The Ego is Not the Cause of Action

Jeff Carreira Philosophy 10 Comments

The American philosopher John Dewey was against the notion that there is any entity that could be called an ego that is the cause of our choices and actions. Activity happens as a response to the changing environment not as a consequence of decisions made by a willing agent. As I explained in my last post, Dewey recognized that our identification with some entity called “myself” as the willing agent of the actions that occur through my body is merely a habit of identification.

Dewey was perplexed with William James’ strong libertarian belief in freewill especially since James himself had dealt some of the “hardest knocks” to the notion of “the self” with his own theory of the stream of consciousness. James essentially said that there is no “self” that is the perceiver of our experience. There is just an unending stream of experience. Parts of that stream are the awareness of objects and parts are the experience of being aware – which, as James reminds us, is itself an experience. There is no transcendental ego that exists outside of the stream of experience that stands separate and apart from that stream in witness of it. There is just a continuous stream of experience and because that stream includes experiences of being-aware-of we presume the existence of an ego that is the being-aware-of agent.

In the same way Dewey is formulating a conception of a stream of activity. Human action as I described in my last post is explained by Dewey as the enactment of habits. There is no doer that is guiding action; there are just habits that have been learned or developed for ways of acting in response to our encounter with circumstance. As we continually engage with the environment, that encounter stimulates habits of action and habits of thought and emotion. As long as there is no disharmony between the environment and our habitual ways of acting, thinking and feeling we remain essentially unconscious.

Think of how we all get up out of bed, make coffee, take a shower, get dressed and leave the house in the morning without really being aware of it all happening. The whole process is simply a manifestation of habit. What happens if just before we leave the house we reach into our coat pocket and realize that we don’t have our car keys? At that point we become consciously aware of ourselves and the circumstances around us. There is a disharmony between the environment and our habits – something is out of place and we need to consciously engage to return to the harmonious union of habit and environment.

The awakening to consciousness that occurs in the face of disharmony Dewey sees as the impulse of life itself. The impediment of the harmonious enactment of habitual ways of being generates an awakening to life as an impulse of urgency, immediacy and directionality. It is directed toward the future and compelled to restore the harmony between habit and environment. This impulse in human beings will initiate a process of thinking. Thinking is the mental rehearsal of the predicted outcomes of different courses of action. When a course of action imagined in the mind seems to promise the satisfactory restoration of harmony that action manifests in the physical body. If harmony is restored we merge again into the stream of activity. In the case of having lost our keys. We will immediately start to  review thoughts about places we could look for them and then try out the places that are most promising. Once we find our keys we walk out the door and continue on unconsciously until our next encounter with disharmony.

Dewey’s point is that all of this can happen without any need to imagine that there is any “ego” or “self” that is a willful acting agent that makes decisions and spurs activity. Life is simply an impulse that continually seeks to maintain the harmonious union of habit and environment. Human beings are a living form through which life continues its quest for harmony.

About the Author

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira is a mystical philosopher and spiritual guide. He is the author of eleven books on meditation and philosophy. He teaches online programs and leads retreats throughout the world that teach people how to let go of their current perceptual habits so they are free to participate in the creation of a new paradigm. To put it simply, he supports people to live a spiritually inspired life, free from the constraints of fear, worry and self-doubt, and aligned with their own deepest sense of meaning and purpose.
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Mette
Mette
10 years ago

Wow, exactly what I have been searched for, and so clear formulated!
So then we can say that all we have is the two: unconsciousness and consciousness. So what we need to do is to get convinced or understand that status quo is no longer efficient, and therefore actually get a felt conviction so that we can be conscious of the things that need to change. And in this we are not separate individuals, but a player in a wave of discovering what needs to change.

Carl
10 years ago

As Skinner said, the “self” is simply a locus of events, behavioral and environmental, that come together to produce an effect.

Carl
10 years ago

I meant biological and environmental.

Danielle
Danielle
10 years ago

Hi Jeff, I was so happy to read this post as I have been inquiring into the possibility of a new perspective on reality (for me) that emerged during hour 23 of the 24 hour meditation marathon we just participated in. I was compelled to write it down to ask you what you thought and whether this perspective might be related to the transcendentalist thinking as I imagined it might. After 23 hours of observing thoughts with somewhere in the background of that existing an idea that I should be making the effort to ‘free my awareness’ from the stream… Read more »

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
10 years ago

What I deeply experienced is that the ‘I’ is choice. From all possibilities that are available, there is something that chooses. This is the moment where we get conscious, we cannot / or decide not to act out of habit, but we choose a different step. I think striving to harmony with the environment does indeed not need an I to chooses, it seems to me part of our conditioning. Real change often goes against harmony. The I does not have to be an ego focussed on itself, the I can choose for the whole. But in the deepest level… Read more »

Catherine
Catherine
10 years ago

The text look s a bit paradoxical to me. Isn’t the Ego the machine itself ? the Machine of habits I mean …

If s ten a machine cannot “choose”.
Then as Liesbeth said, there must be another entity behind which chooses and operates the Machine.

If this is true, it departs completely form Skinners view, since another entity, the “I”, operates the Ego machine, the habits, and is distinct from it.

Catherine
Catherine
10 years ago

Carl,

I found this very nice video about Skinner

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AepqpTtKbwo&feature=related

He struck me indeed a fantastic intellectual, extremely independent thinker, the typical guy I call a “genius”.[ I am always in awe when I meet someone like him : it gives me faith in the human potential]

what I am curious about is the last statement of his, namely that free will doesn’t exist. I m curious about what you think . Can you reconcile this with Andrew’s teachings, where the chooser is free to choose ?

Frank Luke
Frank Luke
10 years ago

If not ego-driven, life and our actions are always a matter of choice, whether conscious of it or not. All respects to Mr. Dewey, I submit that there is an ego but I would also submit that there’s the ordinary ego that is driven by self-interested motives and then there’s the Transcended Ego, also called The Authentic Self, Nirvana, and other such terms. This state of higher consciousness is not self-centered but more altruistic, that is committed to the attempt at non-egoistically bettering life on earth for all its inhabitants including the non-human, non-sentient and even the stewardship of space,… Read more »

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6 years ago

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