“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.