Who or Whom: A Conversation with Adam Carter
This week I try something new — interviewing the most intelligent people I can find, who have their Saturdays free.
My first self-styled conversation is with Adam Cater. Adam lives in Wellington, where he has been a policy advisor for almost 3 years. He has a master’s degree in philosophy and has traveled broadly.
How this works
We decided to sit down and ask each other a couple of questions, based on our experiences. I’ll begin with my questions to Adam.
Q: What is the most meaningful or impactful conversation you’ve ever had?
A: I remember standing on a walking bridge one day, looking down at the fish when I found myself standing next to this rather eccentric guy. Given we were both just loafing around, we started to make small talk — turned out he was a retired European intellectual.
Anyway, we got on to philosophy, and he said some things that have stuck with me ever since. Whilst talking about making life decisions he introduced me to the metaphor of being on a boat at sea and having to fix the boat so it could weather uncertain circumstances ahead. I don’t know why I found this so interesting at the time. However, I remember running back to the library afterward and writing all these amazing thoughts down.
We continued to meet for some time, over coffee, so I can’t remember exactly what was said when.
Q: It seems like one of those unexpected moments. It wasn’t a formal lecture or anything?
A: No, and I think it’s the conversational aspect of philosophy that has always interested me, too. That was one thing I always longed for when I studied — it’s a shame academic philosophy doesn’t seem to elicit these conversations.
Q: How have you found the transition from academia to the ‘real’ world?
A: Well, there are many similarities between the core public sector, particularly in policy, and the university. I was quite struck by the level of insight and the critical thinking ability of many of my colleagues when I first arrived, and the sheer speed at which they could command that insight.
Also, academics have their own areas of expertise and accumulation of knowledge. This is similar to the public sector — there’s lots of encouragement to share ideas. So in some ways, I have found the parallels between the university and the public sector quite fascinating.
Q: Any differences?
A: Yes — you’re trying to more explicitly produce products, responding day-to-day to Ministerial priorities, and it’s not always going to be super interesting.
For me, it’s been overall a really good move, and I am pleased I did it, even if I still miss university and want to go back someday. If uni is 90% talking and thinking, then the public sector is 90% doing.
However, in some ways, the public sector has been an insight into applied philosophy. For example — learning about the relationship between the Ministry and the Minister. Everyone is familiar with ideas like political neutrality and evidenced-based policy, but when you dig into them there’s a lot more to it. The Ministry will often have a position on something, and that may come from its stewardship role, but that may conflict with what the government wants. I’m not saying this is a huge factor in our day-to-day operations, but reflecting on this during my work has been interesting.
Overall though, work has exposed me to a whole other sphere of life, where deep thinking takes place. I imagine it’s the same for lots of other industries, but uni can sometimes give you the impression that it’s the single institution for this, with a monopoly on knowledge.
I still wish I could explore ideas for ideas' sake (without the need for immediate actionable change), but that very uni-focused approach has its downsides — it can be super lonely at times and quite self-centered.
Q: So how have you accommodated your interests since you left uni?
A: I’ve read a number of books on the legitimacy of the public sector — turns out we’re not voted in, as I thought. Only sometimes do we have a lot of influence, and the room to make decisions independent of the Minister.
One book I read by Joseph Heath, called The Machinery of Government, argues that the legitimacy of the public sector largely comes from its ability to get things done. Its role is in solving collective action problems and operating under its own institutional knowledge, which can be used to solve various problems. To sum it up — it’s an unelected power, and that aspect fascinates me.
I’ve also had the space to think about things that initially drew me to philosophy. I’ve been reading about the philosophy of science, biology more specifically. At uni I sort of walked away from science, being frustrated at all the stuff I had to rote learn, but since then I’ve started to get excited again about science as a factual tool.
Another book I read last year, in the science vein, was called WEIRD — it looks at why Western people are such outliers in social psychology studies. He traces the West’s odd psychology to cousin marriage policies in Europe and speculates on the role that this had on the scientific revolution in Europe.
Sometimes I do miss the hardcore philosophy though. Right now, I’m reading a book by Tim Mulgan that speculates on the role of value in the universe. Once you grant that there is objective value, you can then expect the value to explain why there is ‘something’ rather than ‘nothing’. It also covers foundational questions in the philosophy of religion, which relate back to this central idea of ‘somethingness’.
Q: You talked just then about how your habits changed, and your reading has become a little more practical. But you’ve also found yourself immersed in completely different topics — is that correct?
A: Yeah, definitely. You can begin to specialise at uni too much, I feel. And it’s interesting how your interests change — I mentioned I’ve been reading some political philosophy, but at the same time, my general interest in politics has diminished.
I’m much less inclined to have an opinion now on a number of topics. Maybe it’s because being in a governmental role you start to see the complexity of everything, and you don’t have time to read all the analysis.
And you start to see the benefits of certain things. Everyone looks at the government and sees a slow, inefficient machine — and in some ways it is. But this is also a virtue of the machine because slow change has its advantages. It means you can think about all the risks and test things out before you completely apply yourself to one system of thought.
Q: What is your biggest fear?
A: Climate change jumps out, but that’s a bit of a boring answer.
I think my biggest worry is related to my honours thesis. The question that’s bugged me for a number of years is around the obligations we have, as individuals, to create people and our attitudes towards future generations. Basically, it’s population-level policies, and I’m deeply skeptical about a lot of these answers.
What scares me most though is that intelligent people often have quite different views on these questions.
There’s no one person who will control what humanity does, now and in the future. But even so, what we do as a species will create an ideology, even one that’s largely cobbled together and ill-thought-out. Because that’s what a species-created ideology feels like it’d be to me — where no one really knows why we’re all headed in a particular direction.
Q: Who would you say is worth taking time to read?
A: I don’t know if there is one person I can think of. None of the philosophies I’ve read has definitely made my life better.
I don’t read philosophy as therapy, although understanding the world and being less confused by it is a kind of therapy. But for people who are looking for that — Alan De Button’s work is great. He takes the time to think deeply about our relationships and careers, and what different philosophical thinkers had to say. He’s also quite accessible, as a writer.
Q: Your favourite book?
A: Probably Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene. Although he doesn’t like to call himself a philosopher, I think what he does is really philosophical. Of course, a lot of his claims have been challenged by modern biologists, but I think they often miss the point. What he’s doing in the book is exploring what it means to think about genes as the primary unit of selection, and the heuristic power of taking a ‘genes eye view’ of the natural world.
The book had a big effect on me, allowing me to see us as creatures who are selected on the basis of our genes, and that our genes are vehicles (which he calls ‘survival machines’). It’s quite a scary way of looking at ourselves — the idea that you can start with a thing that has the ability to replicate itself, and the downstream effects of that.
Q: You don’t have to answer this one, but I know you’ve suffered from depression in the past — is there anything you’ve found that helps?
A: I’ve come to think of depression as a signal that something is going wrong in your life, rather than a brute biological fact. That’s not to say that there aren’t strong biological elements that cause depression in some people. But for many in today’s society, there is more of a sense that they are not fulfilling basic human needs to connect.
I was quite influenced by this one book, Lost Connections. What I found is that we can get stuck in habits, and for me, my depression was tied up with boredom about things. There is a difference between change and running away — I went overseas, for example, and that really helped me.
Another book that I enjoyed, but wouldn’t necessarily recommend, is Experiences of Depression by Mathew Ratcliffe. He takes a phenomenological look at depression and describes the utter lack of possibility that exists in one’s lifeworld. The very possibility of happiness is not available, just as walking through a wall is not possible. It really spoke to me at a time when I was trying to understand what had just happened to me.
Naturally, I’m a pessimistic person too, and probably always will be. So what was difficult in my depression was separating my own way of viewing the world from more fundamental questions like the value of life and the possibility of a life worth living. I think there are some merits to these ideas, but it also reminds me of how both our experience and our more abstract beliefs are shaped by our sometimes unconscious attitudes towards things.
Q: Have you changed at all since university?
A: Uni tends to get you in this mode, where you’re either locking yourself in the library or socialising at the parties of shallow people. It’s a shame there are not more cultural and meaningful social activities there.
To take one of these — the problem with locking yourself in a room and trying to answer life’s questions is that what strikes you as important is going to be driven by how you’re feeling at the time. If you can get out of that space and go work for a while, it’s interesting to see how your temperament changes and how you might think of the questions differently.
Q: Last question — who or whom?
A: I would use “who”. I don’t care that much about correct English.
Well, that says it all. Thanks for your time.
Then it was Adam’s turn to question me.
Q: What’s your earliest sci-fi memory?
A: That would be The Lotus Caves, by John Christopher. I must have been around 8 or 9. I remember there was this society, on the moon, which everyone just took for granted. Then they discover a new alien life-form, which was just ‘wow’. So that sense of discovery and seeing ourselves in this new, aspirational place was really impactful.
Q: What advantages does sci-fi have over popular science books?
A: I don’t know if there are advantages. I read quite narrowly at times, and I’m trying to expand on that because ideas and growth come from being aware of lots of things.
I think though, and this is the common misconception, that science fiction isn’t really about predicting technology and science. It’s about who we are, what’s important to us, where we want to be, and what we want to avoid, as a society and as a race. So, it’s a humanist approach.
Most hard science is focused on what we can do, and facts, which sci-fi can break down for people. But it doesn’t focus on what we should do or what science means to us, and I think, considering we’re emotional, curious, and questioning creatures, that it’s important to understand what science means for us.
So that’s it in short. Science fiction helps with emotionally coming to terms with the world around us, whilst science is more factual.
Q: What do you fear the most and why?
A: I think, for us as a species, it’s the environment and overpopulation. We just talk about it but don’t do anything, and I don’t think we will. We’re killing off all life, the beauty of a planet, and all the potential for love (but, at the same time, the potential for pain). So that worries me, and I’m worried about living in that world.
But the great thing about sci-fi or science or any thinking that views people in terms of society, race, or culture is that you see nothing as permanent, so maybe we’ll change by increments and find something that’s holistically good for us all.
Q: How does your mood affect your thinking?
A: Mood changes the perimeters of possibility for me. When I’m happy I think about everything I could do and would like to achieve, and it seems doable. When I’m sad I’m worthless and can barely make myself move. I seem to lose any ability to think through problems or approach them with any charm or wit (if I could be said to have any, to begin with).
But my mood is really dependent and easily shifted — music can affect me greatly, as does literature. I was reading The Goldfinch this morning, just thinking about the pain of losing a mother, which got me a little glum.
Q: What is your favourite food and why?
A: Cream cheese and salmon with French stick bread. It was a thing we (Mum, Alex, and me) did, which had nothing to do with Dad. Something easy we enjoyed which I just remember being a nice Friday night meal that felt like our thing. And I love salmon and cream cheese — and bread.
Although I’m trying to do more environmentally friendly eating atm, so maybe just the bread now!
Q: What would you have studied if you could go back in time?
A: Linguistics — I think it would help enormously now, with my ability to explain myself coherently. Also, I’d just like to be more exact about why a sentence works — at the moment I feel a bit like a chaotic artist, who goes with the flow, or a musician who can’t read music — I know what sounds wrong, but I’m not the best at describing why it does.
Q: How do you motivate yourself to do something you don’t want to do?
A: Generally I’m very routined, and so I’ll do something because it’s a run day or it’s scheduled. I find it easier when I’m working full time, funnily enough, because you can lose focus unemployed, all your time is free and nothing matters. Whereas two/three days at work force you to be more productive with your free time.
At the moment I’m going through coming to terms that a Ph.D. might not happen. I would still like to be involved and think about those important discussions I had in university.
But also, maybe not doing the Ph.D. has been good for my thinking, because I feel now there’s no path, I’m free to do things as they come.
That said, there are heaps of things I avoid doing in my life — I’ve still yet to learn a language other than English.
Q: Top 3 books and why?
a.) Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Marcia Marchez
It just had this hot, vibrant, romantic air about it. It’s a love story, but it’s not so straightforward — passions get distorted through time, things change, and people change. It’s a great humanist book.
b.) Starmaker by Olaf Stapledon
There’s a special term for books like these, that go beyond the normal span of years and civilisations — deep history. I don’t think Stapledon is necessarily an amazing writer, but his view is completely divorced from time. What amazed me in this work is how encompassing it is — you keep pulling back and back until you see the whole universe and all of time and creation. You have to read it through to feel that movement — then suddenly even that becomes pitiful because the universe is just one of many.
c.) White Noise by Don DiLillo
I think the older you get the harder it is to have new favorites, because you don’t have that childhood sense of wonder — but White Noise was a more recent one for me because it was sort of my induction at uni into metatextuality. At its core is this believable, highly individual family, each with their own lives going on, so it’s relatable as it is distant. And it’s also anticapitalist — shopping as the new religion, so I get a lot of my anti-capitalist spiel now from Dilillo.
Q: Influential person in your life?
A: Dr Baker, probably — the principal at Waitaki Boys’ when I was there. It was a critical moment in my life. I’d been a terribly disruptive kid and I knew I had to make a change, and wanted high school to be different from primary. Dr Baker introduced me to this concept he called ‘learning to learn’, which is learning for your own sake, not for anything else. It’s something I try to remind myself even now since I’ve left uni, so as not to put too much purpose on what I do for work, but to continue to find love interests for the sake of it.
And he was so passionate about his subject, WW2, that it just rubbed off on me. Doesn’t matter what you do, being interested in life is great.
Q: What are you most looking forward to this year?
A: Christmas, I love that — getting people gifts and family time, seeing my brother and mum together — it becomes rarer each year.
Q: Quickfire questions — Overrated or Underrated?
H.G.Wells — Underrated, but mainly because people only know him for one thing (The War of the Worlds).
George Orwell — Overrated (maybe a little unrelated as well). 1984 is heralded as being the one text that completely describes all of society — it’s one of many, and it doesn’t explain everything.
Do you prefer 1984 or Brave New World — 1984, mainly because it’s a tighter text. Brave New World sort of trails off at the end, whereas 1984 has that classic message driven home — who could forget ‘Julia Julia’ and ‘He loved Big Brother.’
Rice — Underrated in New Zealand. You can do a lot with it, build up a dish, and soak it with sauces. But also a great stable for people budgeting.
Auckland — Overrated. I like the greener, quieter lifestyle. When I was a kid I thought I’d love them, but now I kind of subscribe to Harlan Ellison’s view — they’re a bit detrimental to our health in general.
Netflix — Overrated, but largely because it doesn’t have what I want to find. Also, streaming services get you to subscribe to heaps of them — Star Trek is over Amazon Prime and Netflix at the moment, which annoys me. Might be better when Disney finally buys them all out — but then they have the monopoly on content, so maybe not.
University — Appropriately rated. I think people now go to do a course that sets them up in a particular field, which isn’t a bad thing, given my struggles to find stuff from a soft skills degree. But, it’s also one of the few times you’ve got in life to explore and chill.
Friends who went straight into jobs, I’ve noticed, have turned around and gone ‘shit, this is it’. So yeah, it depends what you do with it — it won’t solve your problems unless the course is to be an engineer — and then you’re an engineer. But I think people should slow down and discover themselves a bit more, because you’ll never have the time again, most likely.