Doubt, Descartes, and Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs)
Bitgenstein’s Table, the Crypto Philosophy Podcast, ep. 4
On Bitgenstein’s Table, we consider 2,500 years of the wisest human thought in philosophy, psychology, sociology, economics, and more to make better decisions. Some episodes will focus on investment decisions, but most will focus on product decisions: what kind of world we want to build with decentralized technologies, in particular cryptocurrency.
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The views expressed in this episode are my own, and not the views of ICO Alert or any other entity. Remember that none of this is specific financial advice. Don’t base your decisions on it. This podcast is informational and educational, and I hope it helps you learn and enjoy life.
I doubt, therefore I exist.
René Descartes famously resolved to doubt everything. Should we do the same, even though it’s the last letter of FUD?
René Descartes, a very intelligent Frenchman from the 1600s, is considered by some to be the father of Western philosophy.
That’s probably a little too much, but we cannot deny his influence. He was the first loud voice of a generation of thinkers that moved away from basing everything in Church dogma and tradition and moved towards a basis in reason.
Descartes was not merely a philosopher.
He was “the father of analytical geometry” and a major figure in the Scientific Revolution.
When you took algebra in school, you learned about “the Cartesian plane” and “Cartesian coordinates” — x and y values like “(2,3)” and “(14,-1).” These math systems are named after Descartes. Charts and graphs and Pixar movies all use his coordinate system.
Descartes is also the reason we use superscript for the exponents in numbers like x squared, x cubed, x to the fourth, and so on. And though he didn’t discover calculus — a later Cartesian philosopher, Leibniz, would do that, along with Isaac Newton — Descartes’s mathematical work was foundational to that discovery.
But it’s philosophy we’re here to talk about, and philosophy also owes René Descartes a great debt.
Descartes was the first rationalist.
He shifted the intellectual debate from the question “what is true?” to the question “what can I be certain of?”
And so he — perhaps unintentionally — moved people’s thinking from “what does God say is true?” or “what does the church or the king say is true?” to “what can humans demonstrate is true?”
This was obviously a dramatic shift for society. Rationalism was unleashed on the world.
It didn’t take quite the same form in Britain. During this time, the minds whose thoughts would inspire America’s Founding Fathers and the Constitution were writing about their ideas. These British thinkers were men like Thomas Hobbes (the tiger in the popular comic is named after him), John Locke, and David Hume. They have all had significant effects on your thinking and your world that we’ll consider in later episodes.
Descartes was not an empiricist. He wrote at the beginning of the rationalist movement, often called Continental philosophy.
If we have to put philosophers from the early modern era into categories, calling most Continental European philosophers rationalists and most English philosophers empiricists does the trick.
Eventually this divide breaks down as later movements like existentialism and analytical philosophy cut into the old movements and bridge the English Channel.
As he was beginning to study mathematics and physics at 11 years old, Descartes encountered the work of Galileo Galilei.
Galileo was famous for:
- inventing the telescope and discovering multiple moons,
- championing Copernicus’s idea that the earth orbited the sun,
- conducting many scientific experiments such as dropping things off of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and
- being the only Italian scientist to feature prominently in Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody,
Galileo was still alive for most of the life of René Descartes. René himself lived in multiple countries, including Sweden and France, but he did most of his writing during his 20-plus years in the Netherlands.
This podcast is named after Ludwig Wittgenstein, a man admired for managing to revolutionize philosophy not once but twice in the 20th century.
But Descartes didn’t just revolutionize philosophy. He revolutionized mathematics, too, and made serious contributions to science. From 1629 to 1633, Descartes wrote on all of these topics in a great Treatise on the World.
But when Galileo was condemned by decision of the Catholic Church in 1633, Rene Descartes decided not to publish the book.
Four years later, in 1637, he published some of its material as a set of essays, preceded by an introduction, the famous Discours de la méthode (Discourse on the Method).
There, Descartes established four rules of thought in an attempt to build a full foundation for knowledge.
“I think, therefore I am.”
It’s the famous final conclusion of René’s attempt to doubt everything until he reached some undoubtable basis, some solid foundation on which to build his view of the world.
He figured that since he was doubting, a doubter must exist to do the doubting. So, stated differently, he concluded:
“I doubt, therefore I exist.”
Of course, Descartes believed that a divine spirit revealed to him a new philosophy. Though some now hold that he actually had an episode of exploding head syndrome. Yes, that’s a thing. People experience loud imagined noises as they are falling asleep or waking up.
But no matter how loud the noise in Descartes’ head, it couldn’t match the volume of the revolution his thought caused around the world.
“Never to accept anything for true which I do not clearly know to be such; that is to say, carefully to avoid precipitancy and prejudice, and to comprise nothing more in my judgment than what is presented to my mind so clearly and distinctly as to exclude all ground of doubt.”
René Descartes wrote that he wanted to exclude all bias and just look at the facts.
But is that really possible? Did Descartes manage it?
Like Galileo, Descartes felt too threatened to publicly question some prevailing opinions.
Perhaps he had some internal inhibitions, too.
It’s difficult to question what everyone else believes. Just ask Lucas Goodwin from House of Cards. Just ask an activist whose views, despite having intelligent arguments for them, are still marginalized by much of society — a vegan activist, an intactivist in America, an anarcho-capitalist, or an anarcho-socialist.
And of course it can be difficult to question what you yourself believe. Only a bold, honest, remarkable person will question something that he or she believes and that everyone else believes.
But the cryptocurrency movement is built on doubt.
Crypto doubted the honesty and stability of banks, governments — especially government monetary policy — and corporations. Some of the most traditionally trusted institutions are among these groups.
We doubt the traditional instruments of value. Cash, gold, equity, bonds.
When cryptocurrency was new, and Bitcoin was a matter of cents, telling someone about Bitcoin felt like telling them about veganism, or Paleo diet, or intactivism, or anarcho-capitalism, or anarcho-socialism.
You risked people thinking of you as strange.
People over the past few years have become more receptive to all of these ideas, but with Bitcoin, this receptivity was accompanied by a massive increase in value, in news coverage, in legitimate companies and apps, in interest from celebrities. In many areas, the risk of being “strange” is still there, but it’s much less now.
Now, as things are shifting, I’m watching the new cryptocurrency communities — and despite the movement’s start, I’m not sure we are quite yet free to question everything.
- Question Bitcoin’s capacity to become an asset of the future and you’re just a nocoiner.
- Question the wisdom of buying right now and you’re just a bear or behind the times.
- Question the honesty of a particular founder of Litecoin or ZCash or EOS or Ripple or Bitcoin Cash or Cardano or Verge or Tron and you’re a troll. Maybe trying to dump the market so you can find a better entry.
- Question whether decentralization will lead to slavery or the domination of crime rings and you’re a FUDster.
Too often your questions are not answered, but dismissed.
This is all the more true when you’re questioning a product that is insecure about itself.
Some argue that the Catholic authorities knew Galileo was right about the earth revolving around the sun, but worried that admitting it all of a sudden would weaken the people’s faith or devotion. Others argue that Pope Urban VIII, whose position was weakening and whose life was full of court intrigue, had the trial presented to him by enemies of Galileo and was fearful of accusations that he would be weakening the Church by supporting the scientist.
Either way, it was legitimate insecurity about its position that made the Church hostile to Galileo’s questions.
At ICO Alert, I sometimes write Sponsored Reports for clients running Initial Coin Offerings. An essential part of these reports is the Q&A section.
Sometimes, a question will cut too deeply for an ICO to reply comfortably to.
“Why do you call yourself the first, when there are several competitors who have been in business since 2014?”
“How do you hope to capture any market share?”
“Do you even have a marketing plan?”
“When will you have a product out?”
But when you are asked a question, it’s an opportunity.
Dismiss the hard questions, and those who agree with you will laugh and cheer, sure.
But answer a hard question well, and those who agree with you will be inspired, those who disagree with you will be challenged, and those on the fence will be converted.
A hard question is an opportunity.
Conversely, hard questions unresponded to are a grave threat. If a project can’t answer hard questions, it might not survive.
Descartes arguably trolled the prevailing dogma and worldview of his day from within. And questioning the quid pro quo, standing up for truth and right and knowledge from within, can indeed have terrible effects.
Galileo was condemned to house arrest.
Countless journalists around the world have been quietly killed for exposing the truth.
The most significant early Western philosopher, Socrates, asked questions without ceasing, annoying people so much when he asked them if they truly knew what goodness, or love, or justice were, that eventually the people of Athens condemned him to exile or death. He drank hemlock.
It’s possible that Descartes suffered a similar fate.
One professor at the University of Erlangen, Theodor Ebert, holds that it was arsenic in communion wafers that killed Descartes at 53 years old, not natural causes.
Professor Ebert pins a priest with the motive, since the priest was a missionary attempting to convert the Swedish Queen to Catholicism. The Swedish Queen had brought Descartes to her court because of his widespread fame, but perhaps his ideas would not have been compatible with her conversion.
The professor also finds that Descartes’s final requests as he approached his death sounded like those of a man being poisoned. If so, perhaps he joins the long list of those who asked a few questions too many.
The history of philosophy is a history of questioning things.
The first Greek philosopher, Thales, said everything was made of water. That sounds silly, but it was an attempt at explaining nature using natural means. It questioned the accepted metaphysical concept of the world.
Socrates questioned the nature of goodness and beauty and truth. Descartes tried to question everything.
The development of law, and science, and math, and technology, and astronomy, and biology, and sociology, and psychology are all advanced when people doubt the current understanding. When people pose questions. Every good journal article starts with a question. Every good sales and startup pitch starts with a problem.
Innovation requires doubt. To create a new way of doing things, you need to doubt how things are done currently.
Of course, belief is important, and it’s often considered the opposite of doubt. Faith in a product, in a company, in a cryptocurrency, in a trend, in an ideology. Nothing worthwhile can move forward without confidence, without faith in that thing.
But to really have faith in something, we often must pass through doubting it.
That’s one key difference between being confident and being naive. Between the arrogant young startup founder with a terrible idea, and the young entrepreneur about to change the world.
Questioning, doubt, is often given less depressing buzzwords to hide behind. Analysis, brainstorming, adapting, pivoting, none of these are possible without doubting where we’re at and where we’re going.
I know I’m changing the meaning of Descartes’s statement here, but: The movement he unleashed on the world existed because he doubted.
Likewise, powerful companies, political movements, non-profits, only exist because they doubted the way things are done. Because they questioned.
Socrates famously said, allegedly at his trial, “the unexamined life is not worth living.”
By extension, the unexamined product is not worth building.
The unexamined whitepaper is not worth trusting.
The unexamined market advice is not worth following.
The unexamined team is not worth investing in.
The unexamined ideology is not worth fighting for.
The unexamined future is not worth working towards.
Examine. Question. Doubt.
And allow others to do the same.
Thanks for reading.
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Next time, we’ll be talking the pros and cons of the philosophy of a particular cryptocurrency.
Which one will it be? Find out next week, on Bitgenstein’s Table: the Crypto Philosophy Podcast.