This is the 5th post of 5 containing the transcript of a podcast hosted by Eric Weinstein interviewing Peter Thiel.
Girard’s Mimetic Theories
Eric Weinstein: So let me return back to the line of inquiry. I mean, sorry, just enjoying so much hearing what you have to say. Some of it's new to me. The theories that might be portals into a different way of looking at the world.
Eric Weinstein: One of them that you brought into my, I've never heard of before was Girard's various theories. And I wonder if you might say, you've often credited success in business to how you understood and you applied Girard. I mean obviously he didn't have this kind of level of business success. So can you talk a little bit about your personal relationship to Rene Girard's theories as a portal into a different way of seeing the world?
Peter Thiel: Well let's say a little bit about the theory. So it's, it was sort of this theory of human psychology as deeply mimetic where you sort of, you copy other people.
Eric Weinstein: So, so just for the folks at home mimetic as in mime rather than memetic is in meme.
Peter Thiel: Yes. Well they're probably closely related. But you imitate people but that's how you learn to speak as a child. You copy your parents language, that's how, but then you also imitate desire and then there are sort of all sorts of aspects of mimesis that can lead to sort of mass violence mass insanity. So it has, it's both what enables human culture to function, but it also is quite, quite dangerous.
Peter Thiel: And you know, when I came across this sort of constellation of ideas as an undergraduate at Stanford, you know, my biases were sort of libertarian, classic liberal, only individuals exist. Individuals are radically autonomous, can think for themselves. And so this was, it was sort of a powerful corrective to that intellectually. But then it also worked on an existential level where you sort of realize, wow, there are all these ways that I've been hyper mimetic, I've been hyper tracked, why am I at Stanford, why does this matter so much? Why, you know, why am I doing all the things I'm doing?
Peter Thiel: And that's, it's a prism through which one when looks at a lot of things that I found to be quite helpful over recent decades. I think the preference falsification you can think of in mimetic terms where, you know, everybody goes along with what everybody else thinks, and then you can get these sort of chaotic points where all of a sudden things can shift much faster than you would think possible because there are all these dynamics that are not, you know, not simply rational. It's not quite correct to model people as these sort of classical Adams or something like that, it's much more entangled.
Eric Weinstein: What would be a good way for a people listening at home to start to get into Girard's philosophy if they were interested?
Peter Thiel: Well there are, you know, it's, there's sort of a number of different books that Girard wrote. I think the magisterial one is probably Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World. So it's this truth of mimesis and violence and the ways. So it's sort of part psychology, part anthropology, part history.
Eric Weinstein: All portal, I should point out because they're all hidden.
Peter Thiel: It's, you know, it's a portal onto the past, and to human origins. It's our history, it's a portal onto the present, onto, you know, the interpersonal dynamics of psychology. It's a portal onto the future in terms of, you know, are we going to let these mimetic desires run amok and head towards apocalyptic violence where, you know, even the entire planet can no longer absorb the violence that we can unleash or are we going to learn from this and transcend this, in a way where we get to some very different place.
Peter Thiel: And so it has a sense that, you know, of both danger and hope for the future as well. So it's, it is sort of this, you know, panoramic theory on a lot of ways. Super powerful and just extraordinarily different from what one would normally hear. You know, there's sort of like almost a cult like element where you had these people who are followers of Girard. And was sort of a sense that, you know, we had figured out the truth about the world in a way that nobody else did and that was generative and very powerful.
Peter Thiel: So, you know, it's always, there are parts of it that are unhealthy, but it was, you know, it has sort of an incredible dynamism. And then it just, you are aware that, you know, maybe things are so different from how they appear to be that, you know ... there may be a portal out there, there may be, you know,
Eric Weinstein: What was shocking to me. I mean, the first time I heard about it, you invited me to a conference that you were keeping quiet and I was in the news and there was quite a lot of anger and furor that I had done something wrong. And you waited a few days to give a talk and you talked about scapegoating and the mechanism by which violence that might be visited upon the many is visited upon the one. And then you also started talking about the King as if he is sort of scapegoat in waiting, so that the King is not necessarily something that one would want to be.
Eric Weinstein: And I found it absolutely fascinating because it turned so many ideas on their heads that I got angry at you. Why hadn't you told me this earlier when I'd been through three sleepless nights before I'd heard the theory. So I found it instantly applicable, particularly if you're the sort of person who's likely to get scapegoated by not taking refuge in the herd. Do you think it has more relevance to people who are struggling to break out as individuals because of the possibility of being picked off?
Peter Thiel: Well, I think it has universal ... I think it is broadly true, and so it has some sort of universal relevance. I think the problems of violence and scapegoating are universal problems. It's probably the case that there are certain types of people who are more likely to become scapegoats, but it's not an absolute thing. So there's always, you could say there's an arbitrariness about scapegoating because the scapegoat is supposed to represent, to stand in for everybody. So the scapegoat has to be perceived as someone who's radically other, but then also has to somehow emerge from within the group. There are times when the scapegoat is the sort of outlier, extreme insider, extreme outsider, king/criminal or whatever personality.
Peter Thiel: That's probably a dangerous sort of thing. It's like Abraham Lincoln, the incredible orator who also grows up in a log cabin, these extreme contrasts are often people who are at risk of this maybe more than others. And then at the same time, because these are mob-like dynamics, there is sort of a way in which it's not like anyone's really safe from the violence ever. No one's completely safe.
Eric Weinstein: I think that's quite true.
Peter Thiel: But yes. There is a thought that one of the history ideas that Girard had that is that there's a dynamic to this process where scapegoating, it only works when people don't understand it. As you understand it better, it works less well or it has to get displaced into other dimensions. If you have a witch hunt, say, we need to find a witch to bring back peace to the community, that's a psychosocial understanding of what you're doing is actually counterproductive of the witch hunt itself. The witch hunt is supposed to be a theological epiphany that God's telling you who the witch is. If you think of it as some sort of psychosocial control mechanism, then it won't work any more.
Peter Thiel: A metaphor that Girard uses is that the sacred is like phlogiston and violence is like oxygen, but it only works in a world where it's misunderstood. So if you understand scapegoating, you end up in a world where it works less and less well, and the kind of political and cultural institutions that are linked to it will tend to unravel. I think one of the ways in which this has happened a great deal in modernity is that we scapegoat the scapegoaters, go up one level of abstraction.
Eric Weinstein: That's interesting.
Peter Thiel: That always, it makes it a little bit more complicated. If we go after the people who were the historical oppressors, the historical victimizers, that's often a super powerful way, and it's slightly too complicated. There was a Bill Clinton formulation of this, "we must unite against those who seek to divide us", which is on some level itself contradictory, but then it's a little bit too hard for people to fully disentangle.
Eric Weinstein: That's very funny.
Peter Thiel: That's one way that I think it still works even though it's, again, when everyone sees these moves, when everyone understands them, it just doesn't work that well any more.
Eric Weinstein: So it's like saying, "Would you like me to prescribe you a placebo?".
Peter Thiel: Yeah. That probably does not work very well.
Eric Weinstein: But then the other part of it that I find terrifying which is, but also interesting, is that implicit in this framework is that there is a minimal level of violence needed to accomplish an end, and that the scapegoating mechanism while entirely unjust has the virtue of being minimal in this, that horror is visited upon the individual.
Peter Thiel: Yes, yes. Or the theological terminology Girard would use would be that scapegoating is satanic and that archaic cultures were a little bit satanic but not very. They were sort of satanic in an innocent way because the violence was actually a way to limit violence, that violence is both the disease and a cure for the disease. We need violence to drive out violence. This is how our societies work. And then it's not quite clear how things will continue to work. You could always say that there is a sense in which - and this is super broad brush stroke-type argument - there's a way in which you can say that the Left is more focused on the unjustified nature of violence, and the Right is more focused on how a certain amount of violence is needed for society. There are ways in which they're both right, and then there are ways in which they're both deconstructing each other.
Peter Thiel: You could say a nation state contains violence in both senses of the word contain.
Eric Weinstein: Oh that's good.
Peter Thiel: Because it contains it as it limits it, it channels it in certain ways, but then it's also part of its very being. You get into all these questions. When it's appropriate, when it's not. That's why I don't like violence. I think it's a very serious problem, but-
Eric Weinstein: You also recognize its instrumental nature.
Peter Thiel: If you said, "We're going to get rid of all violence tomorrow. It's going to stop-"
Eric Weinstein: You'd be talking about nothing.
Peter Thiel: Or I think-
Eric Weinstein: There's no way in which that can-
Peter Thiel: Well, that might require a tremendous amount of violence to enact or if we're going to have no more violence at all, maybe you'll have just total chaos and a lot of violence in that form. It's an interesting problem to... all these interesting descriptors, but then how to practically translate into action, very, very tricky.
Eric Weinstein: Yeah. I think that one of the things on the Left that people don't get right, and I don't know whether you'll agree with me or not, is that I think we on the Left are somewhat divided between two camps. One camp is quite open about wanting to end oppression and the other camp is cryptic about wanting to reverse it. In other words, you've oppressed for long enough. It is your turn to be oppressed by us and we are actually envious of oppression. There is something of a civil war. I mean I would say this is the way in which the IDW's left wing or left flank is misunderstood, which is that almost none of the left wing members of the IDW are interested in oppressing anybody. So there's going to be no payback period that sounds like fun to us.
Eric Weinstein: One of the things I hadn't understood until it was said to me quite starkly, progress is messy and you got to break a few eggs to make an omelet. There is this just tolerance bordering on excitement about the opportunity to stick it to those who have stuck it to you, from your perspective, that this is an aspect of justice. Whereas the cessation of oppression is interesting to another part of that group.
Peter Thiel: The disturbing thing is that it's, of course, much less exciting and much less energizing.
Motivating Stories and Science
Peter Thiel: I often think if you listen to a political speech, the applause lines are always the ones, "We are going to go after the other side. We're going to go after the bad people. We're going to stop them." If you try to construct a political speech in which it was, "We're going to unite people. We're going to get everybody onto this goal and there were no bad people." It's almost impossible to have a speech that has any energy at all.
Eric Weinstein: Let me take issue with that slightly.
Peter Thiel: As a political speech.
Eric Weinstein: I understood exactly what you said. I don't think I'm going to mischaracterize it. I think that the problem is the reason I pour energy into trying to stop the political correctness and the rules about what can be said, mostly has to do with the fact that I'm incredibly excited, except I'm excited about something non-political. If what I'm excited about is pursuing technological progress, scientific progress, more people being able to form families, et cetera, that's where the excitement is. It's not coming from the politics. It's coming from what the politics facilitates. So I think that the problem with these speeches is: if you don't believe that there is something that we're keeping this space clean for, we might as well riot or something because at least that's exciting and that's got some energy behind it. Then it's my team versus your team.
Eric Weinstein: I mean look, at some level anybody who's focused on technology as you are is a progressive in the sense of caring about what is actually progress. I think that the danger comes from when politics becomes your entertainment. You read very correctly, and I learned this from you, that when you look at a bunch of candidates debating on a crowded stage, look at where the energy is. The energy is something that is not, in my opinion, a good indicator - it's not a good approximate for the ultimate that I care about.
Peter Thiel: Yes. Look, I'd like it to be just the way you describe. I just-
Eric Weinstein: No, no, no. I understood what you-
Peter Thiel: ...want to report it often is not. Scientific, technological progress, in a way, the hope is it can lead towards a more cornucopian world in which there's less Malthusian struggle, less violence, and then at the very same time, an honest account of the history of these things is that a lot of it was used to develop more advanced weapons. It was in the pursuit of violence. One account of the tech stagnation, the scientific tech stagnation, is that the breakthrough thing was the atom bomb and then you built the rockets to deliver the bombs more quickly. By 1970 we had enough bombs and rockets to destroy the world 10 or 20 times over or whatever, and the whole thing made no more sense.
Peter Thiel: If one of the big drivers of scientific and technological progress was actually just the military dimension, when that became absurd did the whole thing slow down to the space age? Not in 1972 when Apollo left the moon, but was the key moment 1975 when you had the Apollo Soyuz docking? If we're just going to be friends with the Russians, does it really make sense for people to be working 80 hours, 100 hours a week around the clock? And again, I don't think it's all that, but I think one of the challenges, that we should not understate how big it is in resetting science and technology in the 21st century is, how do we tell a story that motivates sacrifice, incredibly hard work, deferred gratification for the future, that's not intrinsically violent? It was combined with that in all these powerful ways.
Fears of Progress
Peter Thiel: A lot of people deny that there's a tech science stagnation going on, but then one of the other things one hears is, "Well, maybe it's not progressing as fast, but do we really want it to progress as fast? Isn't it dangerous? We're just going to build the AI that's going to kill everybody or it'll be biological weapons or it's going to be runaway nanotechnology." I don't think we should dismiss those fears completely.
Eric Weinstein: Well, the fear is that it's going to make these things cheap and easy. Whereas right now you still need a state to do a lot of this work. I mean, Elon Musk is one of the first private individuals with a space program.
Peter Thiel: That's a version of it, but I think in general it's just that somehow you will lose control over the violence. You think you can control it. Maybe it's a large state. Maybe it's autonomous AI weapons, which in theory are controlled by state, but in practice, not quite. There's all these scenarios where the stuff can spiral out of control. I'm more scared of the one where nothing happens. I'm more scared of the stagnation world I feel ultimately goes straight to apocalypse. I'm much more scared of that, but we have to understand why people are scared of the nonstagnant world.
Eric Weinstein: I mean, boy, there are a couple of threads here that are super important, one of which is that one thing that I sense that both of us get frustrated with is that if you think about growth as necessary to contain certain violence, and you think about growth as largely also being how much fossil fuels you're able to burn, climate is not paired with a reduction in opulence. It's paired on the other side with war. If you over-focus on climate and you result in a situation in which growth is slowed to a halt ... Now, growth doesn't need to be the amount of fossil fuel you burn, but it has largely been that up until the present. You actually see that the trade-off that you're facing is very different than the one that's usually portrayed by either side. Somehow we never get around to that conversation, which would be, if we were very serious about climate, would we be plunged into war?
Peter Thiel: Yeah. Obviously you can't have an economy without an environment, but it may also be the case that you can't have an environment without an economy. And then if both of those statements are true, maybe the set of best solutions looks really different than if you just focus on one and not the other.
Eric Weinstein: This is why it's so important for me to have environments in which people who don't agree on things, but agree on what constitutes a conversation, can sit down with an idea that nobody's going to leave the table with their reputation in tatters to the extent that they can't find a job on Monday to support themselves. It's that you have to actually weigh both of these things simultaneously. The great danger is people trying to solve either problem in isolation.
Peter Thiel: Well, if one goes with the general climate change narrative that it's anthropogenic, it's CO2 levels are rising in a way that's dangerous and has a serious risk of some kind of big runaway process, I think always the political question in my mind is, what do you do about China and what do you do about India? Because these are the countries that are trying to catch up to the developed world. They have a enormous way to go to catch up and-
Eric Weinstein: It's a logical consequence.
Peter Thiel: I think Europe has something like 8% of the carbon emissions in the world. Then we have to have more than just the magical political thinking where it's something like we're going to have a carbon tax in California and this will be so charismatic and so inspiring that people in China and India will copy us and follow suit. They're not willing to actually say that literally because it sounds so absurd-
Eric Weinstein: It sounds crazy.
Peter Thiel: But if you say that that's not the way things actually work, then somehow you need to do some really different things. We need to find energy sources that are not carbon dioxide intensive. Maybe we need to figure out ways to engineer carbon sinks. I mean there's all this crazy geoengineering stuff that maybe should be on the table. Maybe we should be more open to nuclear power. It was like a range of very different debates that pushes you towards-
Transparency and Privacy
Eric Weinstein: Let me take a slightly different tack. Two statements that I found later in life unfortunately, but have both been meaningful to me. One is Weber's definition that a government is a monopoly on violence. And the other one, it's a guy I can never remember who said, I think it was a French political philosopher who said, "A nation is a group of people who have agreed to forget something in common." If you put these things together, if you imagine that somehow we've now gone in for the belief that transparency is almost always a good thing and that what we need is greater transparency to control the badness in our society, we probably won't be able to forget anything in common. Therefore, we may not be able to have a nation, and therefore the nation may not be able to monopolize violence, which is a very disturbing but interesting causal chain. Can we explore the idea of transparency, given that people seem to now associate certain words with positivity, even though normally we would have thought about privacy, transparency, trade-offs, let's say?
Peter Thiel: Yes. Well, I always do think there's a privacy-transparency trade off. One thing that's always confusing about transparency to me is there's transparency in theory, which is like this panopticon-like thing where the entire planet gets illuminated brightly and equally everywhere, all at once. So that's in theory. But then in practice is often it sounds more like a weapon that will be directed against certain people where it's a question of who gets to render who else transparent, and maybe it's even a path-dependent sequencing question where if you do it first-
Eric Weinstein: First strike transparency.
Peter Thiel: First strike transparency is very powerful. So you have to think about Mr. Snowden against the NSA, and then the NSA trying to expose Mr. Snowden's Swedish sex cult, whatever you want to describe it as. I think a lot of it ends up having that kind of an-
Eric Weinstein: You mean Assange's.
Peter Thiel: Sorry, Assange. Assange's Swedish sex cult, Assange against the NSA, NSA against Assange's Swedish sex cult or something like that. I think in practice full transparency, it assumes people can pay attention to everything at once or equally. That seems politically incorrect. Then even if you had this much greater transparency in all these ways, there are all these ways that that would seem creepy totalitarian. If you stated in terms of the problem of violence, you can think of the trade-off between transparency and privacy as transparency is we're looking at everybody and therefore they can't be that violent, but the state may be very violent in enforcing all this transparency.
Peter Thiel: Privacy is you get to have a gun and you get to do various dangerous things in the dark and no one knows what they are. So there's probably more violence on the individual level, but then less control on the state. It's, again, this question of are you more scared of the violence of individuals or more scared of centralized violence? Probably one should not be too categorical or too absolute about this, but it can show up in both places and that's why it's a wickedly hard problem. Wickedly hard.
Eric Weinstein: It does seem to be. I have to say I've started to hate the transparency discussion, because if you'll notice there's a vogue in 2019 for simply saying, "Well, I believe that sunlight is the best disinfectant," as if that constituted an argument. Now, first of all, one thing that people don't understand is that there are infections, like brucella, that are actually accelerated by sunlight, so it's comical. It's not even true. Bleach is probably a better disinfectant. But the idea that that constitutes an argument in our time, to me, speaks to the fact that we're living in a very strange moment where if you go back to Ecclesiastes and the inspiration for Turn Turn Turn, there was an idea that there was a purpose to everything and inclusion or exclusion were both needed. "A time to kill, a time to die, time to refrain from killing."
Eric Weinstein: There does seem to be an absolutist mania in which it would be hard to imagine writing a song about a time to kill in the modern era. And likewise, I'm not positive that people recognize how imperative it is for a well-functioning government to have places where it doesn't have to constantly account for itself.
Peter Thiel: If you have no back room deals, maybe that's less corrupt, but maybe nothing gets done.
Eric Weinstein: Not functional.
Peter Thiel: The US Supreme court still doesn't televise its hearings. I suspect that's the right call. I think part of it is that if you know that everything is going to be transparent, you will censor yourself and you won't say things. So it's not like the same thing happens in a transparent way. Maybe it just stops happening altogether. If you're a politician or an aspiring politician, you're not going to engage in bold ideas. You're not going to experiment with different ways about thinking about things. You're going to be super conventional, super curated.
Peter Thiel: It's not like we get all the benefits of transparency with none of the costs. They come with a very, very high cost. I do wonder if one of the strange dynamics with the younger generations in the US is that there's a sense that you're just constantly watched. There's this great Eye of Sauron, to use the Tolkien metaphor, that's looking at you at all times. It would be good if you could act the same way and if something bad happened, we could take care of you. But if you're always being watched, I suspect it really changes your behavior.
Eric Weinstein: It's interesting, in a moment where I wanted to make sure that my son didn't misbehave, I toured him around our neighborhood and pointed out all of the cameras that would track anybody on the street where we live. I had never noticed them before, but sure enough there they were in every nook and cranny that we don't realize that if it has to be stitched together, there's an incredible web of surveillance tools that are surrounding us at all time.
Excitement and Nihilism
Eric Weinstein: Are you familiar with the theory of Jennifer Freyd's called Institutional Betrayal?
Peter Thiel: I know you've mentioned it to me, but I don't know all the details. So tell me a little bit about it.
Eric Weinstein: Well, I don't know all the details either. But I think what she isolated was that people who have been betrayed by institutions that have a responsibility of care, like a hospital for example, or if you trust a sense-making organ like your newspaper, and then you find that you've been betrayed by that institution that had something of a principal-agent problem where you had to trust your agent in order to take care of you, that the quality of trauma is in fact different and that it leads to a universal fear of the infrastructure of your society. That's sort of what I picked up.
Eric Weinstein: What I was going to ask you about is, given our central belief that there was something about growth that led to universal betrayal by institutions, which has compromised experts in the minds of most of people, do you think there's a preferred way of waking up as a society out of a kind of universal institutional betrayal? (If we're excited about the next chapter, what I'd love to talk to you about in a future episode is what we're excited about, about what comes next.) Is there a way of waking up from this most gracefully?
Peter Thiel: Don't know about that. It strikes me that there are ways we don't want to wake up. We don't want to wake up in a way where it de-energizes us and demotivates. I think one of the ways I think these institutions worked was they took care of people, but it was also motivational. You study. You get good grades. You'll succeed in our system. One way, when you deconstruct these institutions, there's one direction that I think is always very dangerous, that it just shifts people into a much more nihilistic, very low energy mode where it's just, "Well, there's no point. Nothing can be done." That's the way that I definitively do not want to wake people up.
Peter Thiel: So I think it has to always be coupled a little bit to... There are these paths that aren't really going anywhere and you shouldn't go down these paths. But then there's some other paths here that you need to take. There's a portal here that you need to look at. If we are just saying all the paths are blocked, I think probably the risk is people just sit down where they are and stop moving altogether. That feels like the very wrong way to wake people up.
Eric Weinstein: That sounds very wise. Let me just ask, since you've been attached to some of the highest energy ideas, whether it's crazy-sounding stuff like seasteading or radical longevity or some other ideas from your background in venture capital and as a technologist yourself, what are the things that you're most excited if we could move them back into the institutions where they probably have belonged all this time? What are the first subjects and people that you would move back into institutional support to reenergize our society? People or programs.
Peter Thiel: Well, I do think there is something about basic science that doesn't all have the for-profit character. Some of it has this nonprofit character. We're building up this knowledge base for all of humanity. I don't yet know how we do basic science without some kind of institutional context. That's one that would seem absolutely critical. I'm super interested in the problem of longevity, radical life extension. My disappointment in the nonprofit institutions and nonprofit world has directed me more and more over the years to just invest in biotech companies and try to find these better-functioning corporate solutions. And then I always have this worry in the back of my head that maybe there are these basic research problems that are being sidestepped because they're too hard. So I think basic science is one that you'd have to do, but you have to somehow also reform the institution so that you don't have this Gresham's law where the politicians replace the scientists.
Eric Weinstein: That sounds like a great one. I was very surprised to see that your friend, Aubrey de Grey, who you funded to get the radical longevity thing, was in the news for having solved a hard math problem in his spare time that nobody even knew he was working on. So it seems like even though people would treat him as crazy, he certainly has a lot on the ball and probably is exactly the kind of a person who might energize the department even if he might infuriate it.
Peter Thiel: If you can get him back in. If you were able to get him back in, I think you'd be able to solve a lot of problems.
Eric Weinstein: Well, Peter, it's been absolutely fantastic having you. Thank you for a very generous gift of your time, and I hope that you will consider coming back on The Portal to talk about some of the specifics about the things that you and I are most excited about doing next.
Peter Thiel: Will do. Thank you so much.
Eric Weinstein: All right, Peter. You've been watching The Portal with Peter Thiel. I'm your host, Eric Weinstein. Thanks for tuning in. Please subscribe to the podcast, and let us know your thoughts in the comments section below on YouTube. Thanks.