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"Turtles all the way down," or "The Infinite Turtle Theory," refers to the infinite regression 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", viz. 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.

Contents

Origin

The most widely known version appears in Stephen Hawking's 1988 book A Brief History of Time, which starts:

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!"[1]

The suggested connection to Russell may be due to his 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 (with an argument not relevant to modern Hindu beliefs):

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."

The origins of the turtle story are uncertain. In J. R. (Haj) Ross's 1967 linguistics dissertation, Constraints on Variables in Syntax, the scientist is identified as the Harvard psychologist and philosopher William James. Of the story's provenance, Ross writes:

I have been unable to find any published reference to it, so it may be that I have attributed it to the wrong man, or that it is apocryphal. Be that as it may, because of its bull's-eye relevance to the study of syntax, I have retold it here.[2][3]

Additionally, Stephen Fry, in an episode of the BBC's comedy-quiz show QI (Series 1, episode 2), attributes the turtles anecdote to an exchange between an elderly lady and William James. Also, David Sloan Wilson does the same in his book Evolution for Everyone (Delacorte, 2007): 133.

Philosophical allusion to the story goes back at least as far as John Locke. In his 1690 tract An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke compares one who would say that properties inhere 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."[4]

Henry David Thoreau, in his journal entry of 4 May 1852,[5] writes:

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.

This quote also appears in Robert Anton Wilson's Prometheus Rising; he attributes the story to William James:

William James, father of American psychology, tells of meeting an old lady who told him the Earth rested on the back of a huge turtle. "But, my dear lady", Professor James asked, as politely as possible, "what holds up the turtle?" "Ah", she said, "that's easy. He is standing on the back of another turtle." "Oh, I see", said Professor James, still being polite. "But would you be so good as to tell me what holds up the second turtle?" "It's no use, Professor", said the old lady, realizing he was trying to lead her into a logical trap. "It's turtles-turtles-turtles, all the way!"[6]

Note also, that Lewis Carroll, the Author of Alice in Wonderland, used the story of the tortoise for a philosophical regressus-argument in one of the first volumes of the philosophical Journal Mind (1895). The article was reprinted in the same Journal one hundred years later in 1995 with a subsequent article by Simon Blackburn titled: Practical Tortoise Reasoning.[7] Moreover, the tortoise-argument was used by Wilfrid Sellars in his Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind (1956, secs. 34 and 38).

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.[8]}}

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".

Justice Antonin Scalia of the U.S. Supreme Court discussed his "favored version" of the tale in a footnote to his plurality opinion in Rapanos v. United States (decided June 19, 2006):

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."[9]

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.

In popular culture

  • In the popular Discworld comic fantasy books by Terry Pratchett, the Discworld is a flat disc that rests on the backs of four huge elephants which are in turn standing on the back of an enormous turtle as it slowly swims through space. In the book Small Gods, the question "what does the turtle stand on?" is asked, and gets the reply "It's a turtle, for heaven's sake. It swims. That's what turtles are for." In his introduction to The Discworld Companion, Pratchett uses the phrase in a different sense, describing the recurrence of the Earth on a turtle in myth as "turtles all the way". Pratchett and Jacqueline Simpson briefly describe this myth in The Folklore of Discworld, saying "'Ah, Sahib, after that it's turtles all the way down.'" Later saying "Yes, we know that there are several versions of this story!"
  • Stephen King in The Dark Tower series makes several references to a turtle holding up the earth, in various metaphors. Later in the series, he makes it clear that the origin of this metaphor is a play on the incident with the woman declaring that it's "turtles all the way down." The appearance of a palm-sized scrimshaw turtle likewise makes allusions to Pratchett's Small Gods when described as a "tiny god".
  • Stephen King's It makes certain references to a giant almighty tortoise which is said to have given birth to the universe itself.
  • Far-Seer, Part One of Robert J. Sawyer's three-part novel, the Quintaglio Ascension Trilogy, retells the story, replacing turtles with armourbacks (ankylosaurs).
  • The phrase appears in Robert J. Sawyer's novel Calculating God.
  • Charles Stross's science fiction collection Accelerando: "Up or down, is it turtles all the way, or is there something out there that's more real than we are?"
  • Michael Crichton makes a reference to the phrase in his book Prey.
  • The story is referenced by main character Oskar Schell in Jonathan Safran Foer's 2005 novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.
  • Patch 3.1 in World of Warcraft introduced a fishing achievement titled "Turtles All the Way Down", obtained by fishing up a ridable Sea Turtle mount.[10]
  • Thomas King uses the story to frame each of his five Massey Lectures collected in The Truth About Stories.
  • Every Time I Die has a song on their album New Junk Aesthetic titled "Turtles All The Way Down".
  • The song "Into the Dream" from progressive rock band Discipline on their 1997 release Unfolded Like Staircase contains a section titled "Turtles All the Way Down".
  • An alternative version of the phrase is used on the American TV show The Office. In the Season 5 episode "New Boss", Pam Beesly is brainstorming potential birthday surprises for her boss, Michael Scott. She suggests "...and then, out of that cake, pops another stripper holding a smaller cake. And then an even smaller stripper pops out of that one." When questioned about what the smaller stripper will be holding, she responds, "A cupcake. It's cupcakes and strippers, all the way down."
  • British Dub producer OTT named his remix of Hallucinogen's Gamma Goblin's the "It's Turtles All the Way Down Mix" on the In Dub album in 2002 from Twisted Records.
  • In the Borderlands videogame by Gearbox Software, graffiti that says "Turtles All The Way Down" can be found in certain locations.

See also

Footnotes

  1. ^ Hawking, Stephen (1988). A Brief History of Time. Bantam Books. ISBN 978-0553053401. 
  2. ^ Ross, John R. (1967). Constraints on variables in syntax. (Doctoral dissertation, Massachusetts Institute of Technology). Available at MIT Theses. See page iv of the ms., page 4 of the electronic file.
  3. ^ William James published a different version in his book The Will To Believe (1898), specifically in the essay "The Sentiment of Rationality" (p. 104 of The Will To Believe in the Dover reprint): "Like the old woman in the story who described the world as resting on a rock, and then explained that rock to be supported by another rock, and finally when pushed with questions said it was rocks all the way down, -- he who believes this to be a radically moral universe must hold the moral order to rest either on an absolute and ultimate should, or on a series of shoulds all the way down."
  4. ^ Locke, John (1959). An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Vol. 1. New York: Dover. pp. 391–392. 
  5. ^ The Picket Line — Excerpts from H.D. Thoreau’s journals
  6. ^ Wilson, Robert Anton (1997). Prometheus Rising. Phoenix, AZ: New Falcon. pp. 25. ISBN 1561840564. 
  7. ^ See Lewis Carroll, What the Tortoise Said to Achilles, in Mind 4 (1895), 278-280; reprint in: Mind 104 (1995), 691-693. Simon Blackburn, Practical Tortoise Reasoning, in: Mind 104 (1995), 695 ff.
  8. ^ Geertz, Clifford (1973). The Interpretation of Cultures. New York, NY: Basic Books. pp. 28-29. ISBN 046509719. 
  9. ^ Antonin Scalia. "RAPANOS v. UNITED STATES". Cornell Law School Legal Information Institute's Supreme Court collection. http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/04-1034.ZO.html#14. 
  10. ^ Wowhead: Turtles All the Way Down - Achievement - World of Warcraft, http://www.wowhead.com/?achievement=3218, retrieved 2009-04-18 
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