Wednesday, March 9, 2011

THE CONCEPT OF THE SELF

The self is of course not a concept, but a living reality that, despite being the essence of our daily conscious experience, can be only imperfectly characterised in language. Whereas the ego and the person are closely allied to language, the self eludes precise description in language and indeed the attempt at such a description generates paradox. All human individuals have some consciousness of the self, but it is all too frequently obscured by the ego. The ‘concept of the self’ referred to here is therefore no more than an inevitably vain attempt to describe the self in conceptual terms. The living reality of the self gives the raw material of this discussion, but its translation into conceptual terms suffers from all the infirmities of language and of the person using the language. The basic difficulty is this: language is inseparably linked to sensory experience, whereas the experience of the self is non-sensory. This combination more properly generates poetry; but I am not a poet.


The concept ‘self’ is much broader and deeper than the concepts ‘ego’ or ‘person’. As an emergent phenomenon in human psychology, it is far easier to talk of it in negative terms – i.e. in terms of what it is not – rather than in supposedly positive terms. It is certainly impossible to talk of the self in the ego’s favoured terms of empirical observability and mechanical repeatability. It is impossible and unnecessary, moreover, to talk of the ‘identity’ of the self, since the self is not identical with itself in the way that the ego imagines itself to be: the self’s awareness of itself is based upon the essential ‘otherness’ of the self that makes the notion of ‘self-knowledge’ a bit of a contradiction in terms (though acquaintance with and increasing understanding of its dynamics are clearly possible). The Socratic injunction to ‘know thyself’ has to be understood as the old fox himself intended it to be understood: ironically. Knowledge of the self entails knowledge of its impenetrability. The self is unbounded, of indeterminable extent and of only dimly understood dynamics; but it is essentially a growing awareness of itself without limit. It is in this sense that the self is not known to itself. The essence of the self’s consciousness of itself is that it is a both mystery to itself and a constant illumination of that mystery. The self is both conscious of itself and unconscious of itself. It has understanding of itself to an extent, but that understanding involves the understanding that it does not understand itself. That is why is cannot be identical with itself. Where the ego is formed and identifiable, the self is a work in progress, an unrealised project, pure evolution. It is the ego that makes definitive pronouncements concerning the self, and for that reason such statements have to be treated with caution. The self’s lack of understanding of itself is necessarily supplemented by what the religious call ‘faith’. While the ego is convinced it both knows and controls itself, the self knows that neither is possible and has no other option than to maintain an attitude of trust. It is in the self that the tension between faith and knowledge is most immediate. The ego can affect the stance of knowledge and rational conviction and switch off the attitude of faith; but the price of this self-truncation is precisely that. It is a self mutilation that can have disastrous consequences.

There is obviously a close connection between the ego and the self, since the former emerges out of the latter though the latter transcends the former; but the self can almost be defined as everything the ego is not. Of course, this has to be qualified heavily since the self is consciously aware; but in the self, ego-consciousness is subsumed under a much more capacious type of individual awareness. The ego is, as already emphasised, a temporal, time-bound and temporary structure, tied to a timetable of goals and schemes. The essence of the self, however, in contrast to the time-bound nature of the ego, is its timelessness and boundlessness. The ego is a mechanism, the purpose of which is the preservation and promotion of the individual body. The self is nothing of the sort. The ego as ‘I’ is conscious of a ‘me’ and that ‘me’ includes the thing that is ‘my’ body as well as those aspects of the person that do not form part of the ego; but the ego, particularly the rational ego identifies itself, both as ‘I’ and as ‘me’, as something known. The self, by contrast, is conscious of being no thing, having no parts and being neither subject nor object. It is rather both at once, without identifying itself with any single object, body or otherwise. The ego thinks in linear, sequential form in terms of means and ends, cause and effect, time-lines and so on. To the self, all thoughts are potentially present to it simultaneously as aspects of a perpetually expanding sphere of awareness. The ego is obsessed by the thought of knowledge as acquisition and is as wedded to its propositional beliefs as it is to its personal possessions. The self simply is a state of perpetual cognitive expansion from the centre. The ego is devoted to the notion of repetition. The self understands that the nature of reality is to preclude the possibility of repetition, since every entity without exception is strictly unique despite apparent similarities to other entities and has a unique trajectory. The ego is tied to language and to the empirical nature of language. The self is post-linguistic since it has transcended the naive view of language as able to represent any mental or physical content whatever. The ego is essentially rational. The self is intrinsically creative and uses any medium at its disposal to externalise itself and give itself objective presence. Where the ego believes only in positive, direct communication, the self expresses itself indirectly.


The human individual is conscious of a world and of space and time. But in addition to mere consciousness – i.e. an inner representation of the external world of space through time – he or she is also self-reflectively conscious of being conscious of those things, i.e. conscious of being conscious of the world. This is what we mean by the ‘self-consciousness’ of the human individual. It is second-order consciousness. This type of consciousness is distinct from that which we attribute to the non-human animals and it is by many dimensions and by many degrees of freedom more complex. It is distinct, too, from ego-consciousness, which can indeed exist without very much self-consciousness. Consciousness of the self is not structured or bounded by that of which it is conscious. That, of which it is conscious, is neither bounded nor structured. The self is not just the bundle of sensations that Hume for example thought constituted the conscious mind. It is rather a vantage-point from which the temporal flow of consciousness is contemplated; and thus the most rudimentary self-consciousness is in a sense ‘beyond’ the world of space and time. Human self-consciousness is analogous to a hall of infinitely self-reflecting mirrors, and the reflection is not mere recursion, since what is reflected is subtly changed in each reflection. It is this reflection that permits the symbolic representation of thought and the understanding of that symbolism. Every human mind is a complex and subtle entity that only partially understands itself; and we do well not to try and over-simplify it in ways that are dear to the ego: by objectification and mechanisation. The problem in this respect is made doubly complex by self-reference, i.e. by the fact that when the ego tries to express the results of investigations in language, the investigating subject is the subject of investigation – a fact that the ego tries to ignore or obscure by ambiguous use of pronouns (‘I’, ‘me’, ‘it’ and more). Already, the ego is a terrible simplifier and itself a grotesque simplification of the mind. If we identify the mind only with the ego, we distort what it means to be human and risk reducing the individual to a paranoid, self-seeking, power-hungry, repetitive monomaniac. The human ego is never, of course, entirely devoid of experience and understanding of the self; but it tends to confuse and distort this knowledge in ways characteristic of the ego. It is not helpful, moreover, to point out that human individuals displaying such characteristics abound, and then to claim that this is the essence of human consciousness, since so to speak, ‘the majority is always right’. Given that the human self is an unfinished project, the majority is always wrong. The understanding of the self is rare, since it is a state towards which humanity is progressing and the process has only recently begun.

It is because of the rarity of understanding of the self – at least in the west – that the ego, particularly the rational ego, tends to deny the existence of the self or at least to simplify it out of existence. But there are other sorts of simplification that we impose upon ourselves and by means of which we restrict ourselves. One of these is the notion of the ‘persona’. The word ‘person’ comes from a Latin word meaning ‘mask’. That is very appropriate, since the person is a particular kind of fa├žade that each of us shows to the world although each of us is aware that many aspects of our personality are deliberately left out of that public image. The persona is the manner in which we identify and advertise ourselves to those around us. We apply all sorts of words, all sorts of labels to ourselves by means of which we confer ‘identity’ upon ourselves. We call ourselves by a particular name, our proper name, and we feel that the pronouncing of that name says something unique about us. We then apply all sorts of categories to ourselves: 'accountant', 'doctor', 'dustman', 'prime minister', 'astronaut', 'hairdresser' and so on. We are ‘father’ or ‘mother’ to someone. We are ‘uncle’, ‘aunt’. We are ‘Jewish’, ‘Moslem’, ‘Buddhist’. We are ‘socialist’, ‘democrat’, ‘fascist’. We are ‘extravert’, ‘stingy’, ‘careless’, ‘generous’. We are ‘stylish’, ‘dowdy’, ‘eccentric’ and all the rest. But you get the picture. With these words and labels, we build up our own identity as well as that of others. The ego, of course, chooses its personal labels carefully to maximise its advantage in any set of circumstances. But whatever the purpose of the labels, we tend to equate those sorts of descriptions with the self, not only of others but also our own. In this we are profoundly mistaken. The self cannot be identified with any recognisable role or mask, since it is a piece of nature, a natural event, albeit of a very special sort since it is our origin.


The identity built up by the use of labels may be something that we believe in or not. We may be entirely convinced by our own persona or we may not. The point is that it is a definable set of characteristics, to which, genuinely or not, we equate ourselves, with which we identify ourselves as individuals. Obviously the persona can be an elaborate deception, a confidence-trick. Or it can also be an elaborate self-deception. Many successful crooks and conmen use a well-honed, studied persona to deceive others, gain their confidence and defraud them. But equally, many people develop a persona in the belief that that really is who and what they are or ought to be; whereas they may throughout their whole life simply be doing what they think others expect of them - and thus defrauding themselves. The crook can shed the persona with relative ease. The individual who identifies him- or herself entirely with the mask shown to the world is in a rather different position and may be storing up problems by such a total investment of energy in a social role. The so-called ‘mid-life crisis’ is often the irruption into the mind of a long suppressed realisation that the persona no longer fits the self. The individual concerned suddenly wakes up one day to the realisation that the social role has begun to wear out or cease to fit. In such circumstances the real self underneath, though showing a determination to emerge, can often lack the expressive equipment to externalise itself. This can be an acutely distressing experience and one accompanied by all sorts of bizarre and uncharacteristic behaviour on the part of the individual in question, even by mental illness. The person can be quite literally ‘beside him- or herself’. Alternatively, it can be a completely liberating experience in which the individual changes tack completely and successfully sets off in a totally new, perhaps surprising direction, but a direction felt by that individual, whatever others might think, as supremely creative and positive. The success of the self’s emergence is not guaranteed and it is more often than not the ego or the persona that spoil things.


It is for this reason that a distinction has to be made not only between the ego and the self, but also between the persona and the self; and these distinctions are not clarified by the stark opposition of conscious and unconscious mind employed in psychoanalysis. Just as the ego constitutes a structure by means of which certain deep animal passions – territoriality, fear of competition, acquisitiveness, rivalry, desire for control, need to dominate, and so on – are channelled in particular ways and constitute a specialisation or simplification of the self, so the persona does an analogous job; though its particular function is to make the self identifiable and acceptable to critical and often wary fellows. The persona is often developed in very close collaboration with the ego for the achievement of certain definite ends. The ego provides the energy and the drive, while the persona provides the public relations. This is to a certain extent what makes the current human world go round and what confers upon the human individual the particular focus and motivation that characterises many people who ‘get things done’, ‘achieve’ and obtain ‘success’. The advantages of these simplifying and specializing structures can be very real in terms of what the ego understands as immediate benefits, wealth, status, regard, power and so on; but the dangers are equally real. The dangers concern the extent to which the self may get out of harmony with its ego or with its persona and the various domains of the mind begin to go their separate ways. The ego and the persona are largely social constructs. The self, however, as a piece of nature is pure world, and the imposition of any structure upon it that inhibits or handicaps it in any way results in distortions and deformations just as any other natural structure – a plant, let’s say – will suffer distortion if forced to grow in unnatural, unfavourable or otherwise restricted conditions. It is for all of these reasons that what is popularly referred to as ‘personal development’ is a process fraught with difficulty and attended by many pitfalls. It is in essence a delicate tightrope or balancing act.

We have called the self a ‘piece of nature’, but the use of the word ‘natural’ here is very problematic. It is easy enough to define what the natural circumstances of a tree or of a rabbit are when growing ‘in the wild’. With a human individual, this word is almost impossible to use, because it is impossible to define the human, or the role of a human, in the way that we can define other creatures on this planet in terms of their activities. It seems obvious what the role of a tiger or of a millipede is: such creatures all seem to behave in similar ways to each other member of their species and their behaviour simply is their role. Though there are obviously many human constants, human beings seem to get up to all sorts of things and, moreover, to change their habits constantly from generation to generation and from place to place. The ego and a fortiori the persona are often no more than a piece of the prevailing society and would be totally definable were it not for the association with the self that exists – in however stunted or embryonic a form – in all human individuals as the essence of their consciousness. The self has to be a piece of nature, since it is specifically not a product of society, but of the same forces as those that gave rise to all the other creatures, before civilisation, and civilisation notwithstanding. The question is, how can we expect a purely ‘natural’ growth or development in any humans given the clear fact that every aspect of human life appears to be both a socially engineered construct, a departure from a purely ‘natural’ existence, and an extended adventure into a landscape of apparently infinite, socially constructed possibility? The answer to this is found in the extent to which individual human consciousness can transcend its own socially constructed aspects and subsume them into that which allows them to be self-reflective, self-conscious, self-critical and otherwise ‘beyond’ their own consciousness, namely the perpetually emergent self. For it can be stated as the essential principle of human psychology that the human mind is a self-transcending structure that presupposes an irreducible entity at its core that is above and beyond all identifiable and classifiable features of observable psychology and is, indeed, their ultimate source. The history of human culture is the history of the emergence of the self into consciousness. Though the intrinsic knowledge of the self is entirely subjective, knowledge of the self can be objective insofar as every cultural product is understood as an externalisation of the self. The self is knowable in retrospect and indeed ignorance of history – particularly cultural history – is in many respects ignorance of the self. Eastern philosophy, both Chinese and Indian, constituted the first great articulation of the dynamics of the self. But these traditions were in many respects pre-ego. The ego developed fully with monotheism and western rationalism; and the self’s development subsequent to monotheism has to be post-ego, that is to say it has to be grounded in transcendence of the ego rather than in relative innocence of it.

The Role of the Self

If we ask, what is the role of the self? the ego will reply with characteristic self-confidence that the human individual can become whatever it sets its mind upon becoming: for the ego it is sufficient to desire the end and then invent the means. But here the ego is (as ever) talking about the ego, not about the self. The ego is the universal Mister Fix-it for whom nothing imaginable is impossible. But for the ego, this eager, busy effectiveness is nothing to do with the ‘naturalness’ or otherwise of the self; it has rather to do with the feeling of power, even of omnipotence that the ego likes to cultivate with respect to itself. The modern ego, the modern scientific or technological ego as inheritor of the mantle of the monotheistic, lawgiving deity, as sole and absolute ruler of the universe, has taken over all the powers traditionally attributed to God and therefore has no use for the concept of ‘naturalness’: the ego is its own god and its own creator. After all, even the Creator of the natural world is unlikely himself to be called ‘natural’ either by those who believe in him or those who deny his existence. But we do not have to operate with immature fantasies of this kind. The ego is a limiting, preservative structure imposed upon the self; which is why, though the ego is clearly ‘egoistic’, it is less obvious that the self is ‘selfish’, except perhaps in the eyes of the ego. The persona is similarly limiting. Both may be useful fictions by means of which much is achieved by the human race. This social and cultural value of the ego and the person as limiting structures, however, has to be set against their disvalue with respect to the growth of the individual self. Both the ego and the persona loom very large in recent cultural history since their rise to prominence is a relatively recent phenomenon, but their recent inflated importance is an illusion, as illusory as a gigantic shadow projected on a mist. In and of themselves, neither the ego nor the persona achieve anything of note at all, since they are rule-governed and entirely uncreative. It is their - largely unconscious - collaboration with the self that constitutes the motor of their achievements. But one thing has to be made clear before any understanding of the relations between self and ego, or self and persona, can be understood and it is this: all the structures of the conscious personality have their origin, in and emerge out of, the self. It is from the self that the ego and the persona and all the other daylight structures of the conscious mind grow as vegetation from the earth; and it is to the self that they return, since the self is our access to the humus of being, to what we have called ‘hyperworld’.


It is time we overcame the modern, ego-generated delusion: the real accomplishments of the human race throughout history are not the work of the ego nor are they the work of the persona. Both of these structures function according to definite algorithmic procedures in specific contexts; and it is that strict limitation, that focus, that supplies them with their energy. The ego is an animal structure that promotes the interests of the individual in a world of advantageous or injurious objects. The persona is a structure that fulfils much the same function in a world of social hurdles. We could say that their collaborative activity is under the tutelage of the left-brain with its labels and reasons providing the logical rigour in the pusillanimous calculus of personal advancement. The ego in its ordinary functioning will always seek its own advantage whatever the obstacles by manipulating its particular environment. The persona, if working smoothly, will always measure up to what is expected of its particular social role. But it is definite method and definite procedure that count in the success these structures, since their purpose is to maximise the advantage of the individual within a definite context with definite rules, definite functions, definite goals, definite pay-offs and the like. The energy with which the ego and the persona pursue their aims is also of enormous social value. The function of the self in history, by contrast, though making use of all of this functional efficiency, is completely different from it in that it is intrinsically creative, and as such has no identifiable method. Creativity cannot be reduced to a routine, a procedure or a method. The creative accomplishments of the human race cannot be traced to the repeatable and repetitive methods of the ego and the persona, even though these latter may have provided a vital impetus in the implementation of synthetic insights that arose sensu stricto from ‘no-thing’, that is to say ex nihilo – from the ‘no-thingness’ of the self.

The self cannot but be creative, since it is the wave-front of the evolving, perpetually emergent cosmos. It is that focus of creativity that has left the entire phenomenal world of the past in its wake and forges into the unknown future.


We have alluded already to the apparent ‘formlessness’ of the human self, its lack of tramlines to run on, its lack of pre-determined patterns of behaviour to structure its existence, its lack of ‘essence’, in short. How does this chime with the apparent tendency of the average human to define itself entirely in terms of ego and person and to fit itself into the existing milieu by various means: thrusting ambition, manipulation, clever dissimulation, conformity, reactive non-conformity, and so on? If the self were identical with and no more than the artificial structure that society imposes upon it, how could we ever understand it as in any way ‘natural’, a piece of the natural world? If, on the other hand, there is something more to the self than a mere structure by means of which it interacts with society, then perhaps, if we can mark out that something, we will be closer to an understanding, without Romanticism, of what a ‘natural’ self could be. Failure to mark out the province of the self would be to admit that the human self is an artefact, not to say an artifice and that the best it can hope for is that the guises in which it invents and re-invents itself will turn out not to be too restrictive or otherwise damaging. But it is of the essence of the creativity of the self to understand that it is transcendent to any of the means by which it invents, i.e. externalises itself. It is that transcendence, that ‘beyondness’ that constitutes the ‘naturalness’ of the self. There is nothing easier than a denial of the transcendence of the self; but such a denial results in the loss of what is most valuable to the human individual.


The transcendent self is the source of all human development. But we need to take a closer look at that notion of the self’s ‘inventing’ itself. What can that possibly mean? It is clear that human society has changed radically and coherently over the last ten thousand years or so of identifiable social and cultural history. This change, which has constituted our transition from the purely ‘natural’ state of our ancestors before civilization, is the direct result of the co-ordinated or uncoordinated action of many human individuals. It is the human self in its self-externalisation that has accomplished this. The fact that human society has changed radically means that the potential of the self temporally and spatially to realise itself in various social roles – acceptable or unacceptable roles – has been exploited. It means that the self has been caught up in an accelerated process of creation that is directly analogous to the evolution of the animal species, in that habitat has been exploited, social structure developed and various types of cultural and behavioural response to the world arrived at. One sometimes wonders, given the variety of human life, whether it is correct to talk in terms of humanity as a single species or whether it is not more intelligent to regard it as a large group of species each with a similar physical morphology but distinct by virtue of behaviour and culture (and maybe by level of consciousness). If that is the case, then perhaps any distinction between ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ is misguided. It could be argued that everything that the human does is natural. But that cannot be right, since it is entirely obvious to anyone that certain types of human behaviour – just think of Saddam Hussein’s crazy thrashing around in Iraq, or Pol Pot’s massacres of countless innocents, let alone the ecological and political mistakes that we are committing all the time – are all profoundly damaging, far more damaging than the emissions of methane from the digestive tracts of cows. ‘Naturalness’ surely cannot mean ‘injurious to nature’ or ‘essentially against nature’. So if we are to consider any aspects of human existence as natural, we have to conclude that the unnatural aspects of our being are those that inflict damage on our world on ourselves and on each other. Predation and exploitation in nature have always been sustainable; our damaging behaviour is not. So what makes us different? Perhaps we are at a point in cultural evolution where we can see the damage we inflict as arising from a confusion of the self with the ego or the persona. It seems that we are condemned either to understand in what way the self transcends both of these and move beyond them, or else succumb to their depredations.


Perhaps we can make this radical distinction between the damaging structures that simplify the self and the self itself: the ego and the person, if allowed to hypertrophy, produce nothing but aberration, since they prevent the natural functioning of the self. The ego and the self are predominantly artificial social constructs. The ego has an almost unlimited ability to develop social ambitions that are deeply damaging because they are rash, hasty, short-sighted and generated by an addiction to feelings of power. The persona has the ability to create a very effective set of responses to social milieux, but it also has the ability to create a carapace on the mind that separates the individual from his or her essential self and in doing so stunts and distorts individual development according to natural rhythms. The structures that simplify the self are the unnatural ones, the origin of the damaging behaviour, while the self, if correctly cultivated, is more benign, less ‘artificial’ and less inclined to get things catastrophically wrong, precisely because it is a piece of nature. Tigers and millipedes do not get things catastrophically wrong, so why should humans be so radically different? Do we have to believe that we are cursed? According to the Jewish mythology that turns the Socratic equation of knowledge with virtue on its head, the Fall of Man and the stain of Original Sin came about because of knowledge. But this must have been a very particular kind of knowledge; and from the context it looks suspiciously like knowledge structured by the vanity and self-regard of the ego. According to Jewish mythology, our first parents were flattered and misled by that very image of the ego, Lucifer. It is at least conceivable that the self is endowed with a type of (non-egoistic) creative intelligence that, if given its way, could constitute a post-egoistic reconnection with a sort of lost innocence.


It is entirely possible that all the villainies and idiocies of which the human race has been guilty (do we really need to list them?) have been the result of the distorting beliefs that constitute the essential structure of the ego and the persona and that give the knowledge possessed by the ego its particularly toxic character. Humans are products of the creative transformations of the biosphere (what is generally called ‘evolution’) as much as all the other animals; so why do we indulge in behaviour that is destructive not only of other creatures and of the natural environment, but also of our own support-system? Why is it that we so busily saw through the branch upon which we are perched? Why is it that we soil the nest in which we hatch, poison the water we drink, pollute the air we breathe, and even corrupt the very genetic code upon which our species depends? Can it be that evolution has overreached itself and produced the most unadapted of species, a species that is so deluded that it sees itself as the most successful being on the planet when it is in fact unfit to survive? Or are these aberrations the temporary effect of a temporary imbalance within the human psyche? The answer to these and similar questions must lie in the dynamics of the self and in the extent to which it moderates or even supplants the ego. Let us see if there is any hope at all of achieving stable and sustainable relations between the self and those structures that simplify and channel the energies of the self.


The Discovery of the Self as Antidote to the Ego

Both the ego and the persona are propped up by beliefs about the world, that is to say by systems of propositions whose purpose is to structure individual or group action. Both ego and persona view the world in a definite way and these beliefs constitute motives for various kinds of behaviour, some of which is useful, some of which is deeply damaging. While beliefs are indispensable to the functioning of the mind, it remains true to say that they are frequently the source of much that is wrong with the human species. The essential structure of the ego and of the persona is a certain inductive theory about how the world works and how it can be used to the individual’s advantage. There is also a system of values in there too, a system of beliefs about what is good, what is to be desired, what is valuable, worthwhile etc. This value-system is, of course, intimately related to the instincts that enabled our species to prosper: fight, flight, sex, nutrition, power and so on. It is worth considering, therefore, whether the beliefs that sustain the ego or the persona are now causing more damage than the species and its environment can sustain. In the modern world these instinct-generated goods are subordinated to the overarching ‘good’ of rationality. Despite loud denials from its proponents, rationality is equated with virtue, such that every other attitude is viewed as vice. The goods prescribed by instinct are regarded as self-evidently worth obtaining and they are therefore automatically attached to the supreme good of rationality. It is regarded as self-evidently good not only to satisfy instinctive desires but also to maximise desire-satisfaction in as rational a way possible. There are many different rational models of reality, but since the prevailing model of the world in the west is the so-called ‘scientific’ one (by which is usually meant the philosophy of materialistic Naturalism) and it is to this that the rational ego has attached itself with particular devotion, it is motivated by vast caricatural ‘rational’ versions of the old instincts mentioned above while denying that this is so. In actual fact, the current most fashionable model of the world is only scientific in the sense that eighteenth or nineteenth century science was scientific. The reasoning and the models used in current physical science at least are far in advance of those employed in previous centuries, but the public at large and those working in the biological sciences have, for the moment, not caught up with these developments. Nevertheless, the culture of the west is dominated to such a great extent by a conception of what is scientific, and the value of its claimed certainties, that this outdated nineteenth-century conception of science allied to the hypertrophied ego governs most aspects of everyday life and largely constitutes the world-view of the common man. The fact that such respect is bestowed upon outdated notions of what is scientific makes no difference to the disproportionate power they exert over people’s minds. The fact is that nineteenth century science, with its emphasis on certainty and materialism, and the ambitions of the ego support each other and are indissolubly connected with each other. The two stand and fall together. The fact that cutting-edge science has in fact moved so far beyond the models and ideals of the nineteenth century gives one hope that the ego’s time, too, may be up.


This ‘scientific’ attitude, to which most of the identifiable social roles in contemporary society require adherence, is none other than what we have called throughout the ‘thing-ideology’ and the ‘mechanistic-deterministic-materialistic dogma’. It is the science of the ego. The mind that, through the ego and the persona, is structured by this set of beliefs, may belong to an individual with a very effective set of behaviour patterns and one that is to that extent ‘successful’ in a conventional sense. But such a mind is often one that is fundamentally divorced from itself and storing up for itself all the distortions and deformations that result from such a divorce. The reason for this is that the modern European ego and the modern European persona are almost entirely structured by a conviction that three-dimensional things are the only existents and that therefore the self is a thing – identical with the thing called its brain – but a thing with a quite astonishing property of being the unique source of all authority in the universe. There have always been individuals who have held these beliefs in one form or another, crazy though they may be. The difference in our time is that these beliefs are almost universal. For that reason they are particularly dangerous in that they are ultimately destructive not only of the self, but also of its world. The self, as a piece of nature, necessarily understands itself as such unless distorted by the ego. It is therefore incapable of the sort of psychotic self-destructiveness that can and does characterise the behaviour of the ego. It is the ego’s obsessive preoccupation with the possession of certain knowledge that generates the lunatic craving for just one truth It is this craving that fuels the illiberal persecution of alternatives and the totalitarian ambitions of many individuals for complete control that inevitably accompany it. Unless the human species can understand this tendency of the ego, reject it and learn to live according to the undistorted self it will find itself sitting in the wreckage of a destroyed world that can no longer sustain it. The marriage of ego with scientific rationality leads to aberrations such as belief in infinitely extendable economic growth, infinite technological ambition, infinite political ambition and suchlike and such hubris, it is easy to see, is unsustainable. It is, moreover, futile to seek solutions to the world’s problems that arise from this hubris in the methods and beliefs of the ego. They can only be found in the dynamics of the self. That these are incomprehensible to the ego means that the ego has to go and its methods have to be replaced by the self’s intrinsic spirituality. It is possible to trace the development of the ego in history not only in the stories of individuals such as Sargon, Alexander, Genghis Khan, Napoleon and many more who stand out from history as of ‘world-historical’ significance, but also in the sheer expansion of the human race as consciousness progressed from mere consciousness of the environment through group and tribal consciousness to a consciousness of the coordinated activity of the entire species. The alliance of such ego ambition with Greek rationalism and monotheism gave our species its modern obsession with celebrity, certainty and instant gratification. The ego-driven cultural explosion that has transformed the world by technology has brought us to a point in our history at which we can with ease contemplate our own self-destruction. It is perfectly obvious that a move away from the fantasies of the ego is now not only necessary, but urgently so. ‘What shall it profit a man,’ asked Christ, ‘if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?’ We have reached a point at which we either gain a soul or lose the whole world.


The thing-ideology, the ego’s favourite dogma, is the principal source of ruinous fragmentation in the modern world. It is the reason for which the ego and the persona are considered to have thing-like identity in their own right. A self that regards itself as a thing and all other selves as things will experience a profound disjunction between itself and the world around it. It will regard the surrounding world as alien and other selves as mere objects. It will privilege itself above all other objects. It will be essentially lonely, isolated, disconnected and will be permanently prey to all the self-protective mechanisms that are activated when the animal feels fear. It will be divorced from itself by this fear but driven constantly to seek refuge either in flight or fight or in the comforting behaviours linked to reproduction or nutrition. The reason for this divorce is be a set of beliefs that are not only intuitively wrong, but wrong according to the best physical theory that we currently possess. The belief in the world as no more than a bunch of three-dimensional objects and the belief that the self, too, is one such object now have the status of pathological obsessions. Thus if a fundamentally false belief is the culprit as far as the ‘artificial’ behaviour of the human species is concerned, what sort of ‘true’ belief could one put in its place that would cure our inveterate tendency to damage ourselves and our own interests? The answer is found in a rejection of the ego’s conviction that some one ‘true’ belief is necessarily the source of every solution to every problem. Do we need a new belief or do we not rather need to free ourselves from beliefs that are usually adopted to flatter the ego? Is there not a sense in which the discovery and experience of the unencumbered self, as itself inalienably linked to the inexorable course of nature, is enough? The self as a piece of nature understands and trusts that of which it is a part. The instinct of the rationalising and rationalistic ego will be to reply ‘defeatism!’ or ‘fatalism!’ to this suggestion; but let such an ego pause and reflect for a moment that its own attitudes are self-defeating and ultimately fatal. We lose nothing in trusting the dynamics of the self. We simply abandon the ego’s immature over-estimation of the worth of its own beliefs and put these latter into more reasonable perspective.


The Creative Work of the Self

What possible behaviour could free us from our destructiveness?
The answer to this is the Holy Grail of all ethical theories in philosophy and there is no immoderate ambition here to find it with a few quick formulae. Nevertheless, perhaps we can work out a more ‘natural’ conception of the self and a role for the self that is not dominated by the thing-ideology and its attendant everyday beliefs, by the ‘egoism’ of the ego and by the intrinsic ‘hypocrisy’ of the persona. Ego and persona will continue to be significant parts of any human self; it is their relative dominance that is the issue. They are currently blown up into hypertrophied caricatures of themselves and as such need puncturing like huge, ridiculous balloons. Perhaps if we can see the modern world as operating with an absurdly defective notion of the self, obscured by these over-inflated blisters, we can, by the consideration of more traditional, more spontaneous human approaches to the world, come up with a view of the self that would see it as entirely integrated into reality and not fighting with it, dominating it or otherwise sticking out from it like a sore thumb. Perhaps that would bring us to a more ecologically sustainable understanding of the self that sees it as an inalienable and dependent part of the cosmos; and perhaps this understanding of the self could divert us from the path upon which we are still embarked. Thanks to the prevalence of the thing-ideology, the path of objectification and reification, along which our western culture still largely runs, is one that ultimately sucks the life and the value from everything. Perhaps we can work out a notion of the self that re-integrates it into the process of creation that produced all the marvellous creatures on this planet, including ourselves, without any contribution at all from the ego. Perhaps we can work out a conception of ourselves that is not dominated by the ambitions of the ego nor by the arbitrariness and falseness of the persona. Perhaps we can ditch the thing-ideology with regard to ourselves and see ourselves as aspects, intelligent aspects of a universal, intelligent process that has always been producing and continues to produce the world. This process that produced us and everything else is vastly older than we are and it is not vacuous to consider it as vastly wiser, and as deserving of our trust. If that is the case, then perhaps our recognition of our dependence upon it and subservience to it is part of the wisdom. We may not be able to prove that this is where we belong, but since the ego’s rationalistic thing-ideology, for so long pompously confident of its having been proved true, has now been proved to be false, its replacement by a belief in the self as unfinished intelligent aspect of the universal intelligent process of nature might just save us from the worst inanities of sticking psychotically to a set of beliefs that are making us and our world profoundly sick.


What we have to understand is how the human species has achieved so much, has created so much and how this creative work differs from its destructive work; and we have to know if we can effectively separate the one from the other. We need to find out if we can draw any conclusions concerning the self from what has been gained through the history of culture as a whole. If we can find a way of enjoying the positive benefits of our obvious creativity without the negative effects of our destructive activities and tendencies, then we will have obtained something really worth having.


If we consider the historically important accomplishments of individuals, there would seem to be two types of mind that are quite distinct: the essential difference between them seems to be between the genuinely creative minds that produce something entirely new (often called ‘geniuses’), on the one hand, and those minds that are merely clever, but that know how to exploit the discoveries of the creative to their own advantage, on the other. The ego- or persona-dominated self works most effectively with well-established patterns of thought, second-hand patterns of thought, methods, procedures. Both ego and persona are often mechanical and inflexible in their functioning and anxious to control. The creative minds by contrast are perfectly plastic, malleable and above all consciously open to – and consciously dependent upon – those universal natural forces that make them anew. The ego and the persona think methodically, repetitively, sometimes brilliantly so, and are galvanised by the promise of remembered pleasure. The creative mind, the mind that is centred on the self, does something different and unique in its production of novelty. It is in that sense truly intelligent, since it faithfully reflects and expresses the operation of the universal intelligence of nature. Its creativity is in the truest sense a passion and it is the essence of its being. Of course, self, persona and ego remain too frequently confused and no absolute discrimination like this can be made in respect of concrete individuals, but the distinction is useful nonetheless. Mere thought follows procedure and method, follows routines and rituals. The outcomes are known in advance. These routines, methods etc. harden into dogma and orthodoxy; and it is very often that rigid aspect of the mind that, allied to the energy of the ego and the hypocrisy of the persona, produces the implementation of short-sighted, possibly inhuman, possibly damaging courses of action. This is definitely not creative thinking, though it may be consummately clever and finding the point at which creativity parts company from mere cleverness is a prominent feature of the cultural task facing humanity.


All the positive benefits of human thought have originated in the minds of creative individuals. Committee-work and procedure never got humanity very far despite their obvious everyday value. The bulk of the creative work of history has been accomplished by hosts of nameless individuals, but the great and eminent innovators nevertheless pick out the principal tendencies with stark clarity. The creative individual is precisely not a routine, rigid, method-driven thinker, but an intelligent generator of genuinely new reality. Creative minds are in contact with domains of the self of which the ego- or persona-dominated minds have little conception. The creative self is under the influence of the indeterminate self-transformation of the world, whereas the uncreative is only in touch with its more mechanised aspects. We are only just getting our heads around the notion of ‘quantum indeterminacy’, but what we do understand of it suggests that there is nothing disreputable in the thought of a universal, indeterminate intelligence at the heart of matter. The intelligence of the creative self could be seen as the expression of the intelligence of nature itself and as functioning in direct analogy with this: by producing new syntheses that cannot be arrived at either by chance or by method. The intelligence of the self is not mechanical; but it is no less intelligence because of that.


Despite many clunky theories that claim the opposite, we do not know in mechanical terms how human creativity works, but we know that it does work and we know that we owe everything in civilization to it. The possibility that it might simply be part of the universal creativity of nature (and fundamentally misunderstood despite the said clunky theories) will be explored later. We will also try and examine ways in which it might be fostered. It is sufficient here to suggest how it happens that the self-conscious mind has turned out throughout history to have access to such a fertile source of staggering new creations. If we could foster the connection of the self with this source and reduce the depredations of the simplified and false selves, ego and persona, we would have accomplished much. Here is a sort of scientific myth as a kind of explanation of human creativity.
If a simple test-tube of liquid – a quantum-computer – can perform the most staggeringly complex calculations at staggering speeds simply by virtue of all its molecules’ being in contact and communication with the infinity of possible states that quantum-theory requires as constituent of reality, then perhaps the matter that makes up our bodies, perhaps that stuff which makes up our brains, is likewise in analogous contact with both real and virtual or possible worlds. If this world of ours is the only one that is realised, the rest being merely virtual, or if all the others are likewise realised, then the result is the same: whether all the others are merely potential or whether they are actual, if the self is connected dynamically to them and to the information that drives them, then the self has a source of creative new combinations in its essential processes that is infinite and that could be considered as ‘divine’. Of course the self does not control this source of creativity, however much the ego would like it to. The self has to submit to creativity, trust it and respect it, but not ultimately control it. This defines the relations that must exist between the creative self and the ego. The self does not even control what is perhaps the most fertile arena of creative innovation: language (i.e. the whole of midworld). Language is the product of a purely ‘natural’ incremental growth. The self can nevertheless cultivate the creative contact, foster the creative contact, value and believe in the creative contact, and coolly and unhurriedly allow it to re-create a human world that is now in the process of being corrupted by hasty, egoistic reifications, half-truths and falsehoods. This sort of creativity requires great modesty, great humility and a readiness to expect and accept even radical change – behaviour that the ego finds hard to achieve. It will also require that the stranglehold of ego-driven institutions on intellectual life, such as governments, companies, universities, etc. be relaxed. All of these modifications to intellectual life are vital if our understanding of the world is not to be distorted by dogmatism, by the reifications of the thing-ideology and by its objectifying inhumanity. Perhaps the effervescent exchange of ideas through the internet and the potential of this exchange for large-scale revolution will demonstrate this aspect of what is vulgarly called the ‘wisdom of crowds’ and is in fact merely the harmonious collaboration of natural self with natural self and natural world.

The life centred on the self is a life of doubt, uncertainty and faith or pistis. It is also a life of creative joy. Where the ego pretends nervously to know with certainty in order to be able obsessively to command and control, the self lives life forwards on the basis of joyful trust. Of course, the personality centred on the self is not entirely free of the attitudes of the ego any more than the ego is hermetically sealed off from the dynamics of the self: all is a matter of degree. It is safe to say, however, that the life of an individual is lived successfully if the ego increasingly recedes as the self emerges. It seems also true to say that the recession of the ego and the emergence of the self are vital to the continuing success of our species.