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Turtles, or terrapins, on a log in a pondToday we visited the beautiful Airlie Gardens in Wilmington, NC, USA, and came across a contented herd of turtles sunning themselves on a log.

The scene brought to mind the amusing “turtles all the way down” anecdote. On the surface, it makes fun of credulity. But I think it also has something to say about the nature of infinity and eternity.

The anecdote, which might be apocryphal, sometimes names Bertrand Russell as the scientist confronted by a determined old lady. But I like John Robert Ross‘s version, which names William James as the scientist:

After a lecture on cosmology and the structure of the solar system, James was accosted by a little old lady.

“Your theory that the sun is the center of the solar system, and that the earth is a ball which rotates around it, has a very convincing ring to it, Mr. James, but it’s wrong. I’ve got a better theory,” said the little old lady.

“And what is that, madam?” inquired James politely.

“That we live on a crust of earth which is on the back of a giant turtle.”

Not wishing to demolish this absurd little theory by bringing to bear the masses of scientific evidence he had at his command, James decided to gently dissuade his opponent by making her see some of the inadequacies of her position.

“If your theory is correct, madam,” he asked, “what does this turtle stand on?”

“You’re a very clever man, Mr. James, and that’s a very good question,” replied the little old lady, “but I have an answer to it. And it’s this: the first turtle stands on the back of a second, far larger, turtle, who stands directly under him.”

“But what does this second turtle stand on?” persisted James patiently.

To this, the little old lady crowed triumphantly, “It’s no use, Mr. James — it’s turtles all the way down!”

(Source: J0hn Robert Ross, Constraints on variables in syntax. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Dept. of Modern Languages and Linguistics. Thesis. 1967.)

Drawing of a hemispherical earth on the backs of four elephants, in turn standing on a turtle's back

This story references a supposed Hindu cosmology that imagined the earth resting on the backs of a group of elephants standing on a tortoise’s back.

“Turtles all the way down” makes me reflect on the idea of infinity. Where does the universe end? It’s turtles all the way out there.

And, while I can imagine living on forever into the future, I have a hard time conceiving of an eternal being that has always existed. When did God begin? It’s turtles all the way back.

ARK — 19 February 2017

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