Friday, January 28, 2011


There are many varieties of the human ego. It’s as multifarious as the beetle. There are egos that flourish in every walk of life, from prima donnas to dictatorial managers, big egos, small egos, even egos that work by self-effacement and weakness. All egos are self-regarding, self-promoting and in extreme cases narcissistic; they are all number one for themselves and all represent the fantastically effective self-preservation and self-advancement mechanisms that operate in all higher forms of life. But we are not concerned with the general run of egos here. What interests us here is a particular kind of ego: not the common or garden ego, but the rational or scientific ego. The scientific method is one of the most powerful intellectual tools ever invented by the human mind and we are not interested in discrediting it in any way. It is purely disinterested and objective. The scientific ego however is a different matter, because the alliance of the scientific method and an ego-agenda is generally an abuse of science for the personal self-aggrandizement of the individual ego in question and tends in the direction of totalitarianism. It is all the more pernicious as it is an abuse, for what are ultimately purely personal reasons, of the only remaining cultural authority left to human beings.

A Little History

The rational ego has been around for as long as people have used argument to account for the world and to convince others of their beliefs. But it is probably with the Ancient Greeks that it first came to historical prominence, probably with the Athenian Sophists. The famous dictum of Protagoras ‘man is the measure of all things’ by which he clearly meant ‘I am the measure of all things’ (this being self-evidently true, in his view, for everyone who uttered it) signalled the first clear understanding of the cultural role of the normative certainty of the rational ego. It signalled this dawning conviction: that the immediate awareness of the individual consciousness, allied to a logically persuasive descriptive discourse is the sole authority in the universe. The old authorities, the gods, demons, oracles, revelations, dreams and illuminations of traditional culture had begun to leave the stage to a single strident voice that was characterised by one thing alone: a compelling method for expressing invincible self-confidence and self-belief. Protagoras and his ilk seemed to have overlooked completely the fact that it was the objective phenomenon of language with its wealth of stored insight that constituted the essence of rational authority. Just as no ego can claim credit for the creation of language, so no ego is entitled to claim privileged insight into the nature of the world. But most rational egos from Protagoras to the present do so nonetheless.

Greek culture waned, the Roman Empire arose, inheriting much that was Greek, and the ancient ego played a prominent role in the accomplishments of Classical civilisation throughout the pre-Christian history of the western world; but the growing success of monotheism in the form of Christianity injected new life into the ego and puffed it up into its present incarnation as monstrous, self-adoring, self-advertising blister of rational certitude. Many scientific egos have clearly demonstrated their understanding of their indebtedness to the monotheistic God by their fervent wish to kill him off. Once the Renaissance had performed its vital task of separating the acquisition of knowledge from the mystifications of the Church, the ego began to understand itself in the manner that achieved its clearest articulation in the philosophy of Descartes. The famous ‘I think, therefore I am’ is the most lucid statement of the ego’s determination to make its own awareness and its own criteria of clarity and distinctness into an absolutely normative set of strictures that continue to structure human knowledge to this day. These strictures boil down to this one essential principle: what strikes the ego as self-evidently convincing, such that its opposite would be a contradiction is absolutely true. Of course, for Descartes, this principle was disguised by the unabashed dependence of his philosophy upon the monotheistic deity. For Descartes, reason was the only road to knowledge. Mathematical reasoning was the gold-standard of all human reasoning and therefore mathematics became the basis of all human knowledge. However, Descartes was aware that in order for human beings to claim that their knowledge was absolutely true, rather than being merely something that humans had to believe because of their particular constitution, the basis of reasoning had to be underpinned by – and rooted in – some external authority that guarantees the applicability of human reason to the world. This authority Descartes found in the monotheistic God. His God was not exactly the God of the monotheistic religions; He was still the providential Creator of the universe, but Descartes’ God was much more the repository of all mathematical truth than the colourful deity of Judaism. For Descartes, God was the guarantee that the universe was based upon mathematical principles and the guarantee that the human intellect – made in God’s image – could grasp these principles by the application of its God-given ability in maths. Thus, for Descartes, human reasoning was absolutely normative and could not be gainsaid simply because it was underwritten by the Creator of the universe, the monotheistic deity. God was the Creator of both the Laws of Nature and the Laws of Thought by which nature was to be understood. But he had given access to these two sets of laws to human beings in the form of the ‘natural light’ of reason, which, if adhered to in strictly deductive chains of inference, would yield the kind of insight into the working of the universe that hitherto had been the prerogative of God himself and only God. For Descartes, human reason was in fact a hotline to counsels of the divine mind. The third section of his Meditations ends with a hymn of praise to the God who has thus endowed human beings with this aspect of his own divinity.

Of course, such theological thinking did not last long. The ego has never been very good at sharing its limelight with any other authority and the Enlightenment finished the off what had been started by the Greeks and the thinkers of the Renaissance. By the eighteenth century, Descartes’ underwriter God had been found to be superfluous to requirements, and human reason was pronounced to be normative in and of itself, independently of any reliance on external factors. It was triumphantly announced that what formerly had been projected upon the heavens, as anthropomorphic divine agencies, was in fact the birthright of every rational human intellect: absolute knowledge was within the grasp of human beings as long as they observed the correct method of thought. The absolute authority of the monotheistic deity was thus taken over by the rational ego; and the latter enthroned itself where the monotheistic God had so far sat: on the throne of universe-comprehending and universe-controlling omniscience. The throne was admittedly a bit on the large side; but the ego was persuaded of its own ability to grow into it. Monotheism thus revealed itself for what it was: the end-game in the process of religious evolution, by which projections had been progressively withdrawn. Monotheism was the last cultural stage before the triumphant atheism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and indeed, the scientific atheism of these centuries cannot be understood without a grasp of the manner in which it grew out of the monotheism of Judaism, Christianity and Islam: only the absolute ego-God with his absolute power and control could provide a worthy competitor to the rational ego. It was for this reason that the parricidal lèse majesté that dethroned God and elevated the rational ego to its lonely height had to be performed.

Inevitably, of course, the rational ego had to camouflage its god-almightiness and no individual scientific ego was so conceited as to assert that it alone was the repository of all truth (though this secret belief was nurtured by some). There were no doubt many who wished to make such an assertion, but those who tried it on were discredited by their own appearance of madness. The overweening ambitions of the ego were thus disguised and the disguise adopted by his rational, scientific majesty the ego was the pronoun ‘we’. The rational ego hid behind its scientific method and the guardian of such a method became not the individual – as it had been in Descartes’ philosophy – but rather the scientific community, the scientific 'we'. It then became de rigueur to use the pronoun ‘we’ in any account of the victories accomplished by science and by the application of reason. No rational ego would ever announce, ‘I am within a hair of understanding all the essential processes of the universe’; nor would it ever dream of claiming, ‘I am close to discovering the key that will give me absolute control over all of reality’; but such immoderate fantasies were nevertheless entertained and even articulated to some extent in the language of community. Where the mad, cackling ‘I’ of the scientific ego was taken as the hallmark of power-crazed villains of the cinema-screen, the more diffuse ‘we’ became the camouflage of the ego, slipped into performing the ego’s task and got away with it. The ego got away with hiding behind the group-identity, claiming that ‘we’ would soon have all understanding of the world at our disposal; and ‘we’ would soon solve all the problems of the world thereby. But even the ego no doubt saw through its own subterfuge. There is no corporate ‘we’ in the business of understanding that functions as some sort of gigantic ego. The ‘we’ is no more than a disguise for the individual scientific egos that wished to claim absolute validity for their particular chains of reasoning. One still hears today what wonders ‘we’ are in the process of achieving and will soon achieve by means of science; but in all cases where one hears such talk, behind the ‘we’ squats the rational ego, anxious to assert its own godlike authority. The ‘we’ is a phantom and a fiction insofar as it is deemed to show the virtues of the rational ego. How could the ego submit itself to a committee? The things that emerge from the ‘we’ – language, mathematics, science – may well result from the combined efforts of a number of rational egos, but no rational ego can claim credit for them. The creations of human groups have something extra that is not the ego’s to command or control. In short, what ‘we’ create cannot be considered to emerge from the rational ego. But that is a story for another occasion.

Now this is meant to be a bit of history. But we have to ask, what has become of the rational ego today? The mad claims of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries concerning complete certainty and final understanding have perhaps waned; and along with them have waned the madder claims concerning complete control. The supreme authoritativeness of the scientific method and purely rational criteria of understanding and decision-making have been called into question, as people have begun to see and feel the consequences of the unbridled rational intellect allied to a determination to control. The current sad state of the natural environment is the direct effect of the arrogance of the scientific ego; and people have rightly concluded that some other authority, some moral authority is needed to mitigate the ego’s crazy destruction of the planet that brought us forth and still nurtures us. But has the rational ego gone away or become less arrogant? It does not seem that it has. So this bit of history has to end on a cautionary note: unless the value-free ambition to dominate the world by purely mathematical calculations and mechanical means is restrained by some comprehension of the ethical constraints on human life on the Earth, our precious ‘we’ faces extinction. Unless the rational ego begins to understand that its rationality is merely one aspect of the total functioning of the human psyche, unless it understands that it needs supplementing by a more instinctive understanding of our place within the web of life, we, as creatures are likely to pronounce our own death-sentence. This may be a good thing, from the point of view of the non-human population of the world, but not if we take them with us. But perhaps something can be done about it, perhaps some less mendacious use of the pronoun ‘we’ can be developed that will show up the self-adoring god-almightiness of the rational ego for what it is: a delusion. We are creative, certainly, but there is no way in which the creativity of the ‘we’ can be claimed by the rational ego.

The Origins of the Ego’s Delusions.

The essence of the ego is a set of instincts sculpted by evolution and fostering our success as a species. These instincts have two main purposes: 1) the immediate satisfaction of human desire for food, sex and power and 2) the discovery of practical methods by means of which competitors are outwitted and desire-satisfaction obtained. As far as the rational ego is concerned, the desire element can be reduced to the wish for power alone; and the practical element boils down to the application of the scientific method to nature. Every living creature on the planet has evolved by the kind of arms-race that is not explained by mere ‘survival’, but rather by the need of all living systems to maximise their sphere of influence. Mere survival is defensive; power-hunger is offensive. The human ego thus evolved as a means of attack upon the rest of the biosphere, the aim of which was the biblical one of ‘domination’. The ego saw itself as empowered to dominate first by the Creator of the universe and then thereafter by its own internal dynamics alone. What is the nature of these internal dynamics?

The manner in which the ego developed is lost in the mists of history; but we can nevertheless speculate that it was the perfect combination of tool-use, social-living and language that gave the ego the most favourable conditions for its development. No doubt the dawning sense of self, facilitated by the swelling neo-cortex helped things along; but let us be in no doubt: the sense of self is not the same as the ego. The ego is not identical with the sense of self. Though quite distinct, the two are disastrously confused in our culture. The ego evolved for the achievement of control and the means of this control was the group of cognitive capacities that involved the sharp human eye for repetitive patterns (the basis of our abstracting ‘inductive logic’), the ability to decompose the objects of perception into parts (the basis of our famous powers of analysis) and the linguistic ability to name the objects of perception and their parts.

Patently, such formidable accoutrements were of enormous benefit and the world-beating edge they gave to humans is clearly seen in the development of our exploitation of the natural environment. But we need to look a little closer at these abilities and find how they function at the heart of the rational ego. This has to be done because the rational ego is in essence a result of several confusions, and dangerous ones at that.

All animals practise induction to a greater or lesser extent. Without some inductive ability to remember regularity, they would be unable to function in their environment. But such inductions are instinctive and pre-linguistic and given to breaking down when the environmental conditions change. The horseshoe crab that evolved before the birds and laid its eggs on the beach to avoid marine predators can almost be seen as a failure of induction on the evolutionary scale: the poor creature had not reckoned on the aerial predators, and still has done nothing about them. The famous case of the chicken given by Russell is a fairer example of animal induction: the farmyard pet that became used to dashing across the farmyard to be fed on hearing the tin of grain rattled failed to factor in the family lunch and ended up getting its neck wrung as a direct result of its inductive habits.

But if all animals practise induction, no species does it with the thoroughness and the comprehensiveness of the human animal. The human ability to detect similarities and differences in the environment gave to the ego a powerful engine of thought and control capable of the minutest analytical decompositions and the most detailed synthetic generalisations. It was clearly of great benefit to human beings to be able to analyse the elements of their environment into nice and nasty bits, helpful and harmful bits, tasty and toxic bits and so on; it was clearly of much greater benefit for them to be able to name these bits, to make general statements about them and to share these generalisations with the rest of their kind. But these abilities, once detached from their immediate purpose of survival, attached themselves to an omnivorous curiosity about the whole world independently of any considerations of survival; and thus the scientific ego with its urge to understand all and to control all was born. It was in this process of detachment that the confusions of the ego began to take root; and it is these confusions that are still with us today in the form of the overweening ambitions of the rational, scientific ego. It seems self-evident to the rational ego that what is effective for manipulating the environment is necessarily effective in the total understanding of reality. But in this, the ego all too often behaves like a child with a shiny new toy that is a little too sophisticated for its intelligence. Rational discourse is a stupendous creation of nature (not of the ego nor of the ‘we’); but the ego is naively convinced that its exciting complexities give it the occult ability to capture the essence of reality. A little reflection should convince anyone that this is a rash extrapolation to say the least.

The Rational Ego and its Origins

At the risk of appearing to commit some of the grosser errors committed by the reductionist fervour of the rational ego, some attempt must be made here to relate fundamental aspects of the scientific ego to evolutionary adaptations in order to show that they are far from being the absolute access to final knowledge of the cosmos that they have been cracked up to be by the rational ego. The chief purpose of these connections will be to show not only that the ego labours under many confusions, but also that the abandonment of these confusions (while retaining the benefits of rationality) can only be a positive step.
The first feature of the ego to be mentioned is its connection with the reductive mania of the thing-ideology which claims that the ultimate reality is the three-dimensional physical object. The ego, in accordance with its evolutionary past, is devoted to the decomposition of the elements of its environment into parts, and to the naming of those parts, as a precursor to controlling them. This urge to decomposition gave us the reductive method of science and the wild goose chase that is the hunt for the ‘ultimate particles’ of the universe. It was thought, in accordance with the discriminating, decomposing, reducing habits of the ego, that since the way to real understanding is by means of decomposition, there must be some point at which this decomposition stops and ultimate particles are revealed. This search for the ultimate components of whatever was being considered, provided the essential methodology of science, but it also shaped decisively the view that the human intellect began to take of itself once the theological way of viewing reality began to wane. Since the universe contained only three-dimensional things or collections of three-dimensional things, then logically, the human being, the human intellect, the human ego must ultimately be a three-dimensional thing or a collection of three-dimensional things. This subject-object confusion was the direct result of the thing obsession and it could only be maintained by means of a brain-splitting bit of self-delusion. The universe is merely a collection of things, but the scientific observer was considered to be somehow outside of the realm of things. Thus arose the distinction between subject and object. It is one of the rational ego's grossest misapprehensions to believe that there is an absolute though incomprehensible distinction between subject and object, whereas there is none. But the ego’s distinction arose from a misguided notion of objects (derived from induction) and from the realisation that it could not itself be one of those objects. Yet even today, it has not grasped that it cannot keep the dogma of the three-dimensional object and at the same time hang on to the subject. Only a complete reassessment of its own cognitive limitations will permit the ego to progress scientifically to a better understanding of itself.

The second source of confusion arose from the naming of things. Since things were named and since everything that was named was a thing, it was tacitly assumed by the rational ego that every name designated a thing, by which was meant not simply individual objects, but also classes of things. The individual object and the class to which it belonged became indistinguishable. Even advanced understanding of the nature of abstraction did not prevent this particular piece of nonsense. It was assumed, from everyday experience, that every ‘thing’ thus identified was separate, self-identical and could not simultaneously be something else; and since individual things were only instantiations or repetitions of the essential properties of classes of thing, it was also assumed from the same source that every name could be used in discourse as designating a self-identical object. Things were considered to be representatives of certain universal classes. Thus was born the fundamental law of logic, the law of non-contradiction or the law of identity. It was assumed that since names designated things and since things (as individual objects or as classes) were stable, definable entities, such names could be used in strictly logical equations almost as integers are used in arithmetic. The name thus appeared to the ego as a kind of magic spell, conferring the power of control upon the namer.

The thing-ideology and the obsession with repetition of certain patterns (also regarded as things) led to the Democritean or Laplacian delusion that the universe was simply a finite collection of things moving according to immutable laws. Within this universe, that had more to do with human nature than with the world, however, the essential phenomenology was that of repetition: classes of identical things were repetitions of a basic design, and classes of events were no more than repetitions of certain patterns of movement. It was this complex of beliefs, liberated from any notions that an ultimate lawgiver set the basic designs, that led to the crackpot, nightmarish vision of the Comte de Laplace, according to which everything would soon be known and knowledge of all future events would be a simple matter of calculation. It also led to the nightmarish vision of Nietzsche, the so-called ‘Eternal Return of the Same’ according to which nothing happened in the universe except vast cycles of repetition within which each ego was condemned not only to live its present life an infinite number of times but also to accept the conclusion that it had already lived the same life an infinite number of times already. To cut a long story short, the combination of the two confusions mentioned above led to the ideology of scientism on the one hand. This was the ideology devoted to the mapping of every separate thing in the universe and the identification of principles according to which such things operated, with a view to controlling them all. On the other hand, it led to the complete alienation of the modern ego from its world because in a universe composed of only three-dimensional things, the ego could not help but feel its position as anomalous. The rational ego still occupies this anomalous position in its own universe and moreover sticks to it fanatically without thinking for a moment that it might be mistaken. The methods it uses to understand the world are not applicable to itself and thus the very name ‘ego’ denotes something that, on the ego’s own criteria for a thing’s existence, does not exist. This state of affairs should really suggest to the ego that something is wrong with its whole approach; but the ego is impervious to such thoughts.

The feeling of its own anomalousness had two effects on the ego: on the one hand it made the ego see itself as a fragment, a kind of atom, analogous with the other atoms of the physical universe, but an atom cut off by its apparent immateriality from any intrinsic connection with them, unaccountably blown about by the winds of necessity and chance, without origins, without future, intrinsically alienated and lost, an empty, absurd identity wandering in a trackless waste of material particles, to which it had no possible relation. On the other hand, the ego, as the very essence of the instinct for self-preservation, even though alienated, yearned to protect itself in the only way that seemed possible: by the achievement of control. The ego might be a lonely anomalous, absurd soul-atom within the universe of physical atoms, but at least it could rule intellectually over those inferior, mindless material beings the things, control them and bend them to its will. Thus was born the ideology of scientific determinism and with it the ambitions of the scientific ego with respect to prediction and manipulation of natural processes. We humans could have held our mechanistic assumptions heuristically; but we didn’t: with a confusion of words and things, a confusion of epistemology and ontology quite characteristic of us, we regarded our sentences as capturing the essence of ‘the way the world is’, almost as taking the place of the world, rather than as mere descriptions of our experiences.

By taking the arguments that underpin mechanistic assumptions too seriously, the ego has become in the modern world very largely a pathological structure cut off from its universe – to which it has no relation – and obsessed only by the things that it believes constitute this universe’s essential nature. The objectivising intellect of the rational ego has no time for the complex dynamics of the subject that it views with the greatest of suspicion. The subject is, however, the elephant in the room, as far as the scientific ego and its ideologies are concerned; and the ego, recognising that the subject is beyond its powers of comprehension or control, ignores it or feigns contempt. It does this for very good reasons given the ambitions of the ego: if it took the subject seriously it would have to begin taking seriously the universal subject, i.e. God and the rational ego is still spooked by the idea of such overwhelming competition.
The ego’s prime ambition is to control any world it imagines; and this desire to control is driven by the most potent of motivators: fear. The modern ego is caught in a loop from which it cannot escape because of its intellectual habits: on the one hand it is wedded to the thing-ideology and can see the world in no other terms; on the other hand it feels alienated by that conception of reality and seeks solace and protection. This protection can only be achieved, however, with the means available to it, namely further analysis in terms of things, further mechanisms and further mechanical control – all of which further alienate the ego. This mechanical control enhances the ego’s feeling of difference from the world; and the cycle begins again on a tighter twist of the spiral. This process, that is progressively fragmenting the populations of the west into individual soul-atoms, is at the heart of the much lamented disease of ‘egoism’ and the regrettable phenomenon of ‘selfishness’ in the modern western world. We can only hope that the ever-tightening spiral of logic will lead to the rational ego’s disappearance up its own fundamental orifice.

These two fundamental aspects of modern intellectual life, fragmentation and mechanistic control, feed the modern alienated ego like a powerful drug. The modern ego is completely intoxicated by and completely addicted to fragmentation and control. The only way to break out of the latest loop is through a change in intellectual habits. This, it seems likely, can only come about through crisis. Whatever the nature of the crisis – and there is no point in speculating how it will look, though it will conceivably arise from the vice of egoism – the result has to be a burgeoning realisation on the part of the majority of human beings that as human beings they are in fact at home in the universe as a whole, integrated into its essential reality and not anomalous beings shivering on the outside. This notion of being ‘at home in the universe’ is central to the biology of complexity found in the writings of people such as Stuart Kauffman, for whom the reductive Darwinian picture of evolution, by chance mutations of DNA and selective amplification of advantageous mutations, has to be supplemented by a holistic theory that derives from the creative dynamics of whole complex natural systems. In Kauffman’s account of the origin of species, it is the dynamics of the biosphere itself and then, sub-divided, of all the subsystems in the biosphere that produce the changes in forms of life. It is not merely the amplification of the accidental effects of mutation on molecules of genetic material; it is rather the very emergent property of complexity within the biosphere as a whole that drives the process of evolution. Kauffman’s universe is a creative whole. If this is the case, then the ego with its self-obsessed concentration on the perspective of number one is already a pathological structure. It is, however, this lonely selfishness of the western ego that makes western man ‘homeless’, ‘alienated’ and neurotic. If, by contrast, the human being is in reality inextricably woven into the warp and woof of the creative web of life, then almost certainly the ego is an illusion, not to say a delusion and all the fears and distortions of the ego are concomitantly delusory.

David Bohm’s View of the Ego

The notion of the undivided totality or wholeness of man and the world is at the core of the writings of David Bohm, who as a physicist was profoundly preoccupied with the inseparability of subject and object in quantum physics. For Bohm, the delusory quality of the ego is beyond question, as are the faultiness of the thing-ideology and the philosophy of alienation. He writes: “man needs a general over-all philosophical view, which orients him in the chaos of shifting and unstable appearances that present themselves, when he focuses only on what is momentary and narrow. And I believe that my work in physics gives at least some elements of such a philosophy. For I am beginning to see that even in the apparently lifeless world of so-called “inert” matter, each thing, each particle (e.g., electron, proton, etc.) is not what it at first seems to be, i.e., a separate point in space, indifferent in its inner being to all the others, remaining always and only what it is, and interacting only externally with all the others.

"Rather each entity is continually being formed from the infinite background and falls back into the background, to be regenerated again and again (as long as it continues to exist). Thus each thing has its roots in the totality and falls back into the totality. Yet it still remains a thing having a certain degree of independent being. And this is possible because each thing contains in itself, its own special image of the totality (cosmos) out of which it formed itself, and into which it is always dissolving (and re-forming). The apparent separateness of things as we see them immediately is that each thing has a certain degree of relative indifference to the others. But this indifference does not belong to it alone. For it is the cosmos itself which determines this indifference and which also determines the limits of this indifference.

“If the above is true of the most elementary and inert kinds of things, it is much more true for the more organized things, such as living beings, man and his consciousness and society. Each man draws his being from the totality and his effects fall back into the totality. His separateness, loneliness and indifference to the others are only relative, and determined by his relation to the totality (in this case, society). Change this relation and you bring out the deeper essential relations between man and man.” (The Essential David Bohm, Ed. Lee Nichol, Routledge 2003 p. 202)

For Bohm, The essence of the ego is its confusion. The essence of the ego’s confusion is to think of itself, on the one hand, as a kind of object, comparable to other objects in being stable, enduring and capable of initiating effects, and at the same time as a mysterious subject in which the world of objects is reflected as a perpetually shifting, changing pattern. The inchoately understood difference between an object and an ego is that the ego initiates its effects in some ill-understood manner that gives them the appearance of being voluntary rather than mechanical. The ego is, however, quite able to pronounce its effects as mechanical after all, since as object it is part of the nexus of the physical world and as such governed by the laws of physics.

Nevertheless, having announced its objective, mechanical nature, the ego then abstracts itself from this nexus, by using two different words to designate itself, calling itself in those circumstances where it is determined not ‘I’, but ‘me’ and in those circumstances where it is initiating action and insight, not ‘me’, but ‘I’. So it splits itself into two parts, one of which is a determined object among objects and the other of which is an undetermined, property-less, anomalous observer. This split-off portion it calls ‘I’ and this ‘I’ has quite a different identity from the ‘me’. Where ‘me’ designates a passive object of observation, ‘I’ designates an active subject of action (including the action of observing). The ego equivocates in this identification of ‘I’ with ‘me’ and manages to talk about the undetermined ‘I’ as if it were talking about the determined ‘me’ so it manages to talk as if the ‘I’ were a mere thing, and a determined thing at that, while maintaining a mental reservation to the effect that the particular ‘I’ that is doing the talking is undetermined. This equivocation is mostly unconscious in those that practise it, but it is at the heart of all scientific conceptions of so-called ‘knowledge’ and a fortiori at the heart of all so-called ‘scientific’ knowledge of consciousness, of the self. The tensions in this ‘I-me’ duality had already been worked out by Kant and Schopenhauer, long before the scientific ego became the widespread phenomenon it is today; but the duality continues to generate confusion nonetheless.

In point of fact, psychology notwithstanding, there is no such thing as the possibility of scientific knowledge of the true subject, of consciousness which is not the ego, but the self. The only knowledge that is possible is of those structures through which the self achieves presence in the world. The ego can thus be understood because it is a determined, mechanical structure, dependent upon memory, upon the repetition of memories. The self cannot be so understood. Where no understanding of the confusion of ego and self exists, no possibility exists either of any real understanding of the connection between the individual, the individual’s insight, society and the development of culture. As long as the confused ego rules in the world of science, every scientific conclusion and every action based upon such a conclusion will be a perpetuation of the confusion and the results will be a continuation of the disastrous policies that have half wrecked our world.

The world of the scientific ego is the world of confusion, par excellence despite the marvels of technology. These marvels continue, despite the confusions that are inherent in the philosophical underpinnings of the science that gives rise to them. There will be no solution to this confusion until the self has understood that it is not the ego, that the ego is a delusion created by a combination of animal passions and mechanically activated memories. The neo-cortex with its immense power of representation excites the mammalian cortex to activate its ancient fight or flight reactions with an increasing tendency to the former because the ego is not inclined to back down in any situation. The self can achieve a consciousness that is beyond these brain mechanisms and understand itself as a process that merely makes use of them. This is possible because whereas it is clearly the brain that generates the ego, for the self, the brain is no more than an object of experience. The self, along with the experiences vouchsafed by the body, perceives its memories as the grooves in a record and experiences the ‘playback’ of memories as an objective process. That is perfectly understandable. The confusion arises 1) when the ego – in ignorance of the self – assumes that it is an object identical with its memories, that the ‘I’ is the same as the ‘me’ or 2) when it acts as if it were an object distinct from these, for when it does this, it becomes incomprehensible to itself. The reality of this confusion is that the ego, as the brain’s co-ordinator of all the separate memories of the accumulated experience of the body, assumes the role of the self, or mistakes itself for the self. The self is not the ego; the self is simply the immediate state of the universe, the universe’s self-contemplation, so to speak, from the particular point of view of the body concerned.

The ego, by contrast, is essentially a contingent memory structure; it is not the indeterminate immediacy of the self. It is a structure wholly constituted by the individual past of the body. The ego is to that extent already dead and gone. It is a walking corpse, it is the living dead. It is the past repeating and perpetuating itself. It is the mistaking of the past for the present. It is the obsessive repetition of the past. It is the loathing and dread of death, because of its connection with the instinct for survival. It is the desire to halt time. It is the ultimate delusion of consciousness. It craves a kind of immortality which, were it to achieve it, would be the very worst of nightmares: Nietzsche’s Eternal Return of the Same.

The ego’s fear of its own disappearance is ultimately the origin of most of its activity. The ego identifies itself obsessively with the memories of the body’s actions and yearns for these to be eternal, insofar as they were pleasurable. Thus it defends with animal ferocity those memories that seem particularly to bolster and to constitute its uniqueness and to constitute the pleasure of its existence. It repulses with equal ferocity those memories that have caused it pain. It tends to reinforce the precious memories, by strengthening the traces they have made, and to suppress the painful memories by main force. Thus the memories become self-confirming ‘theories’, pet ideas, personal ‘discoveries’, ‘beliefs’, ‘inventions’ and so on. The ego identifies itself with these memories and clings with great emotional intensity to the value of their repetition.

The self, on the other hand, surveys all of these memories as the history of an ephemeral body, as past, unrepeatable states of the universe, and is incapable of identifying itself with any of them. Where the ego is the body’s enjoyment by repetition of the pleasures of the past and the determination to avoid past pains, the self is the self-enjoyment of the universe in the timeless present of its co-ordinated flow. This is why the emotions of the ego are distinct from the emotions of the self. This is why the emotions of the ego lead to fight or flight reactions that are generally destructive, whereas the emotions of the self are the reverse: they are contemplative and constructive. The ego’s emotions are an animal’s attempt to prevent an extinction that is inevitable. The self’s emotions are the direct experience of the wonder of the universe’s intelligent, indeterminate self-creation and perpetual innovation.

The ego’s confusion is essentially due to the failure of the individual concerned to discover the self and to the persistent confusion of the self with the body, with the ego. The ego’s emotions arise from the ancient self-protective, limbic mechanisms of the body, encoded within the brain’s mammalian cortex. The self’s emotions are of quite a different order they do not arise from the brain but are intimately connected with the intrinsic creativity of nature. The creative dynamics of the self are the true birthright of every human being. They represent the only means of release from the idiocies of the ego.
But that, too, is another story.

Friday, January 7, 2011


Daniel Dennett tries to convince all who read or listen to him that consciousness does not exist, that according to a naturalistic account of things it is an elaborate illusion. He does this by showing us that we are not conscious of most of the contents of consciousness, or at least not conscious of them in the way that we think we are. But one has to wonder why there has to be a naturalistic account of consciousness to begin with. Then one has to ask whether it is not rather the fact of being conscious of our consciousness, rather than a detailed inventory of the so-called contents of consciousness, that is the important issue. Self-consciousness is a world away from mere consciousness. And anyway, consciousness is not an all-or-nothing thing. There appears to be an infinite rising gradation of consciousness. We don’t know how conscious we may be on this scale, nor where, if anywhere, it ends. But we do indisputably know that we are conscious and more conscious than our pet dog or goldfish. That is what is meant by being self-conscious. Now self consciousness, although dependent upon simple consciousness is quite distinct from merely being aware of this or that object and so on. Once consciousness is present, philosophers are flogging a dead horse in thinking up arguments designed to convince that consciousness does not exist, because in humans, consciousness is inseparable from consciousness of being conscious and such a consciousness cannot deny its own existence without contradiction. Philosophers may convince themselves of the non-existence of consciousness, but they will never convince ordinary people whose lives are not governed by academic rivalries, the imperative to publish or the need to obtain funding.
The subject is by definition the conscious and self-conscious focus of experience. That is what we mean by the term ‘subject’. From the first glimmerings of consciousness far back in the history of evolution and well down the tree of life, to the emergence of self-consciousness perhaps with the later mammals, and on upwards to the highly differentiated conscious self-consciousness of the modern educated human being, this area of awareness of a world has been expanding. But whether a consciousness expands its awareness of a world that was always there, or whether the expanding world and the expanding consciousness are one, is a conundrum that has intrigued people for millennia without any solution having been given
Bohm wonders what is the relation between scientific theory and reality. He asks the question whether all hope of objectivity has to be ditched, if our theories are no more than metaphors. His reply to his own question is that there is indeed contact with reality made and this reality can be considered as apart from ourselves, but all our knowledge of it must include ourselves, for our sensory-cognitive apparatus determines the type and extent of our knowledge of reality. We can have knowledge appropriate to our experience, which is experience of a world of three-dimensional objects. But our experience and knowledge of a world of three-dimensional objects is the result of our uniquely human participation in the world that involves ourselves, our senses, the instruments and experiments, and the ways we communicate and choose to describe nature. Thus, says Bohm, this knowledge is both subjective and objective in nature. There is no way to prise these two apart: they will continue to determine the character of our knowledge for as long as we are human.
But this attitude to scientific knowledge has nothing at all to do with Logical Positivism or with naturalism. There can be no primacy given to simple description of sense data, since much scientific activity is not concerned with direct sensation but rather with the mental activity of theorizing. The questions of science arise out of previous scientific theories. They do not arise out of so-called direct perception though they may be tested by this. The Logical Positivists adhered to the ridiculous, because incomprehensible fiction of the propertyless observer. They imagined that the world is presented to the qualityless observer at every moment in complete and incomprehensible divorce between subject and object: the brute object experienced without mediation by the empty subject who brings nothing to the encounter. The positivistic subject has to be propertyless, because attributing properties to it would have got the Positivists into the serious difficulty of having to admit mental entities to their vocabulary. That the state of affairs imagined by them to be the act of observation does not exist, never has existed, is evident from the fact that the Logical Positivists’ conception of truth (truth = the manner of its verification) was no more than a prejudice. It relied on the erroneous belief that statements about the world could be validated without taking into consideration the subject of those statements. The simple fact is, there is no separation to be found between subject and object and the two come together seamlessly in language, in the structure and use of language. There is no such thing as completely objective, i.e. subjectless language. The area of language expands and the object-subject reflection gains consciousness.
What then is the subject? Answer: the wave-front of the seamlessly changing universe experienced from a particular vantage-point.
The timeless moment of innovation of the entire cosmos is experienced on the human level as the individual trajectory of one human body through space-time. This body is the focus of influences emanating from the entire cosmos. This vantage-point is more or less conscious depending upon the individual. In some individuals, whose minds are functionalised, it is virtually unconscious. In others, whose minds are in a constant ferment of creativity, it is intensely conscious. Creative intelligence in the human is indistinguishable from the timeless and undetermined creativity of the cosmos itself. Only the creative self is fully human, a truly conscious human subject. Using as analogy the principle of self-similarity, uncovered in chaos-theory, and particularly in fractal geometry, the subject could be viewed as the mirror of the object, where ‘object’ means the entire universe. The subject could be thought of as an analogy of the universe as a whole (just as those little curls in an obscure corner of a Mandelbrot set recall the entire set); and it becomes comprehensible, if that it so, how the subject can generate an infinity of analogies for the universe and for its relation to itself.
The radical and unwarranted distinction between subject and object is at the heart of all the pseudo-problems that have plagued western philosophy for the past few centuries. Consequent upon the demise of belief in the God-given soul, the subject shrivelled rapidly like a pricked balloon until, at the height of the power and influence of the thing-ideology and the mechanistic-materialistic-deterministic dogma, the subject had no status whatsoever except (absurdly and inexplicably) as the ‘scientific observer’. The position was anomalous because science had to retain the subject of observation as a substantive entity while denying the possibility of its existence. The subject simply was unable to exist in a universe of things, yet it had to exist since without an observer, nothing could be observed and thus known. This queasy state of affairs was maintained by simple flat denials, by burying inconvenient facts in obfuscation and bad arguments or by simply brushing them under the carpet. And this fiction could be maintained in the scientific community because it was an aspect of the reigning dogma.
But falsehood will always be detected when successive generations of people realise that they are being fed unsustainable beliefs and being given very shaky arguments for counter-intuitive ideas merely because they are part of a fashionable consensus. With the arrival of relativity and then a fortiori with the development of quantum physics, the subject was seen as an indispensable part of all observation and therefore of all knowledge claims. Not only could the notion of an absolutely privileged point of view not be retained, the notion of an absolutely objective observer could no longer be sustained either. Truth in the Einsteinian world-view was seen as necessarily relative to a particular frame of reference and that frame was inevitably set by the subject. The old notion of ‘absolute objectivity’ that the scientific observer had arrogated to itself, as some kind of ‘God’s-eye’ view was revealed to be a fantasy: there was no privileged point of view, no absolutely objective standpoint, no unique vantage-point in the universe available to humans from which its universally invariant features could confidently be viewed.
The subject was further implicated in the act of observation by the insight in quantum physics that the observer is part of the large-scale experimental apparatus and that in observing the sub-atomic processes it actually interferes actively with them and determines their nature. It began to seem that just as talk of absolute space and absolute time had had to give way to a less definite notion of ‘space-time’, so absolute distinctions between subject and object would have to give way to a conception of a process that could be called the ‘subject-object’. Truth, in this scheme of things is not the absolute, immutable commodity that nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century philosophy fantasised about. It appeared much more as a stage in a perpetual enquiry, a dynamic interchange between the human subject and the source of the experience that makes it a subject. A subject is a subject of something. Of what? Of experience of that which is not subject, of course. But what is not subject can no longer confidently be pronounced to be ‘object’ in the sense that our everyday experience suggests to us. The subject is the locus of a mysterious interchange, a mysterious exchange between the self with its particular fund of memories, the familiar world as a source of certain notions of invariance, language as a fund of preconceptions about experience, and overarching it all, the ultimate mystery, the unknown world as such, of which all these apparently separate activities are integral parts. The subject is a dynamic exchange, a dynamic relation between foreworld, hindworld, midworld and hyperworld. The emphasis here is on the word ‘dynamic’. It is all process, never stasis. The subject is not fixed any more than the ‘objects’ of its experience are. The subject is more like a flame than anything else, in being an open system; and it is only by means of analogies of this nature that we can inch towards an understanding of it. The flame is a stable process, it is not a thing. This stable process is maintained by a constant stream of input and output within a propitious nexus of circumstances. The old notion of the subject as a thing against which ‘things’ rubbed, causing ‘perceptions’ which exactly matched the ‘things’ of which they were reproductions, has now disappeared entirely. And with it has disappeared the absolute separation that was required by the scientistic dogma.
Thus we are no longer plagued by a view of the human mind as an anomalous hole punched in the material fabric of the universe, through which an anomalous self, that has no place in the fabric of the universe, nevertheless peeps, contemplating in shivering, anxious homelessness that essentially inhospitable fabric. What we have now is a partnership between subject and object such that it is impossible to drive a wedge between the two. The world is no longer the collection of three-dimensional objects that we used to think it was. Its multi-dimensionality confers upon it degrees of freedom that we cannot even begin to grasp with the aid of the imagination. Nevertheless, if these degrees of freedom are real characteristics of reality, then we can expect that there is room in it both for the three-dimensional constructions, that our brain foists upon us and that we call ‘the world of objects’, and for the subject that receives and works upon these constructions. That they are constructions and that they are foisted upon us by our brain is beyond question. We could even call them ‘metaphors’. The old mythological views of the universe arose in exactly the same way and possessed exactly the same power of conviction as ‘scientific’ syntheses. The subject was a subject of ‘revelations’ that came to it in response to its eternally questioning attitude. These revelations then were expressed in various types of formal language. According to current brain-mythology, the brain contains two powerful engines, the left side (in the majority of humans) has a mighty language-device that strives to account for every aspect of experience in terms of a rational story with reasons and coherent arguments. The right side has a device in it that strives to integrate all experience holistically and to represent to the subject the world as a coherent totality. These two mighty engines deliver to the subject tales of origins and destinies, tales of gods and demons, tales of anthropomorphic agencies putting the world together and situating human life in it. But they also deliver tales of universal laws and rules, universal regularity, universal matter and the like. Thus they deliver to the subject any story that the subject can be induced to swallow. Of course, over history, stories fight with stories, memes with memes as Dawkins might say, and some are found by subjects to be more convincing, ‘fitter’ for survival than others. Thus the mythological stories with their inherently unconvincing postulation of anthropomorphic gods and demons as the managers of the world-system, yielded to stories that only spoke of three-dimensional objects and mechanical ‘laws’. Yet the old stories continued to fascinate and to convince on a different level, for the subject knows that to exclude mind-like agencies from the cosmos was a hasty piece of folly. Now that science itself has dissolved the mechanistic story and included the subject in even the precisest observations, the two cerebral engines are beginning to deliver stories to the self to account again for the entirety of the universe. The thought that consciousness may be a unitary phenomenon analogous in that sense to matter did not arise from mythology, but from physics. The average subject in western civilisation, having lost the narratives of the past, is now, open to manipulation by any story that comes along and that can make itself convincing. This is a situation of great promise, but also of great danger since the loss of the old narratives deprives us of our powers of discrimination.
The dangerous and volatile nature of this state of affairs is that it cries out for a new paradigm to make human life in the world possible again. It cries out for a paradigm that will incorporate our genius for technological innovation, our genius for the construction of mechanical models for our understanding, with our craving for holistic meaning to the world that will provide us with values and reasons for continuing to exist, values and reasons that go beyond the simple exigencies of maintaining the body in life from day to day. We are not satisfied with the niggardly Darwinian notion of ‘survival’. The subject requires as part of its make-up a sense of the coherent structure of universal change, a sense of the meaningfulness of history, a sense of the attractiveness of the future and a sense of the trustworthiness of the entire universe. It desires to believe that its boundless curiosity and hope, its questing creativity and optimism are not mere tricks of the struggle for survival. These things were traditionally given to the subject by thoughts of God as an essentially anthropomorphic being. Now that that particular notion has been dissolved by scientific rationalisations, a gaping hole has been left; and though we strive to fill that hole with all sorts of stop-gaps, we nevertheless feel the need of some analogous set of concepts or images to replace it. It would seem that in the insight of modern physics that the world is a co-ordinated and seamless, creative and possibly intelligent whole, we have the beginnings of that replacement. Once the subject is truly integrated by physics into the strange fabric of the cosmos it may just begin to feel itself at home and as having a stake in the future, however distant.
The subject is a focus of conscious awareness of a world that is apparently not subject. It is entirely obvious to anyone who thinks for a moment about this state of affairs that there can be no absolute distinction between subject and so called ‘object’. The re-integration of the subject into the world that generated it and that sustains it would seem to be the sine qua non of the subject’s well-being. Why should the subject give in to stories that pronounce it non-existent? The subject remains the receiver and focus of these stories. The brain delivers them to it, but it is, in some sense that we have yet to understand, ‘beyond’ them all and in a position critically to assess them all. Whatever conceptual structure the brain presents to the subject as a story concerning the nature of the world, the subject is able to assess whether it is convincing. The fate of every story ever presented to the subject has been to be found ultimately unconvincing by the subject. The subject therefore appears to be a very powerful agency in its own right, endowed with a vantage-point that is above and beyond the logic of any systematic construction on the world that the brain might generate. It seems therefore that the subject would do well to relax and to be at ease with itself, be confident of its own status, sit back and ‘enjoy the show’. This process of the generation of new constructions on reality will doubtless continue for as long as there are subjects. Why then should the subject imagine that at some point in the process, an end-station is arrived at? Knowledge has turned out not to be a process of approach by the subject to a definite limit called ‘the truth’. It has turned out to be a series of constructions that combine ever greater quantities of complexity in unity. These constructions do not simply add to some fund of acquired knowledge, some fund of absolute cognitive possessions obtained in the past; their chief effect is rather to overturn all previous conceptions of knowledge and truth in a completely new angle on the world. This new angle on the world is a new type of self. It seems obvious that this process will continue for as long as there are subjects, for as long as there are right-brains delivering visions of totality and left-brains delivering rational ‘explanations’; and since there is no end-station, no ‘end of history’ in sight, there is no reason to believe in one. Our craving for stories with not only beginnings and middles, but also ends, final consummations, is perhaps something we have to give up. We have always been besotted with our own models of reality and frequently convinced that they represented the final word. They never did and they never will. The subject is in constant change as is the world. This change is coherent and co-ordinated, not random and chaotic. The common invariant feature of change in the subject and in the world may simply be what we understand as that most indefinable of properties, ‘intelligence’. How this intelligence is to be characterised is a very deep and difficult problem because it involves talking about the indeterminate and we have simply no vocabulary with which to do this. Thus all talk of intelligence is going to be a matter of hit-and-miss analogy.
The subject is intelligent, of that there is no doubt; but its intelligence is expressed in many different ways. Nevertheless, one can home in on one aspect of its intelligence that seems more intrinsic to it that any other: its critical faculty. The subject has the strange ability to stand outside of all its structures, all of its methods and to view them from some indeterminate point of view from which it is able to spot the weaknesses, the lacunae, the shortcomings of any of the structural features of knowledge and of the methods and processes by which the subject obtains the same. We have, therefore to attribute to the subject a portion of its functioning at least that is beyond all obvious modes of reasoning and methodological criteria. This ‘beyondness’ of the subject puts it altogether out of the domain of things. The subject is precisely not a thing; from a thing perspective, it is no-thing, it is ‘nothing’. With this thought we seem to have taken a step backwards and to have joined the alienated scientific mind whose status as observer was precisely the status of nothing at all. But in saying that the subject is no-thing, we do not deny it reality, we simply demonstrate that we cannot account for it in terms of the language of things. We can account for the brain in the language of things and to a large extent account for the functioning of much of the brain in the language of things. But in regarding the subject as ‘not-a-thing’, we can attribute to it an indeterminate status and a pivotal role therefore in the perpetual process of creation that is the human mind. The brain generates stories to account for the experience of the subject, but the subject perpetually subjects these to criticism and destruction and opens up a void for the emergence of further, improved, more capacious stories. The subject itself, however, remains beyond all of these stories, that one can quite legitimately regard as configurations of material states of the brain, whether they are codified in language and written down as part of the fund of ‘knowledge’ or not.
It is the subject that is the locus of the new configurations that arise in response to the critical destruction of all previous stories about reality. These new stories stream into the world via the subject; they achieve presence as incarnations only through the subject. They obviously depend to some extent on input from the brain of the subject, some factual or theoretical input, but for the radically new character of the new insight, they seem to depend upon a dimension of reality that we have to consider as indeterminate. This is a dimension of the subject, but it is no less a dimension of the world, since the subject is inseparably an aspect of the world. The indeterminate zone of the world and of the subject, we call ‘intelligence’. Intelligence is the sole authority of the human mind and the sole authority in the world. It is that which makes us individuals. It is that which makes us self-conscious. The fact that it is intrinsically indefinable should not bother us (‘energy’, too, is indefinable), since we intuitively know what it is. What it is, is an inexhaustible ability to conceive possible worlds when faced with apparent worlds and to perceive the possibilities of congruence or divergence between the two. This latter congruence is what is often hailed as truth, which is why truth is always the possession of a subject, why ‘objective truth’ is a contradiction in terms. The divergences from the apparent worlds are often decried as fictions, but it is frequently from these that new forms of congruence arise.
The subject may be a sort of quantum-computer, in touch with an infinity of possible worlds whether understood as actually existent or merely virtual. It cannot be formalised or understood in terms of any procedure, since it is itself the origin of all such procedures and preserves a distance from them that puts it above them. There is no way in which this intelligence can be regarded as a thing or as an aspect of a thing and treated according to the logic of things. Other aspects of the subject, however, can be so treated.
One such aspect is the structure known as the ‘ego’. For a few reflections on this structure, see the two posts archived under 'January 2011' and 'February 2011'.