Lesson 4

The problem of identity

"Who are you?" said the caterpillar.

Nic Carter, in an homage to Thomas Nagel’s treatment of the same question in regards to a bat, wrote an excellent piece which discusses the following question: What is it like to be a bitcoin? He brilliantly shows that open, public blockchains in general, and Bitcoin in particular, suffer from the same conundrum as the Ship of Theseus: which Bitcoin is the real Bitcoin?

“Consider just how little persistence Bitcoin’s components have. The entire codebase has been reworked, altered, and expanded such that it barely resembles its original version. […] The registry of who owns what, the ledger itself, is virtually the only persistent trait of the network […]

To be considered truly leaderless, you must surrender the easy solution of having an entity that can designate one chain as the legitimate one.” Nic Carter

It seems like the advancement of technology keeps forcing us to take these philosophical questions seriously. Sooner or later, self-driving cars will be faced with real-world versions of the trolley problem, forcing them to make ethical decisions about whose lives do matter and whose do not.

Cryptocurrencies, especially since the first contentious hard-fork, force us to think about and agree upon the metaphysics of identity. Interestingly, the two biggest examples we have so far have lead to two different answers. On August 1, 2017, Bitcoin split into two camps. The market decided that the unaltered chain is the original Bitcoin. One year earlier, on October 25, 2016, Ethereum split into two camps. The market decided that the altered chain is the original Ethereum.

If properly decentralized, the questions posed by the Ship of Theseus will have to be answered in perpetuity for as long as these networks of value-transfer exist.

Bitcoin taught me that decentralization contradicts identity.


Down the Rabbit Hole