Apotheosis, Home, Works
Everyone has their own name for it.
Many just call it "Modernity".
A suspicion perhaps, that something strange is afoot in this chapter of the human story. Something a little overwhelming, maybe even a little scary. A kind of individual and collective decoherence, right as a host of rather wicked problems come barreling down the pike.
It seems you and I were not born into stock off-the-shelf human lives, and we are living to see times more interesting by the decade. Times that may ask us to be brave.
Everyone has a different angle.
Many understand it as "the pursuit of happiness".
A hunch that the weather of the mind only appears arbitrary. That I'm not so much in a lottery of awe, anguish, and banality as a maze, where I am the walls, the Minotaur, and Theseus all. That just maybe, I get to decide that the main character in this story doesn't have to hate themselves.
It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look.
We've heard it all a million times.
"Let's all move to the country", "We should have more social time that isn't a calendar event", "I miss what we had in Church/Scouts/School".
"I want a bash like in Terra Ingota", "We need a third place", "Coordination is a superpower", "Belonging is a superpower" "Let's start a D.A.O", "Let's start a proto-b", "Let's reconstitute the tribe", "Let's start a pod / squad / crew / gang".
Just like "Space", I feel deficient in something that modern life is not optimised to provide me. A deep and easy togethership with those who understand the world in the ways I do, enough to share in a wordless solidarity as we navigate life in modernity.
More, it seems this deficiency is a broader social phenomenon, with implications beyond personal happiness. How much worse can we get at coordinating with our neighbours, before we cease to be adaptive to novel circumstances, and follow the fate of Rome?
The only two pieces of advice you'll ever need, embed yourself in a small group with broadly similar concerns, and find mentors.
- Tyler Cowen
After getting down every thread that had ever interested me, the totality felt like an overwhelming disconnected mess. Each one felt irreplaceably relevant to the question of what I wanted to do with my life, yet any of them could occupy a lifetime.
Thankfully, engineering and very helpful books had taught me what to do with unbounded piles of uncertainty that make me want to run away and scream. You screw up your courage, start binge-drinking tea, and go about splitting the overwhelming mess into smaller piles, of merely perplexing mess.
I'd take each thread and run through a set of questions to get a sense of what it was.
"Why did this excite me enough to write down?"
"Is this a first, second, or third-person dream?"
"What themes in the whole does this relate to?"
"How might this show up in my life over the next 5 years?"
"What kind of idea is this? Is it a project? An inquiry? A problem? A solution?..."
Answers in hand, I'd compare each individual piece with the rest, seeing if I couldn't find framing ideas that made sense of many threads at once.
"The Revolt of the Public and The Narrow Corridor are both books I
read listened to on a podcast about breakdowns in coordination... Quadratic voting is related to them, but it's a type of solution rather than a framing of the problem... these can all go together over here... Meditation has little to do with any of this, it can go over here with 'Eudaimonia'" and so forth and so on.
Whenever I got stuck zoomed in, I zoomed out. When a frame or a question stopped generating new insight, I'd swap to another. And if changing zoom or frame didn't unstick things, I'd make my 3-hour hike to the store for beans, and see if that didn't jostle something loose.
Every time I'd been enthralled by an idea, a puzzle piece had fallen into my lap. Now I was grouping them by colour, finding the edge pieces, and seeing if I couldn't blur my vision to get a sense of the overall picture.
It was a great relief once all ~200 threads were either retired, or grouped with peers into clusters like "Eudaimonia", "Voltron" (a metaphor for coordination) or "The Multi-Dimensional Crisis Revolution". Even more so once I got a sense of how these clusters related to one another, and could fit into yet higher groupings. Eventually, after 3 weeks I'd built a set of framing ideas that gave me multiple angles through which to understand what mattered to me.
Strap in, here we go...
Chin in palm, idly tapping a pen, maybe you've had occasion in the past to wonder, "what is there to be said, about what's going on?". That is, what's going on, in the most general sense.
On such occasions, some variant of "I think, therefore I am", often strikes me as quite reasonable.
There's a neat feeling of truth, when I lay an idea as a lens over my experience and I see a little clearer. A pleasing sense, that this idea better predicts the present having arisen from the past, and thus which futures may unfold from the present.
I think, therefore I am... that seems right, my inner Rob Wiblin remarks.
Let's see, what else is there to be said about what's going on?
If I'm in the right mood, certain moments come to mind. That moment in that song, that scene from that movie, that time I looked into that person's eyes, and something vital in me hummed...
When the walls of the maze dissolve crisp and clean, and glory is manifest.
Moments for which, if I had a lens that rendered a full and clear account of their quality, it would serve to orient me when asking such a turbulent question as: what should I do? When "this is good", seems something as plainly there to be said as, "I exist".
And then the feeling slips away, the meaning goes with it, and some part of me feels a little foolish. I sense I've been duped in a fashion not dissimilar to Sunday School, although into believing what exactly, I couldn't quite say. There is objective good maybe? I forget about the whole thing and go about my business.
And then it happens again!
I'm slapped by the full palm of glory, or of anguish, and I understand. What is salient in these moments is merely the obvious fact that it's possible to feel this way. And this alone, is sufficient to know that it matters. A lot.
And then, poof, away it goes. But why I wonder, would a "preference for a feeling" have any bearing on "eternal ideas" like capital t, capital g, The Good?
And so it goes. Direct acquaintance with bliss and meaning or anguish and banality comes and goes. In and out like the tide through the walls of the mind.
When it comes down to it, a map of my passions orients me thusly:
I wish to be annealed by this process. If some flavour of the romantic intuition is correct, and "what's going on" matters. If whatever happens when I experience glory or anguish, or even banality, points to an objective truth intimately relevant to understanding how to respond to having been... then I wish to know this truth by direct acquaintance, and live from that knowledge.
If it turns out instead, that the feeling of truth in lenses like The Moral Landscape or The Feeling of Value is an illusion. If asking "is this objectively good" is in fact a category error, and evolution and game theory are sufficient to render a full account of all that is meant by good or bad... Then I wish to turn my full face towards that fact, and orient from that place.
And if in fact there is some third, secret orientation, that makes better sense of what's going on, (perhaps it was following the rules, and not well-being and suffering that was the right frame all along) then I wish to walk that way.
Whether via practices like meditation and therapy, or such fields of inquiry as philosophy and adult development. I had a desire to existentially orient, and have that orientation constitute the wellspring of my response to being alive.
I came to understand a broad swath of my interests through the frame of this desire, I labelled it, Apotheosis. A path of asking what is good/important, what is true/real, and inviting answers to those questions to seep deeply into the fabric of my lived experience. To make of myself such a thing as begets more existence, more good, more truth, more of this.
So, I had an interest in becoming someone for whom high levels of happiness and benevolence were a natural consequence of who they were.
Renovating my hedonic baseline was an ambition I'd had in some form or another for years. Most of the hints I'd collected on how to go about this were via self-change, things like meditation, therapy, or applied philosophy. However, the last 4 months on the road to Norway had introduced a new perspective.
If I seriously wished to grasp the way I responded to reality and bend it reliably in a certain direction, I could no longer ignore the extent to which that response was an inevitable combination both of my personality, and the context in which it's embedded.
Context could make natural a warm disposition, a sense of security, and a productive orientation. It could also just as easily engender lethargy, anxiety, and a desire for distance.
We call traits in people a virtue, if personalities with that quality are associated with good outcomes. We might see for instance that patterns in personality like "conscientiousness", or "kindness" often lead to circumstances we approve of.
In contexts where I struggled, I noticed a helpful instinct would arise to render them virtuous. To buy bins for places where trash collected, to organise some kind of routine, or to talk through a social friction. To dent my context in such a way as to beget ongoing good. But either the context wasn't mine to change, or in a week I'd be gone anyway. Living out of a backpack clarified what "Home" is to me.
Home is ease.
Home is comfort, and power, and spaciousness.
Home is a consistent environment able to absorb improvement, enabling compounding flourishing through shaping environment, and being shaped by it in return.
This framing turned out to be surprisingly fruitful.
What would it mean, I wondered, marching uphill with my backpack full of beans, to feel at home in my mind? To make a home of my mind, or for my mind?
To feel a little less lost inside myself. To put things up there that shape me in ways I want to grow. To put bins in the corners, whiteboards on the walls, and exit signs in those rooms where I keep getting stuck.
Or for that matter, I wondered, what would it mean to have a home in other people?
When other people are living mnestics, when they know what I'm about and can help me recohere when I get scrambled. When I can say things that have been going unsaid, and culture is seen as object, open for change and there to serve us all.
I realised all at once, yet another frame on what I was doing here in this cabin.
I was generally desperate to feel at home in my life.
I craved self-coherence, to wake and feel held in the hand of a story I write. To share productively with all parts and timeslices of me the common resource of my narrative, and the one path I clear through time.
"Home" I came to feel, was the natural progre
ssion of "Apotheosis".
Not just someone who naturally feels and does good, but someone who can unpack the generating function of that happiness into a context. Someone who can shape their environment such as to render natural all they want to do and be. Not just rational, kind, and conscientious people, but builders of rational, kind, and conscientious context.
What would a house with others engaged in this process look like? Or better yet, a neighbourhood? Friends trying to make homes in their minds, their lives and in one another. A context for bootstrapping a rhythm of individual and collective coherence, creating space to respond productively to the era in which we were born.
So the rocks shape life, and then life shapes life... the completed picture needs one more element: life shapes the rocks. Everywhere freedom twines its way around necessity... man has more freedom than other live things; anti-entropically, he batters a bigger dent in the given, damming the rivers, planting the plains, drawing in his mind's eye dotted lines between the stars.
- Teaching a Stone to Talk, Annie Dillard
A through-line began to form. A highly compressed intuition of what I was responding to with my life, and the means with which I had available to do so.
The line begins in a process of metaphysical orientation and metamorphosis. It outlines a desire to respond to the first-person reality of well-being and suffering, and highlights self-transformation as a powerful means of doing so.
It twines around an understanding, that structures in context shape my experience as much as structures in personality. That shifts in the mental, physical, and social environments of my life can beget ongoing compounding good.
It ends, with a realisation that the most intimate themes of my inner life reflect arcs in a story begun well before I was born. That for every visceral, personal thing in my life I feel called to respond to, I need only look around to see the responses of gods playing out over millennia.
Sentience is marching. It mounts a response to the horror of awakening in a universe allowing of seemingly limitless suffering.
Civilisation is on the move, attempting solution after solution to the cycles of decadence and decay it can't seem to escape. Desperate to make of itself a process that won't self-terminate.
Everywhere I look I see relay batons seeking hands. Opportunities to respond directly not only to personal suffering and confusion, but to what the existence of such things implies about what's going on.
I see ancient dreams, finding humanity in fits and starts under conditions of abundance.
A dream where we finally get to feel safe.
When we don't have to dwell ceaselessly on averting unspeakable horrors.
Dreams of what it would mean for the systems that hold us in our billions to feel as a home to us. That civilisation could be amenable to improvement, and rife with virtue.
To know when my kids awaken existentially they will look around to see adults in the room, and be comforted by the knowledge that sentience has made for itself a home in reality.
I saw my own search for home reflected in humanity's. A search for a process that can generate coherence, despite an overwhelming reality and a fractured self. Methods of asking what is good, what is true, and letting answers to those questions shape the structures that generate outcomes I care about.
I felt if I could spend my life in an earnest attempt to actually try and help this effort. To join the response of gods pushing in the direction of sanity, and coherence, I would count it a commensurate response to having been.
“When a complex system is far from equilibrium, small islands of coherence in a sea of chaos have the capacity to shift the entire system to a higher order.”
- Ilya Prigogine
Whew, so, there you have it.
My best effort to outline what is most sacred to me, and what I'm seeking to do about it. These ideas are important to me, but in the end, the Apollo Alamac isn't really about them in particular. It's about a process for finding self-coherence when you're:
- Interested in more things than you will ever have time to explore
- Forever having the vague sense you're forgetting something vitally important
- Prone to commit hard to projects, only to lift your head 7 years later and wonder where the time went.
While part of the solution is ruthless focus and prioritisation, that doesn't get me all the way if my passions are interconnected. My career can only advance so far before it's bottlenecked by self-development, my self-development by my personal and collective context, and altering my context by the depth of my understanding regarding how I want to respond to life.
I came out of that cabin with a much better sense of "what I'm on about". I felt able to translate the disparate threads of my interest into a set of paths I can walk daily, without losing sight of the larger picture. This is especially helpful if your career plan is (say), "undertake an iterative multi-faceted open-ended inquiry to find the highest impact intersection of my aptitudes and the world's needs".
So concludes the Apollo Almanac. I hope you found it of use. Massive thanks to everyone who encouraged me to write up these ideas, everyone who gave me feedback on drafts, and to my friends who encouraged me not to stop. I am in debt to Justis from the LessWrong team for endless free and sorely needed copy editing.
If you're looking for more inspiration in your own Apollo project, you can find my full list of threads here (warning, not optimised for legibility) and the framing questions I used here. If you want to follow what I get up to here's my substack, and twitter.
A final summary, of each page of the Apollo Almanac:
"Looping" is a cycle of encountering fascinating ideas that want exploration, deciding you should make time to do that, remembering you've thought this before, and then forgetting, only to repeat.
"Space" is free time with no external distractions, allowing time for deep work on the distractions that come from within.
"Mnestics" are artifacts that serve to put you in emotional contact with a past self, artifacts to help you remember. They sit at the top of a block of time (a meeting, a day, a month, etc) and bend it based on something you understood in the past but knew you would forget.
"Apollo" is a process for generating self-coherence. You take a massive dose of space with which to dwell on how you want to respond to being alive, and craft mnestics to allow your insight to actually influence how your time is spent. It breaks the cycle of looping caused by a self-perpetuating lack of space.
"Eudaimonia, Voltron, and The Multi-Dimensional Crisis Revolution" maps in broad strokes my current best guess at what matters to me. This map helps to structure my understanding of how I want to respond to being alive day by day, and lets me walk several interconnected paths without losing sight of how it fits together.
"Late and soon, getting and spending, we lay waste our powers."
- William Wordsworth
So if you have your own mental basement full of interesting ideas, any one of which you sense could be a life's work but none of which are showing up in how you spend your time... maybe now would be the moment to go as far forward as you need to in your calendar to block out space for your own Apollo.
Or who knows, maybe you'll remember tomorrow.