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Its “objects” All the Way Down

Turtle Oriented Philosophy (TOP)

Harman has a brief note voicing his complaint that people take the “Its turtles all the way down” as some kind of knock-down argument presumably against his own claims about objects:

Why is the phrase “turtles all the way down” always taken as a game-ending slam dunk, even when the alternative adopted is “the final turtle at the bottom of the world”?

If you don’t want an infinite regress of entities, the choices are:

(a) a finite regress to some ultimate constituent of the cosmos

(b) no regress at all, with everything remaining on the surface of human access and nothing hiding beneath

Neither is a very good choice.

The way that he sets up his dichotomy is perhaps somewhat revealing for the position he holds. There is something called an “entity” (presumably an “object”) taken from Medieval philosophy, the combination of which makes up the constituency of the universe. What has to be explained is the causal regress of these “entities”. When we take this “entity” notion and translate it to “turtles” we begin to see something of the problem. The way we think of “objects” as objects (with boundaries, insides and outsides, etc) is a product of our visual, everyday sense of the world, just as an American Indian might feel that the whole world rests on the back of a turtle (something he is very familiar with).

So, when we take up Harman’s cruel alternative “a”: (a) a finite regress to some ultimate constituent of the cosmos, the reason why this is a “good” choice is that the so called “ultimate constituent of the universe” isn’t best seen as an “entity” (or an object, or a turtle). It is of a nature that is not like the kinds of things our visual cortex gives to us. It is probably best seen as a kind of process, one would have to say.

The problem with Harman’s approach is that all he can see is turtles, this kind of turtle and that kind of turtle, and really for this reason his science of causation, how turtles relate to turtles is quite devoid of real explanations for the real world. When looking for causal explanations or the relationship between things he can only ask the question: But what kind of turtle is it?, not a very helpful question at times. Though one has to admit that imagining the world full of turtles and nothing else is a wonderful and entertaining thing to do.

What Alice Has to Say

There is a curious, melancholy character in Alice in Wonderland, the “Mock Turtle“, whose name and identity is made up of the very recursive nature of a faux turtle soup:

Then the Queen left off, quite out of breath, and said to Alice, “Have you seen the Mock Turtle yet?”

“No,” said Alice. “I don’t even know what a Mock Turtle is.”

“It’s the thing Mock Turtle Soup is made from,” said the Queen.

(Alice in Wonderland, chapter 9)

What we want to say is that like the mock turtle there is something of a confusion over what we “are” and the process and naming of soupmaking.

[Shaviro gives good context to the discussion here]