A Philosophical Intuition Behind the Blockchain

$ when July 2021

The idea behind crypto reminds me of my old philosophy studies.

In the Thirteenth Century, Thomas Aquinas proposed five logical arguments for the existence of God. Borrowing heavily from Aristotle, Aquinas structured its proofs as logical “chains.”

Aquinas’ idea is that every Being’s attribute is either derived or originated. Food is hot because the pot is, which in turn gets the heat from the stove, which gets it from the fire, the final origin of heat. The grass is wet because the air is humid, due to the clouds, which are made of tiny water droplets, the final source of wetness.

Any chain derives from an original source, for a given attribute.

For Aquinas, some characteristics are "special”: their origin cannot be anything but God himself. In particular, causality: Everything changes, but there must be a First Cause that caused everything in the first place. In the Middle Age that was God. Today, modern science calls it the Big Bang.

The blockchain is the mathematical representation of one of these chains. A chain of Authenticity.

Fundamentally, the blockchain is the answer to the ontological problem of proving authenticity: How can you prove that something is authentic if you cannot trust anyone to ask directly?

During Analog History, the period before the advent of modern machines, we focused most of our attention on the object itself.

We made sure that a painting was authentic by studying elements like its brush strokes or the chemical composition of its colors. We checked coins’ validity by comparing their weight to known metals. Rolex watches could be confirmed as authentic thanks to their serial number, cash bills due to complex, invisible watermarks.

In other words, the ontological property of authenticity was embedded in the object itself. Consequently, anti-counterfeiting measures always relied on making the object itself hard to copy.

In the digital realm, copying something has become trivial. Counterfeiting a piece of digital art is one screenshot away. Impersonating someone is just a matter of using their session cookies. And what can prevent anyone from copying their own digital coins? The issue of authenticity is a big one online, in the narrow set of instances where this truly matters, like with identity or scarce goods.

The blockchain solves this problem by attacking it from a different angle. It shifted the issue of proving something's authenticity from the nature of the object itself — its own properties, its genotype, its DNA — to the chain of actions that cause that authenticity downstream.

The property of "being authentic" is no longer an attribute inferred by the characteristics of the object, but is rather inherited by the previous owner by means of ownership transfer.

If you follow the chain, you can arrive at the original beholder of "authenticity”, whom we’ll trust blindly, because they’re effectively a “God” in that specific world. It’s the protocol that minted the money; the company that physically built the rare watch; the artist who created the painting. They are the origin of authenticity and, by the transitive property, everything downstream must be authentic too.

The world was shocked when JPG images started to be sold at record bids, but if we think about it, people have purchased weird pieces of art and lent them to museums since the dawn of time. People typically don’t buy art and keep it locked away: they do it to signal status (and to lower their income taxes).

We don’t care if you have a Mona Lisa photo on your computer. We care if the Mona Lisa is yours. In the digital realm, NFTs tell us with no degree of uncertainty that yes, a given piece of art is indeed authentic and yours.

To me, this tells a lot about the inherently different nature of the digital world.

We like to think of what’s happening online, and inside our machines, through metaphors borrowed from our own reality: desktop, folders, files, mouse, mail.

But the digital universe is a little like quantum spacetime: a place where things just don’t happen the same way we’re used to. There are other rules, and therefore similar problems will have different solutions — the old ones won’t apply.

The interesting bit is that this is our reality too, now. Digital also became our world.

It’s better to get used to it.


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Thanks to Nanya, Tom, Alex, Dani, and Asad for reviewing earlier drafts of this post.
© Gianluca Segato 2024