Myths of liberation: Part 3, Turtles all the way down

by William R. Yoder on May 9, 2013

Choose your turtle wisely

There is a classic story about Bertrand Russell questioning a Hindu philosopher who was giving a presentation at the Royal Philosophy Society. (Actually there are many versions of this story, but this is the one I first heard.)  The Hindu philosopher was describing a traditional mythical-metaphysical theory about foundation of Being. He said, “The world rests on the back of a giant elephant.”

Lord Russell jumped in immediately asking, “What does the elephant rest on?”

The answer was, “The elephant rests on the back of a giant camel.”

Lord Russell pounced on this answer and asked, “Yes, but what does the camel rest on?”

The answer was, “The camel rests on the back of a giant turtle.”

Lord Russell was determined to expose the foolishness of all this, and asked, “Yes, yes, but what does the turtle rest on?”

The answer was, “The turtle rests on the back of another turtle.”

Now Lord Russell smelled blood, and moved in for the kill: “Aha! But what does that turtle rest on?”

The Hindu philosopher smiled and answered, “No, no. You won’t catch me there, Lord Russell.  It’s turtles all the way down.”

Any way of talking about ultimate Truth will ultimately end up being “turtles all the way down.”  So when you construct your own myth about “what’s really going on,” choose your turtle wisely.

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