Fractals, the self and the meaning of life
- a possible analogy


I seek to zoom ever deeper into a fractal, to uncover its core of beauty and complexity. Yet, fractals do not have a core, being nothing but iterated patterns. Life does not have a meaning at its core either, because life does not have a core. My fractal efforts may seem pointless because there is nothing to find except repetition with variation. Yet the same is true of life. We search in vain for "The Meaning of life", yet searching is not pointless, because at each level of enquiry we find new patterns that are meaningful to us. Each level promises to take us deeper.

Perhaps the meaning of life is fractal because life is like an onion. There is nothing but more of the same, with variations, as you go deeper into it. There is no secret kernel deeply buried within. Yet we need to keep searching and rediscovering meaning, pretending that the ultimate kernel is there to be discovered. As one guru put it, when you think you have got it, you can be sure that's not it.

The question "Who am I?" may have a fractal answer, or rather, non-answer. Looking inside oneself trying to find one's kernel or inner essence is rather like zooming into a fractal in the hope of finding its ultimate hidden form. In the fractal case there is no final answer, as there is nothing inside, just endless layers of repetition with variation. Maybe the same is true of the self. There is nothing hidden inside, no final homunculus lurking within the scaffolding.

It seems that life, the self and fractals share a common characteristic, namely emptiness.

Recursion is the process of repeating items in a self-similar way. For instance, when the surfaces of two mirrors are exactly parallel with each other, the nested images that occur are a form of infinite recursion. Two familiar examples are Russian dolls and the "chicken and egg problem". Recursion is when one of the steps of the procedure involves invoking the procedure itself. If at this moment I am a self trying to find it-self then is this recursive already?

Fractals are produced by recursion. Is the self recursive in some sense? It is an entity that can turn its attention onto itself, hence the (somewhat misleading) term "self-consciousness", which is used to distinguish us from the other animals. We can even make self-enquiry into a topic to ponder, ie think about thinking about the self, going a level higher, and so on. So the self's search for itself can be seen as recursive.

What about the meaning of life - is it recursive and can one zoom into it? I think that if we find our passion, ie what we love to do, then we will go deeper into it and find unsuspected layers of meaning, crossing boundaries on the way. Meaning is recursive in the sense that it requires repeatedly deeper involvement, allowing us to uncover new meanings that were not visible from the previous level. One zooms in more deeply without ever finding an end-point. The creation of meaning is an ongoing process requiring our continued creative efforts.

See recursion and strange loop.
Tad Boniecki
Jan 2015

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