posttitle = The superegos have gone crazy titleClass =short len =29

The superegos have gone crazy

File this one under Evolution of Consciousness studies.

I’ve been working on a new theory inspired by Andrew Cutler’s Snake Cult of Consciousness article and Eve Theory of Consciousness articles, about the evolving relationship between what you could call id, ego, and superego. I’m honestly not particularly stoked about those terms, for lots of reasons, but they do seem to roughly map onto the thing that I’m looking at, so here we go.

This post also relates to some other thinking I’ve been doing over the last few years about how egos are necessary for managing your attention & care in relation to external systems that might co-opt your attention & care if you’re too open. 

Here’s part of the post in a tweet:

Andrew writes:

In Freudian terms, we had an animal id for millions of years. We then evolved a super-ego, the simulated view of society in our head. Implicitly, there was a node resolving conflicts between these competing interests: a subconscious ego. A fateful encounter with snake venom allowed someone to perceive this process and she could not unsee it. Henceforth, she perceived and identified with her ego, the agent tasked with navigating the tribe’s moral code. Or in the parlance of the time, she “became as the gods, knowing good and evil.”

That is, the Fall, from a nondual mode to one dualistically separated from an experience of flow with god-ness. Ouch. The transition from the first memetic operating system to the second.

In my terms:

  • The id layer is your navigating system that is shared with animals, which can be modelled in part as a cybernetic system composed of a hierarchical network of control systems. You have a bunch of needs which include things like hunger, thirst, physical security, dignity, not to be in pain, etc. You also have a sense of what you personally-selfily care about in the abstract, which is not exactly shared with animals but is still intrinsic to you in some sense (although of course informed by what you have learned from others).
  • The superego layer is what others expect of you. Social expectations. Your model of the social contract. It has many types. I’m not sure exactly how to carve them up but here’s a sketch:
    • The maxims you learn from your parents and culture growing up, even if you’re in a context where nobody else expects that of you
      • (Note that some behaviors you learn might also be better understood as skills or strategies, not expectations)
    • A particular agreement that you make with somebody, for instance to show up at a particular time or complete some sort of assignment
      • Possibly stuff ends up in the superego layer if you promise it to yourself, because you have a maxim that something like “keep promises”
        • Also shit is weird and fractal so who the fuck knows maybe internal parts have expectations of each other that we capitulate these dynamic idfk
    • A loyalty that you have to prioritizing somebody else’s needs in general, whether that is your kid, your parent, your partner, your boss, your employee, your co-worker, your friend, or any other role. There is a sense that you are expected to “be a good husband/friend/etc” and a sense of what that means
      • This is partially informed by the person themselves and partially informed by your sense of what will be good for them which is based on larger social expectations (such as my dad thinking it was necessary to fulfill his role as my dad by telling me to cut my hair)
    • A relationship that you have with a large-scale memetic structure, like a religion or a social movement or a community with certain norms, which generates a sense of what’s important and how to behave
    • Probably others! If commenting, feel free to use the suggest feature to add new bullets.
      • (Everything is loopy so now I’m noticing how my invitation to you to do that affects your affordances on a superego level at least slightly)
  • The ego is what mediates between all of these—whether effectively or ineffectively. If society wants one thing from you and your inner desires want something else, the ego is what has to deal with that problem.
    • pre-Fall, this was happening implicitly and in a flowy way
    • since the Fall, it’s been characterized by self-consciousness

The rest of this post will be exploring some of the implications of this model for the evolution of consciousness, as I see it. I’m sure I’ll see more within a few months, so I wanted to share these now while they’re fresh.

Conflict between superegos

The genesis of this post came while I was visiting an old dear friend in another city and staying at an airbnb a short walk from his place. We were talking about the Snake Cult model and some related ones, and as the night got on we started talking about whether he might go home briefly, in part to pick some stuff up and in part to see his partner. And we were kind of feeling into what made sense, and then we noticed that there was a tension in him between a sense of wanting to be a good husband (by connecting with his partner, tucking them in, and helping them de-stress before bed, especially given that their work is stressful at the moment) and wanting to be a good friend (by continuing to hang out with me, uninterrupted).

Initially, the conflict between these was unconscious and unworkable and was making him increasingly anxious, but once we got clear on that conflict being his situation, in the context of having still plenty of time to hang out before I left, we noted that while me being in town was precious, the stability and ease in my friend’s marriage (via his partner being better-resourced) was substantially more important on an ongoing basis, and that I could entertain myself for half an hour, and I encouraged him to go tuck them in.

This choice turned out, in fact, to be quite fruitful—while he was gone, I reflected on what had just happened and noticed how this could be understood as a kind of conflict between two different superegos, that both live in this one person (my friend) but otherwise have almost no relation as I barely know the friend’s partner and we have only the bare minimum of societal and nerd-subcultural shared expectations of each other. Multiple superegos… what are the implications of that?

A simpler time

At this phase in history, conflict between superegos is a major element of experience. My guess is that, in very traditional societies, operating in the choiceless mode, the superego layer had a kind of wholeness to it—increasingly so, the more traditional and choiceless the society, by definition. There would still be different expectations from different people and different roles, but they all fit together in a pretty coherent way so it was not that hard to mentally mediate between them. Everybody in your society knows it’s possible to be both a fisherman and a husband, and though your wife may not enjoy the long stretches you spend at sea, that role makes sense to her as part of her worldview. And if the two of you have a conflict—about that or about anything really—then everybody knows that the answer is to resolve it by talking to the chief or mayor or whoever about it.

I suspect in fact, that prior to the emergence of a self-aware ego, humans were in general no more conflicted on the superego level than a typical animal is about its (~=id) desires. There’s a famous thought experiment about a donkey that starves to death because it’s perfectly equally positioned between two piles of hay, but in reality animals don’t do this, and healthy humans don’t either. It seems to me that this might be something like what people experienced prior to the Fall. Something related (who can say if it’s the same? it seems clear to me that’s similar but surely different) is documented in Preconquest Consciousness by E. Richard Sorenson. He writes:

I tried to explain the idea of lying and inexperience. They didn’t get my point. They didn’t expect prevarication, deception, grandstanding, or evasion. And I could find no cases where they understood these concepts. Even teenagers remained transparently forthright, their hearts opened wide for all to gaze inside.

He then describes how he watched the collective consciousness of such a group fall apart over the course of a frenzied week, due to too much contact with conquest-oriented consciousness

When the mental death had run its course, when what had been was gone, the people (physically still quite alive) no longer had their memory of the intuitive rapport that held them rapturously together just the week before, could no longer link along those subtle mental pathways. What had filled their lives had vanished. The teensters started playing at (and then adopting) the rude, antagonistic, ego-grasping styles of the encroaching modern world, modeled after films and then TV. Oldsters retreated into houses, lost their affinity to youngsters, who then turned more to one another, sometimes squabbling (which did not occur before).

Emphasis mine. He doesn’t name it, but I’d be shocked if lying wasn’t part of the package that emerged at this time as well.

Deception and competitive evolution of superegos

So both Andrew’s work (riffing on various stories about the origins of the human condition, among them the one in Genesis 3) and the Preconquest article highlight how humanity’s development involved a phase of the emergence of a new form of deception & manipulation, that hadn’t previously existed. Animals deceive, of course, such as frogs that look like poison frogs but don’t spend the metabolic cost to create the poison, but early humans perhaps lived in remarkably synchrony to a degree that lying as such was inconceivable. False meanings weren’t.

It occurred to me that the advent of deception between people, that emerged with the Fall, there was now a possibility (and thus an inevitability) of the memes & superegos learning to engage in deception as well. To some extent, since a lot of the memetic evolution was in some sense unconscious (before and after the Fall) it might be better to describe what emerges at this point in the memes as “bullshit”, rather than “lying”—it’s not so much actively saying what’s not so as it is saying whatever works without any regard for whether or not it’s true. Something something simulacra layers.

The main types of forces on this memetic evolution seem to me to be basically:

  • which memetic factors help memes to outcompete other memes within hosts and in transmission?
  • which memeplexes allow some groups of humans to outcompete others?

Both of these seemed to benefit from the use of coercion. In much that same ways that chain letters get forwarded by saying “if you don’t forward this, you’ll have bad luck for a year”, memes that said “if you don’t pass this meme onto your children, they’ll burn in hell” passed better than ones that just said “if you don’t pass this meme onto your children, that would be uhh not so great”.

I would be remiss here to not mention David Deutsch’s theory of memetic evolution here, which I am building on substantially. His take does not differentiate between pre-Fall and post-Fall, and in fact asserts that pre-Fall wasn’t a thing (that there was never such a thing as a noble savage). Within the various assumptions he was making, that was an understandable conclusion, but it seems to me that the question of “why were cultures able to get people to pound the manioc root even though it was effortful, despite people not knowing why?” wasn’t originally “because they were punished for doing something other than what the memes told them” it was simply “because they didn’t experience a sense of separation from the memes in the first place”. They didn’t need reasons or threats to do what the memes told them to do any more than they needed reasons or threats to do what their body told them to do!

But once the separation emerges, suddenly the ego is at odds with the superego in a way that it wasn’t before, and the identification with the self (rather than a nondual being-and-flowing-with-everything) as a separate entity with a secret interior emerged the possibility of hiding, and a kind of distrust that wasn’t previously there (because the other people, or the gods, could be lying).

At this point it becomes necessary for the memes to use force to get people to embody and spread them; they can no longer simply be a naively-trusted unquestioned “how we do things”, because they can no longer be taken at face value. And this force could be “if you don’t do this I’ll punish you” or it could be “if you don’t do this then god / the gods will punish you”. Either way, the effect is to create a mustness.

In Coercion in terms of scarcity & perceptual control and Mindset choice 2: expanding awareness, I wrote about how part of how coercion functions is that it collapses awareness on some specific “this is what you must do” and blocks awareness of other options.

This can be an injunction coming directly from another person demanding something of you, or it could be that you have a concept of what it means to be a good father/husband/employee/person, and some situation combines with that concept to generate a collapsed sense of “this is what I must do” (or even “this is what I must think/feel”). And this is always in some sense erroneous. “Must” is a confusion. You never *must*, and any superego that tells you that you must is interfering with the necessary function of the ego: to consider all the possibilities and do what makes sense given everything.

But this is precisely what the memes of the post-Fall memetic operating system learned to do!

My guess is that part of why religions were such a compelling way to motivate this is that the separation from divinity & unity that comes with egoic identification sucks. Romeo tweeted something about how what every ego wants is to cease its separate existence. (Post the link in the comments if you know the one!) And so a natural thing to promise people is that they’d be reunified if they follow the commandments (ten or otherwise). Now, the memes also have to be good enough that they keep the society itself functioning and competitive against other societies, but otherwise they are free to parasitize their people.

Early religions likely contained a lot of rituals that actually did allow people to reconnect with divinity on a regular basis, which was part of the basis for their being a source of authority on the subject.

But they involve eating a lot of bullshit that part of you can tell is bullshit, and also suppressing awareness that you’re doing so because if you call bullshit (even internally!) you’re headed for the fire and brimstone.

Honoring your id

There’s a skill, anti-taught in our society, that to me seems like a component of adult sanity, which is the ability to completely relax/rest/let-go, and the ability to tell when you can’t completely relax for your own reasons, so you can distinguish that from an experience of some external expectation generating anxiety.

To practice it, first be alone or in a situation that isn’t externally asking anything of you (to make sure the superegos are relatively quiet) then ask yourself, “May I fully relax right now, for just one minute?” This is a real question, not a command.

Often when I do this, I become aware of something that does not want to relax for a minute, such as a need to go pee or remembering that I need to message someone asap about plans later today. If so, I may take care of such things before gently intending to relax again.

I may also ask those arisings, “May I fully relax right now, for just one moment, and then I’ll get to you?” and sometimes this is totally doable, and then I can take care of the things afterwards.

I’m actually not very good at relaxing for an entire minute, but I can pretty consistently do it for a moment. I gave the minute example not because it’s a better place to start as practice, but because it illustrates better how there are situations in which when I go to relax I realize that some other need has been being ignored and actually would like to be taken care of within a minute, and that it would be a kind of bizarre urgency to not take care of it immediately. That I could choose to “do nothing” for a minute but it would be more like waiting, rather than actually resting.

This practice, for what it’s worth, seems to me to leave to something like ego death in the limit. But it can be practice directly to any degree of success, and is worth it anywhere along that spectrum.

There are many useful effects of doing this practice. One is that it creates a blank space in which any further arising intentions can way more readily do whatever they want to do, because there aren’t a bunch of other intentions. But in order to do that you in some sense have to actually relax all of those intentions for the entire duration of the time that you want to do something else. Although it’s sometimes easier to relax 99 intentions while working on one intention, than it is to relax all 100 intentions. Here’s one way to do this intentionally as a workflow.

But the more important reason to do this, and the reason I say it’s deeply connected to sanity, is that as a human it’s very easy to become confused about where the source of your problems are. It is thus vital to be able to robustly answer the question: do I have any problems right now? Without reference to anybody else or what anybody expects of you.

You are honoring your id both by allowing it to say “no I can’t relax right now, I have problems!” and by allowing it to relax, when it has no problems.

Superegos that tell you not to relax

If you try to do this (relax for a moment) and there’s a voice in your head saying things like:

  • you can’t relax, what about your taxes?! what about that assignment that’s overdue?!
  • you can’t rest while there’s so must injustice still in the world! what kind of privileged asshole are you?
  • you can’t just rest while we still haven’t solved AI safety
  • < insert more examples here—comment below if you’ve got one! >

The assignment, the injustice, and the AI alignment situation may all be very important… but you can’t orient sanely to them while listening to this voice. You can only orient panickedly to them. It’s not that social expectations should never produce urgency. It’s that you shouldn’t be in a state of urgency all the time, by definition.

If you, personally, are in a poverty trap, where you don’t have enough slack to fix your lack of slack, do your best to climb out. This may also benefit tremendously from learning to relax for a moment.

If your friend or family member is stuck in such a situation and you can get them out, great. If you’ve been trying to get them out for a while, and it always seems like it’s about to work, but it’s been seeming like it’s about to for a long time, that might be a sick system—if that post resonates, you might consider leaving.

But if it’s not a person you care about, but some sort of memeplex, that has set some unreasonably high standards that everybody knows that everybody is always falling short of… then that’s not an actual sane superego with real expectations—that’s a psy-op. If a memeplex has convinced you that there’s not enough time and you need to desperately constantly be out of breath trying to make something happen… the urgency is a confusion. Again, the problem may be important, but if it’s that important you can’t fix it while you’re in a state of panic. And you also can’t accurately gauge for yourself how important it is while you’re in a state of panic.

What I’m saying here is, I believe, self-evident—you can verify it for yourself. If it seems wrong, it’s possible that you’ve interpreted something I’m saying as having some implication that seems absurd (I may myself believe that implication, so let me be clear that even if so, that’s not part of the self-evident thing which is the center of the point I’m trying to make here!)

It’s also possible that if you find yourself rejecting what I’m saying here that that rejection may be coming from some superego, some meme, not from your own sense of things. The canonical version being “but if you believed that you could be not constantly feeling guilty about your sins, you’d go to hell.” And of course the superego would say that. But if hell’s really bad, and sinning is going to send you there, you’ll probably conclude on your own that you don’t want to do it if you can pause to think about it, so the urgency’s still not necessary.

I’m not asking you to take my word for any of this, instead of taking whoever’s word you were taking before! I’m not attempting to be the new authority that tells you what to do (or what not to do).

You are free, as far as I’m concerned, to be in a state of panicked urgency around waging the culture war or solving climate change or whatever.

And, I would like to offer you, if I can, the freedom I’ve experienced by telling those panic-inducing expectations that they. can. wait. outside. the. door.

For a moment. For a minute. For however long I need until I can relate to the actual issues—which are real!—in a way that integrates them with everything else, rather than collapsing my awareness on them. My own ability to assess those issues, by myself and in concert with other people who are thinking about them sincerely, may generate a sense that something needs to be done. I may already have such a sense—pointing that out to me, in a way I could self-verify, may be part of how the memeplex convinced me that it got to tell me not to relax in the first place!

Differentiation and integration

Some weeks ago, I was explaining this stuff to somebody while holding a baby on my chest. Since I was including the baby inside my ego boundary to some extent (babies are super into this!) I noted that this meant that if I were attempting to relax for an entire minute and the baby started fussing mid-minute, that would definitely be something that would ping for me as “oh, maybe actually I can’t relax for this whole minute”. I mean, I can. It’s important not to get reflexively hijacked into panic by the baby’s cries, and I need to be still recognizing that my body (with its heartbeat and nerves and belly) can rest if that is in fact true, and to not confuse the baby’s errors for my own. This is vital to being able to regulate myself so that I can be a source of groundedness for the baby. But since I’m the consciousness/agent/ego responsible for creatively finding ways to resolve the baby’s problems, if it’s stirring that’s essentially a signal that it isn’t resting time for us. In order to love the baby well, I want to very immediately attune to it and orient with it, even if it’ll be another few minutes until dad can get the bottle from the car. One-month old babies, free of memetically-induced obligations and fixated desires, are extremely good at resting fully when nothing’s wrong, and then taking action (stirring, or failing that, crying/wailing) when something is. They’re not convincing me that something’s wrong, they’re just existing honestly and I’m noticing.

Likewise if a friend of mine is having some sort of issue, and I’m attempting to help them, It’s important to be able to differentiate between them being in a state of non-rest and me being in a state of non-rest. Also, in a work context, I need to be able to recognize that just because my boss is upset about something doesn’t mean that I have a problem intrinsic to me. I may have a problem in that I have to somehow solve the boss’s upsetness in order to keep my job and I need a job in order to solve my own needs, but there’s a loop here that goes through somebody else which makes it a different kind of error than “I’m hungry right now”.

Insofar as superegos are expectations, we’re not going to stop having them, but we can learn to co-create sane ones with each other, where we don’t expect each other to feel extra shame when we can’t control each other. We are born into societies; we can’t start from nothing, but we can evolve from where we’re starting towards increasingly mutually workable systems of expectations. People already do this when they leave abusive relationships and double-bind dynamics, and find people and cultures that treat them better. We can upward spiral towards non-naive collective consciousness, where there’s a quality of honesty not because deception is inconceivable, but because we can mutually recognize the signs of forthrightness and mutual respect.

Other related fragments

What prompted me to start this draft was another observation: I was sitting at a table in a farmer’s market and I saw a woman and a little boy go by, and the woman was calling out to the boy something like “hey be careful there could be people [walking in the hall you’re about to enter]” and I was struck by how that, as a verbal command, would be part of a superego structure, and that in a more integrated system or mature person, there might actually be more attending to the flows of people not because it’s expected of you (by your mom) per se but because it’s part of your desire for situational awareness. But many people end up never developing that intrinsic desire, because the external expectation is sufficient to control their behavior to the point where they never encounter something that would be a personal error that they would need to start tracking for their own purposes. And perhaps their awareness is usually too collapsed to readily become aware of these things without injunctions, so if they try to stop listening to the instructions then the result is “I told you so!” This then justifies the need for the continued presence of the over-alert backseat-driving superego, since the natural awareness is atrophied. Goodself/badself stuff.

I’ve sometimes talked about the meta-protocol as being what deals with the situation where we not only have a conflict but we have a conflict about how to go about resolving conflicts. That definitely seems relevant to a world with fragmented superegos, and it also seems like in some sense there’s a process of like, making your superegos all meta-protocol compatible. This requires a deeper level of recursion or self-reference than the original invention of self.

If you want to get a taste of my vision for what’s possible if we can figure this out, read the first part of this open letter.

If you found this thought-provoking, I invite you to subscribe:    
About Malcolm

Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Intend, a system for improvisationally & creatively staying in touch with what's most important to you, and taking action towards it.


Andrew » 19 Aug 2023 » Reply

>My guess is that, in very traditional societies, operating in the choiceless mode, the superego layer had a kind of wholeness to it

One way to consider how cohesive the super-ego was in days of yore is to look to the religious typologies. This is part of Jaynes’s Bicameral model: Agamemnon makes decisions by being visited by the god of wrath or forgiveness or lust. I think that the monotheism is a streamlining of this system, and am wondering if this says anything about the cohesion of the super-ego. Perhaps monotheism is mostly semantic re super-ego, as there were still competing social obligations. Christians could still be “tempted” by the devil, etc.

    Malcolm » 19 Aug 2023 » Reply

    Huh, interesting, yeah. At least those gods maybe fit into a cohesive worldview though. Certain the monotheistic god and the devil do. Some of what the monotheistic religions call sin is better understood as id-stuff tho I think, not competing gods. “Sins of the flesh”

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