23: Agnes Callard - Courage, Meta-cognitive detachment and their limits

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Courage, Meta-cognitive detachment and their limits
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Guest Agnes Callard
Length 02:11:03
Release Date 24 February 2020
YouTube Date 11 March 2020
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Episode Highlights

Philosopher and University of Chicago Professor Agnes Callard sits down with Eric on this episode of The Portal. Agnes is a champion of the philosophical tradition of attempting to detach the capacity for inquiry and reason from the fog of feelings and societal taboos that often keep us from delving deeper into the questions that animate our lives.

Agnes began this unusual back and forth by writing an article about status negotiation in first meetings shortly after the pair first met. Eric and Agnes then use the opportunity of this episode to continue this line of thought by exploring the limits of courage and meta-cognition within the examined life of a modern Philosopher. This results in a real-time exploration by two people who mutually respect each other as to whether they can actually negotiate a detached discussion in real time on the very issues of status, feeling, and taboo that may divide them and/or arise between them.

As Agnes has written thoughtfully about the many layers of anger, the conversation culminates by exploring dyadic feelings of hurt and indignation with which we all struggle and suffer in our relationships. Ultimately the two finish this experimental conversation with good cheer, together with a wish to continue the discussion at a later date under continuing mutual fondness and admiration.

Eric Weinstein (right) talking with Agnes Callard (left) on episode 23 of The Portal Podcast

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Transcript[edit]

[Intro Music]

E - Hello, you've found The Portal. I'm your host Eric Weinstien and today I am here with University of Chicago Professor of Philosophy, Agnes Callard.

A - Hi.

E - Agnes welcome!

A - Thank you.

E - I want to talk to you about everything,

A - Okay.

E - Do you mind?

A - No.

E - So, you just had an interesting and bizarre gambit, I didn't know you were coming out to southern California and you said to me that after a meeting we had in your office at the University of Chicago, "Hey, you should take a look at this article I wrote partially based on our meeting." And the article is one about negotiating initial meetings and what are all the layers of dynamics that are going on when two people collide for the first time.

A - Yeah, I think that when two people collide for the first time I guess there are sort of two things at the base level that are happening. One of them is they are trying to figure out how to get along, how to cooperate, and the other is they are trying to take the measure of one another. And those activities aren't totally separate from one another.

E - And, I've noticed a pattern with you which is that you take great delight in talking about the things that many of us do sort of naturally or unconsciously. It might be very uncomfortable to promote to full consciousness so that you can use your metacognitive facility to interrogate and dissect what is going on many many different levels; Some of them philosophical, some of them rooted in biology, some of them maybe with allusions to literature. When you and I met, were you aware of what you were going through in real time or did it come to you later that this was going to be grist for an article.

A - Oh, totally later. My mind was completely on another article I was working on.

E - Oh, so you weren't concentrating on when we were meeting, on our meeting?

A - No, not really. Oh, I mean, I think that a lot of the time I feel like a lot of the thinking that I do is like unpacking thinking I did earlier but wasn't realizing I was doing. Or something like that. So, like...

[02:29] E - It's hard with this language when you have to say "I" when you're actually realizing you have so many different processes. Okay, keep going.

A - Right, I guess maybe one common thread.. I do like to, yeah maybe I kind of have an affinity towards the provocative or something but maybe at a deeper level I think that there is just, when we talk about ourselves / when we think about our lives there are all these sort of cracks in the facade of, like, who we take ourselves to be and how we present ourselves. But the thing is, like, that we have kind of convinced ourselves that the cracks are part of the design because we have been looking at them so long, right? Like, Ooh look what a pretty pattern. And I want

Transcript of the last 20 minutes[edit]

This section of the podcast is where they discuss Agnes Callard's reaction to Episode 19 of The Portal with Bret Weinstein.

Transcript starts at 1 hour, 51 minutes of the audio from Apple podcasts

They are talking about episodes of The Portal that she has listened to. She said she found them interesting but then he asked her about whether they were "worth her while"?

E - But then you sort of said that "no, that wasn't really a great exercise for you, or something like that".

A - yep

E - That hurt me. What are your reactions to that? I think that the show is quite a bit better, particularly one or two of the episodes that you listened to, I think are extraordinary and it made me feel that you could not possibly have seen what it is that I saw in those one or two episodes, because it would have been worth 10 hours of your time because it was so rare. Now, I could be wrong so it's very interesting that, of course, I have a vested interest so I'm budgeting something for my own distortion. I'm also thinking about what the feedback I've had, how specific the feedback has been

A - u-huh

E - made me question whether or not I viewed you as a reliable receiver of the content of the show. Had I over-invested in my image of you as the person capable of processing what we're doing here. And it made me wonder whether or not I'm doing something outside of the academy which the academy sort of realises is some cheap version of intellectualism and story telling and narrative that would never survive in a rigorous academic context. So I went through a bunch of self doubt, accusation, negative feeling, question and uncertainty about you , myself and the project that we were going to sit down and create an episode together.

A - that's a great question. So, I guess - let me report a bunch of different things. So, the first thing, when you said... you asked me, like, how does that feel. To me when you said "that hurt me". Immediately I felt hurt. Like I felt a reflexive, totally non-conscious empathetic response. Though I didn't at the time when I first said it. It didn't hurt me to say that to you. But it, often, I don't...

E - well, I should say both of us are quite disagreeable as people and it's my perception that both of us feel comfortable contradicting something if we... it's an issue of the courage of your convictions and I think that you in general have a very high courage of your convictions and are willing to share.

A - oh, but also it's an issue of I had no perception at all that it hurt you when I said it and I'm often bad at picking up on those signals and it makes it easier to be (corrupted?)...

E - I was asking it because it was obviously a very vulnerable question and so the last thing I wanted to do was signal to you that I could be easily hurt

A - fair enough. But perhaps also I could also have, if I were somewhat otherwise, I would predict that, but I didn't at all actually

E - cool, ok

A - so, um, I guess that was just my instinctive response.and now, like, you know, yeah - I think that your subsequent ruminations, maybe the most interesting bit in them is the bit about academia. So, what's interesting to me is that, at the moment at which I have this response, it is attributed to me as an academic, right? Like...

E - well, episode 19 of this show...

A - yeah

E - it is about the kinds of things that take place in universities all over the country that I'm alleging that has not filtered out to some extent to the general public.

E - right

E - there is a tremendous amount of pressure to survive in academics causing people in my opinion - just as we say... well, let me say it differently. Concentration camp survivors from World War Two, death camp survivors, will often say something if they trust you, which is "don't celebrate us because the ones who survived weren't the good ones. We did what we had to do to survive.It's the ones who perished that you're really thinking about."

A - h-hm

E - it's a very tough thing to say. In general when I meet someone who has succeeded in academics, they are always under a cloud. If they did it under this era, because the pressures simply too severe. Now, some people do better than that, y'know if you're good enough you can have a peacock's tale that you are in fact an ethical academician but in general people are going to have to take intellectual and moral half-measures in order to survive in this competitive of an environment. So, I was trying to talk about that in episode 19, not actually attempting to single out an individual. The weirdness that simply talking about a problem in a particular case when people haven't understood that problem will tend to privilege an individual but by the hundredth case of it you start to realise that this is a general feature pervading the society.

A - good. So, maybe a couple of different responses. So, I found that the scientific content was all new to me. I didn't know anything about this way in which the, kind of, the propensity of a cell to become tumorous - if you want to cut down on that you have to make it bad at repair and that was so interesting to me

E - that is weirdly the central insight rather than the narrative and the drama of interpersonal warfare within the academy, just, what is death? Why is it baked in.

A - right. So, as I say there are a lot of different things and for me that was actually super interesting and I went and looked and read the abstract of a paper and...

E - you're awesome, thank you

A - but I guess the thing is I did feel that the sort of thrust of the episode was supposed to be - this is how things can go wrong and I get that on an interpersonal level I get that it is that but the way I hear the story, there was this incredible scientific discovery that happened partly because of an academic context, and it happened and the truth got out. And like it's your brother, and so you love him and you're heartbroken about stuff that happened to him, but he's not my brother and from my point of view, look at what academia did, it got this truth out....

E - are you fucking kidding, Agnes? Let's actually do this as emotional and cognitive.

A - good

E - who gets to leave children? People who become professors. If you look at the professors who are left by a great professor, the idea that the thought is what got out there and by virtue of the fact that in some sense there was a conflict. This is what I calll the horse and rider problem. Let's knock there order off of the horse and as long as we have the horse then that is what matters. This is a complete misreading of history because the key. thing that we find is a Michael Atiyah, for example, a great mathematician will leave multiple fields medalists as students. People who are at the very top of their game. This whole thing is about the train of transmission. When you actually effectively castrate or give a hysterectomy to a professor so that they cannot reproduce what you're doing is you're harming the ability to propagate the specialness that allows... the machine tools of those discoveries. You're confusing the important measure, with the tool and the machine tool. The machine tool is the tool that makes tools.

A - u-huh

E - it's a... I think it's an incredible opportunity and, you know, you have also written on the topic of anger, right?

A - Yeah

E - This is a question of functional anger. I find that outrageous, what you just said and I don't think I find it outrageous because I am flush with chemicals and I don't think it's because it's my brother. If you were to talk to me about Douglas Prasher (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Douglas_Prasher) Douglas Prasher was one of the people who gave us green flourescent protein or PFP, he was driving a shuttle bus in Huntsville Alabama. Before I was championing my brother, I was championing Douglas Prasher because how could it be that the person who should have been on the Nobel Prize for GFP in full view of the academic community was driving not only a shuttle bus in Huntsville Alabama but after being featured in the New York Times with a full, top, above the fold picture of Doug, a year later he was still driving a shuttle bus in Huntsville Alabama. So, and I mean this with all academic rigour - "what the fuck is wrong with that thought process that that's what you think?"

A - So, I think, like, I'm not sure you're clear in your own mind as to which bit of this you find offensive. It seems to me that from the way that you were just talking about Douglas Prasher that a lot of it for you is about credit and who gets credit

E - it's about reproduction

A - so your problem is that Douglas Prasher didn't get to have students.

E - Douglas Prasher didn't get to have students. This is just like an amazing inability to understand what the game is

A - Well, your brother did get to have students

E - No, he didn't

A - well, I mean

E - No, he didn't

A - well, he went on to teach, didn't he have students?

E - he taught at a weird undergraduate institution with no graduate program. You're really not getting it.

A - But, didn't he choose to teach there? And didn't he see that teaching... his description of that teaching there was that it was extremely valuable to him....

E - yes, it's a very sweet story and, right now for example, I have a discord group and I'm teaching people with no formal background how to see gauge theory. The key point is that you don't understand what a university is. It's a very special place and who gets to reproduce and who doesn't is the story of our future. I mean this is about... so we belong to this Jewish tradition and I always use the same phrase, L'dor va'dor, https://jel.jewish-languages.org/words/302 - from generation to generation. What has gone wrong in the academy that it sees things it terms of credit, status and all these things? It's about the resources and the ability to reproduce students in an incredibly intensive relationship where there's a transmission. You see, in my field, in Mathematics, the top mathematicians they have not externalised what they know into their papers - it's a fraction of what they know. You still can't get at these relationships from reading work, you actually have to go and you actually have to sit with the people who produced the papers, it's the machine tools.


A - u-huh, I mean, it's weird to me that in some way we agree more than I thought we would on that point in that, look, I think teaching is the fundamental activity of a university

E - I don't think so.

A - but you... so there's some other magic way that this reproduces?

E - research is the fundamental activity of the research university. The problem with the University is that it's a confusion. If you think about the biathlon, which I always use as an example. The first time I heard about the biathlon, I laughed. Cross-country skiing and riflery. What the hell are these two activities doing in one sport? Well, if you live in Finland you know exactly why you would want to combine those two activities because you've got Russians on your eastern border, so in general there's an activity that's important in Norway and Sweden and Finland and Russia and places like that, because you shoot the enemy while on skis. OK. The teaching university is an incredibly confusing object to many people. Because of the Vanevar Bush pact called the Endless Frontier, we agreed that we were going to have the federal governments investment in blue-sky research only done through the Universities effectively and that meant that we took an incredibly important facility and we confused it with teaching. Now, there's an extent to which those are symbiotic, that they boost each other, that teaching and research are sort of happy complements to each other and there's a way in which they conflict.

A - but I don't understand how you think this reproduction, how you think, so... suppose you're going to reproduce yourself in me. How do you do that without teaching me?

E - well, the kind of teaching that we usually talk about when we talk about teaching, it tends to be very focussed on the undergraduates, so when you said 'didn't my brother get to leave students?' you're talking about relationship... to undergraduate students, because there's no graduate students there

A - I find that for me that line is not as heavy

E - how many members of your department, on the faculty don't have PhDs?

A - Don't have PhDs?

E - like Freeman Dyson doesn't have a PhD

A - Right, I believe all of them have PhDs but that's new in Philosophy. The older generation there were a number that didn't.

E - I understand but now you have a situation in which you have a requirement to be able to reproduce where you have done research. This kind of close teaching, this appreticeship

A - Good. And so, like, I think that you can say. So, this helps to clarify the situation. So, you can say that your brother was deprived of an opportunity to do a certain kind of teaching.

E - Let's talk about Douglas Prasher

A - Douglas Prasher was fully deprived of an opportunity to do any kind of teaching...

E - Furthermore, he wasn't able to do any more of that kind of research. He couldn't get resources. He in fact gave over his work because his grant ran out.

A - Right

E - I'm thinking.. I'm not as interested in the person who's good at administrative games who got to stay in the game, I'm interested in the Douglas Prasher and getting the predators the hell out of the way so that these guys can continue to work. In other words, they need a https://jel.jewish-languages.org/words/1693, yiddish for a strong, you know muscle. So you need muscle to make sure that the sweet people who can actually do great work aren't prayed upon. You have sharp minds and sharp elbows and the key point is that somebody's got to break the sharp elbows. That's very important to me.

A - I mean... but look, there's a question about... and maybe you've seen many hundreds or thousands of these cases

E - I wouldn't say thousands. I would say tens

A - right, and in listening to that podcast. That was listening, to me, to one case. And then I also have to go with my own experience...

E - so, you haven't seen much of this. I mean you're in a Philosophy department. I know nothing about how you guys do. What I will say is that in situations... like let's take a situation where there's no skullduggery within academics, but a career stops. So, Évariste Galois https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Évariste_Galois couldn't be a more important mathematician. More or less created group theory and Galois theory the day before he died...

A - in a duel

E - in a duel, right. Does it matter that he died? Yes. Hugely. Why? We have Galois theory, we have Group Theory. Thank you very much

A - right. We could have more.

E - we could have much more. And so the issue of just sort of the casual indifference to saying that the system works. That the story and the work could proceed, is a stunning fact to me. Like, to me, you know Res ipsa loquitur https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Res_ipsa_loquitur and the idea that that is a normal piece of academics is effectively the proof to me that there's something wildly wrong

A - Yeah, I mean I guess I just think that there's a question. So, like part of that story was a lot of venality and pressures that come from people wanting credit for things and people wanting y'know... caring about name and reputation etc. and there's a question there about suppose we got rid of that. Suppose we changed people's psyches so that they didn't care about that

E - Suppose we had the ability to leave students and gain resources without needing to care. Let's proceed from there because I think this is going to be almost the last thing. So, it comes back to status where we began. So it comes back to status where we began

A - yeah

E - so my claim is that status is a proximate and the ultimate is the ability to transmit and create knowledge and the key issue is that, lacking a PhD and lacking the ability to compete for grants handily, which are status-mediated, means that your line becomes self-extinguishing. That's the real issue.

A - yeah. I do think that this actually, where it gets back to is happiness. That my life can't be about whether my line is extinguished or not. My life has to be something the meaning of which comes home to me and it's not that that's not integrated into an activity where I try to put something forward, but the point of the pursuit of knowledge can't be to always be handing down the tools to hand down the tools some more

E - what a beautiful place for our next disagreement. You were taking the point of view of soma, I of germ, you of the self and I of lineage, so I think we have a great opportunity to begin our next conversation. Agnes, I just want to say. I find you utterly charming. A huge work out mentally. It's a great pleasure, you're welcome to come back any time and thank you so much for dropping by

A - thank you.