Turtles all the way down

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!”  —Hawking (1988, 1)

Descartes messed it up for us all. cogito ergo sum. “I think, therefore I am,” says Daryl Hannah’s replicant in Bladerunner.  By creating the distinction between body and soul, Descartes ushered in an era of scientific reason that would replace the theocracies of the Western wor(l)d. No doubt from a diachronic perspective this was welcome reform to the scholastic limitations of the age, however, with the aid of Goethe’s Zeitgeist, we now see how reason has co-opted the rhetoric of everyday life to the extent that faith and science can no longer hold a decent conversation. In reality this is not so, for faith is made of sterner stuff. It is not based on reason. But reason is only that element of rhetoric (logos, alongside ethos and pathos) which Aristotle identified as the most persuasive. Indeed. Our 21st-century Western minds take such things for granted.

And what of science? Science is not the same as the objective truth we accept in the material goods we take for granted everyday. Science is not the proof of the culmination of production we see in the  personal computer, biological implants, or space travel. Prior to the fact of the material commodity, scientists struggled in the chaos of the unknown—testing, toying, and destroying, only to build again—empirically fashioning concepts and meaning according to the building blocks and puzzle pieces of what had already been named. Enacting the scientific method is not the same as manifesting a product that puts scientific knowledge to practical use.

“But it’s turtles all the way down!” Recognize that the concept of cognition that the modern Western mind has constructed from the science of reason is simply that. Reason is simply one way of constructing the way we view the world. Faith is another. Mind you, not religion, which is often simply reason’s way of quantifying faith. Instead, something we might call spirituality. “But it’s turtles all the way down!” Regardless of the reality of the bits and pieces of the natural world, we have constructed our system of naming and thus perceiving those bits and pieces in a particular way: a stone is a “tool” or a “weapon” or a “wall” or a “decoration”. Each has a name and a meaning that it did not have prior to cognizing it as such. Plato would have told us that this meaning came from what we now think of as God. Peirce, Derrida, and the little old lady tell us that it is not that simple. “But it’s turtles all the way down!” Faith and science are speaking two different languages: one based on logos, the other on perhaps pathos. Neither is right. Neither is wrong. It would be like the English, French, Greeks, and Israelis arguing over the meaning of the sound nû. The answer is yes! It just depends how we’ve constructed the meaning within the context of different cultures.

“But it’s turtles all the way down!” Never, once the mind frees itself of the limitations of reason’s logical structure, is it only  black and white. Whenever we are confronted with a binary (black and white), a dichotomy (faith and science), a duality (Plato and the little old lady), warning bells should sound that there is always a third option. And if there is a third option, then the options are infinite. “But it’s turtles all the way down!”


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