EMBRACING THE GROUNDLESSNESS OF THINGS 183
ground of being then, as Schaffer puts it, ‘being would be infinitely deferred, never achieved’.1
The argument taps into a certain intuition.2 There is an old story about Bertrand Russell giving a public lecture on Ancient cosmology in the early years of the twentieth century. He said that the Ancients wondered why the Earth did not fall down through space. It must rest on something.What? An elephant. After a while it occurred to them to wonder why the elephant did not fall down. It must rest on something.What? A turtle. After a while it occurred to them to wonder why the turtle did not fall down. At this point they decided . . . to change the subject, as did Russell in the lecture. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady, waving an umbrella, rushed up to Russell. ‘Mr Russell, Mr Russell,’ she said, ‘I’ve got it. I’ve got it. It’s turtles, turtles, all the way down.’
We find the story amusing because, if one turtle will not do the job, a whole infinite descent of turtles will not do the job. They would all fall down together. This is the intuition.
As we will see, however, the regress generated by emptiness is not a vicious one. When it comes to objects and their quiddities, it really is turtles all the way down. We will start by looking at the history of the regress argument. We will then see that it is not only question-begging, but unsound.
In Western philosophy, a major location for arguments of this kind is where the reality of a whole is taken to depend on the reality of its parts. It occurs in this way in Kant, for example. In the Second Antinomy of the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant gives an argument that reality cannot be infinitely divisible, which goes as follows (A434=B462):3
Let us assume that composite substances are not made up of simple parts. If all composition then be removed in thought, no composite part, and (since we admit no simple parts) also no simple parts, that is to say,nothing at all, will remain, and accordingly, no substance will be given.
1 Schaffer (2010a), 2.4. Bird (2007) defends the view that all properties are dispositional against a version of exactly this sort of argument. Interestingly, he also appeals to the same sort of graph-theoretic considerations to which I appeal in the last chapter and this.
2 Cameron (2008) discusses the intuition, concluding that he can find no real grounds for it, but says that we should accept it anyway because it is an intuition. As we will see below, the intuition is flawed.
3 Translation taken from Kemp Smith (1933). A similar argument is used by Aristotle, On Generation and Corruption, 316a15–34.