biographical / Non-fiction

Everything is confusing: And nothing makes sense

Excerpt from Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar by Cathcart & Klein 2007 HNA Books.

Dimitri: If Atlas holds up the world, what holds up Atlas?

"Chicken crossing the road" jokes date back to Roman times, when Pax Romana allowed roads and poultry to flourish

Tasso: Atlas stands on the back of a turtle.

Dimitri: But what does the turtle stand on?

Tasso: Another turtle.

Dimitri: And what does that turtle stand on?

Tasso: My dear Dimitri, it’s turtles all the way down!

In a recent conversation, it has come to my attention that it is impossible to find the origin of the phrase “it’s turtles all the way down.” No matter who references it, it seems they are always referencing something or someone else. The further you go back, there’s always someone else: a classic case of an infinite regress. To put it differently “turtles all the way down” is turtles all the way down.

My interlocutor, good friend and roommate, Stephen, attributed the phrase to fellow Stephen Hawking, who famously referenced TATWD in the introduction to his 1988 bestseller A Brief History of Time. Hawking, though, presents TATWD in the context of of an exchange between Bertrand Russell and an old woman.

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!”

I’m sure Hawking knows a great many things that I don’t, but why would Bertrand Russell be giving a public lecture on astronomy? Russell was a dynamo in mathematics, philosophy, social thought and hilarious divorce anecdotes but he wasn’t an astronomer. How necessary was it to explain the heliocentric model of the solar system in the 20th century?

Perhaps most tellingly, five years earlier in Prometheus Rising Robert Anton Wilson attributed this exact same anecdote to William James. It makes you wonder about Hawking, doesn’t it?

Typically references older than the 1980s refer to Indian mystics or philosophers, although the world-on-a-tortoise thing isn’t really part of their cosmology either. I guess it was just convenient for Westerners to put such a silly notion into the mouths of people that they could confident they would never run into, which explains why they switched to using anonymous old ladies in the 1980s.

Older references to TATWD include the Bishop of the Evangelical Christian Science Church, Oliver Corwin Sabin, who attributed it to a “Richmond negro preacher.” Going back further, John Locke mentions the world on the back of a tortoise in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, again attributing it to an Indian mystic. Locke appears to have taken it from Samuel Purcha’s travelogue from 1656, though there are murking attribution by Will Sweetman who attributes the Indian misattribution to the Jesuit Father Emanual de Veiga, circa 1599. Yet his source (or any information beyond the fact that he existed) is likely lost to time.

In conclusion: In a December Harper’s feature, Alan Lightman  pointed out how foundational questions in physics continue to elude description and understanding. The questions that remain are, in fact, pretty fundamental, and result in ever less-likely sounding explanations. We don’t know why the universe is expanding at an increasing rate. This is crucial, since the Big Bang Theory as we know it posited that the universe’s expansion would be slowing. This affront to the hegemonic model forced scientists into positing “dark energy.” To quote Lightman:

“No one knows what [dark energy] is. Not only invisible, dark energy apparently hides out in empty space. Yet, based on our observations of the accelerating rate of expansion, dark energy constitutes a whopping three quarters of the total energy of the universe.”

The article goes on to talk about string theory, which necessitates seven dimensions, which is unfathomable. Rather than the universe being composed of subatomic particles–like the electron–matter is composed of one dimensional “strings” vibrating at different frequencies, which constitute different fundamental particles and forces. These “strings” are, and likely can only be, theoretical.

Which is to say, putting one’s stock in physics–in the science of first principles–is still committing an act of faith. The religious should take note that these godless scientists are truly agnostics: the answer is there, but thus far unknowable. They are calling back to the god-of-the-gaps but calling him “dark energy.”

I guess that’s kind of a digression, but turtles all the way down is an increasingly apt metaphor for the state of theoretical physics today, and perhaps how we each make our decisions. I suppose the major difference between the religious and the scientific is that theoretical physicists have a duty to posit a second turtle, find out what they can about him, before moving on to the other. Increasingly I have a sneaking suspicion that Heraclitus was right way back in 500 B.C., not only about all things being in flux, but also understanding itself being a moving target.

But I don’t want to make it sound as though I have anything against the theoretical physicists.  Science is not so different from the arts; as Shakespeare notes, the object of art (like science, I suppose) is to give life shape. Even if it also means that permanence is an illusion and it’s nothing but turtles, turtles all the way down. Functionally this is necessary, and seemingly an inseparable part of the human condition. Not knowing foundations, even as you yearn to do so, even as your core beliefs depend on them. Even as they are infinitely regressive, even as it’s turtles-turtles-turtles all the way down.


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