Blockchain Civitas Dei and Civitas Terrena: Governance Experiments as a Problem of ‘Frontier Epistemology’ and ‘Heuristic Appraisal’

Denisa Reshef Kera, Joshua Ellul, Diego Fernando Bernard Francia

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The paper focuses on the philosophical challenges of governance over trustless ledgers, namely Bitcoin Layer 2 solutions in El Salvador. Blockchain adoption in El Salvador is an example of policy based on a ‘frontier epistemology’ (Nickles 2009), creating a situation where “facts are uncertain, values are in dispute, stakes are high, and decisions are urgent” (Funtowicz and Ravetz 1993). Trustless ledgers play a role of such ‘frontiers’ of knowledge and governance that support a variety of technocratic, heuristic, and experimental policy approaches. They challenge the traditional knowledge frameworks and governance processes responsible for attempts to embed (align) predetermined ideologies (values and stakes) into the technology over standards. Instead, as amalgams of social, political, legal, and economic interventions, ledgers function simultaneously as a contract, a monetary system, a political value commitment, and a governance structure. By integrating facts, values, and stakes into algorithms, they define the frontiers of epistemology and governance in two opposing ways. On the one hand, trustless ledgers embody Augustine’s Civitas Dei (the City of God) as a new design (novum consilium) that promises a future world (futurum saeculum) (Augustine 1968). With a promise of a system, where everyone is ‘free’ to not being able to ‘sin’ (non posse peccare - delet the res non peccare), social agency is reduced to a code of a trustless infrastructure. On the other hand, ledgers support experimental (Sabel and Zeitlin 2012) and heuristic policymaking (Nickles 2009) that saves social agency and cuts ‘through traditional discovery/justification and descriptive/ normative distinctions’ (Nickles 2009). The distributed ledgers as governance experiments then redefine Civitas Terrena’s governance as a challenge of ‘heuristic appraisal’ (Nickles 2009), ‘directly deliberative polyarchy’ (Cohen and Sabel 1997), and ‘experimentalist governance’ (Sabel and Zeitlin 2012). To elaborate on the blockchain governance experiments, we will use two Bitcoin initiatives in El Salvador (Bitcoin City and Bitcoin Beach) and discuss them in the context of a broader adoption of blockchain in South America.

Original languageEnglish
Article number39
JournalGlobal Philosophy
Issue number4
StatePublished - Aug 2023

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2023, The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature B.V.


  • Blockchain
  • Directly deliberative polyarchy
  • Distributed ledger technology
  • Experimentalist governance
  • Heuristic appraisal
  • Post-normal science


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