What is Ego?
From my perspective, there is a lot of misinformation out there about what an ego might be, how it comes to be, and what it is useful for.
It is a really complex topic – possibly the most complex of topics.
My understanding has a lot to do with comparative anatomy, neurophysiology, evolution theory, systems theory, computer systems design and operation, holograms, psychology, cultural evolution and philosophy.
No part of my understanding really works without all of the others.
It seems that brains have evolved because of the need to move.
There is one branch of the animal kingdom (the sea squirts) which move as juveniles, then settle onto rocks as adults. Once they settle, they reabsorb their brains and use that material for other body functions. In evolutionary terms, brains come with a high metabolic cost, as well as many dangers in other domains (making inappropriate choices for any number of systemic reasons). So animals need to be moving a lot for brains to be worth the cost.
It seems that in the early phases of evolution, structure and function were tightly interlinked, so the “older” parts of our brains, those parts we share with many other animals, tend to have parts that are dedicated to processing information from the nose, ears, eyes, tongue and skin that are quite distinct, and all connected to parts dedicated to mapping the environment, detecting threats, detecting things of advantage (typically mates and food), planning movements, executing movements, etc.
The neural networks of our brains have two fundamental sets of arrangements that are tightly interconnected.
Neural networks can detect or create pattern, and they can detect or invoke sequence. In the abstract these can both be thought of as pattern, one spatial and the other temporal, but in the physiology they are actually implemented in very distinctly different fashions.
There are general patterns formed by the growth of our brains, based largely on genetic factors, but also including some environmental factors mainly coming from the conditions in the womb, that give us general tendencies to functions in certain areas of the brain, and neural networks are sufficiently flexible that any area can be co-opted for any function if required. In blind people the visual area is mostly used to process sound, in deaf people the auditory area is mostly used to process vision. And in some people cross linkages occur that don’t normally happen, so some people can see sound, some can hear colour, some can see their assessments of the emotional states of others as colours (auras), etc. Vast numbers of variations of themes occur.
Most brain growth occurs in the womb, and some continues throughout life.
At some stage in late development in the womb, connections within the brain start to “prune” with unused ones dying. This process usually reaches a peak in the first few years of life, and it continues throughout life. The phrase “use it or lose it” applies particularly to connections within the brain.
Learning seems to be a really complex process.
We make distinctions in all of our subsystems. All of our processing systems “tune” themselves to our environment on a “use it or lose it” basis – which is why it is much easier to learn languages you hear as a baby, than ones you are only exposed to later in adulthood. Without that early exposure we simply do not have the neural pathways to make the required distinctions from the sounds being received by the ears – that functionality relating to those particular combinations of frequencies wasn’t used so it got “pruned” out.
We learn language from our culture.
Language is really complex, with relationships to different entities in space and time and at different levels of abstraction and relatedness.
Language helps us to make distinctions at the levels of abstraction, and it cannot actually make the distinctions for us. Each mind must create those abstract distinctions anew and afresh – for itself; and having language and experience helps to “set the stage” for the occurrence of those distinctions.
So it is, we come into the world, with all these capacities, and no awareness of ourselves.
We make distinctions.
We learn to language.
We learn to use language appropriate to circumstance.
At some point we become aware of ourselves.
At some later point we learn the distinctions of valuation from language – usually as a simple binary – good/bad, right/wrong, good/evil, and we learn the cultural rules that go with those simple distinctions.
And being human, we all make mistakes. For each of us, at some point after learning the rules of what it is to be good, we do something that requires us to judge ourselves “bad” (or wrong or evil or whatever the negative side of the evaluation criteria is). In response to that self declared judgement upon ourselves, we declare something to ourselves, in language, which creates a new pattern in our brains, a new entity. The old entity (old self awareness) remains, but it now knows itself to be bad, so it puts the new entity out front to be the “good”.
Thus is born what many come to call ego.
Thus also is born what many call “original sin” and what delivers the often undistinguished power of “shame”.
Exactly how it plays out in detail is endlessly varied, with infinite possible subtle variations on a theme, and the basic theme seems to be present in all cases (and I have personally investigated and observed thousands, in myself, as a parent, as a “playcenter” parent, as a psychology student, as a member of society in many roles, as an assistant on about 80 Landmark Forums and about 20 Advanced Courses).
Many different cultures have developed many mythologies which give some quite powerful first order approximations, and none of them come close to the actual complexity of the levels of organisation that modern science is now becoming aware of in the human brain.
We now have most of the major pathways sketched out, and what we know indicates that we are sufficiently complex that we will still be finding out new subtleties of relationships in a million years. So for many purposes, many of the old cultural shorthands are still good enough as practical tools, and they are far short of the depth of complexity that actually exists in each and every one of us.
It is now clear that our various levels of awareness sit atop vast complexes of computational systems at many levels – from atomic, through molecular, cellular to higher order neuronal and software (cultural and higher level abstract) systems.
As someone who has been developing complex computer systems for 40 years, the complexity of the organisational structure of the human brain is just vast. I could spend a week sketching and labelling, and still be far from happy with the structure of the model I had created.
So ego seems to be a word, that points to a concept, that points to a vast hierarchy of physical and logical sets of systems that would take a library of books to give an adequate representation of what is currently known.
Certainly, there are many dangers if any of the many aspects of ego get out of “balance”. The egoic systems can rapidly degrade into all manner of violence and tyranny at many different levels if short term self indulgence overwhelms long term self interest, and that is not a required outcome.
A healthy awareness of ones infinite capacities, in a community of infinitely capable creative and compassionate entities, is a very powerful thing.
If ego is equated with the childish notion of absolute certainty, then it must die. The evidence is clear, beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt, that the more we know, the more we know we don’t know, and the less confident we become about things we were once absolutely certain about.
So the ego must transcend itself, away from its birth in simple binary certainties, and mature into a realm of probabilities, and perpetual uncertainty, where we hold confidence lightly, always willing to re-evaluate our operational strategies in the light of new evidence.
And we don’t need to be timid.
We can have confidence.
We can be 99.9999+% confident of some things, and trust our lives to them.
It just isn’t an option to be 100% confident of anything – that vague shadow of uncertainty, a willingness to re-evaluate if we really do get new evidence, that we need to hold onto.
So in the broadest of general terms, in the widest of brush stroke pictures, this is what ego appears to me to be.
It seems to me, from my experience and understanding, that the understanding explained by Swami Vivekananda is close, but not quite as useful as the more modern understanding I use.
It seems that there are many layers and levels of subconscious systems in the brain.
It seems that at the highest pre-egoic level is the pre-egoic consciousness of being that was our childhood self prior to our first declaration of being wrong (or bad or whatever).
So level one exploration is breaking that barrier between adult conscious egoic awareness and connecting again with our pre-shame, pre-sin awareness of self. Making this connection consciously brings a lot of freedom and creativity. And this is just the first step on a far larger journey.
It seems that the next level barrier is to penetrate the barrier to the next lower level of massively parallel intuition and perception systems, that normally underlies our higher level consciousness.
The difference between this level, and our normal conscious level, is so great, that it has the practical appearance of being infinite and all knowing and all encompassing, and in the sense that it creates our normal conscious level experience, it is all encompassing, from the perspective of that conscious experience. And in another sense, it is the objective outcome of the function of the massive set of neurons that is our human brain.
And it can really feel infinite, and powerful, and in a subjective sense, it really is, because it is what creates our subjective (experiential) reality. Yet it appears clear beyond any reasonable doubt that it is not the objective reality that our experience is based upon. And certainly, while in that state, we can do many things, and have many actual effects in reality that we don’t normally, and it is not nearly so all powerful in actual objective reality as it seems in our experiential subjective reality. This leads many to isolate themselves as much as possible from normal reality, adopting a minimalist lifestyle, to be able to maintain some delicate balance between the subjective and the objective. It seems that many different traditions have evolved from this experience.
It seems clear to me that, while many of those traditions have learned some valuable practical wisdom about exploration of that domain, the explanatory frameworks that they have developed, while useful and practical within their particular cultural contexts, are woefully inadequate within the contexts of today’s scientific knowledge.
So, while there are many valuable practical lessons, in parable or analogy, contained within the older cultural traditions of the explorations of these states, it seems clear to me, beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt, that the underlying explanatory frameworks that they used are orders of magnitude less useful than the explanatory frameworks available today; if (and only if) the student or explorer is on journey of exploration intent upon extending the boundaries of knowledge and experience.
If one is content to remain within the boundaries of the “known”, then the paths of any tradition are about as useful as any other.
If one is on a journey of exploration, and accepts no limits, then I strongly advise using the modern scientific framework as the base framework from which to translate to and from all other frameworks.
And to be clear, the modern scientific framework is not one based on truth and certainty.
A modern scientific framework is “firmly grounded” in uncertainty and probability. There is no ultimate truth in science. In science, ultimate truth is an illusion that all children must experience and all who enter science must transcend.
The path of science is not comfortable.
Those who seek ultimate knowledge will be disappointed.
Those who are prepared for a potentially infinite journey into wonder, exploration, uncertainty and magic will not be disappointed. Science does not offer the certainty that our inner child craves, yet it does offer a different sort of confidence, one based upon trial and error.
It’s like Morpheus said to Neo -“You take the blue pill and the story ends. You wake in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. (a red pill is shown in his other hand) You take the red pill and you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.” Except I can’t show you how deep the rabbit hole goes, it’s depth seems to be infinite (as well as its extent in all imaginable dimensions).
Interesting Yoga passage. Obviously I use a different explanatory framework to explain all of the reported experiences, and there is one paragraph that to me is simply invalid use of reason – the one beginning “All ethics” and containing:
“Show me the reason why I should not be selfish. To ask one to be unselfish may be good as poetry, but poetry is not reason. Show me a reason. Why shall I be unselfish, and why be good? Because Mr. and Mrs. So-and-so say so does not weigh with me. Where is the utility of my being unselfish? My utility is to be selfish if utility means the greatest amount of happiness. What is the answer? The utilitarian can never give it. The answer is that this world is only one drop in an infinite ocean, one link in an infinite chain. Where did those that preached unselfishness, and taught it to the human race, get this idea?”
This is an idea I have written on extensively in the past.
It is clear that if one considers long term self interest on a sufficiently long time-frame then the safest and most logical course of action is cooperation for mutual self interest. The operational outcomes asymptotically approach altruism. This requires holding a very long term view, with very low discount rates on future benefits. If the future looks too uncertain, and one is forced to apply a high discount rate to potential future benefits, then long term benefits become worthless, and the system will degrade into short term self interest and instability.
Sustaining cooperation in this fashion requires that long term outlook.
To me it is clear that the whole notions of good and bad, right and wrong, are just very simplistic approximations to the infinite ripples of consequence that emanate from every action. I much prefer the Daoist notion of non-judgement – it comes far closer, yet if taken too far, leads to an unhealthy nihilism. I’m more of a making the best guess I can – sorta guy – using the information I have and the systems understandings I have.
It seems to me that we each have no other option than using the lenses we have available.
I have quite a collection of lenses available to me, and I am very conscious that as big as my box of lenses is, it is as nothing compared to the infinite variety of lenses possible, though I suspect it does do a fairly good job of covering the spectrum of lenses used in practice by most people.
To me, the passage I quoted seems to be saying that there is no possible selfish reason to be cooperative. That is clearly factually incorrect, however sensible it may seem to the uninitiated.
The results of games theory show clearly that there are certain classes of conditions that can give rise to cooperative behaviour based purely on selfish principles, where the longer term benefits of cooperation outweigh the short term benefits of lower level selfishness. In this fashion, selfishness can transcend itself in a sense, and deliver cooperation. We see many examples of it in biological systems. We as human beings contain many levels of such transcendent cooperative systems, both in our molecular and cellular hardware, as well as in our software (cultural systems), and in the mixed mode structures and systems of our subconscious brains.
So while what the Yogi had to say might seem sensible, it isn’t, and it is actually an example of ignorance – and to be fair, it is an example of ignorance that is still shared by the vast majority of humanity to this day – very few people have a deep enough appreciation biology and the logic and the mathematics that they really intuitively get the profoundness of the systemic implications: ie It is actually possible to create universal cooperation, and it does require a rather special set of circumstances that are not a “natural” outcome of market based economic “forces” (incentive structures).
It is not necessary to lose oneself in a seemingly profound “yogic” state. I have in fact achieved that state many times, and spent a lot of time investigating it, and the conditions that create it and what is achievable within it, and the explanatory framework offered by the yogi does not work at all well for me, given the battery of logical and psychological and systemic tests I used upon myself while in that state. It seems that the actual explanation is very different, and while I am very confident of the general classes of explanatory framework applicable, I am also very confident that the details of the systems within that set of classes are so complex that we will still be making discoveries about many of the subtle yet significant subclasses in operation in a million or a billion years time. And that sort of complexity is very hard to get one’s head around – it requires spending a lot of time in very complex systems with very large numbers.
I agree with you that the average person doesn’t see any immediate need for cooperation, and that is just a matter of ignorance, which is relatively easy to alter – much easier than achieving yogic states 😉
Which is not to say that the yogic states are uninteresting – they are very interesting.
Sorry – Kathy & FOS – Yes – my mistake.
Got a bit rushed this morning.
Just got back from 4 hours flying around the district taking pictures of the tiny remnants of wetlands that are left – a very tiny fraction of what was here a thousand years ago.
I took just on 2,000 pictures – so a bit of sorting and checking to do.
Still have to download the GPS tracks from the GPS units to match to the photo times.
And yes – I agree that overall – we do align very closely on goals.
Hi Bhatta and others
It seems to me that I can agree with you in part.
In the sense that one can only experience the states described by doing the work, by putting in thousands of hours of deep practice, I agree. I have done those hours, and achieved the states described.
So in that sense, I can agree in a sense that what is described does in fact feel like that, at least in my own experience.
However, when you say “Wisdom is by its nature, trans-rational and transconceptual — broader than any man made conception or constructed thought wave, and Patanjali everywhere confirms that hypothesis. Wisdom as well as intellect comes from an innate sourceless intelligence of the universal boundless mind.” that is not a matter of experience, that is a matter of interpretation – a story in a sense, an intellectual understanding in another sense.
In a sense I can understand it. In the same sense that I can understand how it seemed natural and confirmed by experience that the sun rotates about the earth. One need only look each day, to see the sun rise, go overhead, and then sink out of sight. It is a perfectly natural explanation in that sense, yet in a modern understanding of cosmology, it is simply false, an illusion based upon invalid assumptions.
So too, to me, the explanations based upon the notions that “wisdom as well as intellect comes from an innate sourceless intelligence” are simply false. I can see how it appears that way, in exactly the same way as it appears that the sun goes around the earth. I can understand how and why people came to that conclusion. And in the light of a systems understanding of the biochemistry and neurophysiology and the higher level stochastic processes of brain, it is equally as untenable as the notion of the sun going around the earth in the light of the knowledge of modern cosmology.
The evidence is vast, conclusive, and beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt, that the claim that “wisdom as well as intellect comes from an innate sourceless intelligence” is false, and that both things arise from the functioning of brains connected to bodies in a reality that provides experience.
Understanding all of the general classes of levels of systems that make that so is a study requiring many years – much like the study required to experience the states that are described. And it is clear in both logic and practice that all any individual can understand is the general classes of processes involved, not the specifics of the actual systems. The numbers involved in the systems that actually make us what we are are huge. If we keep on our current rate of exponential knowledge expansion, it seems probable to me that we will still be learning new and subtle things about what humans are capable of in a million years.
So there is wonder and mystery, and that is unlikely ever to change.
Even if we create Artificial General Intelligence, even that is likely to run into many of the same computation limiting classes that force us to use useful heuristics. Even it will find itself limited to a very “human like” sort of intelligence, though with vastly superior numerical powers, memory powers and powers of communication. Some classes of problem are simply intractable.