Bitgenstein’s Table, the Crypto Philosophy Podcast, ep. 1
The latest addition to the ICO Alert podcast series kicks off a change we’ll be making over the coming weeks: separate podcasts under the name of ICO Alert.
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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This podcast is made up of narrative and music, so I recommend you listen. But if you still prefer reading, here’s the episode:
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.
Bitgenstein’s Table is an allusion to Wittgenstein’s ruler and table, an analogy by Ludwig Wittgenstein, one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century. He was an Austrian British philosopher who worked mostly in logic, philosophy of mathematics, philosophy of mind, and philosophy of language.
Ludwig Wittgenstein is a double philosopher, and you’ll often hear people speak of “Early Wittgenstein” and “Later Wittgenstein.” It helps to think of early Wittgenstein as focused on logic and mathematics, arrogantly believing he solved philosophy. Later Wittgenstein, by contrast, deals more with mind and language, and it is the works of this more mature thinker that I want to focus on today.
The transition from Early to Later Wittgenstein is one of the things I admire more about the man. The ability to have your view reshaped as you gain experience is one of the most valuable assets a personality can have. We’ll see this again.
We’ll get to how Wittgensteinien philosophy applies to cryptocurrency trading, ICO investment, and more in a moment.
First, I want to highlight a few of the most striking times in his life. After all, context is king.
Born in Vienna, Wittgenstein actually attended the same grade school as Adolf Hitler for one year. They would eventually end up on opposite sides of World War II. But even though they were the same age, Hitler was a grade behind and Wittgenstein a grade ahead, so it’s unlikely that they ever met.
Although Wittgenstein was born into a rich family, in a time of severe personal depression he experienced just after World War I, he gave everything he owned to his siblings. Three of his brothers later committed suicide.
Ludwig himself was decorated for courage in the First World War, then taught mathematics in backwoods Austrian villages and began developing his early philosophy.
After his success in academia, during World War II, he worked in a hospital in London.
Yet there he somehow managed to keep his identity as one of the world’s most famous thinkers a secret.
Through it all, it was likely philosophy that saved him from suicide. According to Ludwig, it was the only work that gave him real satisfaction.
Many of his manuscripts were published after his death — he apparently didn’t want to publish another book on philosophy after his foolhardy 75-page “universal solution to philosophy” that he issued in his youth, titled the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. The presumptuousness of the title perhaps gives away the timbre of its contents.
Early Wittgenstein argued that philosophical problems come from *unclear* use of language.
He said that philosophers should only talk about things which can be concretely an unambiguously discussed in formal logical language. Perhaps, like Plato, he might have driven the more poetic ones out of his academy. But Later Wittgenstein would turn that completely around, and show that we can indeed have meaning without clarity.
Later Wittgenstein argued that many philosophical problems come from foolish attempts to evaluate words *outside of their context*.
He famously called this “language gone on holiday.”
Words acquire meaning from an assortment of language-games.
We play various kinds of situations in life, “games,” and the meaning of words depends on the game being played. As children and adults, we learn new words based on their places in these games.
For a very simple, clear example, consider the phrase “put your hands up.” At a concert, this might mean “dance more enthusiastically.” In a meeting, it means “raise your hand if you agree,” while in other contexts it means “prove to me you’re not holding a weapon.”
This applies to simple words, too — some of Wittgenstein’s lectures used words like “yellow” and “pencil” as examples. This idea, where meaning is defined by situations, by context, by social games, and not in isolation, is also what Wittgenstein’s ruler and table analogy is about.
Wittgenstein’s manuscripts, published after his death, include a simple and somewhat silly analogy.
Suppose you have a new table, and you need to measure it. You look around for a ruler, and find an old warped wooden one. It’s slightly curved, many numbers are scratched off, and one of the ends is chipped.
When you measure your table with a ruler that you don’t have 100% confidence in, in a sense, you’re also measuring the ruler with the table.
This analogy may seem straightforward enough, but the principle behind Wittgenstein’s ruler can change the way we make trading, investment, business, and life decisions: When you measure something, anything, by a measurement that you don’t have a justified high level of confidence in, remember that you’re also measuring the measurement itself.
Let’s consider a few examples.
Several friends and acquaintances of mine use a trading strategy heavily dependent on all-time highs, with little other analysis.
Not much probability analysis, not much fundamental, technical, macro, behavioral analysis. Just the all-time high. If a digital currency is at a value significantly lower than it once had, these friends are likely to buy it. They measure growth potential by distance from the all-time-high.
Whenever you use all-time-high as a measurement, you’re banking on the meaningfulness of the all-time high. You’re measuring the validity of the all-time-high. Does it represent anything meaningful? Is it a trustworthy reference point?
Do you think it’s a reflection of the product’s value (if you’re trading for the long term) or an accurate reflection of what people in the near future will think the product’s value to be (if you’re trading for more short-term gains)?
You’re trusting the all-time-high to be an accurate metric whenever you rely on it in your trading strategy. But the results will be a measure of the measurement. The results measure the metric. The table measures the unreliable ruler. This applies, of course, to any other metric.
What about evaluating the chances of any group using their Telegram follower count?
Telegram count, just like podcast downloads, retweets, etc., is a pretty good predictor of success because of network effects and crowd mentality. People like to be doing what lots of other people are doing. It makes them feel safety in numbers.
Never mind that the majority is often wrong, especially with long-term investments.
But I do this too. If I’m investigating a product, I look at the Telegram follower count. That’s OK, as long as I consider the reliability of the ruler.
Wittgenstein said you’re also measuring the ruler with the table. I’m also measuring the validity of my metric, Telegram follower count, by the success of the projects I measure.
If over time I repeatedly see that projects with a high Telegram follower count do better, that is some reason to believe that projects with a high Telegram count have a higher probability of doing better, as long as current trends continue.
But I have to be willing to let the table measure the ruler. If the results begin to not line up with my expectations, it may be time to reconsider that metric in the future.
One more example: ICO hard cap.
There are reasons why people use all of these metrics, of course, but traders most often lose money when they rely on a metric even after the metric has lost its reliability. A well-reasoned line of argumentation has led people to believe that ICO projects with a lower hard cap are more likely to succeed.
I suppose we feel that the team is less likely to run away with the money raised, because there is indeed less money to be raised.
Or, of course, we figure that projects with lower valuations have more room for growth — potential for higher return on investment.
But is this metric really valid? Is the ruler accurate?
Always let the table measure the ruler. If your ruler says your table is a foot long and it’s clearly not, it’s time to reevaluate. See if the metric still makes sense to follow. See if it continues to show general success and logical coherence.
This becomes more important once people start discovering the ruler’s popularity and it starts to become warped and worn.
Let’s say unscrupulous persons realize that ICOs are more likely to be funded with modest hard caps, and they shift their funding strategies. Will hard caps remain a useful metric for evaluating a project’s scam potential?
Similarly, Telegram followers is a popular metric, so companies are using legitimate and illegitimate means to push their Telegram count to impressive numbers. Will that ruler remain reliable?
When you’re considering which projects to give resources to — when you’re filtering through projects for your portfolio, your shill shortlist, your fund, your article series — remember Wittgenstein’s wisdom: when you use a measurement that has less than 100% certainly, you’re also measuring the measurement itself. Every metric is continually measured by its results.
The ruler measures the table, and the table measures the ruler.
There’s one more aspect of Wittgenstein’s analogy to consider.
Every time you see someone using a measuring tool, you learn more about the person doing the measuring.
Does that person put most of your trust in social followers? Historical chart performance? Project financial goals? Development activity?
What you use shows what you think is most important. As Keiran McCarthy points out at Joyous and Swift, all of the measuring tools we have are limited. Some, of course, may prove entirely worthless.
As Keiran says, and I quote, “Physics, chemistry, evolutionary biology, economics, philosophy, alchemy, astrology, Roman Catholicism, politics, and phrenology are all different ‘tools’ that people have used to answer hard questions.”
So how do we protect ourselves against relying on limited or worthless measuring tools?
We can expand our toolkit.
We can protect ourselves against the possibility that our favorite ruler is unreliable, by learning to use several different kinds of tools.
Now just as a mathematician may find it hard to learn about and apply psychology to reading charts, picking up some new tools might be something you find difficult.
Adding technical analysis, learning to read computer code, making connections with the right people, doing market analysis to find potential competitors, these may be things that are not exactly up your alley. But in addition to rounding you out as a person, these things can become backup rulers. When your favorite rulers become less useful than you thought they were, you might just be tipped off to this danger by the others.
Just as you can often tell a lot about an individual based on the ruler they use, you can often tell much about a project by the measurements they brag about.
Cardano fans talk about peer-reviewed research.
Ethereum fans talk about decentralization and protection from sovereign-grade censorship.
EOS fans talk about usability and scalability.
NEO fans talk about the NEO smart economy and global factors in the prospect of native Chineses businesses doing well in China.
Bitcoin fans talk about security, store of value, and market cap dominance.
While Bitcoin Cash fans talk about usability for small payments.
All kinds of projects are attacked or supported for being centralized or decentralized, fast or secure, private or transparent, flexible or immutable.
Projects competing in a space may focus more on development or more on marketing. They may push their tech and talk about “decentralized fully-compliant fully-auditable private smart contracts,” or they may focus primarily on the fact that a venture capitalist invested $100 million into their company, or that their founder has successfully built 3 companies in the same space.
By the facts they promote repeatedly in their communications, you can get a hint at what is important to them, or at least what they think is important to the public. Perhaps this can even give you more insight into the projects than into the facts themselves.
In some cases, it bears careful consideration whether their own intra-project metrics of success are valid.
This is all hypothetical, but perhaps…
Perhaps peer-reviewed code in a space this new doesn’t have the advantages we thought. Or perhaps global trends are moving away from Chinese projects doing much better in China than global projects do. Perhaps privacy will prove to be a crucial aspect in mass adoption, or perhaps it will be a liability or a project-killer.
So I’ll be watching the metrics carefully. As the context changes, we might not be able to preserve the meaningfulness of our metrics. As the future becomes closer, I need to be ready to discard my assumptions as soon as the table shows that the ruler is warped and worn beyond use.
As live, and especially as we work in business and finance, we learn principles. It’s something humans are particularly good at when compared to computers: pattern recognition. But we can be overzealous to hunt out patterns and stories, to find meaning in business success and in market moves. The world changes, paradigms shift, and if we hold onto the old measurements once they’ve left all usefulness behind, we might end up worse off than pure guesswork.
Be willing to modify your metrics.
Wittgenstein’s own philosophy shifted dramatically over his life, when touched by his own experience. He was willing to undergo the humiliation of rejecting his early work. As a result, he became one of the most famous thinkers of his time. If he had remained Early Wittgenstein forever, trusting the warped ruler of his early attempts to solve philosophy, he would have missed his opportunity.
So watch the rulers you use. To protect yourself from unreliable measurements, keep an eye out for signs that your ruler might be unreliable — and even better, add more metrics to your toolkit.
Thanks for reading.
One quick bibliographical note: I mentioned Keiran McCarthy a few minutes ago. This podcast isn’t sponsored by Keiran, but I’ve found his blog, joyousandswift.org, to be a fun exploration of difficult problems.
Next time I’ll be asking the question, “Is cryptocurrency capitalist or socialist? Is it individualist or collectivist?” Spoilers: the answer is neither. And both.
Next week, on Bitgenstein’s Table: the crypto philosophy podcast.