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Linnea Gabriella Spransy: Of Fractals and Free Will


Linnea Spransy is a painter of a different kind. When I first saw one of Linnea’s paintings, I was amazed. At first glance, it didn’t look like a painting to me. I could have easily mistaken it for a microscopic image of an organic molecule (click on the image to the left for a closer look). The thing that amazed me the most was the surprising “coincidence” that Linnea’s method of painting would give rise to something so natural looking – something so organic and beautiful. You see, Linnea uses the mathematical fractal as a parallel for how she creates her artwork.

Linnea's paintings are all composed of basic lines. She gives her self simple “rules” by which to steer these lines. The lines accumulate until (in her words) “unanticipated articulations begin to emerge.” The result is surprising and beautiful. Linnea literally doesn’t know what her paintings will look like until she’s done with them. Cool, huh?

Linnea was nice enough to share more of her thoughts with me through email. I will quote her at length:
To me, fractals are an interesting visual parallel of the nature of life – how firm boundaries and rules still give rise to variety and surprise. These are surprises that are self-similar and unending, even so, in fractals, they are endlessly unique. Life is similarly composed of many regulations. Admitting this, many people slip into grim fatalism, yet, in my view, regulation isn’t cause for resentment. Far from it! Rules are inherently creative, and, perhaps counter-intuitively, absolute freedom is chaotic and paralyzing. This, I believe, extends into matters of will. We are free to choose, but boundaries which are outside of our control often determine what category of opportunity within which we are free to exercise our will. Yet, limited will is, in my experience, a mercy – and a great one at that. Limits may be the greatest mercy of all and the true guardian of freedom.
Linnea correctly points out that absolute freedom is chaos. This is not only true sociologically – a society with no rules would be anarchy – but it is also true of the universe itself. The world in which we live works according to finely tuned rules, or laws. Those laws are what make our existence possible. Laws, by their very nature, exclude certain possibilities. But this exclusion is not something to resent. It is a reason to rejoice. It is good that we are bound by the law of gravity. If it did not exist, neither would we. There were a lot of possibilities that were excluded in the forming of our world – a lot of potentialities were “ruled out.” And it is because the universe is so exclusive in nature that we can even be here.

For some people however, just being here isn’t enough. They want to be able to do whatever they want. And they consider any limits put on them as an offense. As silly and narcissistic as that may sound, it is unfortunately true for a number of people. I once had someone tell me that we are not truly free if there is anything limiting or even influencing our decisions. By “decisions” the person really meant “options.” Not only do I disagree with that definition of freedom, but I reject that outlook on life as one of a self-imposed impotence.

Take marriage for example. Many people today view marriage as a prison. They see it as a constraint – something that takes away their freedom. Instead, the modern trend is to “keep your options open.” But the true joy of having options comes the moment you commit to one of them and eliminate all the rest. This is not only true of lovers but of anything! The whole point of having 31 flavors of ice cream is to choose one of them! If you never “limit” yourself by making a choice – if you never commit yourself to something or someone, thereby excluding other choices – then all those “options” are for nill. The person who demands “absolute freedom” paralyzes himself, and is therefore the least free person of all. The man who insists on always keeping his options open is practically no different than the man with no options.

This brings us to another point which Linnea touched on. It is the temptation to slip into “grim fatalism.” While the egoists are busy whining over the fact that limits exist, some people are going the other way and touting the limits (the laws of Nature) as the explanation for everything! If all that exists is matter and energy and the laws of Nature, then it follows that there can be no free will. Any action I may “choose” to do can be explained as the necessary effect of some prior cause – be it my genes, my appetite, or whatever. My main problem with this view is that it doesn’t leave much room for……..well, me! The traditional view has been that humans are agents of change. We are “self-movers.” If we so desire, we can introduce new lines of causation into the world with no prior determining cause. In other words, we have free will.

But the traditional understanding of humans as agents has been under attack as of late. Philosophical materialists prefer to define human beings as bags of competing impulses – the strongest impulse wins. Unfortunately for the materialists, there is new evidence that even fruit flies exhibit a kind of agency that can not be explained by internal competing impulses, nor by blind external causes. If there is true freedom at the level of a fruit fly, then I think it is safe to assume there is true freedom at the level of humans. It seems we may be free after all.

What makes the fruit fly study even more interesting, and appropriate for our present discussion, is the scientists discovered that the behavior of the fruit fly exhibits what they call a “fractal order.” I think Linnea is on to something with this whole fractal thing! A relationship that she discovered through art seems to hold true for science as well.

If you’d like to know what freedom looks like, Linnea Spransy’s paintings may give you a good idea. Check out her website here and enjoy the surprise! If you are a philosophical materialist, you may still enjoy it, even though you have no choice in the matter.

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