I learned the phrase “Turtles all the way down,” popularized by Stephen Hawking in an answer to my latest question asking the meaning of the phrase, “Mercy within mercy within mercy."

Jmereno suggested that Thomas Merton’s famous phrase is similar to “Turtles all the way down.”

Does “Turtles all the way down” mean endless continuation or exercise of something like ‘peeling onions’ skin’ and ‘Russian matryoshka doll,’ or is it used for dodging a question or is it a simple sophism? I’m unable to judge based on the explanation by Wikipedia.

I should have asked this to the answerer, but I venture to put it as a question as this is different subject from my previous one.

  • @mplungian. As I mentioned in the above question, I’ve read through Wikipedia’s explanation of this phrase, but I can’t tell whether it is used to describe 'endlessness' or alias of circular logic from Wikipedia’s lengthy statement. Commented Sep 25, 2013 at 10:06
  • Still another example : "When you see a watch, you know it has been made by a watchmaker ; when you see the world, you have to believe in the existence of a Creator". But Who on earth - if I may speak so - created the Creator ? Commented Sep 25, 2013 at 13:04
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    "Turtles all the way down" is the punchline of a joke. It may have been adopted by philosophers, but that doesn't mean that it necessarily has a single meaning. I think the answer to your question is "all of the above".
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Sep 25, 2013 at 15:58
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    By the way, you peel onions and peal bells. Commented Sep 26, 2013 at 2:34
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    Sorry, I just meant to correct the spelling of peel. The question uses peal instead, which is the sound a bell makes (a homophone error). Commented Sep 26, 2013 at 23:28

5 Answers 5


"Turtles all the way down" emphasises the idea of endless continuation, and tends to be used when someone's argument is sort of circular and can't explain itself. So with the turtle on whose back the world sits, which sits on a turtle, which sits on a turtle, etc., we can't explain where the turtles come from, or why they're there, but they must be there otherwise what would our turtle be stood on?

Another example is an old idea of how the mind works: inside a human is a homunculus that understands how the worlds works and how to respond. That's how the mind works. This obviously raises the question: how does the homunculus know? Well, it has a homunculus of its own, and so on. You could say "it's homunculuses all the way in".

  • 3nneh. I understood that ‘Turtles all the way down” refers to endlessness. But my primary question is as I wrote in my question, whether it is used as a synonym of sophism or circular rhetoric,forgetting about endless repetition / continuation. Commented Sep 26, 2013 at 0:16
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    Please, 'homunculi'.
    – Mitch
    Commented Jun 27, 2018 at 12:01
  • Homunculuses would be acceptable as a plural for homunculus, just as hippopotamuses is an acceptable plural of hippopotamus. Homunculi and hippopotami are also acceptable plurals, but rather on the pedantic side. Hippopotamus is a much more common word in English than homunculus is.
    – tautophile
    Commented Jun 27, 2018 at 17:52
  • Homuncule is an acceptable spelling, so I didn't even need to edit 😁 Commented Jun 27, 2018 at 18:40

As a native English speaker, I know this phrase to mean "reductio ad infinitum". The turtle in the expression refers to the animal bearing the world-sky-universe in many cosmological myths. It's the child's objection to many origin-explanations.

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    +1 that's just what my question was: how is it understood by natives.
    – Wolf
    Commented Jun 4, 2014 at 13:19

In layman's terms, what [Kurt] Gödel did was show conclusively that humans do not live in a universe in which they can solve all problems and learn everything. It can never be done because the universe is infinite and human minds are not. In a way, Gödel's proof is a truth about systems of thought, not about the universe; it is about maps, and not about the territory they represent. What Gödel set out to prove is that the actual territory will always transcend the map.

In even simpler terms, as Zebrowski puts it, Gödel's proof can be explained this way: an elderly woman attends a meeting of philosophers concerned with the nature of the universe and tells them that the world rests on the back of a turtle. The chairman asks her to explain what this turtle stands on; she snaps back that it stands on the back of yet another turtle. "And what does that turtle stand on?" demands the chairman. The elderly woman shakes her finger and replies, "You can't fool me, sonny it's turtles all the way down!"

Read more: http://www.answers.com/topic/kurt-g-del#ixzz2fvrm7PD1


If the word "Turtles" be replaced by the word "Ideas", then misinterpretations dissolve.

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    Please support your answer with sources. That makes your answer stronger, and more likely to be viewed as correct. Otherwise, even if it's correct, it's likely to be viewed as only opinion. Also, no personal websites here. The site tour and the help center will give you guidance on how to use this site. Commented Dec 30, 2014 at 18:48
  • "then misinterpretations dissolve" -- Except this one?
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Dec 30, 2014 at 18:51

As I understand it (and, no, I'm not going to offer a reference for this), the allusion is to one (or perhaps several) of the many explanations for how the "world" (as we know it, or, more correctly, knew it centuries ago) is "supported". The (supposed) argument was that the known world was riding on the back of a turtle, presumably adrift in the sea.

So, when the sage offering this bit of wisdom would be asked what supports that turtle, the answer would be of course an even larger turtle, and that on another, and so forth.

This is the sort of patently absurd argument which was popular prior to society accepting that the world is round and (apparently) floating in space. (And, contrary to myth, it was accepted that the earth is round well before Columbus.) This is also a proxy for the many arguments made, after the spherical nature of Earth was accepted, that Earth is the center of the universe, and, by extension, a proxy for many other anti-science "theories".

(And the fact that it happens to mesh nicely with "Yertle the Turtle" doesn't hurt either.)

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