“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!”
― Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time
About twenty years ago, I first encountered the “turtles all the way down story” in the introduction of Hawking’s seminal tome explaining frontier physics and astronomy to regular people. He uses it to make a point about the fragile core of modern science’s methods of explaining the observable world. Ultimately, when we dig deeply into so-called scientific fact, we wind up having to accept some unverifiable assumption underlying even the most complex systems. This problem, known as infinite regress[i], has been vexing those who try to explain the reasons why for at least three millennia of human thought.
The question of how we even know what we know gets even more interesting when we begin to speculate about who or what is doing the knowing, and how the process of knowing itself really works. I mean, how do you know you can trust the information you get from your senses? How do you know you can trust the way your brain interprets that information? This creates a problem of whether or not there is really an objective reality we can verify through observation at all. Who is doing the observing? Rene Descartes famously tried to end this cycle by asserting, “I think, therefore I am.” But that begs the question, what is “I”? Who or what is knowing that? A turtle maybe? Is it just turtles knowing turtles, all the way down?
Enigmas like this push me to a mindset of intellectual relativism that allows me to accept basically whatever reality I want. With nothing certain, including my own existence, I feel free to go ahead and hang out doing stuff like driving tractors, eating barbeque, drinking whiskey, and listening to Country music, which I expect to keep me thinking about food, booze, and women only. At least I thought so, until Sturgill Simpson showed up last year with his genre-altering record Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. The first song on the album sounds like a long-lost track Timothy Leary recorded with The Strangers. It’s called, of course, “Turtles All the Way Down”:
How did a good old boy from the Cumberland Mountains in Kentucky, blessed with a rich, gritty baritone, and handy with a pick, wind up writing lyrics like this? In an interview with Ann Powers of NPR last summer, Simpson described himself as something of a reclusive introvert, who spends his time reading about drug-induced ecstatic experiences and mystic interpretations of theoretical physics:
“I just reached a point where the thought of writing and singing any more songs about heartache and drinking made me feel incredibly bored with music. It’s just not a headspace I occupy much these days. Nighttime reading about theology, cosmology, and breakthroughs in modern physics and their relationship to a few personal experiences I’ve had led to most of the songs on the album…
“I expected to be labeled the ‘acid country guy,’ but it’s not something I dwell on. I would urge anyone that gets hung up on the song being about drugs to give another listen … To me “Turtles” is about giving your heart to love and treating everyone with compassion and respect no matter what you do or don’t believe. The cosmic turtle is from a much quoted story found in publications throughout modern physics and philosophy that now essentially serves as a comedic picture or expression of a much grander idea.”
He went on to tell NPR a little more about his reading habits, saying, “Dr. Rick Strassman’s book The Spirit Molecule was extremely inspirational, as were a few recent highly visionary indie films and a lot of Terrence McKenna’s audio lectures.” A couple months later, in an interview with Chris Richards of the Washington Post, he references the concept of an “Omega Point,” part of the theories of French paleontologist and priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. So who are these guys? And what is Sturgill Simpson on?
Dr. Strassman is a psychopharmacology researcher famous and controversial for his examination of the effects of N,N–Dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, on subjects who inject it under his team’s supervision and then report their experiences. In his book The Spirit Molecule, he has concluded that DMT can be naturally synthesized by human pineal glands,[ii] and that it is responsible for spiritual visions and near-death experiences (hence Simpson’s lyric “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”). Strassman draws parallels between ancient Judaic and Vedic explanations of fulcrums of spiritual energy within the human body and the biology of the pineal gland.[iii] Here is Strassman describing the experiences of some of his research subjects on DMT:
Terrence McKenna was another zealous advocate of the spiritual nature of hallucinations through naturally-occurring psychedelics like DMT or Ayahuasca. McKenna proposed that humans are able to access alternate dimensions and the spiritual beings who occupy them by taking psychedelics (referenced by Simpson at the end of the song, “To other realms our souls must roam/To and through the myth that we all call space and time”). Some of his more awesomely extravagant theories include that humans evolved from other apes when our ancestors started taking DMT and mushrooms, and that he had been able to calculate the exact date of the end of time.[iv] He also brings the idea that shrooms are probes left by extraterrestrials on Earth (“There’s a gateway in our minds/That leads somewhere out there, far beyond this plane/Where reptile aliens made of light/Cut you open and pull out all your pain”).[v] Here is a short documentary (The Last Word) featuring interviews with McKenna, before his death from brain cancer in 2000:
McKenna frequently references the writing of de Chardin, who may have been one of the most fascinating Renaissance men of the 20th century. Trained as a geologist, he participated in the excavation of the remains of Peking Man, lived in China for two decades, became ordained as a priest and published two books of philosophical and theological thought. He was reprimanded by the church for suggesting that the bible should be interpreted allegorically and that the doctrine of original sin was essentially flawed. He supported and expanded the idea of a noosphere, or realm of collective human consciousness, and believed that humans and the universe itself are spiritually evolving toward an end goal, which he referred to as the “Omega Point.” Like Simpson, de Chardin sees love as the agent of this universal evolution, the driver of human action, and the essence that binds our individual consciousnesses together.
Drug-induced visions of alternate realities and bizarrely conceptual pseudo-scientific thought are providing the imagery and creative spark that Sturgill Simpson is using to take Country music places it has been waiting to go for a very long time. But his final lyrical conclusions retain some of the wholesome family values that are so stereotypical in his genre. Like so many Country crooners before him, he finds himself staring into his son’s eyes and finding his purpose there:
“But I swear that God is there
Every time I glare in the eyes of my best friend
Says my son, “It’s all been done
And someday you’re gonna wake up old and gray
So go and try to have some fun
Showing warmth to everyone
You meet and greet and cheat along the way”
Or as he said to Richards during their interview:
“The overall theme is probably love, to be cheesy about it,” Simpson says. “You spend all this time reading or thinking or praying or searching or exploring. Maybe there’s an Omega Point of love. And if not, screw it. Just be nice to people.”
Sturgill Simpson is a very clever young man, very clever. But screw it. He’s just going to be nice to people, all the way down.
[i] Essentially, you can undermine any premise by simply continuously asking “how do you know that”? Eventually you will wind up at a point where there is no rational answer, no proof. From that vantage, you just have to assume that the turtles of proof do indeed go all the way down.
[ii] A premise that at this point has not been verified with evidence.
[iv] It was supposed to be in May of 2012. He was into that whole Mayan calendar thing.
[v] I’ve encountered ideas of super-intelligent reptilian beings who secretly influence humans at various locations on the outskirts of the New Age world. My favorite story is probably that of the “Reptiloids of the Inner Earth.” You can learn more at sites like this and this. I’m particularly psyched to learn that the reptile women have breasts.