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In Search of Pure Reason: What drove a Russian businessman to put together a philosophical expedition

Dmitry-Volkov 

This unusual affair on the icy shores of Greenland was organized by the entrepreneur Dmitriy Volkov, Co-founder of SD Ventures, Ph.D in Philosophy, and co-director of The Center for Consciousness Research. How did this enterprising Russian find himself in the company of world-renowned thinkers?


Dmitriy Volkov was fascinated by philosophy even in school, but chose to study in the History department at Moscow State all the same. He was already getting into business while still in university, but the tendency to be enterprising had manifested itself much earlier on, as the first money he ever earned came at the age of 13 in the late 80s. “It was a labor stock exchange for kids. We thought the idea was brilliant and the business got going, but unfortunately my partner and I were unaware of the fact that child labor is prohibited in our country,” remembers Volkov with a laugh. Working as a translator from English to Russian brought the Moscow State student into contact with projects connected to programming and the Internet, and soon thereafter he established his first IT firm. Then in 2003, he and his foreign partners brought together a group of companies under the unified banner of Social Discovery Ventures (SD Ventures), whose projects currently number more than 50, including Shazam (a smartphone-based music service), a site to find travel partners called TripTogether, and on-line dating sites (Asian Date, Zang). In Russia, SD Ventures is developing various projects such as PayOnline, an ergonomics studio, and researching user behavior with UsabilityLab. The company’s offices can be found in  New York, Chonqing (China), Medellin (Columbia), Moscow and Minsk. It’s no wonder then why Volkov spends so much time abroad.


For Volkov philosophy is just as important as developing new projects. At the age of 27, when business was already firmly established, he decided to get a second degree and applied to the Department of Philosophy at Moscow State. He remembers this as one of the happiest times of his life. “For the first time ever I started leaving work at 6:00 p.m. Before that I just didn’t think it was possible”, says Dmitriy. His class wasn’t that big, and all of his classmates really wanted to learn. Thanks to his academic advisor, professor Vadim Vasiliev, the student decided to go for his Doctorate defending a dissertation dedicated to questions of consciousness and free will, and to the works of Daniel Dennett. This is how Volkov came to be acquainted with one of the main representatives of modern analytical philosophy.

 

It’s A Small World

Paul-Jesse-Dan-Keith

Attendees of the conference on the schooner «Rembrandt van Rein»

Muscovite Dmitriy Volkov was fascinated by philosophy even in school, but chose to study in the History department at Moscow State all the same. He was already getting into business while still in university, but the tendency to be enterprising had manifested itself much earlier on, as the first money he ever earned came at the age of 13 in the late 80s. “It was a labor stock exchange for kids. We thought the idea was brilliant and the business got going, but unfortunately my partner and I were unaware of the fact that child labor is prohibited in our country,” remembers Volkov with a laugh. Working as a translator from English to Russian brought the Moscow State student into contact with projects connected to programming and the internet, and soon thereafter he established his first IT firm. Then in 2003, he and his foreign partners brought together a group of companies under the unified banner of Social Discovery Ventures (SD Ventures), whose projects currently number more than 50, including Shazam (a smartphone-based music service), a site to find travel partners called TripTogether, and on-line dating sites (Asian Date, Zang). In Russia, SD Ventures is developing various projects such as PayOnline, an ergonomics studio, and researching user behavior with UsabilityLab. The company’s offices can be found in Moscow, New York, Chonqing (China), Medellin (Columbia), and Minsk. It’s no wonder then why Volkov spends so much time abroad.

On SD Venture’s website, information about the philosophical conference in Greenland is located right next to the video tour of the New York office. But there are no contradictions here. As is declared on the site (as Volkov doesn’t say much about the business himself), all of the group’s projects are aimed at making the world a better, happier place and bringing people together. Modern Philosophers concern themselves with the very same questions.

 

Apprenticeship

Lone-boat

Photographs of conference attendees taken on the shores of Greenland in June 2014

 For Volkov philosophy is just as important as developing new projects. At the age of 27, when His business was already firmly established, he decided to get a second degree and applied to the Department of Philosophy at Moscow State. He remembers this as one of the happiest times of his life. “For the first time ever I started leaving work at 6:00 p.m. Before that I just didn’t think it was possible”, says Dmitriy. His class wasn’t that big, and all of his classmates really wanted to learn. Thanks to his academic advisor, professor Vadim Vasiliev, the student decided to go for his Doctorate defending a dissertation dedicated to questions of consciousness and free will, and to the works of Daniel Dennett. This is how Volkov came to be acquainted with one of the main representatives of modern analytical philosophy.

Before defending his thesis, Volkov decided to meet Dennett in person. Having found out about lectures on a cruise ship in Mexico in which the philosopher was taking part, the businessman bought tickets on the very same vessel so his wife and he could attend as well. The Russian entrepreneur and the 70-year-old philosopher became friends. Volkov went to see Dennett at his dacha in a rented helicopter, and attended the Erasmus Award ceremony for Dennett in Stockholm. And once upon a time they agreed to meet up in some far-out-of-the-way place to talk over questions of “mental causality,” Volkov recollects. Dennett, having been a yachtsman in the past, suggested a trip along the shores of Greenland.

Eventually, instead of an intimate behind closed doors affair, it ended up being a proper philosophical expedition. For an entire week, from the 12th to the 19th of June, 2014, questions concerning consciousness and free will were debated on the schooner «Rembrandt van Rein» by more than 30 philosophers from around the world.

 

Ship of Sages

Hi-there

Photos taken of conference participants on the coast of Greenland in June 2014

 The expedition’s course was set around the island of Disko, which lies off the western coast of Greenland. Every day in the mess room discussion sessions were held in which each speaker would represent the primary tenets of another participant using texts which had been agreed upon beforehand. This was followed by giving the philosopher who had just been described a chance to more precisely elucidate and argue his own position. Then general discourse would follow. The topics being discussed on the schooner, free will and consciousness, are exactly those that plague the Doctor of Philosophy Volkov most of all. The questions are abstract, but during the interview Dmitriy is able to sum the matter up in just a few minutes. Natural sciences have formed the modern conception of a human being as a living organism, a physical system resulting from years and years of evolution. But this view of the world doesn’t allow for human consciousness and free will. Subjectivity gets thrown overboard and with it our unique personal perceptions of color, sound, and emotion. In short, the individual becomes lost. Philosophers who hold that all subjective sensations are but illusion and that ultimately everything is one call themselves illusionists, or monists. To their ranks belong Daniel Dennett and, partly, Volkov himself. “People say philosophy is an activity which is detached from reality,” reasons the entrepreneur, “but actually philosophers must know the brain’s physiology to be able to speak of consciousness.

You have to know how it is set up. Analytical philosophy is intrinsically linked to science.”

All of the expedition participants were well acquainted, as the professors had often bumped into one another at conferences or in the hallways of universities. On the schooner «Rembrandt» two camps immediately formed: the monists, headed up by Dennett, and the dualists, who defend the reality of subjective thoughts and feelings, positing the impossibility of explaining consciousness as simply being physical processes in the brain or elsewhere in the body. The main spokesman for this second group was David Chalmers.

There ended up being more monists than dualists, as Dennett himself had been the one who invited the various participating philosophers, but he remained satisfied with his choices.

 

Thinkers of the 21st Century

 

Participants of the conference «Problems of Consciousness and Free Will in Analytical Philosophy»

 

Daniel Dennett

 

American philosopher, cognitivist, one of the leading representatives of analytical philosophy, works on problems of consciousness. Professor of philosophy and co-director of The Center of cognitive research at Taft University. Winner of the Erasmus Prize in 2012. Lectures at the University of California, Oxford, Harvard, and the Parisian Ecole Normale Superieure.

 

David Chalmers

 

Professor of philosophy at Australia National University. Heads up a center focusing on questions of consciousness. One of the main critics of monistic ideology. Primarily researches the difference between biological functioning of the brain and behavior on the one hand and mental experience on the other.

 

Patricia and Paul Churchland

 

Patricia, a Canadian-American philosopher, is the wife of Paul Churchland, philosopher and neurophysiologist who professors at California University in San Diego. They both hold the study of neurobiology as crucial for understanding the philosophy of consciousness.

 

Andy Clark

 

British philosopher at Edinburgh University. Author of the book “Natural Born Cyborgs,” in which he suggests human reason is a system not only limited to the brain and bones of the skull, but also includes parts of the outside world, blurring the lines between the body and the space around it.

 

“I’d never met with such a high level of discussion as I did on that boat,” wrote Volkov, answering a question for Forbes. “All of us spoke and presented our arguments, but without condescending or quibbling. It was truly an unforgettable meeting of great minds.”

Volkov also notes that all the organizers were pleasantly surprised with just how constructive the discussions turned out to be, despite the diametrically opposed nature of the two sides. Exponents of both camps communicated emotionally, but with the utmost respect. During Chalmers’ one-hour speech he nervously sipped from an empty bottle, but no one ever got personal during the debate. Hot discussions were alternated with cool trips on land and familiarizing oneself with the frosty nature of the Arctic. In one of the little towns along the way the travelers met an Inuit guide who, as luck would have it, turned out to have studied philosophy in Copenhagen. Eventually the man delivered to the professors his views on which universities were the best around the world, even touching upon the topic at hand, free will. As Volkov recounts, the man proposed that “Inuit men have free will but Inuit women do not.”

Perhaps due to providing the unforgiving yet picturesque surroundings, Greenland found itself at the crux of an argument. While disembarking in the Smallesund Canal, the coast of which is covered with smooth moss, and along which precipitous cliffs were adorned by thousands of fluttering seagulls, Chalmers put forward a powerful argument: “Just look! How can they possibly think this is all an illusion?” No one argued against him on this point, not even the most inveterate illusionists.

During the trip Dennett found an old board somewhere along the way, and by the time he was back in America had already cut out the figure of a whale, on one side writing his own name, and on the other, Dmitriy. “It was an excellent intellectual journey”, wrote Dennett to Volkov in a letter after his return.

 

Philosophical Questions

Living-by-the-waterPhotograph of conference attendees taken on the shores of Greenland, June 2014

 After his doctorate, Volkov set his hands to writing a book which took six years to finish, and in 2011 had it published under the title, “Boston Zombie: Daniel Dennett and His Theory of Consciousness.” It is comprised primarily of discussions with Daniel Dennett, as well as a handful of other modern philosophers. Also in the works is his dissertation, which Volkov intends to finish in one year, in addition to another book.

How does the 38-year-old entrepreneur find time for philosophical studies? “It’s my other job,” says Volkov. He explains that the main role served by philosophy in his life is one of “self-preservation.”

“At the age of 25 I began to discover that work, like an octopus, is all-consuming,” says the businessman. “You have to set up a whole wall of rubles in order to stop thinking about it. I built this wall with the help of philosophy.”

 The second reason why it’s important for a businessman to study philosophy is to develop critical thinking. Philosophy teaches you to deal with information selectively. Volkov is sure that “in business this is also very important...to accept information without making conclusions based upon belief. It’s vital to critically evaluate what is claimed. Eventually this will lead to a more modern society with more tolerance and independence.” And it is exactly for this reason that Volkov is trying to advance philosophy in Russia. In 2006 he and Vadim Vasiliev opened The Center for Consciousness Research in the Philosophy Department at Moscow State. “This is my thanks to society for a free education.”

The third reason to study philosophy is the aesthetic enjoyment gleaned from philosophical reasoning.

“I find beauty in intellectual constructs, as can be seen in pictures, in blueprints where the engineer’s conceptualization is clear,” confesses the entrepreneur. The convergence of technology and art is dear to me as an idea, both in life, and in business.

 

Expensive Hobby

Freedom-of-thoughtPhotos of conference attendees taken on the shores of Greenland in June 2014

 Colleagues and business partners react in all sorts of ways to Volkov’s obsession. Some become curious while others poke fun. With a chuckle, Volkov tells me the story of a guy he knows, the owner of a large tourist agency, to whom he once gave his book about Dennett. The man sincerely thanked him, calling it “the perfect sleeping aid” and further suggesting “after two lines I’ll fall right to sleep.” Later as a gift for the New Year he gave him Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.

“This will work even better,” he laughs.

The majority of his friends consider his attraction to philosophy to simply be an expensive hobby, just like flying in helicopters (which Volkov does professionally, having received his license) and heli-skiing.

“It’s really an extremely expensive hobby,” agrees the businessman. “Because I’m investing

what’s most valuable—my own time. Working on the doctoral dissertation and on books demands my personal attention. I can’t delegate it to anyone.”

Volkov allots about 30% of his working schedule to philosophical pursuits. Every holiday and weekend is booked until the end of the year, all having been dedicated to his doctoral dissertation.

Volkov is co-funding the work of The Center for Consciousness Research and his projects. Just for the trip to Greenland he had to fork out almost $250 000, paying flights for all participants, and for the expedition itself. The renowned philosophers took no payment for participating, although the compensation for their public appearances is usually counted in the thousands of dollars.

Volkov is ready to spend money on scientific endeavors. “I want to further the creation of a philosophical society in Russia,” says Volkov. “A society of philosophers who could work together, socialize, explore creativity, read books, and make criticisms. It was for this reason The Center was created.” He is sure that the most interesting thing about modern philosophy is the possibility of dialogue in real time. Obviously “you can’t debate with Plato or Kant anymore.”

Besides that, scientific pursuits also allow the businessman a better opportunity to understand the meaning of life. “It’s got to make sense,” says Volkov. “I don’t want to have lived my whole life without having understood just what kind of world I was in.”

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