Fractal Entanglement Between Observer and Observed

Fractal Entanglement Between Observer and Observed

Terry Marks-Tarlow (Insight Center, Los Angeles, USA & Italian Universita Niccolo Cusano, London, UK)
Copyright: © 2018 |Pages: 14
DOI: 10.4018/IJSVR.2018010101


This article explores paradoxical dynamics embedded in the fabric of existence. The logic of Spencer-Brown, as extended by Francisco Varela, is placed within the historical context of cybernetics. Varela's concept of reentry provides a bridge to fractal geometry through recursive iteration on the complex number plane. Fractals are dynamic process-structures that negotiate spatial and temporal interfaces between various forces and dimensions of existence. This article argues that fractal reentry dynamics provide contradictory foundations by which different levels of nature, including mind and matter, both separate and connect. Finally, natural fractals reveal a new level of reflexivity in science, by which the observer is paradoxically embodied within the observed.
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Do what you will, this life’s a fiction/And is made up of contradiction. -William Blake

We easily take for granted the ability to distinguish between ourselves as observers and what we observe in the world. Outwardly our skin seems visible proof of a clear boundary that encases and protects our organs. Inwardly our sense of self, when intact, also feels like a relatively clear boundary, at times even to the point of isolation from others. Yet whether we consider our bodies or minds, the subjective experience of closed boundaries rests precisely on the opposite state of affairs – wide-open portals that continually allow transaction between inside and outside, body and world, self and not-self.

Open portals are evident in our “posthuman” existence (see Hayles, 1999), where the interface between human being and machine presents boundaries which have grown ever more complex over time, with each technological advance. We plug our consciousness into virtual realities, as we augment, even invade our bodies with the presence of machines. This intense exchange between flesh and mechanism demands nothing short of a redefinition of human subjectivity.

Mystical poets, like William Blake in the above epigraph, allude to life as fiction inherently made up of contradiction. Hinduism offers the concept of Maya to describe the false perceptual veil by which we shield ourselves from an ultimately mysterious reality. At higher levels of cognitive organization, psychologists study related phenomena. For instance, Shelly Taylor (1989) identifies self-deception in the form of “positive illusions,” those overly optimistic attitudes and expectations towards the future that may be entirely unrealistic, but nevertheless which can help us to beat the medical odds.

Despite the complexities of our alleged posthuman existence, most of us live as if consistency, certainty, predictability and clear boundaries, especially between truth and falsity, reside at the base of things, from the workings of our bodies and minds to the workings of the universe at large. Boundaries are everywhere, yet most are permeable. By focusing on this highly contradictory state of affairs that extends invisibly under the surface, I follow Blake’s lead to explore the paradoxical dynamics embedded in the very fabric of existence.

This paper traces a line of semiotics and logic, begun by George Spencer-Brown and continued by Francisco Varela, which puts paradox at the heart and seam of things. I place Varela’s ideas about reentry within the context of a branch of contemporary mathematics called fractal geometry. I argue that a deep understanding of fractals helps to illuminate the profound yet invisible paradoxes that permeate ordinary life.

To set the stage historically, I begin by briefly describing the cybernetics revolution and how reflexivity first entered social sciences. The primitive logic of George Spencer-Brown, plus extensions added by Francisco Varela, are fitted into this historical context. Varela’s dynamics of reentry articulate paradoxical foundations not only for logic and but also for the creation of all structure. Next, I connect these logical assertions with mathematics of the complex plane, where imaginary numbers are used to model extra or hidden dimensionality. Imaginary numbers provide the bridge to fractal geometry, whose mathematics involves recursive iteration of simple formulas on the complex plane.

Fractals are dynamic process-structures that etch time into space. They are boundary keepers that negotiate spatial and temporal interfaces between different forces and dimensions of being. My thesis is that fractals provide the paradoxical foundation by which different levels of nature both connect and separate. Every boundary becomes a door, every border a portal. Because the same dynamics hold inside as well as outside the psyche, fractal geometry provides a bridge and language for linking inside and outside worlds. Whether they occur in nature, our bodies or minds, fractal separatrices or boundaries reveal infinite, hidden frontiers in the space between ordinary, Euclidean dimensions.

I conclude this paper by examining the mechanics of fractal production to reveal a new twist in the reflexive march of science. In a world filled with fractals, not only is the observer detectable in the observed, but the observer is also embodied there, in a primordial, concrete way. Natural fractals, like shorelines, reveal how the embodiment of the observer in the observed paradoxically precedes the presence of conscious observers.

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