Hyrax riding tortoise and turtles all the way down

It thinks it is on a rock!

This video reminds me of an often repeated story, the source of which is contested.  Stephen Hawking (below) attributes the story to Bertrand Russel, but the story apparently dates back further.

A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russel) 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!” 

The question involved is essentially “if God created the universe, what created God?”  Or perhaps more accurately, what preceded God if we posit that God created the universe out of empty space.  The rather pity story about the turtles is rooted in a Hindu myth that the world rests upon the back of four giant elephants, who in turn stand on a giant turtle.  The problem posed is similar to the chicken-or-the-egg dilemma often posed to children, namely, which was created first.  Science would posit the egg came first, laid by a proto-chicken with similar but not quite chicken DNA.  The proto-chicken laid an egg with a slight mutation, fully chicken DNA – and BAM, the first chicken.

Philosophy and theology are not interested in such an answer, as the question in those fields is about the nature of God as Creator of the Universe.  Philosophy also asks what created the universe.  It has a parallel track to theology’s concept of God, starting with Aristotle’s proposal of an Unmoved/Prime Mover or First Cause.  Since the Unmoved Mover sounds close to the Judeo-Christian concept of God as Creator, Aristotle was re-embraced by western Europe during the middle ages (after disappearing for a while) and became part of the liberal arts curriculum at early Universities.  Aristotelian thought pops up in interesting places included Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed and some Catholic thinkers.  It can also be read as equivalent of the kabbalistic concept of Ein Sof, the infinite pre-creation part of God represented in the kabbalistic tree.

For further reading on Turtle Stacking, see any of the above.  If you are interested in Turtle Stacking as a political critique rather than a theological debate, see also Yurtle the Turtle by Dr Seuss.

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