PhiloMadrid - Pub Philosophy Meetings in Madrid

Sunday, November 13, 2005

The nature of the ego.

The nature of the ego.

Egoism, egoist, ego trip, ego centric. These four words represent about 70% of the words we find in an English language dictionary that is aimed at users of science English. All said, the word ego does not occupy more than half a column in the dictionary. Now if we had to take the word self, we'd find the equivalent of 5.5 column entries in the same dictionary. We can find such words as selfish, self service, self serving, self employed, self taught and many more.

Was Freud justified in changing terminology from the self to the ego half way through his research into psychoanalysis? Of course, he was writing in Viennese German and we read his works in a multitude of languages, including English. So what can the ego be since, as a linguistic concept, it does not feature prominently is our public persona or public language?

If we were talking about say, Cox- 2 enzymes, it would be reasonable to point out that this term is so specific to physiology that it would be unfair to complain that it is not a high frequency word. But it would also be unreasonable not to point out the discrepancy between the frequency of the word ego and self. This has nothing to with the fact the word ego is a basic word in psychology and therefore a technical word. Especially, when we all know that after managing the national football team, most people can claim to be, at the very least, dab handed amateur psychologists. This in itself should guarantee a reasonable dissemination of the word ego in our language. But it's not the case.

So, those of us who do not aspire even to be amateur psychologists, how should we interpret this word ego? Should we interpret ego negatively as it appears in our everyday language? Should we just accept it as a technical word in psychology and leave it at that? Or should we just accept that ego is what psychologists talk about when lay people talk about the self?

However, just because one word was used instead of the other, it does not follow that they both mean the same. The ego is related to our consciousness of our sense of the self, but most of all in the representation of the real world to the id.* Ego also refers to a set of other mental functions such as reality testing, information processing, defence and so on. Most important of all, the ego is considered as the centre where our actions originate. Of course, we are more familiar with the sense of the self than with these individual mental functions. The five and a half columns in the dictionary mentioned above must be proof of this.

By reducing the conceptual whole, the self, into a series of functions, a group of which are call the ego, makes it easier to split the self into manageable chunks to work with. We all know that the best strategy to solve a big problem is to divide it into small manageable problems. This also makes it easier to compartmentalise the mental self from a single big whole to many little bits. But how useful and how valid is this practice of splitting, re-labelling and compartmentalising?

How useful is it for us to split an Euro into one hundred different cents? I agree with you, it's a ridiculous question. However, by splitting an Euro into a hundred cents means that we can fine tune commercial transactions much better. In other words, a hundred cents help answer the technical questions on how to manage commercial obligations. But a hundred cents do not help us answer an even more important set of questions. How much is my labour worth in Euros? How can I maximise the number of Euros in my possession? Which is the best way to spend my accumulation of Euros? Who is worthy of receiving my Euros? Hence, by splitting up a whole into constituent parts, might answer or address some problems, but not necessarily all the problems nor the most important questions of all. Answering the question how can we live the good life, is not necessarily answered by knowing how we function. But we know this already.

There is, however, a different type of problem that can result from splitting up a problem. Maybe there are those who prefer that I use a different word instead of splitting up, maybe reductionism, but I’m not sure about that, maybe division of function. Anyway, I’m using the word splitting up in the same way a mechanic would speak about a car: engine, chasses, gear box, wheels etc. maybe be even in the way psychoanalysis split up the mental life of a person.

Let's go back to the original division of function, Descartes mind-body problem. Here we have the first case of splitting the human being into a mind and a body. If you remember, Descartes was trying to answer the question what is true beyond doubt? Descartes rejects sense perception in favour of reasoned deduction; i.e. a thinking being. However, this introduces a new type of problem without necessarily solving the original question. How do we get from the physical to the mental? How do we get from our eyes receiving a sensation of a fast moving object to our decision to run away from a charging lion?

In spite the attraction of dividing a big problem into smaller ones, the division of function might not always help us, it might even create other more philosophically challenging problems. The other issue that this introduces is what exactly is the nature of this division. The mind-body problem seems to suggest that there are two independent things present in us, a mind and a body. After all, even Descartes does not seem to reject the idea that we receive sense perceptions, only that we are justified to question their quality or validity. Much as we have looked these past three hundred years we have been unable to find anything we call the mind in us. Can we therefore expect the same problems when we talk about the ID, the Ego and the Superego as being parts of the conscious and unconscious self?

There is, however, a more modern model that does not have to introduce this identity problem. I’m thinking of Einstein’s famous equation E=mc2. What interests us here is that the mass of an object is equivalent to its total energy. Of course, the computer I am typing this on does not appear to me as some form of energy, but rather as a body of mass with a form and shape of a computer. It also behaves like a computer and not the inside of a burning star or AA type battery. The point is that the above equation tells us that, there aren’t two things when I see my computer, energy and mass. However, this equation introduces scientific opportunities in physics which did not exist before. Could it be that we do not have two things when we talk of the mind or the body, or three things when we talk of the ID, the Ego and the Superego?

It seems to me that we have two even more serious problems with the mind-body problem and by implication the psychological division of the mental self into three different spheres. If we take bits of the body, say Cox-2 enzymes, we can discover things about them, analyse them and perform experiments on them. Others can even replicate our results, but most of all we can, for example, find solutions for any problems some parts of the body might have. Can we replicate the mind? I don’t mean can we find out things about the psychological make up of the human mind. We can because the brain is the same for everyone. But can we replicate the mind to make morally responsible beings, to make genius and to make, for example, wealthy people? We might think that not only don’t we want to be able to replicate these characteristics, but we are lucky that we cannot. In reality, of course, we do try to replicate these characteristics. Our educational system is geared at identifying those who are academically gifted amongst us; legal and religious systems are geared at compliant behaviour and all the economic models, that have been tried so far, were geared at maximising the accumulation of wealth, either in the form of property, money or power.

The second type of problem is that with physical objects we can more or less isolate them from other parts of the body or whatever. We can remove the lungs from the body, we can remove the gear box from the car, but we cannot remove the consciousness of the self from the mind, or the brain. This is the biggest problem with analysing the nature of the ego. Even if we can put our finger on the ego we cannot isolate it from the rest of the mental self. So if we cannot isolate the ego can we say anything about the ego in real life. Things are bad enough in the physical real world, for example although we can study the function of a gear box we cannot remove it from the car whilst it is moving to make repairs or changes.

And if we could isolate, for example, the ego from the rest of the mental self how could the rest of the mental self function? Furthermore, do we really know what influence the other parts of the self and the body have on the ego? In other words, is it even technically prudent to even try to isolate the ego from the rest of the self given that the self is the whole?

Of course the ego is technically important because it is considered as the command centre of the human being. It is assumed to be the source of our actions. But is it the centre of our actions or could it be the case that when we act, we take certain common factors into account? But then how do we explain the situation where two people find themselves in identical situations yet one acts in one way and the other acts in a complete different way? This is the challenge for a science that proposes to study the human mind, it must explain the exceptions. However, we also would like to think that we are all unique and therefore by deduction we are all exceptions. Which in turn might explain why the word self is more common in our language than ego. Could it be that the self is the first level of mental life that we all have in common? And as a consequence the ego is only another cog in a machine we call the self.
Take care

*I give this definition as an idea of what is technically considered the ego; my scope is not to consider the ego as a psychology subject.

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