been no shortage of ink spilled on this subject.
The typical argument goes like this:
Social media enabled anyone to spread information from reliable or unreliable sources. (Zero cost distribution)
This made it easy for people to spread lies that aligned with their biases and incentives. (Misinformation problem)
As a result, people only get information that aligns with their beliefs. (Filter bubble problem)
“Serious thinkers” will then outline a series of content moderation reforms. They seek a righteous restoration of accredited professionals to curate our collective consciousness. Fact-checkers. Expert reviews. Shadow bans of bad actors.
The goal is nothing less than the restoration of the “Good Ol’ Days” of establishment media. I liked those days. They were good to me. So I, too, have been a proponent of these moves.
But as I’ve thought more deeply about it, I have come to believe that this policy program is dangerous because it relies on an outdated ideal of "truth".
It rests on the fiction that we could ever turn to the news for an exhaustive and accurate picture of reality.
Donald Trump had one great insight and it propelled him to the Presidency. He understood that the "truth" reflected by our media is not the "truth" experienced by much of our country. He bet big on this insight and he was right.
This can be jarring. We like the comfort afforded by the sense that our view of reality is objective, correct and complete. We like to trust that the news we consume is also objective, correct and complete.
But the reality is not that we have moved into a post-truth era. We have simply pulled back the curtain to reveal that we never had a full picture of the truth. This is not cynical. It's a humble reckoning with our own limitations. The capital-T truth must make room for the sum of all subjective experiences.
That's why this moment is so dangerous. Our problem is not political but metaphysical. We need to go beyond our day-to-day debates and realize that our essential crisis is over truth and trust. It's about who gets to decide what is real. It is about, what philosophers call, our epistemology.
If that sounds daunting -- it is. We really do need a shared baseline understanding of the world to have a functional society. But humanity has risen to this challenge before.
Each era has had grand ideas about how to find Truth.
These ideas emerge from science and philosophy.
But they then shape power structures.
This creates a feedback loop. Philosophy justifies power and power entrenches philosophy.
So this is not the first time that a shift in philosophy has wrought changes in our social order. That means we can study previous moments of metaphysical disruption. Historically, the pattern goes like this:
Metaphysical paradigm shift (h/t Kuhn).
Crisis in social institutions based on old paradigm.
New institutions emerge based on new paradigm.
To skip to the end: I'm going to argue that the blockchain is the first important institutional innovation to emerge out of the present crisis. It will have a starring role in the New World Order™️.
Yes, I'm really doing the "Bitcoin fixes this" meme for the foundations of society. But I think I can back it up.
To see why, we have a few thousands years of history to get through. So let's start by understanding how our ideas about reality shaped our first institutions.
Aristotle, the Crown, the Church and The Teleological Era: 400,000 BC to 1750 AD
"Everything must have a purpose?" asked God.
"Certainly," said man.
"Then I leave it to you to think of one for all this," said God. And He went away.”― Kurt Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle
In the beginning, we didn’t know anything.
The world was a bubbling pot of chaos.
We, humans, don’t do well with chaos. So you might say, we were in a perpetual state of crisis.
To get out, we needed a framework to make sense of what was happening.
All around the world, nations crafted creation stories that starred anthropromorphic spirits.
These stories included the great mythologies, but also the philosophy of Aristotle. Though each story differed, they shared a common theme: there was purpose in the world's design.
The great minds of the era subscribed to this teleological worldview, as well. In fact, it was not a priest, but Aristotle that best articulated the metaphysics of the era.
In Aristotle’s view, the purpose of things explained their nature. The term “teleology” takes its name from this: “telos -” end/purpose and “logos” - reason. This logic applied to humans, of course, but also to fire, to rain and to rocks. If existence, then creation. If creation, then creator. If creator, then purpose.
There is a beauty to this worldview. The idea of design and purpose is reassuring.
It also helps justify any state of the world as part of “God’s plan.” So one can see how it would be a powerful tool for those who happened to find themselves in a place of power.
The Mandate of Heaven was not just a Chinese idea. It existed in every society. It helped entrench a social order. Even Aristotle believed his metaphysics prescribed a specific society. Athenian democracy, in his view, gave too much power to the poor. It should, instead, concentrate power among those that nature had given the capacity to rule.
Religions, too, found power in the idea that Gods had created the World and endowed their priests to guide it. As its put in Matthew 18:18: ““Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven.”
The philosophy inspired institutions. The institutions maintained the philosophy.
That was until a young scientist by the name of Isaac Newton fucked everyone’s shit up and ushered in the Modern Era. His notion of Objective Truth would redefine science and institutions for centuries.
The Objective Era: 1650 AD - 1920 AD
The story goes that an apple fell on Newton’s head and launched a scientific revolution.
It’s probably a little more complicated than that. But we know that somewhere in the midst of a plague, Newton rewrote the rules of reality.
He rejected the idea that there was a supernatural force shaping reality. Instead, he posited universal laws that could be observed, tested and understood.
If this worldview sounds familiar, it’s probably because it’s what you learned in grade school. The underlying metaphysical assumptions are something like this:
There is an objective and consistent reality that exists outside of our minds.
This reality behaves mechanistically – effects always follow predictably and consistently from causes.
We can discern the nature of reality by observing it through experiments and constructing logical conclusions.
Newton’s Enlightenment gave us some pretty great gifts. We harnessed electricity. We invented some pretty nifty gadgets.
Our new metaphysics also necessitated a new politics.
If Kings did not rule by divine right, then why were they entitled to great riches while the rest of us suffered?
If Gods were not speaking to the clergy, then why did they have a monopoly on truth?
The enlightenment spawned an era of revolution and political violence across Europe. Finally, in the image of Newton’s revolution, a new social system began to take hold.
Scientists experimented with harnessing the natural world. Political philosophers believed they might harness human nature to create ideal societies. We built democracies to reflect the will of the people. We installed checks and balances to keep human impulses in check. We used carrots-and-sticks to guide the invisible hand of the market.
All we had to do was follow Newton’s lessons: hypothesize, test, observe, repeat.
Our leaders claimed a meritocratic and democratic legitimacy as the new Mandate of Heaven. They entrusted reporters and academics to construct an authoritative picture of reality. The mass media and modern academy rose as engines of society. The state then used the knowledge gleaned from these engines to optimize itself.
Sure, there were some bumps in the 20th Century, but overall this system did pretty well for us. Look at how incomes rose in Europe compared to the rest of the world:
This was the Western system I was raised to idolize. Even into the 2010s, it seemed to be working pretty well. But a century ago, science had already revealed the flaws in its metaphysics. And, as recent history has demonstrated, a crisis was in the offing.
The Last 100 Years: The Intersubjective Era and The Limits of Objective Reality
“It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out how Nature is. Physics concerns what we say about Nature.” - Niels Bohr
We're almost all all the way back to our present era of "fake news" and "alternative facts." But we still need to understand exactly how scientific advances in the 20th century undermined our old systems.
Our revolution has two starring "breakthroughs": first came quantum mechanics to undermine classical physics; second came Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem to demonstrate the limits of logic.
The Quantum Realm
Quantum mechanics is a towering intellectual achievement. It is our most successful scientific theory to date. It just has a few problems.
First, no one agrees on what it tells us about reality. It might mean we live in a multiverse. It might mean that human consciousness creates reality. It might mean that nothing exists in and of itself and only relationships are real. It might even mean that reality itself is an illusion. Each decade brings new theories with a new story of reality. Professor David Mermin memorably instructed students to ignore the weirdness and just, "Shut up and calculate!"
Second, through rigorous experiment, QM undermined some cherished truths of Newton's reality. It seems to imply that effects can happen without causes. Or that information can travel faster than light. It defines a limit to how much we can observe of the world. It tells us that we cannot know both the position and velocity of a particle. Oh, and by the way, that particle is also simultaneously a wave.
Reacting to the randomness (lack of cause-effect) implied by QM, Einstein exclaimed: "God does not play dice!"
Niels Bohr replied to his friend, "Einstein, stop telling God what to do."
Reality is not as simple as even our greatest minds might have hoped. By the 1930s, the dream of a clockwork universe had collapsed. The notion of an observable, discernible, predictable universe had collapsed with it.
Gödel and The Limits of Reason
As QM rocked physics, academics held onto the hope that logic could preserve a knowable world. Famed German mathematician, David Hilbert, launched a program to prove that math was consistent and complete. In doing so, he would show that all truth could be derived from a few basic assumptions and simple logic.
But his dream was not to be.
In 1931, 25 year old Kurt Gödel proved his Incompleteness Theorems. He showed that for any logical system:
There are true statements that cannot be proven (math is not complete);
There are “true” statements that contradict each other (math is not consistent);
A short way of saying this is that there will always be certain truths that logic cannot reveal to us. Gödel had used scientists’ favorite tool to undermine their greatest aspirations.
In the space of a decade, QM and Incompleteness had revealed the limits of our knowledge.
The experts, it seemed, really could not know everything.
If the Enlightenment was a correction for the excesses of faith, the new era became a challenge to the hubris of objectivity and pure reason.
We can see the effects of this revolution cropping up in the limits of our Newtonian institutions.
Our models repeatedly fail to predict reality. Our greatest economists cannot prevent recessions. They cannot constrain authoritarian impulses. They cannot craft media that reflects people's lived experience. The Newtonian institutions have been under strain for some time.
Sometime around 2016 we reached our crisis. What remains to be seen is what new institutions will emerge to reflect our new epistemological realities?
The Blockchain as Intersubjective Social Contract
As Twitter and Facebook replaced the establishment media, our informational landscape started to look like the emerging picture of quantum reality: fractured, inconsistent and unpredictable.
The scene was set for an overweight reality TV star to capitalize.
Trump was not the cause of this crisis, but he did help crystallize it. He helped us realize the limits of our old institutions. He forced us to confront the reality that the old "science guided" technocracies were not as comprehensive in their "truth" as we thought.
The mainstream consensus for progress -- and its treasured GDP/stock market statistics -- had never accounted for the experience of all people. The new tools provided a way for them to be heard and included in our circle of concern. On the right, white rural rage powered Trump's rise. On the left, it fueled a new wave of social movements.
But this broadening of our empathic reach has come at a steep price.
Without a single, clarion voice determining truth, we are lost in the noise. We cannot pick out real information from misinformation. We cannot align on the basic facts of a situation. This, in turn, calcifies our institutions that rely on an “objective” view of reality. We cannot make progress on problems that we can’t agree exist.
Debates over "facts" are too loaded with the emotional baggage of our old metaphysics. To move forward, we need to ditch the pretense that either side has a monopoly on truth. We need a way to aggregate perspectives, to distill them to the basic elements, to say something is “true enough,” even if we can no longer pretend it is the entire capital-t Truth.
Our new institutions will need to sacrifice the pretense of objectivity or “knowing the right answer".” It will need to align on the next best thing: intersubjective consensus.
An objective reality refers to the way things really, truly are.
A subjective reality refers to the way things look from our perspective.
Intersubjective reality refers to the consensus view. It describes an aggregation of subjective perspectives that converge on a working definition of what is “true.”
Don't despair for objectivity. If we are honest, this is how the world has always been.
Newton's laws were relevant in Ancient Greece whether they knew it or not. Similarly, our worldview has always been an approximation based on our perspectives. There are no God's-eye views available to us mortals. So by naming this truth, we can now make it more inclusive. We can include the perspectives of everyone rather than the learned elite.
The good news is that we are not actually starting from scratch.
Many of our existing institutions rely on intersubjective ideas. Markets price things according to consensus valuation. Democratic governments derive legitimacy from enough people believing in their legitimacy. Twitter’s “Trending” section offers a snapshot of global news based on what the world is talking about.
Still all of these institutions have their own crisis of legitimacy. That is because they rely on classical organizations with their own corruptible elites. To reflect the new metaphysics, they will need to be governed transparently by all stakeholders.
Up until twenty years ago, this idea would have been a fantasy. What are we going to do – make every vote auditable online? Make every decision discussed openly in online forums?
Well, yes, actually. That’s exactly what we’re going to do.
The only way to govern tools that reflect intersubjective consensus is to make those tools the product of consensus, as well.
If only there were a technology that could log the provenance of all data it stores.
If only that technology were auditable and completely transparent to its end users.
If only that technology could be run in a censorship resistant way.
If only that technology had built-in mechanisms to align on consensus and resist coercion by powerful factions.
Chris Dixon once said that the next big thing will look like a toy.
So is it really that surprising that the most important institutional technology of our era – the one that will one day be considered on-par with the Constitution or the Magna Carta– is currently being used to sell cartoon apes?
The blockchain is a shared source of truth that is not controlled by any single person or entity.
It provides a "consensus mechanism" -- proof of work, proof of stake -- for aligning all participants on what is "true" before adding it to its records.
Every decision added to its ledger is available for each individual to verify.
It cannot be taken down.
It has built-in any corruption protection that makes the cost of tampering prohibitive.
It is the closest thing we have ever invented to a collectively controlled, intersubjective record of "reality."
This might read as comedy when every other day seems to bring a new story of some new hack or exploit.
It might read as dystopian fiction given the environmental costs of the blockchain or the toxicity of some of the blockchain's biggest boosters.
But those problems are tractable.
Each security issue creates new, better mitigation. Remember the era of 1990s computer viruses? We have not escaped the cycle of destruction entirely, but it no longer defines your view of computers.
Already there are modern blockchains that are as energy efficient as a Google search.
Already the toxic “with us or against us” ideology of the original Bitcoin boosters is giving way to a more moderate approach.
And those of that care about social progress would be wise to join rather than fight the blockchain revolution. To solve our most important social issues, we are going to need new ways to trust each other and to coordinate with one another. In an era of record-low social trust, that is what the blockchain can offer us.
It will be impossible to argue that the government is inflating COVID numbers, when we can prove that each hospital is submitting independent records.
It will be impossible to claim that an election was stolen, if we can verify the provenance of every vote.
It will be harder to pass-off a deep fake video, if we can see who uploaded it.
It will be harder to manipulate the markets when transactors have to abide by rules hard-coded into the protocol.
We are on the cusp of this new, firmer foundation for our institutions. We are on the cusp of transparent, provably fair protocols for human coordination.
We are, in short, on the cusp of the intersubjective era.
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An important note: I am, in no way, claiming that both sides had 'equal justification' for their rage. I am claiming that, prior to the social media era, neither side was given a platform to express it. For the first time, our politics must account for everyone.
How much more defensible would our COVID policies have been if they admitted that we were working off of our “best guesses” rather than claiming the mantle of “truth” only to be amended again and again?