Turtles All The Way Down: Sturgill Simpson, John Green, & the Infinite Regress

Questioning shouldn't stop as we age. An inquisitive mind is a growing mind and a curious mind is a questioning one. 

Knowledge is a foundation to build a life upon. We should work to gain it. When we attain it we should hold on to it.

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In an attempt to learn a child asks, "Why?" And is answered. The child asks "Why?" again. And is answered. Once more he asks, "Why?" And he is answered, "Because."

The final answer is absolute because at some point all things must end. A floor or a baseline or a footing must be found in order for a foundation of knowledge to be settled upon. 

Do we ever grow out of this questioning? Are we still in need of an absolute answer? (“Mutalik”)

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"'Turtles all the way down' is an expression of the infinite regress problem." 

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Many sources point to 20th-century pshycologist William James as the source of "Turtles All The Way Down." 

It's been said that, "After a lecture on cosmology and the structure of the solar system, William James was accosted by a little old lady."


"'Your theory that the sun is the centre of the solar system, 

and the earth is a ball which rotates around it has a very convincing ring to it, Mr. James, but it's wrong. I've got a better theory,' said the little old lady."

"'And what is that, madam?' Inquired James politely."


"'That we live on a crust of earth which is on the back of a giant turtle.'"

"Not wishing to demolish this absurd little theory by bringing to bear the masses of scientific evidence he had at his command, James decided to gently dissuade his opponent by making her see some of the inadequacies of her position."


"'If your theory is correct, madam,' he asked, 'what does this turtle stand on?'"

"'You're a very clever man, Mr. James, and that's a very good question,' replied the little old lady, 'but I have an answer to it. And it is this: The first turtle stands on the back of a second, far larger, turtle, who stands directly under him.'"

"'But what does this second turtle stand on?' persisted James patiently."


 "The little old lady cried. 'It's no use, Mr. James – it's turtles all the way down.'"

("Turtles all the way down")


Grammy Award-winning country music singer songwriter Sturgill Simpson debuted

his first album High Top Mountain in 2013, but it was his second album Metamodern Sounds in Country Country music and it's Grammy nomination that gained him notice and an audience.


The 1st track of the album is the hit song Turtles All The Way Down.


It was in a motel shower during his first tour that Sturgill Simpson had the idea for his song 'Turtles All The Way Down'. 

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“'I almost killed myself getting out of the shower to write it down.'"

"'...I had to literally like jump out of the shower and I slipped. And I wrote it down and I remember coming out. I’ll never forget this. I came out of the hotel in the parking lot and all the guys were out there and I was like, ‘I wrote this song, it’s pretty cool.’ And I started singing it to them, and they all looked at me like I was bat shit crazy.'” ("Sturgill Simpson Came Up With 'Turtles All The Way Down' in a Motel Shower")

Sturgill's 'Turtles All the Way Down' inhabits a world outside of our own. His lyrics witness to the importance of experience and what we can draw from it.

"I've seen Jesus play with flames in a lake of fire that I was standing in. Met the devil in Seattle and spent 9 months inside the lion's den. Met Buddha yet another time...But I swear that God is there every time I glare in the eyes of my best friend.

There's a gateway in our mind that leads somewhere out there beyond this plane. Where reptile aliens made of light cut you open and pull out all your pain.Tell me how you make illegal something that we all make in our brain. Some say you might go crazy but then again it might make you go sane.

Every time I take a look inside inside that old and fabled book
I'm blinded and reminded of the pain caused by some old man in the sky. Marijuana, LSD, Psilocybin, and DMT. They all changed the way I see. But love's the only thing that ever saved my life.

So don't waste your mind on nursery rhymes. Or fairy tales of blood and wine. It's turtles all the way down the line. So to each their own til' we go home. To other realms our souls must roam. To and through the myth that we all call space and time.”


Sturgill alludes to known spiritual beings, 'Jesus, Buddha, & the Old Man in the sky'; he also mentions psychedelics specifically DMT.

DMT is a molecule which occurs in many plants and animals. It can be consumed as a powerful psychedelic drug and has historically been prepared by various cultures for ritual and healing purposes. Rick Strassman labeled it "the spirit molecule".

DMT has a short duration of action and intense effects as well as a rapid onset. For that reason, DMT was known as the "businessman's trip" during the 1960s in the United States, as a user could access the full depth of a psychedelic experience in considerably less time than with other substances such as LSD or magic mushrooms. DMT can produce vivid mystical experiences involving euphoria and dynamic hallucinations of geometric forms, higher intelligences, extraterrestrials, elves and God.



Known as the spirit molecule, DMT is the reason we dream and can be the source of having near death experience. DMT is produced in the pineal gland in our brains during sleep. (Expansion of Consciousness...)

MD Rick Strassman deemed DMT 'the spirit molecule' because of its reported spiritual effects. "The mystical qualities of DMT and the incredible visions it induces have inspired psychedelic researchers to scientifically measure spirituality as a part of their clinical trial outcomes." (Tomoski)

"I think you have to find what your interpretation of real is because I think there are a lot of different aspects of what is real. DMT can give you something inside you that can really open up the layers of your ego. And pulling back those layers of the ego, you start to get a sense of that perfect awareness of your being, and to me that is more real than real if you will. More real than this hallucination that we’re living in on a daily basis."(Phillips)


Sturgill Simpson's 'Turtles All the Way Down' says that our experience is our foundation.

It’s an awareness that’s built through experience of who we truly are — bullshit aside. We lie to ourselves more than any other person and it’s only when we embrace the vulnerability of surrendering ourselves to the experience of letting go do we begin to become remade.
— Dan Parks

"So don’t waste your mind — It’s turtles all the way down the line."


John Green

The author John Green won the 2006 Printz Award for his debut novel Looking for Alaska. 

His best known for his sixth novel, The Fault in Our Stars debuted at number one on The New York Times Best Seller list and it's 2014 film adaptation opened at number one at the box office. This prompted Green to be included in Time magazine's list of The 100 Most Influential People in the World. ("John Green (author)”)


Turtles All the Way Down is the first novel from YA fan-favorite John Green since the release of his 2012 phenomenon The Fault in Our Stars

"Turtles All the Way Down tells the story of Aza Holmes, a 16-year-old girl living in Indianapolis who attempts to solve the mystery of a fugitive billionaire while grappling with severe anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder." ("Turtles All the Way Down (novel)")


Recently John Green was questioned about his use of the Turtles trope.



"What inspired you to use the turtles all the way down story — an anecdote that illustrates the problem with infinite regression — as a metaphor for Aza’s struggle?"

"I love that story. When I first heard it I was a college student. I thought that it was about how stupid superstition is and how science is right and everyone else is wrong." John Green said.

"And now I realize — or I think now — that that’s not the point of the story at all. The point of the story is that the scientist is right but the old woman saying that the world rests on a turtles all the way down situation, she’s also right. They’re both right because obviously the world is a sphere — I’m not like a flat-Earther or anything —but the world is also the stories we tell about it."

The stories we tell matter. They shape the actual world and they shape our actual lives.
— John Green

"I do have some say in framing my own experience... I may go for long periods of time where I don’t have control over my thoughts and that is scary and destabilizing for my sense of self, I do have some say in the story of my life." ("John Green on Mental Illness and Writing a Book That Mirrors His Own Life")


Through Green we see that how we describe our world is  or foundation.


Infinite Regression is defined as a sequence of reasoning or justification that can never come to an end.

Is it possible to regress infinitely? Can the child keep asking why or is there a final answer? Does the world have a foundation or is it turtles all the way down?
— Dan Parks

Check out this music video by Quantic explaining the idea of an infinite regression:

Quantic's Infinite Regression lyrics (edited for brevity):

"Here [a] painting of a landscape, but the artist who painted the picture is missing. It is I myself who was a part of the landscape I painted. He mentally takes a step backward or 'regresses' and paints a picture of the artist painting a picture of the landscape.

And still something is missing.


And that
Something is still his real self
Painting the second picture. So he
'regresses' further and paints a third...


Until there is a picture of the artist painting a picture of the artist painting a picture of the artist painting a picture of the artist painting the landscape.

So infinite regression is the moment when our artist having regressed to the point of
Infinity himself becomes a part of the picture he has painted. 


He is both the Observer and the observed.

In that peculiar condition, what would he be observing if he were observing time?

He would perceive that time is like
 freeway with an infinite number of
'lanes' all leading from the past into the future. But not into the same future. It follows that a driver by changing lanes can change his future.

I think that time can [only] fully be understood by an observer with the Godlike gift of infinite

Do you believe that?

Absolutely! I think it is the only explanation.”

So what came first? The chicken or the egg — is it turtles all the way down or is a rooster to be found?


The argument from first cause states that the universe must have a cause, and that this cause is God.

First cause.

"Everything that comes into being must have a cause."

First cause argues the difference between begetting and creating. Human’s make humans who make humans who make humans. Who made humans? Were Adam and Eve created?
— Dan Parks

"This is determined from both observation and the logic behind causality. Everything that is observed in the universe has some form of cause behind it and this forms the basis of conservation of momentum and energy."

"Within causality there is a unifying logic between an effect (something caused) and an affect (cause). An affectless effect and an effectless affect are logically nonsensical propositions."

First cause states that an infinite regress of causes is impossible and that there has to be a beginning.


'Disallowing an infinite regress of causes is an assertion required for the argument to work."

"An infinite regress of temporal causes may be allowable, [but] an infinite regress of non-temporal causes may not." 

"A sequence of events in time may be able to go infinitely forward through the future and back through the past, but time itself must have some other form of cause."

There must be a first cause.

"Following from disallowing an infinite regress of causes, there must be a point where the first cause appears. This is the concept first developed by Aristotle and expanded upon by Aquinas as the 'unmoved mover' or the 'uncaused causer'."

This first cause is God.

("Argument from first cause.")


Turtles all the way down—Sturgill Simpson—John Green and the Infinite Regress. 

The little old lady from the earlier story stated with what was close to a stumble in her voice, "It's no use. It's turtles all the way down." It wasn't as much of an admission of knowing, but a releasing of her will to the unknown. Her foundation was a frustration in surrender.

Sturgill Simpson's song surmises that 'Turtles All The Way Down' is a summation of our experiences.

John Green's book 'Turtles All The Way Down' epitomizes that the trope when he says, "the stories we tell matter. They shape the actual world and they shape our actual lives."

Infinite Regression is defined as a sequence of reasoning or justification that can never come to an end. 

If an infinite regress is ultimately impossible, as everything that we experience through our five senses has had a beginning. Then a first cause must be found. It has to be there.


‘Turtles all the way down’ ultimately represents a surrender to a first cause or an acknowledgement of not knowing. 

 “The metaphor is used as an example of the problem of infinite regress in epistemology to show that there is a necessary foundation to knowledge.” (“Turtles all the way down”)

If every effect has a cause and every egg has a chicken then all knowledge has a foundation.

So, what’s that bottom turtle standing on?

     - Dan


Works Cited

"Expansion of Consciousness. DMT: The Spirit Molecule." Knowledge of today. 25 Feb. 2012. Web. 12 Dec. 2017.

McCluskey, Megan. "John Green on Mental Illness and Writing a Book That Mirrors His Own Life". Time. 12 Oct. 2017. Web. 10 Dec. 2017.

Mutalik, Pradeep. "Numberplay: Turtles All The Way Down." https://wordplay.blogs.nytimes.com. 10 Oct. 2011. Web. 10 Dec. 2017.

Phillips, Jonathan Talat. "DMT Is Everywhere: A Conversation With ‘Spirit Molecule’ Director Mitch Schultz." Huffingtonpost. 6 Dec. 2012. Web. 12 Dec. 2017.

Rationalwiki contributors. "Argument from first cause." Rationalwiki. 9 Nov. 2017. Web. 11 Dec. 2017.

"Sturgill Simpson Came Up With 'Turtles All The Way Down' in a Motel Shower". http://www.savingcountrymusic.com. 24 June 2016. Web. 10 Dec. 2017.

Tomoski, Miroslav. "Why we’ve all got the “Spirit Molecule” DMT in our brains." Herb. 3 Dec. 2017. Web. 12 Dec. 2017.

Wikipedia contributors. "N,N-Dimethyltryptamine." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 8 Dec. 2017. Web. 11 Dec. 2017.

Wikipedia contributors. "John Green (author)." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 8 Dec. 2017. Web. 11 Dec. 2017.

Wikipedia contributors. "Sturgill Simpson." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 8 Dec. 2017. Web. 10 Dec. 2017.

Wikipedia contributors. "Turtles all the way down." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 24 Nov. 2017. Web. 10 Dec. 2017.

Wikipedia contributors. "Turtles All the Way Down (novel)." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 9 Dec. 2017. Web. 11 Dec. 2017.