February 26th, 2012
Standing On Turtles, All The Way Down
I like to feel the solid earth beneath my shoes. It allows me to participate in ancient cosmologies in support of my feeling of being right. As sure as I’m standing here before you, you can believe what I’m saying. Here at the center of all things.
It was a Woody Allen movie that put me on to this train of thought, but before we get into that here are some versions of the primal story:
Let’s start with Steven Hawking’s version in his 1988 book “A Brief History of Time.”
A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.” The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, “What is the tortoise standing on?” “You’re very clever, young man, very clever,” said the old lady. “But it’s turtles all the way down!”
Then there’s the variation that appears in David Hume’s 1779 work “Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.”
How can we satisfy ourselves without going on in infinitum? And, after all, what satisfaction is there in that infinite progression? Let us remember the story of the Indian philosopher and his elephant. It was never more applicable than to the present subject. If the material world rests upon a similar ideal world, this ideal world must rest upon some other; and so on, without end. It were better, therefore, never to look beyond the present material world.
When the modern cosmologist attempts to decenter the solid foundation of our footing, our proxy, the little old lady, restores it with an infinite regress of turtles that go all the way down. But in order to have a solid place to stand, we want some sort of final turtle, an unmoved mover where in the buck stops. This is why scientists like to tell this story about turtles, because an infinite regress violates the laws of logic. It implies that nothing set the chain of events in motion. Many scientists choose to believe there’s a “god particle” (the hypothetical elementary particle called the Higgs boson) at the bottom of it all.
Graham Harman gets into the game of infinite regress and turtles in his book “The Quadruple Object:”
And given that an object must inherently be a unity, its multitude of qualities can only arise from the plurality of its pieces. Thus there is no object without pieces, and an infinite regress occurs. Despite the easy and widespread mockery of the infinite regress, there are only two alternatives, and both are even worse. Instead of the infinite regress we can have a ‘finite regress,’ in which one ultimate element is the material of everything larger. Or we can have ‘no regress at all,’ in which there is no depth behind what appears to the human mind. Both options have already been critiqued as undermining and overmining, respectively. And if the infinite regress is often mocked as a theory of “turtles all the way down,” the finite regress merely worships a final Almighty Turtle, while the theory of no regress champions a world resting on a turtle shell without a turtle.
If it really is “turtles all the way down”, how do we locate ourselves in this infinite regress? And this is where we get back to Woody Allen. I recently watched his film “Midnight in Paris” for the second time. It’s the story of an American writer named Gil Pender who visits Paris. He’s in a state of uncertainty with regard to his pending marriage, his career as a screenwriter, the value of the novel he’s writing and where he should make his home (Malibu or Paris). His fiance has clearly identified a ‘final turtle’ and is quite certain about where things stand and where they should stand.
Pender, who worships the ex-patriot writers and artists of Paris in the 1920s, is magically transported back to that time. It’s here that he hopes to receive the clarity that will give him a solid direction for his life. In a twist, the woman he falls for in 20s Paris longs for the era of the Belle Epoque. When the two of them are transported back to the era of her dreams, they find the artists of that time longing for an earlier time.
This dream inside a dream inside a dream structure brought to mind Christopher Nolan’s film “Inception.” Pender, in ‘Midnight in Paris’ posits an infinite regress, and comes to the realization that there’s no final turtle. The certainty his character gains is from embracing the infinite regress, not from discovering a final unmoved mover. In Nolan’s film, the dream within a dream within a dream structure serves as the landscape for an action film. The conceit of the film is that if you can place a thought deep enough into the layers of dreams within dreams it will appear as a final turtle (inception). But there’s also the implication that the dreams within dreams within dreams are an infinite regress. In both of these films, the characters run into the limitation that as humans, we can’t count to infinity. We can only descend into the dreams within dreams within dreams so far before we lose our bearings. It’s not that the infinite regress isn’t there, it’s just that we can’t empirically experience its infinity.
It’s Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” that seems to show a small change in the zeitgeist—the infinite regress of turtles all the way down neither incites vertigo nor charges of absurdity. The dream where we’re falling without end has been transformed into a clear-eyed assessment of the infinite regress of dreams and what they can tell us about the dream we’re living in.