The Turtle Problem
You’ve probably heard the story about the astronomer from the U.S. who was visiting India, giving talks around the country on the state of the science as seen through western eyes. At the close of one of his lectures on the cosmos, an old lady stood up and said, “Actually, the earth is supported on the back of a giant turtle.” The astronomer was taken aback, but stepping up to the plate, said, “I understand, madam, but can you tell me what the turtle is standing on?” to which the lady said, “Another turtle, of course.” Taking a deep breath, he said, “Well yes, but…” “It’s no good, sonny,” she interrupted. “It’s turtles all the way down!”
The story has been repeated so often by, or with references to, so many famous people—Bertrand Russell, Linus Pauling, Carl Sagan, Justice Antonin Scalia, Stephen Hawking— that it’s acquired a life of its own. The Turtle Problem is now routinely used as shorthand for the philosophical notion of ‘infinite regression’. I’ve seen it cited in reference to such issues as ‘the policing problem’ (who polices the police…and who them…) and (so-called) Intelligent Design (if the world is so complicated that it took God to create it, who created God…and etc.).
The Turtle Problem can, I think, also be applied to consciousness. I’ll be meditating, thinking, “Hmm, I’m sitting here, staring at a wall, feeling pretty good.” Then comes, “Who is having this thought?” (a standard technique in some forms of meditation). Followed, instantly it seems, by, “Who’s having the thought, Who’s having this thought??” And before you can say infinite regress, my mind’s off and running down mirrored corridors, bouncing the question back and forward (as I imagine) between the twin hemispheres of my brain.
Suppose we allow that when we notice we’re thinking, we’re having a ‘meta-thought’, and that this meta-thought is somehow more ‘real’ than the original thought. So the next thought--the one about the meta-thought, i.e. the ‘meta-meta-thought’--is presumably even closer to reality At what point do we get to reality itself?
And what the heck am I talking about? What is reality? Can we ever experience the world (including ourselves in it) as it really is? As the memsaab would have said, “It’s no good, it’s turtles all the way down!”