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Phenomenology: Zhuangzi’s Transformation of Things Essay

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Updated: Jan 24th, 2021


Throughout the course of millennia, it used to account for a commonplace practice among Western and Oriental philosophers to believe that there are phenomenological subtleties to people’s endowment with consciousness. For example, many Western philosophers used to subscribe to the Descartian concept of ‘mind and body dualism’ while insisting that it is indeed possible for one’s mind to exist outside of his or her body. Oriental philosophers, in this respect, were not much different, as the idea that consciousness is independent of its bearers’ physiology defines the discursive implications of many of their writings.

The validity of this suggestion can be illustrated in regards to Zhuangzi’s stance on the subject matter, reflected by his allegory of a butterfly: “Once Zhuangzi dreamt he was a butterfly… He didn’t know he was Zhuangzi. Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Zhuangzi. But he didn’t know if he was Zhuangzi who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuangzi. Between Zhuangzi and a butterfly there must be some distinction! This is called the Transformation of Things” (World Religions WGS 2). In light of the recent discoveries in the field of neurobiology and physics, however, the assumption that there is a metaphysical substance (such as Zhuangzi’s transformation of things), which exists independently of people’s highly subjective perception of the surrounding reality, does not stand much of a ground. In my paper, I will elaborate on this idea at length.

Body of the paper

As it was mentioned in the Introduction, the belief that it is one’s psyche (soul), which ‘fuels’ the functioning of his or her body (which implies a person’s body being secondary to its soul), used to be considered utterly appealing by many people, throughout the course of history. The reason for this is simple – by assuming that the soul is ‘primary’ and body is ‘secondary,’ people can lessen the acuteness of their death-related anxieties. Nevertheless, as of today, it became thoroughly clear to neurologists that one’s conscious/unconscious psyche (soul) cannot exist outside of his or her body, by definition. After all, it has now been well proven that the workings of one’s psyche are defined by the essence of chemo-electric reactions inside of the concerned individual’s brain. For as long as there are no obstacles on the way of chemo-electric reactions’ normal flow, the functioning of one’s consciousness allows him or her to experience the three-dimensional sensation of ‘self.’ However, even slight mechanical damage to the cortex area of one’s brain can produce a dramatic impact on the person’s sense of identity (soul) – often without affecting the integrity of the concerned individual’s ability to address cognitive tasks (Puig and Gulledge 455).

Moreover, the recent discoveries in the field of neurology suggest that one’s unconscious is in charge of defining the person’s rational choices – six seconds prior to when these choices are being actually made. This is because, conceptually speaking, just as it happened to be the case with plants and animals, the representatives of Homo Sapiens species are nothing but vehicles for the genes (DNA) that ‘ride’ them. As Dawkins noted, “We are survival machines – robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes” (2). Regardless of whether we are awake or asleep, our actions reflect the workings of our unconscious-based consciousness, which in turn are genetically predetermined. In the neurological sense of this word, the functioning of people’s consciousness, concerned with their ability to cognize the surrounding reality, can be compared to the performance of a symphonic orchestra.

It is only when every performer adequately plays its instrument that the emergence of an overall symphonic melody is possible. In a similar manner, it is only when every neuron in the person’s brain adequately reacts to chemically induced stimuli, which makes it possible for this person to experience the endowment with consciousness. Allegorically speaking, consciousness is the music played by neurons (Meserve 531). In its turn, this explains the illogicality and incoherentness of dreams – in the state of sleep, only the brain’s neurons responsible for the functioning of the unconscious are activated. The validity of this statement has been proven by the electroencephalographic images of the sleeping person’s brain, which point out to the fact that, while asleep, only the parts of the brain’s cortex allow the conductance of electrochemical reactions. Therefore, Zhuangzi’s suggestion that it is quite impossible to differentiate dreams from reality is wrong. The same can be said about his conceptualization of ‘transformation of things,’ as such that exists in the essentially metaphysical realm. There can be no conscious realms outside of people’s brains, just as there can be no anti-lock braking system (ABS) outside of cars.

The apparent fallaciousness of Zhuangzi’s suggestion can also be exposed in relation to what today’s physicists know about the innermost essence of information, as an integral part of consciousness, and about the ‘thought,’ as an integral part of one’s sense of self-identity. It is important to understand that information is nothing but a particularly structuralized physical matter, such as typographic ink on the book’s page, the magnetization-pattern on the recording tape or modulated radio wave, etc. Information only becomes recognized as such when there is a third party capable of receiving it (Adams 475). What it means is that: a) being material, information cannot exist outside of the material medium, upon which it is saved. b) the process of the brain’s neurons engaging with the information (chemicals), which is being commonly referred to in terms of a ‘thought,’ is idealistic (non-material).

After all, unlike what it happened to be with the secretions of one’s liver, for example, the secretions of his or her mind (thoughts) cannot be sampled in the test tube. In other words, despite being clearly non-material, consciousness is nevertheless triggered by unmistakably material processes, which in turn implies that there can be no consciousness as ‘thing in itself’ (or as Zhuangzi’s ‘transformation of things’). Unlike what many idealistically minded/religious people believe, consciousness (or soul) is not a ‘state’ but a ‘process,’ made possible by the continual interaction between electrochemically induced stimuli, on the one hand, and the brain’s neurons, on the other. If, for whatever reason (such as brain death), this interaction stops, consciousness (soul) ceases to exist – pure and simple. Once there is no material medium (brain) upon which the individuality-related information (soul) used to be recorded, there can be no more individuality. It is needless to mention, of course, that this exposes the erroneousness of the religious belief in the ‘afterlife,’ as such that contradicts the most fundamental laws of nature, which apply to people as much as they apply to just about anything in this universe.

Apparently, those who assume that it is possible for one’s psyche/soul to lead out-of-bodily existence while justifying their belief by the references to the Law of Conservation of Energy remain arrogant of the fact that this law only applies to physical matter. After all, as we are well aware, after having died and consequently turned into corpses, people do not instantly disappear. The energy that they had in their bodies, while alive, is being gradually dissipated into the surrounding environment in the form of an entropy-inducing heat – such as the movements of grave-worms, for example. One’s consciousness (soul) can be well compared to the hole inside of the bread-roll – once this bread-roll is eaten, the earlier mentioned hole simply disappears. It is understood, of course, that the realization of individuality’s mortality is emotionally disturbing, but it is better to be thoroughly aware of how things really are than to remain in a state of blissful ignorance.


I believe that the earlier provided line of argumentation, as to why I think Zhuangzi’s suggestion is erroneous, fully correlates with the paper’s initial thesis. What has been said, however, was not meant to ridicule Zhuangzi’s point of view. After all, he did, in fact, succeed in emphasizing the phenomenological aspects of how consciousness goes to construct the sense of self-identity. However, due to the fact that this philosopher came up with the earlier quoted statement at the time when empirical sciences were still remaining in the embryonic state, he could not have possibly been aware that our intuitive insights into what constitutes the integrity of our individuality, are largely misleading. Thus, it will only be logical, on my part, to conclude this paper by reinstating once again that the ‘transformation of things,’ as the metaphysical source of people’s sense of self-identity, is nothing but Zhuangzi’s highly subjective mental construct, which has very little to do with what today’s scientists know about the actual nature of consciousness.

Works Cited

Adams, Frederick. “The Informational Turn in Philosophy.” Minds & Machines 13.4 (2003): 471-501. Print.

Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976. Print.

Meserve, Laura. “From Neurons to Self-Consciousness: How the Brain Generates the Mind.” Choice 49.3 (2011): 531-532. Print.

Puig, Victoria and Allan Gulledge. “Serotonin and Prefrontal Cortex Function: Neurons, Networks, and Circuits.” Molecular Neurobiology 44. 3 (2011): 449-464. Print.

World Religions WGS. Philosophy 105. Final Examination.

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