Turtles All the Way Down: The Quest for Foundational Truth in Leadership

As a child, I was captivated by the mysteries of the universe, a fascination deepened by Carl Sagan's iconic series, Cosmos. Even then, I struggled with the concept of everything originating from nothing—a single molecule sparking the vast expanse of the universe, leading to the Big Bang, and culminating in the complex world we see today. After all, science is about replicatable processes and can only speculate on origins. This early pondering introduced me to the concept of "Turtles all the way down." 

This phrase comes from a mythical explanation of the world resting on a flat disc supported by a giant turtle, which stands on another turtle, and so on, infinitely. It humorously illustrates the problem of infinite regress—a situation where every answer or explanation leads to another question with no definitive end.

Recently, this concept re-emerged for me while attending an event by Dr. Jordan Peterson, a Canadian psychologist world-renowned for his profound cultural critique of a myriad of modern-day issues. I am a massive fan of his and consider him one of the finest first-rate minds of our time. His lecture, "We Who Wrestle With God," explored themes of loneliness, meaninglessness, purpose, and the necessity of sacrifice, using biblical texts to unravel modern existential crises. He knows the Bible better than many scriptural scholars out there. 

Dr. Peterson's comments were brilliant, yet despite his deep understanding, his view of the Bible—as potentially a non-divine text—resonated with my earlier contemplations about origins and truths. Suppose the Bible was merely another book written by 40 different human beings over the course of 1500 years from various walks of life without any divine guidance. How could it serve as a foundation for understanding our purpose and meaning in life? Wouldn't this be another case of turtles all the way down?

This reflection brings us to a critical point for us as leaders: the relentless pursuit of truth. Adopting a mindset that seeks foundational truths is crucial rather than getting caught in an endless loop of relativism and unfounded assumptions. Here's my approach to avoiding the intellectual and ethical "turtles all the way down":

  1. Read extensively: Engage with a broad spectrum of thoughts and disciplines.
  2. Speak honestly: Express truths as you understand them, and be open to correction.
  3. Vet your sources: Accept nothing at face value; always dig deeper.
  4. Question the science: Maintain a healthy skepticism about scientific 'consensus,' which may be driven by factors other than pure inquiry.
  5. Follow the money: Understand the economic influences behind prevailing narratives.
  6. Acknowledge the distinction between opinions and facts: While we may have differences in opinions, we cannot have differences in facts.
  7. Seek God: In a world where existential questions cascade infinitely, grounding in spiritual inquiry can provide a definitive bedrock.

As leaders, our challenge is to build on solid ground. We must be intellectually honest and spiritually open, constantly honing and strengthening our foundations. In leadership, as in life, without a firm foundation—whether in principles, ethics, or spiritual belief—it truly is turtles all the way down.


Dr. jordan petersonMeaningMoral relativismPurposeTruthTurtles all the way down

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