The Portal: Eric Weinstein, Agnes Callard, Philosophy

Estimated read time (minus contemplative pauses): 15 min.

Below are some thoughts I jotted down while listening to today’s new episode of Eric Weinstein’s fantastic podcast The Portal: “Agnes Callard – Courage, Meta-cognitive detachment and their limits” (episode 23, 2/24/20).

NOTE: I wrote this in a rush while in a state of delirious exhaustion. It shows. But I want to post today. Might come back soon-ish to polish a little.

My point here is not to critique or dissect or summarize. You’d be much better off listening to the episode than reading any such attempts.

First, I feel I must preface the notes, as I come across in them as more critical than I mean to.

I’m a tremendous fan of The Portal and of Weinstein’s idiosyncratic cognitive and discursive style. “Fan” is the wrong word. I was resistant to him at first (though I couldn’t put my finger on why until I thought about today’s episode; more about that in a moment), and so avoided the podcast. But I eventually listened to The Portal and was won over.

I’ll go so far as to say that, at certain moments, I view the thing as a watery oasis in an otherwise mostly dry intellectual landscape. A nice feeling to have while dragging the recycling bins to the curb through the latest blanket of Milwaukee sidewalk-ice.

But seriously, I don’t think the oasis is a mirage I’m seeing in those inspiring moments. As he gets more popular, he seems to be holding fast to his principles (e.g., of not dumbing things down), and in fact getting bolder, which makes me uneasy at times—but hey, I can’t saying I haven’t been asking for it with my listenership (of the many podcasts I listen to, it’s the only one that I drop everything when I see a “new episode” alert). As he gets bolder, perhaps I will too.

Though I do miss the reverse ads, in which he promotes a product he likes with the hope that they’ll in turn offer sponsorship. You can tell, though, when he’s just speed-reading copy from a sponsor and when he likes a product. On today’s episode he (I believe) premiered a song he wrote for Four Sigmatic mushroom coffee. By coincidence I’m right now sipping my first sip of said beverage (delicious, earthy). The box arrived a few minutes ago. My partner and I ordered it after seeing the new film Fantastic Fungi and agreeing that we need some of those fancy mushrooms in our life, to which I said: “I know where.” Thanks to Mr. Weinstein.1

Ok. Here are the notes, with minimal clarifying and editing.

Today’s guest, Agnes Callard, teaches philosophy at the University of Chicago. Her manner of interlocution is pleasantly in line with what I expect from philosophers. This is my comfort zone. I like it. As it’s with Weinstein, it’s like an episode of Elucidations* gone through The Portal.

[*An excellent University of Chicago–based philosophy podcast. Callard was that show’s very first guest.]

I enjoyed very much what Callard brought to the conversation, and in fact agreed with her most of the time. I won’t say much about that here. Rather, I’ll focus mostly on one aspect of Weinstein’s contribution.

Here’s a possibly wrong impression I’ve been nurturing. When Weinstein knows a little about a field, he endeavors to use the relevant technical lingo (e.g., biology, music). When he knows very little, he defaults to math metaphors. (Or replace knows with some more appropriate word.) I won’t speculate here on the extent he is aware of the phenomenon, or what, if anything, he thinks speaking this way accomplishes—i.e., what effect it has on listeners. And I’ll leave it to each listener to evaluate for themselves its effect on them.

I myself have gotten used to it, and have come to to like it, in fact. But I also think it plays a role in why I was resistant to Weinstein early on. It was on an episode of Sam Harris’s podcast (which I’ve stopped listening to since he put up a paywall; too expensive for me; though apparently you can email and ask for a free subscription for a year). It was a live episode, which is already a problem for me: the inevitable playing-to-the-audience degrades what I like about even my favorite podcasts.

One of the guests was philosopher Rebecca Goldstein. The conversation at points went to places Weinstein seemed uninterested in, like free will and consciousness (in fact, in a recent The Portal episode, he explicitly tells Roger Penrose that his work on consciousness is a waste of time) and moral realism-vs-relativism (though maybe he is somewhat interested in that topic).

I’m not going to go back to listen in order to check my memory (it wasn’t an enjoyable episode), but I distinctly remember thinking, “Who is this guy turning everything into math metaphors?” I clearly remember the phrase “boundary conditions” being used. The episode misled me horribly. (In retrospect, I think he might have been a little nervous as well, and maybe holding back, for reasons I’ll skip speculating about.)

I also soon after fell under the mistaken impression that Weinstein was an unknown hedge-fund type riding into my earbuds on the recent notoriety of his brother. That impression was more grievously mistaken than I have space to get into here. But I will say: Eric Weinstein was making a public name for himself well before his brother’s name rose up in the ideosphere. And with good reason.

I’ve since listened not only to all of The Portal, but also Weinstein’s appearances on other people’s podcasts (even the very, very long episodes he did with Joe Rogan). And, I’ll take a moment to say it again: I think The Portal is fantastic. More than that: it’s important. (Another day, perhaps, I’ll say more about why I think so.) Ok, onward.

On today’s episode of The Portal it’s again philosophy that Weinstein turns into metaphors. But not particular areas of philosophy so much as philosophy as a whole (maybe I need to listen again to verify this). I get the sense that he hasn’t attended a philosophy course, particularly not an ethics course. And not just because he dismisses the field. (I believe “dismiss” is the accurate word, appropriately strong. “Reject” might work, too.) But because of the way he talks about philosophy, the way he criticizes the field and its practitioners.

And as he dismisses the field, he uses a lot of math metaphors (and maybe some similes, if I’m being careful). The talk goes pretty deep, arriving at a point where he seems to say that it’s in fact because of his training in math that he’s privy to special insights that lead him to dismiss philosophy.

I wonder how this fits with the fact that so many important philosophers, including in the 20th century, have been mathematicians. Bertrand Russel is an obvious example. And Russel was just as critical as Weinstein is of the fancy-sounding things said by overly obtuse philosophers. But this didn’t lead him to reject philosophy. I could name plenty of others, including people alive and well and teaching today.

Weinstein cites Hegel to make this point, and apparently as support for dismissing philosophy. But this strikes me as being like dismissing music on the grounds of not liking the Rolling Stones.

Now, this brings me to the point I really want to make here. I think it applies to the arts in general. Perhaps to any area involving deep creative insight (e.g., theoretical physics, philosophy).

It would not be incoherent for a musician to say: “I love no jazz music I’ve heard, it all bores me out of my mind. I love jazz.”

Similarly, I love a very, very, very small musical output (like most people). Statistically, you could say I don’t like music. But what I do love I love with great intensity. That’s as a listener. As a maker of music, it goes beyond this. I try to make the music I want to hear above all other music, to fulfill the promise of my own expectations of music. To make music that matches my own brain and soul.

That’s a different kind of love. It’s a love for music as a thing in itself. A love that needs no actual songs, or at least no good ones, and that maybe even thrives best in such absences. It’s why we can never say that “music is getting worse.” We can fail to find or create the music we want to hear. But music itself doesn’t get better or worse. It just is, and always is. And it’s a promise of what can be. Perhaps an impossible promise, but a damn convincing one. A devilishly enticing one!

I’ll try to say this better. It’s possible to dislike every single piece of music you’ve ever heard, while loving music all the while. And it’s then possible to say: “I don’t like any music I’ve heard or made. But I keep making music because someone’s got to get it right one of these days. Maybe it’ll be me. It probably won’t be. But maybe it will be.”

[That’s actually sort of why I started making music in the first place. I’d read about Frank Zappa as a teenager, mainly in guitar magazines (such as in interviews with Steve Vai). I was anxious to hear Zappa’s music, which I vividly imagined. I finally got ahold of Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch. I loved much of it, but it wasn’t what I was imagining. So I got more and more Zappa, still hoping to find the music in my head. It one day dawned on me: the music in my head is my own, I should start writing it down. And so I started writing it down. Maybe I would have started writing it down even faster had I hated Zappa’s music.]

Now, there’s plenty of music that I love intensely. But my point is that there wouldn’t have to be in order for me to love music. If there were no such music—if I suddenly found myself transported to a world where there is no such music—I’d have to work that much harder to help bring it into existence. There are, in fact, certain styles of music I’ve felt this way about, and other forms of creative pursuit as well. And artists I’ve known working in various other media have told me something similar.

I also feel this way about philosophy. Maybe this gets at the mistake Weinstein is making. Maybe he’s mistaking things he dislikes that have come out of the practice of philosophy for philosophy itself. On top of that, maybe he’s expecting the wrong things from philosophy.

Philosophy is one interesting, illuminating, though-provoking failure after another. The best of it is, anyway. (And perhaps the sum gift here—the loftiest goal we can aspire to—is the illumination of our confusion, more about which tomorrow, I think.)

[How did I get into philosophy? I didn’t, really. I didn’t grow up in an environment in which such a thing would come up. I was always contemplative, though. Introspective and obsessively drawn to a certain kind of breaking down and puzzling about the world. And so on. When I finally learned about philosophy, I thought oh, there’s a name for this way I’ve always been. I had to major in philosophy. Every paper I wrote for every class came out like a philosophy paper. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a story like this one from a philosopher. I’m always very curious about people who are averse to philosophy—whose experience is the opposite of my own. It’s almost unthinkable to me. More unthinkable than disliking music. More like disliking all food and beverages. All of them. “All food and beverages taste terrible and have terrible texture.” I’d worry about such a person. And wonder what on Earth they’ve been consuming all their life. Or what’s living in their throat.]

Weinstein has a reverence for music that he lacks for philosophy. But he has  experience with music. It doesn’t seem to be a life-long, eat-drink-sleep devotee’s experience. But plenty of experience and some obvious knowledge of theory as well. So when he talks about music he doesn’t do it with math analogies.

(Of course there are mathematical elements to pitch relations and so on in music. He may well make reference to these, but so do many musicians. I’ll also note that I don’t mean to imply that music theory is a requirement for being a great musician. It emphatically is not.)

Music is unavoidable. Philosophy isn’t. I wonder if Weinstein’s dismissal of philosophy is due to never having really engaged it. Oddly, he seems to think he knows more about philosophy than he knows about music. At some points he seems to be explaining what philosophy is—a requirement in order to explain why it’s to be dismissed—to Callard herself. Maybe he didn’t mean for it to come across this way. But it did.

Ultimately, Weinstein faces the same impossible paradox faced by anyone aiming to give an elaborate argument against philosophy: to give a good argument of that sort is to engage in philosophy. It would be best done, in fact, by someone with at least some training in philosophy. Who else has both the argumentative tools to do so and knowledge of the field?

There’s a temptation to break down the paradox by saying that what Weinstein means by philosophy is the current, professionalized academic philosophy. Even if that were the case, while I’d understand the resistance, I’d need a good reason to reject it. Such a reason is unlikely to come from someone who (as Weinstein admits of himself in this episode) has no idea what goes on in philosophy departments.

The vast majority of undergraduate philosopher majors I’ve known chose not to pursue graduate degrees in philosophy, often due to criticism of the field. For starters, as Callard points out, the introduction of the PhD to the field is a fairly new thing that’s been added—or I’d cynically call it an institutional hurdle, for reasons I won’t get into here. But those students still value philosophy.

Which suggests an analogy I’m fond of making. The PhD may be to philosophy what the MFA is to writing. Let’s apply that to the present context. Being completely against the idea of an MFA for writing is not a reason to be against writing itself. I’d say the same goes for the PhD and philosophy, or possibly even the BA and philosophy.

But Weinstein doesn’t quite frame his rejection that way. Nor is he quite rejecting the millennia-old tradition that continues to this day, including among those who aren’t professional philosophers, among whom I’d include Weinstein. He seems to think philosophy started out Ok, but seems resistant to talk of the ancients (they’re not my favorite either). More explicitly, he begins to reject it at least by Hegel (whom he cites; whom I’ve barely read), though he also seems to imply that he rejects it as of the linguistic turn, an early 20th century–development often seen as starting with Gottlob Frege, a mathematician. So maybe that’s not at all what Weinstein is critical of. I want to hear more.

At any event, I don’t see a way around the above-noted paradox, which I end up noting every time I hear an argument against philosophy: “that’s a lovely philosophical argument against philosophy you have there.”

The clearest practical manifestation in this episode is when Weinstein says the conversation is going very well. I view the conversation itself to take place squarely within the realm of philosophy, and I imagine Callard would agree—would take the discussion to be an instance of doing philosophy. For Weinstein to fully dismiss philosophy, he would need to say that this discussion is not an instance of doing philosophy. Or worse: Callard is contributing philosophy, while Weinstein, having seen through the problems of philosopher, is steer-correcting her.

I’m confident he’d sincerely reject the latter interpretation. He may have some other response that somehow convincingly salvages this good conversation as a product of philosophical practice, while simultaneously dismissing the practice of philosophy. But I doubt it.

In short, I think Weinstein is doing philosophy but doesn’t realize it. Why? Because he lacks the experience to realize it.

That said, I will give him this. Some people are simply troubled by the questions philosophers are willing to entertain. Weinstein portrays himself as one of them. But the truth is that philosophers themselves have varying thresholds in this respect. In this episode of the Philosophy Bites podcast, for instance, philosopher Raimond Gaita argues that the question of torture shouldn’t even be on the table for discussion: “Raimond Gaita on Torture” (3/30/08). Gaita notes that this isn’t uncommon—no philosopher today, for instance, would debate whether slavery should be reinstated.

But this isn’t just about what is open for debate. Many philosophers might be thoroughly against torture, yet are willing to tell you why. In other words, they are debating the question. They might do so even if they are perplexed that it is a debate. Now, to be a good philosopher, one must try to understand the point of view of their interlocutor, as evil as that person may be. You’ll simply do a better job of dismantling their argument if you do. (In the eyes of those sensitive to such things, at least.)

And here is where philosophers might get into trouble. An ethics professor might play a poker-faced Devil’s advocate for a position they despise, just to get their students thinking: to train their students to be able to take down the opposition. You can only do this if you’ve read the oppositions arguments close enough and taken them seriously. (I recall hearing Natalie Wynn complain about this as something lacking from her own early philosophical training, wherein she and her classmates hadn’t read Libertarian philosophers, only Lefties ones, and thus were unprepared when actually confronted with Righties.)

I’ve also met Jewish philosophers who try to get into the heads of Nazis. Sometimes this requires assuming some loathsome proposition true if only for the sake of a reductio, maybe even for the sake of an absurdum rebuttal. Some folks are horrified by this. (I recall a philosophy PhD candidate telling me that his mother was in the latter camp, struggling to understand her son’s insistence on asking the questions. He tried to explain why this is what philosophers do, but apparently unsuccessfully.)

If someone’s intuitions are such that most such questions can’t be entertained (though I’d want some philosophically grounded reason why; ugh), perhaps philosophy is just not for them. That said, Weinstein himself entertains such thought experiments, or at least asks others to (a favorite is: “should we tear down the Arch of Titus that celebrates the taking of Jerusalem?”). So I’m not sure his intuitive threshold is so low in this respect.

Or maybe he’s just worried that to study philosophy these days feels mostly like trying to keep track and make sense of who has contributed what micro-variation to an endlessly expanding, cross-referenced catalog of thought experiments that, the more variation there is, the further these puzzles-for-their-own-sake get from reality.

But philosophers, too, are critical of this. Daniel Dennett with his “Higher-Orders Truths About Chmess,” whose simple abstract is:

Many projects in contemporary philosophy are artifactual puzzles of no abiding significance, but it is treacherously easy for graduate students to be lured into devoting their careers to them, so advice is proffered on how to avoid this trap.

And I’ve written here of complaints about the endless catalog: Frankfurt Cases & Moral v. Legal Responsibility.

But  then there’s Weinstein himself again with his Arch of Titus thought experiment (which I think is a good one) and his infinite tower of meta-cognitive analysis (or whatever it was). And aren’t mathematicians always talking about the importance of doing math for its on sake? Unbound to reality, beautiful in its own right. Haven’t I heard Weinstein promote this idea? And you never know what use it will have later (if you really care about that).

Why can’t this apply to philosophy? He seems to reject that the coming to relevance of trolly problems doesn’t vindicate the work that’s been done by philosophers before it was a real-world problem (much less thought experiments as a whole). Maybe he’s right. But it’s still not a reason to dismiss philosophy.

All right. I’ve said way too much. I’ll end with this.

Near the end of the episode, at about hour-and-fifty minutes mark, he asks one of the best questions I’ve heard a podcast hosts ask. It goes in a direction of unexpected disagreement, on which I find myself emphatically agreeing with Weinstein (which wasn’t true throughout; Callard made me feel proud of my college major), though I’m less comfortable with the way in which he makes his point and am a bit unsure of his rationale (we may disagree on the specifics, but I agree in the broad).

(It then ends abruptly. I can’t help but wonder if Weinstein felt himself succumbing to some strong emotions. Or maybe their time was simply up.)

Callard enthusiastically shared the episode on Twitter, which I hope is a sign that she’ll return. I look forward to it eagerly, as I do every venture through The Portal.


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Further Reading

Footnotes:

  1. Also today, I started a new gig, which I found at a famous job-listings company that sponsored today’s episode. There was no original song for that one. Understandably.

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