Pion Gaybaryan on Philosophy and Success
What is philosophical thinking and where can it be applied?
When people talk about philosophy, they are always talking about different things. I got my bachelor’s at Southern Federal University and my master’s at HSE. During my undergrad, I saw two different types of students – people who simply needed a diploma and people who deeply love philosophy. At HSE, this ratio was different, and the people in the master’s programme fell exclusively into the second category of people, the ones who are really obsessed with philosophy. They have a uniting characteristic – they restructure their thinking for their work. This is really cool and it gives you the green light in life, but finding an application for the field, of course, depends highly on which area of philosophy you specialise in.
I thought for a long time about what I should do after undergrad and whether or not I should go to graduate school. On the one hand learning is fun, but on the other you have to make a living. Only at the end of my second year in the master’s programme did I realise that a philosopher can do something for modern society with his or her current knowledge and abilities. That’s why for me, philosophy is more a way of thinking that involves an array of different skills: argument building, thought justification, and even scientific scepticism, which is when a person is sceptical about everything and tries to understand and substantiate ideas.
The anti-café Kocherga is more of an ideological institution with the elements of a business project; it’s a place for nerds to work on their own strange things
This looks more like a rejection of life than something that is useful for life.
I’m talking about methodology. Everything translates into material life as follows – when a person has rational thinking skills, he or she can bring order and get a perfect grasp of the big picture in any field. This is the type of methodology that allows you to get reliable information and come up with good predictive models. In my opinion, this is the main benefit of philosophical thinking. This is the most important thing I learned in the faculty of philosophy, and it allows me to continue building my life. The other side of philosophy is essentially a mix of history and literature.
What was your motive to open the anti-café?
The idea itself came from the fact that Moscow has a group called LessWrong that meets wherever it can. The community does things that are a combination of cognitive psychology, neuroeconomics, and philosophy, and they also try to instil in people rational thinking skills and other fundamental concepts. Slava Matyukhin, who initially took part in these meetings and then organised them at Yandex’s office, and I decided in 2015 to open up a space for the group to meet. The Kocherga anti-café is more of an ideological institution with the elements of a business project; it’s a place for nerds to work on their own strange things.
Were you planning on going into a professional career after graduating from HSE?
I wrote my master’s thesis on the philosophy of education, and I wanted to go into a PhD programme at HSE’s Institute of Education. I had rather naïve ideas about what academia was like at the post-graduate level. In the end, I got into the programme and saw how things worked, but then I got sick and I had to give up my studies. This was the same time that Slava and I decided to open the anti-café. When the idea started growing, I realised that the anti-café was exactly what I wanted to do after graduate school, but I was able to do it right then and there! Since my first year in undergrad I wanted to devote myself to discovering and enlightening people’s common sense. In post-graduate school, I was able to talk with Alexander Sidorkin. ‘What keeps you up at night?’ he asked unexpectedly. ‘I want to save the world. I want people to live better,’ I said. ‘They aren’t going to live better. They can become smarter, but this won’t help them,’ he responded. That’s when I knew that academic is not for me after all.
What makes HSE qualitatively different and unique compared to other schools?
HSE has students who need to be there. Our group had 16 people, and they all went to class, which is strange for a philosophy faculty based on my experience in undergrad. HSE’s instructors are totally crazy about their field. Not once did I come across a teacher who gave a boring lecture and just read off the material. The students and instructors are both passionate, and they are able to shoot the breeze on Facebook at night because they like to. That’s to say, there isn’t a dumb ‘academic distance’ between them. The people who were working on the philosophy of language particularly inspired me. This is a field that is still developing, and the publications that are coming out in the West now are instantly discussed in your seminars at HSE. You immediately feel included in a community.
Do you still keep in touch with HSE?
I recently invited a post-graduate student from the School of Philosophy to come to Kocherga and talk about the idea of free will and robots. It was pretty fun. His name is Sasha Mishura, and he works on the philosophy of mind. HSE researchers are interesting because they aren’t dry academic specialists who deal only with the history of philosophy; they work more with contemporary philosophy, which is why you can go up to any of them and say, ‘Sasha, tell us about robots.’ And Sasha will say, ‘just a second,’ and then come give you an overview.
Tell me the secret behind the ‘secret society’ you created the anti-café for. I still feel like some sort of outcast at a masonic lodge.
Rationalists meet up at the anti-café. Rationality has a definition – it’s the ability to make the best decisions, and this best decision is rationality.
To put it simply, it’s an integrated skill for analysing a situation in order to make the best decision. There are two key components. The first is epistemic rationality, which is about which instruments are best to use when learning about the world. The second is instrumental rationality where people are able to understand how to apply knowledge to real tasks. A good example is the problem ‘I didn’t get up at 7:00 a.m. yesterday nor did I the day before either, which means that I can’t.’ This isn’t true.
So overall, rationality is the ability to do away with a stereotypical viewpoint?
That’s part of it. But this doesn’t just involve what you think about yourself, but other more global issues as well. When you try to evaluate or define your view of a certain cultural aspect, you have to build a model of how everything is set up, a model that you can use to make forecasts. The set of techniques a person can use to apply this model to everyday life is instrumental rationality, through which the quality of life improves.
Which scientific sources do you use in your work with rationality?
We rely on the work of our western colleagues. There’s Eliezer Yudkowsky, philosopher, autodidact, transhumanist, and AI expert. He wrote a 2,000-page book (it was previously serialised, but has now been compiled into a single work) that is based on a blog that uses modern language to summarise the principles of rational thinking. Yudkowsky is not original – a graduate of the philosophy faculty sees the obvious parallels with Russel, Popper, and contemporary cognitive psychology. But I like how he popularises it all. It’s easy to read, and I’m all for the popularisation of science. We also translate some Yudkowsky into Russian
If a person starts to get bored, that means there’s room for progress
Are all of Kocherga’s activities centred on rationality?
Not all. We experimented with different formats our first few months. As for the rationality-related activities, the LessWrong meetings ‘survived,’ and they are held once every three weeks in a variety of different ways – paper presentations, games, and discussion groups with trolling elements. We sometimes get speakers like Alexey Turchin, for example, who also took part in the formation of our space. Slava Matyukhin holds practicums every Friday to develop people’s rationality skills, each class focusing on a specific skill. Overall, we try to carry out different events on more popularised areas. Starting with Asya Kazantseva and ending with the astrophysicist Sergei Popov, we invite the type of people who can tell us something interesting about science.
One thing that popularises science is a ‘calling.’ Academicism usually smothers communication skills.
I don’t think that’s the case. There are a lot of things that popularise science. When I decided to make a lecture schedule for the upcoming six months, I had three people for each week, which is a lot! Another thing is media exposure. Asya Kazantseva and Ilya Zakharov have thousands of subscribers, and people can listen to Drobyshevsky talk about human evolution on Postnauka. There are a lot of places in Moscow where science is popularised, and they usually have tons of listeners. When you learn your way around one specific group, you understand that it’s become cool to be smart.
It seems like there’s a certain trend occurring where people have become interested in their own consciousness. What is this connected to?
That’s a big question. It’s not the entire world that has become interested in consciousness, but only the part that has something to eat. This part of the world is suffering because it’s bored. This part of the world has a problem – things have to be interesting. What should you do in this case? Study discrete mathematics? No, this is too difficult. Molecular biology? No, that’s a narrow field. And this is where everyone finds psychology. For some reason, everyone thinks psychology is simple. The same is true for philosophy; people think that philosophy is all about conversations you can have with your pal at the kitchen table. If you get into psychology at the esoteric level – Vedic femininity and ’10 ways to keep a man’ – then everything is fine. At least you understand everything. But if you try to find reasonable causes for certain phenomena, then you have to dabble in neurobiology and ordinary scientific psychology. And this is where things get scary and uncomfortable.
I thought that human consciousness transcends to a different level.
Sometimes that’s the case. If a person starts to get bored, that means there’s room for progress.
Now about business – how does one open up a coworking space?
Slava and I were together one evening drinking tea. We decided it was time, so we went and looked for a building. It was simple and sudden. I came up with a plan of sorts, a reason for doing it and how much money to spend. It was all in tatters from the very beginning, but we took this into account, and our investments came from Slava’s savings. Finding a space in Moscow is a nightmare; rent prices are exorbitant, though we started negotiating the rent after four or five months. But you have to pay your workers, buy tea and cookies, clean up, and fix things. We don’t pay our lecturers now, and some of them speak for ideological reasons. At the anti-café, people pay for time, and the price of a lecture is around 200 rubles. We are looking for a balance so our lecturers get paid and our customers don’t overpay. Overall, it’s an anti-business.
It became clear that for people in this community, communication has to be made as easy and effortless as possible because this is a problem for them
What is more profitable, lectures or working visitors?
Usually in September, there’s an influx of students who get back from vacation and sit here for days. During exams, we often get project groups who need a space to work together. We give them a discount. It’s profitable for us. We want to provide a space for the smaller groups that help keep our coworking space open.
So it’s a sort of ideological business.
We aren’t expecting to get super rich; no one gets rich by opening up an anti-café. Rent, wages, and bills all cost about 300,000 rubles. In order to handle that amount, we need 50 people to visit each day. So this isn’t about having a huge business. If we do want to eventually grow rich, we can think about setting up paid trainings and paid lectures at the anti-café. This is the only thing we can do. So long as we charge 2 rubles a minute, it’s unrealistic to think about making money.
Do you have regular work? Can you make a living?
Slava and I devote all our time to the anti-café. Slava was also a programmer at Yandex, and he received an option that formed our savings, and this is what we live on.
You organised the space in a particular way, and you have a room that serves as an antidepressant. Where did you get such wonderful ideas?
We had the idea of creating a room with bright solar lighting before we even started looking for a space because there are, after all, a lot of depressed individuals among these rational nerds. We read that bright light is a way to treat depression, so we made a room with solar lamps and plants. It’s comfortable there, and you can grab a book from our philosophy library. We have a few conceptual rooms as well, for example the Gödel, Escher, Bach room, which has books on regularities that come up in music, mathematics, and art, and the room is designed accordingly. There are others as well.
We also have badges that signal your readiness for certain types of collaboration. The letter P means you’re ready for physical collaboration, and if a letter is red then this is a signal that a person does not want to be disturbed. People are very reserved and closed off nowadays. Who tells people to leave them alone? They’d just deal with it and then take antidepressants. We also have an internal currency called Yudcoins (a joke in honour of Yudkowsky) that also serve as loyalty cards, and there’s a discount system for tutors as well. We really are all for education.
I saw on your Facebook page that you are ‘introvert friendly.’ My dream come true…
Our clients are introverts. We observed them before opening the anti-café, and we know our clients as well as we know ourselves. Some of them are partly autistic and noncontact, and it became clear that for people in this community, communication has to be made as easy and effortless as possible because this is a problem for them. We want our rules to be the cultural norm overall. For example, we want for people to be able to start a conversation by talking about communication and then take things to a meta-level.
Author: Sonya Spielberg