The Mystery of the Infinite Turtle
by Erv Taylor | 5 February 2019 |
In his book, A Brief History of Time, Nobel Prize laureate, the late noted British physicist, Stephen Hawking, related one of the versions of a widely quoted story which many of us may already have read or heard: “A well-known scientist delivered 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!'”
The following narrative has been inspired by that story.
You have to admire some types of brave individuals.
They are eager and willing to jump into very deep theological pools. For example, they are often seen jumping into a pool which has a sign next to it which says “Free Will.”
The largest pool has a number of signs around it in many different languages. In that pool, all anyone can see is a small turtle’s head also just poking above the water. That turtle is looking around, but not swimming. After a while, it appears that this turtle must be standing on something just under the water. This is a theological pool, so the water is a little murky and so we can’t see what’s just under the water’s surface.
For some reason, these individuals think they need to know what is holding up this turtle. Some of them have heard about the Infinite Turtle or IT. However, what is strange is that no description of IT is like any other description of what it looks like or how it behaves. Each description is unique. It is as if there are many ITs. But, to these brave individuals, that is impossible. They must believe that there can be only one IT and they must know what it is like.
When our brave individuals dive under the water, they report that they see that there is another turtle under the small turtle just breaking the surface of the pool, and then there is another turtle under this one. Looking below that turtle, these individuals can only see turtles going down as far as they can see, turtle on top of turtle, on top of turtle, going down, down until they are out of sight in the murky water.
Some of our brave individuals try to swim down the column of turtles, until it is not possible to go any further just by holding their breath and they are forced to return to the surface to breathe.
Others will, from the beginning, obtain scuba equipment and with a full tank of air dive, knowing that they have a least an hour to get down to the bottom and an hour to return before the air runs out. They dive and slowly proceed, down, down, down, this time with a very bright flashlight, because they know that the light from the surface will not penetrate beyond a certain point. Their flashlights are supposed to be able to illuminate a very long distance and last a long time.
To make sure that their flashlights will not go out while they are diving, they always are careful to load new batteries into them. When they pass the point where sunlight no longer penetrates, the one thing these brave divers first notice is that in shining their light downward, the turtles on top of turtles on top of turtles are getting progressively larger and larger. Most divers view this as being very strange.
Continuing past the point on the column of turtles where some other brave individuals who tried to do this by just holding their breaths had to stop, they continue moving down the column of turtles. Turtle after turtle is passed. They go slowly down, down, down in the dark with only a flashlight to provide illumination. After about 15 minutes of going down, there still is no bottom turtle in sight.
Our brave individuals feel the increasing pressure and their ears are beginning to hurt. By this time, the turtles have become very, very large turtles. Some of the divers wonder if the water is magnifying somehow the size of the turtles.
Experienced divers would know that they should look at the indicator on their scuba gear that tells them how much of their air remains. When they do this, all report that they were very alarmed to read that less than half of their air supply remains. Clearly, it has taken much more air to descend this far than was calculated at the surface.
Our brave divers suddenly realize that if they do not immediately stop descending and begin to return to the surface, they will surely run out of air before reaching the surface and the end will not be pleasant. But they can’t rise too fast, because that process will do bad things to their bodies and especially to their lungs.
So they reluctantly stop their descent. Shining the light downward one last time, they still do not see any bottom. The only thing that they notice again is that the turtles continue to get larger and larger.
Just then, their supposedly always-working-flashlight begins to dim and then goes out, leaving them in total darkness which feels first a little, and then, very scary. Why does this happen? Didn’t they put in new batteries just before their dive?
Some later reported that they began to panic, but they all controlled any panic they experienced. A slow ascent to the surface is begun. Fortunately, there is no report that anyone did not make it to the surface before their air ran out.
The result is that no one ever finds out what is holding up the column of turtles. This is even true for drivers who took two tanks of air with them. They were able to get still further down the column of turtles. But their air still ran low much earlier than it should have. And, just after looking at their indicator, with no warning, their flashlights would go out. They also realized that they would run out of air if they did not begin their return to the surface immediately. And like those who had used only one tank of air, they also had just pointed their flashlights further down the column of larger and larger turtles, but alas, no bottom of the column of turtles could be seen and thus no IT.
After their experiences and when they consulted with each other, there are only two conclusions that all of the individuals who tried to move down the column of turtles agree on. The first was that, as you go down and down the line of turtles, they keep getting larger and larger and thus the logical inference would be that the IT, if there is an actual IT, must be very, very large. The second conclusion is they all experienced what no one can explain. Everyone had their flashlight go out when they reached a certain depth and they were left in total darkness. This was very scary to all of these, otherwise very brave, individuals.
I’m not as brave as the individuals who dive into this murky theological pool in an effort to find out what the surface turtle is standing. This is because, if I assume that there are turtles all the way down to some theoretical bottom (which no human has ever seen), that purported bottom would be in total darkness, at least as far as human vision goes. The reason is that for some unknown reason, a flashlight always stops working way before anyone reaches any bottom, if it exists. So even if someone really arrived at the bottom, we would not be able to see anything, and thus would have absolutely no information about what lies at the bottom of the column of turtles.
I might further assume that even if we somehow could get a light down that far and then see something, we would not be able to explain what we are seeing, because the IT, again assuming that one does exist, would be a turtle so large that we would logically conclude that we are hallucinating because of the great depth.
I conclude two things. The first one is reasonable; the second is not. First, if some extraordinary human being did see something at the bottom of this column of turtles, even he or she would not know what it was because he or she would report that he had been hallucinating.
Second, my frustration at not finding out what was at the bottom suggests that only the turtles themselves would understand what is holding up the column of turtles, but they can’t tell that to us because they can’t communicate with us. But that’s really silly. Who ever heard of talking turtles? There are said to be talking snakes, like in the Garden of Eden, but no talking turtles.
However, there are mystics of various types, who have reported that they have actually reached the mysterious IT, and that this turtle was indeed gigantic. They provided descriptions of what they perceived to be the characteristics of that very, very large IT. In reading many statements of these mystics, one problem that immediately jumps out is that all of their descriptions of the IT are very different. One reaction to this is that all of the descriptions of what each mystic says is the IT have nothing in common with any other description. What then are we to conclude?
There are at least two directions one could go. First, what if all of these apparently contradictory descriptions were all correct in every last detail? What would that imply? The second approach would be: What if all of the descriptions are totally wrong in every last detail? Can this be true? If so, what does that mean? I will leave different readers to come up with his/her own answers.
I might add a regrettable footnote. There are professional pseudo-“Infinite Turtle Experts.” They intone “I can tell you who the Infinite Turtle is and what he thinks and what he says. In fact, I am have a personal relationship with IT.”
Interestingly, some of these people typically refer to IT as their “friend.” Most − probably almost all − of these individuals are non-mystics or, at best, for some reason want-to-be-mystics. However, they do not have the disposition of an actual mystic. Rather, they have non-mystical tendencies at least within regions of where Christianity has spread.
Also, these individuals seem to have a tendency, especially in regions where Christianity exists, to organize “Churches of the Infinite Turtle” with large numbers of human adherents who want to know what the IT is like and what are its teachings. Collectively, these individuals will contribute large sums of money to IT Churches, and thus the leader of an IT Church can lead a very luxurious lifestyle.
Many of these self-appointed experts on the IT seem have a book or books that they say contains the words of the IT. That is a little odd, since there is no evidence that if the IT actually exists, he/she/it would speak or write any human language. Thus, it remains, at best, a little vague as to how exactly the purported words of the IT got recovered and ended up in their book(s). When asked, the “Infinite Turtle Experts” say that they obtained their information directly from the IT through a process called “revelation” and no one should question that.
For those who reject the testimony of purported “Infinite Turtle Experts” because it is unreliable, we are left with the “Mystery of the Infinite Turtle.” Such is the nature of theological propositions addressing the nature of an Infinite Turtle.
What’s the point?
Well, if we ever actually were able to see the IT, we would not recognize what he/she/it is because it would look nothing like we have led to believe the IT should look like.
In other words, it is actually turtles all the way down. There is an infinite regression of turtles, and that’s all that humans can know. Of course, some will say that this is absurd, absolutely impossible − an infinite regression? Really?
By definition, the nature of IT, if he/she/it exists, will always be a mystery and that settles that. Right?
Ervin Taylor is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology and Past Director of the Radiocarbon Laboratory at the University of California, Riverside. He is also currently a Visiting Professor at the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA and Visiting Scientist at the Keck Carbon Cycle Accelerator Mass Spectrometry Laboratory at the University of California, Irvine. He is one of the founders of Adventist Today.