Turtles All the Way Down

Moving right along from our painfully tedious little election to more cheerful subjects such as the hypothetical death of the universe, consider if you will a little ancient Hindu cosmology as interpreted by Carl Sagan from his 1980 PBS television series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage.

Sagan often liked to refer to an apocryphal story about a Western traveler who asks an Oriental philosopher to describe the nature of the world. He tells him that the world is a great ball resting on the flat back of an enormous turtle. “Ah,” his questioner inquires, “but what does the world turtle stand on?” “On the back of a still larger turtle,” the philosopher tells him. “Yes, but what does he stand on?” And the philosopher says, “It’s no use to continue with your questions, it’s turtles all the way down.”



Filed under Science

27 responses to “Turtles All the Way Down

  1. i always thought the turtles dialogue involved shaw and some mook.


  2. That’s why it’s “apocryphal” silly — you can insert anyone you want. David Hume and William Paley might be good candidates for this teleological vehicle. (That’s who I had in mind…)

  3. Peter

    That’s why it’s “apocryphal” silly — you can insert anyone you want.

    Can I insert me and Ti-Guy?

  4. Okay, I just did some digging into this and it seems that Stephen Fry attributes the story to William James and an elderly lady…

  5. “Can I insert me and Ti-Guy?”

    that’s a given, eliza.


  6. yeah, i’d heard it with some dowager as the dunce. that’s why i thought shaw.


  7. Something to keep in mind the next time someone unloads the “watchmaker” argument…

    By the way, watching that video, doesn’t it kind of knock you for a loop that “a billion” was considered an astronomically HUGE, almost incomprehensible number back in 1980… Now it’s thrown around with hardly a second-thought.

  8. “doesn’t it kind of knock you for a loop that ‘a billion’ was considered an astronomically HUGE, almost incomprehensible number back in 1980”

    well, sevties. it was sagan’s catch word, afterall, and sagan’s as 80s as spandex.


  9. “sevties”?! what the….


  10. I know… it was almost a joke “billions and billions” and now — well $700 billion dropped into the market yesterday and everyone just kind of yawns and moves on. Quite a change.

  11. “everyone just kind of yawns and moves on.”

    well, the markets did react kinda badly, and oil jumped big. but i think you mean the average joe. their main concern seems to be with exec bonuses on the payer’s dime. me, i’m wondering what’s next should this effort tank.


  12. Now they’re talking about the taxpayers taking an “equity stake” in the companies that are being salvaged… Sounds pretty communistic to me.;)

  13. “Sounds pretty communistic to me.”

    it’s definitely like some sorta 20th century grab-and-run socialism…. :/


  14. I hear you have a new penny being minted. I’m sure there’s some metaphorical significance to that, but lately words are escaping me.

  15. why doesn’t that link work?


  16. Cool. Thanks for that. I used to be an avid coin-collector and still have a fondness for that sort of thing. Interesting designs. “Post-modern” I guess is the applicable term, whatever that means…

  17. Lewis

    Red Tory –

    Sweet! You’re still around!

    And now I can comment (again) on your website without registering.

    Cool beans!

    I just happened to notice your site in my bookmarks, and wondered if you were still posting.

    Glad to see that you are.

    Looks like your traffic must be pretty decent, so good on you, then.

    BTW, I’m some vaguely “conservative” (not so much, really, particularly on the social end of things – but, not being particularly enamored of socialism, and being particularly disgusted with identity politics, the Democrats [yes, I’m a Yank] have grown to disgust me even more than the Republicans [no mean feat]) schmuck who followed a link from Goldstein’s (Protein Wisdom) site to yours one time.

    Anyway, cheers!

    P.S. – Yeah, I’d credit Sagan for mainstreaming “billions and billions”, fwiw

  18. May I insert Bill Dembski for the Hindu mystic?

  19. “Sounds pretty communistic to me.”



  20. Hey Lewis! Long time no hear.

    Yep still kicking… Some days I wonder why, but such is the way of things.

  21. KEv — “National capitalism…” Interesting. So many possibilities with that.

    You know, Bush has to go to bed feeling pretty damn shitty, wouldn’t you think? Or does his head just hit the pillow and it’s lights out — zzzzzzz.

  22. Tomm

    I haven’t heard the turtles one for a long time.

    I remember it with fondness.

    Do you know the sophist puzzle about speed?

  23. Are you referring to Zeno’s paradox? Yes, I’m familiar with it, but why don’t you amuse us with your version…

  24. dizzy

    A great religion has room for all the possibilities —

    The people said, “The earth rests on the back of an elephant which rests on the back of a giant tortoise which rests on the face of a limitless sea.”
    Yajnavalkya said, “The earth rests on nothing.”
    The people said, “Your answer is so absurd as to be unintelligible, O Yajnavalkya, while ours is so obvious as to be inescapable.”
    And Yajnavalkya answered, “Your posterity will use YOUR words in agreeing with me.”
    Upanishadic Apocrypha

  25. so that’s where terry pratchett got it……

  26. I just love the “it’s turtles all the way down” part. I just had the best laugh!

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