The Turtle Problem

Epoch mutant ninja turtle

Terry Pratchett’s turtle non-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.

One of his articles reminded me of the Turtle Problem. The anecdote itself is apparently apocryphal. Wikipedia quotes a good version from Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time:

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?”

“It’s no use,” they respond. “It’s turtles all the way down! God doesn’t need a creator! (He’s special! He attends Special Class!)”

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.)

7 Responses to “The Turtle Problem”

  1. Robert Madewell Says:

    Thanks for the hat tip. I appreciate it.

  2. arkonbey Says:

    of course, if you read Pratchett, turtles swim through space, no need for infinite regression ;)

  3. Chuck Says:

    Indeed, the turtle problem was brought up in my philosophy class this semester (because I’m taking an epistemology course). It’s really a problem that no one has solved to anyone’s satisfaction, and the “turtles all the way down” answer is, to me, actually the most logically viable answer (because it avoids arbitrariness and circularity). Hooray Peter Klein!

  4. Himangsu Sekhar Pal Says:

    WHO CREATED GOD?
    Earlier it was impossible for us to give any satisfactory answer to this question. But modern science, rather we should say that Einstein, has made it an easy task for us. And Stephen Hawking has provided us with the clue necessary for solving this riddle. Actually scientists in their infinite wisdom have already kept the ground well-prepared for us believers so that one day we can give a most plausible and logically sound answer to this age-old question. Let us first see how Hawking has helped us by providing the necessary clue. In his book “A Brief History of Time” (Chapter: The origin and fate of the universe) he informs us that there are 1080 particles in the region of the observable universe. Then he raised the question regarding the origin of these particles, and gave the answer himself. According to quantum theory particles can be created out of energy in the form of particle/antiparticle pairs. But there the question does not stop. Another question props up regarding the origin of that energy. But when it is said that total energy of the universe is exactly zero, then all is said and done. So this is the clue: if we can somehow arrive at zero, then no further question will be raised, and there will be no infinite regression. What I intend to do here is something similar to that. I want to show that our God is a bunch of several zeroes, and that therefore no further question need be raised about His origin. And here comes Einstein with his special theory of relativity for giving us the necessary empirical support to our project.
    God is a Being. Therefore God will have existence as well as essence. So I will have to show that both from the point of view of existence as well as from the point of view of essence God is zero. It is almost a common saying that God is spaceless, timeless, changeless, immortal, and all-pervading. Here we are getting three zeroes; space is zero, time is zero, change is zero. But how to prove that if there is a God, then that God will be spaceless, timeless, and changeless? From special theory of relativity we come to know that for light both distance and time become unreal. For light even an infinite distance is infinitely contracted to zero. The volume of an infinite universe full of light only will be simply zero due to this property of light. A universe with zero volume is a spaceless universe. Again at the speed of light time totally stops. So a universe full of light only is a spaceless, timeless universe. But these are the properties of light only! How do we come to know that God is also having the same properties of light so that God can also be spaceless, timeless? Scientists have shown that if there is a God, then that God can only be light, and nothing else, and that therefore He will have all the properties of light. Here is the proof.
    Scientists have shown that total energy of the universe is always zero. If total energy is zero, then total mass will also be zero due to energy-mass equivalence. Now if there is a God, then scientists have calculated the total energy and mass of the universe by taking that God into consideration. In other words, if there is a God, then this total energy-mass calculation by the scientists is God-inclusive, not God-exclusive. This is due to two reasons. First of all, even if there is a God, they are not aware of the fact that there is a God. Secondly, they do not believe that there is a God. So, if there is a God, then they have not been able to keep that God aside before making this calculation, because they do not know that there is a God. They cannot say that they have kept Him aside and then made this calculation, because by saying so they will admit that there is a God. They cannot say that the behind-the-picture God has always remained behind the picture, and that He has in no way come into the picture when they have made this calculation, because by saying so they will again admit that there is a God. At most they can say that there is no God. But we are not going to accept that statement as the final verdict on God-issue, because we are disputing that statement. So the matter of the fact is this: if God is really there, then total mass and total energy of the universe including that God are both zero. Therefore mass and energy of God will also be zero. God is without any mass, without any energy. And Einstein has already shown that anything having zero rest-mass will have the speed of light. In other words, it will be some sort of light. So, if God is there, then God will also be light, and therefore He will be spaceless, timeless. So from the point of view of existence God is zero, because he is spaceless, timeless, without any mass, without any energy.
    Now we will have to show that from the point of view of essence also God is zero. If there is only one being in the universe, and if there is no second being other than that being, then that being cannot have any such property as love, hate, cruelty, compassion, benevolence, etc. Let us say that God is cruel. Now to whom can He be cruel if there is no other being other than God Himself? So, if God is cruel, then is He cruel to Himself? Therefore if we say that God is all-loving, merciful, benevolent, etc., then we are also admitting that God is not alone, that there is another being co-eternal with God to whom He can show His love, benevolence, goodness, mercy, compassion, etc. If we say that God is all-loving, then we are also saying that this “all” is co-eternal with God. Thus we are admitting that God has not created the universe at all, and that therefore we need not have to revere Him, for the simple reason that He is not our creator!
    It is usually said that God is good. But Bertrand Russell has shown that God cannot be good for the simple reason that if God is good, then there is a standard of goodness which is independent of God’s will. (Book: A History of Western Philosophy, Ch: Plato’s Utopia). Therefore, if God is the ultimate Being, then that God cannot be good. But neither can He be evil. God is beyond good and evil. Like Hindu’s Brahma, a real God can only be nirguna, nirupadhik; without any name, without any quality. From the point of view of essence also, a real God is a zero. Mystics usually say that their God is a no-thing. This is the real God, not the God of the scriptures.
    So, why should there be any need of creation here, if God is existentially, as well as essentially, zero?
    But if there is someone who is intelligent and clever enough, then he will not stop raising question here. He will point out to another infinite regression. If God is light, then He will no doubt be spaceless, timeless, etc. Therefore one infinite regression is thus stopped. But what about the second regression? How, and from whom, does light get its own peculiar properties by means of which we have successfully stopped the first regression? So, here is another infinite regression. But we need not have to worry much about this regression, because this problem has already been solved. A whole thing, by virtue of its being the whole thing, will have all the properties of spacelessness, timelessness, changelessness, deathlessness. It need not have to depend on any other external source for getting these properties. Thus no further infinite regression will be there.

  5. TB Tabby Says:

    Would you like some ranch dressing with your word salad?

  6. Parrotlover77 Says:

    …he informs us that there are 1080 particles in the region of the observable universe.

    Holy shit! The universe is smaller than I thought! A LOT smaller!

    From special theory of relativity we come to know that for light both distance and time become unreal. For light even an infinite distance is infinitely contracted to zero. … Scientists have shown that if there is a God, then that God can only be light, and nothing else, and that therefore He will have all the properties of light.

    God is only made of photons? So I can escape the rather of God with a well-placed mirror? That’s a bit anticlimactic.

  7. Draken Says:

    Someone just divided by zero.