Turtles all the way down
"Turtles all the way down" is a jocular expression of the infinite regress problem in cosmology posed by the "unmoved mover" paradox. The phrase was popularized by Stephen Hawking in 1988. The "turtle" metaphor in the anecdote represents a popular notion of a "primitive cosmological myth", namely the flat earth supported on the back of a World Turtle.
A comparable metaphor describing the circular cause and consequence for the same problem is the "chicken and egg problem". Another metaphor addressing the problem of infinite regression, albeit not in a cosmological context, is Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? The same problem in epistemology is known as the Münchhausen Trilemma.
The origins of the turtle story are uncertain.
A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: "What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise." The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, "What is the tortoise standing on?" "You're very clever, young man, very clever," said the old lady. "But it's turtles all the way down!"—Hawking, 1988
In 1905, Oliver Corwin Sabin, Bishop of the Evangelical Christian Science Church, wrote:
The old original idea which was enunciated first in India, that the world was flat and stood on the back of an elephant, and the elephant did not have anything to stand on was the world's thought for centuries. That story is not as good as the Richmond negro preachers who said the world was flat and stood on a turtle. They asked him what the turtle stood on and he said another turtle, and they asked what that turtle stood on and he said another turtle, and finally they got him in a hole and he said. "I tell you there are turtles all the way down."—Sabin, 1905
Many 20th-century attributions point to William James as the source. James referred to the fable of the elephant and tortoise several times, but told the infinite regress story with "rocks all the way down" in his 1882 essay, "Rationality, Activity and Faith". In the form of "rocks all the way down", the story predates James to at least 1838.
In 1854 the story in the current form appears, attributed by bible skeptic Joseph Barker to preacher Joseph Frederick Berg:
My opponent’s reasoning reminds me of the heathen, who, being asked on what the world stood, replied, “On a tortoise.” But on what does the tortoise stand? “On another tortoise.” With Mr. Barker, too, there are tortoises all the way down.—Barker, 1854
How can we satisfy ourselves without going on in infinitum? And, after all, what satisfaction is there in that infinite progression? Let us remember the story of the Indian philosopher and his elephant. It was never more applicable than to the present subject. If the material world rests upon a similar ideal world, this ideal world must rest upon some other; and so on, without end. It were better, therefore, never to look beyond the present material world.—Hume, 1779
Claimed Hindu myths
Hawking's suggested connection to Russell may be due to Russell's 1927 lecture Why I Am Not a Christian. In it, while discounting the First Cause argument intended to be a proof of God's existence, Russell comments:
- "If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause. If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God, so that there cannot be any validity in that argument. It is exactly of the same nature as the Hindu's view, that the world rested upon an elephant and the elephant rested upon a tortoise; and when they said, 'How about the tortoise?' the Indian said, 'Suppose we change the subject.'"
Men are making speeches… all over the country, but each expresses only the thought, or the want of thought, of the multitude. No man stands on truth. They are merely banded together as usual, one leaning on another and all together on nothing; as the Hindoos made the world rest on an elephant, and the elephant on a tortoise, and had nothing to put under the tortoise.
Philosophical allusion to the story goes back at least as far as John Locke. In his 1689 tract An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke compares one who would say that properties inherent in "substance" to the Indian who said the world was on an elephant which was on a tortoise "but being again pressed to know what gave support to the broad-backed tortoise, replied — something, he knew not what."
Despite these accounts, Hindu myths do not actually contain the myth in the form described. Locke appears to have taken the idea from Samuel Purchas. Some accounts involve the earth supported by a single unsupported tortoise, as Jñanaraja argued: "A vulture, which has only little strength, rests in the sky holding a snake in its beak for a prahara [three hours]. Why can [the deity] in the form of a tortoise, who possesses an inconceivable potency, not hold the Earth in the sky for a kalpa [billions of years]?"
The story can also be found in Bernard Nietschmann's "When the Turtle Collapses, the World Ends", Natural History, 83(6):34 (June–July 1974).
A version of the story also appears in Clifford Geertz's, "Thick Description: Towards an Interpretive Theory of Culture", in his 1973 book The Interpretation of Culture, with the scientist and old woman replaced by an Englishman and an Indian respectively.
Carl Sagan recited a version of the story as an apocryphal anecdote in his 1979 book Broca's Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science, as an exchange between a "Western traveler" and an "Oriental philosopher".
In our favored version, an Eastern guru affirms that the earth is supported on the back of a tiger. When asked what supports the tiger, he says it stands upon an elephant; and when asked what supports the elephant he says it is a giant turtle. When asked, finally, what supports the giant turtle, he is briefly taken aback, but quickly replies "Ah, after that it is turtles all the way down."—Antonin Scalia, Antonin Scalia. "RAPANOS v. UNITED STATES". Cornell Law School Legal Information Institute's Supreme Court collection.
The anecdote has achieved the status of an urban legend on the Internet, as there are numerous versions in which the name of the scientist varies (e.g., Arthur Stanley Eddington, Thomas Huxley, Linus Pauling, or Carl Sagan) although the rest is the same.
Allusions in popular culture
- The Discworld novels, written by Terry Pratchett involve a fictional flat world which rests on the back of four giant elephants, all of whom stand on the back of a giant World-Turtle called A'Tuin.
- Stephen King uses this in his mythos, with our Universe having been created from the vomit of a World Turtle called Maturin.
- A teacher in Lev Grossman's The Magicians relays the Russell version of the story while discussing the nature of magic.
- Far-Seer, Part One of Robert J. Sawyer's three-part novel, the Quintaglio Ascension Trilogy, retells the story, replacing turtles with armourbacks (ankylosaurs).
- Thomas King uses the story to frame each of his five Massey Lectures collected in The Truth About Stories.
- "Turtles All the Way Down" was the title of the final episode of Awake, and was the final line of the female psychiatrist at the end.
- "Turtles All the Way Down" is the title of a song on Buffalo hardcore punk band Every Time I Die's fifth studio album New Junk Aesthetic.
- "Turtles All The Way Down" is also inscribed in many walls and surfaces in the video game Borderlands.
Ray Kurzweil (in 'The Age of Spiritual Machines', 1999) ascribes the story to Rolf Landauer.
- Hawking, Stephen (1988). A Brief History of Time. Bantam Books. ISBN 978-0-553-05340-1.
- Washington news letter, Volume 11 by Oliver Corwin Sabin, 1905
- John R. Ross (1967). Constraints on variables in syntax. (Doctoral dissertation, Massachusetts Institute of Technology). Available at MIT Theses (http://hdl.handle.net/1721.1/15166). See page iv of the ms., page 4 of the electronic file.
- Robert Anton Wilson (1983). Prometheus Rising. Phoenix, AZ: New Falcon Publishers. p. 25. ISBN 1-56184-056-4
- William, James (July 1882). "Rationality, Activity and Faith". The Princeton Review: 82.
- "Unwritten Philosophy". New York Mirror 16 (12). 1838-09-15. p. 91.
- Barker, Joseph (1854). Great Discussion on the Origin, Authority, and Tendency of the Bible, between Rev. J. F. Berg, D.D., of Philadelphia, and Joseph Barker, of Ohio. Boston: J. B. Yerrinton & Son, Printers. p. 48.
- Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion/Part 4
- The Picket Line — Excerpts from H.D. Thoreau’s journals
- Locke, John (1689). An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Book II, Chapter XXIII, section 2
- Will Sweetman, Indology mailing list
- Toke L. Knudsen, Indology mailing list.
- Geertz, Clifford (1973). The Interpretation of Cultures. New York, NY: Basic Books. pp. 28–29. ISBN 046509719 Check