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 Carter. Adam lives in Wellington, where he has been a policy advisor for almost three years. He has a master’s degree in philosophy and has travelled broadly.
How this works
We decided to sit down and ask each other 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 beside this somewhat eccentric guy. Given we were both loafing around, we started to make small talk — it turned out he was a retired European intellectual.
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 returning to the library afterwards and writing down all these great thoughts.
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. Wasn’t it a formal lecture or anything?
A: No, and the conversational aspect of philosophy 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: There are many similarities between the core public sector, particularly in policy, and the university. I was pretty struck by the level of insight, 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 areas of expertise and accumulation of knowledge. This is similar to the public sector — there’s much encouragement to share ideas. So in some ways, I have found the parallels between the university and the public sector fascinating.
Q: Any differences?
A: Yes — you’re trying to produce products, responding day-to-day to Ministerial priorities more explicitly, and it’s not always going to be super interesting.
Overall, it’s been a perfect move, and I am pleased I did it, even if I still miss university and want to return 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 much more to it. The Ministry often has a position on something that may come from its stewardship role, but that may conflict with what the government wants. I’m not saying this is a massive factor in our day-to-day operations, but reflecting on this during my work has been interesting.
Overall, work has exposed me to another sphere 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 needing immediate actionable change). Still, that very uni-focused approach has its downsides — it can be super lonely at times and quite self-centred.
Q: How have you accommodated your interests since you left uni?
A: I’ve read several books on the legitimacy of the public sector — it 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 primarily comes from its ability to get things done. Its role is to solve collective action problems and operate under its institutional knowledge, which can be used to solve various issues. To summarise, 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 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 abnormal 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 speculating on value's role in the universe. Once you grant that there is objective value, you can expect the deal to explain why there is ‘something’ rather than ‘nothing’. It also covers foundational questions in the philosophy of religion, which relate 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 immersed yourself in completely different topics — correct?
A: Yeah. You can begin to specialise at uni too much. 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 several 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 device because slow change has advantages. It means you can think about all the risks and test things before applying 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.
My biggest worry is related to my honours thesis. The question that’s bugged me for several years is around the obligations we have, as individuals, to create people and our attitudes towards future generations. It’s population-level policies, and I’m deeply sceptical about many of these answers.
What scares me most is that intelligent people often have different views on these questions.
No one person 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 primarily cobbled together and ill-thought-out. Because that’s what a species-created ideology feels like it’d be to me — where no one 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 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 excellent. He takes the time to think deeply about our relationships and careers and what different philosophical thinkers have to say. He’s also quite accessible as a writer.
Q: What is your favourite book?
A: Probably Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene. Although he doesn’t like to call himself a philosopher, his actions are philosophical. Of course, many of his claims have been challenged by modern biologists, but I think they often miss the point. In the book, he explores 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 significantly affected me, allowing me to see us as creatures selected based on our genes and that our genes are vehicles (which he calls ‘survival machines’). It’s a pretty scary way of looking at ourselves — the idea that you can start with a thing that can 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 solid physical 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.
This one book, Lost Connections, influenced me. I found that we can get stuck in habits, and 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 helped me.
Another book 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 in one’s lifeworld. The same case of happiness is not available, just as walking through a wall is impossible. It spoke to me when I tried to understand what had just happened.
Naturally, I’m a pessimistic person too, and probably always will be. So what was difficult in my depression was separating my view of the world from more fundamental questions like the value of life and the possibility of a life worth living. I think these ideas have some merits, but it also reminds me of how our sometimes unconscious attitudes shape our experience and our more abstract beliefs.
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 no more cultural and meaningful social activities exist.
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 necessary will be driven by how you’re feeling. If you can get out of that space and 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 this society on the moon, which everyone 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 impactful.
Q: What advantages does sci-fi have over popular science books?
A: I don’t know if there are advantages. I read pretty narrowly at times, and I’m trying to expand on that because ideas and growth come from being aware of many 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 race. So, it’s a humanist approach.
The most challenging 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 essential 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 it’s the environment and overpopulation for us as a species. We 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 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 dependent and quickly shifted — music, as does literature, can significantly affect me. 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. We (Mum, Alex, and me) did something that had nothing to do with Dad and something easy we enjoyed, which I 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 return in time?
A: Linguistics — I think it would help enormously now with my ability to explain myself coherently. Also, I’d 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 routine, so I’ll do something because it’s a run day or scheduled. Funnily enough, I find working full time easier 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 coming to terms with the fact that a PhD might not happen. I would still like to be involved and think about those essential discussions I had in university.
But also, maybe not doing the PhD has been good for my thinking because now there’s no path; I’m free to do things as they come.
That said, I avoid doing many things 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 beautiful humanist book.
b.) Starmaker by Olaf Stapledon
There’s a particular term for books like these that go beyond the average span of years and civilisations — deep history. I don’t think Stapledon is necessarily a fantastic writer, but his view is wholly 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, 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 favourites 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 is a new religion, so I now get a lot of my anti-capitalist spiel from Dilillo.
Q: Name an 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; I wanted high school to be different from my primary school. 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 rubbed off on me. It doesn’t matter what you do; being interested in life is excellent.
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 underrated as well). 1984 is heralded as the one text that thoroughly describes society — it’s one of many and doesn’t explain everything.
Do you prefer 1984 or Brave New World — 1984, mainly because it’s a tighter text? Brave New World trails off at the end, whereas 1984's classic message is 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 an excellent 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 subscribe to Harlan Ellison’s view — they’re a bit detrimental to our health in general.
Netflix — Overrated, but mainly 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, which annoys me. It 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 a course that sets them up in a particular field, which isn’t bad, given my struggles to find stuff from a soft skills degree. But it’s also one of the few times you’ve got to explore and chill.
I've noticed that friends who went straight into jobs have turned around and gone, ‘shit, this is it’. So yeah, it depends on 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 more because they’ll likely never have the time again.