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"Turtles all the way down," or "The Infinite Turtle Theory," refers to the infinite regression problem in cosmology posed by the Unmoved mover paradox.The phrase originates in an anecdote published by Stephen Hawking in 1988.The "turtle" metaphor in the anecdote represents a popular notion of a "primitive cosmological myth", viz. the flat earth supported on the back of a World Turtle.

A comparable metaphor describing the circular cause and consequence for the same problem is the "chicken and egg problem".Another metaphor addressing the problem of infinite regression, albeit not in a cosmological context, is Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? The same problem in epistemology is known as the Münchhausen Trilemma.


The most widely known version appears in Stephen Hawking's 1988 book A Brief History of Time, which starts:

The suggested connection to Russell may be due to his 1927 lecture Why I Am Not a Christian. In it, while discounting the First Cause argument intended to be a proof of God's existence, Russell comments (with an argument not relevant to modern Hindu beliefs):

The origins of the turtle story are uncertain. In J. R. Ross's 1967 linguistics dissertation, Constraints on Variables in Syntax, the scientist is identified as the Harvardmarker psychologist and philosopher William James. Of the story's provenance, Ross writes:

Additionally, Stephen Fry, in an episode of the BBC's comedy-quiz show QI (Series 1, episode 2), attributes the turtles anecdote to an exchange between an elderly lady and William James. Also, David Sloan Wilson does the same in his book Evolution for Everyone (Delacorte, 2007): 133.

Philosophical allusion to the story goes back at least as far as John Locke. In his 1690 tract An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke compares one who would say that properties inhere in "substance" to the Indian who said the world was on an elephant which was on a tortoise "but being again pressed to know what gave support to the broad-backed tortoise, replied — something, he knew not what."

Henry David Thoreau, in his journal entry of 4 May 1852, writes:

There is no reference given to the above statement.. in which hindu mythology this line is said...!!

This quote also appears in Robert Anton Wilson's Prometheus Rising; he attributes the story to William James:

The story can also be found in Bernard Nietschmann's "When the Turtle Collapses, the World Ends", Natural History, 83(6):34 (June-July 1974). A version of the story also appears in Clifford Geertz's, "Thick Description: Towards an Interpretive Theory of Culture", in his 1973 book The Interpretation of Culture, with the scientist and old woman replaced by an Englishman and an Indianmarker respectively.

Carl Sagan recited a version of the story as an apocryphal anecdote in his 1979 book Broca's Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science, as an exchange between a "Western traveler" and an "Oriental philosopher".

Justice Antonin Scalia of the U.S.marker Supreme Courtmarker discussed his "favored version" of the tale in a footnote to his plurality opinion in Rapanos v. United States (decided June 19 2006):

In our favored version, an Eastern guru affirms that the earth is supported on the back of a tiger. When asked what supports the tiger, he says it stands upon an elephant; and when asked what supports the elephant he says it is a giant turtle. When asked, finally, what supports the giant turtle, he is briefly taken aback, but quickly replies "Ah, after that it is turtles all the way down."

The anecdote has achieved the status of an urban legend on the Internet, as there are numerous versions in which the name of the scientist varies (e.g., Arthur Stanley Eddington, Thomas Huxley, Linus Pauling, or Carl Sagan) although the rest is the same.

In popular culture

  • In the popular Discworld comic fantasy books by Terry Pratchett, the Discworld is a flat disc that rests on the backs of four huge elephants which are in turn standing on the back of an enormous turtle as it slowly swims through space. In the book Small Gods, the question "what does the turtle stand on?" is asked, and gets the reply "It's a turtle, for heaven's sake. It swims. That's what turtles are for." In his introduction to The Discworld Companion, Pratchett uses the phrase in a different sense, describing the recurrence of the Earth on a turtle in myth as "turtles all the way". Pratchett and Jacqueline Simpson briefly describe this myth in The Folklore of Discworld, saying "'Ah, Sahib, after that it's turtles all the way down.'" Later saying "Yes, we know that there are several versions of this story!"

  • Stephen King in The Dark Tower series makes several references to a turtle holding up the earth, in various metaphors. Later in the series, he makes it clear that the origin of this metaphor is a play on the incident with the woman declaring that it's "turtles all the way down." The appearance of a palm-sized scrimshaw turtle likewise makes allusions to Pratchett's Small Gods when described as a "tiny god".

  • Stephen King's It makes certain references to a giant almighty tortoise which is said to have given birth to the universe itself.

  • Charles Stross's science fiction collection Accelerando: "Up or down, is it turtles all the way, or is there something out there that's more real than we are?"

  • Patch 3.1 in World of Warcraft introduced a fishing achievement titled "Turtles All the Way Down", obtained by fishing up a ridable Sea Turtle mount.

  • Every Time I Die have a song on their latest release New Junk Aesthetic titled "Turtles All The Way Down".

  • The song "Into the Dream" from progressive rock band Discipline on their 1997 release Unfolded Like Staircase contains a section titled "Turtles All the Way Down".

  • An alternative version of the phrase is used on the TV show The Office. In the Season 5 episode "New Boss", Pam Beesly is brainstorming potential birthday surprises for her boss, Michael Scott. She suggests "...and then, out of that cake, pops another stripper holding a smaller cake. And then an even smaller stripper pops out of that one." When questioned about what the smaller stripper will be holding, she responds, "A cupcake. It's strippers and cupcakes, all the way down."

  • British Dub producer OTT named his remix of Hallucinogen's Gamma Goblin's the "It's Turtles All the Way Down Mix" on the In Dub album in 2002 from Twisted Records.

See also


  1. The Picket Line — Excerpts from H.D. Thoreau’s journals (1852)

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