Turtles All The Way Down

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No more troubling question has ever been asked. On the universal scale, this question leaves the most august philosophers guessing. Throughout human history, some version of God has been the most common explanation for the existence of all things, but is a Creator a dodge to the great question of “why”? David Hume wrote a discussion in 1779, wherein he challenges this solution to the question of “why.” He claims that God creates too many new questions:

“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. By supposing it to contain the principle of its order within itself, we really assert it to be God; and the sooner we arrive at that Divine Being, so much the better. When you go one step beyond the mundane system, you only excite an inquisitive humour which it is impossible ever to satisfy.”1

Alluding perhaps to this very text, the notable Stephen Hawkins tells his own story:

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!”2

No doubt, as every parent knows, the most frustrating part of the question “why” is the knowledge that there will be a followup question of the same variety. To the atheist, the answer of “In the beginning, God …” is very frustrating. Why God? What happened before the beginning? And the list goes on and on. However, the atheist should realize that his answers are no less frustrating.

We are here. Why? Because the laws of physics and probability require us to be. Why do the laws of physics exist? Because they are a byproduct of the universe itself. Why does the universe exist?

No less than the great theoretical physicist, John Wheeler, once said, “Science must provide a mechanism for the universe to come into being.” But no explanation science can or will ever offer will move so far or so fast toward a perfect answer than another child’s “why”.  In the word’s of mathematical physicist, Paul Davies:

It is natural to try to explain the universe by appealing to the situation at earlier cosmic epochs. But even if we could explain the present state of the universe in terms of its state a billion years ago, would we really have achieved anything, except moving the mystery back a billion years? For we would surely want to explain the state a billion years ago in terms of some still earlier state, and so on. Would this chain of cause and effect ever end?3

Ultimately, the rational thinker comes back to some supreme “why,” a first cause. Or as Davies describes it, “an ultimate superturtle, the explanation for which lies within itself.”4 Wheeler tried his best with what science had to offer. He proposed a closed loop, a circle of causes that each relied upon the last. But, asks the persistent child, why the loop? Science cannot answer this question.

So what will be our answer? Will we follow the path of naturalism which really can conceive of no better answer than turtles all the way down — facts based upon laws based upon facts based upon laws, ad infinitum? Or will we allow for the possibility of a first cause? Since nature cannot supply us with eternity, why not turn to supernature?

“I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, saith the Lord, which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty.” (Revelation 1:8)

{This article originally appeared on another blog I authored in November, 2011.}

  1. Hume’s Dialogues. Saint Anselm College : Saint Anselm College. Web. 02 Nov. 2011

  2. Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time (Bantam Books, 1988). 

  3. Paul Davies, The Mind of God: the Scientific Basis for a Rational World (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992). 

  4. Ibid. 

Follow Benjamin Williams:

Pulpit Minister for Glenpool Church of Christ (Glenpool, OK); BS in Astrophysics from University of Oklahoma; MDiv in Ministry from Oklahoma Christian Graduate School of Theology

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