About the project
How do you find your place in life? How do you find something to do that both comes naturally to you and makes you happy? The answer is that you have to apply the knowledge you’ve gained from university and from life itself correctly. The Success Builder Project features graduates from the Higher School of Economics who have discovered themselves through an interesting business or an unexpected profession. The protagonists share their experiences, and talk about the big shots they’ve schmoozed and how they’ve made the most of the opportunities they were given.
In the latest edition of Success Builder, HSE graduate and the founder of the anti-café Kocherga, Pion Gaibaryan, talks about how to build an ideological business and create a comfortable environment for ‘nerds.’ She also discusses why philosophy cannot be just a kitchen table conversation and how reading Kurt Gödel under the sun can treat depression.
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.
coworking spaces now exist in Moscow, seven of which are state-run
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.