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The First Cause and the Infinite Stack of Turtles

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There is an argument for the existence of God made in St. Thomas Aquinas’s writing that goes like this: everything in nature has a cause, and since it’s preposterous that the Universe has been around forever, there must be a first cause. In Aquinas’s words, “this we call God.”

But, of course, the objection to this argument is that if everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause, as well. If one wants to say that God is the one exception to this rule, then it doesn’t really make sense to include Him in the first place: why not just make the Universe itself the objection to this rule?

While reading about this, I came across (on Wikipedia, the world’s greatest website) an absolutely brilliant anecdote from Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. Allow me to quote it in full:

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!”

So maybe God was created by another God, who in turn was created by another God, who in turn was, well, it’s turtles all the way down.

A more practical use of the phrase, one that might occur in everyday situations, would be to use it whenever something seems like it ain’t never gonna change. For example, the poverty cycle. Poor people have children who are poor and, thus, not able to access the crucial things that help you climb out of poverty, like education, social connections, and capital, and so they grow up poor and have poor children and, well, it’s turtles all the way down.

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Written by Greg Karber

July 6, 2009 at 5:56 pm

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