Turtles All The Way Down: Finding Truth in Emptiness

“Everything must have a beginning,” as Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley introduced her novel Frankenstein, and that beginning, in turn, “must be linked to something that went before. The Hindoos give the world an elephant to support it, but they make the elephant stand upon a tortoise.” In the introduction to A Brief History of Time, physicist Stephen Hawking told the story of an old woman who questioned an eminent scientist on his understanding of the cosmos. The Earth, as the woman understood it, “is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.” When the scientist asked smugly, “What is the tortoise standing on?” she replied, “You’re very clever, young man, very clever…But it’s turtles all the way down.”

The anthropologist Clifford Geertz understood this myth as a wise commentary on our own ignorance about the cosmos. On that point, we can take a few lessons.

Don’t try to chase things back to some pure origin.  

The humorist Dave Barry warned against yardsale furniture which, when brought home, leads you to find that “after just a few hours you have scraped away a small patch of that hideous orange paint, and underneath it you find…a layer of hideous green paint!” There is no consolation, only the inevitable admission of defeat: “You repeat this process for two, maybe even three more layers of paint, and finally the truth dawns on you: This is not really a bureau. This is an enormous, bureau-shaped wad of paint.”

The advice applies to our investigations of our own personalities. The word “person” derives from the Latin per sonare, to project sound through—that is, personality is the voice that comes through an actor’s mask. We still use the word “persona” to emphasize a character performance, distinct from the “true self” underneath. But is the true person different from the performance? How? Peering inside ourselves, if we are lucky enough to find a “true self” there, when we try to express that personality, don’t we nonetheless stumble across masks all the way down? “Stare into a mirror long enough,” Benedict Carey wrote, “and it’s hard not to wonder whether that’s a mask staring back, and if so, who’s really behind it.”

Recognize illusions to gain power over them.

Realizing the lack of anything there was the basis for Neo’s enlightenment and omnipotence in the science-fiction movie “The Matrix.” Discovering the absence of any hard reality, Neo could bend nature according to his imagination. A psychokinetic child prodigy mentored Neo: “Do not try to bend the spoon [with your mind]. Only realize: there is no spoon.”

A potential consequence of believing there is no giver of forms outside of ourselves or the storyteller, however, is that we might give up caring altogether. As philosopher William Ian Miller put it in Faking It: “The risk is that irony ends in self-involved shallowness, irony all the way down, a chronic refusal to take anything seriously. Ultimately there may be no there there.” What we may wish to do, then, is to choose carefully what images we replicate and amplify and also to admit that even our good-faith attempts at knowledge may be inadequate and illusory. David and Nanelle Barash wrote in Madame Bovary’s Ovaries: “In his advice to the traveling players, Hamlet suggested that the role of the artist is to hold a mirror up to nature—not, as some theorists would have it, to hold a mirror up to another mirror and thereby reflect only the infinite emptiness of mirrors.”

The question of whether God exists may not address what we really need to know.

As the mathematician John Allen Paulos framed it in Irreligion: Either there is a foundation—the world itself, or a tortoise that supports the world, perhaps—or else nothing is the foundation, in which case even God, if God exists, has a creator who in turn must have an origin.

“Now, do you or do you not believe that one of those turtles must necessarily go all the way down?” asked the character Ram in Richard Powers’ novel Galatea 2.2. “That’s it. That is the single question we are granted to ask while in this body. East, West, North, South. Is there a base terrapin or isn’t there? Cosmology. This is the issue dividing us. The one we must each answer.”

Some long-established theologies maintain that God exists but can’t be described. “Meister Eckhart (1260-1328) spoke eloquently of the via negativa,” as Stephen Prothero explained in God Is Not One, “the ‘negative way’ to a God who is beyond space and time and description and therefore can only be said to be, as Hindu thinkers put it, neti neti (‘neither this nor that’). Even Aquinas admitted that ‘it is easier to say what [God] is not than what He is.'” Aquinas, in turn, labeled Maimonides an agnostic for going a step further and “deny[ing] that we could say anything positive about God’s nature (though we could speak positively about what God did),” since “there is nothing to compare God with and we cannot know literally what God is ‘like,’” as Eugene B. Borowitz put it in Renewing the Covenant. That is why asking whether God exists may not get at our true question. Suppose God exists; we still want to know what God is like, and this is much harder to answer.

A better question—one we hope we can actually answer—is what we want to do with our lives.

Often part of the answer is that we simply don’t know, and cannot know, because there is no final answer. We have to pass through this phase (or this level) of not-knowing before we can get at the type of knowledge that lies beyond.

Richard Kearney said in Anatheism: “One thinks of the apophatic breakthroughs of theologians like Dionysius the Areopogite and Gregory of Nyssa or the various professions of mystical unknowing by the likes of John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich, Ruzbihan Baqli, and Meister Eckhart (who went so far as to ask ‘God to rid him of God’). Almost all the great mystics and sages attested to a moment of agnostic abandonment as crucial transition to deeper faith. They called it by such names as Abgeschiedenheit, Gelassenheit, nada. Such anatheist suspensions of theistic certainties allowed for a return (ana) to a second kind of faith, a faith beyond faith in a God beyond God.” (Although there is a long Christian tradition of this type of thought, terms like “nescience, unknowing, negativity, apophaticism, using reason to defeat reason” were, as of the 1990s, “unlikely to appear in a university catalogue” in the West, according to Denise Lardner Carmody and John Tully Carmody in Mysticism.)

“Somehow this process of the via negativa, the ‘negative way,’ in which we wander down divergent paths exploring what something is not, brings us closest to the place we want to go,” Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham wrote in The Spirituality of Imperfection. “We discover a helplessness before the very word [spirituality], the powerlessness that is the necessary beginning of spirituality itself.”

Indeed, when Shakespeare’s Cordelia stood up to her father, King Lear, speaking her truth although she knew she would be punished for it, she was recognizing that a person “must travel by way of the via negativa as a precondition to having life,” as Eric Rhode put it in On Hallucination, Intuition, and the Becoming of O. The emptying of ego and the willingness to let go of social bonds can be a necessary step toward becoming a better, stronger person.

That is what we open ourselves up to discover and live when we acknowledge there is no final turtle. The turtle on which we are standing is never the last turtle. There is always another one to reach. Setting our sights on the next turtle and moving toward it is the way we will live.

5 thoughts on “Turtles All The Way Down: Finding Truth in Emptiness

  1. I probably won’t be allowed to comment here but there is a problem inherent in framing reality as if it were an illusion. I think that’s delusional thinking. I also think Andrew Sullivan’s commentary in this week’s NYT is relevant here:

    “And this is the truth about reality. It really does exist (whatever the postmodernists might argue). It’s complicated. And even if it can be ignored or forgotten in our very human discourses, it wins in the end. This virus (Covid-19) is, in a way, a symbol of that reality.”

    What we believe abut reality doesn’t matter a tinker’s damn. What we figure out about how reality operates, for everyone everywhere all the time, does. Reality always wins regardless of how much pondering we do about metaphysical notions we may hold about how it should be understood. At best, reality is utterly indifferent to us and keeps on unfolding based on knowable and applicable physical and chemical mechanisms and processes regardless of how much navel gazing we may do about its meaning. Accepting cause and effect as a model of how reality operates has, and we can have every confidence it shall continue to, produce knowledge that can then successfully transposed directly to applications, therapies, and technologies that, so far, seems to work for everyone everywhere all the time. These products are not metaphysical turtles. Reality is not turtles all the way down and I think it is a philosophical shortcut to suggest this has any knowledge-based merit whatsoever, and little if any merit beyond superstitious speculation or potential beyond entertainment in a fictional setting.

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    • What I mean to question in this essay is not reality so much as theism. Many people appeal to a God as a Creator or as a Giver-of-Meaning, but, in my view, this sets up an infinite regress of “Who created God?” or “What gives meaning to God?”

      I’d say:
      1. There is a physical world. However,
      2. Our concepts about it are a hall of mirrors.

      Some say there is a way of grabbing onto at least one single, foundational truth, a Big Assumption, some true ground of being — a God, or similar. I think that’s a half-measure that tries to bridge #1 and #2, and I don’t think it’s tenable. The same deep “Why?” and other meta-questions that lead one to provisionally answer “God!” must lead one to continue asking the same questions and will catapult one to an infinite regress of gods.

      You distinguished between “what we believe” (which “doesn’t matter”) and “what we figure out” (which does). There are of course differences between believing and knowing, but this is complicated, as there are different types of belief and knowledge depending on the subject matter. In some subject areas, beliefs are central while knowledge may be difficult or impossible to achieve. Using your example about a particular viral disease, a focused scientific inquiry may lead us from belief to knowledge, and indeed it is preferable that humanity eventually obtain this particular knowledge. But if we have bigger, broader questions, like “Why is there something rather than nothing? What is the mind that allows me to think this question?” then (in my view) we’re immediately in a hall of mirrors.

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      • Thank you for your answer, TL. I understand the motivation but I think it produces faux answers that are confused with knowledge, and this is very dangerous.

        To be somewhat facetious,I guess there would be too much unemployment if people answered the wide assortment of ‘Why?” questions with honesty: namely, “I don’t know.” But many people just aren’t satisfied with this state of not knowing these answers and so they carry on substituting faux-answers and think well of themselves for doing so; however, without the means to know (and belief stripped of compelling evidence from reality to justify beliefs about it has no means to know anything other than by assumption, assertion, and attribution, that is to say, guessing… which is almost equivalent to admitting up front, but without the fortitude, to admit “I don’t know.”) we are left with what amounts to empty conjecture. On it’s own, this would be fine but considering something like the reality of the virus, not so much.

        The issue I continue to have with the line of reasoning you are following is that our concept of reality is a hall of mirrors. Is this true, I wonder, and how might I know?

        Is this virus, to take the subject matter in hand, simply a reflection of OUR concept of reality? I don’t think so. I think our concepts do not and cannot create reality… merely allow us to fool ourselves into thinking so. Again, if it were simply ourselves being fooled, no harm, no foul. Reality tells us with mounting evidence every day that your concept of the virus and my concept of the virus simply doesn’t matter – no matter how many words or metaphysical notions we throw in its direction! What matters is the virus as reality arbitrates it to be. What’s to be done? Well, we can know something about this virus by allowing reality and not our concepts of it to define it by its impartial and indifferent effects.

        Because this mounting evidence indicates the reality of the virus and how it works, I say this to point out that reality and not our concepts we import to it is the ground of all being and so our diversions into the conceptual world of superstition and meta-physical founding notions do not add one jot or tittle of knowledge to our understanding of its mechanisms and processes.

        Why does difference matter?

        I think this diversion detracts significantly from this pursuit of knowing by suggesting our beliefs can define reality rather than the other way around. And this then raises the idea that beliefs can justify such things as church gatherings where people insist the ‘Blood of Jesus’ protects them from being infected by the virus, which is no true in reality, and so the misguided belief in belief then increases the very real danger to front line health care workers… all because the order of what defines reality is reversed by such metaphysical musings about belief versus knowledge.

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        • Of course a virus does not care what we think about it. I agree that our beliefs about a virus are, furthermore, useless to us, unless they are justified beliefs (i.e. knowledge, or approaching knowledge). “Belief-discourse” about a virus should narrowly focus on our scientific justifications.

          Regarding other kinds of subject matter, however — abstract, conceptual, literary, philosophical, theological — our beliefs do matter. If we’re talking about, for example, culture or language, there’s a lot of overlap between believing and knowing, or describing and prescribing. My opinion on the proper way to greet a neighbor, and the proper grammar to use in that greeting, influences the “correct answer,” because culture and language are created by people including me. There isn’t always a dictionary definition to point to as a reference, nor is it clear who has the authority to judge. “Belief-discourse” may not be a word today; tomorrow it may be, as a result of my having used it just now.

          This overall discussion we are having right now is an example of the latter type of belief-discourse.

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  2. I guess my point is the harsh need to elevate reality from the suggested hall-of-mirror status many thinkers frame it to be – usually for ontological reasons – to be the final arbitrator of our beliefs about it – for sound epistemological reasons. And that means learning to ask the type of questions reality can answer (if we seek knowledge) and recognizing the type of questions (that produces faith) it can’t.

    I cannot tell you the number of times someone thinks well of themselves for suggesting faith in theism and religion is justified because it offers some avenue of knowledge of, some insight into, some other way of knowing about, reality… by pretending the ‘answers’ these approaches supposedly produce are available from reality. And the widespread acceptance of these dubious epistemological claims causes never-ending conflict and incompatibility in the real world with knowledge adduced from reality (the examples are too many to mention and too destructive to accept). There’s your turtles all the way down in action; it’s not reality that is the hall-of-mirrors but faith-based belief if it appears in any abstract, conceptual, literary, philosophical, or theological setting.

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