According to our current model of the quantum world (The Standard Model of particle physics), it can be said that “everything” is just a soup or mixture of 25 types of particles governed by 4 forces and certain symmetries. Particles from The Standard Model can be broadly classified into Fermions (Quarks and Leptons) and Bosons. In a sense, all matter is made up of quarks, gluons and electrons. Photons (electromagnetic force-carriers) are the particles that allow us to “see” everything.
The Problem of classification
I always used to wonder, why do we classify and categorise things? Why do we separate and differentiate? Slowly I came to understand that it was necessary to dissect the world and understand the details to get close to understanding the big picture. The devil is always in the details. But soon after studying a bit of formal biology in highschool, I was intrigued by the fact that we can make out differences between organs and tissues. I used to think that if every body is made up of cells, how can a group of cells that, say, make up the liver, be distinguished from those in the heart? That all the organs were tightly organised and functioned in sync was a mystery.
Later on, in psychology, neuroscience and philosophy, I came to about the meaning of what and how we define ourselves. The fact that we are made up of particles, yet can draw a line between what is inside and what is outside. So, why is it that we can distinguish between different things, classify them and tell apart that “I” is separate from the rest of the world?
Freud developed the concept of ego to explain this conundrum.
“The id, ego, and superego are a set of three concepts in psychoanalytic theory describing distinct, interacting agents in the psychic apparatus. The three agents are theoretical constructs that describe the activities and interactions of the mental life of a person.” – Wikipedia
In Freud’s Theory he describes id to be the unconscious part of the mind that wants instant gratifications of all desires and needs like hunger, aggression etc. It does not consider the environment nor the situation, it is like an impulse.
Superego is the preconscious and conscious part which keeps tally of all moral learnings and obligations. It mediates the desires of id and reminds us of our morality and appropriateness in society. The superego is sometimes described as a parent figure or voice in the mind that regulates our impulses.
Ego is the mediary between id and superego. It takes the impulses from the id and tallies it with the superego to check for its appropriateness and timing before executing the desire. In a sense, the ego defines us. One way to think about this is that the id is the animal instinct and superego is the ideal self, whereas ego provides a middle ground into reality.
My Definition – Egos
I like to think about the ego as what separates us from the outside world, what defines us and how we behave. As Britannica puts it: “The ego is where the conscious mind lives.”
The left hemisphere of our brain defines who we are physically and individualistically. And the right hemisphere is responsible for making sense of all the sensory input. This is not a perfect split between the two hemispheres, rather a complex coordination of both is required for both tasks. I think that Freud’s theory of Ego is directly correlated to the function of the left hemisphere. The egos is responsible for defining who we are. The left hemisphere says that anything outside the skin is not part of the body.
Therefore, for me, egos represents the thing that separates or cuts off the outer world from the inner world. Freud’s “Ego” might have been a bit different from this exact definition.
As there are already two definitions and meanings to the word Ego, from now on I’ll use Ego to refer to Freud’s Ego and egos to refer to my definition and ego to refer to the present-day meaning along with brackets specifying the exact term. Where there are no brackets, the default is my own definition mentioned above.
The Modern Definition
In modern language and daily use, the word ego has evolved to have a negative connotation. It is defined as “a person’s sense of self-esteem or self-importance.” In any language the evolution of words is natural and important, as it signifies that the language is still alive and adapting. For example, the word “literally” is often used as a hyperbole or sarcastically or even as irony to mean the exact opposite of its dictionary definition. It can be easily seen how the word ego evolved from Freud’s ‘conscious reality’ to today’s ‘arrogant self’ in less than a century. If it be taken into account that everyone has a different amount or quantity of Ego (Freud’s) then people would behave and express differently. Thus, “ego” came to represent the “I” in a person and was soon associated with arrogance in its extremities.
This modern definition of ego suggests that when a person is “egoistic”, they tend to put themselves above other people. This implies that their Ego (Freud’s) is rather narrow and focused on themselves or more inclined towards their id. People without ego (modern) or the people we call humble seem to acknowledge their self-importance without an air of arrogance while also realising that others are also just as important and capable. This implies that they have a strong superego, or that their Ego (Freud’s) is focussed on the outer world and is more than their id.
The Clash of Egos
In my definition of egos, people with higher ego (modern) have a limited egos, or a tighter definition of what “self” is for them (they feel that the ‘self’ is limited to what is inside their skin, or even just the brain). Whereas, non-egoistic (modern) or humble people have a broader egos (my definition), or a more opened up meaning of self. Thus, for these humble people, the self is more than their own mind and body. They tend to include the world in their “self”.
It is in our hands to define our ‘self’ by drawing a line where we want to differentiate between the ‘outside’ and ‘inside’ or self. A few years ago, I used to think that the brain is the controller and the rest of the body is just a puppet, and so my egos then could just fill my brain and didn’t extend anywhere beyond that. As a result, my definition of ‘I’ had changed and I felt more power, in the sense that it was I that controlled myself. This led to an inflated ego (modern) and narcissism in my attitude. But when you let your egos (my definition) fill the world outside your own skin, then everything feels a part of me and there is nothing that controls anything else, thus removing the sense of power from the equation. I feel that when we accept the fact that the outside and inside of one’s skin is essentially the same, then the meaning of ‘self’ changes as well. This allows the focus of the mind to shift from self-importance and self-esteem to becoming more open, agreeable and humble.
This is the clash of egos. How a single word means many things all at once and often contradicts itself. To have no ego, one should expand their egos. This is to say that to reduce one’s arrogance and to become humble, one should try to expand their definition of “self” to the outer world and focus more on their superego.
When we expand our egos by considering the outer world (the world beyond our own skin) as “self”, it may seem like this is just another way of becoming attached to the material world, but there is a difference. Looking out and getting out are two very different actions. When we are attached to certain objects, people or anything, that is like looking outside. But, when we consider the universe as part of ourself, that is like getting out of this limited body and sitting outside.
It seems impossible to achieve this, though, it is all about a perspective to view things from and a mindset to form. This shifts the focus from self-importance and self-esteem (modern-day ego) to kindness, philanthropy and benevolence, while providing a sense of belonging.
Everyone is selfish to an extent. But when the ‘self’ is more than a mind and body, then being selfish can also benefit everyone and everything around us that we consider ourselves. Even after dying, the particles will be recycled and remain a part of the ‘self’ forever.
There are two philosophies that follow from this principle of expanding one’s egos: The Egg by Andy Weir and Alan Watts’ “You are doing the universe” that explore the meaning of life through this definition of egos.
Though, The Egg focuses only on human beings and no other animal or object. And, Alan Watts’ philosophy actually increases the modern ego as it makes the mind the ‘driver’ of the universe instead of making it a part of it.
To come full circle, everything is made up of particles governed by a few forces. It is how we draw the line between what is “self” and what is the outer world that shapes our attitude and perspective. To get rid of arrogance and toxic high self-importance, we can expand our definition of the egos to the whole universe and now everything is just as much a part of “me” as I am a part of the world. This balance helps prevent destruction caused by arrogance and narcissism.
There is no distinction between the outside and inside. After all, a soup of quarks will do what the bosons want them to do, but it is in our hands to contribute benevolently to what matters to us.