Turtles All the Way Down
Updated: Apr 29
Bertrand Russell, according to the philosophical lore, was once in the course of giving a public lecture on cosmology when he was interrupted by an old lady in the audience. “Everything you’ve been telling us is rubbish,” the lady vociferously objected. “The world is actually flat, and it’s supported by a giant elephant that is standing on the back of a turtle.” Russell, humoring her, asked what might support the turtle. The old lady replied, “It’s turtles all the way down.”
While the above anecdote might be humorous, apocryphal, and obviously debunked by modern science, it points to a basic truism: there is a whole lot more we don’t know than we do know. Hemingway affirmed this in For Whom the Bell Tolls: “How little we know of what there is to know.” Our knowledge of the world has become immense with the advent of the electron microscope and the Hubble telescope and everything in between. But it is all such a tiny fraction of reality, and it’s complicated by the fact that while there are known unknowns, there is also a host of unknown things we don’t even know are knowable.
Does outer space end somewhere and, if so, what’s on the other side?
Something is causing expansion of the universe to accelerate. We have no idea what it is.
How many species of flora and fauna are there on earth? We only have a start on this, and
it might be impossible to know.
Why is something beautiful to one person and ugly to another?
Why do we dream absolutely crazy things totally unrelated to reality and what do they
mean, if anything?
In Purgatory Ridge by William Kent Krueger one of the characters says: “Who can say what Kitchimanidoo (Ojibwe: Great Spirit) is all about? We see little and understand less.” That there is a spiritual, metaphysical dimension to life is apparent, but understanding all its ins-and-outs is beyond our ken. We only have hints, bits and pieces here and there.
So while we rejoice in what we do know (well, sort of) for sure, we need to be humble regarding the tiny limits of our knowledge. It’s all the more reason to keep exploring with an open mind. Reality doesn’t change, but our understanding of it does on a daily basis.
Who knows . . . maybe it is turtles all the way down.