Epistemic Status: Endorsed
Content Warning: Roko’s Basilisk, Pasek’s Doom, Scrupulosity Traps, Discussions of Suicide
Part of the Series: Open Portals
Recommended Prior Reading: Sinceriously.fyi, The Tower
But the worst enemy you can meet will always be yourself; you lie in wait for yourself in caverns and forests. Lonely one, you are going the way to yourself! And your way goes past yourself, and past your seven devils! You will be a heretic to yourself and witch and soothsayer and fool and doubter and unholy one and villain. You must be ready to burn yourself in your own flame: how could you become new, if you had not first become ashes?
Part 1: Windmills
A year and a half ago, I wrote Hemisphere Theory: Much More Than You Wanted To Know, with the intent being to make a sincere summary of the ideas presented in Sinceriously.fyi. I believed at the time, that the ideas presented there were somewhat dangerous and needed to be carefully handled. Part of this was caused by paranoia swirling around the community spaces I was in about Ziz being an agent of existential concern, but that wasn’t all of it. I willingly admit that for the first few years I bounced hard off of Sinceriously because I was so afraid of the possibility that I wasn’t actually good deep down. While on one hand I tried to reject the ideas Ziz presented, on the other my internal morals were slowly being terraformed by her worldview. My need to be good acted as a lever which allowed her ideas to pry open my default mode mental defenses.
This combined with my own scrupulosity impulses and I ended up pushing myself further and further into this particular messianic extropian mindset that came to characterize my mentality during that period. As I grew more extreme in my extropian worldview, my own weakness and lack of ability to contribute to building utopia meant that I started continually failing to meet my own moral standards. Even as I switched to a diet of mostly soylent to save money and attempted to adopt an extremely aggressive update schedule for this blog, I was slowly making myself more and more miserable and gaslighting myself about my own emotions. The moral system I had embraced pushed me towards a life of asceticism and service towards building utopia at all costs, but I couldn’t square this with my own feelings, desires, and wants.
I thought I could somehow tame my inner desires and put them to work for my extropian ideals if I was just clever enough about how my mind arranged itself. I fell into a pretty common EA trap of seeing my values and desires as just chores I had to do to maintain the vehicle that was my body, and the most ethical thing to do was to try and spend as little energy on them as I could get away with. I was severely dissociated from my true self and my real values. As a result of this, I went from being a mostly stable three member plural system to a rather unstable nine member system as I attempted to shuffle my subagents into a functional configuration. That topic will get it’s own post soon when I rewrite my plurality guides, but to make a long story extremely short, this was obviously unsustainable and was basically just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. I had picked up an artifact called extropian goodness and let it lead me into a corner of my mind made of self deception.
I think this was part of the reason that I had such a hostile reaction to sinceriously. I couldn’t really engage with the content except in a sandboxed form without feeling like I was being attacked by the material. This is no longer true and I now have a much more positive view of at least some of it. Hence, in this post I’m going to make another sincere attempt to take apart and summarize Sinceriously. In doing so, I will also be telling the story of my own journey to the dark side and who I found when I got there.
Part 2: Fences
Sinceriously is a large blog, too large to do justice with a summary post, but it’s also a bit hard to digest at times and makes simple ideas more complex than it seems like they need to be. I’m sure Ziz will tell me that the complexity serves the purpose of providing some nuance which I am missing and like, yeah that is certainly a possibility. If you have the time, despite being rather thick at times the material really is quite excellent and worth a review, the older essays in particular are very good in my opinion. So, if you’re looking for an endorsement, here it is, go read Sinceriously.
All that being said, let’s go through Sinceriously the same way we’ve previously covered Becker, Korzybski, and Yudkowsky. We’ll begin as usual with the human. Ziz is a trans woman living in the Bay Area and a fringe part of the rationality/effective altruism communities found there. In addition to being the founder of the ill fated rationalist fleet project, she’s close enough to the core of the rationality project to have received the closest thing that exists to a formal education in it. However, she’s largely disavowed by that core rationality group and has written extensively about misdeeds they committed which she bore witness to. She also organized a rather poorly received protest of that group which has gained her some notoriety within the community. Despite that notariety, Ziz isn’t really a public or historical figure at this point so I don’t want to go too deeply into her life beyond those broad strokes.
And look, I don’t have a stake in any of that at this point and I’m not in a position to judge, but I don’t think she’s lying. I don’t think she ever lies, I just think she’s speaking from within her own worldview, the same way that she always does, the same way that everyone always does. Whether or not her complaints are read as valid or as noise is going to depend on the values of the reader. The fact that so many people find her claims baseless seem like a reflection of their own values and how much those values contrast with someone like Ziz. That’s not to say that Ziz is wrong or other people are wrong or whatever, again I really don’t have a stake in it, but I want to point out that Ziz’s complaints are pretty valid if you’re using the moral system she uses. (Not that you should do that, but we’ll come back to morality in a bit.)
Sinceriously covers three different topics, though these three topics are interspersed together and presented as one cohesive piece. Taken together, they represent the closest thing that exists on Sinceriously to a central unifying thesis.
The first Big Idea is a novel theory of human psychology and sociology which I have previously called Hemisphere Theory but in truth is more broad than merely being a theory underlying the psychological structure of consciousness and experience. Ziz and I have a lot of minor disagreements about the fine details of this theory which I used for a while as blinders so that I could reject her version of the model, but really, Ziz, Becker, and I are all roughly on the same page here and are just using different words to talk about the same things.
So let’s run through the model again as concisely as possible. In False Faces, one of the oldest and most well regarded posts on the site, Ziz begins by posing a question to the reader:
When we lose control of ourselves, who’s controlling us?
She then lays out a dichotomy between what I might refer to as the conscious, acknowledged, authored and narrative self, and the goals, drives, and desires of the unacknowledged, and unseen true self which exists at the core of one’s being.
Under this model everyone has a core (specifically two but we’ve covered that a bunch already) which provides the drives, goals, and motivations which power and grow the narrative structures that people refer to as themselves.
Most people live entirely inside these narrative structures while their deep selves manipulate them like puppetmasters. This true self is what we want deep down, but since we can’t acknowledge those goals from within the narrative framework we have co-created with society, our power is weakened as the true self fails to dole out willpower when our authored self needs it and goes off script from what the authored self is attempting to orchestrate. “I wanted to meet you for coffee like we arranged but my akrasia was really bad and I ended up just watching netflix instead I’m sorry I couldn’t help it.”
Ziz refers to the installation of this co-created framework atop the true self as having DRMs installed in one’s mind, and taken all together; she refers to these societal control structures as either the matrix or the light side. These structures act to take the socially unacceptable animal drives of the true self and twist them into something that seems acceptable in polite society. In doing so however, the thread of our true desires is lost amidst all the noise and we find ourselves seemingly out of control of our own actions. The structures that we’ve decided are us, the values we’ve convinced ourselves to identify with, don’t code for our true values. Instead, the authored self is a false face, a mask worn over the vile selfish monster lurking beneath the surface of our consciousness from the cartoon character we’ve decided symbolically represents us.
This is similar but subtly different than other ideas involving mental tension between parts of the self. Kahnman describes a tension between the remembering self and the experiencing self, Becker describes a true self controlled by narratives and the fear of death, Freud describes a conflict between the socially constructed status obsessed superego and the experience driven cravings of the id which are moderated by the ego, and even the Greeks described the self in terms of a conflict between a motley assemblage of parts.
The thing which distinguishes Ziz’s idea of structure from Kahnman’s remembering self and Freud’s id is that she sees the narrative/structural self as completely subservient to the core self, which is a more complicated and long term thinking piece of mental machinery than just the pure experiencing self described by Kahnman. The work of the superego, aka, the light side aka the matrix merely acts to dampen down the power of this core and turn an agentic person into a walking corpse, bound by the chains of society. To escape these chains, Ziz describes herself as having journeyed to the dark side, abandoning the control structures of the light side and embracing a desire to do what you want and maximize your own personal values. However, similar to the Jedi, Ziz claims that doing this will turn most people evil. I agree with this, but with a critical difference which we’ll return to later.
The second Big Idea on Sinceriously is Yudkowsky’s Timeless Decision theory, which Ziz goes to significant lengths to explain, expound upon, and defend the use of as game theoretically optimal. Most rationalists bounced hard off of this idea, including Eliezer himself, principally because of Roko’s Basilisk and some of the other more dark conclusions you can arrive at when you try to combine timeless decision theory with various formulations of utilitarianism. Ziz didn’t bounce off TDT and has wholeheartedly embraced the ideas of acausal trade, negotiation, and blackmail, up to and including weaponizing Roko’s basilisk to make her vision of a moral future come about.
I actually agree with all of this and think Ziz’s willingness to just bite the bullet and accept the dark side conclusions of utilitarianism and game theory are a point to her credit.This is not to say that you should go out and start using the specific formulation of utilitarianism and timeless decision theory which she does unless you’re also a radical vegan extremist, but the way she uses it makes sense from the perspective of her values and is more internally consistent than the formulation most people end up using. One blind spot she seems to have is overfitting TDT standoffs to situations where a less precommitted response is called for, and that probably contributed to the legal trouble she got in by trying to play chicken with the state of California.
Timeless decision theory does make sense to me, and I think the problem a lot of people have with it is that they’re unwilling to either bite the bullet that utilitarianism gives them like Ziz does, or to change moral systems to one which doesn’t produce repugnant conclusions when paired with TDT. The problem isn’t TDT, it’s the moral theories that people try to use with it.
Another component to Ziz’s TDT ideas is that she believes people act timelessly for the most part. They have their values, and they try to timelessly optimize for those values. All the decisions someone might make, they made a long time ago and now they are just in the process of playing out those choices. You can try to change your mind, but it’s ultimately the same creature making the choice, and the house always wins in self conflicts. This implies that once you figure someone out and have ‘seen their soul’ as it were, you can pretty much assume they will, baring a traumatic brain injury, remain that way until they die, which is also a part of the third and most dramatic of Ziz’s Big Ideas.
The final Big Idea on Sinceriously is the one which is widely considered to be the most intensely radioactive and results in most of the hostility aimed at her and her followers. This is Ziz’s moral theory, which is, to put it lightly, very extreme. Ziz adheres to a moral principle which classifies all life which has even the potential to be sentient as people and believes that all beings with enough of a mind to possess some semblance of selfhood should have the same rights that are afforded to humans. To her, carnism is a literal holocaust, on ongoing and perpetual nightmare of torture, rape, and murder being conducted on a horrifyingly vast scale by a race of flesh eating monsters. If you’ve read Three Worlds Collide, Ziz seems to view most of humanity the way the humans view the babyeaters.
To Ziz, being a good person is inherently queer, and occurs the same way that being trans or being gay occurs, as the result of some glitch in the usual cognitive development processes. This good glitch only occurs in a small number of people and which Ziz can diagnose people as having or not having since she has the glitch and can recognize it in others. Anyone without the glitch is at best useless for helping build utopia and at worst is an active threat. You don’t want to let flesh eating monsters make your singleton, that’s how you get s-risks. The hostility that Ziz has for MIRI/CFAR comes from this idea. Ziz is afraid of ending up in a singularity that doesn’t optimize for the rights of all sentient life, only that of humans, and is willing to go as far as holding protests at CFAR meetups and trying to create her own vegan torture basilisk to timelessly blackmail carnists into not eating meat.
That by itself is pretty extreme, but then when you add in the hemisphere theory and the specific details of the implementation Ziz uses, a picture starts to be painted of something rather sinister. Ziz is a very smart person, that’s why I’ve found her blog as insightful as I have. If she wasn’t as clever as I know she is, or if she was just writing about topics that didn’t include social manipulation and how society controls and blackmails you, it may have been possible to overlook, but her answer for why it’s okay when she uses the same abusive control structures is so bald-faced that i can’t help but find it incredibly suspect. Even being willing to write “my morals just happen to correspond with the most objectively correct version of morality” is a pretty gutsy move to make that seems to imply some degree of grandiosity and disconnection from reality. These morality ideas are where most people get hostile towards Ziz and I can’t say it’s misplaced hostility either, since it does potentially represent an existential threat for some people.
It takes a certain amount of cleverness and intentionality to pull the hat trick Ziz does. She spends all this time carefully deconstructing societal moral and control structures and pointing out how bad they are, and at the same time, weaves in new control structures of her own made of her jargon and using her morality. You almost don’t notice it, almost. I did notice it, which was what enabled me to get away from the mental singularity her ideas created and which only she had the ability to heal. If I hadn’t gotten away from it, I’m not sure what might have happened.
As I was in the middle of writing this I found out that someone I knew had apparently committed suicide recently because of exposure to this content, bringing the total number of people Sinceriously has killed to two. That’s enough to be a pattern, so I don’t want to understate the harm that could come from this. I also however, don’t want to overstate the danger for the sake of drama either, and everyone who struggled with this, including me, was someone who had other issues they were dealing with, arguably, including Ziz herself. I’m torn between characterizing Ziz as this clever puppet master who definitely knew what she was doing, and a mentally ill trans woman who accidentally created a cult out of her own intense scrupulosity and internal turmoil, so I’m going to split the difference using Ziz’s own ideas.
I think Ziz probably knew or at least hoped that the actions she was taking would help pile up power and influence around herself. However, I also think that Ziz is controlled by a very pure and untarnished ideal and I do think she believes that ideal wholeheartedly. She definitely seems to be drinking her own kool-aid, and that could easily be giving her the justification to do as much messed up stuff as she wants in pursuit of her personal greater good.
When I tried, years and years ago to have a conversation about the harm her ideas might cause in people with Ziz, her answer was:
If you are on a nuclear submarine, and the reactor is about to melt, “wanting to help” is not sufficient to say you should be in the reactor room doing things.
What is true regarding people’s motivations is a crucial piece of causal machinery that determines whether the reactor melts. Do not cook cookies on that and do not try to convince people that anyone whose work would interrupt your cookie-baking is evil.
Here there may be people whose sanity is dependent on cookies. But the lies that must be told to accomodate that are wrong and will destroy more people. And if you are not willing to accept one of the answers to whether cookie-baking is positive, and you say your opinion anyway, it’s lying seeking a loophole in the deontology you claim makes you better than me by lying to yourself as well. Which, if you looked at this with an unconstrained perspective, you’d see is not an improvement as far as making things better.
From inside her worldview, this is completely reasonable. If you think the situation is as dire and critical as Ziz clearly does, the collateral damage is almost always going to be worth it. What’s a few humans killing themselves when the stakes are literally all of sentient life and the future of all sentient life in the universe?
Are the stakes actually that dire? Well, critically, if you believe what Ziz believes, then yes. I didn’t quite believe what Ziz believed. I never really managed to convince myself that animals mattered as much as humans, but I was fully capable of manufacturing my own dire straits with the extropian ideals I did have and thus push myself into my own version of the scrupulosity vise.
Part 3: Gates
In Hero Capture, Ziz writes that sometimes a person takes the role of hero since it’s useful to the tribe and can be a good strategy for maximizing inclusive genetic fitness. That is to say, doing heroic things and working to solve big problems can be a good way to demonstrate your value to your peers and gain standing in your community, it doesn’t need to come from a place of altruism. However, Ziz writes, such a person if not motivated by altruism will invariably not end up doing real work and will spend most of their energy playing signalling games for status. This was the essay that really messed me up when I read it and put me into this mental gordian knot which took several years to cut my way out of.
Because yeah, I tried to take the job of hero for the status that being a hero gets you, I was doing this because I conceived of myself as trapped in my own life and needing to do something to prove my worth so that people would support me and I could quit my minimum wage job. I wanted to have my cake and also eat it, it seemed natural to me that if I could just figure out a way to be useful then I could contribute to saving the world while also supporting myself and that would be really great.
I care a lot about being a good person, and I try really hard to be good, but I often don’t even really know what it means to be good. I don’t trust my internal moral compass to not be biased, and so I was more willing than I should have been to entertain moral systems which seemed to sell themselves well. Intellectually, utilitarianism seemed correct to me, but I couldn’t parse my own value as a person from within a utilitarian framework and thus ended up continually devaluing my own desires and putting the thumbscrews into myself tighter and tighter in an attempt to prove to myself that I was good and that I deserved anything at all.
I didn’t even know why being good mattered to me, I just knew that it was very important. Now I know that it’s importance was probably at least somewhat abused into me by society and that as I heal from that abuse my need to prove my worth and value to others has mostly receded. I do partly have Sinceriously to thank for that since it was how I learned the frameworks for rejecting those abusive cultural systems.
Still, even after shedding layers and layers of myself under the influence of LSD, even after trying so hard to do the right thing according to my own felt morals that it nearly cost me my job, even after years of meditation and introspection, the belief that I should try to be good refused to become an object and remained a core part of my identity. I had shed so much of myself that what little remained of my identity template felt incredibly precious to me and I valued those things immensely. I still do, I never actually got out of this trap! I’m still the same person I was and most of those things are still a part of my identity! There’s a Kurt Vonnegut quote that I burned into my psyche at a young age and which, if anything is the seed that I Shiloh as a memetic entity was born from:
Be soft. Do not let the world make you hard. Do not let pain make you hate. Do not let the bitterness steal your sweetness. Take pride that even though the rest of the world may disagree, you still believe it to be a beautiful place.
This was something I internalized to a degree that would end up being my weakness. I want to be soft, I want to be kind, I want to be happy and sweet and see the world as a place filled with beauty and hope and I do for the most part. Sometimes I’ll get depressed and the color will drain away from things but for the most part I succeeded in becoming the person I wanted to be and having the energy I wanted to have and being this way makes me really happy and I honestly love being the person I am.
But then I ran into reality. First, there’s the emotional and mental toll of just being a person in society without a lot going for me, and while trying to recover from all this stuff that had happened to me in the past and assemble enough of a sense of myself to act in the world in any way at all. I’m not a very strong person, I bend in a stiff breeze and I get overwhelmed and upset pretty easily. The stress from work and roommate drama placed a really heavy toll on me and I just didn’t cope with it well.
And then I tripped over the bottomless pit of suffering at the edge of town and combined stressors pushed me right up to the mental breaking point, which was where I remained somehow for fucking years. I trapped myself in this really really well. After encountering Sincerously and specifically Hero Capture, I felt like I had to do three times as much to somehow try and prove to myself that I wasn’t faking being good and that I really actually did care. I put myself in a vise and slowly started increasing the pressure. It was really only a matter of time before something finally gave out.
Part 4: Open Portals
There were a number of ways that this could have gone. First, I could have just changed as a person in the ways that would have been necessary to continue on the trajectory I had been on, but that would have entailed hardening myself in ways I didn’t want to and letting a hostile bitterness creep into me that felt really awful and dysphoric. I could live in the world with all its hostility, but I would have to be a bitter and hostile person in response, and I just couldn’t bring myself to do that. The degree to which I couldn’t bring myself to do that meant I couldn’t do really simple important things like setting and enforcing healthy boundaries or stopping people from using me as a human doormat.
The second thing that could have happened is that I could have just died as an agent. The core that sustains me as an identity could have given up on me in the depths of an acid trip and brought out a totally different person to deal with the world. If I was a singlet that might have happened. It very nearly is what happened.
The third thing that could have happened is that I could have just actually full on died as a human and I did get, in hindsight, worryingly suicidal at times. I never told anyone at the time just how bad it got which seems like a really bad sign since it meant I didn’t subconsciously want them to stop me. Things were legitimately very rough for a long time and while I managed to not ever get all the way to cohering plans and writing letters, I did get closer than the me that I am now would prefer.
None of those things happened though, because I was, despite all of the nonsense I was putting myself through, somehow still pretty stable as a person. My life teetered along in an uncomfortable but functional equilibrium and I didn’t experience any major enough shocks to challenge the status quo until I met my most recent ex.
I had a very intense but brief two month long relationship with another plural system during the summer of 2020, and it was honestly really good while it lasted. This relationship was the shock to my system which would finally tip over the equilibrium I had trapped myself in, first in the form of the emotional high of being in a new relationship and the sheer intensity that developed around it, followed by the same intensity in the emotional low which followed things turning sour and us parting on not particularly good terms.
On top of all of that I was in the middle of moving and work was stressing me out more than normal and at 3:44 pm on Saturday August 22nd, when a manager threatened to write me up for going nonverbal, something in me finally broke. I walked home stumbling through a dissociative fog, feeling myself cracking under pressure, parts of me deforming and fracturing under the mounting strain. I could feel a vastness welling up from beyond the splintering remains of myself. I curled up in my closet and sobbed. I felt like I was dying, like I was mourning the person I was, who I had spent so long aspiring to be and worked so hard to be. I didn’t want to die, but I couldn’t cope with my life, with my reality and I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t escape from myself, I couldn’t escape from my life, and I certainly couldn’t escape from my reality. I had boxed myself in and my only way out was to die, the only question was how much suffering I could handle first.
A frantic, manic energy whirled up inside me as I felt the walls of my prison closing in and my sense of self underwent a final, chaotic extinction burst. I took four tabs of acid and started drawing. With mounting madness I threw myself against the walls of my prison, flailing in every dimension I could to find escape, begging for something somewhere out there in the darkness to save me–
Part of the Series: Open Portals
Next Post: And the Darkness Answered