The Turtle Problem
I’ve been reading some of the articles over at Robert Madewell’s blog, Superstition Free. They’re pretty good, so I added him to the blogroll. Pay him a visit.
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!”
Theists tell us that God must exist, because the universe had to have a creator. “Ahh!” you reply. “Then who created God?”
The Wikipedia article lists a lot of variations of the story. They briefly mention that anthropologist Clifford Geertz retells the story in one of his books. They mention the superficial differences between the tellings, but they don’t explain the philosophical differences. This becomes important, because in a later section of the article, they say:
The differences between the two forms of the anecdote point to the difference in its intended meaning.
For Hawking, the turtle story is one of two accounts of the nature of the universe; he asserts that the turtle theory is patently ridiculous, but admits that his own theories may be just as ridiculous. “Only time will tell,” he concludes.
For Geertz, however, the story is patently wise, teaching us that we will never get to the bottom of things.
This comparison also reveals a difference between the positivist and interpretive, or hermeneutic approach to the interpretation of myths. Positivists read myths literally and find them false and foolish; interpretivists read them metaphorically or allegorically and find them true and profound.
This is a fascinating concept. I find that how I read a myth depends entirely on who is telling it and how they intend for me to interpret it.
You may recall that I recently mentioned that I had a book of Aesop’s Fables, and I loved the story of “The Ass and His Burdens” (My bleak outlook on life was apparent even at age 8.). These stories are clearly presented as metaphors, and I love them for it.
But what about Genesis? Again, this depends on who does the telling and why. Liberal Christians present the Bible’s origins stories as more abstract, generalized tales.
Fundies, on the other hand, present Genesis as the actual, literal, honest-to-God Truth™ of how it all happened 6012 years ago.
I am a positivist when the Bible is presented to me as Truth™. Therefore, I read those myths literally and find them false and foolish. I am an interpretivist when the Bible is presented to me as stories to be interpreted. I don’t exactly “find them true and profound”, but that’s the fault of the stories themselves, not my competence as an interpretivist. (Check out many of the other wonderful mythologies of the world, if you want to see some great stories that are metaphorically true and profound.)