A Bit Of Irony From the Movie The Matrix

Originally posted on Philosophical Phragments:
This is one of those subtle ironies that you normally miss in movies because in many cases video images like movies don’t necessarily spark reflection and thoughtfulness (conversation for another post). If you’re like me…


Simulacra and Simulation (FrenchSimulacres et Simulation) is a 1981 philosophical treatise by Jean Baudrillard seeking to interrogate the relationship among reality, symbols, and society.

Simulacra are copies that depict things that either had no reality to begin with, or that no longer have an original.[1] Simulation is the imitation of the operation of a real-world process or system over time.[2]

…The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth—it is the truth which conceals that there is none. The simulacrum is true.[3]

Simulacra and Simulation is most known for its discussion of symbols, signs, and how they relate to contemporaneity (simultaneous existences). Baudrillard claims that our current society has replaced all reality and meaning with symbols and signs, and that human experience is of a simulation of reality. Moreover, these simulacra are not merely mediations of reality, nor even deceptive mediations of reality; they are not based in a reality nor do they hide a reality, they simply hide that anything like reality is relevant to our current understanding of our lives. The simulacra that Baudrillard refers to are the significations and symbolism of culture and media thatconstruct perceived reality, the acquired understanding by which our lives and shared existence is and are rendered legible; Baudrillard believed that society has become so saturated with these simulacra and our lives so saturated with the constructs of society that all meaning was being rendered meaningless by being infinitely mutable. Baudrillard called this phenomenon the “precession of simulacra”.

“Simulacra and Simulation” breaks the sign-order into 4 stages:

  1. The first stage is a faithful image/copy, where we believe, and it may even be correct, that a sign is a “reflection of a profound reality” (pg 6), this is a good appearance, in what Baudrillard called “the sacramental order”.
  2. The second stage is perversion of reality, this is where we come to believe the sign to be an unfaithful copy, which “masks and denatures” reality as an “evil appearance—it is of the order of maleficence”. Here, signs and images do not faithfully reveal reality to us, but can hint at the existence of an obscure reality which the sign itself is incapable of encapsulating.
  3. The third stage masks the absence of a profound reality, where the simulacrum pretends to be a faithful copy, but it is a copy with no original. Signs and images claim to represent something real, but no representation is taking place and arbitrary images are merely suggested as things which they have no relationship to. Baudrillard calls this the “order of sorcery”, a regime of semantic algebra where all human meaning is conjured artificially to appear as a reference to the (increasingly) hermetic truth.
  4. The fourth stage is pure simulation, in which the simulacrum has no relationship to any reality whatsoever. Here, signs merely reflect other signs and any claim to reality on the part of images or signs is only of the order of other such claims. This is a regime of total equivalency, where cultural products need no longer even pretend to be real in a naïve sense, because the experiences of consumers’ lives are so predominantly artificial that even claims to reality are expected to be phrased in artificial, “hyperreal” terms. Any naïve pretension to reality as such is perceived as bereft of critical self-awareness, and thus as oversentimental.

Simulacra and Simulation identifies three types of simulacra and identifies each with a historical period:

  1. First order, associated with the premodern period, where representation is clearly an artificial placemarker for the real item. The uniqueness of objects and situations marks them as irreproducibly real and signification obviously gropes towards this reality.
  2. Second order, associated with the modernity of the Industrial Revolution, where distinctions between representation and reality break down due to the proliferation of mass-reproducible copies of items, turning them into commodities. The commodity’s ability to imitate reality threatens to replace the authority of the original version, because the copy is just as “real” as its prototype.
  3. Third order, associated with the postmodernity of Late Capitalism, where the simulacrum precedes the original and the distinction between reality and representation vanishes. There is only the simulacrum, and originality becomes a totally meaningless concept.[4]

Baudrillard theorizes that the lack of distinctions between reality and simulacra originates in several phenomena:[5]

  1. Contemporary media including televisionfilmprint, and the Internet, which are responsible for blurring the line between products that are needed (in order to live a life) and products for which a need is created by commercial images.
  2. Exchange value, in which the value of goods is based on money (literally denominated fiat currency) rather than usefulness, and moreover usefulness comes to be quantified and defined in monetary terms in order to assist exchange.
  3. Multinational capitalism, which separates produced goods from the plants, minerals and other original materials and the processes (including the people and their cultural context) used to create them.
  4. Urbanization, which separates humans from the nonhuman world, and re-centres culture around productive throughput systems so large they cause alienation.
  5. Language and ideology, in which language increasingly becomes caught up in the production of power relations between social groups, especially when powerful groups institute themselves at least partly in monetary terms.

A specific analogy that Baudrillard uses is a fable derived from “On Exactitude in Science” by Jorge Luis Borges. In it, a great Empire created a map that was so detailed it was as large as the Empire itself. The actual map was expanded and destroyed as the Empire itself conquered or lost territory. When the Empire crumbled, all that was left was the map. In Baudrillard’s rendition, it is conversely the map that people live in, the simulation of reality where the people of Empire spend their lives ensuring their place in the representation is properly circumscribed and detailed by the map-makers; conversely, it is reality that is crumbling away from disuse.

The transition from signs which dissimulate something to signs which dissimulate that there is nothing, marks the decisive turning point. The first implies a theology of truth and secrecy (to which the notion of ideology still belongs). The second inaugurates an age of simulacra and simulation, in which there is no longer any God to recognize his own, nor any last judgment to separate truth from false, the real from its artificial resurrection, since everything is already dead and risen in advance.[4]

It is important to note that when Baudrillard refers to the “precession of simulacra” in Simulacra and Simulation, he is referring to the way simulacra have come to precede the real in the sense mentioned above, rather than to any succession of historical phases of the image. Referring to “On Exactitude in Science“, he argued that just as for contemporary society the simulated copy had superseded the original object, so, too, the map had come to precede the geographic territory (c.f. Map–territory relation), e.g. the first Gulf War(which Baudrillard later used as an object demonstration): the image of war preceded real war. War comes not when it is made by sovereign against sovereign (not when killing for attritive and strategic neutralisation purposes is authorised; nor even, properly spoken, when shots are fired); rather, war comes when society is generally convinced that it is coming.

Henceforth, it is the map that precedes the territory—precession of simulacra—it is the map that engenders the territory and if we were to revive the fable today, it would be the territory whose shreds are slowly rotting across the map.[4]

Originally posted on Philosophical Phragments:

This is one of those subtle ironies that you normally miss in movies because in many cases video images like movies don’t necessarily spark reflection and thoughtfulness (conversation for another post).

If you’re like me you really enjoyed thinking about the philosophical implications in The Matrix. But one piece of irony that I just can’t let go of is in this scene in particular. Neo has a buyer of some kind of illegal thing at his door. In order to get to his secret stash Neo pulls a book from the shelves. This is where the irony comes in. The book that he pulls from the shelves is none other than Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation. What is so funny is he opens the book and its empty.

Baudrillard-or sometimes referred to as the “pimp of postmodernism”-explains that sign and symbol has has replaced reality and meaning so much so…

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facing what is rather than making up stories about it

Don’t seek happiness. If you seek it, you won’t find it, because seeking is the antithesis of happiness. Happiness is ever elusive, but freedom from unhappiness is attainable now, by facing what is rather than making up stories about it. … Continue reading

  1. Don’t seek happiness. If you seek it, you won’t find it, because seeking is the antithesis of happiness. Happiness is ever elusive, but freedom from unhappiness is attainable now, by facing what is rather than making up stories about it.
  2. The primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation but your thoughts about it. Be aware of the thoughts you are thinking. Separate them from the situation, which is always neutral, which always is as it is. There is the situation or the fact, and here are my thoughts about it. Instead of making up stories, stay with the facts. For example, “I am ruined” is a story. It limits you and prevents you from taking effective action. “I have 50 cents left in my bank account” is a fact. Facing facts is always empowering.
  3. See if you can catch the voice in your head, perhaps in the very moment it complains about something, and recognize it for what it is: the voice of the ego, no more than a thought. Whenever you notice that voice, you will also realize that you are not the voice, but the one who is aware of it. In fact, you are the awareness that is aware of the voice. In the background, there is the awareness. In the foreground, there is the voice, the thinker. In this way you are becoming free of the ego, free of the unobserved mind.
  4. Wherever you look, there is plenty of circumstantial evidence for the reality of time—a rotting apple, your face in the bathroom mirror compared with your face in a photo taken 30 years ago—yet you never find any direct evidence, you never experience time itself. You only ever experience the present moment.
  5. Why do anxiety, stress, or negativity arise? Because you turned away from the present moment. And why did you do that? You thought something else was more important. One small error, one missperception, creates a world of suffering.
  6. People believe themselves to be dependent on what happens for their happiness. They don’t realize that what happens is the most unstable thing in the universe. It changes constantly. They look upon the present moment as either marred by something that has happened and shouldn’t have or as deficient because of something that has not happened but should have. And so they miss the deeper perfection that is inherent in life itself, a perfection that lies beyond what is happening or not happening. Accept the present moment and find the perfection that is untouched by time.
  7. The more shared past there is in a relationship, the more present you need to be; otherwise, you will be forced to relive the past again and again.
  8. Equating the physical body with “I,” the body that is destined to grow old, wither, and die, always leads to suffering. To refrain from identifying with the body doesn’t mean that you no longer care for it. If it is strong, beautiful, or vigorous, you can appreciate those attributes—while they last. You can also improve the body’s condition through nutrition and exercise. If you don’t equate the body with who you are, when beauty fades, vigor diminishes, or the body becomes incapacitated, this will not affect your sense of worth or identity in any way. In fact, as the body begins to weaken, the light of consciousness can shine more easily.
  9. You do not become good by trying to be good, but by finding the goodness that is already within you and allowing that goodness to emerge.
  10. If peace is really what you want, then you will choose peace.
Exerpted from Oneness with All Life by Eckhart Tolle. Published by arrangement with Dutton, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copywright © 2008 by Eckhart Tolle




Deepak Chopra

The Woo of Creation: My evening with Deepak Chopra Michael Shermer On Thursday, March 31, Deepak Chopra and I squared off for a second time in person in a public venue, this time accompanied by the physicist Leonard Mlodinow on … Continue reading

The Woo of Creation: My evening with Deepak Chopra

Michael Shermer

On Thursday, March 31, Deepak Chopra and I squared off for a second time in person in a public venue, this time accompanied by the physicist Leonard Mlodinow on my side and Stuart Hameroff on his side (along with other panelists). The question on the table was this:

“Is there an Ultimate Reality?” and if yes, “Can it be accounted for by science such as mathematics, biology and physics?”

My answers: YES and YES

I explained that I am a Materialist and a Monist. I do not believe that there is a body and a soul, there is just a body. There is no brain and mind, just brain. The mind is just a word we use to describe what the brain does. I said, “you know I’m right” (which got a surprising laugh from the audience) because of the evidence from strokes, tumors, brain damage, senility, dementia, and Alzheimer’s, all of which kill brain cells, and along with the loss of brain comes the loss of mind. I asked Deepak and Stuart where Aunt Millie’s mind goes when her brain slowly disappears from the effects of Alzheimer’s disease.

I noted that consciousness is just a word we use to describe our inner thoughts about the workings of the brain, and that our “soul” is just a pattern of information stored in our genes and our brains. Consciousness is just an emergent property of integrated brain modules and patterned firing of neural networks.

By contrast, I believe that Deepak’s use of the word “consciousness” is very anthropocentric, once again returning humans to a central place in the cosmos as the “observers” who, in quantum mechanics, brings things into existence. If Deepak is right then the moon doesn’t exist unless it is observed, and yet, quoting that great scientist Bill O’Reilly, “times come in, tides go out—never a missed communication—and they would do so whether or not humans, or any other conscious (or unconscious) being existed.

In fact, I said, Deepak’s quantum consciousness is not holistic but reductionistic in the extreme. We don’t need to go down that far. Quantum mechanics is not needed to explain brain functions: the neuron is the individual unit of thought, the “atom” of mind. I then worked in a little joke I wrote earlier in the day:

Quantum mechanics is spooky and weird.
Consciousness is spooky and weird.
So what? Charlie Sheen is spooky and weird, but we don’t need quantum mechanics to explain his behavior. His “tiger blood” theory works just fine.


In Deepak’s worldview, everything is conscious, which means that there is no way to distinguish between consciousness and unconsciousness, which is how I often feel when I listen to Deepak.

Thought Experiment:

  • If humans went extinct instead of Neanderthals, how does that effect the universe?
  • What if the Earth were suddenly demolished by a rogue planet (as in 2012)? Would that mean the end of the universe because observers would disappear?
  • Are whales, dolphins, gorillas and chimps conscious and therefore integral to the universe?
  • What can it possibly mean to say that the universe is conscious? If you will pardon the nerd science pun, that is such a vacuous concept!

Before the debate Deepak asked me to read a paper by himself and Menas Kafatos and Rudolph Tanzi published in the Journal of Cosmology, entitled: “How Consciousness Becomes the Physical Universe.” Deepak asked me to comment on it, which I did in the second half of the debate. I noted that given the prominence of “consciousness” to the central theme of the paper that one might expect it to be defined with semantic precision. Nope. Here is what the authors write:

“We will sidestep any precise definition of consciousness, limiting ourselves for now to willful actions on the part of the observer.”

What can it possibly mean for the universe to be conscious in the sense of having willful actions? The universe behaves with willful action? The universe is an observer? As well, quantum mechanics only requires an observation of any kind: an electron microscope will do. Is an electron microscope willful? Does an electron microscope take action? The authors of this paper write:

Werner Heisenberg concluded that the atom “has no immediate and direct physical properties at all.” If the universe’s basic building block isn’t physical, then the same must hold true in some way for the whole. The universe was doing a vanishing act in Heisenberg’s day, and it certainly hasn’t become more solid since. And Heisenberg again: “The atoms or elementary particles themselves … form a world of potentialities or possibilities rather than one of things or facts.”

No, sorry, these are different levels of analysis. To prove it I challenge Deepak to climb to the top of this building and jump off and see if the ground is a potentiality or a thing! They also write:

Heisenberg: “What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.” Reality, it seems, shifts according to the observer’s conscious intent.

Once again, NO! This would imply that anyone’s method of questioning is just as valid as anyone else’s, which would mean that the way astrologers question the universe is just as valid as that of astronomers. I concluded by saying that if you want to get a spacecraft to Mars the questions that astronomers ask are absolutely objectively really better than those of astrologers. Q.E.D.!

In Deepak’s rebuttal, in discussing quantum mechanics, he actually used the phrase “the womb of creation.” Nice. It’s that sort of precise language that makes people all gushy and mushy about science. I pressed him for a definition of consciousness, which he gave me as “consciousness is the ground of existence.” I replied that this sounded tautological to me: since reality needs consciousness to come into existence, this means that reality = consciousness = existence; or existence = existence. A is A. Very Aristotelian. But what does that really tell us?

In the end I pressed both Deepak and Stuart Hameroff for an answer as to where Aunt Millie’s mind goes during the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease. Stuart’s answer was so rapid fire and jargon laden (something about the collapse of the wave function inside the microtubules in the neurons inside Aunt Millie’s brain) that I couldn’t quite get an answer, so Deepak clarified it for me later: Aunt Millie’s mind is in the matrix. Okay, I asked, how does poor Aunt Millie access the matrix. “We’re working on that,” was the reply. Okay, fine, and if our memories really are stored somewhere outside of our brains, then that would indeed be one of the greatest discoveries ever made in the history of science: Nobel worthy. But, until that is proven, I remain … skeptical.


I am often asked if I believe that Deepak believes what he says, with an underlying assumption behind the question that Deepak is knowingly selling snake oil and doesn’t really believe his public patter. Having gotten to know Deepak over the years I can assure you that he absolutely positively believes what he says, and that while he may make a lot of money in the process of writing books, giving lectures, hosting radio and television shows, and running his various business enterprises (but, hey, that’s not exactly something anathema in America), this fact is quite orthogonal to his deeper mission in life: to shift the Western worldview Eastward.

I had never met Stuart Hameroff before, but I liked him as well, sharing a beer after the debate while watching a Laker game and schmoozing about science. Although I do not accept his theory of consciousness (most neuroscientists are skeptical as well), it would be fun to engage him again in a spirited debate over the brain and the mind.

Mental loop

The Reality Of Reality May Not Be Reality by Adam Frank November 20, 201212:40 PM Enlarge image The Matrix: Which pill do you choose? Warner Bros./Photofest Every night for months before the presidential election, Nate Silver would fire up his computer … Continue reading

The Reality Of Reality May Not Be Reality

by Adam Frank

November 20, 201212:40 PM

The Matrix: Which pill do you choose?

Warner Bros./Photofest

Every night for months before the presidential election, Nate Silver would fire up his computer and run simulated results for his FiveThirtyEight blog on The New York Times. He ran hundreds of these simulations, tweaking variables like “white male poodle owner” turnout. Then along came Election Day. We all went out to vote (you did vote right?) and reality became the final word, trumping whatever Nate Silver’s simulated universe might, or might not, have said.

But what if there was more to the story? What if the simulated election didn’t just happen in Nate Silver’s computer? What if Election Day itself was a simulation with you, me and even Nate Silver just running through our autonomous but fully programmed roles. My friends, what if we all are living inside someone else’s simulation?

Wait, wait, wait; don’t click on over to Planet Money just yet. Hear me out. There are well-known philosophers working at well-known universities who would argue that thereality of our lack of reality might just be the most reasonable assumption to make about reality. Given the alternatives, accepting that we are all simulations living inside a simulation might just be … reasonable.

The question “are we living in a dream” is as old as human culture. The 4th-century Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi once dreamt from a butterfly’s perspective. Upon waking he wondered if he was a man dreaming he was a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming he was a man.

In today’s culture we have The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and The Matrix posing modern versions of Zhuangzi’s question on where the dividing line stands between reality and simulation. Last week my co-blogger Marcelo Gleiser explored a related idea, focusing on the merging of man and machine in a “singularity.”

But the detailed philosophical form of the simulation argument comes from Nick Bostrom, a philosopher who is currently the director of the Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford.

Back in 2003 Bostrom wrote an article imaginatively titled “Are You Living In A Computer Simulation.” Bostrom wanted to consider technologically mature civilizations,which for him meant cultures so advanced they build super-duper computers with fully conscious simulated minds living inside simulated realities. Think The Sims on super-duper steroids. These cultures, Bostrom reasoned, might then create ancestor simulations on their computers, meaning simulations of their own past. With these ideas in mind, Bostrom then made the final leap by considering the truth, or falsehood, of three statements:

  1. Almost all civilizations at our level of development become extinct before becoming technologically mature.
  2. The fraction of technologically mature civilizations that are interested in creating ancestor simulations is almost zero.
  3. You are almost certainly living in a computer simulation.

So watch what happens as we run down the truth/falsehood list of these statements. If 1 is true then virtually no civilization becomes super-high tech before dying, which kind of stinks. If 1 is false but 2 is true, then virtually no ancestor simulations should exist. The use of “virtually” is important here because Bostrom’s purely philosophical argument relies on probabilities and, in the end, it leads him to a remarkable place.

Now let’s say statement 1 is false. That would means there are civilizations reaching heights of technology we can barely imagine today. Then add statement 2 as false. That would mean some of these technologically mature civilizations start creating super-duper simulations of their own past. With statement 1 and statement 2 false the conclusion has to be that there must exist ancestor simulations running out there right now full of simulated ancestor minds.

And who are the ancestors? Better look in a (simulated) mirror.

Most importantly, when you work out the numbers there should be vastly more simulated minds in simulated realities than real minds in … um… real reality. That’s because each ancestor-loving technologically mature civilization could run oodles and oodles of simulations. Put it all together and what you have are overwhelming odds that the reality we experience is a simulated one (at least via this purely philosophical argument).

As Bostrom puts it:

What Copernicus and Darwin and latter-day scientists have been discovering are the laws and workings of the simulated reality. These laws might or might not be identical to those operating at the more fundamental level of reality where the computer that is running our simulation exists (which, of course, may itself be a simulation).

So there it is. Now you know. But maybe this is too much for you. Maybe you’re thinking, “Wow, I wish I had taken the blue pill.” Maybe you accept these kind of abstract philosophical arguments enough that the reasoning sticks. Maybe the idea that your whole life is nothing more than a sim running on some superbeing’s laptop is just too much for you.

Well, that is OK because I do have a few words that might just make this new reality easier to swallow:

Thanksgiving dinner with your crazy family is just around the corner!

Murphy’s Law

Murphy’s law is an adage or epigram that is typically stated as: “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong”. “Murphy’s Law” has become a generic term for any statement that is witty and cynical. Many Murphy’s Laws have to do with the professional workplace. … Continue reading

Murphy’s law is an adage or epigram that is typically stated as:

“Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong”.

“Murphy’s Law” has become a generic term for any statement that is witty and cynical. Many Murphy’s Laws have to do with the professional workplace.

The perceived perversity of the universe has long been a subject of comment, and precursors to the modern version of Murphy’s law are not hard to find. Recent significant research in this area has been conducted by members of the American Dialect Society. ADS member Stephen Goranson has found a version of the law, not yet generalized or bearing that name, in a report by Alfred Holt at an 1877 meeting of an engineering society.

It is found that anything that can go wrong at sea generally does go wrong sooner or later, so it is not to be wondered that owners prefer the safe to the scientific…. Sufficient stress can hardly be laid on the advantages of simplicity. The human factor cannot be safely neglected in planning machinery. If attention is to be obtained, the engine must be such that the engineer will be disposed to attend to it.[1]

Mathematician Augustus De Morgan on June 23, 1866 “Supplement to the Budget of Paradoxes,” The Athenaeum no. 2017 page 836 col. 2 [and later reprints: e.g., 1872, 1915, 1956, 2000] wrote: “The first experiment already illustrates a truth of the theory, well confirmed by practice, what-ever can happen will happen if we make trials enough.” In later publications “whatever can happen will happen” occasionally is termed “Murphy’s law,” which raises the possibility—if something went wrong—that “Murphy” is “De Morgan” misremembered (an option, among others, raised by Goranson on American Dialect Society list).[2]

American Dialect Society member Bill Mullins has found a slightly broader version of the aphorism in reference to stage magic. The British stage magician Nevil Maskelyne wrote in 1908:

It is an experience common to all men to find that, on any special occasion, such as the production of a magical effect for the first time in public, everything that can go wrong will go wrong. Whether we must attribute this to the malignity of matter or to the total depravity of inanimate things, whether the exciting cause is hurry, worry, or what not, the fact remains.[3]

The contemporary form of Murphy’s law goes back as far as 1952, as an epigraph to a mountaineering book by Jack Sack, who described it as an “ancient mountaineering adage”:

Anything that can possibly go wrong, does.[4]

Fred R. Shapiro, the editor of the Yale Book of Quotations, has shown that in 1952 the adage was called “Murphy’s law” in a book by Anne Roe, quoting an unnamed physicist:

he described [it] as “Murphy’s law or the fourth law of thermodynamics” (actually there were only three last I heard) which states: “If anything can go wrong, it will.”[5]

In May 1951, in Genetic Psychology Monographs volume 43, page 204, Anne Roe gives a transcript of an interview (part of a Thematic Apperception Test, asking impressions on a photograph) with Theoretical Physicist number 3: “…As for himself he realized that this was the inexorable working of the second law of the thermodynamics which stated Murphy’s law ‘If anything can go wrong it will’.” Anne Roe’s papers are in the American Philosophical Society archives in Philadelphia; those records (as noted by Stephen Goranson on the American Dialect Society list 12/31/2008) identify the interviewed physicist as Howard Percy “Bob” Robertson (1903–1961). Robertson’s papers are at the Caltech archives; there, in a letter Robertson offers Roe an interview within the first three months of 1949 (as noted by Goranson on American Dialect Society list 5/9/2009). The Robertson interview apparently predated the Muroc scenario said by Nick Spark (American Aviation Historical Society Journal 48 (2003) p. 169) to have occurred in or after June, 1949.

The name “Murphy’s law” was not immediately secure. A story by Lee Correy in the February 1955 issue of Astounding Science Fiction referred to “Reilly’s law,” which “states that in any scientific or engineering endeavor, anything that can go wrong will go wrong”.[6] Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Lewis Strauss was quoted in the Chicago Daily Tribune on February 12, 1955, saying “I hope it will be known as Strauss’ law. It could be stated about like this: If anything bad can happen, it probably will.”[7]

Arthur Bloch, in the first volume (1977) of his Murphy’s Law, and Other Reasons Why Things Go WRONG series, prints a letter that he received from George E. Nichols, a quality assurance manager with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Nichols recalled an event that occurred in 1949 at Edwards Air Force BaseMuroc, California that, according to him, is the origination of Murphy’s law, and first publicly recounted by USAF Col. John Paul Stapp. An excerpt from the letter reads:

…The Law’s namesake was Capt. Ed Murphy, a development engineer from Wright Field Aircraft Lab. Frustration with a strap transducer which was malfunctioning due to an error in wiring the strain gage bridges caused him to remark – “If there is any way to do it wrong, he will” – referring to the technician who had wired the bridges at the Lab. I assigned Murphy’s Law to the statement and the associated variations.

According to the book A History of Murphy’s Law by author Nick T. Spark, differing recollections years later by various participants make it impossible to pinpoint who first coined the saying Murphy’s law. The law’s name supposedly stems from an attempt to use new measurement devices developed by the eponymous Edward Murphy. The phrase was coined in adverse reaction to something Murphy said when his devices failed to perform and was eventually cast into its present form prior to a press conference some months later — the first ever (of many) conferences given by Dr. John Stapp, a U.S. Air Force colonel and Flight Surgeon in the 1950s. These conflicts (a long running interpersonal feud) were unreported until Spark researched the matter. His book expands upon and documents an original four part article published in 2003 (Annals of Improbable Research (AIR)[9]) on the controversy: Why Everything You Know About Murphy’s Law is Wrong.

From 1948 to 1949, Stapp headed research project MX981 at Muroc Army Air Field (later renamed Edwards Air Force Base)[10] for the purpose of testing the human tolerance for g-forces during rapid deceleration. The tests used a rocket sled mounted on a railroad track with a series of hydraulic brakes at the end. Initial tests used a humanoid crash test dummy strapped to a seat on the sled, but subsequent tests were performed by Stapp, at that time an Air Force captain. During the tests, questions were raised about the accuracy of the instrumentation used to measure the g-forces Captain Stapp was experiencing. Edward Murphy proposed using electronic strain gauges attached to the restraining clamps of Stapp’s harness to measure the force exerted on them by his rapid deceleration. Murphy was engaged in supporting similar research using high speed centrifuges to generate g-forces. Murphy’s assistant wired the harness, and a trial was run using a chimpanzee.

The sensors provided a zero reading; however, it became apparent that they had been installed incorrectly, with each sensor wired backwards. It was at this point that a disgusted Murphy made his pronouncement, despite being offered the time and chance to calibrate and test the sensor installation prior to the test proper, which he declined somewhat irritably, getting off on the wrong foot with the MX981 team. In an interview conducted by Nick Spark, George Nichols, another engineer who was present, stated that Murphy blamed the failure on his assistant after the failed test, saying, “If that guy has any way of making a mistake, he will.” Nichols’ account is that “Murphy’s law” came about through conversation among the other members of the team; it was condensed to “If it can happen, it will happen,” and named for Murphy in mockery of what Nichols perceived as arrogance on Murphy’s part. Others, including Edward Murphy’s surviving son Robert Murphy, deny Nichols’ account (which is supported by Hill, both interviewed by Spark), and claim that the phrase did originate with Edward Murphy. According to Robert Murphy’s account, his father’s statement was along the lines of “If there’s more than one way to do a job, and one of those ways will result in disaster, then somebody will do it that way.”

The phrase first received public attention during a press conference in which Stapp was asked how it was that nobody had been severely injured during the rocket sled tests. Stapp replied that it was because they always took Murphy’s Law under consideration; he then summarized the law and said that in general, it meant that it was important to consider all the possibilities (possible things that could go wrong) before doing a test and act to counter them. Thus Stapp’s usage and Murphy’s alleged usage are very different in outlook and attitude. One is sour, the other an affirmation of the predictable being surmountable, usually by sufficient planning and redundancy. Hill and Nichols believe Murphy was unwilling to take the responsibility for the device’s initial failure (by itself a blip of no large significance) and is to be doubly damned for not allowing the MX981 team time to validate the sensor’s operability and for trying to blame an underling when doing so in the embarrassing aftermath.

The association with the 1948 incident is by no means secure. Despite extensive research, no trace of documentation of the saying as Murphy’s law has been found before 1951 (see above). The next citations are not found until 1955, when the May–June issue of Aviation Mechanics Bulletin included the line “Murphy’s Law: If an aircraft part can be installed incorrectly, someone will install it that way,”[11] and Lloyd Mallan’s book, Men, Rockets and Space Rats, referred to: “Colonel Stapp’s favorite takeoff on sober scientific laws—Murphy’s Law, Stapp calls it—’Everything that can possibly go wrong will go wrong’.” The Mercury astronauts in 1962 attributed Murphy’s law to U.S. Navy training films.

General laws

  • When there is a very long road upon which there is a one-way bridge placed at random, and there are only two cars on that road, it follows that:
    • (1) the two cars are going in opposite directions, and
    • (2) they will always meet at the bridge.
  • Smile, tomorrow will be worse.
  • Left to themselves, things tend to go from bad to worse.
  • You never run out of things that can go wrong.

Military laws

  • No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy.
  • If your advance is going well, you are walking into an ambush.
  • The only thing more accurate than incoming enemy fire is incoming friendly fire.

Scientific laws

  • Logic is a systematic method of coming to the wrong conclusion with confidence.
  • An expert is one who knows more and more about less and less until he knows absolutely everything about nothing.
  • Enough research will tend to support your theory.
  • Nature always sides with the hidden flaw.

Bureaucratic laws

  • If there is a possibility of several things going wrong, the one that will cause the most damage will be the one to go wrong.
  • If there is a worse time for something to go wrong, it will happen then.
  • If you perceive that there are four possible ways in which a procedure can go wrong, and circumvent these, then a fifth way, unprepared for, will promptly develop.
  • If everything seems to be going well, you have obviously overlooked something.
  • Whenever you set out to do something, something else must be done first.
  • Every solution breeds new problems.
  • If builders built buildings the way programmers wrote programs, then the first woodpecker that came along would destroy civilization.
  • All’s well that ends.
  • A meeting is an event at which the minutes are kept and the hours are lost.