In his book "A Brief History of Time," Stephen Hawking famously tells the story of turtles all the way down. "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!' "
This story has been told many times, often changing the name of the philosopher or scientist. The story can be traced as far back as the philosopher John Locke in the late 17th century. The important aspect of "turtles all the way down" is it is almost always used by skeptics and secularists to demonstrate the concept of God cannot be proven and, therefore, if accepted at all, must be accepted on faith.
A recent issue of Discovery magazine carried an article, "Turtles all the way down," which attempts to debunk the idea that God has always existed as a valid argument for God. The writer is responding to criticism of the "Big Bang" theory. "When a person like this is asked who or what created God, the standard answer is that God always existed. But why can't we say the same thing about the universe itself? It's entirely possible the universe is part of a larger structure, a metaverse, if you will, that always existed and always will. But the details of this aren't terribly important; the key thing here is the pot calling the kettle black. This so-called flaw in the Big Bang theory, if it is a flaw, is also a flaw in the supposition that God always existed. As such, it's a terrible argument for the existence of God."
Interestingly, the writer recognizes that both arguments rest on a faith assumption. Even a possible "metaverse" either always existed or there was nothing and then there was something. Each proposition requires faith or belief in something that cannot be proved.
Ah, says the skeptic. But there are plenty of things we can prove once the basic premise of the Big Bang is accepted, including, according to the Discovery piece, the absence of any "evidence of design" in the universe.
But how true is it that many things can be "proven?" In this regard it is important to understand something of the thinking of the philosopher Kurt Godel.
Godel was one of the titanic minds of the 20th century. He is thought by some to be "beyond comparison the most important logician of our times" (quoted in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Godel is best known for his "incompleteness theorems." BYU philosophy professor Codell Carter summarizes the first incompleteness theorem as any axiom system powerful enough to deal with arithmatic will be either inconsistent or incomplete. That is, any basic arithmetic truth rests on arithmetical axioms that encompass statements are true but not provable. Essentially, then, there are numerous true but unprovable statements. Indeed, according to many philosophers, the set of such statements that are true but not provable is infinitely larger than statements that are true but provable.
"Godel's results, by showing that mathematics cannot be completely and consistently formalized in one system, shattered the Aristotelian ideal of a perfect deduction from first principles" (Encyclopedia of Philosophy). This view is consistent with the thinking of the influential retired BYU philosophy professor Chauncey Riddle. "No human system can be based on reason alone because reason is a tool to handle material, not to originate anything. To say that a person bases his thinking on reason is like saying it is based on mathematics. Mathematics, like reason, orders things but originates nothing. Until you add numbers or some other entities, mathematics has no function. Likewise, reason."
Thus, scientists and philosophers who throw stones at the unprovable assumptions of believers may be living in a glass house that rests on the back of a very large turtle.
Joseph A. Cannon is editor of the Deseret News. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org