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The Ego and Relativity



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Conceptual Confusion

If something is relative, what does this mean?  Relativity means that a relationship exists between two or more factors. But what is the nature of the factors that are related ?  Western thinkers have consistently mis-understood the meaning of relative concepts.

Western thinkers have not clearly dis-entangled the boundaries between the three concepts of  subjectivity, objectivity, and relativity.

Sub - Headings
Summary
Perception
Creation of the Ego
References

To understand the central importance of relativity to human values we have to understand the ground of relativity itself. Consider the ego. The ego splits life up into a subject and one or more objects. The ego is the subject and everything else is object to it. How does this split or dichotomy arise?   The subject-object dichotomy is related to relativity. In a static, unchanging world then subject and object can blend together into a unity – this is the psychological process of  absorption (or identification). But the process of change destabilises unity. [¹]

Even during meditation the meditator cannot remain indefinitely in his state of trance, of absorption, of unity with the object of his meditation ; nor can the mystic who is absorbed in his divine ecstasy. Neither the meditator nor the mystic can halt the process of change. Therefore, in my view, it is the process of change that creates the subject-object dichotomy.


The subject-object dichotomy is created during the early life of each new-born child. How does this happen?

If we look at a clear blue sky, with no clouds in it, initially it all looks one colour. On closer inspection we can see that the blue of the horizon is a deeper shade than that of the zenith ; that is, on closer inspection we can relativise the colour of the sky into shades. Relativising sensory stimuli into different shades and colours is the first act in trying to make sense of perception : from shades and colours we can identify shapes.

Consider the infant of a few days or weeks of age. It has no consciousness, no ego ; it functions on levels of mind below normal consciousness. It exists only as a mixture of a subconscious mind and an unconscious mind. If it were born with a conscious mind then it would have memories of its previous existence and soon after birth be able to speak and talk with other people.

At first the infant sees merely a constant interplay of colours. Gradually it learns to relativise these colours into certain recurrent shapes, shapes that one day it will recognise as being the teddy bear, the rattle, the face of the mother, etc. It learns to discriminate by relativising its sensory stimuli into patterns.

This process of discrimination leads to the construction of the ego, the ego being the subject of the subject-object dichotomy. Therefore the ego is constructed by this relativising process.


The infant stabilises recurrent stimuli into shapes because they are associated with feelings and emotions in him. He learns to value patterns that are associated with happiness and to avoid those associated with pain. The introjected emotions from the mother help to produce value judgements in the infant, enabling him to consolidate the sensory stimuli into the patterns of her face and body. His interpretations of his relationship to the mother create fixed beliefs and underpin the emerging ego. These beliefs and value judgements are relative ones. Hence the world of the infant is a relative world. 

A relative world is normally a changing, unstable world. The infant has to find a way of creating stability within an unstable world. It uses beliefs and value judgements to attain the stability it needs.  Its ego stabilises its world into subject and object by the production of fixed beliefs and values ; this creates Being. Relativity is the ground of all Being.

Therefore the ego is a relative construction.

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A relative arrangement has existence but not essence. The ego is a relative entity. Therefore it has existence but no essence. However, each ego is unique, since it is the product of countless incarnations with countless psychological and social factors operating on it. [²].  This means that each subject-object dichotomy is also unique. And the way that each ego directs its consciousness onto the external world is unique too. Hence each ego creates its own perspective on life.

[ Many theories of human nature presume that each person has an essence. There is some confusion here. The idea that each person has a unique essence really denotes that the person has a soul. The soul can be considered to be essence, but not the ego].


I Summarise these Ideas

It is the process of change that creates the subject-object dichotomy, and this change is always relative.

The relativity of the ego is the ground of the relativity of all values and all beliefs.

A person is a relative being. As such he has existence but no essence. For a relative being there is only change.

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Perception

Now I turn to the nature of a relative concept. I consider the process of perception. Perception is the central feature of consciousness, since the individual engages in it in all states of consciousness (that is, waking consciousness, dream sleep, and trance) except dreamless sleep. Whatever relativity means within the process of perception will, in my view, apply to everything else within consciousness.

To understand relativity we have to consider the influence on it of both subjectivity and objectivity.

I look at a tree in the distance. It will appear small to me. The size is in the mind of the observer and so is subjective. Subjectivity means that something is only in the mind of the thinker or observer. The size is also relative : size is a relationship between the object and the observer. Hence relativity determines the format within which subjectivity operates (by this statement I mean that the way the subjective image appears in the person's mind depends on the relative relationship between the person and the object).

The relativity of the size of the tree depends on the size of the eye of the observer (a tree will appear larger to an insect than to a human). Hence the physical eye is an objective factor of perception, and so is also a factor of relativity. Here, relativity, subjectivity and objectivity are associated together.

As I walk towards the tree the size will get larger. This size is due to the size of the angle that the rays of light make to the eye of the observer. If two people walk together towards the tree, both will see the change in size. As they walk together the rate of change of the size will be equal for both of them, since the change in the angle of the light rays will be the same for both. Hence the rate of change is an objective factor to perception.

This simple illustration shows that in the process of perception, subjectivity, objectivity and relativity
are all linked together.

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I simplify this illustration. Consider again the person who is looking at the tree. The image on the retina of the eye produces the subjective image in the mind. However, the size of the retinal image depends upon the optical angle subtended at the eye by the tree. This angle will be the same for all observers at the same position of observation. Hence the optical angle of the object is an objective component of perception, while the mental image is a subjective component. Both the subjectivity and the objectivity function within the overall framework of relativity.

What this illustration means is that in perception, which is a relative process, a subjective effect always goes hand in hand with an objective effect. This result is the general meaning of relativity.

In any relative relationship,
a subjective effect is always tied to an objective effect.


The importance of this conception of relativity is immense. Perception is a relative process. All life depends upon perception ; there is no way that anyone can escape it. Perception usually entails interpretations of what we see. So perception is usually tied to our beliefs and values. We do not usually perceive the world in a neutral frame of mind, apart from the background (unless we are practising the Buddhist technique of mindfulness). We only notice what interests us. We only notice what has value for us. Perception is a value-laden process and begins from birth. [³]

The new-born baby engages in relativity the moment that it opens its eyes, and never ceases from this process during life.

All values are based on perception, and all values are thereby relative. This means that all values have both a subjective component and an objective one too.

[ In other articles, I have treated the subjective component of values under the term "meanings". ] [4]

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Creation of the Ego

When does the ego begin to be created and how long does this process take?  In the creation of consciousness out of subconsciousness and unconsciousness there are only events and no dates. Linear time (or clock time) is not a part of the subconscious and unconscious minds; memories of events in these minds can only be attached to definite dates if they are associated with particular objective events whose dates are known, such as birthdays.

A deep psycho-analysis can reach back to the time when the ego was in the process of creation, but the psychoanalysis does not reveal any dates for this process. So we have to depend on making inferences of the time period of ego formation from the infant’s reactions and achievements, using the results of psychological studies.

There are two limitations to the time period that I accept as indicating the formation of an ego. First, I limit myself to an average period. Precocious children are likely to develop an ego earlier than I suppose, and slow learners later. Secondly, we have to avoid depending on automatic responses. When the infant responds to the mother’s smile, this is usually a subconscious reaction and does not necessarily indicate full consciousness.

We have to put weight on unusual responses, such as the beginning of language formation and the fear of strangers. Language formation denotes linear (or logical) thinking, and hence requires an ego.

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Fear is a dominant feature of man’s consciousness, but is usually hidden in the adult by compensatory effects, such as the ease by which anger is generated (anger usually arises in order to mask fear) and the adoption of a conservative attitude to life. But fear is hidden far more consistently and effectively by a layer of guilt, so that the fear is not an obvious component of adult consciousness. It is this primary reality of fear that provides the susceptibility to infancy trauma (that is, psychological trauma that usually arises from the child's negative interpretations of emotional experiences). Therefore the ego will show this fear once it begins to be formed (especially if sensitivity had been developed in previous incarnations).

According to Schaffer (quoted in Gross, page 550) the infant will gradually develop attachments to significant people over a prolonged period of time. However, the onset of separation distress and fear of contact with strangers is usually quite rapid – this fear becomes evident at about seven or eight months of age. This response of fear to people is a more certain indicator that the ego is forming than the responses of attachment formation. If the infant’s life is happy, then in its attachment formation the transition from subconsciousness to consciousness will be slow and indistinct. But the presence of fear creates sharp boundaries. Therefore, in my view, the creation of the ego in an average infant begins at around seven or eight months of age.

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In order to decide when the infant’s ego is fully formed, in terms of a structure of basic beliefs, I turn to ideas on language development.

The period from birth to 12 months of age is usually the pre-linguistic stage of the child. The term ‘pre-linguistic’ is used to indicate that the child has no public, or objective, language – its thinking uses only a purely subjective and private language, such as is indicated by babbling.

The period from 12-18 months is usually the one-word stage. The child uses one word at a time. Its first words are usually private ones and it uses them to label things : it makes up its own words for the teddy bear, the toys and other objects. After a time it begins to use these words consistently – the same word for the same object. Then it slowly begins to acquire a public language : it begins to label things by the words that the parents use to label them. This ability indicates the tentative accomplishment of full consciousness.

On average, a child will acquire a 10 word objective language by the age of 15 months (Nelson, quoted in Gross, page 662). This growth in the development of objective language indicates that the ego has been formed and can now consciously react to its environment. Therefore the ego is fully formed by the time that it is between 12-15 months of age. From now on the ego begins its long process of development and expansion.


The period of about 7 - 15 months of age is the time in which the average ego is created. What is the value of assuming this period for ego creation ?  This period is a critical one for the infant. During this time the fledgling ego is vulnerable to certain forms of psychological disturbance or trauma. [5]

So infant care needs to be at its very best during this time in order to allow the infant to form a stable ego. It is within this period that infancy trauma can occur and provide the conditions for later adult psychosis. Episodes of madness in adulthood usually indicate that the infant did not create a stable ego.

In my understanding of the difficulties of ego formation, the Oedipus complex is a particular consequence of infancy trauma. Hence this complex occurs within the period of  7 - 15 months of life, much earlier than Freud thought. [6]


In the creation of consciousness from subconsciousness and unconsciousness each relative ego can view reality from two complementary perspectives. These are the focus on being an individual, and the focus on being a social person. In this way the infant creates both an individual identity and a social identity. Both identities arise together in the infant. The subjective nature of individuality always interacts with the objectivity of social roles as each person creates their relative relationships. [7]

A person is a relative being. What does this imply ?  The subjective reality of the person has no boundaries ; he can be what he likes. However, the objective reality of his being lies in his social relationships. These relationships create boundaries. The future for mankind lies in its expansion of mind, in its expansion of consciousness. As the person’s subjective reality grows so he will continually create new relationships ; he will continually push his objective boundaries in ever-new directions.

As mankind evolves, so relationships must evolve in tandem too.



The next article, on Semiology, looks at the links between language, signs, emotions and desires.

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References

The number in brackets at the end of each reference takes you back to the paragraph that featured it.
The addresses of my other websites are on the Links page.

[¹]. There is an article on Identification and Absorption on my website  The Subconscious Mind. [1]

[²]. My ideas on reincarnation are described in the article Ego and Soul on my website Patterns of Spirituality[2]

[³]. There is an article, The Psychology of Perception, on my website Discover Your Mind. [3]

[4]. See the article Meaning and Value on my website A Modern Thinker. [4]

[5]. There is an article on Infancy Trauma on my website  The Subconscious Mind. [5]

[6]. There is a description of the stages that compose the Oedipus complex in the article Two Identities on my website  The Subconscious Mind. [6]

[7]. I have an article on the  Two Identities on my website  The Subconscious Mind. [7]



Books

Gross, Richard.  Psychology.  3rd edition. Hodder & Stoughton 1996.



Home Emotion and Abreaction References and Links Note on Karma


The articles in this section are :

Ego and Relativity

Semiology (or Semiotics)

The Flow of  Thought

Logic of Consciousness

Summary 1

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