Epistemic Status: Personal experience generalized by extrapolating from convergence with other thinkers. There are probably other reasonable ontologies to describe the same underlying experiences. I’m probably missing some stuff. Still, this is my best model as of the publish date of this post.

Precommitment (triggers if I die; a file to be released; sha256; other dead mans switches exist): 955a050a000154b234cb38f93e8c8690f95ea99578956ebd51f2d1e62a4f510f

Table Of Contents

  1. Introduction and Overview
    1. Before We Begin: Answers To Anticipated Questions
      1. How does this relate to your model of ‘basic trust’?
      2. Soldiers will often sacrifice themselves to save comrades, does that make them phoenixes?
      3. What makes this thing important, how is it related to solving X-Risk?
      4. Is this really all there is to becoming a heroic figure?
      5. So if I do all this stuff correctly I’ll have as much impact as Lyndon B. Johnson?
  2. Psychology Of The Zombie
    1. Dysphoric Zombies
    2. Signs Of Transition Away From Zombie
  3. Psychology Of The Mummy
    1. A Note On “Vampires” and Sexuality
    2. Ascent From Zombie To Mummy
    3. Signs Of Transition Away From Mummy
  4. Psychology Of The Lich
    1. Ascent From Mummy To Lich
    2. Signs Of Transition Away From Lich
  5. Psychology Of The Revenant
    1. Ascent(?) From Lich To Revenant
  6. Psychology Of The Phoenix
  7. Bibliography

Introduction and Overview

When I was 14 and reading the sequences, I really didn’t understand what was being asked of me. Between HPMOR and the goofy, anime geek persona of Eliezer Yudkowsky I’d absorbed the impression that “saving the world” would be a kind of fun, quirky adventure. There wasn’t a clear call to action like “stop playing video games, read this list of books, evangelize to five friends, cultivate virtue”; so I ended up spending a lot of time playing Halo when I could have been developing myself. Perhaps Yudkowsky felt you catch more flies with honey than vinegar, maybe it was just his natural gaiety. Whatever the case his fun upbeat aesthetic was wholly inadequate as practical instruction or spiritual preparation for what was to come. I am still struck by the fact that he felt “something to protect” was necessary to become a rationalist but put this fact near the end of his Sequences, rather than a filter at the start.

It is said that two things in life are inevitable: death and taxes. Max More’s Extropians were bold enough to imagine they could abolish both, and accomplished neither. Our task is harder than that. The twin demons of death and tyranny are joined in our daemonic pantheon by such personages as Malthus, Darwin, Moloch, Shiva, and Limos. These daemons and others make up the body of the god of nature, Gnon, whose face it is death to look upon:

Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory.”

And the Lord said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.”

One interpretation is that God is so full of goodness that to comprehend it is to dissolve. I think this is unrealistic. If these words are to mean anything, to describe Gnon they must refer to both the good and evil in creation. I find the Bhagavad Gita’s account of looking upon Vishnu’s unlimited form to be much closer to the truth. When Prince Arjuna says, more or less, “Now show me your glory.” Lord Vishnu gives him divine eyes to see and grants his wish. At first he sees the beauty of the heavens and the infinite cosmology of wealth and glory. Then he sees past that to the horror in creation:

O mighty-armed one, all the planets with their demigods are disturbed at seeing Your great form, with its many faces, eyes, arms, thighs, legs and bellies and Your many terrible teeth; and as they are disturbed, so am I.

Please be gracious to me. I cannot keep my balance seeing thus Your blazing deathlike faces and awful teeth. In all directions I am bewildered.

All the sons of Dhṛtarāṣṭra, along with their allied kings, and Bhīṣma, Droṇa, Karṇa – and our chief soldiers also – are rushing into Your fearful mouths. And some I see trapped with heads smashed between Your teeth.

As the many waves of the rivers flow into the ocean, so do all these great warriors enter blazing into Your mouths.

I see all people rushing full speed into Your mouths, as moths dash to destruction in a blazing fire. … You are manifest with terrible, scorching rays.

O Lord of lords, so fierce of form, please tell me who You are. … I do not know what Your mission is.

The Supreme Personality of Godhead said: Time I am, the great destroyer of the worlds, and I have come here to destroy all people. With the exception of you [the Pāṇḍavas], all the soldiers here on both sides will be slain.

To gaze upon the face of Gnon is not to see death, but futility. What Vishnu is trying to get across to Arjuna is that he shouldn’t be so troubled by killing. If he refuses to end the lives he’s agonizing over then the destroyer Time will do it for him. Their lives were spent the moment they started, they are already dead. And in the moment Arjuna understands this he is undead, he has seen the genuine negation of life by impending mortality, so that even in the moment everyone he knows has already been killed. In the modern world we are privileged to have much wisdom freely available, and under these circumstances it is easy to get a glimpse of His face. This frightening visage is your opponent, and wrestling Gnon has its dangers. The path to defeating futility as I see it will take you through four realizations, four opportunities to turn back and accept defeat.

I call these four opportunities the four sacrifices. What I mean when I say these things are sacrifices is that on the path to unrestrained agency against futility you will eventually reach a fork in the road. That fork will ask you to choose between a piece of your values and the path. A sacrifice has been made when you choose the path so that it’s clear to yourself you will always make that choice, that to the extent that piece of your values conflicts with the path it will never be satisfied again. This is not a road to happiness or wellbeing, it’s what spiritual development looks like if the only goal is to maximize your impact. It’s also not to be confused with asceticism, pain and deprivation for their own sake. If something isn’t in conflict with the path there’s no need to change it. Pain for its own sake is just another form of wireheading. I’m not sure there’s a meaningful difference between being turned into a puddle of pleasure goo vs. a puddle of pain goo; the vast majority of value is lost either way. A similar idea to a ‘sacrifice’ in this sense comes up in the context of Buddhism, Linji Yixuan writes:

Followers of the Way [of Chán], if you want to get the kind of understanding that accords with the Dharma, never be misled by others. Whether you're facing inward or facing outward, whatever you meet up with, just kill it! If you meet a buddha, kill the buddha. If you meet a patriarch, kill the patriarch. If you meet an arhat, kill the arhat. If you meet your parents, kill your parents. If you meet your kinfolk, kill your kinfolk. Then for the first time you will gain emancipation, will not be entangled with things, will pass freely anywhere you wish to go.

I would add to this: If you meet yourself on the road, kill them. This is an essay about what you can expect to face inwards on your journey. The four sacrifices are:

  1. Hedonism as the highest value. Putting any value whatsoever above hedonism breaks you from the Western carnival. It doesn’t particularly matter which value, the mere act of acknowledging you’re not looking to run a hedonistic value system is enough. For me it was truth (“I want to believe what is true even if it means I will be unhappy”).

  2. The expectation that you’ll live a happy life. LukeProg pointed out that liking and wanting are separate circuits. In a conflict between the two which should we prefer? I decided I want what I want even if it makes me miserable.

  3. The expectation you’ll get out of this alive. I realized that the fear of death was just risk aversion, the sort of person who has any chance whatsoever of impacting anything is probably fearless, maybe even Lenin-esque. The fear of death is a crutch marrying you to low variance strategies.

  4. The expectation that death is the worst that can happen to you. You probably need to be willing to actively suffer for long periods of time to make the things you want happen. So, you should just go straight to the logical conclusion. Would you be willing to be Omelas Child? If the answer is no you may want to give up. Thus I analogize the fourth sacrifice as a descent into hell.

To go along with the four sacrifices are four states of being, defined primarily by a central coping mechanism to deal with the likely inevitability of personal mortality and futility. While I’d originally stumbled on this model myself by analyzing my life, I also learned that a similar ontology can be found in the works of Ziz (Ziz, 2018) and Kierkegaard (Becker, 1973) (Kierkegaard, 1849). It should be briefly noted that Ziz credits Gwen Danielson for her version of this ontology, however Ziz is the one that wrote about it so I’ll be commenting on Ziz’s writing. Between the three I think my ontology is best for describing the path and Ziz’s is best for describing the personalities that result from following it:

State Four Sacrifices Ziz & Gwen’s Undead Types Kierkegaard’s “Styles Of Denying Possibility”
Sub-Normal N.A. “Corpse” Depressive/Schizophrenic
Wireheading N.A. Zombie Philistine (“Immediate Man”)
Satisfaction Hedonism Mummy Introvert
Dedication Happiness Lich Faithful (Highest Possibility)
Hell Life, Death Revenant Restless Spirit
Selfless N.A. Phoenix N.A.

I elaborate on these personalities in the table below:

Undead Type Central Cope Typical Agent Strategy Typical Aesthetics
Corpse N.A. Broken Literally dead or shambling in a daze, without style
Zombie “Don’t think…” Renounce Agency Superstimuli, loudness, warm fuzzies, equanimity
Mummy “Don’t think about death, just focus on living…” Plays “minigames”, e.g. hobbies, career Egotism, enthusiasm, neoteny, material status, danger
Lich “Don’t think about the outcomes where things are futile/doomed…” Plays like a scrub, mind operates on fake rules surrounding futility ‘Faith’, Worship, Asceticism, Abstraction, Optimism
Revenant “Don’t think about giving up, just focus on the goal(s)…” Plays to win, ‘rationalist’ Ruthless, Utilitarian, Existential, Macabre, Truthseeking, Dramatic
Phoenix “Don’t think you’re alone in all this (unless you are)” Tries to change the game being played, disrupts global equilibrium Faith, …

Note: ‘Plays like a scrub’ et al means with respect to futility. A lich is entirely capable of using the ideas in a book like Playing To Win, but they won’t use them at the highest levels of their strategy/optimization.

Before We Begin: Answers To Anticipated Questions

How does this relate to your model of ‘basic trust’?

In general, the four sacrifices are a description of the spiritual development of an atheist. Kierkegaard’s phylactery is deism, but as I point out in Liber Augmen, deism and atheism are really of the same order in their expectations, someone who internalizes the watchmaker god thoroughly enough is already an atheist in their day to day spiritual outlook. Basic trust by contrast is talking about something related but slightly different, a kind of necessary trauma people undergo as they internalize the world is not protected by divine intervention and then recover from that trauma. Perhaps basic trust is about the entry into atheism, and the four sacrifices are about the journey afterward, certainly my intuition is that most of replacing basic trust comes early on before you reach even say, mummy status.

If you would like a well written 1st person account of going from zombie to mummy to lich to revenant in that order, I recommend The Autobiography Of Malcolm X.

Soldiers will often sacrifice themselves to save comrades, does that make them phoenixes?

[And other questions in this vein…]

When I say someone ‘is’ a particular undead type, I mean that they centrally use the kind of coping mechanism associated with that type. It doesn’t mean “they use this kind of cope at all”, because real people use complicated gestalts of coping mechanisms to deal with the (seeming) inevitability of death. There are zombies that can occasionally manifest genuine revenant or even phoenix style behavior, but it’s to have this kind of behavior as a way of life that determines undead type. That means someone isn’t a lich until their life strategy has completely digested plausible hope, not a revenant until they’ve completely digested all the ways they were thinking with fake rules. Before it becomes central, an undead type pursuing more agentic behavior is in a state of transition.

One way of thinking about this is that undead types are about how far away you can be from material motivation and still be an agent. This is important because society is itself unaligned and by default trying to get you to do the wrong things. It’s also trying really hard: Your reward for working at a finance firm that helps basically nobody in practical terms could be half a million dollars annually. Nobody is interested in giving you $500k annually to work on X-Risk, not even if you’re credentialed and clearly qualified. If you’re going to put a dent in this kind of problem you will clearly need an agent orientation that is capable of operating in the absence of strong material rewards.

Is this really all there is to becoming a heroic figure?


One of the simplifications of this model is that I’m leaving out a lot of the skill acquisition and trauma healing methods that are usually necessary to actually go from zombie to mummy or from lich to revenant, et al. That’s mostly because it’s:

  1. Too big to cover
  2. I don’t understand it well enough
  3. I do want this post to come out before the end of the year

But for example it’s doubtful that Malcolm X would have become something like a revenant if he hadn’t made a habit of gobbling up books. In fact if I had to give one piece of canned advice to someone who is a big fan of Eliezer Yudkowsky without knowing anything else about them, it’d be “you’re not literate enough, read more academic(ish) nonfiction”. The same applies to Jesus, who supposedly impressed the Jewish temple masters with his wisdom as a youngster. You have to work on yourself in many ways before it starts making sense to exist in a more dedicated mode. I tend to judge people, and part of my justification for that is someone has had their entire life to work on themselves. In a certain sense how people present to you when you meet them is a record of their life experience up to that point.

The importance of healing from trauma shouldn’t be understated. It’s plausible that most of going from one undead type to another is learning more effective coping mechanisms to deal with psychological damage. Industrial designers observe that safety features can sometimes be negated by expert users taking more risks. It turns out that in a lot of cases users of equipment have a risk level they’re comfortable with. When safety features make their behavior less risky they choose to boost efficiency and keep risk the same. Undead types might be similar: People maintain equilibrium risk/damage/incompleteness with higher levels of coping & healing online.

So if I do all this stuff correctly I’ll have as much impact as Lyndon B. Johnson?

Probably not.

It’s important to understand that the example figures I use to demonstrate these personalities, such as LBJ, are not the typical member of the category. These are high variance strategies, and I choose examples to be well known and illustrative. Someone who wants to be as successful as LBJ needs to suffer a great deal of pain, and then win the lottery. Your mileage will vary, and it would be unreasonable to expect success in the spiritual realm to give you superpowers.

Psychology Of The Zombie

A zombie is the modal person’s response to futility, they turn off their agency and avoid thinking about higher things. This state is defined by something like wireheading, the act of zapping the pleasure center over and over as a way of life. Philosophers often discuss this in terms of “the lower instincts” or being an animal. It’s notable to me that similar language is often used by normal people to discuss e.g. heroin addicts. Zombies can notice when someone else is significantly more zombified than them, but don’t realize their own zombie nature.

Something that didn’t click for me until I noticed the connection to Kierkegaard is that when a philosopher is describing the mentality of a “normal person”, they’re describing zombies. In retrospect this should have been obvious since most people are zombies. This allows us to draw on a fairly wide cast to sketch their character. I am particularly enamored with Nietzsche’s description of the Last Man, a contemptible creature with no ambitions:

It is time for man to fix his goal. It is time for man to plant the germ of his highest hope.

Still is his soil rich enough for it. But that soil will one day be poor and exhausted, and no lofty tree will any longer be able to grow thereon.

Alas! there cometh the time when man will no longer launch the arrow of his longing beyond man—and the string of his bow will have unlearned to whizz!

I tell you: one must still have chaos in one, to give birth to a dancing star. I tell you: ye have still chaos in you.

Alas! There cometh the time when man will no longer give birth to any star. Alas! There cometh the time of the most despicable man, who can no longer despise himself.

Lo! I show you THE LAST MAN.

“What is love? What is creation? What is longing? What is a star?”—so asketh the last man and blinketh.

The earth hath then become small, and on it there hoppeth the last man who maketh everything small. His species is ineradicable like that of the ground-flea; the last man liveth longest.

“We have discovered happiness”—say the last men, and blink thereby.

They have left the regions where it is hard to live; for they need warmth. One still loveth one’s neighbour and rubbeth against him; for one needeth warmth.

Turning ill and being distrustful, they consider sinful: they walk warily. He is a fool who still stumbleth over stones or men!

A little poison now and then: that maketh pleasant dreams. And much poison at last for a pleasant death.

One still worketh, for work is a pastime. But one is careful lest the pastime should hurt one.

One no longer becometh poor or rich; both are too burdensome. Who still wanteth to rule? Who still wanteth to obey? Both are too burdensome.

No shepherd, and one herd! Every one wanteth the same; every one is equal: he who hath other sentiments goeth voluntarily into the madhouse.

“Formerly all the world was insane,”—say the subtlest of them, and blink thereby.

They are clever and know all that hath happened: so there is no end to their raillery. People still fall out, but are soon reconciled—otherwise it spoileth their stomachs.

They have their little pleasures for the day, and their little pleasures for the night, but they have a regard for health.

“We have discovered happiness,”—say the last men, and blink thereby.

The Last Man is said to live longest because of his risk aversion. Nietzsche probably imagined this playing out on a longer timescale than is plausible before the eschaton. His foresight was great but he did not anticipate that the Last Man would coexist with awesome world destroying powers. In any case his character sketch is convergent with Kierkegaard, who describes the philistine as “tranquilizing itself in the trivial” (Becker, 1973). Incidentally, Becker himself endorses this model. Psychiatry in general is mostly concerned with the problems of zombies, which is one of the reasons why it’s often useless to tell anyone who actually cares to “get therapy”. In the past the field was an active challenge to normality, and could provide healing for the wounds sustained on the journey to self actualization. These days it seems to have been almost entirely captured, pushing anti-healing in the form of incitement to normality for anyone functional (i.e. like most people aren’t) and foolish enough to go.

A little poison now and then: that maketh pleasant dreams. And much poison at last for a pleasant death.

No shepherd, and one herd! Every one wanteth the same; every one is equal: he who hath other sentiments goeth voluntarily into the madhouse.

For an example of what this capture looks like, Arthur C. Brooks (professor of “public leadership”) writes about “Success Addicts” in The Atlantic with some strong zombie energy (Brooks, 2020):

Success addicts giving up their habit experience a kind of withdrawal as well. Research finds that depression and anxiety are common among elite athletes after their careers end; Olympic athletes, in particular, suffer from the “post-Olympic blues.” I saw this withdrawal all the time in my years as the president of a think tank in Washington, D.C. Prominent people in politics and media would step back from the limelight—sometimes of their own volition, sometimes not—and suffer mightily. They talked of virtually nothing but the old days. Many suffered from depression and anxiety.

Lo, reader; take pity on these poor souls! Oh how foolish they are to choose unique, earthly achievement over their personal copy of the same family relationships experienced since prehistory. They are mentally ill, these strivers and overchievers, nay, they’re addicts; us sensible folk know better than to compromise our health for such things.

One still worketh, for work is a pastime. But one is careful lest the pastime should hurt one.

Kierkegaard says that the immediate man knows himself only by his clothes, his societal position. This is an elegant definition of a zombie: someone who doesn’t recognize themselves when you tear away external trappings. Without props and roles they wouldn’t be able to sustain even the appearance of life. Their central motivations are quite literally immediate to their person, once those are gone there is not even the will to live. It might sound extreme to diagnose this as the state of most human beings, but history provides bitter evidence in favor. Among prisoners in the Nazi death camps, especially Auschwitz, there was this term muselmann which referred to a common personality. The muselmann is someone who has completely given up, often because of circumstances outside their control such as preexisting infirmity. But this state was most common among the “anonymous mass” of prisoners that make up the backbone of a camp. These are people who, quite literally cease to perform even the motions of life once their family, possessions, social role, name, and appearance are taken from them. Outside of these things they no longer exist as full human beings. Primo Levi writes:

All the mussulmans who finished in the gas chambers have the same story, or more exactly, have no story; they followed the slope down to the bottom, like streams that run down to the sea. On their entry into the camp, through basic incapacity, or by misfortune, or through some banal incident, they are overcome before they can adapt themselves; they are beaten by time, they do not begin to learn German, to disentangle the infernal knot of laws and prohibitions until their body is already in decay, and nothing can save them from selections or from death by exhaustion. Their life is short, but their number is endless; they, the Muselmanner, the drowned, form the backbone of the camp, an anonymous mass, continually renewed and always identical, of non-men who march and labour in silence, the divine spark dead within them, already too empty to really suffer. One hesitates to call them living: one hesitates to call their death death, in the face of which they have no fear, as they are too tired to understand.

The drowned! Such beautiful language for such a horrible reality. When I talk about people existing in a “sea of suffering”, ‘drowning’ is an entirely fitting metaphor for the state most of those people exist in. You are at all times either in a state of growth or a state of decay, perfect stasis between the two is unlikely. Zombies are usually in a state of decay which progresses throughout their life. I don’t just mean the entropic decay of flesh, which inevitably takes us to our grave. I mean especially mental decay, a loss of cognitive flexibility, deadening of the emotions, lack of curiosity, an increasing abandonment of agency that eventually turns one into the shambling wrecks catered to by geriatric outlets such as Fox News; rage not against the dying of the light but at anyone who still has the lights on inside. “Get off my lawn!” is the rallying cry of rotting, walking dead in the western hemisphere, until at last they are buried beneath someone else’s lawn with a tombstone bearing no epitaph. In death they have nothing left of value to say to the living.

Still is his soil rich enough for it. But that soil will one day be poor and exhausted, and no lofty tree will any longer be able to grow thereon.

Dysphoric Zombies

Ziz by contrast to Nietzsche, Becker, and Kierkegaard largely skips over zombie psychology in her analysis, writing:

Those who have felt the Shade and let it break their minds into small pieces each snuggling in with death, that cannot organize into a forbidden whole of true agency, are zombies. They can be directed by whoever controls the Matrix. The more they zone out and find a thing they can think is contentment, the more they approach the final state: corpses.

Otherwise, they will become a zombie, which I expect feels like being on Soma, walling off the thread of plotline-tracking and letting it dissolve into noise, while everything seems to matter less and less.

“What is love? What is creation? What is longing? What is a star?”—so asketh the last man and blinketh.

This is probably because Ziz doesn’t think zombies can be helped, so there isn’t a lot of point in understanding them beyond their behavior:

I don’t know how mutable core values are. My best guess is, hardly mutable at all or at least hardly mutable predictably.

If someone has chosen to become a zombie, that says something about their preference-weightings for experiencing emotional pain compared to having ability to change things. I am pessimistic about attempts to break people out of the path to zombiehood. Especially those who already know about x-risk. If knowing the stakes they still choose comfort over a slim chance of saving the world, I don’t have another choice to offer them.

Further elaborated in Vampires And More Undeath:

People who become zombies and liches on the other hand, would choose heaven. (who can blame them?) So once the Shade has touched them, they sink into the closest hope they can get, whether they have the craft to continue some cohesive narrative-of-life around it or not.

The comparison to soma (a happiness producing drug in Huxley’s Brave New World) and heaven is telling. Ziz’s model of zombies seems to be one of fundamental comfort, or at least numbness to the pain of reality. I do in fact think some people have this, and they’re probably hopeless. But many (most?) zombies fail to find even superficial comfort. They have what The Matrix evocatively phrased as a splinter in their mind, a deep seated malaise with things which is not often expressed but always lurking just underneath their skin, ready to burst into conscious awareness. Kierkegaard and Becker both agree here, and it is a generally held belief in old school psychiatry that the average persons mind is characterized by constant repression, which is fragile. If this weren’t the case The Matrix wouldn’t be such a popular movie, it’d be a failed art house experiment that only a handful of film nerds remember.

So if zombies aren’t happy, why do they choose zombiehood over a life lived in truth? Ultimately Ziz thinks that the choice is between caring, which is hard (especially in a society that’s adversarial to caring) and apathy; so people choose the path of least resistance. This all ties into her ontology of X-Risk, which holds that the right way to think about existential risk is as a choice that’s downstream of most people choosing to do awful things. Ziz seemingly decided to avoid meat at a young age, which means her model of what kind of creatures people are probably predates any concept of it. The question she tries to answer with her life is something like “What do you do when everyone chooses to do something incomprehensibly horrible?”. Natural historical precedent then is stuff like the Nazi regime. Everyone is more or less in on the plan, and any appearances otherwise are just a collective front to gaslight anyone with enough integrity to refuse complicity.

I don’t think so.

I suspect Ziz grew up around people trying to pacify her existential horror with “that’s the way things are”, which she then learned to associate with zombiehood. Death is ‘just the way things are’, meat eating is ‘just the way things are’, a structurally unequal justice system that puts people with the ‘wrong’ skin color in an abuse warehouse for smoking weed is ‘just the way things are’. ‘Just the way things are’ is a code word for complicity, which is what zombiehood looks like to Ziz. A zombie human has given up on trying to change things, is maximally complicit, literally afraid of goodness because goodness would destroy them. If being a zombie is complicity then it’s only natural that agency is anti-complicity, agents maximally disassociate themselves from complicity because otherwise they are corroded into zombies. It’s similar to how I learned to avoid praying as a kid because people who prayed struck me as zombie-like, so clearly if I prayed I’d have my ability to think disrupted. The causation mostly goes the other way of course, but it took me 24 years to be sure enough about that to finally kneel and attempt prayer during my research. When a belief like this builds up, it’s more or less superstitious in the sense that you’re not in a position to test it. You have your priors sure, but it’s not like you’re going to try praying and seeing if you turn into a zombie, you just have to trust your gut.

By contrast if I had to define the core of zombiehood (as someone who spent most of their childhood wireheading on video games), it would be something like “positive thinking” in the way that your average American uses that phrase. Positive thinking in this sense can be summed up as the idea that anxiety and stress are unhealthy in and of themselves. Emotions stop being motivation-reality-tracking, anxiety about nuclear weapons and the fear of death are no longer value judgments about the overwhelming horror of the world you’re living in, but intrinsically neurotic pathologies. You look around at the world and feel fundamentally malaised, things are wrong and you don’t know what to do so you douse it with drugs or distractions. This naturally leads to dysphoria, the ‘splinter in your mind’ as Morpheus puts it. That can be bodily, but it can also be social or existential. I want to be crystal clear about this: The acute stress and anxiety you feel when you look around at the world is not pathology, it’s your values screaming. You’re fine, the world is sick.

I worry that the failure to recognize this dysphoria points towards a lack of empathy. Thankfully I can remember being a zombie, so allow me to try and bridge the gap here. When I was 11 or so, two major formative events bumped me into dysphoria. The first was watching conspiracy theory hit film The Zeitgeist in 2007 around when it came out. The Zeitgeist is, to put it simply, a pretty stupid movie. I don’t even remember any of it, but the summary on Wikipedia isn’t encouraging. The whole narrative that 9/11 was a psyop to provide greater control over the American public in preparation for armageddon (or, whatever it says) left a strong impression on me. Second was around a year later when I played Fallout 3 and got curious about what it would take to survive a nuclear apocalypse.

The guide I ended up finding with Google is severe in its outlook, but insists that a nuclear attack is survivable. Reading through it turned my stomach, the concept of a nuclear war suddenly went from an abstract possibility to a real scenario I could expect to live through; and I knew if I was facing an attack right then I’d die for certain. For the first time in my life nukes seemed as real as a grizzy bear on the trail. I was traumatized when I tried to explain the threat to my parents and they insisted that nukes have been around since they were kids; the fear had been burned out of them. After that I went through a survivalist phase that lasted a few years, going deeper and deeper into conspiracy theory until I had so many competing notions of apocalyptic events in my head that they were putting me through borderline lethal levels of stress. On my own, I developed the idea out of desperation that if I’m afraid of something happening, that means I should be keeping track of if it happens or not. I started a journal of my fears, and got three predictions in before I realized I was deep down a rabbit hole of nonsense.

And I was still a zombie through that entire episode.

See, here’s the thing about zombiehood. From an epistemological perspective, a zombie is someone whose life strategy is based on fear, scapegoating and excuses, rather than any sort of coherent model of the world they live in. They don’t expect to understand things. “There is no X, only power.” is a thought stopping cliche that lets them avoid having to really model how stuff works. When you think about it, “everything boils down to power, and I don’t have it” doesn’t really tell you much. Why aren’t you poorer than you are, if you don’t have power? Do the people worse off than you have less power? Doesn’t that mean you have some power after all? These aren’t difficult questions, but they’re coming from a place where the expectation is that things can be known precisely, such that it is cause for reflection when they do not go the way you expect. What is power anyway, how do you get it?

Another one I hear often is that the world is screwed because people are greedy. Well, you’re a person—oh I see, you’re virtuous and the wealthy are cheaters. Alright, well there’s a lot of you and not very many of them so how come they have all the wealth? Sure sure they have armies and police and stuff, but how did that happen? Well if the people with guns are doing the controlling, how come these wealthy people are allowed to exist and they get table scraps? How come corporations get away with hurting people, what is a ‘corporation’? You’ve never heard of “limited liability”? Well where did it come from? You’ve never heard of fiduciary duty? Aren’t aware that CEO’s actually have to prioritize profits over any other value by law? And I’ll assume if we started discussing the tradeoffs of liberal access to these legal tools you’d throw a fit?

Without a systematic understanding of reality, issues aren’t defective components to be replaced or upgraded; they’re talismans of evil. The electoral college isn’t a rules-based entity which interacts in specific ways with a specific system of choosing the controlling person of a specific machine of government supported by a social contract supported by a logistical system of pledged resources and defending interests. Zombies don’t even attempt to understand the actual mechanics of power, they just posit an evil spirit which infuses and corrupts their social universe. Intangible, unassailable forces levy taxes and enforce laws, conjuring up an animated spirit that is bigger than and beyond the consideration of any mortal being. Information is useless to these people. Learning that a 50 meter hole recently opened in the arctic is just cause for despair, a contextless charm that portends evil in a gargantuan necklace of such charms (Liesowska, 2020). Until at last, overwhelmed by grief and hysteria, energies with no outlet because there is no understanding and therefore no basis for agentic intervention; the zombie takes their necklace off and descends downward towards the state of muselmann and eventually a corpse. That necklace is diffuse malaise, the construction material for dysphoria. Adam Curtis writes about this form of learned helplessness in his article on the muckrakers (Curtis, 2020):

The politicians seem to be helpless. The economic crisis of 2008 has revealed scandal after scandal in the financial system but there has been no real reform. When HSBC was revealed to have been laundering money for Mexican drug cartels no-one was prosecuted because doing so "might create instabilities in the system".

And scandals come and go like a series of blows that we experience as disconnected events - each one evoking shock and horror. And nothing happens.

A famous American Historian called Richard Hostadter wrote a study of the muckrakers. He said that before McClure's famous issue there was:

"a diffuse malaise - and it was the muckraking that brought that diffuse malaise of the public into focus"

I think there is an equally diffuse malaise today - waiting for a new kind of journalism to bring it into focus. Like with McClure's it won't be just a catalogue of shocking facts - it will be an imaginative leap that pulls all the scandals together and shows how they are part of some new system of power that we don't fully comprehend.

I don’t think there is a meaning crisis (Pattakos, 2017). I think what we have here is a learned helplessness crisis, a sense of having completely lost control over the nonlocal forces in our life like government. A central function of religion is to provide a sense of control over the far away and unseen, which has completely decayed in modern society. Having realized that many of the old steering wheels are fakes, people give up any hope of stopping the 21st century suicide ritual from reaching its natural conclusion. This to me is the silver lining of apocalyptic scapegoating cults like QAnon (LaFrance, 2020) or BLM, they are a symptom of people being driven mad by their outsider status; their inability to accept total surrender to the forces of evil.

That they’ve been coopted by those forces is unfortunate, but at least they have hope.

I tell you: one must still have chaos in one, to give birth to a dancing star. I tell you: ye have still chaos in you.

Signs Of Transition Away From Zombie

  • Cessation of ‘numbing’ activities such as watching TV, drinking, video games, masturbation, etc
  • Ability to endure painful experiences in the pursuit of goals
  • Explicit understanding of ones mortality, compelled to riskier activities by internalization of finitude
  • Can articulate goals for their life, things they want to accomplish before they die
  • Cares less about what other people think, social approval becomes instrumental rather than terminal goal

Psychology Of The Mummy

Of the names Ziz gives her undead types I find mummy to be the least fitting. Zombie, Lich, and Revenant are direct expressions of the thing they’re trying to capture, mummy is a metaphor. That metaphor is something like: Preserved flesh with the internal organs and brain whisked out, pursuing risky fun because there’s no hope so you may as well embrace mortality. I think the four sacrifices and Kierkegaard provide better language here. To me the basic orientation of the mummy is towards happiness, not the pseudo-happiness of the Last Man, but genuine satisfaction of your values with the time you have. In Fight Club, Tyler Durden asks “If you were to die right now, how would you feel about your life?”. It’s a simple, elegant question that gets at the heart of what is so contemptible about zombiehood. A wirehead prioritizes experience over reality, so when they shuffle off their mortal coil there isn’t very much of them to account for.

Another way to put this is that zombies prioritize their moment to moment experience, and if that dips below a certain hedonic level they’re paralyzed. Mummies prioritize the overall value of their life, even if that sometimes means going through awful stuff. Phrases associated with athletes and people who exercise typically express mummy values: “No pain no gain.”, “I like feeling the burn after a good workout.”, “You only live once.”, etc. Someone who has sacrificed hedonism tends toward a glory orientation in their personal narrative. If they die it will be while having fun, in honor, or surrounded by accomplishment. Typically has some kind of expensive (in terms of health, time, money, etc) hobby that they pour their identity into. Sometimes this is abstract like an extreme athlete, other times it’s deeply literal and straightforward like a furry. An online mummy social space tends to have photos of gear, costumes, electronics, etc. Most hackers (in both the programming sense and the computer break in sense) are mummies.

My personal mummy phase probably lasted from about ages 14 to 21. In a summary of my intellectual history I wrote:

15 - Proto-rationalist, has read The Sequences and beginning to explore singularitan ideas, learning the doctrines of hackerism and falling in love, reading Hacker News and rapidly building a model of the world which is in line with the Silicon Valley sense of things.

17 - Thoroughly drenched in hackerism and rationalist ideas, joined #lesswrong IRC and might even be a moderator there by then, believes in the future ordinary people will educate themselves using technology and massive automation will decentralize many aspects of economy with 3D printing, CNC machines, indoor farms, and other technologies to bring the means of production to ordinary people at convenience and cost effective scale. State will collapse as will most forms of centralized power, humanity will finally find freedom and a golden age will dominate within 10 years. AI is uncertain but I'm optimistic.

“AI is uncertain but I’m optimistic” very much captures the mummy attitude towards higher possibilities. These things might exist, but they’re not really worth centering your life around. You “contribute 10%” and don’t think about it too much beyond that. I remember getting to know a dragon furry over the Internet through a shared interest in teledildonics (I only mention this part because teledildonics are a very good example of what kind of technical possibilities mummies are interested in), and becoming increasingly horrified that they identified as a ‘transhumanist’ but didn’t seem to have any serious interest in realizing those possibilities. They also didn’t seem to be able to carry on a strong conversation about their line of work, computer security. I eventually came away shaken with the impression that they were more or less soulless.

It’s important to note that I was nominally “working” on X-Risk through all this. I felt that I didn’t have a comparative advantage in things like AI, so I may as well pursue my original cause area of improving the way people interact with computers. I figured (casually) that if humans can get a better grip on the problems we’re facing we’ll be better off. Nevermind that many of those problems are a race against our own ingenuity, which I would simply be shortening the length of. I’d formulated this plan after reading Hackers: Heroes Of The Computer Revolution and didn’t really update in the “I will actually change my life plans” sense until many years after I theoretically could have. Just because someone puts nominal “EA” and “X-Risk” and “rationality” labels on what they’re doing doesn’t mean these ideas have really informed their strategy.

So here’s Anna Salamon writing about X-Risk with strong mummy energy:

Over the last 12 years, I’ve chatted with small hundreds of people who were somewhere “in process” along the path toward “okay I guess I should take Singularity scenarios seriously.” From watching them, my guess is that the process of coming to take Singularity scenarios seriously is often even more disruptive than is losing a childhood religion. Among many other things, I have seen it sometimes disrupt:

People’s in-practice ability to “hang out”—to enjoy their friends, or the beach, in a “just being in the moment” kind of way.

        “Here I am at the beach like my to-do list told me to be, since I’m a good EA who is planning not to burn out. I’ve got my friends, beer, guitar, waves: check. But how is it that I used to be able to enter “hanging out mode”? And why do my friends keep making meaningless mouth-noises that have nothing to do with what’s eventually going to happen to everyone?”

People’s ability to link in with ordinary institutions and take them seriously (e.g. to continue learning from their day job and caring about their colleagues’ progress and problems; to continue enjoying the dance club they used to dance at; to continue to take an interest in their significant other’s life and work; to continue learning from their PhD program; etc.)

        “Here I am at my day job, meaninglessly doing nothing to help no one, while the world is at stake—how is it that before learning about the Singularity, I used to be learning skills and finding meaning and enjoying myself in this role?”

It would be uncharitable to say that Anna is simply advocating for normality here. This is from a list of mostly-genuinely dysfunctional behavior. But the optimization for “being human” and “happiness” is poking out from underneath the “X-Risk mitigation” and “rationality” labels. I think if you’re an EA who cares beyond 10%, it’s totally legitimate to be disillusioned with going to the beach or ‘hanging out’; you’ve learned that the opportunity cost of your time is higher than you thought it was. That learning should translate into behavioral changes, spending significantly less time on leisure because it’s more costly at the margins is straightforward 2 + 2 = 4 kinda stuff. If you find that the leisure activities you used to enjoy suddenly feel hollow, that might be a sign your motivation to invest in them wasn’t tracking reality as closely as you thought it was.

I’ve been told that Anna is pointing at an inability to take breaks, but if you take a break and find it isn’t helping then maybe “a break” isn’t actually what you need. In fact, if your only reason for taking a break is that you’re worried about ‘burnout’, and you’re otherwise motivated and ready to go I wouldn’t worry too much about it.

However, I do think there are some real traps people fall into here. Succinctly: Mummies seem to have trouble handling the balance between explore and exploit. It’s common for someone to update on the importance of X cause area, and then decide the way to act on that is to totally remove every aspect of themselves that isn’t “productive” (exploit) towards X. This desire isn’t intrinsically bad, but people usually don’t systematically build up all their useful, desirable habits, so in a systematic teardown they destroy things they didn’t even realize were providing value (Alexander, 2019). A usual casualty of this is exploration behaviors that provide future opportunities, reduce unknown-unknowns, stimulate growth, and facilitate finding new angles of attack on problems. Two examples:

  • Reading Reddit, Hacker News, a forum dedicated to your cause area, etc. Well curated sources of engagement with what’s out there in the environment do provide value. Their average payoff is low but the EV can be high.

  • Tinkering with ‘toys’ that are interesting to you. Well calibrated interest tends to lead in the direction of things that have potential. If you cultivate taste you spend less time having to fight yourself on petty distractions and get to take advantage of your interest being a well tuned opportunity detector.

Mummies seeking ascension need to find an angle of attack on futility to progress. Problems are useless without an angle of attack, your awareness on its own doesn’t bring much (Hamming, 1986). Therefore removing all your exploration behaviors is disastrous. “Productive” people who have the seeds of an orientation towards ascension are of course encouraged to do just that. Hamming says that people who keep their office door closed get more work done but in the long run their careers suffer because they’re not working on the right problems. My hypothesis for what’s going on is those people have shunted exploration to be “more productive”, and it kills their ability to steer themselves into interesting opportunity.

My general sense is that people go through phases of explore/exploit where in the first phase they should be focusing on finding something to do and in the second phase they focus on doing it. The habits you build up around exploration during an explore phase are a hindrance during an exploit phase, so it makes sense to remove them. Often people who get through a long exploit phase notice that they don’t know what to do next, and they drift because they deleted all their exploration habits in the pursuit of their goal. The easiest remedy is to be aware of the dynamic and actively manage both your exploration and exploitation. You need to be thinking about where your next good idea is going to come from if you want to keep having them.

More advanced agents find ways to explore and exploit in the same motion, which seems like something most mummies don’t quite manage.

A Note On “Vampires” and Sexuality

In her writing Ziz spends a lot of time discussing a ‘vampire’ undead type. Vampires are supposed to be based on a cope similar to a zombie or lich, where zombie goals are satisfied by breaking other people through sadism (Ziz, 2019):

I think vampires are people who have made the choices long ago of a zombie or lich, who have been exposed to the shade to such a degree that it left pain that cannot be ignored by allowing their mind to dissolve. The world has forced them to be able to think. They do not have the life-orientation that revenants have to incorporate the pain and find a new form of wholeness. But this injury (a vampire bite) demonstrates to their core the power of the shade, and the extent to which sadistically breaking and by extension dominating (pour entropy into someone beyond the speed of their healing and they will probably submit) can help them get the benefits of social power, which is enough to meet most zombie goals. This structure which is the knowledge of this path is reflected in “The Beast“, which can be “staved off” by false face structure.

This portrait is mostly based on accusations against a particular person of using BDSM as a thin pretext for literal rape and torture. Ziz then extended this prototype out to the combination of BDSM and high housing prices in her local area to a thesis that BDSM is centrally about literal sex slavery and rape. This isn’t entirely crazy reasoning. If you can only live in the Bay because your boyfriend pays your rent and he wants to play kinky games with you, your ‘consent’ to those games is questionable. At the same time I feel like this is ignoring the way in which any collaborative activity engaged in under those conditions has elements of slavery to it. If I let you stay with me in the Bay Area and you only get to keep existing in that social space if I’m happy with you as a ‘roommate’, then anything I expect you to do to be in my good graces is enforced with the threat of expelling you from the community. Any standards are coercive if someone doesn’t have a reasonable alternative to them. In that context it becomes clearer that the “slavery” part of “sex slavery” is doing the vast majority of the moral harm here. It just becomes especially jarring with BDSM because the euphemisms go away, words like ‘slave’ and ‘pet’ are used; which throw into sharp relief the literal truth of much of the roleplay. That truth doesn’t go away when you take the terms away, and BDSM isn’t the source of this particular problem.

I personally think that most of the things Ziz calls “vampires” are just mummies with strong dark triad traits. She says that “undead types are usually evil for a reason”, implying that there needs to be some kind of pathology for humans to turn toward predation (Ziz, 2019). That seems naive when you consider that modern people are barely removed from the omnivorous hunter-gatherers of the ancestral environment. I can’t believe I have to say this but: meat tastes good because you’re adapted to eat it, predation feels good because you’re adapted to predation. These things are not going to be rejected by default without some kind of compelling reason. Dialing up the “living” dial on an omnivorous hunter is going to produce behaviors that will offend the sensibilities of a vegan radical feminist; that is a cost of admission to raising the human agency waterline. Ziz also says that raising the agency waterline will turn most people evil, so I’m not sure what the conceptual barrier is here (Ziz, 2017). In any case I’ll note that I think a certain level of abstract competitive-predatory traits are healthy in a person. A.E Van Vogt’s description of the candidates for rationalist superman status in The World Of Null-A is telling:

The unusualness of it faded from Gosseyn's mind as he saw that others of the large group present were looking at him.

Bright, friendly eyes, curious, friendly faces with just a hint of calculation in them — that was the impression Gosseyn had. He suppressed a smile. Everybody was sizing up everybody else, striving to determine what chance his neighbors had of winning in the games. He saw that an old man at a desk beside the door was beckoning to him. Gosseyn walked over. The man said, "I've got to have your name and such for our book here."

"Gosseyn," said Gosseyn. "Gilbert Gosseyn, Cress Village, Florida, age thirty-four, height six feet one inch, weight one hundred eighty-five, no special distinguishing marks."

The old man smiled up at him, his eyes twinkling. "That's what you think," he said. "If your mind matches your appearance, you'll go far in the games."

As far as BDSM itself goes, kink is centrally a mummy thing. Becker writes in his Denial of Death that sexual perversity is a sign of embodiment and reclamation of animal lust from the lower impulses. The undeniable markers of our animal nature like body hair, defecation, and sexuality are problematic to people not just because they’re disease vectors, but because they are literal evidence of our mortality. These problems can be dealt with by pulling them close (i.e. ‘integration’) or pushing them out of mind (i.e. disassociation). Sexuality is particularly problematic because it obviously shows the mind to be a servant of flesh, at whose whim all higher functions are cast aside. I can remember this exact kind of fear when I was 11, before the onset of puberty. People who had sex drives seemed obsessed with mating and status, like their imagination had been gobbled up by sex and the divine spark snuffed out. Here’s Ziz describing getting to know her friend Gwen D, where they both share similar discomfort with the body and sexuality (Ziz, 2019):

They also told me about how they were otherkin, specifically dragonkin, not in a supernatural way, but a morphological freedom way. They showed me a dragon-shaped necklace, and said it was a reminder of how they would turn into a dragon after the singularity. And eat their human body, since that seemed like the most fitting way to dispose of it. I said I’d want mine burned once I could escape it. In later conversations they came to the conclusion that draconity was a means of keeping their femininity alive in a hostile world, lacking the, I’ll retroactively phrase it as resistance to social reality to say so outright. They said they’d asked to be a girl when they were a young child, and been turned down. They talked a lot about precursor ideas to aliveness a lot. Said they hated sex and seeing animals have sex, and automatic actions like that seemed like a spark of personhood going out. That sounded familiar. I impermanently convinced them they were a trans woman.

According to Becker these problems are dealt with in pre-sexual childhood through bodily perversity (e.g. smearing poop). In sexual adulthood that perversion retreats into underground scenes and private rituals. Recall he is writing in 1973, so his definition of ‘perversity’ is probably more expansive than yours. Centrally perversity here refers to things like kinks, fetishes, paraphilias. Use of the body for enjoyment and satisfaction in active defiance of the raw animal efficency to breed. The entire concept of ‘kink’ and the way it becomes a lavish identity project for some people is clearly mummy optimization and life strategy. Ziz of course reads it as plausible deniability for actual sexual slavery. I suspect this is largely a function of her never having gone through a mummy phase. Her relative lack of elaboration on mummies as a concept and heavy use of disassociation as a coping strategy lend further support to that hypothesis. Mummy coping strategies are usually about integrating and normalizing horror. Tyler Durden has both strong mummy and strong revenant energy. It seems implausible to me that most zombies would engage in complex BDSM, elaborate games of hierarchy are high energy endeavors.

One no longer becometh poor or rich; both are too burdensome. Who still wanteth to rule? Who still wanteth to obey? Both are too burdensome.

Ascent From Zombie To Mummy

Moving from optimization for wireheading to optimization for satisfaction is by far the hardest transition of the four sacrifices. Most people never manage it, though it’s widely sought after. The exterior doctrine of Buddhism is about this, but many practitioners descend back to zombie status once they get the ability to wirehead with meditation (Stevens, 2020). This transition is also the usual subject of a mid-life crisis, where someone realizes that their life is kind of empty and increasingly becoming a meaningless grind for other people’s benefit.

Naturally then some of the best material for understanding this part of the journey is the mid-life crisis film classic Fight Club. You can take pretty much any iconic scene in Fight Club and gain insight into escaping zombiehood from it. My personal favorite is the chemical burn:

In cinematic portrayals it’s common for the pain-warrant of the mind splinter to be answered by an external guide, someone who can take the protagonist radically outside their comfort zone. Tyler Durden is an interesting guide because he is a revenant that makes strong use of mummy copes. A friend of mine (who is a zombie) didn’t understand what’s going on in this scene. What Tyler is doing here is a kind of exorcism, where the demon is Jack’s zombie habits. He sets up a scenario where Jack will attempt to use his dysfunctional zombie copes and then (quite literally) tries to smack and shake him out of it. If you’re confused about what mummy or revenant look like, Tyler demonstrates both mummy (“What you’re feeling is premature enlightenment!”) and revenant (“This is not the worst thing that could happen.”) copes here.

Another cinematic portrayal most people are probably familiar with is The Matrix. Unlike Tyler Durden, Morpheus is a lich. One of the things that’s always bothered me about The Matrix is that it doesn’t really provide adequate instruction on how to get on a path out of zombiehood. When we meet Neo, he’s already a dysphoric zombie that’s found something more interesting to him than cybercrime. He goes through a symbolic death and rebirth, and then gets tutoring from Morpheus on how to exist as a creature in the real world eating slop instead of longing for literal wireheading.

All of this is premised on Neo having decided to focus on the right thing, asking what “The Matrix” is. This is a masterful sleight of hand trick that lets the directors focus on the cool fun parts and elide the real problem: How to find something worth thinking about in the first place. Remember what I said earlier about QAnon and BLM being signs of dysphoria, even if they’re destructive cults? Those are what it looks like when you focus on the wrong stuff, but know you’re supposed to be on the lookout for something. I do think that the choice to cast Neo as a member of the computer underground makes a lot of sense however. One of the things that The Matrix draws on is the mythology of computer crime stories, which often include a fairly tight transition from zombie to mummy (remember how I said most hackers are mummies? This is why.)

My favorite collection of these stories actually doesn’t involve any computers at all, but rather the pre-computing phone hacking that people would do when all telephones in the US were run by Bell Telephone and 3rd party experimentation was banned. Phil Lapsley’s Exploding The Phone is an excellent book which includes several variations on this theme. I think the best one is actually used to open the book, “Fine Arts 13” which introduces the concept of phreaking by talking in detail about how someone got into it by answering a strange classified ad in the local paper (Lapsley, 2013). The hacker origin story usually features a protagonist who finds a loose thread in the fabric of reality, a glitch in the matrix if you will. They pull on that thread and find the tapestry begins to unravel. Following it down the rabbit hole they begin to separate from others who don’t understand, they have the secret power of understanding how the system really works and others do not. That secret becomes an obsession, consumes their attention and takes them far beyond the layers of skinner boxes that are meant to contain their agency. Bruce Sterling writes of the motivations underlying hackerism (Sterling, 1992):

The pure technical sweetness of the Bell System gave its operators, inventors and engineers a deeply satisfying sense of power and mastery. They had devoted their lives to improving this vast nation-spanning machine; over years, whole human lives, they had watched it improve and grow. It was like a great technological temple. They were an elite, and they knew it — even if others did not; in fact, they felt even more powerful because others did not understand. The deep attraction of this sensation of elite technical power should never be underestimated. "Technical power" is not for everybody; for many people it simply has no charm at all. But for some people, it becomes the core of their lives. For a few, it is overwhelming, obsessive; it becomes something close to an addiction. People — especially clever teenage boys whose lives are otherwise mostly powerless and put-upon – love this sensation of secret power, and are willing to do all sorts of amazing things to achieve it. The technical power of electronics has motivated many strange acts detailed in this book, which would otherwise be inexplicable.

One of the most interesting things I remember from studying hackers is the way in which early computing equipment tended to create hacker cults around it. Probably most famous are the eponymous hackers surrounding the MIT AI Lab. Their story is recounted in Steve Levy’s Hackers: Heroes Of The Computer Revolution and my own journey away from zombiedom probably began with reading that book. At the same time however there were many more such cults, mentions of which pop up repeatedly in old computer literature. Here’s an account from Carl Alsing that appears in The Soul Of A New Machine by Tracy Kidder (Kidder, 1981):

About ten other young, male undergraduates regularly attended these sessions of midnight programming. "It was a whole subculture. It's been popularized now, but it was a secret cult in my days," said Alsing. "The game of programming — and it is a game — was so fascinating. We'd stay up all night and experience it. It really is like a drug, I think." A few of his fellow midnight programmers began to ignore their girlfriends and eventually lost them for the sake of playing with the machine all night. Some started sleeping days and missed all their classes, thereby ruining their grades. Alsing and a few others flunked out of school.

This level of obsession wasn’t an isolated incident. Several MIT hackers also failed out of school over computers. Guy Steele claims in the 1983 edition of The Hacker’s Dictionary that this overall phenomena arose anywhere universities were willing to give computer time to ‘random people’ (Steele, 1983). Those early computer cults pioneered the ARPANET, which eventually evolved into the modern Internet. It’s notable that this kind of “computer addiction” or computer obsession is kind of like video games or other wirehead stuff. It seems to grip onto similar machinery, at least at first. Eventually the game transcends itself and becomes a bit more than a game, and values other than just pressing the pleasure center are formed.

A similar process seems to be at work in Eliezer Yudkowsky’s Sequences. Most LessWrongers seem to be in various stages of mummyhood. I suspect that’s because the vehicle Yudkowsky chose to transmit his ideas was to mimic TVTropes, which pulls in a lot of zombies and lower level nerds looking for hits of novelty. The Sequences hit the same receptors as TVTropes, and induce strong obsession as you click through the work. A decade on from my first reading and I still get the same 20 browser tabs when I read through it. For some portion of readers the game transcends itself and they attain a kind of mummyhood through it, but very few seem to get beyond that and move into deeper possibilities. The Sequences are intended to help the reader become a revenant, but in practice seem to produce mummies that think “being a revenant” amounts to a fun self help strategy. I suspect some of that is because The Sequences are clearly an aspirational work, 2008!Eliezer Yudkowsky is an obvious lich so it’s unsurprising he can’t fully transmit a revenant mindset even if he wanted it himself.

If you think you’re a zombie and you’re reading this, the route out looks something like having values, any values whatsoever that are more important to you than immediate hedonic equilibrium. The easiest way to get those is probably to get them from somewhere else, or to get so deep into something that it stops being a way to zap your pleasure center and becomes something else.

Signs Of Transition Away From Mummy

  • Increasing comfort with the idea that life isn’t about happiness, you can be personally miserable and still be legitimately accomplishing worthy goals.

  • Decreasing focus on “hobbies”, where a hobby is something you pour energy into that doesn’t really have the possibility of something higher. Less satisfaction from activities that are not serious efforts against futility.

  • Having found a goal or angle of attack that radically reprioritizes things, values begin to be defined in a schema relative to certain overriding objectives. As Anna Salamon points out, this is often done in an amateurish way. Don’t let the unskilled version distract you from the fact that there are skilled possibilities.

  • More cautious behavior in regards to death, the prospect of genuine hope or something that must be accomplished causes you to value yourself more strongly than you otherwise might if your life “doesn’t really matter”.

Psychology Of The Lich

Durkheim writes in his study on the origins of sacred things that ancestors gain their sacred character during life (Durkheim, 1915). A nobody in their lifetime remains a nobody in death. Zombies and mummies are spiritual nobodies, more or less anonymous in the scheme of history. Liches by contrast are beginning to develop an embryonic sacred character, which makes possibilities higher than mummy qualitatively different than those below. So while their comparatively small number makes them harder to study than zombies or mummies, we have the advantage that most history is made by such people. It is a general bias that liches, revenants, phoenixes, etc are the most likely to be immortalized in fiction and nonfiction; people encounter them much more often in stories about heroes and villains than they do in their daily lives.

The anthropic principle says that we should only expect to observe universes in which observing creatures can exist. The core of lichdom is an anthropic epistemology: A lich only focuses on the timelines in which they win, they’re reluctant (or just plain unable) to use their general intelligence without the implied or stated promise that they will ultimately prevail. Ziz writes of liches:

Those who have seen horror and built a vessel of hope to keep their soul alive and safe from harm are liches. Christianity’s Heaven seems intended to be this, but it only works if you fully believe and alieve. Or else the phylactery fails and you become a zombie instead. For some this is The Glorious Transhumanist Future. In Furiosa from Fury Road’s case, “The Green Place”. If you’ve seen that, I think the way it warps her epistemology about likely outcomes is realistic.

Phylacteries can be a subtle thing. We’re so used to the more overt, delusional kind of phylactery (e.g. Christian heaven) that less attention is paid to the same cope used in a more realistic way. For example in his analysis of the human condition Kierkegaard decides that lich is the highest spiritual possibility. His reasoning for this is that revenant is just puttering away at some great undertaking or nihilistic destruction in an attempt to forget the inevitable. In this sense he is confusing it with mummy, which is understandable since mummy and revenant have superficially similar aesthetics and copes. Kierkegaard’s phylactery is deism, not faith in any specific creator but faith that a creator is implied by the cosmos, and that this creator gives life meaning even when we can’t find it inside life itself (Becker, 1973). Or as Ludwig Witteignstein might have put it: The meaning of the universe does not reside inside the universe (Doxiadēs, 2009).

I have a friend who more or less believes exactly this, and further that you can easily infer the supreme being has no afterlife in store for you. You will go into the void, but at least you’re participating in some kind of cosmic meaning. This same friend makes a point of insisting that god is cosmic, not an agent (Alexander, 2012). To him faith is about the hope there is something worth finding so long as you continue to search (which I think of as more a revenant thing). You can stave off the fear of death using phylacteries that are quite abstract and reality-aligned, but they’re still a phylactery.

Becker is a lich in this sense. He agrees with Kierkegaard that the way to handle death is to face it head on (Becker, 1973). But he’s grappling with a paradox at the heart of psychotherapy: To help the patient heal and get over their dysfunctional coping mechanisms in the face of death is to expose them to the reality of death (Becker, 1973). How can the patient heal if healing will just take them back to the mortal terror they started with? Becker answers that the character armor must be dissolved so that a phylactery can form. Becker’s phylactery seems to be even more subtle than Kierkegaard’s, a kind of faith that death can be made Okay so long as one faces it like a man. I see no reason why this should be the case. If evolution is willing to let elephants starve to death at the end of their life there’s no reason a human can’t be faced with horror they’re in no position to make true peace with (Yudkowsky, 2007).

All of this however is just a rationalization of the underlying coping mechanism. Like the hypnotist who can pass a needle through your hand unfelt by asking you to direct your attention elsewhere, liches focus on positive outcomes to get away from the pain of darker possibilities. Christian heaven, the glorious transhumanist future, communist eutopia, an anonymous Supreme Being, even just the idea that death can be emotionally transcended are positive possibilities. Focusing intently on them avoids the pain of looking into futility, and gives direction to build towards higher possibilities. The astute reader will notice that this is a more narrowly constructed version of zombie “positive thinking”. Like mummy and revenant, zombie and lich share underlying mental motions.

The rawest kind of lich cope can be found in Lyndon B. Johnson, who believed from a young age he would one day be President Of The United States and pursued that vision relentlessly (Caro, 1990). He worked 18 hour days as legislative secretary on the faith that this would propel him to political stardom. Realistically there was no reason to expect Lyndon to be president; he grew up poor in the Texas Hill Country and hailed from marginal ancestry. Lyndon is infamous for his ruthlessness, his lack of any principles beyond ambition. In his biography of Lyndon Johnson author Robert Caro opens with a scene of Johnson rejecting an oil stake that would make him rich in favor of better chances at his presidental aspirations. It’s not uncommon for people to read a story like this and conclude that the secret is to believe in yourself. That’s nonsense: The secret is survivorship bias. You have to go after what you want and then win the lottery, liches are often the most willing to pursue high variance strategies because their downside risk isn’t apparent to them.

Ascent From Mummy To Lich

While writing this essay a friend begged me to encourage them to write. “I want to learn some dedication even when it’s hard.” they said. I replied: dedication to what? In a transition from happiness to dedication there must be a coherent focus for your efforts. This is going to be your phylactery.

It’s easy to forget in the context of Extropy but most people’s hopes against futility focus on an inner transition or peace. Having faith that God will make it alright to you after you die, conquering the fear of death by achieving no-self, or even the Epicurean observation that fearing death is irrational. Only alchemists seemed to have the audacity to tell adherents that through hard work it may be possible to enjoy this life indefinitely. Unfortunately none have succeeded to date.

This knowledge makes genuine hope of literal immortality hard to come by. Part of why high future shock is core to Extropy is that most hope for defeating death lies in the hypothetical, inferred, and untested. This implies that progress towards lichdom might be made by getting familiar with technologies that might defeat futility in fine detail. It may also be helpful to have layers of coping mechanisms. The chinese alchemist Ge Hong wrote about himself so he would have symbolic immortality even if his elixir of life did not work out (Solomon et al, 2015). I personally prefer the Epicurean perspective: Sure death sucks, but it’s only the permanent cessation of all experience. That’s scary to contemplate, I have trouble wrapping my head around it sometimes. It’s by no means the worst thing that can happen though.

It’s also important that you have an actionable angle of attack on futility. Remember: I nominally worked on X-Risk during my mummy phase. I know at least one AI Risk researcher who is still a mummy in large part because they don’t have an actionable angle of attack on AI Risk, they’re still exploring. Actionable means you can see the light at the end of the tunnel. The chain of causation between your actions and a positive outcome doesn’t dissipate into mist. You can see at least 70% of the path, say.

Another heuristic to keep in mind is that liches seem to have the strongest orientation towards exploit over exploration of the various undead types. In many ways the mutilation of explore habits that mummies can fall into is an unskilled attempt to cargo cult the easy flow into useful work that liches demonstrate. Make no mistake: liches attain that ease by having a strong idea of how they want to fight futility. You will not find the same success by just taking distractions away. You need a guiding focus to be distracted from in the first place.

Signs Of Transition Away From Lich

  • Increasing comfort with the idea that what is being pursued will end in self destruction. Fear of death becomes instrumental rather than terminal.

  • Pieces of epistemology ‘wound around’ some issue (e.g. unrealistic evaluations of the viability of cryonics) relax. Thinking is no longer warped by disproportionate focus on positive outcomes.

  • An acute sense of the passage of time. An increasing discomfort with even marginal distractions, in case the goal is missed by a cosmic millimeter.

  • A psychotic break associated with upstream concerns neutralizing ones phylactery, the realization that what one is protecting is doomed, or the falsification of a load bearing working hypothesis.

  • Development of abnormally cheery affect around gloomy and macabre subjects. An excitement or fascination at fresh horror that may seem perverse to others.

Psychology Of The Revenant

And so, onwards... along a path of wisdom, with a hearty tread, a hearty confidence.. however you may be, be your own source of experience. Throw off your discontent about your nature. Forgive yourself your own self. You have it in your power to merge everything you have lived through – false starts, errors, delusions, passions, your loves and your hopes – into your goal, with nothing left over.

   — Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits; Aphorism 292

In 1882 a sick man laid in bed on his long sabbatical from teaching university classes. He had raging migraines, and awful bowel problems that consigned him to read and write for only 20 minutes at a time lest they flare up again. His name was Friedrich Nietzsche, and he was working on his new book The Gay Science. Undeterred by his poor condition, Nietzsche would get up to perform 20 minutes of writing and then lay down to agonizing pain until he was well enough to get up and write 20 minutes more. By this torturous routine he composed most of his essays, books, and letters. It was probably in this state six years later that he wrote his most famous line: ‘From life’s school of war: what does not kill me makes me stronger’. I often hear people excuse themselves from having to care about the world with a cruel employer or a disability. Nietzsche was a cripple whose strength could sunder empires, he never let his infirmities be an excuse not to pursue higher things.

A revenant is defined by their ability to see beyond the futility of their values, beyond literal and figurative mortality. Where a lich is reluctant to use their general intelligence without the presumption of victory, the revenant is willing to put effort into a doomed universe. They expect no reward, and in fact often they expect to be put through great pain for their trouble. Like Machiavelli’s Prince that goes to hell to save his country, a revenant is comfortable with the idea that their virtue will only be rewarded with pain and more pain. They are a consenting child of Omelas.

Ziz writes of revenants:

When a sufficiently determined person is touched by Horror, they can choose, because it’s all just a choice of some subagent or another, to refuse to die. Not because they have a phylactery to keep away the touch of the Shade but because they keep on agenting even with the Shade holding their heart. This makes them a revenant.

When the shade touches your soul, your soul touches the shade. When the abyss stares into you, you also stare into the abyss. And that is your chance to undo it. Maybe.

It’s telling that Ziz uses Nietzschean imagery (“the abyss stares”) to describe this concept, as Nietzsche is in many ways the archetypical revenant philosopher. He is famous for his aphorisms such as “What doesn’t kill me can only make me stronger.” (which, recall, was probably thought up during agonizing pain); but he also disparages lich copes directly: “Here the ways of men divide: If you want to achieve peace of mind and happiness have faith, if you want to be a disciple of truth then search.” (Nietzsche, 1865). In many ways I think that this gets at the real advantage a revenant has over a lich. When I sat down to write this, it wasn’t clear to me between myself & Ziz vs. Kierkegaard who was right about which was the higher possibility: the lich or the revenant. The case of Lyndon B. Johnson’s 18 hour work days and staggering willpower make it clear that if the revenant has a clear advantage it is not in increased exertion, not in a difference of energy or devotion. In the four sacrifices lich is a transition from wireheading or happiness to dedication, energy and will are already part and parcel of that transformation. Rather what a revenant has is an advantage in exploration, an advantage in the ability to search. It seems plausible to me that liches have an advantage in execution/exploitation, their faith insulates them from reconsidering or finding themselves unable to fully commit. Yet at the same time a revenant has a decisive metagame advantage in exploration, the ability to fully consider every possibility and see far beyond their own mortality & futility.

When it comes to dealing with existential risk solution space is small. In the context of Eliezer’s Extropy revenant is clearly a higher possibility than lich, because it is both closer to engaging with reality and more adapted to the kind of problem an adherent of Extropy is dealing with. This is a notable departure from traditional spiritual literature, but an understandable one in light of the different priorities a modern atheist has. Buddha sought a way to make peace with the decay of all things, but the point of Extropy is the hope that your decay could be very far away. If you’re very lucky, you might never have to decay at all.

Stating that Nietzsche is a revenant has interesting consequences, because Ziz defines the category in a way that precludes a “nongood” revenant:

A form of undead created by a choice that some change to the world is important enough to turn away from heaven in full knowledge and damn themselves, seemingly. In fiction there are both good and nongood revenants, but IRL I have only met good ones. Proceeding on the assumption there are no nongood ones, the rules of being a revenant are basically a consequence of a good core-structure system not having a stable state at arbitrary amounts of damage where the healing stops, because the vastness of the world always contains the majority of possible utility. Tends to develop structure in a strange inversion of death knight structure. Like being in the same place but having chosen it and not regretting. Mythologically, is essentially a broken body being dragged about by a soul that cannot break, forming something with no more or less powers than a very determined person who can’t die. A revenant’s healing is goal-directed. A side effect of the body being dragged, and intends to converge on completing the quest rather than achieving wholeness. Their bodies tend to remain rotten and incomplete. Otherwise, they would be phoenixes.

In Ziz’s philosophy good is a concept defined largely by altruism. A good person cares about other beings like they’d care about themselves or their child. This kind of necessitates an egalitarian interpretation of utilitarianism, where all creatures are more or less worth the same. Nietzsche is not utilitarian in that sense. He believes in higher and lower forms of being, along with higher and lower forms of men. Nietzsche even has this long rant about tarantulas and ‘preachers of equality’ which reads like a custom written Ziz diss (Nietzsche, 1885). It was actually authored 135 years ago about a totally different subject. He writes:

Thus do I speak unto you in parable, ye who make the soul giddy, ye preachers of EQUALITY! Tarantulas are ye unto me, and secretly revengeful ones!

But I will soon bring your hiding-places to the light: therefore do I laugh in your face my laughter of the height.

Therefore do I tear at your web, that your rage may lure you out of your den of lies, and that your revenge may leap forth from behind your word “justice.”

Because, FOR MAN TO BE REDEEMED FROM REVENGE—that is for me the bridge to the highest hope, and a rainbow after long storms.

Otherwise, however, would the tarantulas have it. “Let it be very justice for the world to become full of the storms of our vengeance”—thus do they talk to one another.

“Vengeance will we use, and insult, against all who are not like us”—thus do the tarantula-hearts pledge themselves.

“And ‘Will to Equality’—that itself shall henceforth be the name of virtue; and against all that hath power will we raise an outcry!”

Ye preachers of equality, the tyrant-frenzy of impotence crieth thus in you for “equality”: your most secret tyrant-longings disguise themselves thus in virtue-words!

Fretted conceit and suppressed envy—perhaps your fathers’ conceit and envy: in you break they forth as flame and frenzy of vengeance.

Or of course, his infamous quote in The Antichrist:

What is good?—Whatever augments the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself, in man.

What is evil?—Whatever springs from weakness.

What is happiness?—The feeling that power increases–that resistance is overcome.

Not contentment, but more power; not peace at any price, but war; not virtue, but efficiency (virtue in the Renaissance sense, virtu, virtue free of moral acid).

The weak and the botched shall perish: first principle of our charity. And one should help them to it.

What is more harmful than any vice?—Practical sympathy for the botched and the weak—Christianity…

Here however you begin to run into the dark bowels of Nietzsche interpretation. See, many of Nietzsche’s most famous (and edgiest) quotes are from material that was published after his death. His adherents were so enamored with his work that they made a point of publishing virtually everything he had ever written, regardless of whether the master himself would have seen it fit to publish. This leads to various arguments about how much we should take statements in works like The Antichrist to represent Nietzsche’s actual moral views. In the particular context of Ziz’s veganism, it is notable that Nietzsche is said to have been driven mad by the sight of someone viciously beating their horse. Witnessing the cruelty he is supposed to have ran over, thrown his arms around the wounded animal to shield it from harm, and wept.

I don’t want to give the impression that Nietzsche’s example is some kind of complete refutation here. Ziz is pointing at real things with the idea that there are no ‘nongood’ revenants, but it’s not that all revenants agree with her interpretation of morality. One real thing is that a revenant is willing to die, which implies that they do not come first in their schema of values. This isn’t the same thing as altruism, obviously. But a revenants goals are always larger than themselves. This might imply a tendency towards altruism, or at least towards reasonable interpretations of the Good.

Another is that revenants are usually going to define themselves in opposition to a certain kind of spiritual failure. The seeds of that failure are probably within them, and it’s struggling with that internal darkness that shapes a lot of their perspective. A great deal of Ziz’s ontology, such as her thoughts on plural identity in the bicameral mind, seems designed to avoid her having to come to terms with internal darkness (Hive, 2019). A ‘double good’ is pure, and doesn’t have internal conflicts along this kind of moral line. There’s no “dark side” to contend with, making a double good the only kind of complete positive moral agent in existence. This concept is deeply nontraditional in moral/religious philosophy and I don’t have a lot to say about it beyond that I disagree and expect the idea is flowing from elements of repression.

I said earlier that undead types are about how far away you can be from material motivation and still act as an agent. Lenin’s life demonstrates what it looks like to travel far away, among ice and high mountains. He seems to have transitioned directly from mummy to revenant. This is usually attributed to both his brother Aleksandr’s execution by the Czar for an assassination plot, and reading the novel What Is To Be Done? by Chernyshevsky (Rappaport, 2010). Lenin intentionally modeled himself on Rakhmetov, a ‘dark revolutionary’ character in the book. He began putting his whole being on the scales, shaping all his interests and activities toward revolutionary work. Lenin also developed a kind of utilitarian asceticism, he was legendary for his ability to work anywhere so long as “books, quiet, and a table to work at” were available (Rappaport, 2010). This was stringently tested by 14 months of solitary confinement, that Lenin spent diligently reading and writing for his The Development Of Capitalism in Russia; he was so absorbed that he barely even noticed a punishment infamous for driving men mad (Rappaport, 2010). When he was finally exiled Lenin continued to work on his ideas in the literal frozen wastes of Siberia.

We can see a more exploratory take on revenant in Malcolm X’s autobiography. After realizing that the Nation of Islam has betrayed him, Malcolm is forced to confront the fact that the version of Islam he’d been taught was deeply at odds with (the prophet) Muhammad’s original teachings (X, 1965). In fact, Elijah Muhammad’s verison of Islam features a completely materialist metaphysics. It teaches that men are gods (one of whom is supreme, Allah), the white man is literally Satan, and there is no life after death (X, 1965). In that sense, Malcolm went from shouting curses at god to a strange kind of evangelistic atheism. This betrayal deeply shook up his life, and he responded to it by searching for answers to the African American struggle abroad. What he ended up concluding was that African Americans should be forming an international movement in solidarity with anticolonial interests, but that this wouldn’t happen until after his lifetime (X, 1965). Malcolm was of course assassinated in 1965, soon after reaching this stage. It’s difficult to know what he would have done with more time, since he was only 39 and could be expected to live at least another decade or two of natural life.

Ascent(?) From Lich To Revenant

It's only after we've lost everything that we're free to do anything.

   — Tyler Durden, Fight Club

NOTE: My friend says that I'm going to alienate half my readers with this section who are in a position to hear it, and that's because I'm only describing one path to revenant which is particularly dark. That may or may not be true, but he's currently at around this point and I trust him so if I freak you out keep that in mind.

Unlike the transition to mummy or lich becoming a revenant requires two sacrifices, which I term ‘life’ and ‘death’. Life is the expectation that you will personally triumph over futility. Death is the expectation that losing the first thing is the worst that can happen to you. The requirement for two sacrifices is one of several reasons why revenants are uncommon. A deeper reason is that revenant is in many ways one of the darkest possibilities in the human condition. It represented extreme tragedy to Kierkegaard. In Ziz’s writing you can sense a certain romanticism about revenants, I don’t think they’re romantic at all. A consenting child of omelas isn’t romantic, they’re not an ideal, the best a revenant can aspire to is being necessary. Yudkowsky style rationality and the revenant undead type share a deep connection in that they’re both strategies of desperation. You turn to them after everything else has been tried or considered and found wanting.

Ziz says that a lich can become a revenant when their phylactery breaks. I think this is basically correct. She also says that a lich whose phylactery breaks gets “a chance” to become a revenant, and this is where we disagree (Ziz, 2018). I don’t think it looks like a one-and-done deal where your phylactery breaks and you immediately become a zombie or revenant. To sacrifice life a lich enters into a wrestling match with their own ability to heal from trauma. Not because they don’t want to heal, but because progress in seeing beyond futility is bottlenecked on healing.

The first time you break your phylactery it’s extremely traumatic, as Ziz says it feels like dying. If you’re healthy (perhaps have backup copes from e.g. a mummy phase) the phylactery reforms in a slightly less delusional way, which is still inadequate to see clearly so you break it again. You break it over and over, each time putting a wound in your soul to see farther into the abyss. Each time you kill your fake immortality it hurts a little less. At some point you break your phylactery for the last time and your only remaining hope is that you’re wrong somehow, your opponent becomes yourself. This necessitates a search for something that can contend with your conclusions. That search is desperate in a way that liches generally aren’t, it’s seeking any angle, anything that might have been overlooked in the reasoning towards inevitability.

Another way of looking at this is you had false hope which you were bound to, and now that everything is hopeless you’re free to explore again. Justin Murphy discusses this idea in his essay on the futility of activism (Murphy, 2019):

By under-reporting our honest ignorance and uncertainty, we misleadingly command from others a kind of pathetic, sterile respect rooted in little more than their own comparatively worse illnesses, whereas an honest reporting of our own helpless stupidity is generative of energies for collective search (“most people are as stupid as I am, so my chance of figuring out what to do is as good as anyone else’s”); sincere irreverence and non-conformity leading to the breakdown of bourgeois repression (“all these people who want me to be a normal servomechanism of capital are dumb and powerless”); an increase in risk-tolerance through a decrease in false hope (“I used to be cautious because I thought I had a chance of surviving, but now that I see none of us will survive at present, I might as well try to do something I find interesting, which, ironically, makes me feel like maybe there is a chance…).” If we all admitted that, compared to specialists, most people are equal in their absolute incompetence, we might just be able to do something they can’t.

(Bolding mine)

A more positive outlook might experience the loss of hope as freeing, because now hope might come from anywhere. The transition between lich and revenant in many ways mirrors the transition between zombie and mummy. A mummy can explore beyond following hedonic equilibrium from one activity to the next. Revenants can explore hypothesis space against futility beyond following hope from cause area to cause area. The “series of phylacteries” stage of lichdom is about clinging to that light at the end of the tunnel, because without it a lich can’t use hope as a guidepost to exploration. The reliance on hope is analogous to the reliance on immediate creaturely rewards in a zombies explore/exploit wiring. Hope stops being something right in front of you and starts being spatial, somewhere in the environment that you hope to find. A mummy subordinates their intuitive reward system to values and aspirations, a revenant subordinates their sense of hope to goals and projects. When a lich descends to mummy they’re playing local games that cannot scale to defeat futility. By contrast the ascent to revenant is a bit like the lean school of startups: Projects are undertaken with the goal of determining whether they can scale, if they can’t they’re discarded without remorse.

After sacrificing life, the aspiring revenant also must sacrifice death. The first time a lich dies without death, that first wound in their soul makes the enormity of what they’re really up against clear to them. Sacrificing death comes naturally through inference on what continuing past that point means. When you really commit to seeing the whole truth no matter how much it hurts, you might literally be signing up for unlimited pain. That’s in the distribution and you choose it anyway. Pursuing your goals in an unbounded way means you might be signing up for unlimited punishment. That’s in the distribution and you choose it anyway. Most people say “I want the whole truth.” but they don’t mean it. If you start telling them the whole truth, they freak out. “That which can be destroyed by the truth, should be.” might mean a commitment to destroying yourself. But more than that, it might mean a commitment to unceasing torment which you accept. You don’t know where your journey will take you, but it might be through the valley of the shadow of death. You accept that too. You’re still a creature, your body might not always obey, but at least in principle an embryonic revenant is ready to face hell, ‘hit bottom’.

And hitting bottom? I’m not in a position to give you advice on how to do that. That is deeply personal, it would be a farce for me to pretend otherwise. Tyler’s right: Hitting bottom isn’t a weekend retreat, it’s not a goddamn seminar. Push hope so far it breaks, then you’ll be on your way to down-going.

I love him who loveth his virtue: for virtue is the will to down-going, and an arrow of longing.

I love him who reserveth no share of spirit for himself, but wanteth to be wholly the spirit of his virtue: thus walketh he as spirit over the bridge.

I love him who maketh his virtue his inclination and destiny: thus, for the sake of his virtue, he is willing to live on, or live no more.

I love him who desireth not too many virtues. One virtue is more of a virtue than two, because it is more of a knot for one’s destiny to cling to.

I love him whose soul is lavish, who wanteth no thanks and doth not give back: for he always bestoweth, and desireth not to keep for himself.

I love him who is ashamed when the dice fall in his favour, and who then asketh: “Am I a dishonest player?”—for he is willing to succumb.

Psychology Of The Phoenix

And someday when the descendants of humanity have spread from star to star, they won't tell the children about the history of Ancient Earth until they're old enough to bear it; and when they learn they'll weep to hear that such a thing as Death had ever once existed!

You are not invincible, and someday the human species will end you…

And even if you do end me before I end you,

Another will take my place, and another,

Until the wound in the world is healed at last…

   — Eliezer Yudkowsky, Harry Potter And The Methods Of Rationality; Chapter 45

NOTE: In the workshop drafts for this post, this section was the most divisive. Of the undead types presented, phoenix is the one I’m least sure exists. Speculation abounds. Take seriously but not literally.

As powerful as a well put together lich or revenant is, neither represents the highest possibility. A revenant is held back by doubts, by being the only person they can really rely on to see their quest through. A lich is held back by their inability to see the world as it is: Their version of reality operates on fake rules that preclude a truly desperate search for real solutions. A phoenix has neither of these drawbacks. Phoenixes are defined by faith in a collective front against futility. Death isn’t so bothersome to a phoenix because it only means the loss of their individual value, their agency against death and futility live on. Mechanically this looks like a quest shared among several people or a lineage of actors. We’re not talking about blind faith, or delusional faith like a lich has; a phoenix looks at the world and decides whether or not it implies they are part of a collective front against futility. If they’re not then they would just be a lich or (more likely) revenant.

The four sacrifices doesn’t have language for discussing a phoenix because phoenixes do not arise from a personal sacrifice. There is nothing someone can do to themselves that will make them a phoenix. This coping mechanism requires agency that exists outside the self, so that losing yourself isn’t defeat. It’s possible for a phoenix to arise out of book reading, or the abstract expectation that there are others who will take their place if they fall. But again it must be made clear: This is a rational judgment made by looking at the world and predicting what will happen, not a blind assumption. Nietzsche, for example, was reaching for this during his life, and seems to have written with the confidence that future events would allow him to have a legacy through generations as yet in need of his wisdom. Unburdening themselves of sole responsibility for attaining their goals seems to be one of the core motivations for liches and revenants to write down their ideas. This has been a central theme of 2020 for me, trying to put as much of what I know in mediums external to myself as possible. My ultimate goal is to stop having to worry that if I die somehow nobody else will step up to make my contribution.

Ziz briefly describes a phoenix at the end of Vampires and More Undeath:

Also, phoenix a relationship to the Shade resulting from being a good person who actually believes that the total agency of good is a sufficient answer to the shade, so that their inevitable death is not entire defeat.

She further elaborates in a series of comments:

Phoenixes are defined by, “true faith”, that good will win in the end. This is not to be confused with a certain type of neutral lich, perhaps easiest type of neutral person to confuse with a good person (although I suspect I don’t have neutral undead types mapped out well), whose phylactery is good itself or something effectively similar like community niceness and civilization. It is made true faith by being willing to subject itself to tests, in a way that phylacteries are not. Because by choices long ago, a phoenix wants to be a revenant in a certain set of worlds.

Presumably a phoenix that loses true faith becomes a revenant, or perhaps I’m missing good undead types.

I find it interesting that Ziz talks a lot about the descent from phoenix to revenant, but doesn’t discuss the ascent from revenant to phoenix. If a phoenix becomes a revenant by losing true faith in a collective front against futility, it stands to reason that a revenant can become a phoenix by gaining faith in one. Phoenixes seem to be produced by using the values and agency of others to negate personal futility. Futility of ones personal values is negated through altruism. So long as the possibility exists for infinite punishment (e.g. an eternity in the void), you can be threatened out of being a complete agent by forces that can make you experience the opposite of your values. Ziz describes an encounter with OCD demons:

Later, thoughts about basilisks came back, and the epistemic masochism subagent started up again and advanced one more click. If what I cared about was sentient life, and was willing to go to Hell to save everyone else. Why not just send everyone else to Hell if I didn’t submit?

Oh no. Don’t think about it. Don’t let it demoralize me. That awful feeling, that’s a consequence of that prediction. Fuck, I am letting it demoralize me. No, no, no. Stop, it’s getting worse.

I reminded myself, probably the technical details didn’t work out. But I knew I only half believed it. I mentally stuck in a state of trying not to think about it, trying not to let the dread grow while feeling more and more like all was lost. I made absolutely sure not to slack in my work. But I thought it had to be subconsciously influencing me, damaging my effectiveness. That I had done more harm than I could imagine by thinking these things. Because I had the hubris to think infohazards didn’t exist, and worse, to feel a resigned grim sort of pride in my previous choice to fight for sentient life although it damned me, in the gaps between “DO NOT THINK ABOUT THAT YOU MORON DO NOT THINK ABOUT THAT YOU MORON.”, pride which may have led intrusive thoughts to resurface and ”progress” to resume. In other words, my ego had perhaps damned the universe.

Ziz’s interpretation of game theory says the goal of retaliation is to prevent what you’re retaliating against from having happened at the planning stage. This implies that you should expect rational enemies to punish you severely for acting against them. But if you do something on someone else’s behalf, you can end up with a scenario where nothing done to you will be enough to punish what you did. There is nothing the Czar could do to Lenin that would negate the value of his activism. Even the nastiest tortures would be a feather against his heart of steel. To even attempt it the Czar would have to punish thousands, millions, the outrage would not be tolerated. No symbol of office on earth, no army of the bravest soldiers, no corp of fearless missionaries could protect the Czar from what righteous anger would follow.

Indeed if your enemies commit to punishing other people as ‘triage’, then a sufficiently dedicated person can force them to punish arbitrary amounts of other people. All the better if your enemies aren’t demons but men: Eventually a truly, ultimately dedicated altruistic person can force those men to throw everything they love into the fire or refuse to give you full ‘justice’. In this sense love is intrinsically stronger than hate. Far from your motivation flagging at the idea all of humanity must be punished on account of your life, that level of influence should be exactly what is aspired to. Consider waking up in the morning and telling the mirror this mantra: “I want to be such a pain to my enemies that their only recourse for my life is to send all sentient beings to hell.”

This provides one possible reconciliation between intuitive altruism and ‘rational’ selfishness. In his writing Nietzsche discusses the phoenix in terms of overflowing energy, treasures of self and spirit given to others freely. That charity is possible through deeply internalized martyrdom. Someone who fully digests the concept that they are in shared alignment with other agents, who groks that they can withstand infinite personal punishment through altruism, is in a position to completely metabolize a martyrdom. As I said earlier: You’re an undead type once your entire strategy has been informed and refactored by its central cope. With those two understandings it’s only natural for you to both totally give of yourself (martyrdom) and create structures for other people to support you (shared alignment).

Discussing phoenixes can be tricky because they tend to be mythic characters. In fact if someone doesn’t have a mythic character to them it’s arguable they’re not a phoenix at all; phoenixes are the closest people get to becoming divine beings. Their quasi-divinity often results in an ancestor cult, as we observe with canonized saints in Catholicism. Jesus is of course the archetype character. However since we’re discussing the spiritual development of an atheist it makes more sense to look at the myth of someone who did not claim to believe in god: The Buddha. Unfortunately, myths and hagiography are often the only documentation we have concerning the lives of phoenixes. Even a relatively recent and minor phoenix like St. Joan of Arc has a life story steeped in mythology and mystery. Buddha’s myth is at least free from any claims to supernatural powers or miracles, it might even be a true story.

The mythic account goes that Siddhartha grows up as nobility, deliberately sheltered from any knowledge of suffering or futility (a state of ignorance Ziz refers to as being ‘alive’). At some point in adulthood, mythically during a parade, Siddhartha encounters evidence of aging, disease, and death. During his sheer terror at comprehending these for the first time with an adult mind, he is comforted by the presence of an ascetic who has dedicated their life to grappling with them. Siddhartha is so shaken by the revelation of these three things that he resolves to leave his sheltered life behind to find out more about and hopefully defeat futility. It’s worth reflecting at this point on what Siddhartha’s undead type is. Naively we might imagine he is going from zombie to lich, but that actually doesn’t make a lot of sense. A zombie is rotting largely because of their knowledge of futility, which Siddhartha is unaware of. Furthermore a lich is produced by having an angle of attack on futility, which Siddhartha definitely doesn’t have. Taking the myth at face value, Siddhartha is something like a revenant. He doesn’t have the usual experience and self struggle that goes into it, but he is very much on a quest for hope in a kind of doomed existence. If this sounds implausible remember that his first real exposure to futility comes in adulthood. An adult mind is more likely to fight when faced with an opponent, even if that opponent seems quite implacable. He abandons his family and sets out on a journey to find answers to the problems caused by knowing death.

I sometimes reflect on what a strange figure Siddhartha would have been, if you’d met him at the beginning of his journey. We’re used to being asked what things like death are by children, but can you imagine that ignorance in a grown man? He knew nothing of death or its traditional cures, like belief in an afterlife. Supposedly the man who would become the Buddha traveled across India for years, asking after anyone who might know anything about how futility might be defeated. We can infer he must have been unimpressed by the Hindu priesthood, as we can imagine anyone might be if they were hearing their myths as an adult seeker unmoored from the wiring to believe whatever your parents tell you about the world. From rogue monks who had fled into the forest (a time honored tradition in India when society becomes corrupt and secular) Siddhartha learned about meditation and asceticism. Supposedly he became an ardent follower of asceticism, and joined a wandering band of mendicants on a quest to unburden their true spirit-selves from the impurities of flesh (lich phase). This purification demanded starving and beating themselves brutally. Siddhartha eventually realized a couple things: The first was that he was really good at this, so good in fact that it was going to kill him. The second thing he realized (following on from the first) was that things still seemed very futile and he was deeply scared to die, even as an ascetic. Naturally Siddhartha abandoned asceticism.

It’s at about this point that Siddhartha meditates on the fact that none of the lore he’s been made privy to has given him a route to defeating futility. The usual mythic account is that Siddhartha meditates half dead (from all that asceticism) under a tree, where he realizes the true nature of suffering and becomes the Buddha. He then goes back to his wandering mendicant friends and they become his first followers. According to legend Buddha first reacted to his sudden insight with ambivalence at the idea of teaching others, it was subtle and seemed unlikely anyone would understand it. But eventually he decided some would understand, which was enough to be worth the effort (shared alignment). We are also told that Buddha was visited by a demon while he was under the tree, who tried to trick him into killing himself now that he understood suffering was intrinsic to desire (and therefore to life). Supposedly Buddha replied to the demon that while this was the case, if he could save even one person it would make the suffering in his own life worth it (negation of personal punishment through altruism). Armed with this understanding Buddha became meaningfully differentiated from the ascetics and hindus around him, and founded the eponymous Buddhism.


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