Sunday, May 27, 2012

Are We Significant or Insignificant in the Grander Scheme of Things?

Are We Significant or Insignificant in the Grander Scheme of Things?:
An Attempted Answer with Fractals

One does not have to look far to see many examples of folk logic and math showing how insignificant each individual is to the grander scheme of things.  For example, see the top half of the image below.  However, this seems to be at odds with the equally prevalent representations of each of us being significant in our own way--see the bottom half of the same image below for an example.

But which is true.  It seems impossibly contradictory to be both significant AND insignificant at the same time since the words are opposites.  Perhaps it is the fact that I am running on a lack of sleep and because exams are around the corner, but I think that the only reason that there is a contradiction is because we are asking the wrong question.  It does not make sense to ask if we are significant or insignificant because we are both and neither at the same time.  This may seem to go against what I just said, but if I employ the concept of fractals, it will all become clear.

Fractals are a mathematical concept (don't click away just yet lol!) that stand at the intersection of math and nature (and arguably also art).  They are structures that look like themselves at any level of magnification.  For example, take a branch of broccoli or cauliflower and put it next to its "parent" plant.  You will quickly notice that they look similar.  And, if you were to zoom in to the little piece, it would be tricky to tell its size without some sort of indication of scale such as a penny or your fingers.  This is because both these plants have "recursion" or, in other words, they repeat in a smaller and smaller pattern for as long as possible given environmental constraints.  Another example of this in the "natural" world would be a fern since you can take a piece of the fern and it looks roughly like the larger fern but smaller.

So what does this have to do with the significance/insignificance of (wo)man?  Fractals were revolutionary because they show how something that seems to have no pattern (for example fractal analysis has been used on the stock market, the human heart, radio waves, and rain forests just to name a few) is actually a complex, recursive pattern.  Equally important, it has been shown that nature loves (to anthropomorphize a bit) to employ fractals, such as in clouds, trees, ferns, vegetables, waves, cliffs, etc.  Really, the few Euclidian geometrical shapes (e.g., squares, rectangles, circles) that are used out there are built mainly only by man.

What I propose it that this is also a much grander metaphor for the human condition.  Asking bluntly if we are significant or insignificant removes us, in a rhetorical sense, from the rest of everything.  It places us outside everything and tries to see where we fit into it.  It is much like trying to determine the significance or insignificance of a puzzle piece apart from a puzzle.  However, if we realize that we (and what we are made of) are part of a of a fractal, things become different.  We are not separate but are instead a part of a larger, complex pattern that is integral to both who we are, everything we are a part of, and everything that is a part of us.  We are a mirror of and an indivisible part of the next level of scale above and below us.  Sure, if you zoom out, we may disappear, and if you zoom too far in, we start to expand out or recognition.  But we do not disappear and, equally, the world does not revolve around us.

This is not to say that you are just a cog in a machine.  Machines have no true recursive pattern, they are man-made.  You can not zoom into a machine and see a smaller machine, you only see parts.  In a fractal, none of the original beauty is lost at any level.  Thus, rather than significant/insignificant, individualistic, cog(s), machine(s), etc., we are small, connected, repeated (recursive), complex, and beautiful.  You (and I) are linked, natural, and awe-inspiring.  Perhaps I am wrong, but at least this argument gives me a sense of peace.