The old "ouroboros" of mind and body reappears in various forms. Basically, the world is formed within consciousness; consciousness is formed within the brain; the brain is formed within the world.

What is the most lucid description of this in the philosophical (or other) literature? Is it an infinite regress? A paradox? A paradox of self-reference? A set that contains itself?

I'm not seeking theoretical implications, just standard terms or descriptions that make it easier to elucidate the catch-22, especially by placing "mind-body" co-dependence in a broader category of problems.

  • Personally, the essential Hegelian motion is what I'd call "returning inside-out and outside-in," which is how we actually reproduce our generations, a sort of chirality that does not seem to be picturable in three dimensions. Commented Oct 29, 2015 at 19:10
  • I'd be tempted to argue that "the most lucid description of this" is specific to the religion or branch of philosophy or mathematics being studied at the time. The descriptions in Buddhism are the most lucid to Buddhists. The descriptions from functional materialism are most lucid to functional materialists, and so forth.
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Oct 30, 2015 at 8:02
  • Perhaps Foucault's 'empirical-transcendental doublet may be worth a mention here. In general, the overcoming of dualism (e.g. through pragmatism as per Dewey or other theories as per Plessner).
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented May 5, 2016 at 23:42

3 Answers 3


The metaphor of Indra's Pearls describing the mutual constitution and reflection of universe and individual consciousness goes back to Huayan school of Buddhism in 7th century AD:"And every dew drop contains the reflection of all the other dew drops. And, in each reflected dew drop, the reflections of all the other dew drops in that reflection. And so ad infinitum. That is the Buddhist conception of the universe in an image", according to Watts. The Vedic source is much older, but it does not seem to involve mutual reflection and self-reference.

In Western philosophy an early and perhaps the most lucid expression of the idea, is given by Pascal in Pensees:"Through space the universe grasps me and swallows me up like a speck; through thought I grasp the universe". In Leibniz's monadology monads consitute the world, and each monad reflects all of it from its own point of view, like a drop of dew. Less visually, and more cryptically one finds this expressed in Heidegger's Being and Time by the hermeneutic circle ("Dasein", literally "being-here", is Heidegger's term for embodied human existence):

"The 'circle' in understanding belongs to the structure of meaning, and the latter phenomenon is rooted in the existential constitution of Dasein, in interpretive understanding. Being which, as being-in-the-world, is concerned about its being itself (but this "its being itself" is intrinsically determined by the understanding of being...), has, ontologically, a circular structure."

More recently, Hofstadter used Indra's Pearls in his classic Gödel, Escher, Bach (1979) as a metaphor for complex interconnection and self-reference in advanced networks: physical, neural and social. Indra's Pearls, the book by Mumford, Series and Wright explores a mathematical manifestation, namely self-similar patterns created by iteration of Möbius transformations, self-similar fractals.

  • Thanks, good sources, and except for the Monadology I was unfamiliar with them. Still hoping to grasp it in some logical, even refutable, and non-pictorial way, if possible. The Mumford, et al, book is new to me and sounds very intriguing. Commented Sep 10, 2015 at 0:59
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    @Nelson Alexander Hofstadter probably comes closest then:"To describe such self-referencing objects, Hofstadter coins the term "strange loop", a concept he examines in more depth in his follow-up book I Am a Strange Loop... He attempts to show readers how to perceive reality outside their own experience and embrace such paradoxical questions by rejecting the premise—a strategy also called "unasking"... properties of self-referential systems, can be used to describe the unique properties of minds". en.wikipedia.org/wiki/G%C3%B6del,_Escher,_Bach#Themes
    – Conifold
    Commented Sep 10, 2015 at 2:26
  • @NelsonAlexander Definitely. GEB does a remarkably good job of touching on many related paradoxes. In fact, related to your question's wording, the book goes into a strange class of situations where one would like a set to contain itself, but cannot do so without causing paradox.
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Sep 10, 2015 at 18:02

You might want to look into Husserl's Crisis of the European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology. He explicitly states the problem in Sections 52-54, and calls it "the paradox of human subjectivity." However, you should be aware that his explication would make more sense if you have read the whole work. In general, his solution to this problem seems to me to be the underlying thesis of the whole work and one of the primary positive points of theory in his phenomenology.

Merleau-Ponty takes up parallel themes in his Phenomenology of Perception. In general, the phenomenologists would be good references for this sort of thing.

EDIT: I should also mention that Husserl's development of the issue is in more ontological terms than your naturalistic formulation. For him, there is a constitutive connection between consciousness and reason. Consciousness constitutes the world through meaning, and meaningful structures are limited by rationality. Husserl is also distinctly not a mind-body dualist. So the contours of the problem are going to be different, but I see the same basic difficulty here, i.e., the thrust of the question remains: how can it be that a part of the world (consciousness) constitutes the whole world?


This is the topic of Hofstadter's "Godel, Escher and Bach" and "I am a Strange Loop". He explicitly calls the circularity you describe a "Strange Loop". It is is strange because there is a hierarchical relationship between observer and observed, yet the top part of the hierarchy somehow connects with the bottom part.

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