Saturday, February 12, 2011


Le moi est haïssable – Blaise Pascal


In an interview on matters of a non-technical nature, David Bohm launched into in a series of speculations on the possible factors involved in the origins of the modern ego that bear some similarity to Nietzsche’s ideas, with the obvious difference that Nietzsche approved of the ego and Bohm didn’t. Bohm sees the ego as predominantly the result of the discovery by certain individuals that other individuals could be exploited. He sees the invention of exploitation, plunder and slavery as the origin of the conviction that the ‘hero’ (that is to say the slave-owner) is essentially the superior type of human being. Thus war and the warrior became the very image of the ‘virtuous’ man. This is certainly the case in Aristotle who, says Bohm, could only sustain the view by postulating the existence of an essentially inferior type of human being, the slave-being. Nietzsche perpetuated a similar fiction in his theory of the master-morality and the slave morality. But the intention of this was to propagandise in favour of the ‘master’. The ego’s methods are essentially those anti-Utilititarian ones of the gratification of personal pleasure at the expense of the pleasure of others. The ‘other’ becomes no more than an object for one’s use, in violation of the second formulation of Kant’s Categorical Imperative – the one about not using other humans as means to one’s ends rather than ends in themselves. The ego cheerfully and gleefully thumbs its nose at both consequentialist and deontological ethical principles. That is the essence of so-called ‘egoism’.

In order to sustain this behaviour and justify it, the exploited have to be turned into things, de-humanised, reified and de-personalised. These methods are, of course, our old friends objectification and domination (in science, this comes about by means of ‘objective’ methods of ‘proof’). As widespread methods for dealing with experience, they are a fine illustration of the confused character of the modern mind. We perpetuate them along with older, emotionally charged imperatives to treat members of our own species and even other creatures decently. On the one hand, we praise the ruthless, go-getting predatory macho male hero, be he businessman, soldier, politician, scientist or whatever, who appeals to the ego. We practise ‘master-morality’ in Nietzsche’s terms. Then on the other hand, we pay lip-service to quite contrary, more female feelings of concern, gentleness, compassion and the like that exclude the ego. We pretend to practise Nietzsche’s ‘slave-morality’. No wonder our children occasionally throw our morality back in our faces and reject it lock, stock and barrel, for it is deeply and intrinsically confused. Its inherent contradictions lay us open to the justified charge of hypocrisy and make us profoundly uneasy. The ego’s ethics are both deontological and consequentialist since, if it were articulated as a theory, egoism dictates that the ego shall serve only itself, on the one hand, and asserts that the end of the ego’s desire-satisfaction justifies any sort of behaviour whatever. When this sort of egoism remains as an unconscious determinant in any ethics that attempts to take into account the needs of others, the result is a rationalistic theory – either the categorical imperative or the greatest happiness principle – in which the emotions are disguised by the appearance of logical persuasiveness. The inner logic behind the formal logic is the ego’s desire to protect itself from the egoism of other egos. The ego’s conviction that any assault on itself is an act of lèse-majesté is at the heart of the ego’s theorising about ethics. This is the origin of our ethical confusion, hypocrisy and failure. It never occurs to the ego that the solution to the ethical problem of humanity is precisely the abolition of the ego.

Weaning the Self off the Addiction of the Ego to Memory

There is something very significant in Bohm’s theory of the ego as essentially confusion, illusion, delusion and “poison”. He sees “the ego process” as an essential problem of humanity, a problem responsible for the moral difficulties of the race. He is clearly thinking of the scientific ego that craves a Theory of Everything, the political ego that craves total power, the economic ego that craves unlimited growth of wealth and so on: this structure is essentially pathological; and it is precisely this structure that drives the universities, the economies and the political systems of the West. The essence of the ego process, according to Bohm, is the strong association, formed in the mind of the infant, of perception and desire and/or aversion. This association skews all acquisition of knowledge and all goal-setting: the individual (or the “dividual” as Bohm thinks we should say, since the ego is precisely division and not indivision) is perpetually in a state of confusing desires and perceptions, desires and objects of desire. The objects of desire are intrinsically unsatisfactory and the ego is invariably disappointed, because the desires that are supposedly being satisfied are those connected with the old attractions and aversions of childhood. These latter are “played back” to the ego by memory which has so strongly attached them to perception that they are evoked by any perception similar to the original. These desires and aversions are false feelings that the ego mistakes for true feelings. True feelings, says Bohm, only arise from genuinely new experience, not from eternally repeating old ones.

Now new experience is what is hardest for the ego, which tends to want to see every present in terms of the past. We are, we mutter resignedly, ‘creatures of habit’, but we are misled in this by the ego. Only new, fresh perception combining understanding on the intellectual side and love or creativity on the emotional side can lead to satisfaction, and these are activities that are beyond the ego and involve the self. “Creative living” is what Bohm calls this and it is not simply the same as creativity in art or science. It involves changing one’s attitude to memory. Taking memory seriously is dangerous, because it compels the mind to see the new in terms of the old and from that point on, nothing really new ever happens to the ego, particularly where desire is concerned. The alternative to this is quite simply to do nothing about desire, neither to suppress nor to fulfil it, but just to do nothing and to watch how the desire unfolds of itself as the self observes it.
“Desire,” says Bohm, commenting on this ‘do-nothing’ approach, “does no harm if it is not attached. In other words, desire is something different if you understand it. For recall, ‘As a man sees, so he is.’ If you see your desire in a new way, then desire is different in its operation in you.” (Lee Nichol Ed.: The Essential David Bohm, Routledge, London 2003 p.207) So desires are not to be satisfied, repressed, shaped, controlled, sublimated or whatever, they are simply to be observed. In this situation, where desires no longer determine actions, perception of what is true and what is false will simply operate by itself, if it is deep enough. Once the individual has realised that he or she is confused, then real perception begins to operate and the mind clears itself without the effort of the ego. He alludes to deep perception causing the ego-process to “fall away like a dead leaf”, but declines to say precisely how this is possible. This is not psychoanalysis, because unlike psychoanalysis, there would never be any attempt in what Bohm recommends to readjust the person to society, simply because the “norm” is mere confusion. Adjusting to confusion is a kind of madness.

The attitude towards desire recommended by Bohm can, however, be tried out by anyone who is a victim to any sort of craving. If the observation is sufficiently sustained and penetrating, the craving (which every craver knows to be inherently incapable of satisfaction, beyond obsessive repetition) is guaranteed to fall away. The precondition, of course, is that the craving-satisfaction loop be viewed negatively by the craver as futile, damaging or whatever. When the whole complex ‘craving and satisfaction-of-craving’ are seen as a single obsessive repetition within the ego and observed as such over time by the self, it can be quite easily separated from the self and conquered in the person. Such experiences are very valuable in the entire process of overcoming the ego and developing the self. They can be tried with respect to any sort of obsessive desire.
This rejection of the ego by a scientist of Bohm’s eminence is highly significant and all the more significant in that his views are beginning to achieve prominence. The ego-dominated science of the last three centuries has to fall away ‘like a dead leaf’ if anything positive is to happen in the intellectual and economic (and ultimately spiritual) life of the Western World. It is impossible to speak of the other parts of the planet, since their movements are as yet somewhat diffuse; but it could be that the eclipse of the ego in intellectual life begins with developments in non-Western societies. The development of Western culture from Christianity gave it a coherence and a precision that ultimately compounded the problem of the ego, but at least this coherence imparts clarity and should make the perception of its negative aspects easier. It is difficult to fight with the thesis that the ego, its desires and its self-delusions, lie at the heart of most of the severe problems faced by the world. It is however also the perpetuation of ego-guided thinking about them that prevents our solving them. When the ego thinks about the ego in the manner of the ego, the result is to pile confusion upon confusion. For this reason all ‘scientific’ thought about the mind, consciousness, the self and suchlike is as yet mere perpetuation and intensification of the confusion. This is particularly the case where theories of mind are based upon the ego’s objectifications and attempts to control. So-called ‘physicalist’ theories of mind are all of this type and the reason for which no other types of theory seem possible in current science is found in the structure of the ego. Get rid of the ego and you change the structure of science from one based on objectification and control to one based on unprejudiced observation.


“Unless you become as little children...” said Christ.
Why are a great many adults far less alive and far less curious than children, more formed, predictable, given to routine thoughts and liable to repeat themselves? Why are so many children wide-eyed and enthusiastic, short on prejudices and preconceptions, more raw and unstructured? Why are children more full of hope and more likely to inspire hope? Why are children more insightful, more creative and penetrating than adults? Why are adults in the main persuaded that they have understood the essence of the world even though they have not? Why do so many of them think that there is nothing new to discover? Why do adults long to impose their rigid truth upon the young? Why have adults inflicted such cruelty on children throughout history? This is no fault of the world. The world remains irreducibly marvellous and children remain sensitive to that. So what is wrong? Why have adults been so determined to render the world tedious and predictable and to stifle thereby the joy of the young? The answer must lie in the extent to which the individual concerned becomes dominated by the ego and its repetitions, its sterile habits. The ego becomes deeply attached to its repetitions and to the notion that it has grasped something of great value to itself in these repetitions. The so-called changeless aspects of the world are the aspects the ego most wishes to master. The world does indeed not change its being: it is still a perpetual epiphany and a perpetual miracle rediscovered by every human being that comes to consciousness. The essence of the world is uninterrupted, coherent and unpredictable change. The child, being closer to the self preserves an authentic total contact with this feature of the world. That the world ceases to be a miracle for the adult has nothing to do with the world itself and everything to do with the increasingly rigidity of the ego-dominated mind. Only the self, that is free of repetition and habit, preserves its creative contact with the world’s ceaseless flow. The ego that loses touch with the self is in trouble. Hindworld (to borrow terminology from an earlier post) in such a state, is dominated by repetitions from midworld and foreworld and congeals into cyclic banality; all contact with hyperworld is lost. The main job of culture in the West is now to break the stranglehold of the ego over everyone and everything for if it fails to do this the West is finished. The ruling conception of knowledge as mechanical, clanking, repetitive mechanism, is an indication of the sterility of our science. Maybe the sterility of our science is a dead-end. If so, the West is finished. Maybe that is a good thing. Maybe the stage is being set for the rise of a new and more benign culture. But it had better be quick about it because the ego’s desire for control knows only mechanism and is dead set on establishing the universal machine as quickly as possible.

A Bit More History
The ego may have its origins in Greek rationalism, and in the Renaissance emphasis on the human as the criterion of value and measure of all things. The ‘Man is the measure of all things’ attitude of Protagoras is the principle at the heart of humanism; but its elevation to an absolute criterion of truth, reality and value was post-Medieval, post-Christian. The dawning realisation that the ego lacks any intrinsic authority of its own is by contrast post-modern and post-just about everything else. Where in the Middle Ages, all intellectual and artistic activity was that of a closed community contemplating God (e.g. in the plainchant), the Renaissance set up the idea of the individual in conflict with destiny (witness the emergence of the concerto in post-Renaissance music in which the heroic virtuoso asserts himself against the power of the orchestra). In modern atonal music, this heroic, assertive aspect of the activity disappears in chaotic exploration and the disappearance of the individual into the whole. The social order was put above the identity of the individual in the Middle Ages, just as the cosmic order was put above that of the social and individual in Eastern thought. In post-modern thought, the cosmic, the societal and the individual dimensions all have their importance; one is not subordinated to the other, but all three are subsumed into an attitude that is neither fatalistic, socialistic or egoistic: this is the holistic. Science has yet to cotton on seriously to this development.

The notion that the one who thinks – the Cartesian ‘I’, the ego behind the cogito – is completely separate from the object of thought, is profoundly related to the nature of Indo-European languages, to the subject-predicate form of their grammars, which tends to present all reality as the action of one entity (the subject) upon the other (the object) and to foster the belief in the essence of reality as being separate and static units (things). The Cartesian ‘thing that thinks’ the res cogitans is merely the clearest articulation of this sort of hypostatisation. In this scheme, the ego, as a special kind of object, thinks the world, as the totality of physical objects, and the world is passively the object of the ego’s thought. We have remarked before, that while the human body can be seen as a separate object among objects and the brain likewise, an analogous separation of the ego and its object of thought can not be sustained in this way. The ego can never possess what it thinks it can possess and thus fervently desires: absolute, objective knowledge of reality. At worst, there may not be any knowledge of the world as it is, only the influence of one determined set of objects upon another: those in the environment upon those in the cranium. But even at best, the ego must be part of the flow of reality; that is to say that its thought must also be part of the flux – i.e. instability – of reality. How this can be so is a very deep issue that is not amenable to facile or even easy answers. It is sufficient to grasp that human knowledge simply cannot be other than provisional.

We need a conception of the totality of the world and its flow that combines the properties and phenomena of both what we call ‘matter’ and what we call ‘mind’ before we can even begin to understand the relation of the ego to the world. This is a problem for physics as much as for any other aspect of modern culture. For the physicist Roger Penrose we will make no progress in the search for ‘quantum gravity’ – the holy grail of current physics – until we have to some extent sorted out the problem of the mind. And this is not to be done by denying the mind by means of so-called physicalist theory. Physics will get no further in its understanding of the relation between quantum theory and relativity until it has sorted out the relation of the subject of observation to the observed phenomena. This relation can no longer be the absolute and absurd separation of property-less subject (no properties means conveniently no existence) and brute insensitive object. There has to be some understanding achieved of the intimate, seamless connection between so-called ‘subject’ and so-called ‘object’. The mind that views the world as nothing more than a collection of senseless things flying around according to the ‘laws of nature’ has necessarily to view itself as one of those things. This outlook ‘mind-as-thing’ is the basic structuring force of the ego, the godless res cogitans. This remains true even if one adopts a computational or ‘software’ conception of mind (as Penrose does not). The ego, as object among objects, will have to identify itself only with itself or possibly with the social structure with which it is bound up, its club, tribe, clan, party, nation or whatever. Whatever the case, the ego will recognise and favour itself as a thing reacting to other things. For this reason, if understanding is to increase, it has to be overcome and abandoned in favour of the creative self.

Some Dynamics of the Ego

The ego is almost inevitably, almost naively dishonest because it defends its limited point of view tooth and nail with the territoriality of an animal. This means that its perceptions are distorted, but also that it will do anything to win a particular argument. Accuracy thus suffers. Winning, for the ego, is more important than the ‘truth’. Winning is truth. The ego and its machinations are entirely structured by emotions, the largely negative emotions associated with fight and flight; yet the very possibility that this could be so is denied by the ego, particularly if it calls itself ‘the rational ego’. The ego is essential confusion and thus dishonesty incarnate. Small wonder that academic science is so riddled with rivalries, schools, orthodoxies, vested interests and competitive hatreds.

The ego derives its everyday identity from the conviction that it remains the same from day to day. It repeats itself. The ego is a machine, a nexus of routines that is constructed of unshakable belief in repetition and therefore of repetitions themselves. That is why the science of the rational ego is devoted to detecting and defining repetitions (‘laws of nature’) and extrapolating them into the future as ‘predictions’. It is a delusion to believe that the world repeats itself from day to day. It does not. What repeats itself are the beliefs to which the ego is attached. That is why all predictions ultimately fail – even those predicting the movements of the heavenly bodies or those of fundamental particles. The ego, whose essential structure is repetition, is reassured by the thought of repetition because of its close association with the body which is objectified fear of death, fear of non-existence. The repetitions of the ego are a hedge against the uninterrupted flux of the world in which, if it thinks about itself as a perishable part, it disappears without a trace, both in the past and in the future. The ego believes in repetitions and fixes them in words and logical theories (as the mechanism of ‘proof’). It therefore not only believes in itself as a repetition, but also in its inner processes as repetitions (“I always do that”, “that’s the way I am”, “that’s me”, “this is how the world is”, “there’s nothing new under the sun”, “history repeats itself”). This objectification of the ego in its repetitions provides the delusion either that the ego is going to live forever, or the opposite delusion that the self disappears with the body. In truth, despite superficial appearances, nothing is really repeated in nature and the self can get beyond the ego’s repetitions with a little practice. The self, which is not a repetition of anything, which knows without demonstration that there are no real repetitions, can reach a point where it recognises that each moment of consciousness is unique, timeless and neither the result of repetition nor objectification, but only of the unpredictable flow of the cosmos. When the self drops the ego and thus realises its ‘no-thingness’, it has achieved a great deal, not least an awareness of its own indestructibility. The self is not a thing, it is a no-thing, but it is not by that token devoid of reality, nothing at all. Repetitions are the ego’s very essence and that is what makes it an unnatural structure. The self knows that it ceaselessly flows within the universal flux. Abandon the repetitions, the belief in repetition, and the individual self is liberated. If the self can then make the transition to an understanding of itself as a point at which the timeless universal intelligence ceaselessly incarnates itself in the flow of time, it becomes a truly unique individual, a true undivided part of the whole.

The ego induces us to make use of a whole range of anthropomorphisms. When we become aware of these, we drop them. At least that is what has generally happened in history. But we are, even as rational egos, still indulging in many of them. Those that we are still practising are necessarily unconscious. It’s time we recognised them, withdrew them and dropped them, too. In the past, the ego projected itself upon the cosmos and generated humanlike gods. We then got rid of these too human gods. Then the ego thought up the monotheistic ego-God and put itself at the centre of the universe as the apple of such a God’s eye. Both the monotheistic ego-God and the anthropocentric universe have now gone. The rational ego, however, still hangs on to some more subtle anthropomorphisms, the most important being this: it views its cognitive methods as self-evidently authoritative if not absolute. What it considers to be true it believes to be binding on all rational beings.

The ego still views itself as the most important creature in the cosmos and its ratiocination as normative for the cosmos. In both of these latter beliefs it is deluded because it is making use of what may be the last of the anthropomorphic prejudices: the ego’s conviction that what is true for it is true without question. But human knowledge is just what humans make, much as the mole makes hills; but the delusion persists. The ego is the agency that props up the belief in an anthropomorphic God, for such a God is the image of the ego. He is the supreme ego. The ego is also the agency at the back of atheism, which is merely negative belief in the monotheistic ego-God allied to the quite understandable desire of the ego to take his place. Thus, for example, the atheist cannot believe in God, let’s say, because of the existence of evil, which is incompatible with God’s benevolence and omnipotence. But if you think about it, ‘evil’ means ‘what the ego does not like’ and only by considering the needs, thoughts and wishes of the ego as normative for the entire universe can the concept of evil be maintained. Alternatively, the atheistic ego will say, ‘God cannot exist, because he cannot be detected by my methods of discovery’. But to deny the deity existence either because he doesn’t observe the ego’s priorities on comfort or because the ego cannot get its hands on him is merely typical of the ego’s confusions and delusions. Let’s be brutal: the human ego is not the most important entity in the universe. It is simply a feature of a small contingent creature with many handicaps on an obscure planet circling an unremarkable sun far out on one of the arms of an undistinguished galaxy. If life is common throughout the universe, and if there are many millions of galaxies, why should the human ego have any special claim to the acquisition of understanding?

Perhaps more needs to be said about the ego’s mechanical repetition of its own pleasure that leads to the mechanical repetition of those structures by means of which it achieves dominance. More must be said about the ego’s complete lack of creativity, its animal craving for dominance, pleasure and unique authority. To repeat and repeat what is pleasurable is the aim of the ego. If it can write this repetition into the very fabric of the universe and then control the universe by the same method, it will be happy – or so it thinks.
The animal urge for dominance and control are at the root of the ego’s atheism. The ego conceives of God as an ego – how could it be otherwise, for nothing is superior to the ego? – and in conceiving of God thus, espies the worst of competitors: the invincible, omnipotent competitor. This competitor arouses in the ego all the fight/flight-reflexes of the cornered animal, but far from simply putting up its fists or running, it sets out to make the deity impossible. The job is not a difficult one, since an ego-God is an absurdity and since the ego’s mechanistic thought-forms can easily show that there is no room for any such sort of God in the universal machine. But both machine and ego-God are the fantasies of the ego itself to begin with. They live and die with the ego. The ego, insofar as it engages with the deity, is involved in a punch-up with itself.

The Ego’s efforts to Establish its Absolute Primacy

The ego in the old psychoanalytic model of the psyche was the recent, rather feeble structure that sat on top of the unconscious like an unsuspecting settler on a volcano and suffered the turbulent heaving and boiling of the unconscious forces beneath. It was, in many senses, a victim. This general view of the ego as prey to the bullying of the vastly more powerful irrational parts of the psyche goes back to Plato and Aristotle at least. Plato famously compared the mind to a chariot pulled by rearing, powerful, uncontrollable steeds. The ego – although he didn’t call it that – was the tiny charioteer, struggling ineffectually with the careering vehicle. The theme of the constant battle between ‘the will’ and the ‘passions’ is one that runs through western thought from its first beginnings, through the development of Christianity, through the Enlightenment, through the Romantic Movement and into the twentieth century with Freud and his followers. The reason for these accounts of the opposition between the embattled ego and the irrational forces of the mind were all the same: they contained a prescription for gaining control over the powerful forces of irrationality, usually by rigorous training of the ego in the methods of rational argument. They were therefore expressive of the sense of the ego’s powerlessness and of its desire to achieve power. Both Plato and Aristotle believed that the rational mind should conquer the irrational, since they considered the latter as inferior and more or less bestial. Christianity had an interest in teaching that the conscious mind should eschew or at least control the irrational lusts by obedience to God’s commandments concerning their expression, but it kept the ego in check by teaching that God had ultimate control. Even old Kant, perhaps the least passionate of individuals, thought that reason should subjugate and dominate the passions; indeed his entire ethical philosophy was based upon the not very convincing idea of the victory of the rational will over desire. The Romantics, it is true, had a slightly different line and believed that the conscious mind could profitably gain from a partnership, a collaboration with the irrational, but the aim even there was still the illumination and ultimate advantage of consciousness. In Freud’s theory, the job of the psychoanalyst was to drain the unconscious of its turbid, surging tides of filth (“schwarzer Schlammflut”), abolish them altogether, and enthrone he ego as sole master in its own house. He viewed this job as analogous to the draining of the Zuider Zee. For the ego, what is not ego is filth.

It is this general model, moreover, that won the day in the twentieth century and that is still so to speak, the official doctrine as far as relations between the ego and any forces that are not directly under the ego’s control are concerned. We in the west are perhaps less well equipped than we have ever been for managing our minds in such a manner that the ego is in productive rather than destructive partnership with those portions of the psyche that appear to be able to lead a more or less autonomous life of their own and that can not be regarded as merely rule-governed as the rational ego can. The contemporary western ego is more than ever convinced that it is sole master in its own house and completely able with its own resources to run not only the energic economy of the mind, but also every other economy, including that of the world at large and perhaps the universe as a whole. The modern ego has, perhaps more than at any other time in the history of the race, lost touch with its roots and with the forces that make it what it is. Its obsessions with definitive theories (i.e. repetitions), things (i.e. more repetitions) and rules (more repetitions) have blinded the modern human mind to an instinctive grasp of the perpetually changing nature of reality.

The modern ego suffers from delusions of omnipotence that would have been impossible in the past, not least because the universe was regarded as the work of creative agencies not in any sense under human control Now, however, the scientific ego believes itself capable of grasping the forces of nature in every sense: grasping them intellectually and grasping them literally in the sense of keeping a controlling grip on them. The first reason for this is the success of the thing-ideology in retrenching our culture in the mechanistic-deterministic-materialistic dogma that has convinced the modern ego that it is a self-contained atom of all-conquering intelligence, entirely separate, uniquely authoritative and self-sufficient. The second reason is the belief in the success of technology in solving all manner of daily problems and in organising the everyday universe of things into various sorts of smoothly running machines. The combination of these two streams of thought has imparted a structure to the conscious mind that induces it to believe itself to be uniquely and solely powerful and to have before it the goal of complete domination of all things. The modern rational ego finds it impossible to conceive of any other focus of power and authority in the universe apart from itself, since everything else is merely a mechanical device, a robotic slave, an insensible machine. Apart from these things, there is, for the modern ego, nothing else. So what is the ego, fundamentally?

As we have already maintained, the ego is essentially the agent of the instinct for survival, the structure that acts for the self-preservation (self-repetition) of the organism and for the maximisation of the organism’s pleasure and power. It co-ordinates all the tactics, strategies, tricks and devices by means of which the subject interacts with the environment in such a way as to maximise its own advantage and to repeat those experiences found to be rewarding. The ego is number one and its job is to look after number one. It is thus entirely unprincipled except for the principle that its own advantage must be sought. Because it is ‘egoistic’, it will lie, cheat, defraud, corrupt and destroy ruthlessly in pursuance of this basic aim without considering these types of action as in any way negative. Of course, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with this, within certain limits. All the creatures on the planet are to that extent self-seeking that they are equipped with instincts and reflexes that ensure their survival, at least when they have left infancy and entered the adult state. So the ego is in essence a practically useful agency. In the adult human, however, it can and does become hypertrophied and puffed up by cosmic ambition out of all proportion to the simple daily needs of the individual, ballooning into a mighty blister of self-important self-seeking that takes no account of others, even though others are the majority and therefore more powerful. It can become an unprincipled and aggressive gangster, a tyrant, a despot, a monster of pitiless selfishness, a world-swallowing snatcher after a wholly delusory divinity.
How the simple instinct for self-preservation can engender the psychic inflation that turns the ego into a self-appointed god whose needs and demands eclipse and cancel those of all others, is somewhat of a mystery. But it happens and some progress can be made in understanding how it happens by studying the effects of the thing-ideology and the doctrine of mechanism on the individual psyche. The simple truth is this: the mind that ceases to view itself as part of a superordinate system that brought it forth, that created and continuously creates it and that it can trust, will react with a sense of its own unique importance on the one hand and with a (perhaps unconscious) sense of alienation and anxiety, on the other. This anxiety can then be expressed as aggression or retreat. Such a mind will either fly to seek refuge in another system of which it can feel a part, or else it will elevate itself to the level of that very superordinate system it has abandoned and arrogate to itself all the authority, all the power that was previously located outside of it. Thus, whereas in the past, God was regarded as supreme authority of the universe, and the ego as God’s obedient and loyal servant, this order has been turned on its head. With the disappearance of the divine, the ego either casts around for God-substitutes, or else it appoints itself to the top job.

The archetypal image that encapsulates the latter strategy of the ego is that of Satan, Lucifer, the Devil – particularly as portrayed in the great literature of the western tradition. Milton’s devil is the very image of the ego at work. Competing authority is, to the ego, the red rag waved in front of the nose of the bull: it rouses the ego to a passion of rejection and opposition. It is a very adolescent reaction, a parricidal urge to dethrone the power that orders that things shall be done in a certain pre-determined way. The ego is determined not to take orders on the basis of authority alone. It is determined to question authority and to establish its own credentials as equal in authority to any other agency. Prometheus is another image of the ego. The hero of the ancient world was impatient with the powerful but capricious gods, wanted to create his own human beings and wanted to rule over his own universe. He stole their fire; but they took their revenge upon him by chaining him to a rock and having birds eternally eat his eternally regenerating liver (a powerful image of the sterility of the ego stuck in its repetitions). Faust is another ego-image, as are all the despots and tyrants of history, Alexander, Genghis Khan, Attila, Nero, Caligula, numerous kings and popes of the medieval period, various European emperors, Napoleon, Stalin, Hitler, Saddam Hussein and so on. All of these incarnations of the ego and its lust for power have a great deal in common: invincible self-belief, ruthless preparedness to use anything and anyone as instruments in the struggle for power and a massive pride that in the end turns into the hubris that brings about the final downfall.

These images from history, however, are almost caricatural in their exemplifying of the ego. In everyday life, the normal ego seems to have its ambitions painted on a narrower canvas and to strut on a less impressive stage. Nevertheless, the modern, everyday ego functions in exactly the same way as its high profile, more highly coloured cousins from the history books. It functions in an apparently smaller sphere, an intellectual or scientific specialism, a company, an organisation, an institution, a political party, a family, a gang, a pair, indeed in any structure that can be subject to an individual’s desire for power, influence and control. It does not, moreover, have to show any of the features of the despot: it can be a subtle and self-effacing specialist in the manipulative use of weakness and remain an ego. But we are not primarily interested here in the tyrants and despots of varying shapes and sizes as much as in the influence of the ego and its instincts upon the intellectual life of western civilisation. For the ego, particularly the scientific ego, is responsible for many monumental blunders, many disastrous policies and many deeply damaging beliefs from which the general population as a whole has suffered and suffers gravely. It is the ego that drives our current absolute conception of knowledge as definitive certainty and that keeps in place the outmoded thing-ideology and the system that underpins it: the mechanistic-deterministic-materialistic dogma.

It is the ego with its identity-anxiety and its fear-impelled desire for power and control that drives the modern intellectual enterprise and gives it its particular character. It is the ego that determines the current conception of knowledge as absolute truth and that links the search for understanding to the need for control. The modern rational ego is the control-freak par excellence and it is this ego that determines the authority of science, the use that is made of it, its institutionalization and the ultimate aim of all organised gathering and dissemination of skills and information. The motor of the ego is the fear of domination and the desire to dominate. If we wished to sum up in a single term the nature of the emotions that motivate the ego and co-ordinate the modern drive for knowledge, we could do better than to use the term ‘pride’ in all its negative connotations. Pride is one of those human qualities that can be both vice and virtue. A justified pride in one’s achievements, one’s group, one’s offspring etc. can be wholly benign, positive and inoffensive. The pride we are talking about here is the negative, destructive desire on the part of the ego to elevate itself to unique power and influence by means of its own efforts and to hang onto that power and influence at all costs.
In the field of knowledge, this pride is the cause of all dogmatism, all orthodoxy, all academic in-fighting, all scientific skulduggery, all intolerant, exclusive persecution of alternative points of view, all suppression of inconvenient facts, all distortion of the truth, all eliminative theorising, all pronouncements on the impossibility of certain things, all claims concerning the unique and definitive validity of some knowledge, all action instigated on the basis of imperfect understanding, all persecution or exploitation of the weak, all ecologically disastrous policies, all damaging and misguided interventions in nature of any sort.
The ego with its pretensions to omniscience and omnipotence is quite simply, at the heart of all the self-inflicted problems of humanity.


The ego is prepared to take half-knowledge and even falsehood for absolute truth and moreover prepared to act upon it. It calls this 'being decisive'. Descartes was aware of this and talks in his Méditations of the dangers of rushing to conclusions on the basis of imperfect understanding. He puts this human tendency down to what he characterises as the infinite demands of the unrestrained ‘will’, describing this latter as unlimited in its ambition though limited in its ability to understand (an accurate picture of the ego). He cautioned against an insufficiently critical attitude to what strikes the will as convincing and urged reliance on the ‘natural light’, the God-given faculty of rational criticism. Unfortunately, the intellectual tradition of the West shows that few took his cautions seriously. The ego in the modern version of the cogito sees itself as entirely self-contained and self-sufficient, not in any way dependent on God as in Descartes. This tradition of the authoritative ego has been characterised by dogma and intolerant orthodoxy from its very inception in the pre-Christian era of the Ancient Greeks. Christianity in the hands of the medieval ego bolstered the generally intolerant and dogmatic character of western intellectual life, the dogmatic conception of knowledge, by attempting to thrust down the throats of all and sundry the ‘absolute truth’ of the Gospel and burning any who dared to dissent. The Renaissance and the Enlightenment then, as inheritors of this general notion of truth, continued the essentially intolerant, adversarial tradition and set up an ideal of knowledge as absolute certainty that also brooked no opposition and tolerated no dissent. This notion of knowledge went hand in hand with the theory that knowledge had to be ‘proved’, that is to say demonstrated with all the irrefutable rigour of a mathematical equation or an exercise in formal logic and thereby established for all time.
This notion of ‘proof’ that smuggles deductive demonstrations into what are no more than descriptive inductive generalisations, that pretends that the deductive certainty is applicable to the imperfectly informed empirical generalisation, is in fact a tool of the ego. It is a kind of intellectual violence, or at least the threat of violence. The trick is to pretend that the formal validity of the deduction makes the assertion impossible to doubt; whereas the shakiness of the premises is glossed over breezily. For example, this formal equation: ‘All As are B; C is an A, therefore C is B’ is absolutely valid. But one can imagine it being used by despotic egos in some ghastly totalitarian society in the following proposition: ‘All swans are white, this is a swan, therefore this is white’ (even where the bird in question is Antipodean and black) and dissent from the proposition being met with punishment. One can even adduce examples of formally invalid arguments with shaky premises being used (All Communist spies are trades union members; X is a trades union member; therefore X is a Communist spy). Such things have happened throughout human history. The notion of force is essential to the notion of proof: proof forces the opposition to accept it on pain of accusations of stupidity. Since the logic works formally, insists the ego, the assertion about the world is demonstrated absolutely – a piece of false sophistry if ever there was one. This conception of knowledge goes hand in hand, moreover, with the atomism of the thing ideology. All atoms are identical and can therefore be used as mere ciphers in equations. Equally, however, the mind-atom, because it has no properties, is completely separate and distinct from everything else, uniquely and magnificently alone, cut off from all other mind-atoms and from the world itself, in which it has no place. The resulting feeling of alienation generates the fear that in turn generates the defensive and aggressive attitudes.

Thus the ego has a huge amount of emotional energy invested in those structures that bolster its self-regard, that defend it, that raise its profile and its level of power. This emotion is essential to its methods. The social and psychological fragmentation consequent upon the rise to prominence of the thing-ideology created conditions more propitious than any before for the ego-instincts to be unleashed in all their force and to allow them to make a move for ultimate domination. The thing-ideology, the doctrine of mechanism and the notion of knowledge as definitively ‘proved’ created the right psychological circumstances for a totalitarianism not only of the political sphere, but also of the intellectual. It created the circumstances for a despotism of the scientific ego. The successes of Newtonian mechanics in the eighteenth century created an optimism and a sense that ultimate knowledge of everything was just around the corner. This optimism – exemplified, as already mentioned, by the Comte de Laplace – was heady stimulation for the ego and its instincts. It was this combination, in fact, of apparently successful theory uncritically believed to be absolute, and alienated ego desiring absolute control for itself, that led to the scientific climate of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a scientific climate that nurtured the thought that absolute power and control were within the grasp of any human being. This scientific climate is perpetuated today in the doctrine of Naturalism that underpins much popular writing on science. Small wonder that the nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw the most determined efforts in the direction of universal political empire. Fantasies concerning the elevation of the human mind to godhood abounded. Intelligent individuals asserted, ‘man has become god’. This was felt to be the perfect alternative to the old religious subjection of the past and the ego thrived upon it. It goes without saying that it was this very climate of intellectual opinion that created all the totalitarianisms of Communism and Fascism. It also spawned all the confident pronouncements on the impossibility of the existence of God or of an immortal soul, all the barmy and now mercifully discredited medical interventions such a lobotomy, all the misguided technological adventures, such as the invention of nuclear weaponry and the pervasive tendency towards mechanisation and mechanical control that we see in modern institutions, modern organisations and modern society as a whole.

The Ego is not Fitted for the Top Job

It is the ego and its instincts for self-preservation, for self-protection, for elimination of the opposition that largely drives the processes just mentioned. Though there is something else: the ego’s devotion to its own pleasure and its desire to repeat its pleasurable states of mind at all cost. The ego, as we have repeatedly stressed, is mechanical structure for the repetition of those experiences that have given and that give it pleasure – the law of diminishing returns notwithstanding. The ego’s rationality is to a large extent a method for the achievement of this sort of repetition. The ego craves comforting repetition more than anything else and it is for this reason that the thing-ideology seeks to understand the universe in terms of repetitive structures, or ‘laws’. The lawgiver God of monotheism was the modern ego’s role-model. The best way in which a pleasure can be repeated is to discover the mechanism that provides it and to activate this mechanism repeatedly – like the laboratory rats, incessantly bashing the switch that stimulated their pleasure areas. The best way to guarantee that the pleasure in question continues – let’s say the pleasure from feelings of control – is to make the belief giving rise to such pleasure into ‘eternal’ laws, that is to say into laws that repeat the pleasurable notion for ever.

As Nietzsche knew, all pleasure craves eternity and the best way for the ego to guarantee such eternity is by means of the self-repeating machine. Of course, Nietzsche was subtle enough to understand that such an Eternal Return of the Same was more of a challenge than the contemporary scientific ego of the Dawkins type could ever understand. But then Nietzsche was in many respects far ahead of his time, so far that we still have to catch up with his understanding of the ego. In other respects, he was also remarkably muddle-headed. He understood the dynamics of the ego, he understood the dynamics of creativity, but he failed to understand that the ego can never be the sole authority in the world. It is human creativity – rather than rationality – that holds the true authority in the human world; and the ego is the antithesis of creative, it is mechanical. Nietzsche’s Übermensch is in many respects the very image of the post-religious ego and since for him God was dead, there remained only the authority of the ego to carry us forward. But Nietzsche’s mistake was to see that ego as the replacement for God, even though he knew its weaknesses. This is surprising for he understood very well how dependent the ego is upon the non-ego, the creative mind, what he himself called long before Freud had borrowed the term, the ‘it’, (though what is intended is what we less tendentiously call ‘the self’). Nietzsche’s philosophy reposes upon a belief in the ability of the non-rational creativity of the world to produce the new creation. Unaccountably, he viewed this new creation as a kind of mega-ego. Consequently, his atheism, given his understanding of creativity, is suspect and may have been just one more of his philosophical masks.

The modern scientific ego is not only completely lacking in an understanding of creativity, but also lacking in any means of understanding it. It is therefore far more primitive than Nietzsche’s ego. The modern ego is both within and outside of science characterised by an animal craving for the feelings of dominance, and unique authority and for the pleasure of the incessant repetition of these feelings. To repeat and repeat what is pleasurable is the essential aim of the small contemporary ego. If it can write this repetition on the very fabric of the universe itself and dominate the universe by method, it will be happy. Nietzsche’s atheism was ironic, methodological and theatrical, for he understood creativity too well to be entirely without some understanding of the non-rational, intelligent coordination of nature. The scientific ego has to resign itself to the fact that its search for certainty by means of its own resources alone is doomed to failure precisely because of the murky roots of its methods. The death of the scientific ego is on the horizon and it is a death that will have been caused by developments in science itself. What comes after the rational scientific ego is difficult to predict; but one thing is certain: it will not brandish its own ‘proven’ certainties as eternal truths.

Towards the Self

It was the contemporary ego that created the thing-ideology and the dogma of mechanism and it created it by elevating to absolute status what it knew in its deepest recesses to be imperfect knowledge, imperfect experience and imperfect understanding of the world. The value of this partial knowledge was that it flattered the ego’s sense of self-importance and therefore provided its most exquisite pleasure. In the new absence of any other authority in the universe, after the decline of religion, the ego felt itself entitled, indeed obliged to assert its claim to complete authoritativeness for its own well-being. Fortunately events overtook it and developments in science, the developments of relativity and quantum physics began to demonstrate that human knowledge was not all that it had so far been cracked up to be, not the absolute, mechanically repeatable certainty that the ego had been claiming it was. Nevertheless, the ego continues to rule the roost in the west and continues to make the running in much of intellectual life. This continues to be the case even though all manner of insights have been acquired in the hardest of hard sciences that suggest very clearly that the ego-driven confidence in what is ‘self-evident’, what is ‘obvious’ is sadly misplaced. A new modesty and humility is creeping into front-rank science that was not there in its period of explosive development, in the first flush of its confidence and optimism. Science is realising that nature is far more complex than was ever suspected before, so complex, indeed, that we may as well abandon the old ambitions for complete understanding of so-called mechanisms. Chaotic systems are considered to be so subtle as to defy understanding in old, mechanical ways of thought indeed to defy understanding tout court. Theory now is much more tentative and apologetic, much more expressive of the search than of any arrival at a final destination.

Yet the ego continues to have its way. The old thing-ideology and the old mechanism continue to dominate, particularly in the biological sciences. They will dominate, moreover, because the ego’s ultimate pleasure is bound up with its absolute self-regard, and this self-regard is bolstered by the feeling that its mechanically repeatable ‘knowledge’ is its own achievement. The ego’s deep attachment to mechanical method is of a piece with its desire to repeat the pleasure of domination. Along with this domination goes a kind of free-for-all in which the lust for power, naked, selfish ambition, ruthless insensitivity to others and dogmatic preparedness to act on imperfect knowledge continue to inflict damage upon individual and group alike. It is the defensive conservatism of the ego that ensures that fundamentally outdated modes of thought and fundamentally unprincipled modes of action continue to hold sway. It is for this reason that a mindshift is urgently required in the modern world that will definitively banish these features of the ego from intellectual life. We have no room for despots and tyrants in politics, and no room for exclusive, eliminative theories or intolerant orthodoxies in science. The world is too small for these and the potential for destruction too real. The only hope for the modern world is the critical faculty and above all the self-critical faculty of the subject. Only unending discussion and the consequent modification of the invariably rigid positions adopted by the ego can save the world from the idiocy of a god that will invariably fail. Only a new modesty and a new preparedness to trust the processes of nature and to listen to them, conform ourselves to them, rather than trying to bully them into conformity with our will, can prevent us from sawing manically through the branch upon which we are sitting. This planet is all we have and as long as the ego is allowed to pursue its crazy self-aggrandizement and action according to faulty understanding, it and we are in danger. The rational ego in all its forms, scientific, religious, political, managerial, intellectual, or whatever, has to abandoned. The way in which this could be achieved is by means of a new ethics of non-atomic, non-mechanical selfhood.
The self has to be revealed as vastly more than the ego and as integrated into a system that is nothing less than the entirety of reality. The ego as a system of animal self-defence has to be shown to have outlived its usefulness. The ego is a mechanical system that cannot create anything, because its fundamental modus operandi is the rigid method. The self, by contrast, is not master in its own house and does not desire to be; it is intrinsically and inherently dependent. The sooner the human self realises its complete umbilical dependence upon a system far larger than it can even imagine, the system of hyperworld, the better. The sooner the self learns to trust this system, to listen to this system, to abandon the strident, selfish, manic, monomaniacal vapourings of the ego, the better. Not until the ego has learned to lose itself in the meditative and contemplative calm of egolessness, in which the universal oneness of nature is experienced will it begin to turn into a much more benign, much less destructive type of consciousness. The human race has this stark choice before it: either to ditch the ego and its selfish purblindness or to develop the self and its sense of integration into the whole. The left-brain (to use this creaking brain-mythology, for a moment) will continue to tell its little rationalising, ego-flattering tales and to feign dominance of the right-brain. If we do not find a way of fostering the self and allowing the ego to wither as a consequence, we will fail as a species. There is no longer any need for the ego, since it served our survival when we were just a mammal among competing creatures; but we have long since left such competition behind. By continuing to elevate a structure designed for our individual survival to spheres where it has no relevance, however, we destroy our chances of evolving into what we could be: successful collaborators with the universal process of reality as a whole.

For much of recorded history, human beings have dreamt of complete control of their lives and of their environment by means of ritual – right method, right, words, right actions – and have believed that the pronunciation of certain formulae imparted power. These things are still alive in the scientific ego and it is about time we grew out of them. The self has no such magical faith in language; it is to that extent not merely post-modern, but post-linguistic. The human consciousness that has ditched the ego and come to a consciousness of itself as a self has no further need of precious propositions in which it must believe for its peace of mind. The self is by definition in a state of knowledge and no longer requires sentences to encapsulate its treasured beliefs. The self is understanding per se and as such uses language allusively and ironically as a necessarily oblique reference to a knowledge that is too complex for language.