Epistemic Reserve Notes

The metaphor of learning-as-purchasing pervades language — “are you buyin’ this?”

There must be some kind of currency exchanged when you accept something new.

As explored in Wittgenstein’s Revenge, the problem in modern public discourse is not that we disagree on the facts.

Instead, we lack a common “epistemic currency.”

Perhaps facts used to be our epistemic currency, but facts may have been a proxy for something more fundamental: Trust.

Trust vs Facts

Trust exists as we think it does.

Trust is simple and innate. We understand trust from the womb, as the expectation of continued warmth and nourishment. (Facts are complicated and elusive.)

Trust respects uncertainty.

The question of “whom and what to trust” is the foundation of the human response to life’s uncertainty. (Facts do not respect uncertainty.)

Trust is required to create facts.

As explored in Wittgenstein’s Revenge, trust is the active ingredient in all Facts. Without trust, Facts are mere conjectures.

Trust respects free will.

“Whom to trust” is ultimately a matter of free choice, and trust can only be given freely. (Facts create ineffective crusades: “Trust me or else!” doesn’t work, as Bible-thumpers and climate activists keep discovering.)

Trust demands personal judgment.

There is no escape from personal judgment. (The metaphor of Facts denies the necessity of personal judgment.)

Optimizing for trust makes integrity a prerequisite for influence. 

“Possessing” trust demands integrity over an extended period of time. (Possessing Facts requires only memorization.)

Trust has lovely philosophical qualities — but could Trust really replace Facts as the base unit of epistemic exchange?

What you spend when you buy an idea

Trust is already required for an exchange of ideas, like currency is required for an exchange of goods.

Grandma won’t believe you unless you preface your opinion with “According to The New York Times.”

If you don’t have your counterparty’s trust — or piggyback on someone who does — an exchange of ideas can’t even begin.

Casually, trust is like a currency in that way.

Formally, trust embodies many of the qualities praised in Bitcoin, gold, and fiat currencies. To show this, I’ve ripped off Winklevoss Capital’s famous comparisons of Bitcoin with other money from their presentation in 2014:

Trust is scarce.

There is only as much trust in the world as there are people to offer it. More trust cannot be created unilaterally, without consent.

Trust is durable.

Trust cannot be destroyed, only revoked. Trust lasts exactly as long as each “truster” wants it to in a given circumstance.

Trust is portable.

Trust, and the capacity to trust, don’t weigh anything and are easy to carry around.

Trust is divisible.

People are free to dispense trust in as great or as small quantities as they choose.

Trust can sometimes be authenticated, depending on what you mean by that.

If by “authenticate” you mean “determine whether you’re transacting with counterfeit currency” (e.g., looking at a $100 dollar bill in the light to see if it has the stripe), trust is mostly easy to authenticate. If you’re trusting someone else, it’s self-evident that you’re doing it. 

If you mean “determine whether others are transacting with counterfeit currency” — in this case, whether someone else is as trustworthy as they seem — trust is mostly difficult to authenticate.

Trust is easy to store.

See “Trust is portable.”

Trust is fungible.

Trust need not change its nature between applications. It’s the same “stuff” everywhere, and can be used to turn any conjecture into a Fact.

Trust is easy to counterfeit.

People can fake being trustworthy. This is a huge problem.

Trust also displays qualities not explored in the Winklevoss slide:

Trust is costly to obtain.

Trust demonstrates its value in the risk one takes to obtain it. 

If you risk your job to tell your boss a difficult truth, that’s valuable. If you risk a friendship to tell your friend a difficult truth, that’s valuable. Trust is backed by risks and labors of every kind. 

Orwell’s warning that “journalism is what somebody doesn’t want you to hear, everything else is public relations” speaks to risk as the prerequisite for journalistic trust.

Trust — like money — must be earned. 

Trust captures value.

While the “circulating supply” of trust is bound by humans, skillful allocation of trust creates more trust (without needing more humans), in the same way that skillful allocation of capital creates more capital (without printing more dollars).

200 years ago we might fear that a relative has died, and that we won’t find out for months or years. We don’t fear that so much anymore — not only because we have cell phones, but because we trust them to work properly, and we trust each other to use them for matters of import. We feel safe driving a car at 75 miles per hour because we trust that cars work properly enough of the time, and aren’t going to suddenly buck like a wild horse. There is more trust, where there once would have been less.

One could even call trust “the universal security” — We all profit from the well-placed trust of others, and suffer from their ill-placed trust.

The weaknesses of Trust as a currency all involve authenticity, which we’ll discuss in another article. To the extent authenticity can be solved for, trust resembles ideal currency. 

Assuming Trust is like a currency, how does the epistemic economy function?

Epistemic reserve notes

The epistemic economy functions much like the reserve bank economy on the gold standard.

Journalists mine for epistemic gold. They do research and investigate, intent on unearthing some shiny truth, no matter what perils stand in their way.

They know readers don’t want to redo all that work themselves, so they take the knowledge they’ve gained and summarize it in an article. The article says “I know this stuff for many reasons — to verify my reasons for yourself, look them up [here].”

A journalistic article, like a reserve bank note, is a lightweight convenience that invites the holder to redeem it for the promised underlying asset. For worldly currencies, it’s gold. For epistemic currencies, it’s truth.

Like the reserve note holder, the article reader is rarely expected to actually perform this redemption — only when the value of the note itself is in question.

Epistemic reserve notes thus represent trust in the publisher. They’re not “truth” — they’re supposedly redeemable for truth. Articles are promises that if you do your own research, you’ll reach the same conclusions that the publisher claims in its articles.

By trading in epistemic reserve notes instead of mining for truth yourself, you put your trust in the publishers of those notes.

Epistemic sanctions

Like worldly currencies, each epistemic currency is accepted by a different group of people.

The epistemic currencies you accept determine whom you can teach (sell to) or learn from (buy).

People often suspect certain publishers don’t actually have truth in their vaults. “Those epistemic reserve notes aren’t actually redeemable,” they say. “They print them, but there’s nothing behind them.”

Trust breathes life into epistemic currencies.

Its presence creates demand, and inspires trade.

Its absence imposes sanctions.

Universal epistemic trade

The notion of epistemic sanctions provides a clue as to what we might really mean by “consensus” in the context of public discourse — universal epistemic trade.

Universal epistemic trade means we all find at least the possibility of value in each other’s knowledge. Consensus involves universal mutual listening, not universal agreement.

A society without trust quickly becomes a society without truth — not because truth stops existing — but because only trust can carry truth from person to person.

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  1. You might be right that we lack a common “epistemic currency.” But even more problematic is the fact we use an economic metaphor to define, perceive, and act upon ‘truth’. Also, it could be valid to say that facts have been a proxy for ‘Trust’. But that might fundamentally come down to what Julian Jaynes refers to as authorization, archaic authorization vs self-authorization.

    In the archaic authorization of the bicameral mind, trust does not respect free will because it was not conceivable. Jaynes admitted he didn’t know what people meant when they spoke of ‘agency’. The question arises of who is the ‘person’ of which personal judgment is supposedly demanded by ‘truth’. This comes down to a profound disagreement between the ego theory of mind and the bundle theory of mind.

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