Little Known Fact: Murphy Was a Thomist Reply

“If anything can go wrong, it will.” Capt. Edward A. Murphy.

Captain Murphy

We’re all familiar with the Law, but few know about the man for whom the law was named, and fewer still realize that Murphy was a thomist.

Capt. Edward A. Murphy was an Air Force engineer working on the MX981 project at Edwards Air Force Base in 1949 to determine how much deceleration a person could withstand in a crash. On one occasion, after one of their devices failed because an an assistant technician wired it backwards, Murphy allegedly got angry and cursed the guy saying, “If there is any way to do it wrong, he’ll find it!”

The project manager, who kept a list of laws jotted down this abbreviated version of what he called Murphy’s Law: “If anything can go wrong, it will.”

In the book The History of Murphy’s Law, by Nick T. Spark, other sources including Capt. Murphy’s son Robert, Murphy’s saying was, “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.”

To Murphy’s credit, Air Force Doctor John Paul Stapp said in a conference that the MX981 project had a good safety record due to firm belief in Murphy’s Law. That statement caught the press’s attention, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Of course, the history of the Law predates Murphy. As the old Irish adage goes, toast always lands buttered-side down when it falls off your breakfast plate. And experience tells us that as soon as you wash your car it’s going to rain (but you want it to rain, washing your car won’t make it happen).

The principle behind this “nothing is fail-proof” principle is best captured in the wisdom of St Thomas Aquinas.

“Parvus error in principio magnus est in fine”

Thomas’s first published work, De ente et essentia, opens with the line, “A small error in the beginning is a huge one in the end.”

For Thomas, this principle is not just a warning about the potentiality for human error; it’s source lies at the core of creation and somehow even factor’s into God’s providence for the universe.

For instance, his third argument of his 5 ways to prove God’s existence hinges on this very subtle premise: “that which is possible not to be, at some time does not exist” (Summa Theologiae I.2.3).

In other words, that which can fail (i.e., fail to exist), given time, eventually will fail.

This mode of thinking — not to be taken as pessimism — pervades Thomas’s thought on creation as being radically distinct from an all perfect creator-God. At the core of his thought lies a simple truth that guides his wisdom: only God is perfect.

In another place in the Summa Theologiae, Thomas illustrates the correlation between what we now call Murphy’s Law and divine providence:

Respondeo dicendum quod… the perfection of the universe requires that there should be inequality in things, so that every grade of goodness may be realized. Now, one grade of goodness is that of the good which cannot fail. Another grade of goodness is that of the good which can fail in goodness, and this grade is to be found in existence itself; for some things there are which cannot lose their existence as incorruptible things, while some there are which can lose it, as things corruptible.

As, therefore, the perfection of the universe requires that there should be not only beings incorruptible, but also corruptible beings; so the perfection of the universe requires that there should be some which can fail in goodness, and thence it follows that sometimes they do fail. Now it is in this that evil consists, namely, in the fact that a thing fails in goodness. Hence it is clear that evil is found in things, as corruption also is found; for corruption is itself an evil. (I.48.2)

In other words, “If anything can go wrong, given time, it will.” But the inherent potency for corruption in things is not a huge evil on the grand scale of things.

Thomas illustrates this point by pointing out that what’s good for the lion isn’t good for the gazel, when the gazel becomes the lion’s feast. Likewise, what’s good for the the gazel isn’t good for the lion, when the lion fails to catch the gazel. Yet no one says that the world would be a better place if either the lion or the gazel or both never existed.

From a Thomistic perspective, we can learn to accept imperfections and things are bound to fail from time to time. Beyond the shortcomings and failures we experience and observe is the hand of God, who created and ordered the universe for our benefit as a manifestation of his power and glory. People tend to overlook that point when invoking Murphy’s Law.

So what can we take away from Thomistic-Murphy’s Law? I’d say, there’s a positive side to everything. When life hands you lemons, thank God! I mean, hey, just think of all the things you can do with free lemons.

When life hands you lemons, make a kitty-helmut like this guy did with a lime.


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