Turtles all the way down

Turtles all the way down

"Turtles all the way down" refers to an infinite regression belief about cosmology, the nature of the universe.


The most widely known version appears in Stephen Hawking's 1988 book "A Brief History of Time," which starts:

It is possible that the lady's comment came after Russell's 1927 lecture "Why I Am Not a Christian." In it, while discounting the First Cause argument intended to be a proof of God's existence, Russell comments:

The origins of this story are uncertain. In J. R. (Haj) Ross's 1967 linguistics dissertation, "Constraints on Variables in Syntax", the scientist is identified as the Harvard psychologist and philosopher William James. Of the story's provenance, Ross writes:

Additionally, Stephen Fry, in an episode of the BBC's comedy-quiz show QI (Series 1, episode 2), attributes the turtles anecdote to an exchange between an elderly lady and William James. Also, David Sloan Wilson does the same in his book "Evolution for Everyone" (Delacorte, 2007): 133.

Philosophical allusion to the story goes back at least as far as John Locke. In his 1690 tract "An Essay Concerning Human Understanding", Locke compares one who would say that properties inhere in "substance" to the Indian who said the world was on an elephant which was on a tortoise "but being again pressed to know what gave support to the broad-backed tortoise, replied — something, he knew not what." [cite book | author=Locke, John | title= An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Vol. 1 | publisher=Dover |location=New York | year=1959 |pages=391-392]

Henry David Thoreau, in his journal entry of 4 May 1852, [ [http://www.sniggle.net/Experiment/index.php?entry=excerpts04#04May52 The Picket Line — Excerpts from H.D. Thoreau’s journals (1852) ] ] writes:

This quote also appears in Robert Anton Wilson's "Prometheus Rising", he attributes the story to William James


The story can also be found in Bernard Nietschmann's "When the Turtle Collapses, the World Ends," Natural History, 83(6):34 (June-July 1974). A version of the story also appears in Clifford Geertz's, "Thick Description: Towards an Interpretive Theory of Culture," in his 1973 book "The Interpretation of Culture", with the scientist and old woman replaced by an Englishman and an Indian respectively. This version may be a reference to references in various Indian classical texts, including the myth that Vishnu's second avatar was Kurma, a tortoise on whose back the Mandara mountain rested, or that the tortoise Chukwa supports the elephant Maha-pudma who upholds the world. (Whether this is a Hindu belief or not is subject to debate.) A whimsical allusion to this myth appears in Wilfrid Sellars' 1956 "Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind":

: authoritative nonverbal episodes... would constitute the tortoise on which stands the elephant on which rests the edifice of empirical knowledge.

Carl Sagan recited a version of the story as an apocryphal anecdote in his 1979 book "", as an exchange between a "Western traveler" and an "Oriental philosopher."

Justice Antonin Scalia of the U.S. Supreme Court discussed his "favored version" of the tale in a footnote to his plurality opinion in "Rapanos v. United States" (decided June 19 2006):

: In our favored version, an Eastern guru affirms that the earth is supported on the back of a tiger. When asked what supports the tiger, he says it stands upon an elephant; and when asked what supports the elephant he says it is a giant turtle. When asked, finally, what supports the giant turtle, he is briefly taken aback, but quickly replies "Ah, after that it is turtles all the way down." [cite web | author = Antonin Scalia
publisher = Cornell Law School Legal Information Institute's Supreme Court collection


The differences between the two forms of the anecdote point to the difference in its intended meaning.

For Hawking, the turtle story is one of two accounts of the nature of the universe; he asserts that the turtle theory is patently ridiculous, but admits that his own theories may be just as ridiculous. "Only time will tell," he concludes.

For Geertz, however, the story is patently wise, teaching us that we will never get to the bottom of things.

This comparison also reveals a difference between the positivist and interpretive, or hermeneutic approach to the interpretation of myths. Positivists read myths literally and find them false and foolish; interpretivists read them metaphorically or allegorically and find them true and profound.

The phrase "turtles all the way down", or sometimes simply "a turtle problem" are often used to describe other infinite regressions. For instance, the question of "who polices the police" may be regarded as a turtle problem.

The turtle problem also often arises in debates pertaining to creationism, for instance in the debate over intelligent design and its postulated intelligent designer. By raising the question of the need for a designer, intelligent design also raises the question, "what designed the designer?" according to critics.

The term "bottom elephants" (those elephants standing on the back of the tortoise) has also been used to describe a person's core beliefs...those upon which the person's "world" rests.


The anecdote has achieved the status of an urban legend on the Internet, as there are numerous versions in which the name of the scientist varies (e.g., Arthur Stanley Eddington, Thomas Huxley, Linus Pauling, or Carl Sagan) although the rest is the same.

In culture

*In the popular "Discworld" comic fantasy books by Terry Pratchett, the Discworld is a flat disc that rests on the backs of four huge elephants which are in turn standing on the back of an enormous turtle as it slowly swims through space. In the book "Small Gods", the question "what does the turtle stand on?" is asked, and gets the reply "It's a "turtle", for heaven's sake. It swims. That's what turtles are for." In his introduction to "The Discworld Companion", Pratchett uses the phrase in a different sense, describing the recurrence of the Earth on a turtle in myth as "turtles all the way". Additionally, 'who Watches the Watcher' (Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?) appears several times in Discworld novels, most notably in 'Thud.'

*Stephen King in "The Dark Tower" series makes several references to a turtle holding up the earth, in various metaphors. Later in the series, he makes it clear that the origin of this metaphor is a play on the incident with the woman declaring that it's "turtles all the way down". The appearance of a palm-sized scrimshaw turtle likewise makes allusions to Pratchett's "Small Gods" when described as a "tiny god".

* "Far-Seer", Part One of Robert J. Sawyer's three-part novel, the Quintaglio Ascension Trilogy, retells the story, replacing turtles with armourbacks (ankylosaurs).

*The phrase appears in Robert J. Sawyer's novel "Calculating God"

* Charles Stross's science fiction collection "Accelerando": "Up or down, is it turtles all the way, or is there something out there that's more real than we are?"

* Douglas Adams uses the phrase in the "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy"

* Michael Crichton makes a reference to the phrase in his book "Prey"

* Track 3 of Hallucinogen's album "In Dub" is entitled "Gamma Goblins ('Its Turtles All The Way Down' Mix)".

*The story is referenced by main character Oskar Schell in Jonathan Safran Foer's 2005 novel "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close".

*The 1997 movie Men in Black has a totally diferent view; instead of giant turtles holding the universe on their backs (as in the theories above), the twist ending actually pictures the galaxy as a tiny marble used to play against other galaxies contained in marbles too, and two gigantic aliens (referring the size of the turtles supposedly holding the universe on their backs) playing them in a marbles game.

ee also

*Hilbert's paradox of the Grand Hotel
*Münchhausen Trilemma
*Yertle the Turtle


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