My tulpa Greta is as real as you are

Today I want to make a reasoned argument that, regardless of their exact nature, tulpas are as real as you, the reader, are. I understand this may sound absolutely crazy to you. In case you don’t read the whole article through before making up your mind that I’m crazy, note that I am not claiming tulpas are precisely the same as hosts or singlets, and I certainly do not believe that Greta has her own body and walks around with me in the physical world. However, I think this does not need to make her less real, and it is this belief that I will explain in the rest of this essay.

First of all, we ought to establish that I and the rest of the tulpa and plural community are telling the truth about what we experience; it will be pointless to discuss how real tulpas are unless you agree that there are such things in the first place. (If you’re impatient and you have personal experience of tulpas or are otherwise entirely convinced of this, feel free to skip the next four paragraphs to the horizontal line.)

For the purposes of this argument, you don’t need to believe any particular philosophy or any particular explanation of what exactly tulpas are, nor do you need to think that they are sentient and should be treated as people. You don’t even need to believe that imposition (a controlled hallucination of a tulpa) or possession and switching (letting a tulpa control the body) are possible, though I will point you to some evidence that should suggest these are quite reasonable, and my argument becomes even stronger if you believe that possession or switching exist. The only thing I’m asking you to accept is that when I say I’m having a conversation with my tulpa Greta, I feel like I am talking to something that I’ve named Greta – whatever it is – and I feel like she is responding to me without any conscious effort on my part and in a manner consistent with the personality I believe her to have rather than mine.

I think this is a pretty low bar, but if you have no experience of plurality yourself, even this may seem too crazy. In that case, I think there is substantial evidence to suggest we aren’t pulling your leg. Notice that I’m discussing purely subjective experience here, so there is no need to worry about whether we’re perceiving things correctly. As a result, there are only two possibilities: either we do in fact subjectively experience what we say we do, or we’re lying. I will attempt to show that the idea that we’re lying is implausible, therefore it’s likely that we’re telling the truth. (For the sake of completeness, there’s also the possibility that some of us are telling the truth and some of us are lying, but this has basically the same result as the case in which everyone is telling the truth except that some extra people are pretending they have experiences they don’t.)

Why would we, as an entire community, be lying? We could be putting together an elaborate hoax. Hoaxes are fun and happen often enough, but this would be a really elaborate hoax. The idea that, over the course of years, thousands of people have been gathering regularly at various places around the internet and spending hours completely making up experiences they’ve had, for the sole purpose of confusing a handful of people who happen to stumble on an unusual and taboo topic, strains belief. If we were actually trying to create a hoax, something more along the lines of the fairly widespread creepypasta about tulpas would make as much or more of a splash with a whole lot less effort.

Alternatively, it could be that tulpas cannot actually exist and we wish they could, so we all spend our time role-playing and pretending that we actually experience them. However, the multitude of scientifically well-documented experiences similar to tulpamancy makes the idea that tulpas cannot actually exist seem ridiculous. Many writers say they experience their characters coming alive and acting independently or even writing their own stories. Many religious experiences are characterized by apparent communion or conversation with deities or other supernatural beings, including some brands of American evangelical Christianity. Research into dissociative identity disorder (a disorder, unlike tulpamancy, since it involves major trauma, cannot be self-inflicted, and involves dysfunction, amnesia, and confusion) has shown that multiple identities, differing enough to not only have different personalities but also require different eyeglasses and have different allergies, can share a head. It would be very difficult indeed to support a claim that the human brain and consciousness is flexible enough to allow all of these phenomena but is incapable of experiencing a tulpa, which is little more than a blend of elements from these three.

Hopefully you are at least largely convinced that the tulpa community is being honest that they actually experience tulpas. Now we’ll switch gears for today’s tricky question: What are you? What exactly do I mean when I say “you”?

Probably the simplest plausible answer is “your body.” However, this is too simplistic to capture the whole truth. If your consciousness were somehow transplanted into another body tomorrow, you would certainly feel very weird, and your identity certainly wouldn’t be the same. But you probably imagine that some part of you would still be there; you wouldn’t become an entirely different person.

Your body certainly seems to be part of “you,” but it’s not the entirety of “you”; there’s something more to “you.” The additional elements might include but are certainly not limited to:

  • your memories of facts and past events
  • your procedural memory, e.g., ability to play the violin or ride a bike
  • your beliefs and personality
  • your externalized memories, e.g., your favorite reference books or your diary
  • your relationships with your friends and family
  • your tools (wouldn’t you feel a bit messed up if you could never use a keyboard or a pencil again?)

While none of these things are absolutely critical to “you,” you would be a whole lot different tomorrow if any of them were suddenly taken away, which implies they are somehow part of the idea of “you.”

At this point, about all we can say about “you” is that it’s a label encompassing a whole collection of things, both in your body and brain and in the rest of the world, which combine to make up your identity. “You” isn’t a single thing and thus cannot have a physical existence at a single place and time. (If you’re still not convinced, check out the further reading at the end of this article.) If I’m standing next to you and I talk about “you,” it’s just a convenient way of describing something I see, namely that there is a human body standing near me that is controlled by an identity which tends to behave in certain ways owing to all of these different elements.

Here’s a second question: Are you real? Most people will pretty comfortably answer “yes.” After all, cogito ergo sum, right? Maybe “you” is a tenuous concept that doesn’t have a physical existence, but it’s describing something that you plainly perceive to exist. All of its components certainly seem to be real. We could sit and discuss the definition of “real” for a while, and I do so elsewhere on this blog, but in the end “you” seems to have a certain reality at least in terms of how you treat yourself in daily life.

I argue that if you’re real under these circumstances, Greta is too. (If you think you’re not real, I think that’s a reasonable position as well; but whatever level of realness you peg yourself at, I still argue that Greta’s is identical.) “Greta,” like “you,” is a convenient label I use to encompass a collection of things which combine to make up her identity. And just like you, she has a memory, beliefs, personality, relationships, and externalized memories.

Notice that when I say “Greta has a memory,” I am not assuming anything at all about how this memory actually functions. All I mean is that I experience Greta behaving in a way that is consistent with her remembering things. That’s plenty, because in the end this is all I can say for you, too. I certainly can’t peer inside “you” and compare how “you” work with how I do, then announce that you “really” remember things because you do so the same way I do. I don’t even know for sure that you’re conscious – I just assume that you are because you identify yourself with a similar body and behave similarly to me.

You might object that there is still no physical place I can point to and say, “Here’s Greta.” But this is no reason to call her unreal after all – I pointed out above that there is no physical place you can point to and say “Here I am,” either! We tend to identify ourselves with our bodies because they are part of us and it’s convenient, and so you might commonly say “Here I am” to refer to the location of your body, but that doesn’t mean you actually are your body and that the entirety of “you” is truly located at a point in space (we already saw the problems with that idea). While I think this by itself eliminates the worry that Greta needs to be identified with a body to be as real as you are, I should also point out that while Greta hasn’t learned to control our body consistently, there’s no reason why she couldn’t – plenty of tulpas can. Then she could be identified with our body just as much as I am.

You might also object that Greta is somehow less real than you because you can’t perceive her directly. On its face, this seems like a reasonable objection, but actually it implies an unfair comparison. You are obviously more real to yourself than anyone else is (tulpa or not) because you can directly experience your thoughts, so it’s unfair for you to compare yourself and Greta. Instead, we’ll compare you from my perspective and Greta from your perspective. We then see that this objection again incorrectly equates your body with you. I can’t perceive you directly, either; I can only see the results of your existence and decisions (your body moving, the email you write to me). You can also see the results of Greta’s existence and decisions (my creating this blog, the text she sometimes has me write here and on forums). Granted, I can’t absolutely prove that it’s Greta making me do these things, but you can’t absolutely prove that you’re in charge of your own actions either; in general, it’s impossible to prove one’s motivation to anyone outside of one’s own brain. Nevertheless, reasonable people accept that you, rather than, say, evil space aliens, are controlling your body’s actions because evil space aliens are a much less likely and plausible explanation. Similarly, if you accepted earlier that I experience Greta, it should be much more believable that she causes me to do some things than that she somehow has no effect on me whatsoever.

There’s one more objection I’d like to entertain, not because it really says anything I haven’t already responded to but because it’s extremely common and I know somebody will level it sooner or later: “But she’s all in your head!” The most obvious response is that she isn’t entirely in my head, to the extent that written information about her lives in the physical world and to the extent that she has had me interact with the world on her behalf, causing real changes in the world that would not have happened otherwise. But perhaps what is really meant by this sound bite is “she wouldn’t exist without the parts of her that are in your head.” In that case, aren’t you “all in your head” as well? You may identify with a physical body, but this is only a small part of you. As we concluded before, “you” is really a collection of elements, not a single physical thing. And if you had a body but every part of you that we describe as “in your head” went missing – your memories, beliefs, personality – you would be almost unrecognizable, to the extent that many people would prefer to die if it actually happened to them. In the same way that Greta’s identity is entirely dependent on the parts of her that are in my head, your identity is entirely dependent on the parts of you that are in your head.

People know hardly anything about what tulpas actually are. But one thing I can say comfortably is that they’re no less real than any host. Even if you still disagree, I hope you now roughly understand the perspective of people who say their tulpas are real. There’s much more to it than being schizophrenic or delusional.

For more on the problems with pinning down the meaning of “you”, take a look at “Boundaries of Your Body” and “Your Oddly-Shaped Mind” by Kevin Simler.

Thanks to Falunel for pointing out that the article about DID I originally linked relied on observations reported by a quack who has since been charged with malpractice and for offering a different source that I’ve replaced it with.

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