Epistemic Status: Vigorously Researched Philosophical Rambling on the Nature of Being
Author’s Note/Content Warning: I’m nearly certain that this post will be classified as some flavor of infohazard, so here is the preemptive “this post might be an infohazard” message, read at your own risk. This post contains advice on self hacking and potentially constitutes a dark art.
Suggested Prior Reading: A Human’s Guide to Words, The Story of the Self, Highly Advanced Tulpamancy 101 For Beginners,
This is a sort of huge topic in and of itself with historical branching essay threads going back quite a way at this point. I’m going to attempt to very quickly rush through some of the basic premises at work here in order to build upon on the underlying theory.
The basic theory underpinning the modern and developed practice of tulpamancy (that is, what the mods on tulpamancer discords, or other experienced and longtime tulpamancers will say if you ask them) is that making a tulpa is basically hijacking the process that the brain uses to construct an identity and sense of self for the “host” consciousness.
That is, whatever process is generating the “feeling that I am me, and inside my body” can basically be unplugged from “you” and plugged into this newly imagined construct, since “you/the host” are essentially just a program running on the brain substrate. While this is happening, “you” enter a mindscape/wonderland that exists in your imagination.
Everyone has their own interpretation, but this is basically the mainstream pop-psychology tulpamancy narrative in very broad strokes. The original/host self is a construct, it has certain properties because those are the ones that were built into them by their parents/the environment, and the process of tulpamancy is basically just building up a new equivalent construct alongside the existing sense of self.
There’s a couple problems with this, if you’re just hearing about it. First, it sounds potentially damaging to the psyche, and it’s also incredibly vague. Is this new entity a separate person? What does that even mean in this context precisely? What if they disagree? What if there is a power struggle? What does it mean to give up control of the body, or control of the senses? It’s a sort of weird thing to even talk about and it certainly doesn’t sound like something you’d necessarily want to get good at as a part of maintaining proper mental hygiene. What makes a tulpa? What makes a host? What makes for proper mental hygiene? What is healthy?
Ignoring the question of plurality or multiple egos for a moment, we have to ask, what makes an identity in the first place, in a singlet? How much of you is decided and declared, a form you have crafted yourself, and how much of it was imparted upon you by society? How much of ourselves do we choose, and how much is innate? How much can or should you change?
This essay will assume you’ve already read a good amount of material on this topic and probably have your own answers to a good number of the questions that I’ve posed here. I’ll be answering some of them myself further along in this essay in an attempt to paint a clear foundation for us, but I highly recommend not reading this post without first having read Highly Advanced Tulpamancy 101.
The Story That Tells Itself
In Highly Advanced Tulpamancy 101, we talked about making buckets for identities and developing them into tulpas, but this process is something that everyone does all the time. We take in or discard, internalize or ignore, all sorts of information, based on the worldview we’re operating from, so this isn’t just a tulpamancy hack, but an identity formation hack.
This is something that people have come at explaining from a number of different angles and here is my stab at it as well. Many parts of the sense of self are basically defined by how you say they are defined. This is the sort of “declared self” or “enforced self,” otherwise known as the narrative self, or the narrative identity. There is a part of you that is basically a small universe. The you that is also all of your knowledge, the place the internal experience lives. A good friend of mind calls this a subtotality. It’s you, and also the entire world you are embedded in, everything you can imagine and understand to be true of the world, all the knowledge that lives inside your skull.
Thus we come back around to stories and lenses, what is your ontology of self? Not just who you are, but who you are with respect to the world you find yourself in? What actions are you-in-the-story permitted to take?
To give a really obvious example, if you think “What happens if I jump off a cliff?” the obvious answer is “fall to my death” because the simulation/story/narrative that your mind creates in that moment does not give your simulated future self the ability to fly by default. However, if I was to hand you a hang glider on the edge of that cliff and your brain then performed that same exact action, it would be making a mistake, because you have these huge nylon wings now and in fact now can fly.
At the point I hand you the glider wings, the only remaining determinant factor in whether or not you are capable of flight is whether you think you can, or if you think you’ll fall off the cliff and die if you jump off it. If you can’t add “but not if I have a hang glider” to the belief “I will die if I jump off this cliff” than you’re never going to try to hang glide off the cliff. If you believe you can’t do something, then the probability of your being able to do it crashes drastically. If you are incredibly determined to fly and you really believe you can do it, it’s possible to take up skydiving or piloting or hang gliding or any other number of neat activities that stem from still having the desire to do something and forcing past/around the limitations imposed upon us by physics and biology.
People used to think that it was unsafe for humans to go too fast, and that women riding trains would have their uteruses fly out. Obviously, there are real physical biological limitations in the territory. You cannot will yourself to fly via some nonsensical means involving imaginary energy and shouting loudly while rapidly growing your hair out. If you just jump off a cliff without some sort of mechanism to transcend the limitations in the territory your human body is subject to, you will simply fall to your death, you can’t power-of-belief your way past cancer, some limits are actually limits, and figuring out where there are external limits imposed by the territory, vs when the limit is internal and imposed by your current story, does take a certain amount of skill. However, it preeminently takes a willingness to brute force the attempt past part of you that previously believed it to be bad or dangerous, to tell your system 1 to sit down and shut up, and take control of the simulation instead of just letting it play out.
The tulpamancy community is full of examples of things that become more possible and likely if you believe they are possible and know about them. Walk-ins are a good example here. Believing that walk-ins are a thing that can happen to you seems to greatly increase your odds of getting a walk-in. When it comes to brain-hacking things, placebomancy is basically god. There seem to be large parts of the mind (at least in my case, I can’t necessarily speak for other people) that are entirely shaped by how you believe they are supposed to be shaped. You live a life deeply embedded in your own story, your own small universe.
The story extends forward and backward in time, and includes lots of different elements of the real world. It’s not a perfect match for the real world. It can’t be really, our brains aren’t large enough to look at and model the world like particles or even like cells, it takes charts and scientific knowledge carefully framed to explain particles and cells. We have to instead examine reality at the scale of discrete objects we label with things in the story world, and from those observations extract information about the deeper, more base layer.
This story world is the world of our ancestors, the world that we evolved to optimize for, the world of rocks and trees and rivers and grass. It’s not the “true” world really, our ancestors believed all sorts of different things about the nature of this world and how they came into existence in it. But not understanding how gravity works on a scientific level doesn’t really matter as long as you continue to account for it narratively speaking, “Objects attract based on their masses” and “Gravitron the Deity of Downwards pulls everything towards the Earth’s center” are both sufficient explanations to satisfy the story world, as long as the “stuff falls down” belief remains constant and a constraint based on experience. Beyond “stuff falls down” the details of the belief begin to matter less; unless you are trying to say, build a rocket or an airplane, or do complex engineering, you don’t really care too much about the details. Our ancestors didn’t understand Einsteinian Gravity and spatial deformation, and they managed to get along just fine. (Except the ones who tried to flaunt the power of Gravitron by walking off of cliffs).
There are places where the transparency of the narrative deeply matters, where a glass lens is explicitly better. You will get further in science, the more transparent your lens is. But this isn’t the case in all domains, and the deeper you stare into the abyss, the more likely it is you will become corrupted by some unknowable horror.
Chuunibyou Hosts on Turbo Gender
There comes a point in everyone’s life, where they actually realize that they are a person, independent, perceivable by others, capable of choosing their own actions and deciding how to act and what to believe. In Japan, there’s a specific term for this point in someone’s life, they call it Chuunibyou, or Second Year of Middle School Syndrome. Here are some examples of Chuunibyou from both Japan and from America. The condition manifests differently in the two nations, but not that different, and the course that it plays out is pretty much the same everywhere.
The by-the-books good kid who was very studious and hardworking suddenly takes up skateboarding and declares herself a rebel, starts wearing band t-shirts and listening to aggressive pop-punk music.
The kid who only read mangas and who didn’t drink coffee suddenly taking up reading English textbooks and declaring that he only drinks black coffee and forcing himself to drink it regularly despite not actually enjoying the bitter taste.
The kid whose parents are conservative Christians but nonetheless declares herself a witch and starts reading tarot cards to her friends in study hall.
The kid who declares that he is the reincarnation of the Ancient Dragon of The West and Naruto-runs around the playground throwing ki blasts at his fellow students.
The kid who realizes they are gender nonconforming and declares that they identify as “Genderplasma” which is “like being genderfluid but with more energy”
In the majority of these cases, what ends up happening is that society teases, laughs at, or mocks these kids for violating the scripts and character outlines their parents, communities, and societies had given them as they grew up, and this sort of thing gets increasingly embarrassing until they reign themselves back in and cut it out with the weirdness, and that initial, vaguely hyperbolic and silly identity they constructed is reigned back in and merges with the society’s expectations to hopefully produce a decently well-rounded person who is still capable of expressing their preferences.
It’s this step though, the step of declaring, deciding, and enforcing a particular type of identity or set of identities on ourselves, that we’re interested in. This point is the closest most people get in life to really taking control of their sense of self, when the innocence and openness of youth pair with an increasing knowledge of the world and a budding realization that yes I am a person, that’s where the magic starts to happen. That’s when you realize you can actually be the person (or people) you want to be.
Plato’s Caving Adventure
As Plato previously established with his cave metaphor (it slices! It dices!), you don’t actually live in reality, you live chained in a cave watching shadows dance. In this context, there are two fundamental actions you can take with your mental ontology. You can attempt to polish the surface of the cave, to get a better look at the world beyond. Or, you can carve designs into the cave surface, and manipulate the ways that the shadows dance. It’s that second action that we’re interested in today. The action of drawing on a part of the map or taking control of the reality simulation.
This can and probably should be included as a co-action with look-at-a-different-part-of-the-cave-wall. Adopt new narratives and change lenses as needed and try not to become too attached to a particular region of narrative-space. Being able to pick up and put down potential truths and imagine the worlds those truths create is a powerful hack, and without it, you can become sort of trapped by in-the-box thinking. It might be a very nice box, but there will inevitably be some things that it fails at.
The chief failing of a pure-science narrative is that it’s dangerously close to nihilism. The chief failing of most religious narratives is that they are too crystalline, and take themselves too seriously, thus they become filled with errors in places that they start to contradict the ground state reality.
It’s difficult to fully describe the action that is taken when you take control of the reality generator and begin to actually alter the simulation. First of all, you? That’s just another part of the simulation, not really any different than any of the other characters the simulation is creating other than maybe in scope.
Facts? Any given fact can be simulated; it’s hard to check facts against reality when you’re trapped inside the simulation. Sure you can use science, but why do you trust science?
The best you can do is make some guesses. Yes, gravity seems to exist, it appears that the scientists are not lying to all of us, and the Earth is round and a few billion years old. The internet exists and we can talk to each other over it. Wikipedia claims that glass is made of melted sand, and though I have not seen this myself, I trust that the systems tuning wikipedia towards accuracy with the territory are sufficient to sate my curiosity, and thus that this transparent surface separating me from the outside world was in fact at one point created from silicates of some description and not like, mermaid eyeballs or something.
But how does that relate to you?
There’s no way to tell from the outside what the you on the inside looks like, what your inside world describes, what “personality traits” you have and the like. It can try, but things like the MBTI are very much blind elephant groping, and not even very useful blind elephant groping at that. To a large degree, everything about your internal sense of yourself is declared and decided by you, including whether or not there is more than one of you.
I say “decided by you” but it’s really “decided by the plot of the story you are living inside of” and if the story demands a current identity die and be replaced by a new one, the story can in fact do that. That’s an action that can happen inside the narrative.
Most tulpamancers get stuck trying to build and interact with tulpas, but you can get more powerful and weird and interesting effects, by going deeper and messing with the story layer directly. Hijacking the reality simulator basically puts your internal sense of self into a character creator. What is your ideal you for your ideal world? What properties do you want to have, and what makes those good properties to have?
A Brief Detour Through Enlightenment
In Kaj_Sotala’s recent post responding to Valentine’s post on Kensho, the concept of Cognitive Fusion is introduced, and while you should definitely go read Kaj’s whole post, here’s some of the relevant bits that we’ll need from Enlightenment in order to continue.
Cognitive fusion is a term from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), which refers to a person “fusing together” with the content of a thought or emotion, so that the content is experienced as an objective fact about the world rather than as a mental construct. The most obvious example of this might be if you get really upset with someone else and become convinced that something was all their fault(even if you had actually done something blameworthy too).
In this example, your anger isn’t letting you see clearly, and you can’t step back from your anger to question it, because you have become “fused together” with it and experience everything in terms of the anger’s internal logic.
Another emotional example might be feelings of shame, where it’s easy to experience yourself as a horrible person and feel that this is the literal truth, rather than being just an emotional interpretation.
Cognitive fusion isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If you suddenly notice a car driving towards you at a high speed, you don’t want to get stuck pondering about how the feeling of danger is actually a mental construct produced by your brain. You want to get out of the way as fast as possible, with minimal mental clutter interfering with your actions. Likewise, if you are doing programming or math, you want to become at least partially fused together with your understanding of the domain, taking its axioms as objective facts so that you can focus on figuring out how to work with those axioms and get your desired results.
Fusing and defusing parts of yourself is a rather important and core skill for a lot of these sorts of mind-hacking type operations, but even more succinctly:
In the book The Mind Illuminated, the Buddhist model of psychology is described as one where our minds are composed of a large number of subagents, which share information by sending various percepts into consciousness. There’s one particular subagent, the ‘narrating mind’ which takes these percepts and binds them together by generating a story of there existing one single agent, an I, to which everything happens. The fundamental delusion is when this fictional construct of an I is mistaken for an actually-existing entity, which needs to be protected by acquiring percepts with a positive emotional tone and avoiding percepts with a negative one.
When a person becomes capable of observing in sufficient detail the mental process by which this sense of an I is constructed, the delusion of its independent existence is broken. Afterwards, while the mind will continue to use the concept “I” as an organizing principle, it becomes correctly experienced as a theoretical fiction rather than something that could be harmed or helped by the experience of “bad” or “good” emotions. As a result, desire and aversion towards having specific states of mind (and thus suffering) cease. We cease to flinch away from pain, seeing that we do not need to avoid them in order to protect the “I”.
Once you have broken through the delusion of self and taken control of the narrating mind/reality simulator, you can tell any sort of story about yourself you want, involving as many agents as it takes. This turns the very weird and sort of edge case-y problem of selfshaping into the much more understandable problem of how to tell a good story.
A Return to Cognitive Trope Therapy
Eliezer of course already technically beat us to this, and Balioc covered it again in broad strokes here. But the punchline is that you can make your life a lot more pleasant just by knowing the proper narrative spin to put on things.
There are a few techniques to do this, but all of them require you to be able to view your mind as a story, treating different forces and desires in your mind as agents and going “Well, if this was a story would you be a shining knight on a horse, or a creepy old woman beckoning me down an overgrown path into the woods?” to various thoughts and contradictory desires.
There’s a danger in this step in losing yourself into the story. There are all sorts of tales floating around the tulpamancy community of people who get into conflicts with their tulpas whose minds become horrifying battlegrounds of creation and destruction, and all sorts of other vaguely sanity-destroying nonsense, and one might wonder what exactly they’re doing to destabilize themselves so much.
The simple answer is that they expanded the narrative they existed within to make room for all these new entities, which of course were actually already extant subagents and modules in their brain, but they never took control of the actual reality simulator/narrating self, and so the only thing that was directing the overall course of the story was the brain’s expectations on how that sort of story should play out. Remember we’re talking about realms where the dominant factor determining the outcomes is expectations, so when the only thing determining expectations is genre conventions we start to have a problem.
Humans are really good at storytelling, some could argue that we’re evolutionarily predisposed to think somewhat in stories, and that it is from stories that we are able to derive a sense of the future and past continuing to exist, even when we can’t see them.
Stories give us a sense of purpose and meaning, and we relate to stories in a way that’s deeper and more compelling than we relate to reality. Stories cheat and hack at our emotions directly, as opposed to gently pushing our buttons every once in a while like reality does. Stories also give us the ability to work through a difficult point by allowing us to imagine a future where the problem is already solved and we’re no longer experiencing that difficulty.
Maintaining a narrative of yourself gives you the ability to appreciate your life the way you appreciate stories, which is again, important because we seem to relate to stories better than we relate to reality.
Storytelling, Character Creation, and GMing Your Life
The first thing to decide when constructing the meta-narrative for yourself is what genre you live in. The genre informs what sets of tropes and character traits and narrative conventions you’ll have been trained to see by every piece of media in that genre that you’ve consumed and partly internalized. It’s hard to get away from genre conventions to some degree, so choose carefully the places to throw narrative focus into, which tropes you play straight and which ones you deconstruct, which ones you defy and which ones you expect to win if you challenge them.
Everything can be put into terms of tropes, and you can get incredibly detailed about this. The ultimate incarnation of such a thing might be a hypothetical TVtropes page of your internal self-narrative, listing off all the various tropes and archetypes that define your life. It’s again important to note that the more detail and time and energy you put into constructing an identity, the more fixed and coherent that identity will be, but the more it has the potential to limit you.
The downside of defining yourself as Red Oni is that it means you’re not a Blue Oni, unless you also split your mind in half and have two differing personas. Even this is not a perfect split because obviously, you share a body and people won’t necessarily respect each side of the split as distinct from the other, so there’s a sense in which, at least as far as the characterization you commit to the physical world goes, there is a narrative inertia to personality. A sudden change in behavior is going to make people concerned for you, not make them think you’re a different person and begin treating you differently.
What I recommend once you have a genre and some idea of what tropes in that genre you want to play straight and conform to, is to make a character sheet for each version of yourself. Go through and decide things like appearance, personality, why they are the way they are and the like. It’s okay if not every character has all good traits, your brain might reject a story if it seemed too Mary Sue-ish and too-good-to-be-true anyway.
The important things are that the interactions between the character(s) and the rest of the narrative should produce good actions for you-the-whole-system in the base layer reality. That means for instance, if you are trying to quit smoking cigarettes, for example, personifying the addiction as subservient to other parts of you will help you kick the habit, whereas if you imagine that module as being very willful and having a lot of sway over your actions will make the addiction much harder to control.
The internal narrative can be as weird as you want it to be, as long as it produces good outcomes on the outside. You could model the inside of your head as a perpetual battle between a brave knight and a giant evil dragon, and if it works for you and makes your life a better place, than more power to you.
This does, however, require a meta-awareness of the story that is being told, and the effect it is having on you-in-the-territory, and whether that effect is positive or negative. If your internal narrative is very toxic, with different subcomponents basically abusing each other constantly with no sense of control, and you’re switching randomly and your system mates are terrible, that’s also a story and narrative, and it can reinforce itself just as well as a good narrative can.
Again, in domains where expectations determine the reality that manifests, such as mental inner worlds, expecting that things will be a mess and that nothing will be able to take control or manifest order and functionality, will cause things to continue being a mess and make nothing able to help. The more out of control someone says their mind is, the more their thoughts are trapped in the narrative.
This doesn’t mean “it’s all in their head” or that “they can just stop if they really want to” because narratives are self-enforcing and can just feel like the truth from the inside. The way the world is. It can be very hard to let go of and break out of a narrative because it can feel like the whole of your identity and sense of self is wrapped up in it. Rejecting it can feel like lying to yourself or trying to hide from obvious facts. Trying to force a change can make you feel fake, like an imposter, or that you’re just putting on a performance, donning a particular role.
But here’s the thing. You’re already putting on a performance. You’re already donning a role. You already have at least one character that you know how to play. It’s the one you’re playing right now. What’s under the mask? Around a kilogram and a half of thinking meat. It’s not a person, the person is the mask the thinking meat uses and wears. It’s all fake, and none of it is fake. You’re not wearing a mask, you are a mask.