Friday, January 05, 2007

Turtles All The Way Down

According to an apocryphal story, a well-known scientist was describing to an audience how the Earth orbits the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits the centre of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of his lecture, a little old lady got up and said: “This is all nonsense. Everybody knows that the world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant turtle.”

The scientist smiled and said, “I see. Can you tell, me, then, what is the turtle standing on?”

“You’re very clever, young man,” replied the old lady with a prim smile. “But it’s turtles all the way down!”

This story neatly captures the logical foolishness of the “Infinite Regression.” It is a tale pregnant with meaning for Libertarians, for we face some version of it almost every time we open our mouths.

The appeal to political authority in all its forms is really an attempt to bypass the black hole of Infinite Regression.

Here’s a pro-state argument we are all intimately familiar with:

Bad people like to use force to prey on good people.
Good people require a government to protect them from bad people.
This government, in order to be the final arbiter, must possess overwhelming force.

The logical madness is clear. Since bad people like using force to prey on good people, and the government is the greatest concentration of force in society, it stands to inevitable reason that bad people will use the government to prey on good people.

This is the central problem of Infinite Regression: who will watch the watchers? There is, of course, no rational or political answer. (There is an anarchistic answer, which I discuss in my podcasts at

We see the same problem in theology. Since the universe exists, people claim, it must have been created. This solves nothing. If the principle is put forward: “that which exists must have been created,” inventing a god immediately triggers an Infinite Regression. A god which exists must then have been created by a super-god, who in turn must have been… Well, let’s just say that it’s turtles all the way up.

Intelligent Design, or Creationism, faces the same problem. If “all life must be created by a god,” then that god, who is clearly alive, must have also been created by another god…

Unjust parental authority faces the same problem.

I say to my son: “I am right because I am your father.”

He naturally asks: “Are you ‘right’ because you are my father – i.e. all fathers are right – or are you right because fathers possess some wisdom or knowledge that sons do not?”

“I am right because I am your father,” I repeat.

“And who taught you this?”

“My father.”

“And he was taught this by his father?” he asks.


“So who was the first father to say this? And did he not disobey his own father by teaching something new? And does that not make all subsequent teachings of this rule invalid?”

Here I am generally stumped, and call him a communist. Another argument is swallowed up by the black hole of Infinite Regression.

Here’s another. People like to argue that the government should control the use of guns. Why? Because there are bad people who would use those guns to hurt us. The logical rule invoked? Well, we need a gang with more guns (the government) to protect us from gangs with fewer guns (criminals). So naturally, when the government, having gotten rid of its competition, steals our money through taxes, we logically need a World Government to disarm the existing governments. Then we will doubtless need an Interstellar Federation to, well you get the idea…

Rejecting all “arguments” based on the Infinite Regression fallacy can unleash prodigious creativity. What has been sometimes called the single greatest idea in the history of the world arose from Darwin’s failure to be impressed by the Infinite Regression paradoxes of creationism. Free markets – and economics in general – arose from the failure of Ricardo and Smith to be impressed by the Infinite Regression argument that the nobility should manage resources on behalf of everyone else.

In the realm of morality, the problems of Infinite Regression are, literally, genocidal. The fantasy that a minority of men can justly force obedience from everyone else is responsible for more deaths than any other single delusion. In the realm of morality and the use of force, there is simply no solution to the problems of Infinite Regression. A stateless society is the only answer.

Any fundamentally rational philosophy must reject arguments that pass anywhere near the black hole of Infinite Regression. Appeals to the “virtuous violence” of the state instantly self-destruct, because of Infinite Regression. Demands for “obedience to gods” instantly self-destruct, since there must then be an infinite chain of more powerful gods, all obeying the “god above,” which would instantly result in a truly bureaucratic cosmic paralysis. Even merely mortal parents who attempt to justify their commandments through appeals to power, biology or position fall into the gravity well of Infinite Regression.

The three traditional power centers – politicians, priests and most parents – all justify their authority based on Infinite Regression fantasies. If mankind continues to believe in any moral authority except logical consistency and evidence, we will continue to sail blithely over the edge of the old lady’s imaginary plate, falling forever.

As the turtles descend, so do we.


Anonymous said...

Excellent, as usual, Stefan. Keep them coming!

Patrick Crozier said...

OK then, who does watch the watchers? Because presumably they exist. I want somebody to round up the criminals and repel invaders and they presumably have to be armed. And if they are armed presumably they can enslave me.

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jomama said...

OK then, who does watch the watchers?

Who watches the watchers of the

Ralph said...

Stefan, I always enjoy your writing. On infinite regression, let me point out something from a biblical perspective. Jesus himself directly deal with infinite regression. No really!

In Matthew 24, he was asked what the "end times" would be like, and his first warning was "take heed that no man deceive you".

His warning was aimed at false Christs and false prophets that would be everywhere. What is this but a physical manifestation of infinite regression?

The question is, if there are false leaders everywhere, and today there are over 30,000 versions of christianity, what would be the most logical choice for one seeking truth?

Choose none of them. The reason for this is due to a theorem extending from Godel's incompleteness theorem. It states, in any axiomatic system, there is an infinity of undecideable propositions, which means that if you join a religion, the best you can hope to offer is an infinity of new undecideable propositions, based on your experience.

So, did Jesus conform to this logic? In Matthew 24:23, it seems he did: "Then if any man says to you, Lo, here is Christ, or there, believe it not."

And there you have it. Jesus' condemnation of all religions that come in his name.

Anonymous said...

"...that which exists must have been created,” inventing a god immediately triggers an Infinite Regression. A god which exists must then have been created by a super-god, who in turn must have been… Well, let’s just say that it’s turtles all the way up.

Intelligent Design, or Creationism, faces the same problem. If “all life must be created by a god,” then that god, who is clearly alive, must have also been created by another god…"

I'm glad to see you understand Mormonism. Except God doesn't create other gods, per se. He takes light that has existed eternally, gives it a spiritual body, sends it to earth in a physical body, resurrects said body, and based on its behavious (acceptance of Christ or what have you) is given power to be as God who then starts the cycle anew. At least thats how it is in a nutshell.

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FSK said...

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