Turtles all the way down

Bertrand Russell, according to philosophical lore, was once in the course of giving a public lecture on cosmology when he was interrupted by an old lady in the audience. “Everything you have been telling us is rubbish,” the lady vociferously objected. “The world is actually flat, and it is supported by a giant elephant that is standing on the back of a turtle.” Russell, humouring her, asked what might support the turtle. The lady replied, “It’s turtles all the way down!”

– from Why Does the World Exist? By Jim Holt

There are some questions we cannot help asking ourselves, even if we are convinced that there can never be a fully satisfactory answer. “Why does something exist rather than nothing?” is perhaps the most basic question of all. Of course, not everyone thinks the question is unanswerable; and not everyone even thinks the question is valid to begin with. Philosopher Adolf Grünbaum, is particular, is adamant that this question is not even to be asked, as it is meaningless. But, undaunted by this early setback, author Jim Holt sets out to find, if not the answer, at least the various thoughts and ideas that mankind has come up with in relation to this eternal puzzle. He describes his quest, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, as an “existential detective story”; and, during the course of his detective work, he interviews some of the foremost intellects of our time – scientists, philosophers, mathematicians, theologians; and even novelist John Updike shortly before his death, to consider the views of a creative artist. And the range of thoughts and ideas they all come out with is as bewildering as it is fascinating. His first interviewee, philosopher Adolf Grünbaum insists with some vehemence that the question itself is meaningless; another eminent philosopher, Richard Swinburne, opines that although the existence of God cannot be confirmed, it is the most probable given the laws of Bayes’ Theorem; a mathematician (Sir Roger Penrose, no less) thinks that the laws of pure mathematics preceded the universe itself, have an objective reality, and are immutable; and that the universe had to come into being to satisfy these laws. And so on.

In between these interviews, Holt explains very clearly and with considerable wit some of the subtlest ideas and concepts from the fields of philosophy, physics and mathematics. I do have something of a background in physics and mathematics, but I was still grateful to have explained the philosophical implications of some of the ideas from these areas; and, not having any background in philosophy at all, I was extremely grateful for Holt’s very lucid and elegantly expressed expositions of various philosophical ideas. The result of all this is both entertaining and fascinating, although if Holt’s quest is indeed a detective story, then it is one of those post-modernist open-ended ones: here, at the end, Poirot does gather all the suspects together in one room to reveal the killer; but, instead of doing so, he merely goes through all his hypotheses, before finally conceding that he does not really know whodunit.

As far as my own limited intellectual abilities go, the question asked in the title is insoluble. If every effect has a cause, as Leibnitz maintained, then we can, in theory at least, trace back the causes of all effects either until we get to the First Cause. We may call this First Cause God, as those do who are religious; or we may call the First Cause the laws of mathematics, as mathematician Roger Penrose does; or we may call it the principle of goodness – as one philosopher, John Leslie, does. There are other possibilities also. Or we may move away entirely from this idea of a First Cause, and say, as certain branches of Hindu cosmology do, that the chain of causality is infinite, and that everything, ourselves included, has always existed. If the former applies – i.e. if there is indeed a First Cause – then this First Cause has to provide an explanation for itself, and that is circular; but if the latter applies – i.e. if there are indeed turtles all the way down – we find ourselves lacking an explanation of the existence of this infinite chain of turtles.

Of course, science has peered deeply into this issue. We now know that the universe started with the Big Bang; but, just as any child in scripture classes when told that God created the world asks “Then who created God?”, the question “Why did the Big Bang occur?” seems to me – pace Grünbaum – a legitimate one. What happened before the Big Bang to make it occur? At this point, we are firmly admonished: there was no time before the Big Bang, we are told, and, hence, to ask what preceded it is as meaningless as it is to ask what lies further north than the North Pole. But this answer does not satisfy. Whether there was time before Big Bang or not, why did it occur? Why is there not nothing?

No doubt, scientists will be able to tell us some day why the Big Bang occurred: we know, for instance, that there is never such a thing as a complete vacuum, as even in nothingness there are quantum fluctuations – random spontaneous creations and annihilations of particles and anti-particles. And even out of this the universe may have emerged. But this seems to me to leave open the question: “If the laws of physics are such that the universe could come into being, then why are the laws such?” If our existence is contingent upon the laws that allow us to exist, then is it not legitimate to ask how these laws had come about? Did someone – God, say – decree them? Or did they appear spontaneously out of nowhere for no apparent reason?

And is it in any case reasonable to view it in this manner? After all, that the laws that describe the universe must necessarily be the laws that caused the universe to come into being is but an unargued assertion. And even if we were to accept this assertion, unargued though it is, and accept that a universe capable of supporting life and consciousness came into being because certain laws allowed it to do so, then we are assuming that the laws came first; and this is surely disputable. Is it not, at least, legitimate to see the laws merely as descriptive of the universe, and, hence, only of consequence when the existence of the universe is already an established fact? Roger Penrose, for one, doesn’t think so. For him, the laws of mathematics have an objective reality, and are eternal. But he doesn’t explain why that should be so. The laws of mathematics are for him what God is to the religious – a brute fact, a point where we must stop and not look for further turtles underneath. But this seems to me merely to shift the mystery back a few links in the chain: the mystery itself is not solved.

Even Steven Weinberg, among the most extraordinary scientific intellects of his or of any other age, feels there can be no answer. Or, at least, that human beings are not capable of comprehending them. But, Weinberg insists, science, although it cannot finally and irrevocably provide a solution, can indeed probe much further, and answer many of the questions that so puzzle us now. However, rather intriguingly, he goes on to say that the more explainable the universe becomes, the more pointless it seems. Not everyone feels this way: Richard Dawkins had famously declared that the more we understand of the universe, the more fascinating it becomes; and, in his characteristically imperious manner, he had insisted that we all should see it in his terms on the pain of being damned as obscurantist. That someone so very distinguished as Steven Weinberg can not see it in such terms indicates the importance of differing individual temperaments in these matters.

And this is what particularly fascinated me – even more perhaps than the ideas expressed. If reason is objective, I wondered, then how is it that so many brilliant minds reason themselves into such diverse positions? And it strikes me that it isn’t really reason that has led these luminaries to their very different conclusions: it’s their temperaments. If these same people had been born with the same powerful intellects but with different temperaments, then their reasons would have led them to very different conclusions.

Inevitably, this leaves me wondering where my own temperament leads me. I do not of course possess anything like the level of intellect of the various people Holt interviews, but nonetheless, like Steven Weinberg, I too cannot help feeling that the more we understand the mechanism of the universe, the more pointless it seems. I do not see the point of offering a defence of such a perspective: it is my own temperament, and no more. Speaking for myself (and, I emphasise, only for myself), if we are to live our lives as fully as we can, we must not see our lives as pointless, as lacking significance. And I find myself actually grateful that the full answer to the question will always elude our human understanding.

In short, for me, it’s turtles all the way down!


13 responses to this post.

  1. Looks to be a great book and your commentary is fantastic Himadri.

    As I assume that your had a least started this work before I put up my latest blog post it is an odd co –incidence that we have both been pondering similar topics around the same time. Perhaps there is a conscious design behind it all after all and the conciseness is trying to tell you and I something ☺

    I know that some physicists are beginning to theorize that the Big Bang is actually just a small part of a much larger picture. Even if that turns out to be true, the question still overrides this larger reality, what lies underneath all that?

    As to life being pointless, one can say that the concept of “Pointlessness” is itself an artificial and meaningless human construction that is not really worth fretting over. I admit that I am going completely overboard the Existentialist boat with that argument ☺


    • Hello Brian, I was thinking much the same on reading youur recent post on cosmology. Jumping from the coincidence of he two of us reading books on similar subjects at the same time to the conclusion that there is a conscious design behind it all is, admittedly, a bit far-fetched … but not more far-fetched than some of the ideas regarding cosmology that are currently floating around! As someone said (I can’t remember who) … if the explanation isn’t outrageous, it probably isn’t true!

      As for human constructs, I, as a human wouldn’t be too hasty to throw them out! 🙂

      Cheers, Himadri


  2. I think, for scientists, this is the problem they seldom want to face: psychology or temperament, as you put it, is more a factor in our reasoning than we care to admit. We have tried so hard to ban emotion and personal reasoning from science that when they creep in the backdoor we either pretend not to notice them or find new means to argue them away. Part of the bugaboo for me is the expectation that all questions must have answers. But worse, once we have an answer we charge ahead as if we now have all the secrets of the universe and ignore the wonderful messiness that our answers are trying to hide.

    Great essay, Himadri.


    • Hello Mark, I guess this depends very much on the scientist. As a group, scientists are neither more nor less dogmatic than any other group.

      Shelley, in “Prometheus Unbound”, made Earth speak some lines saying that Man is stripping her of all her mysteries (I’m sorry – I can’t remember the exact words). Shelley lived in a time when it was possible to believe that all the mysteries of the universe were capable of being understood,. If the last century of scientific thought tells us anything at all, it is surely that complete understanding will always be beyond our reach – that the universe is even more mysterious than we can even imagine. (Which is not to say, of course, that we shouldn’t investigate and try to understand as far as we can: the advances in physics in the last hundred years or so – since Einstein’s annus mirabilis of 1905, to be exact – are surely amongst the great pinnacles of human achievement.)

      I do agree with you that all questions need not have answers; and that even if they did, the universe will still have secrets, because many of the most vital questions we do not even know how to formulate!

      Cheers, Himadri


      • Himadri,

        Actually, I did not mean to even imply dogmatism on anyone’s part. The problem I see, is the tendency we have, today, of constantly wanting to keep emotions and rationality in separate containers. I follow Hume in believing that reason is passive and is activated by our emotions. I also follow him in believing that most emotions are small and not the great biasing, anti-rational mental monsters that the extreme rationalists believe they are. Interst, for example, is an emotion; so, too, is curiosity. And without interest and curiosity we would have no science.

        These emotions also bring with them some personal associations — but, again, such associations do not necesssarily lead to dogmatism or unreason. What we seem unwilling to accept is that our minds operate as a whole — not in bits and pieces, as the analytical mind would have it — or the right-brain, left-brain absolutists. From what I understand, the right-brain, left-brain studies are tending to show both hemispheres operating in tandem on complex thoughts, even if certain specific functions can be distinguished to right and left or different specific parts of the brain.

        So I would say, no, it does not depend on the scientist — we are humans; human thought includes human psychology and never just some sort of pure rationality. And yet I am quite sure we can approximate something like a pure rationality. The danger is not that we are incapable of being rational in some remote and ridiculously pure sense; rather it is the notion that we do not have true rational thought, if our brains, at the same moment contain emotions and personal thoughts. It’s one of those great either/ors that we have forced on ourselves. Instead of seeing the mind as complexly human, we want to see it in a state of pure and virginal purity of reason — in the process we lose sight of the tremendously powerful complementary thoughts that emotions, personal associations and imagination provide — or we confound them with our reason and thus lose sight of rationality altogether.

        See. Had nothing to do with dogma at all — except, of course, for my own little dogma on reason and emotions.

        Best, Mark

      • Hello Mark,

        I think it was this bit from your last comment that put me on the wrong scent:

        I think, for scientists, this is the problem they seldom want to face: psychology or temperament, as you put it, is more a factor in our reasoning than we care to admit.

        Whatever the misconception, it is not restricted to scientists, who are every bit as human as the rest of us, and, quite often, significantly more intelligent. Sadly, the popular conception of “the scientist” has been coloured by one distinct dogmatist whom I think it superfluous to name here.

        I agree with you fully that the either/or dichotomy of emotion vs. rationality is entirely spurious. What does worry me, though, is deliberate anti-rationalism that I often see around me. I don’t regard myself as dogmatic, but I nonetheless insist that astronomy is a science, and astrology isn’t. In my job, I work at forecasting demand. I do this by analysing past data, separating out, as best I can, significant patterns from random noise, and projecting these patterns into the future. I do not do this by slaughtering a beast and reading its entrails.

        (Although, I did try out that forecasting model some years ago … But it was very messy, and the cleaners were complaining…)

        Cheers for now,

      • I’m reading Vico’s New Science just now, and he is quite convinced that divination is the real source of all civil institutions (that is divination as in forecasting or augury, not as in deity — glancing at the etymologies, it looks to me that the two have different derivations, but Vico believed them to be the same).

        If you think about it, divination and forecasting as the sources for our civil institutions is probably not so far from the truth. Civil institutions, including religion, have their origins in the desire to know how the future will turn out — will the harvest be good, the rain sufficient, the hunt successful. Frankly, in its earliest guise, astrology was, indeed, a science; it was part of the essential calendarization and structuring of time and action, particularly in agricultural socieies.

        As for my use of the word “scientists” I think it was the reference you made to Dawkins that sent me there. The Dawkins-faithful are the sort of science mavens who are overly reductive in their conceptions of both science and the mind.

        As for those who believe in astrology today — I don’t think their belief in astrology is the problem — take away astrology and they will turn to something else. More than likely the problem is that belief is part of being human — and we live in an age where “brights” (a synonym for the Dawkins’ crowd — a synonym of their own choosing, by the way) delight in tearing down belief systems, but lack the skill, humanity and social compassion to know how to build belief systems that can take the place of the myths they have rather wantonly destroyed.

        The post-modern anti-rationalist I will dispute; the astrtology anti-rationalist is the product of a society that has forgotten that being human includes possessing strong and fulfilling belief systems (although, I think there will always be a handful of eccentric gits who fall into this category and should be enjoyed for their quirkiness and the richness they bring to society).

  3. Himadri,

    Though I rarely reply to your posts, I always read and enjoy them. Thank you for the insightful and thoughtful commentary you bring to every subject you address. I especially enjoyed the Anna Karenina posts, which, now that I think of it, are connected to today’s topic via Levin’s conversion. As a person of Christian conviction myself, and whose intellectual struggles resonate with Levin’s, I deeply appreciate the respectful and insightful manner in which you approach matters like these. Thank you.


    • Hello Steve,

      It’s interesting that you say that, as I was thinking of Anna Karenina as I was reading this particular book. But then again, having finished that book only recently, I can’t stop thinking about it.

      One thing that comes across very strongly in Tolstoy’s writings is that he loved life. That doesn’t mean that he was blind to the evils and sufferings: Anna Karenina is, after all, a tragic novel, But, perhaps more than any other novelist I can think of, he saw the transcendent within the everyday. And this cannot be possible if our outlook is so unyieldingly empirical that we cannot recognize even the possibility of transcendence. Too much of the literature of our own times refuses to see humans in anything other than the most strictly empirical of terms, and, in the process, it seems to me that an important dimension is lost. I am planning a post on these themes some time in the near future, and I suppose I had better give the matter some thought first (it always helps! 🙂 )

      I suppose one cannot discuss one’s perspective on literature without discussing also one’s perspective on life itself, and I fear that this blog is perhaps becoming more personal and autobiographical than I had initially intended.

      Thank you once again for your kind words.

      All the best, Himadri


  4. I’ve personally come to the conclusion at the moment that humans are either misconceiving the notion of time, or they’re misconceiving the notion of existence, or possibly both. (I’ve recently come up with a great idea about time, but unfortunately I have no knowledge of modern physics, so I imagine – as usually happens – some physicist will get there before me).

    I was reading the pre-Socratic philosophers recently, and while I was amused by all their crazy and unjustified theories, it did strike me that in reality we hadn’t come up with any better answers since to the questions they were asking – though it’s true, we’ve discovered a lot of interesting things along the way.


    • Oh – I’m sure that w ehumans, with our limited perceptions, are misconceiving just about everything. Problem is that, being human, our human perceptions, no matter how flawed they may be, are all we have to go by. So we have to make the best of it.

      Perhaps we never will be wiser than the pre-Socratic philosophers (and yes, philosophy is an area I really should get to know more about). But it’s those interesting things we learn along the way that are so fascinating!


  5. Posted by Shonti Mukherjee on November 19, 2012 at 8:02 pm

    Yeah….so what?!?


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