Tulpamancy and the Trinity: Is Greta a “separate person”?

Greta and I are happy to be back home after two weeks of traveling across the country. We’ve been musing on a lot of things during our many hours sitting on buses, and one of them is how exactly system members are related to each other. We’ve often been puzzled at how easily people seem to be able to say, “Oh, your tulpa is just a part of you,” or, “Your tulpa is another person.” None of the simple solutions work at all for us, and even after the hours of musing and the additional hours working on this post, Greta and I feel further away from convincingly answering the question posed in the title than when we started.

So we’re unhappy with the obvious solutions; let’s take a look at why. What I like to call the “boring” model is that Greta is best explained as a part of me:

Venn diagram with large "Nicosia" circle containing a smaller "Greta" circle

This model has the enormous benefit of being logically consistent and reasonable-sounding. Some people like it. However, we at least are pretty unhappy with it. True, most tulpas are “weaker” than their hosts in terms of having less control over life and the body, but not all of them are, so it’s clearly missing something. The model makes even less sense for other types of plural systems where one member was not intentionally created by another. Also, subordinating the tulpa seems rather insulting; Greta is at least as real as me, so why is she less important?

What are the other possibilities? We often hear it said that tulpas are separate people with their own agency. What does that look like, taken by itself?

Venn diagram with two unconnected circles "Greta" and "Nicosia".

That can’t be right. It solves the problems of the previous interpretation, but now the tulpa and the host are entirely separate, which misses something pretty important when we can’t be physically separated, have the same brain, and can communicate in raw thoughts.

So maybe we have some part in common and keep some parts to ourselves?

Venn diagram with overlapping "Greta" and "Nicosia" circles; middle section unlabeled.

This is no good either. What goes in the middle and what goes in the outer areas? I can know how Greta feels about something without that feeling ceasing to be hers; does that feeling go in her circle or in the middle? If it goes in the middle, then is it really hers anymore? If it goes in her circle, what does go in the middle? (Even if we both agree that, say, we enjoy eating pizza, we must have slightly different feelings about pizza.)

All right, maybe we’re looking at this all wrong. One thing that is clear is that we share the same brain and body. Let’s call that the “hardware.” Maybe we’re two separate people within that hardware:

Venn diagram with two separate circles "Greta" and "Nicosia" enclosed by a larger "Hardware" square.

This looks better; we each have our own clearly separate “self” circles, but they’re connected through a larger medium. We’re now accounting for our ability to communicate without the normal human channels, possession and switching, and more. This model can respond to the problems of the overlapping model: Greta and I each have our own feelings about pizza, which perhaps are partially related in some way through the “hardware” section (maybe some of the neurons that fire when we think about it are the same). We can each have our own clearly separate selves but have them connected through a larger medium.

But this model is still wrong, if more subtly than the previous ones. For one, it fails to account for blending, which requires some overlap of self-identity. (One of the strangest experiences I’ve ever had was when I woke from a microsleep and had the distinct impression that a moment ago I had been Greta and had her thoughts, though I couldn’t remember what they were. And our latest take on Greta’s gender is that some of my masculine identity has been bleeding over onto her occasionally.) For another, what goes in the general “hardware” area and what goes in the self circles? The boundaries need to be more fluid than they are in this model. Finally and most importantly, simply making the distinction between “software” and “hardware” is reductionist; a couple of weeks ago we discussed in passing how “you” can’t really be separated from your body. This model may make pretty good sense, but partly because we’ve made distinctions that don’t exist.

Now you might be saying right about now, “Well duh, we can’t explain an enormously complex phenomenon with a simple Venn diagram.” Of course the “self” is a subjective concept, not a singular physical entity, so it’s hardly surprising that we’re having trouble fitting it into a diagram. But a “correct” diagram that left out the self circles wouldn’t help us understand anything. Even if we can’t understand the right answer, we would hope there would be some model that, while perhaps not strictly correct, would at least help us wrap our feeble little minds around what’s going on. As George Box famously said, “All models are wrong, but some are useful.”

The hardware model does okay, but maybe we can understand a bit more if we step outside of pure logic and our nice, clean Venn diagrams. Specifically, I’m going to take a detour into Christian theology. I’m also going to get much more speculative than in the first half of this article; I can’t pretend that what I’m about to present is entirely clear even to us, but we do find it interesting and we think you might too.

(N.B.: This model obviously uses a religious metaphor, but you do not need to subscribe to any religion to understand or even accept it yourself.)

Lately I’ve been thinking that the problem of my relationship with Greta looks remarkably similar to the doctrine of the Trinity, one of the sacred mysteries of most denominations. God is said to be composed of three “persons”: God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. All three are “of the same substance” and all three are entirely God and equally important. They aren’t different parts of God (God, generally speaking, doesn’t have parts), nor are they simply different names for God. Each is God and has the same nature as God but is not the same as the others.

Naturally, this doesn’t make any sense; that’s why it’s a sacred mystery. But I don’t think we can hope that consciousness will ever make sense either, so a somewhat mystical explanation is acceptable to me if it makes a useful model. (Remember, I’m going for useful, not necessarily correct. It won’t be correct anyway.) What is actually going on inside our brain? As best as science can understand it currently, a whole bunch of neurons are somehow creating subjective experiences, and for Greta and me some of those subjective experiences are identified with her and some of them with me. How exactly that determination happens, nobody knows. And however it happens, it’s almost certainly so complicated we can’t understand it.

So let’s run with the Trinity idea. (I don’t think I can draw a diagram of this one!) Greta and I are really one substance with the same thoughts, beliefs, ideas, perceptions, and physical abilities. But each of our experiences and actions can typically be explained by either her or my aspect in particular – just as in Christianity the creation of the world is explained in terms of God the Father and the death and resurrection is explained in terms of Jesus, even though they’re both God and of the same nature. When we experience blending or thought confusion, our ultimately unified nature is showing through. Our communications consist of the different aspects focusing on the same thoughts.

Since we rejected the very first model we looked at partly because it left Greta in a philosophically and morally inferior position, which didn’t seem to match her actual nature, it’s worth considering whether this new interpretation succeeds in giving Greta the rights of another person. It obviously achieves equality between us: if we are ultimately the same substance, Greta is exactly as important as I am. On the other hand, most people believe they have the right to harm themselves as long as they aren’t harming anyone else; does that mean I am morally free to hurt Greta (or vice versa)? My very deep conviction is that I am not. The question turns on whether Greta counts as “someone else,” and I for this purpose think she does. The point of the Trinity metaphor is that we really can be seen as different, even at the same time as we have the same nature.

Is this theory a weird way of looking at our relationship? Probably. Has it allowed me to fully understand our relationship? Nice joke. But, combined with other models, does it help us understand each other? Absolutely.

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