There is an apocryphal story about philosopher Bertrand Russell who gave a public lecture on astronomy, presumably in his native Great Britain. He described the orbit of our spherical Earth around the Sun and then elaborated that the Sun follows its own orbit around an enormous cluster of stars which constitute our galaxy. The story goes thusly:
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.” [Russell] 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!”
I think I laughed for a full ten minutes the first time I heard that story. Of course this woman sounds like the definition of crazy because eventually, (and this is obviously just one of many problems with her idea), if the Earth-supporting turtle needed to be supported by another turtle, and so on, eventually that poor first turtle would still have the need for some original grounding; some foundation upon which to place his giant turtle legs.
I wish there was more to the story. Was this woman actually out of her mind or was there some kind of reasoning to her view? And was/is there any truth to her position? Obviously, if you took her literally there isn’t, but what if this was the result of a child’s story that gave her tremendous symbolic or allegorical meaning? There are some Eastern religions that recount the history of the Earth in a similar fashion, that sound crazy to me but may hold tremendous sentimental or didactic meaning to others, especially if viewed in the right context. You’ll think I’m crazy, but I would love to follow that woman out of the auditorium and ask her a few questions. It could be a futile attempt and perhaps she was just spouting off incoherent ideas. But it could also be a goldmine of ideology, moral convictions that shaped a life and affected thousands more. To say nothing of an opportunity to stretch myself and solidify my own convictions as well. After all, you never know how strongly you believe something until it is tested. Maybe C.S. Lewis said it best,
“You never know how much you really believe anything until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life and death to you. It is easy to say you believe a rope to be strong and sound as long as you are merely using it to [tie] a box. But suppose you had to hang by that rope over a precipice. Wouldn’t you then first discover how much you really trusted it?…Only a real risk tests the reality of a belief.” - A Grief Observed
You might say that there’s no risk in arguing with the turtle woman, and if you choose not to give her a second thought then maybe you’re right. But there’s also no real pay-off either. You could use that method every time you encounter something odd or seemingly ridiculous in your life and not only would you avoid any kind of intellectual challenge, but you’d also rob yourself of some of life’s most colorful experiences. Of course the greatest tragedy would come when you finally did find yourself in need of a reasonable explanation for one of your own convictions, and because you avoided those experiences, you found your mind blank or your mouth tongue tied. There’s no guarantee of that either, but I’m inclined to believe that those who don’t use their minds, eventually lose them.
In philosophy the expression, “turtles all the way down” refers to paradox of of the originally beginning of the universe; that unknown first cause made by an intelligent designer, known better as “The Unmoved Mover“, God, or the Being that caused that everything that is to be. It can also be used to describe any absurd infinite regress of ideas.
Thinking is so underrated in today’s society. There are thousands of daily voices competing for your attention, and many times those voices are destructive. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met who abandoned their own religious convictions over the most trivial historical or doctrinal “incongruities”, or who bought into financial scams because they never applied their mind to thinking.
The worst example might be modern politics. Politics have become little more dignified and thoughtful than reality television, and hardliners on both side of the aisle are perpetually digging in further, holding to their “purist” views, and refusing to think about the consequences of their actions. They attempt to trump up their disputes by clouding their weak ideas in bloated language spoken by a charismatic guy in a suit. To further mask their ineptitude for thoughtful ideological convictions, they constrain the common voter with either quippy senseless, one-liners (say “YES WE CAN!” a thousand times and tell me exactly what you’re saying “yes” to), or with intimidating statistical models as the foundation for their ideological agenda. And in this regard they are completely backward. In short, they make their rational grounding statistics, instead of using statistics to build upon their rational grounding. AND THERE IS A DIFFERENCE! Facts, figures, and economic models are tools to promote an ideology, they are not ideology themselves! And we routinely fail to remember that. All the statistical data in the world will not save you from crazy! You may have the most sophisticated economic plan to eliminate the national deficit in five years, but if it involves transitioning our economy to one that subsidizes food stamps by feeding the homeless with cheap, stray cats or cutting military spending by equipping our armed forces with nerf guns, we obviously won’t see our goals translated into progress.
As a side note, we can easily prove that statistics cannot be the ultimate foundation for ideology because statistics can be reverse engineered as the quantifying of basic assumptions to be used within control models. If such statistics were the grounding for ideology they could not be reverse engineered into ideological assumptions, or intuitive moral imperatives. Instead there would be infinite regress of statistics as the foundation for, you guessed it, statistics. It would be as we say, “turtles all the way down.”
My point is, sometimes “crazy” is just a matter of context, and if you don’t understand that context, you will either scoff ignorantly at something that could potentially be genius, or you will lose confidence, and perhaps even fear something that is quite intelligible. Remember this clip from Batman Begins. I doubt very many real criminals understand so well how fear works. The last 35 seconds aren’t as important as Falcone’s (Tom Wilkinson) main point, and you’ll know it when you hear it.
“You always fear, what you don’t understand.” So then, seek understanding!
I know I need this advice more than anyone, but I don’t think we can overstate the importance of thinking and learning to think is in our society. As we go further into learning logic, we’ll learn that there are some things that are completely rational but nearly impossible to prove deductively (this may be in the distant future). Consider for example trying to prove to a blind person that the color of your car is red. A simple, rational concept, but an arduous undertaking. But one doesn’t have to engage in those activities to sharpen his faculties. The important thing is that we think, and really learn to think, even if that means following turtles all the way down.