The (Self)Importance of Ego

At the end of my previous post I asked

Why do we typically, like Fodor, feel uncomfortable with the possibility of being a community of subsystems, often loosely coordinated, with our conscious self acting as an intermittent framing mechanism for their activities? Surely this is a better description of our ordinary experience than vivid, comprehensive internal perception of a luminous self?

I think there are two reasons for our demand that “there had… better be somebody who is in charge; and, by God, it had better be me.” Unfortunately my opinions aren’t grounded in research — I’d love to know of any empirical results in this area.

First, to fulfill its basic functions, our current conscious sense of ourself in the world must provide a unified frame for our experience. The point of a conscious ego (in Baars’ model, which I think is basically correct) is to coordinate potentially conflicting behaviors, and to recruit the cognitive resources necessary to do the right things at the right times. To perform these functions, the ego must be the dominant narrative frame at any point in time. If we are aware of all the possible ways we could move at a given moment, we’ll stumble and fall.

The unity required for ego to function is of limited scope. Ego does not need to maintain a consistent view over long periods — in fact, everyone who tries meditation quickly discovers how little continuity ego really provides! Ego also does not need to unify all the potentially conflicting mental activities at any given time — it just needs to integrate the ones that are expressed in action, and even those only need to be integrated well enough so that they don’t overtly conflict. Finally, ego doesn’t need to “look inside” activities that are well enough rehearsed so that they don’t suffer from internal conflicts, even though those activities can be enormously complex — such as driving a car, or speaking a language, or doing both at the same time.

However these limitations of ego do not weaken our need to sustain its focus at any given moment. To act gracefully and effectively the current narrative frame must dominate our awareness — however incomplete that awareness may be, and however frequently the frame changes.

So the first reason we resist awareness of our own complexity, opacity and limited coherence is that we have a strong drive to “stick to our (current) story”, based on some combination of hard wired and learned patterns of cognitive self-management.

Second, in social interaction, especially verbal interaction, being able to operate smoothly within the current shared narrative frame is is very important, and being able to recruit others to one’s own narrative frame provides many advantages. Having a strong, even unshakeable grip on the appropriate narrative frame is a key to making social interaction work. For example “sometimes wrong, but never uncertain” is a important (if not generally admitted) tactic for being a “leader”. Of course many other specific tactics are important in social frame management — but a firm grip on one’s own frame is a necessary prerequisite to all of them.

Loss of faith in the validity of our own narrative frame would be a serious stumbling block to graceful and effective participation in social activity. A desire to “keep the faith” encourages individual habits of thought, and “folk” models of mental organization, which suppress awareness of our complexity, opacity and limited coherence. Furthermore, since in most social situations we all want to maintain a mutually agreeable narrative frame, our social norms strongly discourage undercutting faith in the frame.

I think that together, these personal and social motivations can explain our resistance to giving up our insistence that “somebody” must be “in charge”.

At this point, the relevance of these thoughts to the idea of a “unitary executive” is probably obvious, but the relevance to enforcement costs may still be obscure. I’ll take these up in my next post.