By Natalie C.
What do mythology, metaphysics, philosophy and John Green have in common? They all contribute to the fascinating origin and modern-day usage of the unique phrase “turtles all the way down!” Curious as to how this came about? Let’s explore!
Mythology & First Recorded Origin
It can be considered common knowledge that “turtles all the way down” alludes to an infinite stream of turtles standing on the backs of one another, simply from the imagery that the phrase creates. However, it’s less common knowledge that this saying references the mythological idea that a “World Turtle” supports the flat Earth on its back, a theory rooted in Hindu mythology.
While there are many instances throughout history that mention this phrase – oftentimes in the form of “rocks all the way down” – there is one story that is commonly associated with this peculiar expression: a philosopher – believed to be the British philosopher Bertrand Russell in the early 20th century – gave a lecture on astronomy, was promptly refuted by an old woman in the audience who claimed that the Earth isn’t situated in space but, rather, on the back of a large turtle and, when he sarcastically asked the woman what the turtle stood on, she proclaimed “It’s turtles all the way down!” (Hoyt).
Paradoxes & Infinity
The phrase “turtles all the way down” can be seen as a “cosmology joke” of sorts as it refers to the problem of “infinite regress” that plagues the “unmoved mover paradox” in metaphysics and, in turn, cosmology (Juturu). To break it down, cosmology is the study of the physical universe and metaphysics combines this with ontology (the study of existence) in order to intertwine the physical and metaphysical and explain both the “how” and “why” of the universe. Weird, right?
This becomes even more mindboggling when one considers the “unmoved mover” which, in short, is an idea wrapped up in its own paradox as it attempts to explain where the “mover” (aka the event or entity that created the universe) came from. The endlessness of this concept is termed the “infinite regress problem” and is similar to the idea of a turtle standing on top of a larger turtle standing on top of a larger turtle standing on top of a larger turtle…
The Validity of Truth
While we’re thinking deeply, it’s interesting to consider how “turtles all the way down” offers commentary on the validity of truth as a whole, a concept paradoxical in of itself (how true is the truth?). Needless to say, the idea of metaphysics and the “unmoved mover” seems impossible – after all, how can something be both tangible and intangible, unmoved and moved? However, this could simply be chalked up to the fact that “human beings are just blind to the truth,” everything in the universe is “neither true nor false,” and, ultimately, we can never know the “true truth” (Juturu).
In the end, even if we forget all of this metaphysical mumbo-jumbo and go back to “turtles all the way down,” the question of “which turtle is the largest?” would dumbfound anyone: obviously, the largest turtle is the one at the bottom but if this is an infinite stack of turtles and there is no bottom, then there is no largest turtle! Now there’s a puzzle!
For fun, I’d thought I’d shout-out some modern-day references of this beloved phrase in pop culture! Most notably, Professor Stephen Hawking touches upon this phrase – and all of its scientific and philosophical nuances – in his 1988 book A Brief History of Time. Numerous video games and songs reference this saying as well such as World of Warcraft or country artist Sturgill Simpson’s “Turtles All the Way Down.”
The pop-culture reference that I’m most familiar with – and that actually inspired this article! – is the 2017 young-adult novel Turtles All the Way Down by John Green which tells the story of a teenage girl trying to solve a mystery while struggling with obsessive-compulsive disorder. It’s one of my favorite books and I highly suggest you go read it if you want to learn about yet another application of this infinitely-promising expression!
Hoyt, David. “Turtles All the Way Down.” Kenyon College, 30 June 2017, www.kenyon.edu/news/archive/turtles-all-the-way-down/. Accessed 28 Mar. 2021.
Juturu, Preeti. ““Why Are Turtles All The Way Down? Isn’t That A John Green Book?”.” Medium, 28 Dec. 2018, medium.com/@pjuturu/why-are-turtles-all-the-way-down-isnt-that-a-john-green-book-404d2555eead. Accessed 28 Mar. 2021.