1. Religion & Spirituality
Send to a Friend via Email

Turtles All The Way Down - Tao As First Cause?


Would it be fair to consider the Tao of Taoism to be more-or-less the equivalent of the Aristotelian “unmoved mover” -- the “first cause” of all motion in the universe? Let’s explore ....


Most two-year-olds, as they’re first learning how to speak, become fascinated with the question “why?” -- which they quickly discover can be applied not only to their initial inquiry, but also -- ad infinitum -- to any subsequent answers:

Q1: Why do flowers bloom?
A1: Because the sun shines on them.

Q2: Why does the sun shine?
A2: Because of the chemical reactions in its fiery core.

Q3: Why are those reactions happening? ... etc.

And this pretty much characterizes what western philosophers refer to as the “infinite regress” problem in cosmology, and the so-called “unmoved mover” (or we could say “unchanged changer”) paradox. Can we find a “first cause” or “primary cause” of all motion (all “creation”) in the universe? -- a cause which itself is not the effect of a previous cause, and itself remains untouched by or impervious to the changes that it initiates?

It’s an age-old question, of course, which ultimately boils down to: “who or what is responsible, ultimately, for this mess or miracle I call ‘my self’ and ‘my world’?” And because it’s the question that everyone is asking, each of the major religions of the world offers its own answer, in the form of “creation stories.”

[Now the short answer, from a nondual perspective, is “You are!” .... but that’s getting ahead of the game ....]

Turtles All The Way Down

There’s a great story -- relayed by Stephen Hawking in A Brief History Of Time -- which, in illustrating a humorous collision between the cosmologies of western science and other (Hindu perhaps, or Native American) religious systems, makes reference to the infinite regress issue:

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!"

A Groundless “Ground Of Being” -- Is This A Problem?

A really effective way of avoiding a solution is to habitually perceive and refer to the solution as an aspect of the problem .... so for instance, in the case at hand:

The assumption being made here -- by western cosmologists just as much as by the “turtles all the way down” lady -- is that if we trace things back and back and back, that ultimately we will, and we must, find some kind of clearly identifiable and solid “first cause.” Our “ground of being,” in other words, must live up to its name as a solid “ground.”

What we find, however, is that for nondual spiritual traditions such as Taoism, Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta, having “nowhere to land” is not typically conceived of as a problem! Quite the opposite, in fact: we learn and come to experience directly (once having understood the true “problem” to be our habitual solidifying of that what is not, in reality, solid) that the “ground” of groundlessness is the only true stability/security -- since it represents an alignment with Reality, with how things truly are.

Continued On Page Two


  1. About.com
  2. Religion & Spirituality
  3. Taoism
  4. Forms of Taoist Practice
  5. Taoist Retreat Experiences
  6. Turtles All The Way Down - Tao As First Cause?

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.