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.

What are we doing when we conduct ‘thought experiments’?

Displaced Hours is an out-of-print novel by Ace Boggess (Gatto, 2004). In this tale of magic realism, a professor develops the belief that he can insert his consciousness into other people’s bodies, whereby he briefly controls their actions and enjoys their experiences before returning to his own body. The mechanism for this consciousness shift is a haunted clock. The device “gave me everything I wanted,” he says. “There was nothing I couldn’t find in time. Now I used that clock like a wiretap or a hidden camera.” He takes the journey many times.

Book cover of Displaced Hours by Ace Boggess.

Another character in the novel calls the concept “cross-consciousness.” Whatever such experiences may properly be called, they allow the professor to “go anywhere and do anything” and thus turn his life into a series of philosophical “thought experiments,” especially of the ethical sort. That is: By granting him a temporary lease on life that is measured in minutes and is devoid of consequences, these experiences allow him to make choices that are ethically questionable and that he would not otherwise make. The professor refers to the haunted clock as an “ethical device” and a “morality machine” because “it set up an infinite number of hypotheses I could test to their extremes.”

Cross-consciousness experiences become increasingly alluring for him. They also lead him to madness.

“…I locked myself away like the changing werewolf in an old horror film, except that I was more dangerous in my cage than out. I think I might have said a prayer of some sort, but I doubt anyone heard it. These were idle words without repentance and just a few hints of remorse. I pulled my chair over as usual and opened the dome of the clock.”

—Ace Boggess, Displaced Hours

The novel makes me wonder what philosophers are really doing when we engage in “thought experiments.” When we provisionally consider a course of action, are we mainly curious to establish what it would feel like to take that action? Do we also need to know what the consequences would be for ourselves or others? Is the assumption that, if the consequences were bad, we would immediately end the thought experiment rather than stick around and take responsibility?

It also reminds me that there are many real-life consequences we never face because our actions cannot be tied back to us in a straightforward manner with evidence a detective could use. This happens for nearly all collective actions (as when a million people use a scarce resource that is denied to another million people, for example), and also for personal actions that no one else happens to witness or follow up on. By some twist of fortune, we often escape others’ prying eyes and don’t have to take any more responsibility for our choices. But in another sense, the lingering consequences are tied to us in (shall we say?) a “spiritual” sense. That’s because, after all, we were the ones who did it. Not some experimental personae. It was we who made the choice. We remember (even if no one else does) that we used our conscious minds to make the choice. We know this is true, even if there is little evidence in the material world that traces the current state of affairs back to us. We live with the knowledge of what we did.

Is a ‘political lie’ different from a garden-variety lie?

Cover of the magazine Pesquisa Javeriana.
Cover of the magazine Pesquisa Javeriana.

The traditional definition of a lie is intentional delivery of false information to mislead someone else into believing that it’s true. Juan Samuel Santos, Andrea Catalina Zárate and Gustavo Gómez, philosophers at the Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in Bogotá, Colombia, suggest that political lies are different from other kinds of lies. The university held a symposium on the subject last August.

An article in the latest issue of the university’s Spanish-language magazine describes their positions.

Santos notes that politicians often speak to motivate their audience to feel something or take some action, but not necessarily with the intent that the audience will believe the statements. Sometimes politicians claim certain accomplishments when the audience already knows those claims aren’t quite true. These political lies nevertheless (regardless of the politician’s intent) do perpetuate false beliefs and are dangerous.

Zárate focuses on why some lies are more believable and popular than others. She examines the relationship between specific speakers and listeners, especially in light of modern mass communication and social media that allow lies to be easily replicated.

Gómez, beginning with Plato’s dialogues and citing Derrida’s notion of a “truth effect,” discusses how a publication or a repetition can create the semblance of truth even if that is not the speaker’s intent. Authors and readers alike, he says, have the responsibility to evaluate the truth of what is communicated.

Source

The article in the magazine of Pontificia Universidad Javeriana.
The article in Pesquisa Javeriana.

“¿La mentira política es diferente a las otras mentiras?” Alejandro Tamayo Montoya. Pesquisa Javeriana. Sept-Nov. 2019 (available free online as PDF). pp. 10-11.

At the end of the article, these sources were recommended as further reading:

The feeling of danger in ‘Shakespeare for Sociopaths’

Sociopathy—the lack of conscience or empathy—has long been a subject of interest for psychologists and criminologists who have defined and diagnosed it as a mental disorder. Philosophers, too, have their own discussions about how much of moral awareness is inborn and how much is acquired. And what do poets say…? Kristin Garth’s Shakespeare for Sociopaths (Hedgehog Poetry, 2019), while perhaps agnostic on the definition of sociopathy, takes an entirely different approach: she examines what it feels like to interact with dangerous people.

Rag doll posing with a copy of Kristin Garth’s Shakespeare for Sociopaths.

Garth’s sonnets are about poignant moments with unsavory characters. She depicts sociopaths she saw on the news; those she encountered at work (her jobs included “stripping and court reporting”); those she got to know in her neighborhood and in her bed; and those she invented as fictional characters.

One example from each of these four sections:

“A body wrecked requires the best of care. / Your mother with you, examination room, / he talks to her, his hands everywhere.” (“Expensive Leotards,” about a young gymnast abused by her doctor)

“A sting they call / the trap he’s tangled in. A reptile calm, / a predator who still has teeth and tongue.” (“Dora,” about a man who boards an airplane with a doll to bribe a young girl)

“Such faces, flush with heat and glimmer, clone / a sun’s salvation, sequence stretched to Mars, / but I pick you.” (“If the Star Fits…,” about online dating)

“one last acidic sip three letters reveal. / One word at bottom, tea all done. / in cursive, lavender, and it is ‘run.'” (“Insanitea,” about a threatening conversation over tea)

The ordering of the sonnets suggests increasing levels of nearness to danger. After all, a crime overheard on the news can be absorbed impersonally. Sociopathic behavior encountered in the workplace—even if it is part of the job—is riskier, and the sociopath’s presence is felt. A sociopath in the home is of course an intimate disaster. And, lastly, to find such a character in one’s imagination suggests that the bits and pieces of previous threats have been drawn so near that they have finally been absorbed and can appear in one’s own dreams.

Garth doesn’t inquire academically why it’s wrong to treat people like playthings, nor does she interrogate the details of the crimes. Instead, her poems focus on the feelings that the interactions produce. Even though (and perhaps because) she has been hurt by such people, she draws these images romantically. She shows us the aesthetics of the dance. Some poems focus on the predator; others, on the prey. To be entranced or ensnared by a sociopath is to lack a simple path out. “Run,” indeed, if you can.

That may be a shortcut through much psychological and philosophical musing on this topic: Revel less in the bewitching “reptile calm” of the adversary, and focus more on how you feel and what you’ll have to do to escape.

Emergent meaning

If something else had happened, life would mean something different now. But what happened is in the past, and the past can’t be changed. I have to accept what is.

Most of the time, we hear this as a truism. When we emotionally grapple with certain past events and their consequences, however, it’s a major personal victory when at long last we take a deep breath and resign ourselves to the realities.

Imagine I turn my vehicle left at an intersection and suffer an accident. My arm is broken. The car is totaled. My passenger is dead.

I might wonder what would have happened if I had turned right instead of left. Those thoughts might be intrusive, even obsessive. I will never find out the answer to What if something else had happened?

Some game pieces are still in play, and I can change those outcomes. I bounce back financially; I get a new car; my arm heals; survivors forgive me. But other outcomes are already set in stone. The old car, reduced to twisted pieces of metal, isn’t worth fixing and is sent to the scrap heap. The dead person does not come back to life. The meaning of these events is distressing; I resist the meaning, which leads me to resist the reality of the events that produce this meaning. I “know” the events were real and can’t be changed, but I wish that weren’t true and I search in vain for another workaround. The ultimate solution may be simply to accept what is.

In this hypothetical example, I am considering meaning as an emergent property of material reality. Emergence means that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. A certain confluence of events in my life doesn’t leave me only with the events themselves, but it also yields meaning: psychological, social, financial, and so on. Wanting to change the meaning means wanting to change the realities on which the meaning is based. If I’m stuck with the relevant realities, I may be distressed at finding that I am stuck with the meaning, too.

Book cover: C. S. Lewis's Christian Apologetics: Pro and Con. Edited by Gregory Bassham.

I recently heard this described using the example of a mosaic. (It happened to be a mosaic of Darth Vader, which is appropriately dark.) David Kyle Johnson says in “Naturalism Undefeated” in the anthology C. S. Lewis’s Christian Apologetics that “it makes no sense to suggest that you could subtract Vader and yet leave all the individual frames of the mosaic alone. If the tiles are arranged just as they are, Vader necessarily exists.” Johnson is writing about the mind arising from the physical brain. I’m applying the same idea to deriving meaning from the world, a more popular daily concern. The world has given us a bunch of mosaic tiles and we see that they form an image. Sometimes we don’t like the image. If we can rearrange some of the tiles, great; but if all the tiles are glued and dried, we’re stuck with what the overall image means to us.

“Emergence” (or, similarly, “supervenience”) is an academic term, but it yields a practical insight for dealing with emotional distress:

If I want to change what my situation means to me, I have to take action and do something differently.

If I can’t or won’t change my situation or at least allow in new information and experiences, then I have to accept that the meaning isn’t going to change, either.

The effect of conspiracy theories

“Conspiracy,” a photo by Fleeting Pix. Colorized and digitally altered by Tucker Lieberman.
Wikimedia Commons, CC 3.0 license.

How do conspiracy theories arise? Why, despite how implausible they sound to most people, are they so “sticky” for others?

Telling stories that aren’t true

If Only by Neal Roese.

Neal Roese, in If Only: How to Turn Regret Into Opportunity (2005), discusses the role of counterfactual expressions—that is, things that just aren’t so. At their best, they help us analyze a situation and seek a better path. One type of counterfactual is “it could have been worse” which is supposed to serve as consolation.

Here’s one of Roese’s examples. An employee of Cantor Fitzgerald—a company that suddenly lost hundreds of employees in New York City when the World Trade Center fell on September 11, 2001—survived because he happened to be inquiring about a gym membership and was not in the office when the plane hit the building. The counterfactual narrative that he easily might have died does not meaningfully explain why he lived. The simple observation of his near-brush with death, applied to this situation of survivor’s guilt and when taken up as an existential perspective, “is a counterfactual that shoots blanks,” Roese says. Such an approach “can get in the way of successful coping by conjuring phantom explanations and phony sense making or simply by failing to provide resolution and understanding.”

The man’s survival is random, yet that answer leaves most of us itching. Some will contort themselves to come up with a different explanation.

What existential function might a conspiracy theory serve?

A conspiracy theory—pick one, any one—is, in my view, a more elaborate kind of counterfactual. It asserts itself to be true, or at least plausible and meriting more inquiry, but it is not true. Like other counterfactuals, it serves the need to point out unresolved questions and find some way to make sense of the world.

Power Corrupts: “Conspiracy Theories.” Launches May 2, 2019.

This is explored in the “Conspiracy Theories” episode of the Power Corrupts podcast that launches today (May 2, 2019) on iTunes, Spotify, RadioPublic, and Stitcher. Brian Klaas, the podcast writer and narrator, says that the tendency to adopt conspiracy theories

“seems to be part of a coping mechanism: a human instinct to deal with large, unexpected, and often tragic events. Sometimes things just happen randomly; not for any reason, not because of sinister forces. And in human psychology, randomness is much more threatening than discernible causes, even if those causes are shadowy or sinister.”

Paranoid by David J. LaPorte.

We tend to want to believe that Someone (or Something) is calling the shots and that what happens to us (or to our known world) matters within some grand plan.

Conspiracy theories are often products of paranoia. A paranoid person believes that “you can’t trust what you see, so you need to interpret and see behind the surface presentations of situations,” David J. LaPorte wrote in Paranoid: Exploring Suspicion from the Dubious to the Delusional (2015). Such people report experiencing a “sudden clarification,” which feels as if they “immediately recognize [an event] for ‘what it really is.’” Their sudden clarification feels true even if it is not.

A believer in a conspiracy theory, Klaas says, is “choosing to discount evidence and rational thought in favor of snippets of ‘What if?’ speculation.” In this case, unfortunately, “the normal way of convincing someone of an idea by presenting rational thought and evidence just isn’t very effective.” It is hard to persuade someone to abandon these theories. They are constructed in such a way that they cannot be falsified, and criticism only triggers a paranoid person’s suspicion of outsiders.

I have never knowingly been a conspiracy theorist on any matter. Generally, such stories are repugnant to my occasionally obsessive fact-checking habits, to my worldview in which ethics does not reduce to a battle between good and evil, to my personality that tends to be more trusting and less paranoid, and to the social bonds I form with people whose attitudes are similar to my own.

I do, however, see how conspiracy theories might appeal to someone else. Counterfactuals more generally—the past that wasn’t, the future that isn’t yet—are “entertaining,” according to Roese, because they are imaginative variations on a known theme, and they are “cognigenic, meaning that they spur further creative thought.” I suggest that conspiracy theories, too, fit this description. They are intricate fictions and mostly self-contained worlds. If I were to allow myself to spend time with one and if I were to engage it on its own terms, I could see myself growing fond of it.

One of Klaas’ interviewees for Power Corrupts says that believing in a conspiracy theory predisposes one to begin believing in yet another, even if the two theories are unrelated or contradictory. Klaas describes conspiracy theories as having “a weird way of metastasizing: they morph as they spread; they grow more outlandish; the conspiracy gets weirder and weirder as people build on the unhinged beliefs of others.” For this reason, to me, such stories feel a bit dangerous, like ideological gateway drugs, and I have always avoided them when I recognize them.

What we become

At the end of the road of a multitude of conspiracy theories, a person may be well trained in the consistent rejection of logic.

Denialism by Michael Specter.

According to Michael Specter, author of Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Harms the Planet and Threatens Our Lives (2009), the rejection of science is a coping strategy for living in an increasingly technological society that every day becomes a little harder to understand. When people are fearful and “decide that science can’t solve their problems,” they may abandon scientific process and findings, gravitating instead toward some other answer on the merits of its perceived popularity. This is a problem: “Either you believe evidence that can be tested, verified, and repeated will lead to a better understanding of reality,” Specter warns, “or you don’t. There is nothing in between but the abyss.”

In politics, similarly, embracing a multitude of conspiracy theories may lead a person to distrust and reject democratic principles. Ultimately, experts are not believed; leaders are not trusted; process is not given credibility; norms are not understood; facts cannot be verified; no one can be held accountable. This is a terrible outcome, but it is hard to stop conspiracy theories from starting and spreading. Perhaps being aware of their psychological function can prompt us to think of other ways to confront the human fear of random, small, and impersonal causes.