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Soul Searching

“I think, therefore, I am,” wrote Rene Descartes, and the infamous dichotomy between

mind and body was famously introduced.

Let us establish this dichotomy further. I might say, for instance, that I have this body. If

I have this body, then I guess I'm something other than this body. Then again, I might also say

that I have this mind or this soul. By the same logic, I am neither my mind nor my soul. Then

what am I1? The impalpable relationship between one's I, one's body, and one's mind troubles

scientists, philosophers, every human (whether or not they know it), and perhaps even every

other sentient being day in and day out. This is the mind-body problem at its best.

But this essay does not attempt to solve the mind-body problem, nor even to clarify it.

Rather, this essay serves to complicate it, introducing a completely new dimension to a

completely old problem.

In his essay, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” philosopher Thomas Nagel posed the single

question most central to the mind-body problem: “Is it possible to describe objectively a

subjective experience2?” Operating under the assumption that all sentient beings have mental

“experience,” Nagel further asks if a human could understand what it is like to be a bat. He

explains that “our own experience provides the basic material for our imagination, whose range

is therefore limited.…Insofar as I can imagine [webbing on one’s arms, catching insects in one’s

mouth, hanging upside down all day] (which is not very far), it tells me only what it would be

like for me to behave as a bat behaves. But that is not the question.” The catch here is that he

does not want to know what it is like for a human to be a bat, he wants to know what it is like for
There is no specific definition of “I” in this essay; it is left open for the reader’s interpretation. In fact, it is in this interpretation that every
individual’s solution to the mind-body problem lays. It is, however, used as a synonym with “identity” throughout.

Experience does not mean experience in the traditional sense of the word (e.g. the fantastic experience of skydiving or the experience of doing
community service). A system’s experience is “what it is like to be that system,” or more properly, “what it is like for an X to be an X.” Because
experience is purely mental, it is purely subjective.
a bat to be a bat. This extends beyond the realm of bats; it questions our basic ability to

understand another experience at all, no matter how similar to our own it is. We can no more

understand another person’s experience without taking up his/her (objective) point of view than

we could understand a bat’s experience without being a bat. And as Nagel observes, “This bears

directly on the mind-body problem. For if the facts of experience…are accessible only from one

point of view, then it is a mystery how the true character of experiences could be revealed in the

physical operation of an organism.” Here, Nagel’s question is pursued in hopes of shedding new

light onto the mind-body problem.

Nagel’s immediate conclusion is both intuitive and profound: “I am trapped inside myself

and therefore can’t see how other systems3 are.” (414) Hofstadter, a cognitive science professor,

in his reflections on Nagel’s essay recognizes the consequence (which, he points out, is itself a

corollary of Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem): “I am trapped inside myself and therefore can’t

see how other systems see me.” Hofstadter does, however, note that language, a medium for the

exchange of ideas, has the exclusive power to give human beings insight into the point of view of

other systems; “points of view become more modular, more transferable, less personal and

idiosyncratic” (413). Upon the evaluation of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Kundera’s The

Unbearable Lightness of Being, and Zafón’s Shadow of the Wind, a new conclusion, however

disturbing, can be drawn: I am trapped inside myself and therefore cannot see even myself.

This thesis draws a certain distinction from the preceding parallel statements. Nagel’s

and Hofstadter’s conclusions at heart say that being trapped inside oneself, one cannot

understand another’s subjective experience objectively. This new conclusion says that trapped

inside oneself, one cannot possibly even understand one’s own subjective experience objectively.

A system is any logically complete “formal system.” Examples include the human brain, the insect brain, a computer program, a Martian’s
experience, or a robot. One could even ask what it is like “to be a dreamed person, to be a dreamed person when the alarm rings, to be Holden
Caulfield, or to be the subsystem of J.D. Salinger’s brain that represents the character of Holden Caulfield” (Hofstadter 405).
Nagel’s essay asks what it is like to be a different “thing,” and Franz Kafka answers as

nearly as he can. He begins The Metamorphosis, “One morning, as Gregor Samsa was waking

up from anxious dreams, he discovered that in bed he had been changed into a monstrous

verminous bug.” Kafka goes on to relate objectively to the reader, presumably a human, what it

is like for a verminous bug to be a verminous bug. But whether or not he actually does this is a

chief point of contention in the novel; that is to say, is Gregor – is Gregor’s “I” – a bug or still a

human? Interestingly, there is actually no metamorphosis in the story; Kafka jumps in right after

the metamorphosis occurs. That is why this discussion can take place; we do not know exactly

what has changed as far as Gregor’s mind, body, and identity are concerned. Even the definition

of metamorphosis is ambiguous; it can refer to a change in either the form or the nature of a

being. Kafka quickly writes at the beginning of the second paragraph, “‘What’s happened to

me?’ [Gregor] thought,” indicative of a human mind in spite of a complete physical

transformation to a verminous bug. It seems that in order to describe the experience of a bug to a

human, Kafka must keep Gregor’s mind human. Fine. But is Gregor’s “I” human? Actually, it

seems as if he starts out human and ends up bug. His actions at the beginning are very

characteristic of a human – even especially rational considering his situation. Kafka’s tone is

very matter-of-fact as he outlines Gregor’s thought process: “First he wanted to stand up quietly

and undisturbed, get dressed, above all have breakfast, and only then consider further action, for

—he noticed this clearly—by thinking things over in bed he would not reach a reasonable

conclusion.” It appears that Gregor’s change has had no more effect on his identity than

someone’s surgery (or several thousand surgeries) would have.

Yet his last major action is completely impulse driven, lacking the rational control

characteristic of humans. He is moved to go listen to his sister play the violin amidst the
family’s lodgers, though it is clearly a bad idea. He asks, “Was [I] an animal that music so

captivated [me]?” It is his sister that suggests that the metamorphosis is complete and Gregor’s

“I” no longer the same:

You must try to get rid of the idea that this is Gregor. The fact that we have

believed this for so long, that is truly our real misfortune. But how can it be Gregor? If it

were Gregor, he would have long ago realized that a communal life among human beings

is not possible with such a creature and would have gone away voluntarily. Then we

would not have a brother, but we could go on living and honour his memory. But this

animal plagues us.

In fact, Gregor himself seems convinced that he is an animal, not himself. He dies that night,

practically on command. Just take the paradox of convincing oneself that one is not oneself.

Clearly that person does not know who they are, and this is such a paradox only because that

person is trapped inside himself; that person is both the convincer and the convincee. The

importance here is in the ambiguity of Gregor’s I and even moreso in the confusion that Gregor

(perhaps Kafka, too) himself feels about his identity. Gregor, being trapped inside his I, cannot

objectively see what he really is: animal, human, the same Gregor, a different Gregor, or a

completely different “system” altogether. Hofstadter would say that Gregor, being trapped inside

his I, cannot see how others see him, but as witnessed by his sister’s description, this is probably

less accurate than the statement that he cannot objectively see himself (illustrated perfectly by the

paradox above).

Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being is considerably more

straightforward in its discussion of body and mind (or soul, as Kundera refers to it). Nonetheless,

it, too, contains the central motif of a person not being able to see him/herself. The Unbearable
Lightness of Being – and Tereza’s character in particular (the main focus here) – operates under

the premise that “Your body is just like all other bodies; you have no right to shame; you have no

reason to hide something that exists in millions of identical copies (57).” It follows, then, that the

soul is the individual part of one’s identity, completely independent of the body; the two are

almost coincidentally intertwined. It is one’s awareness of their relationship that creates the

sense of identity. Kundera writes, “Tereza felt her soul rushing up to the surface through her

blood vessels and pores to show itself to him.... The crew of her soul rushed up to the deck of her

body (50).” It would seem that Tereza has a clear sense of the relationship between body and

soul, and thus an understanding of her identity. It seems, even, that she would be able to see

herself clearly with this perception of her body and soul. But there is one crucial element that

keeps her from accurately seeing herself: she is her body and soul. This last passage misleading

portrays her I as a separate entity when in fact it is a combination of body and soul.

Tereza cannot see herself because she is trapped within herself, but it seems that she

knows this too, and seeks to escape from herself so that she can see herself from outside of

herself. She looks in the mirror, but as Kundera explains, “It was not vanity that drew her to the

mirror; it was the amazement at seeing her own ‘I.’” (41) Hofstadter would call this a system’s

“un-mode,” where the system theoretically turns itself off and looks at itself free from the rules

that govern it. Unfortunately this is not possible for a machine, and much less for a human being,

even a fictional one. It is clearly impossible for a person to turn off both her body and her soul

and then look at herself in a mirror purely objectively, as any human can attest to from

experience. But in principle, this actually should work; it should be a way for a person to see

him/herself objectively.
Carlos Ruiz Zafón takes this principle, but recognizes the reality of it. The Shadow of the

Wind looks closely at the relationship between literature and the “self,” and towards the end, the

protagonist remarks, "Bea says that the art of reading is slowly dying, that it's an intimate ritual,

that a book is a mirror that offers us only what we carry inside us, that when we read, we do it

with all our heart and mind, and great readers are becoming more scarce by the day." (484) Aside

from the poetic description of literature and reading, this passage is significant for the way it

treats the idea of the “mirror.” Like Kundera, Zafón uses the mirror as a symbol and a means for

a character’s self-examination and self-perception. But unlike Kundera, who thought that

looking at a mirror would effectively turn oneself off, Zafón recognizes that the mirror “offers us

only what we carry inside us.” Hofstadter elaborates, “To discern what went on in one's mind

one just "looked" … and the limits of what one thereby found were the very boundaries of the

mind” (Hofstadter 11). After all, how could you examine yourself fully and objectively, if you

are limited by the very limitations that you are trying to observe? This is reminiscent of the

Metamorphosis paradox of someone trying to convince him/herself that he/she is something

different, and it recalls a similar passage from Shadow of the Wind: "For some time now, Julián

had been wondering whether he'd gone out of his mind. Does the madman know he is mad? Or

are the madmen those who insist on convincing him of his unreason in order to safeguard their

own idea of reality?" (444) This example is an outstanding manifestation of a man’s inability to

see himself objectively because he is “trapped inside of himself” – the question “Does the

madman know he is mad?” says it perfectly4. The paradox is caused by self-reference, by the

madman referring to himself. Because he is trapped inside of himself, he is bounded by his own

A logical analog would be “This statement is false.” Is the statement true or false? This is a classic example of what Hofstadter calls a “Strange
Loop.” The paradox here, too, is caused by the self-reference or recursion. Here is a similar situation: “The following statement is true. The
preceding statement is false.” Alone, the statements are harmless, but their recursive, self-referential nature creates the paradox.
limitations, namely madness, and when he attempts to look at himself to determine whether or

not he is mad, his perception can never be truly objective. This particular instance – where the

condition under evaluation is “madness” – is especially useful to illustrate the effects of being

“trapped inside oneself,” but the same paradox can be typified for any other condition –

sympathy, tiredness, being organized, or being disorganized, to start.

Zafón does experiment with one other method of self-detachment (or “turning oneself

off”) that shows signs of promise, especially when coupled with Hofstadter’s proposition that

language (“a medium for the exchange of the ideas”), allows people to identify with other points

of view. This passage from Shadow of the Wind leads us to believe that language also allows

people to identify with themselves: "Julián told me that a story is a letter the author writes

himself, to tell himself things that he would be unable to discover otherwise" (444). The story of

Zafón’s novel provides substantial support for this statement, though all of it can not nearly be

covered here. In short, an author leaves traces of his identity in all of his novels, and the

characters in the book – the author included – become detached enough from the story to

objectively evaluate the author’s true I. It is puzzling how to a reader, a story can act as a mirror

(which does not lead to self-detachment), but to its author it actually can act as a means of self-

detachment. Perhaps this occurs because an author effectively creates a completely separate copy

of himself – a clone, if you will – via his writing to objectively evaluate. The “great reader,” on

the other hand, uses the book as a mirror simply to express – not separate or copy – certain

emotions or characteristics already present in the reader’s subjective experience.

One piece now remains, to connect all these observations back to the broader mind-body

problem. Nagel said that in order to examine the relationship between the facts of experience
(mind) and physical phenomena (body), one must first determine how to access a given point of

view – a given “subjective experience” – objectively. But based on the thesis postulated in this

essay, the much more relevant and directly important aspect of the mind-body problem regards

how to access one’s own subjective experience objectively while trapped inside of oneself. The

answer here, to which Zafón initially pointed, is essentially to clone oneself and then observe the

clone objectively. This merely raises more questions; specifically, does the clone have the same

I, as the original? Does evaluating my clone provide an objective analysis of myself? And,

depending on how my clone’s I is established, will I still run into the same problems of self-

reference that the madman ran into when trying to determine if he were mad?

What, then, is the relationship between even our own mind and body – between our own

character of experience and physical operation? This essay did not attempt to solve the mind-

body problem or even to clarify it. Truly, it merely complicated it.

Works Cited

Hofstadter, Douglas R. “Introduction and Reflections.” The Mind’s I. By Douglas R Hofstadter

and Daniel C Dennett. N.p.: Basic Books, 2000.

Kafka, Franz. The Metamorphosis. N.p.: Kessinger Publishing, 2004.

Kundera, Milan. The Unbearable Lightness of Being. N.p.: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.,


Nagel, Thomas. “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” The Philosophical Review (Oct. 1974). Rpt. in

The Mind’s I. By Douglas R Hofstadter and Daniel C Dennett. N.p.: Basic Books, 2000.


Zafón, Carlos Ruiz. The Shadow of the Wind. Barcelona: Penguin Books Ltd, 2004.