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Bitcoin and Buddhism

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What can Buddhism teach us about how Bitcoin works & why it’s so valuable? What can Bitcoin teach us about emptiness, the interdependent nature of reality?

Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies have been in the news a lot lately. Maybe you haven’t ventured into that world yourself yet, or maybe you’ve been investing for years. I’ve been a fan of cryptocurrencies for a long time because they’re opening financial services to everyone in the world, regardless of their nationality or wealth. Our podcast takes Bitcoin as a donation, and in fact, a majority of our donations so far have come as Bitcoin or Ethereum.

We’re going to talk today about the underlying reality of money – or its lack of reality. It turns out that cryptocurrency provides a great way to discuss this concept, maybe even better than regular old currency that may not be as “real” as you think it is. When I talked to Dr. Jay Garfield about the Buddhist concept of emptiness on episode 46 of this podcast, he said that money is one of the most powerful objects for contemplating the interdependent nature of reality. When you search for an inherent dollar-ness in the piece of paper in your wallet or in your online bank account, you can’t find some essential dollar-ness there. A dollar is an interdependent phenomenon and the buck doesn’t stop… anywhere. A dollar exists as a complex matrix of belief that our minds project onto a few bits of matter.

Bitcoin takes the baselessness of money to the next level, taking away even the conventional bases of printed bills, governments, and banks that give most of us confidence in our money. Bitcoin has no underlying asset, like gold sitting in a vault somewhere, and no government to bolster our belief in its value, so why does its value keep going up? Why are people converting hundreds of millions of dollars, euros, and yuan to Bitcoin every day? Is Bitcoin like the famous Dutch tulip bulbs that became as valuable as houses at their peak mania before collapsing to worthlessness? Or is Bitcoin more like Amazon or Google or Facebook, a giant new idea that people don’t quite understand at first, but grows to unimaginable wealth and power?

One view of Bitcoin’s value aligns with the Buddhist view of emptiness. In this view, the baselessness of cryptocurrency may make it a more ideal form of currency than anything ever dreamed of, because its value can grow as big as our imagination. I heard Jesse Powell, the CEO of cryptocurrency trading platform Kraken, talk about this the other day on Bloomberg News. He said, “We won’t be measuring the price of Bitcoin in terms of dollars, but in terms of what else you’re going to be buying with it, like planets and other solar systems.”

You could make fun of Jesse for claiming that we’re going to be buying solar systems with Bitcoin. But professor David Kittay had this wonderful statement when I interviewed him recently. He said, “The optimists always win.” Of course humanity has had setbacks, and we are far from a perfect society, but when you look at the overall arc of history, like Stephen Pinker does in his book, The Better Angels of our Nature, the aggregate movement of society over time is toward more freedom and opportunity and safety and, yes, more wealth.

But the purpose of this episode isn’t to evangelize cryptos. Instead, I want to use the idea of cryptocurrencies to understand the interdependent nature of money, and, by extension, the interdependent nature of reality itself.

“We won’t be measuring the price of Bitcoin in terms of dollars, but in terms of what else you’re going to be buying with it, like planets and other solar systems.” —Jesse Powell, CEO of Cryptocurrency trading platform Kraken

Value is in the mind

We’re going to spend a few minutes now examining the concept of “value” and where it comes from. Do a little exercise with me, if you like. Take some paper money out of your wallet and lay one of each type of bill out in front of you. Say… a 20-dollar bill, a five-dollar bill, a one-dollar bill, whatever you’ve got. Now, look at them and ask yourself: what makes one bill worth more than another?

Each of these pieces of paper probably cost the same to print, more or less, a few cents worth of paper and ink. One piece of paper has the number twenty stamped on it, one a five, and then there’s the one. So… is it the numerical mark that gives that paper value?

Here we can do a traditional meditation on emptiness and look closely at the numbers. The numbers are just combinations of curved and straight lines. What is it that makes us see those marks as numbers? Think of the weight of history, education, the slow discovery and evolution of writing and mathematics, and the arbitrary specifics of each language’s translation of a numeric concept like five or twenty into a mark on the page. Try if you can, for a moment, to see the strokes of the number only as graphic marks without seeing the number five or the number 20, the way someone who only knows another written language would, or the way your dog or cat might see that mark. Is it even possible for us to look at those symbols differently? Those marks aren’t actually numbers. The concept of the number is wholly in our mind.

Try and imagine a fake 20-dollar bill, right next to the real one. A really good fake, so good that you can’t tell the difference. What gives the legitimate one printed by the U.S. Treasury its value, and what makes the fake one worthless?

Is a dollar really worth 1 dollar? A one dollar bill for sale on eBay for $1.99 (plus $5 shipping)

I really like this question of fakes, because it brings up a similar type of object that has questionably high value: great works of art. Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi is the highest-priced painting ever sold at auction, sold for 450 million dollars to a Saudi prince in 2017. But how much are the canvas, pigment, and frame of the painting worth, as materials? Maybe a few hundred dollars? If someone made a perfect replica of this painting, indistinguishable from the original, how much would it be worth? A few thousand dollars?

This thought exercise of the counterfeit twenty and the fake painting suggests that maybe the value is determined by who printed the money and who made the painting. The fact that Leonardo himself painted this portrait, of a weirdly well-dressed Jesus holding a crystal ball, is what gives the painting value. And the value of the dollar comes from the fact that the U.S. Treasury printed it.

Why is this the most expensive painting in the world? Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi, the most expensive painting sold at auction for $450 million. How much would it be worth if it wasn’t by Leonardo? How much if it were a fake? How much are the raw canvas, frame and pigment worth? A few hundred dollars?

Crossing the border to meaningless money

I had a chance to test out this theory when I first traveled outside the U.S. as a teenager in the 1980s. My best friend and I toured Europe on a budget of about fifty dollars a day. Back at that time, every European country had its own currency. And as soon as you crossed the border of one with another, you needed to exchange your foreign money for the local currency: Pounds in Great Britain, Francs in France, which were really cool because The Little Prince is on the 50 Franc note. The Guilders they used in Holland were my favorite, because all the Dutch bills back then had these stunning works of abstract art on the back.

But the thing that really transformed my mind was when we first landed in England and I had a money belt full of twenty-dollar bills, but I was unable to buy lunch. Once I crossed the border to the U.K., those pieces of paper, printed by the U.S. Treasury, became worthless.

This experience of a wallet full of worthless money, that you might’ve had too, illustrates that it’s not just who prints the money that makes it valuable, but also where you spend it. As we traveled from country to country, I had an increasing collection of little pieces of paper that turned into nothing but colorful bookmarks with each border crossing.

So now, our list of requirements for money having value includes “who we are exchanging the money with,” along with “who made it” and “where we spend it.”

You can keep on going like this for hours, considering all the contributing conditions that give money its value. It turns out… that what gives money its value is an extraordinary network of interconnected phenomena, that includes physical things… like the U.S. Treasury and currency exchanges, as well as intangible things… like our laws and economic principles. But when you weigh the importance of all these contributing factors, you may conclude that money is mostly made up of intangible ideas held only in our minds, our collective faith in our banks and government and the people we buy and sell things from, the conventions of our society around value and exchange.

What makes the $100 worth of pigment on Leonardo’s painting worth $450 million dollars? People’s collective belief in its value. And what makes a few cents of paper and ink… or a few electrons zooming around in a bank’s database, representing our bank balance… worth 20 dollars? The same, our collective belief. In Buddhism, they call this “mere convention.” Money is a mere convention, and that’s all. There’s no solid base for the money. Money can only be found in an interconnected web of objects and ideas. As you search and search, there can be moments when you believe that you’ve found some final, irreducible part or cause that’s the basis of money, say… in the Federal Reserve Board or Alexander Hamilton’s brain. But examine further, and you will see that these have parts and causes of their own.

Is money a pretty picture or a store of value? When you cross the border between countries your French Francs (left) or Dutch Gulden (right) become just pretty bookmarks featuring The Little Prince or gorgeous abstract art. Now that the euro took over Europe, banks and businesses no longer accept these bills, but they sell for more than their face value to collectors.

Believing in the immaterial

Yet just because we can’t locate a primal cause for money or the material basis of money… doesn’t mean money isn’t real, it’s just mostly intangible. We recorded several episodes on emptiness last year, and in one of them we went over the logic of dependent origination in great detail: how things exist according to the Buddhist framework, which I would argue is how things exist even to a skeptic, according to defensible logic.

The framework of emptiness or interdependence breaks down how things exist into three elements: parts, causes, and the mind that perceives them. Parts are the material and immaterial components of an object, causes are the things that bring those parts together, and a mind projects a label of “money” or “painting” onto this collection of caused parts.

Consider money from this framework of emptiness: for hard currency, the parts of money are its paper and ink; for digital money, its parts are the bits and databases and network systems of banks. The causes of money include the Federal Reserve that prints money, the laws that allow money to exist, the acts of Congress that borrow more money. But we can continue our analysis through the entire history of money on our planet, going back thousands of years to the first people who decided to gather scarce, pretty, useless objects and tokenize them to fractions of abstract value. People were then able to trade these worthless objects for the valuable things they bought and sold like food, clothing, houses, pyramids, cathedrals, steamships, and everything else. Why were people willing to exchange something worthless for something valuable? Because of the sheer convenience and power of the idea of money itself.

As we continue with this Buddhist framework of dependent origination, the binding factor, the thing that brings these disparate causes and parts of money together, is the mind. The mind perceives the various parts of money, whether a stack of ink and paper bills, or a number on our laptop screen, and then ascribes value to it, believing, “I have a hundred dollars in my wallet.” Or, “I have a thousand dollars in my bank account.”

So, money is fundamentally immaterial. And you can see that immateriality doesn’t mean something spooky and mystical, it just means thoughts, ideas, and concepts. Immaterial thought pulls all these parts and causes together to form the idea of “money” in our collective minds.

I love talking to people who consider themselves materialists about these ideas, because it’s not too hard to convince just about anyone that they believe in the immaterial. We often think that immaterial means something metaphysical like a soul or a ghost. But math is immaterial—can you show me a math detector? And love is immaterial—there’s no love detector either, and you can’t store love in bottles or transmit it as bits. But we all still believe in it.

We believe in the immaterial already. We rely on immaterial concepts like “math” and “love” to survive and thrive, but these are mostly mental phenomena. When we realize that the immaterial is an abundant, commonsense part of our everyday lives, it becomes easier to accept that money too is immaterial, and that it mostly lives in our minds.

Another way of seeing the emptiness of money is this: consider how a creature who doesn’t value money the same way we do treats it. I remember as a kid, coming across a goat at a petting zoo. My dad had just given me a five-dollar bill, and I was excited to buy some animal food with it. But before I could, the goat snatched the bill out of my pocket and with its weird flat lips, unceremoniously chewed the bill up and swallowed it. So, depending on whose mind is perceiving the money, it might be perceived as food and not currency. The goat didn’t realize I could have turned that five-dollar bill into much tastier and more abundant food than that dirty piece of paper it swallowed.

To a goat, a $5 bill is food. To us, it’s money. This cute goat I met in the 1970s could have had a lot more food if it hadn’t eaten the five-dollar-bill I was going to buy its food with.

Where money comes from: going off the gold standard

Maybe you’ve been thinking, wait, there is some backing to our currency, isn’t there? A big pile of gold in Fort Knox that you can exchange for your dollars, right? There was a time you could do that, and that time was called the Gold Standard. But Richard Nixon ended that era by decree in 1971. Before that time, there was a fixed amount of gold for which you could redeem your dollars. If you looked closely on an old dollar bill, it read “Will Pay to the Bearer on Demand” which meant that you could redeem your dollar for gold at any time. Money was also called a “promissory note” because it promised to exchange this worthless piece of paper for valuable gold or silver.

Unfortunately, by the early 70s, the United States needed more money than we could back in gold, so Nixon moved us to what is called the fiat money system. You might recall the word “fiat” as vaguely biblical, and that’s because it’s the first word in the Latin bible, that begins, “Fiat lux,” let there be light. Fiat currency comes into existence in the same way, granted not by god, but by a government’s order. And the order is interesting, because it’s not an order to create money, but an order that we all accept it. The “fiat” in our fiat currency means that our government orders everyone who lives here to accept these pieces of paper as valuable.

One last thing I wanted to say about the gold standard, which is a good reminder on the pitfalls of dependent origination, is that even when we had the gold standard, of course, that was baseless too. Gold is a rare metal, and it doesn’t corrode. But it’s too soft to be useful for anything but jewelry and insulating spacecraft. You can say we like gold because it looks pretty, but our perception of gold is also an illusion. Gold’s pretty color and shape is an illusion conjured by our brain, as is the heft of gold’s weight in our hand. So gold, too, is as much of an illusory base as the newer paper money. It, too, is made of parts, has causes, and our mind projects value and qualities onto it.

1922 Ten Dollar bill redeemable in gold. Since 1971, after going off the gold standard to the fiat system, the base of our money is now only the law demanding we accept it as legal tender. But does gold have any intrinsic value either?

Digital money

We now exist in a world with mostly digital money, rather than physical bills and coins. Whereas the Federal Reserve used to authorize the U.S. Mint to “make” more physical money by decree, the way digital money gets created by the Fed is actually really freaky, when you look to the very top of the money pyramid. When new digital money is “minted,” there’s a computer system at the Fed where someone, ordered by the Fed Committee, simply “marks up the account,” increasing the number of a bank balance and instantly minting billions or even trillions of digital dollars that didn’t exist a second before. This takes the role of the mind to the next level, more direct than our earlier analysis, where someone simply has the idea, “Hey, let’s create a trillion more dollars,” then, lo and behold, she goes over to a computer… and simply makes it so.

Those dollars that were just created are no less real than the ones in our pocket or bank account. They are the dollars being used right now to pay for roads and unemployment and health insurance and stimulus checks, and to buy food and weapons and homes. What is literally “nothing” turns into something, at that moment when the woman at the U.S. treasury translates the words, “make more money” into the action of typing a few extra zeroes on her keyboard.

I promise I’ll get to Bitcoin soon. But hopefully you can see why I wanted to go so far down this road analyzing money, because the faith we have in the dollar as something real and tangible is greatly misplaced. Money is a mere convention with its roots in our collective minds. The government decides that it exists and orders us to accept it. We happily follow this order and, if we are lucky enough to get us some of that manufactured money, we are then able to accumulate all the material things in life that money can buy.


And I’m sorry, but I’m still not totally ready to talk about Bitcoin yet, because I have one other profound thing to discuss, which is fungibility. We try not to use jargon on this podcast, but this word “fungibility” can’t be easily described with other words. Fungibility refers to objects that can be interchanged with another identical item, without consequence. The checkers on a checkers board are a good example of fungibility: it makes no difference if one checker is exchanged for another, they all serve the function equally well on the game board.

Dr. Jay Garfield, who I mentioned at the start of this episode, spoke eloquently about the fungibility of money, how no individual dollar has an essence of its own, but is rather a token for some intangible “dollarness” possessed equally by paper bills, bits, or bank balances. Here’s Jay:

I’m going to come back to a metaphor of a pile of money. So let’s pretend it goes like this. I borrow five dollars from you today. And I repay it tomorrow. And when I borrow it from you today, you hand me five one-dollar bills. And when I repay it to you tomorrow, I PayPal the money into your account. So today you handed me five pieces of paper. Tomorrow I sent some bits of information to your bank.

Now it makes total sense to say, I paid you back the five dollars that you lent me yesterday. But I didn’t do that by handing you those five ones. And if we now ask, When you gave me those five dollars, that five dollars: was it identical to or different from those five ones? When I paid you back five dollars, was it identical to or different from the bits that went across the internet?

Now notice if we say that they were identical, then you’d have to say that those five pieces of paper were identical to bits going across the internet. I mean, after all, if the money is identical to the paper and the money is also identical to the bits, then the bits are identical to the paper. But that’s stupid, right?

So we don’t want to say the money is literally identical.

Well, is it different? Did you give me two things when you gave me that money? First five pieces of paper and then five dollars. Did I give you two things? A bunch of bits of information and five dollars? No, that’s crazy. When you handed me those five ones, you gave me five dollars. When I sent those bits on the way I gave you five dollars.

So, nor are the money different from those instantiations: not the same, nor different. Do we want to say that the money somehow is this transcendental thing that owns five ones somehow, where the five ones own some weird thing? No, we don’t want to say that at all.

So the money is neither the same nor different. It doesn’t possess its instantiation nor does its instantiation possess it. Now, there’s nothing mystical about this. What we want to say is that one of the ways to instantiate five dollars is a pile of ones. Another way is a bunch of bits. But five dollars occurs at a different level, a different kind of description than the physical.

So money is fungible. There’s nothing special about a particular dollar. And even more profoundly, when we get to digital money, when we put 20 paper dollars into our bank account and later transfer 20 digital dollars out to pay a bill, it’s not the same 20 dollars, and it’s also not a different 20 dollars. The dollars have no individuality at all, it’s just the collective notion of 20 dollars that is moving from one place to another. The idea of money is what’s moving around, tokenized by different representations in physical or digital form.

Bitcoin is “mined” in “farms” of special high-speed computers that solve cryptographic puzzles to secure bitcoin transactions into pages called “blocks” stored in the blockchain, a giant decentralized database of every bitcoin transaction. (Make sure your ponytail is clipped, or it might get stuck in one of those high speed fans!)

Bitcoin is algorithmic money

At this point you may be feeling like you’re in the midst of some mystical experience, tripping out on how money can give you a glimpse into the ultimate nature of reality. Or you may be freaking out about whether money, and perhaps other important objects and ideas in your life, have any meaning at all. So, with such extreme feelings often associated with the people crazy about cryptocurrency, it’s now the right time to talk about Bitcoin.

Bitcoin is algorithmic money run by a computer collective. No government owns it, and no one has the individual or collective power to change how its code works, or to issue any more.

Part of Bitcoin’s mystique is that it was invented by an unknown person who went by the name Satoshi Nakamoto. This mysterious origin story is an important part of Bitcoin’s power and dominance, because as we search for Bitcoin’s value and origin, we can’t even point to the specific person who invented it. Satoshi Nakamoto might be a person. He or she could be a collective. Satoshi Nakamoto is probably not Japanese, because when you translate the name, it suspiciously means “wise founder.” It’s likely that no one will ever know who Satoshi “really” is, and this mystery is so much more powerful than having an individual creator behind the currency, like the teen genius Vitaly Buterin who invented Ethereum. The baselessness of Bitcoin, far from detracting from its value, only adds to it, because we can’t stop our analysis of Bitcoin’s value at the person who invented it. Our mind has to go deeper.

Here’s how Bitcoin works: thousands of servers run the open source code that mines new Bitcoins each hour by solving a complex cryptographic puzzle. Part of the work done, completing this puzzle, validates the transactions of all the people exchanging Bitcoins with one another.

One way to think about how Bitcoin works is to compare it to a digital currency transfer system, like the ACH you use to pay your bills online. With the ACH system, there’s a central government server that validates a transaction from your central bank server, sending a message to subtract numbers representing dollars from your bank’s database, and add numbers representing dollars to another bank’s database. The process is completely centralized.

Whereas with Bitcoin, it’s as if there’s a room full of people at desks with ledgers in front of them, and if you want to send Bitcoin to someone else you yell out in that huge room, “I’m sending 1 Bitcoin to Elon Musk!” Most of the people in the room write that down, adding a row that subtracts 1 from your Bitcoin address and adds one to Elon’s. Some of these people make a mistake. Some might even deliberately change the transaction and try to steal your Bitcoin. But after a few minutes, they get together and compare what everyone wrote down… and carve in stone the transactions that most of the accountants agreed on: that becomes known as a “block” in what’s called the blockchain.

When Elon wants to go spend your Bitcoin, he comes back to this room and yells out his transaction. This is the same fungibility the dollar has, but it’s made even clearer by the lack of paper and banks. There have never been any physical Bitcoins in this system, there are just lists of who’s given certain amounts of “Bitcoin” to whom at any given time, and secret codes that let you transfer the money securely.

So the Bitcoin mechanism is baseless and decentralized. No government runs it, and it’s practically unstoppable and indestructible… because as long as there are computers running Bitcoin nodes somewhere on the internet, Bitcoin will continue to exist. There’s actually a Bitcoin node orbiting earth right now on the International Space Station, and I bet there will be more in years to come on other satellites and spacecraft. We can imagine Bitcoin outlasting nations or even earth’s civilizations, floating around the sun on solar powered Bitcoin satellites that continue running its code.

Bitcoin in space. In 2020, SpaceChain launched a Bitcoin node that now operates on the International Space Station (image NASA). If enough satellites with Bitcoin nodes launch, one day bitcoin could even outlast our civilization.

Here’s the other very powerful aspect of Bitcoin: its supply is capped. The U.S. Treasury minted more new money over the last year than all the money created in the two centuries of U.S. history before: more than 9 trillion dollars. People typically say that printing more currency creates inflation, and it can spiral out of control at times, like it did in Venezuela recently or in Germany in the 1920s. With cheaper and more plentiful money, prices of goods and services, which are finite, tend to go up.

But Bitcoin was designed to be algorithmically and securely scarce. There are only 23 million Bitcoins that can ever be minted, and most of them already have been, about 18 million. Every four years, the amount minted in each block goes down by half. This is called the “halving” and these dates are worth putting on your calendar if you’re a Bitcoin investor. Because a few months after this event, which most recently happened in May, 2020, the price of Bitcoin tends to skyrocket due to the newly limited supply.

Bitcoin’s algorithmic scarcity is a protection against human beings’ worst instincts. Often, when someone creates something valuable to others, our greedy human instincts drive us to make as much of it as we possibly can. Say there’s a company whose stock is popular, like Tesla. When the stock price is high, the company tends to quietly release more of it, profiting on the public interest. But eventually, this increased supply brings down the price of the now more abundant stock. When more currency is created, the same thing happens: prices eventually go up and thus each dollar becomes worth a little less.

That’s why more and more people and companies are buying and holding some Bitcoin, in what’s called a “hedge” against inflation. These companies and people are betting that if the dollar goes down, their Bitcoins may continue to hold value or even go up. One of the more entertaining examples of this is that on the day people received their first $1200 stimulus checks from the government, there was a flood of $1200 Bitcoin “buy” transactions, as people converted these newly minted dollars into cryptos.

The value of Bitcoin is limitless because it has no basis, not in spite of it

Now I want to go back to talking about value using the example of art. The reason we ascribe hundreds of millions of dollars in value to one canvas smeared with a few dollars’ pigment, and not another, is due to a complex convention of our society and not to any intrinsic value in the object itself. We agree that Leonardo’s Salvador Mundi is worth $450 million dollars simply because we believe it to be true. It’s a tautology. It’s true because we say it’s true. But this truth can become false. There are works of art from the past that sold for a lot at the time, and now aren’t worth much. There’s a kitschy painter named Thomas Kinkaide who was popular in the 80s and whose paintings sold for thousands and tens of thousands of dollars at the time, but are now worth only a few hundred. The paintings haven’t changed, only our convention of value.

And there are people who have unknowingly sold for a few dollars at a yard sale a masterpiece worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to someone else. This is the underlying premise of “Antiques Roadshow” — that we might have something in our basement that looks like junk but is actually worth millions, if only we have the specialized knowledge to tell the difference.

So let’s do a thought experiment connecting art to cryptos. Say I had twenty masterpieces of art, donated to me to start a new cryptocurrency called ARTCOIN, paintings by Leonardo, Warhol, Matisse, Picasso, Frida Kahlo, Yayoi Kusama, the most valuable art of our time. I have a billion dollars worth of art and I issue a billion ARTCOINS so anyone can have a share of this collection. People like this idea and, like other cryptos, they start bidding up the price of the currency based on the art, believing in the team, the quality of the code, and speculating that ARTCOIN might be worth more later. So let’s say ARTCOIN goes up to 20 times its value, $20 a coin to $20 billion dollars valuation.

A rational person might say, ARTCOIN can’t be worth that much, because the underlying collateral of the paintings is still worth only one Billion dollars. And this argument would limit the price people are willing to pay. So ARTCOIN falls back to the lower end of cryptocurrency charts, just a couple times its underlying asset value.

Now ARTCOIN’s inflation might have bothered you. Why should the tokenized art be worth more than the art itself? But Bitcoin is potentially a lot worse than this imaginary ARTCOIN, because, like fiat currency, there is no underlying collateral beneath its tokens. And unlike fiat currency, there’s also no nation, no army, and no laws or courts that demand you accept it.

So why are people willing to bid up Bitcoin’s value so much higher than imaginary ARTCOIN, which at least had a billion dollars of paintings behind it?

It may be just this baselessness that gives Bitcoin its unlimited potential. Because when you really dig into how anything exists, you see that any base you find also has underlying bases, that have bases of their own, ad infinitum.

The paintings we thought were valuable enough to back ARTCOIN have a base in colored particles, painting skills of the 16th century, art experts, museums, and wealthy collectors. We might find a basis in the sheer beauty and meaning of the images themselves, but if we analyze further, we find that there is, in fact, no color or form in reality; that red, blue, and yellow, dark and light, pretty and ugly are all psychological conventions that exist only in our minds. There is no objective color in the outer world, there’s only light vibrating at different wavelengths interpreted by our brain as color.

This may make you think of Pink Floyd saying, “It’s all in your mind.” But that’s not wholly true. Even though they’re subtle and technically invisible, there are physical bases that we project our ideas onto, down to molecules and atoms and subatomic particles, vibrating wavelengths of energy, and the quantum mysteries of information flitting in and out of existence. But, given matter and energy’s ability to take any form, and its nature of continuous change, you could argue that conventional reality lies mostly in our minds!

So the power of Bitcoin is that it admits this baselessness of reality. The lack of basis of value in Bitcoin is, in some ways, more honest than currency or art, because Bitcoin is the first platform to readily admit that its value comes only from human attribution: our collective belief and will. Bitcoin has taken the qualities of an effective currency… like scarcity, fungibility, and liquidity…and perfected them into a decentralized system whose value is limited only by human beings’ imagination and ambition.

Jesse Powell may have sounded to you like a tech bro when he said you’d eventually be able to buy stars and solar systems with Bitcoin. But humanity’s potential is very likely limitless, as great physicists like David Deutsch argue in books like The Beginning of Infinity. We mostly talk about our inner potential in this podcast, the limitless potential of our minds and hearts for kindness and compassion and wisdom. But human potential also keeps manifesting in the material world as we gain more control over our environment and create wealth and abundance that start off as mere ideas.

Meditate on Bitcoin

So all of this is not to advocate that you go out and buy Bitcoin. But I do think it’s worthwhile to meditate on Bitcoin, and to meditate on money. Try and find, through mental exploration, the money that you think is in your bank account or your wallet or at the Fed or Congress. Keep searching and searching to see what that process of searching through parts and causes of money or Bitcoin does to your mind. Try finding Bitcoin in its servers, in Satoshi Nakamoto’s original Bitcoin white paper, in all the crypto evangelists and HODLers or in companies like Coinbase that trade it. Keep searching and you won’t find a single basis for it, but you are led on an inner journey that reveals the deep interconnectedness of reality.

And as a final reminder right now to take with you out of this episode, the process, the algorithm, for doing this meditation on dependent origination is relatively simple.

  1. Parts. First think of the object: money or Bitcoin, or anything else. Imagine all its parts, in great detail, for many minutes if you like: paper, ink, databases, bits, servers, blockchains.
  2. Causes. And then think about its causes, the way money or Bitcoin is transmitted, manufactured, conceived, ruled. You can go deep on causes, thinking about the fuel being burned or energy from the sun’s nuclear reactions powering the computers, the history of money, laws, computing, society, even the evolution of our species, the birth of life on our planet, the birth of our sun. The analysis of causes goes back as far as you like, even to the Big Bang, even before.
  3. Mind. And then, notice how your mind wraps a single word or idea around this vast collection of parts that have nearly infinite causes: the word dollar, money, or Bitcoin. When you think about money or cryptocurrency in this way, it can loosen your mind and open your mind, not only to how money exists, but eventually to how you yourself exist as a dependent origination from your own parts, causes, and your own mind that labels these as you.

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Written and hosted by Scott Snibbe
Produced by Tara Anderson
Audio mastering by Christian Parry and Chris Boulton
Theme music by Bradley Parsons of Train Sound Studio

Music in this episode:

Run for Your Money – Devil and the Perfects
Slow – Zorro
The Washing Ladies – John Abbot
Sunset Drive – Future Joust
Palandsvind – Strom
Breaths – AGST
Ancient Druidic Spells (of Power) – Bitwraith
Blue Lantern – Yi Nantiro
Rumsa – Valante
Progressive Progress – Howard Harper-Barnes
Wish of the Progeny – Lama House
Catch Up Later – Wendy Marcini
Raga for HAL – Syntropy
November – Jakob Ahlbom
Missing – MNDLSS


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