How Murphy's Law Works

Fatalism and the Appeal of Murphy's Law

Fatalism? An untouched swimming pool is all that remains after a house was destroyed by a tornado in Laguna Beach, Ca.
Fatalism? An untouched swimming pool is all that remains after a house was destroyed by a tornado in Laguna Beach, Ca.
Vince Bucci/AFP/Getty Images

So why is Murphy's Law such a sound universal concept? After all, when approaching an electrical socket with a two-pronged plug engineered to only fit one way, we have a 50-percent chance of getting it right. Then again, we have a 50-percent chance of getting it wrong, too. Perhaps the best explanation for our attraction to Murphy's Law is an underlying sense of fatalism.

Fatalism is the idea that we're all powerless to the whims of fate. This notion says that the things that happen to us are unavoidable, for example, that skinned knee. It's the idea that there's some kind of universal law at work that takes a certain glee at toying with us.

Fatalism contradicts another concept -- free will. This is the idea that humans possess free will and that all of our choices, along with the consequences that come with those choices, are our own.

Perhaps our connection to Murphy's Law is the result of the collision between free will and fatalism. On the one hand, Murphy's Law reveals to us our own undeniable stupidity. If given a chance to do something wrong, we'll do so around half of the time. But that comes from our own choices. On the other hand, Murphy's Law also reveals to us our lack of control, as in the case of always seeming to be stuck in the slowest lane of traffic.

Murphy's Law doesn't prove anything. It doesn't even explain anything. It simply states a maxim: that things will go wrong. But we forget that there are other forces at work when we consider Murphy's Law. Allegedly, It was the author Rudyard Kipling who said that no matter how many times you drop a slice of bread, it always seems to land on the floor butter-side down. Kipling, the author of "The Jungle Book," among others, was making an observation that most of us can relate to: Life is hard, almost to a laughable degree.

But with a buttered slice of bread, you must take into account the fact that one side is heavier than another. This means that on the way to the ground, the heavy side will flip toward the ground thanks to gravity, but it will not flip all the way around back to the top for the same reason. It is, after all, heavier than the side without the butter. So Kipling was right -- a piece of buttered bread will always land butter-side down.

In the next section, we'll look at Murphy's Law in math and science, and how the law can make the things we create safer and more reliable. ­