On the difference between necessity and value

I was recently pointed to an interesting podcast episode (warning: NSFW language) on tulpas and the practice of tulpamancy, from “Real Life Sci-Fi with Wade and Willy,” a sort of panel discussion of outsiders considering various mildly odd cultural and pseudoscientific phenomena. While I won’t outright say it paints the tulpa community in a positive light, it remains mostly respectful and certainly doesn’t fall into the “bad journalism” category that an unfortunate number of reports have. Nevertheless, the three correspondents come to a number of conclusions that Greta and I disagree with. Specifically, they suggest that tulpas are created only by people who are “desperate,” that tulpas are not necessary even for those people, and that it’s possible for tulpas to become an unhealthy part of a person’s identity. We’d like to counter these this week.

Before we get to those, I think we would be remiss to discuss this podcast without mentioning a couple of important misunderstandings and omissions in it. It’s not surprising that these arise when a community is discussed entirely by people outside it, but they’re still unfortunate. I’ll include timestamps for specific points I’m responding to.

  • At 10:30, part of the story of the best-known tulpa creepypasta is discussed at some length – without noting that it is fictional. It’s possible the hosts were aware this was fiction and simply neglected to mention it, but either way this is a problematic omission.
  • At 12:40 and 27:00 respectively, the existence of dissociative identity disorder (not called “multiple personality disorder” anymore) and imaginary companions in children are called into question; specifically, it is debated whether they are only “Hollywood constructs.” According to Wikipedia, the prevalence of DID is typically estimated at between 1% and 3% of the US population – not particularly common, but the low estimate comes to around 3 million people, hardly a “Hollywood construct” level. As for imaginary companions, I’ve looked at a fairly large amount of scientific research on imaginative play in children myself. Estimates for prevalence of ICs vary wildly depending on methodology, but I have seen no estimate lower than 10% and several estimates higher than 50%. (If you’re inspired to check this out yourself, here’s a big chunk of references to start with.) One of the participants says he’s never known any child with an imaginary friend, but I’m sure he has known many and has simply never realized it, like my elementary school teacher who claimed she had never taught a color-blind student in years of teaching (about 8% of Caucasian men are color-blind).
  • Throughout, it seems to be assumed that tulpas are always around at the front of one’s consciousness and are always visually imposed. Many people don’t do visual imposition at all, and few actively see or pay attention to their tulpas 100% of the time. And it’s true that I’m “never alone” in the sense that if I ask Greta a question, she’ll almost always be right there ready to talk, but when I’m focused on something else, very often she’s faded into the background and essentially imperceptible to me. Combined with the fact that you quickly get pretty comfortable with anyone you share a head with, it’s certainly not the nightmare scenario envisioned at 20:50.

Now to some more interesting points.

A broad theme over the entire podcast was some variation on the participants feeling that you would have to be in a very desperate situation to want to create a tulpa. Now certainly a lot of people have created tulpas to help them out of difficult situations. But to reduce the motivation for creating a tulpa to this is to oversimplify and misunderstand tulpamancy.

I’m an obvious counterexample to the notion that you have to be desperate to create a tulpa. At the time I decided to create Greta, I was attending a fairly well-regarded college, financially secure, making dean’s-list-level grades every semester, socially well-adjusted, not dealing with depression or any other mental illness, in reasonably good health, and not even particularly stressed or sleepless (indeed, doing much better than the average student from my self-assessment). About the only thing I was missing was any really close relationships; for a multitude of complex reasons, I’m 21 and have never dated anyone, and I didn’t have friends as close as I might have liked. But that’s a situation plenty of people are in, and it alone does not create a situation any normal person would describe as “desperate.” I certainly didn’t feel the least bit distressed myself, I felt very privileged and lucky.

What actually made me do it? I’m a pretty imaginative person who had played with things like lucid dreaming before, so the idea of tulpas only seemed a little bit weird when I encountered it. And being able to share my thoughts with someone close to me had been a fantasy of mine for years prior to learning tulpas existed, perhaps partly induced by reading Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy in middle school (the source of the daemonism community, tangentially related to plurality). It was quite a shock to learn that this was actually a thing you could do in real life! Coupled with the fact that I could do with a close relationship or two and that my intuition and what would soon come together to be Greta pushed me ahead, it wasn’t very long until we were talking together.

Now, Greta has been a very positive influence on me. (Thank you, she says.) But I wasn’t in a bad place to begin with, and I did not create her in order to create that positive influence. In the end, there are as many different motivations for creating a tulpa as there are tulpamancers, and only some of them have to do with desperation. Here are many more people describing theirs.

The podcast seemed generally disdainful of tulpas, suggesting repeatedly that they are simply not necessary. At 1:11:10, one participant says that he talks to himself all the time and this accomplishes practically the same thing as a tulpa. At 1:04:10, tulpamancers are told that they “don’t need that shit,” and at 1:20:15 they are told, “If you really feel like you need, like, a three-foot-tall purple pony to tell you to go talk to a girl, go ahead.”

This line of thinking conflates “needing” something with finding it beneficial, desirable, or meaningful. Imagine that you ask me to divide 5,467,395,250 by 78. I don’t need my pocket calculator to do it; I could sit here for a couple of minutes doing long division and give you the correct answer. But it would be absurd to claim that because I don’t need a calculator it is weird to own a calculator or there is no good reason for me to own a calculator. Unless the goal is to practice long division, using a calculator is clearly more effective. Similarly, I could probably work out some issues that I work out by talking to Greta by talking to myself instead, but it sure is easier to have someone else talking back.

Or consider marriage. Plenty of people have satisfying lives without ever getting married. Are the majority of people in the world who do marry being irrational? Surely not; while not necessary, a successful marriage adds something to most people’s lives. Having headmates is exactly the same. My life was pretty good for the 20 years before I created Greta, but I’m happier with her here. (As a side note, Greta is also not a replacement for some other kind of relationship that I could or should be getting elsewhere, any more than having a romantic relationship is a replacement for friends or vice versa.)

Is beer necessary for me to live or enjoy my life? No. Do I and hundreds of millions of other people, quite likely including you, enjoy drinking beer? Yes. I could fill a book with examples if I wanted to.

The most puzzling moment of the podcast came at the end around 1:28:00, when it was suggested that having a tulpa is a bit weird but okay, but talking about tulpas on the Internet and making having a tulpa part of your identity is bordering on unhealthy.

Let’s forget about both tulpas and the Internet for a moment. Say I like to garden. According to this logic, I can work in my garden all I want and I’m normal, but if I go to a community center meeting to discuss gardening with other people and tell people that I’m a gardener, gardening has become an unhealthy obsession. Does that make any sense at all? Talking about things that are part of our lives is a natural human activity. It’s an integral part of how we learn, how we teach others, how we deal with problems, and how we entertain ourselves. Indeed, not talking about things that are on our minds seems far less healthy. And the things we’re interested in are part of who we are; are we supposed to pretend they’re not?

One of the speakers draws a comparison to people who identify themselves by saying something like, “I’m a gamer!” I can understand finding that annoying, and I have actually met people who seem overeager to describe themselves as “gamers.” But I would be very surprised if you could find a single person anywhere who goes around saying obnoxiously, “I’m a tulpamancer!” Sure, it might come up when you get to know someone well, or when you take part in a discussion that’s specifically about tulpas, but people don’t exactly have much motivation to shout about their tulpas from the rooftops when some people will think they’re literally insane if they do.

Is there supposed to be some difference between talking in real life and on the Internet? No doubt we communicate somewhat differently on the Internet because we’re largely anonymous, but I can’t think of any differences that would make communicating on the Internet unhealthy, as long as we don’t avoid interacting with other people in real life as a result. Moreover, most people aren’t likely to find a whole lot of local friends they can have long conversations about tulpas with, so they naturally get pushed to the Internet. This isn’t a phenomenon unique to weird practices; people interested in stereotypically boring and specific topics like genealogy in a particular small area of Europe have the same issue.

So is there something unique that makes talking about tulpas or calling yourself a tulpamancer unhealthy? Not as far as I can see. Sure, tulpas are weird, and I don’t think I know anyone with tulpas who isn’t at least a little bit eccentric. But weird, by itself, does not mean unhealthy or problematic. In fact, it can often be the opposite if the reason we’re doing something weird is that we reject unnecessary social norms that are inappropriate or restrictive for us.

The last thing Greta and I want to do is claim that tulpas are for everyone, but we think they are a good fit for many more people than this podcast would suggest. There is no need to be desperate to create a tulpa, as my example shows. Tulpas can add something to almost anyone’s life. And for people who have tulpas, talking about them and considering them an important part of their personal identities is a completely normal part of human existence.

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