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Blockchain Meets Ontology: The Turing-Incomplete Loop Of Metaphysical Certainty

A sneak peek at a philosophy piece for the Rare Pizzas Book, upcoming.

Image generated by WIP Publishing Discord Bot; original photo by @aznbokchoy at Unsplash

Blockchain technology has already had an easily detectable impact upon the global economy. People are getting excited about a new internet dubbed Web3.0. With values that hearken back to the golden age of FOSS (Free, Open Source Software) and a global technical community insulated from economic need by cryptographic currencies that cannot be hacked even though they live in plain view, the Web3.0 movement is characterized by decentralization. Public/private key encryption has led to a renaissance in software that is already being felt in seemingly unrelated circles as far away from one another as Wall Street and the high art community. Real estate, sports, entertainment and logistics are all being rapidly migrated on-chain already. Today, music and literature are beginning to feel a powerful financial tug toward this new network for human interaction.

What Changes, With Public Blockchain Applications?

A public blockchain typically consists of three parts, though some would argue that cryptocurrencies are unnecessary and overcomplicated. This complaint notwithstanding despite its potential validity, the three components are: a virtual machine or state machine, a network, and a cryptocurrency. The idea is that the cryptocurrency, a coin in this case, is issued to participants in return for certain behaviors such as mining or validating transactions. Participants who receive the token for actions taken on the network may then transact it as a commodity on a market, selling the reward to buyers who may then use it to pay for transactions. A record of these transactions called a ledger is kept in public and is usually made public so that anyone who so wishes is able to view transactions through an appropriate website such as mintscan.io or etherscan.io where the state machine is tracked by a dAPP that updates various data points automatically.

Human behavior seems to be impacted by the principles undergirding this structure. This unexpected confluence yields many opportunities for collaboration, and the economic incentives for doing so are without compare for many successful innovators in the space; the potential for upside seems without limit at times. An attitude of flourishing can be found here, even as people suffer hacks and other unfortunate drawbacks that are nonetheless not as unpleasant as being robbed at gunpoint or mugged. The space is surging forward at an alarming pace and incentives align for experienced technologists to work with idea-laden application developers toward a shared goal: market-wide adoption.

This goal, profound as it is, is one shared by many of the people who earn their income from some sort of interaction with blockchain networks. Skeptics of blockchain argue that centralized networks are more efficient and easier to control than public ledgers, and that decentralized systems are inappropriate for some use cases. These arguments are frequently overshadowed by a market environment indicative of massive public adoption on a global level. The President of El Salvador, often dubbed authoritarian in contemporary media coverage, has built a state-run Bitcoin app and designated Bitcoin as legal tender in the nation. Other countries are exploring the option of following suit as Bitcoin adoption sweeps the world. Following in its footsteps are the altcoins, including meme coins and technical coins as well as all the varieties of tokens that sit atop the network represented by each coin.

The trend here is one of rapid adoption, in markets ranging from gaming to yield farming. Games can pay players to participate and exchange networks can create token economies which incentivize behaviors ranging from token staking to secure a network to carbon emissions offsetting to pizza eating. These incentives are a behavioral shift for human beings, and real-time networking makes it possible to find the help you need on almost any problem.

This may sound a bit utopian, and if you think so, you’re not wrong. However, a good deal of contemporary support for Web3.0 comes from the unfettered malfeasance that led us to our current situation with regard to toxic ideologies worldwide, i.e., Web2.0, best represented by Facebook. The proprietary algorithms that Web2.0 companies used to conquer the world are essentially impossible in Web3.0, which is best thought of as a direct replacement for most of Web2.0 with some different economic properties and a renewed devotion to FOSS.

What seems utopian about a world in which everyone must be motivated and equipped for cataclysms wrought by climate change and the Covid pandemic? Is it really so ridiculous to think that economies are primary drivers of human behavior at scale? Because, dear reader, if you are with me there, you’ll almost certainly agree that one hope for a rapid modification to human behavior might be economic. And fortunately for us, cryptocurrencies and public blockchains provide us with the means to do just that.

The Metaphysics of Secure Public Ledgers

Throughout history, philosophy is the discipline which has spawned the most questions. This is the case because philosophy is a linguistic discipline primarily concerned with seeking out unresolvable puzzles in language we use on a regular basis. A typical philosophical question or puzzle might run thus: at what point does a man lose enough hair to be considered bald? For any particular man, the audience doing the considering is different, and hence there is no way to arrive at a simple and definite answer. That is, even if we took a billion measurements, we probably wouldn’t arrive anywhere with certainty because we do not possess the resources needed to produce a deterministic mathematical model of the situation with enough resolution or detail to be useful. And that’s fine, because baldness is just sort of allowed to be a rather arbitrary thing. It doesn’t really matter one way or the other.

Ontology is the branch of philosophy which deals with things that actually are. Not simply language, but with the things language points to. When I phrase it that way, it’s easy to spot the issue: ontology is made out of language. It is a word with a meaning and a set of related terms and a narrative told through history by philosophers in their writings. Given this handicap, it’s a relatively simple leap (but if you need proof, consult Formal Dialectics, the proof is on page 192 in formal notation) to the rather astonishing realization that the descriptive property shared by both language as such and mathematics implies that the incompleteness of language might also imply an incompleteness to the ability of language to describe the world… and if you were to investigate ontology, you would find that even in the hard sciences which have split away from philosophy, we find again and again that our measurements are anything but infinitely precise, guaranteed nothing except to be in error to one extent or another. The mathematics of chaos theory is no accident! Ontology itself has been flawed from the start.

Flawed, that is, until now.

Well, perhaps that was overly ambitious. Ontology in itself hasn’t changed. We still don’t know how to resolve the difficulties in our language to create perfect measurements. It probably won’t ever be possible to do so. However, we have been witnessing a revolution in ontology as we observed the revolution in Web3.0 technologies. What I mean by that is that a new branch of ontology has formed, and this branch is capable of thrusting into public consciousness a transparent ledger that can tell the story of any asset on that network with certainty.

Philosophers like to say that certainty is like perfection: not attainable and not worth attempting. The only place anything like certainty shows up is in definitions, which we can unpack using deductive logic. Inductive logic is incapable of producing certainty because it involves unknown components, but conversely, the problem with deductive logic is that it never tells anyone anything new. To take the syllogism as an example:

Socrates is a man. All men are mortal. Therefore, Socrates is mortal.

We note that the conclusion follows from the premises if they are true, and that the premises are true, so we can say we know that the conclusion is true. The two facts we know are unchanged, and if we want to argue against the conclusion by saying something like “All historic philosophers are immortal; Socrates is a historic philosopher,” the opposite of the initial conclusion is true: “Socrates is immortal” follows logically. This situation is what is known as an antinomy. The presence of antinomies is a symptom of the problem discussed with respect to ontology above. It is an endemic characteristic of language, and until blockchain technology provided a trustless public ledger upon which to base human interactions, there was no way to get around the metaphorical characteristic of communication. Using a word in a different sense can always destroy the meaning of a statement, making language very difficult to use well and impossible to use trustlessly. Now that immutable, decentralized public ledgers are being used to create applications that extend the human consciousness further into cyberspace and relentlessly remove barriers to communication between individuals, it is the case that certain interactions people have are indisputable and preserved beyond memory.

The purpose of this argument is to demonstrate that a surprising conclusion is true. It is in fact the case that, with respect to trustless public ledgers, antinomies are impossible. These ledgers are Turing-incomplete, meaning that certain applications will not run on them and that they are not truly universal computing machines, but the incompleteness here and the lack of utility it represents are complemented by a startling completeness elsewhere insofar as the Godel Incompleteness Theorem no longer applies to them. What this means is that, by removing the universality from this sort of language, blockchain engineers have created consensus protocols that are not subject to the same sorts of restrictions more general forms of computation and linguistic interaction entail.

There are different ways to tell the same story. Some people find numbers convincing, others prefer pictures, and others still enjoy the written word itself. This is not the case with a functional trustless public ledger. The information stored there is, unless the network is successfully attacked or quantum computers are used to overwhelm its cryptographic defenses, simply an accurate record of what happened. These transactions cannot be falsified or undone or hidden from the public eye, and thus even the worst hack is visible to anyone who wants to look it up on Etherscan.

How Language Shapes Culture

Language shapes culture by changing human behavior. Just as vocal sounds were employed before well-formed words developed and the spoken word preceded writing, the sum total of the interactions these developments made possible is the sum total of the changes human beings have made to the world around them. Technology is a predominantly linguistic phenomenon. Why? Because it’s complicated. One or two human beings will work out something nobody else knows, then use language to tell everyone about it and maybe raise money to build something or whatever the case may be. The complexity of the technology is limited only by what human brains can hold, and language is one way human brains expand their capacity. If you’re forgetful, people will remind you to write things down to remind yourself. If you do so, congratulations, you’re using the technological innovation of the written word to make yourself smarter by improving your memory.

The flaws in language have led to some flaws in culture. It’s more apparent all the time that the way people talk to each other most of the time under the Web2.0 protocols is a problem. Just as a lot of behavior that goes on in corporate America is undesirable but doesn’t get mentioned all that often because prevailing social norms assume corporate status indicates economic stability which is then often equated with trustworthiness, much of the undesirable behavior of Web2.0 users is ignored by the networks because the networks exist to exploit their creativity to make a profit. If you think Facebook cares if you’re nice to others on their network, you’re gravely mistaken. In fact, the network is currently facing an inquiry into whether or not it knowingly incentivized aggressive behavior because this negativity was more profitable than trying to get everyone to be nice to each other.

Web2.0 involved hidden algorithms that determined the behavior of users on a network without their knowledge or approval; Web3.0 will involve decentralized networks which reward users via financial and social means for good behavior. This incentive structure, we must recognize immediately, is completely different. Web3.0 has some problems. Hackers are often unpunished and attacks are too common. However, these negatives are easily outweighed by the readily apparent positives already ongoing, such as DeFi and the NFT art movement. My theory is that people are beginning to be drawn en masse toward Web3.0 environments by the incentives Web3.0 offers. These incentives are possible because accountability and collaboration have become easier, thanks to the addition of a trustless ledger upon which to base relationships.

Possible questions involve the future:

  • Will this cryptographic economic ecosystem simply continue to inflate forever?
  • How will wealth inequality be impacted for people on-chain and those who are slow to adopt this new technology?
  • What will the ramifications on family life be like if this technology really does become widespread?

In my opinion, the answers to all three are positive for blockchain adoption, but feel free to form your own opinion based upon whatever facts you can find to support it. Opinions are designed to be diverse. The thing to remember is that these public ledgers represent a new logical structure which has properties no language has ever shared. Or perhaps it’s better to say that they’re robots incapable of lying. Either way, as a student of philosophy who studied a lot of Kant, I’m thrilled to report that the blockchain’s inability to lie seems to be having a positive impact on the ethical structures of human communities that form up around it and that are impacted by it. I’m not sure Bitcoin will save El Salvador but they are not the only nation having difficulties in government today. If blockchain-based incentive structures are adopted worldwide, human behavior could rapidly change at a global scale. Society is rendered more deterministic by the immutable public ledger! This could change the world.

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