Elephants and turtles

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The JC looks deep into the well. Or abyss.

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The origins everything.

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A Hindu cosmological myth, in which the world is borne upon the back of four elephants who in turn stand on the world turtle, Akupāra (Sanskrit: अकूपार), which has a pretty obvious logical flaw that atheists like to think neatly demolishes the intellectual pretensions of organised religion — which it does — while not noticing how neatly it also demolishes the intellectual pretensions of secularists, lawyers, scientists and, well, atheists at the same time. For what — or who — is Akupāra standing on? There is of course an infinite regression here. Had Douglas Hofstadter been a Hindu cosmologist he might have placed the lowermost turtle at sufficiently remove back on Earth. A strange loop. Anyway he wasn’t, and they didn’t so we’ll all just have to ponder the opportunity missed.

Note, though, that pace the atheists, this is not a problem with religion, but with epistemology. Every truth depends on a previous one. There is no bedrock truth; they loop around: Every good dictionary is circular. A non-circular dictionary is complete. Indeed, if you take Douglas Hofstadter at his word, that very circularityreflexivity — is the special sauce of language.

So, like all good metaphors, the Hindu creation myth works best if you don’t interrogate it too closely. Once you start poking around in the basement, with all the turtles, it begins to run out of explanatory force. You see things you can’t unsee. Hence, successful religions have all kinds of mind tricks and guilt trips to stop punters rooting around with the turtles.

And all good creation myths have in common a profound commitment to truth. It’s in their constitution: their very purpose is to stop folks bickering and encourage them to get along, by means of a uniform, universal, comprehensive code of things: There is a truth about the universe, and it goes like so. So all the major religions have commandments, pillars, principles of behaviour and thought.

Now, “God” is a “Big Idea” — it answers many questions and tells us how we should behave, and organise, ourselves. Over four millennia, religious scholars generated plenty of auxiliary hypotheses to adapt to our changing circumstances. God saved us a lot of existential angst.

The Big Idea is dead, and we have killed it

To make a whopping great narrative, try this: the gently advancing enquiries of the Enlightenment slowly suffocated God. Copernicus started it, in the 15th century, displacing the Earth from the centre of the universe; it fell to Charles Darwin to deliver the coup de grace four centuries later, and Friedrich Nietzsche to announce it to the world.

But when we killed God, we gave quite a lot else away, too. Quite useful stuff: a settled means of telling right from wrong, for one thing. And, well, truth.

Without God the enlightened western intellectual tradition needed to rebase all these organising principles from scratch: to ditch one Big Idea, it needed to replace it with another. A new Big Idea was there, waiting to take over, at the moment the old one fell back lifeless on Charles Darwin’s specimen table. The New Big Idea was, of course, the enlightenment scientific tradition itself. Rationalism. Now, here is an interesting thing: what if the very idea that there must be a Big Idea, at all, is a function of the Old Big Idea — the one that just joined the choir invisible? Was Rationalism, in a profound way, utterly bound to the intellectual mores from whose surly bonds it slipped?

For now, hold that thought, for the Big Ideas that rushed in to replace God all did all cleave, strongly to the notion that there must be a Big Idea. Science could yield physical truth about the world, but not moral truth. Making an is from an ought is tricky. The attempts to do so — to imagine a utopian future derived from the rational precepts of enlightenment, and free of the mysticism of turtles, elephants, geometrically illogical trinities and so forth, dependent only upon the scientific method, we call modernism.

Science provided the foundation for physical truth, but needed rationalist programmes to coordinate the moral components. New Big Ideas were needed, and before long they presented themselves. In the early twentieth century there were two, both were as utopian, as they were disastrous. Between them, we can see the birth, and immediate crisis of, modernity.

The Turtle as a metaphor for our times

In any case, failure of the “world turtle” metaphor is in its own inadvertent way, a potent symbol for the malaise of our time. A meta-metaphor. Knowledge, friends: we are getting rather close to the turtle.

See also