Manly W. Mumford

Delivered to

The Chicago Literary Club
December 16, 1974

Retyped by Luigi H. Mumford
August, 2011

If you spread a slice of bread with jelly and accidentally drop it on the floor, it will land jelly side down. This is an example of what is often known as Murphy's Law -- that is, if anything possibly can go wrong, it will. Likewise it illustrates the concept called the principal of the perversity of inanimate objects.

An error, of the most basic sort, which many might unwittingly commit, would be to drop a hundred pieces of bread spread with jelly to the floor, or to drop the same piece of bread, freshly spread with jelly each time for a hundred times to try to determine statistically how many times it would land jelly side down and how many times jelly side up. Such and attempt would, however, violate the premise expressed by the adverb "accidentally". It is impossible to perform a properly scientific experiment by accident; the two are antithetical by definition. It is this accidental, or apparently accidental, perversity of seemingly uncontrolled events toward which this paper is aimed.

Whether an event is truly uncontrolled is hardly open to question. When the slice of bread falls something causes it to land with the jelly on the floor; we call the outcome accidental simply because we have not knowingly observed the actions and events which result in that particular outcome. Yet unless free will is ascribed to a piece of bread coated on one side with jelly, there is no choice but to conclude that unobserved actions and events cause the messy result. A sort of myth pervades the thinking of many that unobserved actions and events are not observed simply because no one has taken the trouble to observe them. The idea is that if a trained observer really wanted to, he could observe an entire string of actions and events starting with (or possible before) the dropping of the bread and ending with the well known result, all over the kitchen floor. But this myth is not necessarily so. Some or all of those actions and events may in fact be inherently unobservable.

I start with the hypothesis that there often, but unpredictably, happen events which, if observed in a scientific fashion, would refuse to happen. For instance, if a gang of robbers were about to rob a bank, and found themselves being observed by the police, common sense (that implacable enemy of scientific thought) tells us right off that the bank robbery which the police intended to observe will not occur as a result of such observation. Because verification of a theory by observation is such an integral part of modern scientific thought, it is impossible for a scientist to consider seriously that which cannot be observed unless he turns himself into a philosopher and considers whatever strikes his fancy. This failure scientifically to consider what can't be observed amounts to disregarding, and disregarding leads people to deny the existence of that which they disregard, even though proof to support such denial is utterly unobtainable.

However natural it sometimes seems to deny the existence of that which cannot be observed, nor proven to exist with evidence based on observed facts, I suggest that in practice no one consistently denies the unprovable, but only selectively. Thus the same person may well deny the existence of ghosts yet affirm the existence of ideals; or deny the existence of artistic abstraction yet affirm the existence of numbers; or deny the existence of his soul yet affirm the existence of his conscience. In none of these sets of affirmation and denial can you detect the application of accepted standards of thought consistently applied. Although DesCartes may have thought that the act of thinking proved that he existed, other philosophers use similar evidence in concluding that they don't exist, and that reality is not at all what we see, touch, smell, hear, and feel. To quote Heinrich Zimmer's Philosophies of India:

Vishnu for example ..., is represented in Hindu Myth as the Milky Ocean of Immortal Life, out of which the transient universe arises and back into which it again dissolves ... The god is dreaming, From his navel, as from the universal water, the lotus-calix grows on which Brahma is seated, the first-born of the universe, who is about to supervise the cosmic process of creation. The shining lotus is the flower of the world, which is the dream of Vishnu; and the god upon it, Brahma, the 'Creator', is an emanation from the world womb of Vishnu's cosmic sleep.
Next time someone tries to discuss with you the ultimate nature of reality, suggest to him that neither he nor anything he is aware of is real, but all are part of a dream of a Hindu god he's barely heard of.

This lack of logical consistency based upon dependable observation shows up in the processes by which very many human beliefs are observed. It leads me to wonder in what areas do people base their beliefs on factual evidence and in what areas do they base their beliefs on something else. It is easy to generalize that in matters of fact we rely on evidence and in matters of value we rely on faith, or tradition, or custom, but that hardly answers the question of the person who is trying to decide about the existence of an inherently unprovable fact. One item that comes forcefully to my attention is that, so far as I know, our current western civilization is the only one in the history of man which does not generally recognize the existence of creatures that we would call supernatural, nor recognize the effect of such creatures have on human existence. Consider the Greek, Roman and Norse gods, the demons and witches which previous ages believed in, and the personifications attributed to winds, fire, and rain by people of other times and cultures. Are we sure enough in our denials to disregard not only the beliefs of nearly every other culture which man has developed, but even the currently rampant sales of occult books, magazines and moving pictures in our own culture?

The gods, demons, witches and personifications of other civilizations are generally dismissed as "supernatural" by people in our civilization, but I suspect that they were considered perfectly natural by those who believed in them. And those old believers would most certainly have attributed supernaturalness to such present phenomena as electric lights or jet aircraft. Thus supernaturalness seems to depend more on the observer than the observed. Although we cannot directly encounter such gods, demons, witches and personifications, we can learn something about then through observing the people who do or did.

A look at other cultures' views about supernatural creatures consistently shows that such creatures fit in pretty well with the civilizations that believed in them. Consider the American Indian gods or demons who occasionally took the shape of a grizzly bear or a timber wolf. Such a guise would never have done in ancient Egypt, where people had never heard of grizzly bears ad timber wolves and would certainly have recognized and reported any such animal form as a manifestation of a most remarkable god if they saw one. Gods in the form of men with the heads of jackals and ibises would have been equally out of place in pre-Columbian Minnesota. A second common characteristic of supernatural creatures seems to be their almost psychopathic preoccupation with human affairs. I sometimes wonder if they have any affairs of their own to attend to. You'd think that at least some of them would have worried about other mammals or reptiles or fish or plants, but all seem to have been devoted almost exclusively to the species homo sapiens. Perhaps there are or were other supernatural creatures devoting themselves to the affairs of other natural creatures, but we just haven't become aware of them. A third characteristic of supernatural creatures, which brings us back to the opening theme of this paper, is that their behavior has never been subject to scientific verification by observation -- perhaps because they don't exist, but also perhaps because they permit themselves to be observed only on their terms, and not on ours.

As I suggested earlier, the belief that that which cannot be proven does not exist is merely an assumption, unique to our particular civilization. That assumption lives, though logically stillborn, because people willfully disregard its unprovability; thus the application to itself of the assumption that what can't be proven doesn't exist renders the assumption itself invalid. Yet if you should ask: "Do you then, Mr. Mumford, share the beliefs of the savage ignorant heathens of other civilizations in demons and creatures of occult and mysterious powers?" I would answer "Not here and now I don't, but I won't speak for my beliefs during past or future incarnations, if any, and I'm willing to keep and open mind, as best I can, about the unprovable creatures that may abound at this time and place."

What might the supernatural creatures of our time and place be like if they exist? Witches making magic potions out of bat wings and eyes of newts? Hardly; local inspectors and the Food and Drug Administration would put them out of business promptly, and they could not mount the necessary advertising campaign to compete with non-magical potions. Spirits of rocks, trees, rivers and earth? How would they survive daily encounters with bulldozers? Superhumanoid gods residing on Mount Olympus? They couldn't even get passports.

No, the old supernatural creatures are dead, not because they can't be proven to exist, nor because Tinkerbell's fear of disbelief has come true, but because, like the dinosaur, they are obsolete. But, as sure as evolution itself, their descendants, modified to meet the conditions that now prevail, survive and multiply, and maintain their interest in human affairs.

Consider first the gremlin. So far as I know, gremlins are not of those species which take on various forms, and I suspect they have no form a all, being composed of something other than matter. Yet their proclivities are well known to people who operate machinery of any sort. Peculiarly adapted to twentieth century western industrialized civilization, gremlins would have been completely unemployable in other civilizations; yet in ours, where their vineyards of complex machinery grow ever more fertile, there is forage for millions of those creatures whose thing is to make machinery malfunction. This high degree of specialization is characteristic of our time and civilization of course; gremlins' ancestors were doubtless required to perform a larger number of different tasks, but probably lacked the high degree of skill and competence possessed by the modern gremlin in his area of specialization. Can you imagine Thor causing some minuscule transistor in a huge computer to fail? Of course, not; he would strike the computer with a lightning bolt, quaff a draught from his mead horn and go about his other business. Then the men who ran the computer would tell their boss, who would tell someone else, who would tell the insurance company who would pay to have the computer replaced, and the computer would be replaced, and Thor would have wasted a perfectly good lighting bolt. But a proper gremlin would, by manipulating the very essence of the one transistor that is the hardest to reach of all transistors in the whole computer, keep maintenance and repair personnel busy for week after frustrating week before locating the guilty twenty-five cent item on which the manufacturer's warrant ran out the day before yesterday. I have my own theory of why it is that gremlins wait until the manufacturer's warranties run out before plying their trade: like the wise parasites which do not kill their hosts, the gremlins know that if they too often act before the warranty expires, the manufacturer would not be able to support so many gremlins in his own plant before going out of business.

Other creatures apparently have form and some substance, at least at times, because they leave specific material evidence. Thirty years ago, one such creature, who lived only five or ten years, had an amazing capacity for undetected travel to a large number of distant places, where he seemed to have no other mission than to leave evidence of his having been there. He seemed to prefer places that were hard to get to, and frequently quite hazardous; this it often happened during World War II that an amphibious landing force, in the face of heavily concentrated enemy fire, would encounter a wall fragment, or a rock, bearing the chalked message "Kilroy was here!"

Except for Kilroy, I don't recall many material supernatural creatures during the war, even though there were plenty of gremlins and other non-material creatures working, I presume, on both sides. In the Trojan War, however, they were really quite a nuisance, and may well have been responsible for Troy's defeat at the hands of the Greeks. After Achilles had chased Hector three times around the walls of Troy, but could not catch him, Hector was persuaded to stand and fight when Pallas Athena, having falsely assumed to form of Hector's comrade in arms and brother Deiphobos, stood beside the Trojan hero and said, "Achilles is giving you a hard time, old fellow, chasing you like this round the city. Let us stand and defend ourselves." Hector then stood and fought, believing his brother to be at his side supporting him. But Pallas gave Achilles' spear back to him when Hector avoided Achilles' first cast, and with that spear Achilles then brought Hector down.

I first became personally aware of the material supernatural creatures which assume human forms shortly after World War II when I was visiting some cousins in Bronxville, New York. One Jim Mitchell, an old Navy companion, who was unknown to my cousins, also lived in Bronxville. As my cousin Sylvia was driving me in an automobile along a residential street, another car with a driver in the form of Jim Mitchell passed us. I explained to Sylvia that Jim had been a very close friend for awhile and I would like to say hello to him if we could catch up with him. So Sylvia, who was not a very good driver, stepped on the gas and we pursued Jim Mitchell's car at a truly frightening pace. Eventually we caught up with him, honking and waving, and he stopped while I leapt from Sylvia's car and ran over to the other car, saying, "aren't you my old Navy buddy Jim Mitchell?" The driver of that other car had, in the meantime, assumed an entirely different though vaguely similar form; he answered simply, "No, I'm not." And drove off. At the time, of course, I assumed that I had simply been mistaken in identifying the driver of the other car as my friend; but I now realize that there was another possibility: I correctly identified that driver's face, but it wasn't really Jim Mitchell; it was one of a group of creatures I'll call "unobservables," and it was using Jim's form because it had to use some form to drive a car and Jim's was as good as any until it was recognized. Apparently recognition, as a step in the process of observation, is anathema to unobservables, so, when this particular creature realized that the form it had been using was recognized, it simply changed forms to one that resembled Jim's enough so that I would believe I had been mistaken rather than deceived.

More recently I happened to be sitting at the speaker's table at a banquet when I noticed, at one of the tables in the dining hall about forty yards from me, a woman named Helen whom I knew many years ago. I made a point of noticing at which table Helen was sitting so that I could speak to her after the banquet was over, and when that time finally came, I walked quickly over toward that table. As I approached, Helen stood up and was talking to someone with her back toward me; then, as I got closer, she turned in my direction and to my chagrin she had changed her form to that of some different person whom I'd never seen before. As the woman who had recently been Helen didn't seem to recognize me, I just stood there, trying to look as though it was really someone else I had wanted to say hello to, and then walked away. The puzzling thing, of course, is that none of the other people at the table appeared to notice her change of appearance. I can think of two possible explanations; one is that everyone at the table was an unobservable, and acting in accordance with a code, did not blow each others cover in this sort of circumstance. The other is that the unobservable which had taken Helen's form managed to change only its appearance to me while maintaining the same appearance to everyone at the table.

The latter explanation seems to me more likely to be the correct one; it reminds me of a story once told me by an old friend. According to the story, an American tourist in India came across a small crowd in a street in a rural village. The crowd had gathered around a man who was performing a strange and fascinating dance. One member of the crowd told the American that this was the god Siva who occasionally assumed human form and danced in public for his own amusement. The American had a camera and as he started to take a picture of the dancer the native mentioned that Siva does not allow himself to be photographed. But the American proceeded to take pictures anyway and when the dance was finished the dancer walked away like any other mortal. However, when the American returned to the United States and had his film developed, the pictures showed the crowd of natives watching something, but the dancer was not in any of the pictures, even though he had been in the center of the view-finder each time the camera clicked.

I do not intend to suggest, of course, that any of the previous illustrations proves the existence of unobservables; rather I reiterate my position that as far as human observation is concerned the illustrations are logically consistent with the theory that I made an honest mistake in identifying someone, or that the tale of the god Siva is pure fiction. However, it is equally logically consistent to suggest that the examples did in fact occur pursuant to intervention of creatures which cannot be observed in a scientifically dependable manner, and that those creatures take care that any chance observation of them is capable of being believed through the explanation that the observer simply made a mistake. Thus, as is the case with non-Euclidian geometry, the result you achieve is largely dependent on the assumptions you start with and, logically speaking, one set of assumptions is as good as another.

It might be well now to explore briefly why our present society by and large chooses to adopt assumptions which exclude the possibility of unobservable creatures from rational thought. Perhaps the unique pragmatism of our society has determined our thought processes along those lines that are materially successful, and materially successful thought requires subjects of which the behavior can be observed and, based upon observation, predicted. Thus, in order to prevent our thoughts from being materially unsuccessful we refuse to think about things which cannot be observed and predicted and put to use. I suspect that a key example of the difference in thought itself among peoples may be found in the differences in their languages. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once said that a word is the skin of a living thought; anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of languages other than his native tongue knows that frequently a given word on one language has no exact counterpart in another language, often because the thought expressed by that word is not a thought which the speakers of the other language often choose to express. This difference among even European languages is noticeable, though most such languages have relatively recent common origins. In 1957 I happened to be on an airplane flying between two cities in India, sitting next to an American geography professor who had spent several months in an Indian university. In the course of our conversation he mentioned that although some classes were taught in Hindi and some in English, according to the university's rules, it turned out that this language differential was often as much a matter of necessity as of choice. A course in automotive engineering, for example, even if it were purportedly taught in Hindi, would sound as if it were taught in English because Hindi lacked the technical terms, such as "carburetor" or "piston". In a course on philosophy, however, the reverse is true, because English is equally impoverished when philosophical thoughts must be expressed. It came as rather a shock to realize that the ancestors of those dark-skinned heathen foreigners had paid so much more attention to philosophy than my own ancestors had that their philosophical vocabulary was many times as large and rich as the English philosophical vocabulary.

The lesson I derive is that as our language is heavily weighted in favor of observable material things, so are our thoughts thus weighted, and we reject the unobservable partly because we lack words to discuss it, discussion being essential to common thought. We lack the words, moreover, because our linguistic ancestors did not bother with the thoughts. The cultural character illustrated by this observation is clearly prejudiced in favor of that which can be observed and predicted, a prejudice which helps to account for our magnificent scientific and technical achievements. Truth, however, is elusive, especially in the presence of a promise of material wealth, and out people are more inclined to test a thought by asking "What good does it do?" than by asking "Can it be true?"

With this prejudice in our thoughts exposed, it can be allowed for, at least throughout the duration of this paper. As bacteria existed before the microscope was invented to see them with, it is not logically impossible for unobserved and possibly unobservable creatures to exist; it is only our cultural prejudice that rejects them, and we can suspend this rejection long enough to consider what I believe is a flaw in the armour of the unobservables. This flaw lies in their need for a peculiar kind of nourishment -- human frustration.

To acquire this nourishment, unobservables must, of course, operate in a milieu in which they cannot be reliably observed, either directly or indirectly. Such a milieu is neatly described by the words "random" and "chance" which really mean "what we can't account for." It is in this field of chance that the unobservables can be most effective, because it is in that field that the weeds of perversity can choke out the grains of satisfaction, with no evidence as to who planted the weeds. The only limiting factor is that the field continue to be random -- even if the sum of all events within a particular phenomenon may be observable and predictable, like a life insurance company's mortality tables, no single event (like the end of one man's life) can be predicted. Thus chance breeds perversity, but no on an observable or predictable schedule, for such a schedule would destroy the unobservability which is essential to the very definition of chance. As a result the unobservables, by avoiding compliance with laws comprehended by man, can prevent the most thorough scientist from observing them on any reliable basis.

One major phenomenon in which chance plays a decisive role is the weather. Meteorologists often try to pretend that some sort of observable and rationally predictable factors determine the weather, and I'm sure they do in some places, such as tropical islands where it rains every afternoon at four o'clock., except when they may or may not have a chance hurricane or typhoon. Yet in this part of the world, unpredictability is a certain as clear weather when the weatherman has prophesized rain. As a general rule, it will rain after you leave your home to go on a picnic, particularly if you have just washed your car. Though if you are a farmer, you might have to have recently cut your hay as well. But you cannot successfully cause it to rain, when you need it, by going on a picnic in a newly washed automobile next to a farmer's recently cut hay field. The unobservables which effect the random weather behavior know well that unpredictability itself is more perverse and so more frustrating than predictable adverse circumstances. It is this unpredictability which can give the unobservables a double ration of human frustration when you plan a picnic and wash your car and then call off the picnic, and leave the car in the garage, because it looks like rain. The ran comes, of course, as soon as it is too late to reinstate the picnic, the weather clears and you have been frustrated twice.

Another area, in which a particularly populous variety of observables practices involves the disappearance and reappearance of small objects. My experience in typing the first draft of this very paper reminds me that erasers are among the favorite objects for this group of unobservables to ply their trade on. You may look for a score of minutes for find an eraser that you know is on your desk, yet not find it. The as soon as you give up and start to do something else the eraser reappears in the exact same spot where you sought to find it when first you looked. As with other manifestations of the unobservables' behavior, this sot of thing happens often, but no on a predictable or accountable basis. One interesting feature of the "small object" unobservable, however, is an apparent (though naturally unprovable) sexually related tendency of the creature. If the person who loses an eraser is a man, and his wife or mother or secretary is close by, she will be the one to whom the eraser first reappears.

A list of those activities which unobservables employ in order to produce the human frustration which they require would include nearly every form of human endeavor; the following illustrations come early to mind:

In each of these instances it appears that the frustrating occurrence was caused by rationally explainable events; only the timing was a matter of so-called chance or randomness. Yet it is the chance of random timing of phenomena that gives certain unobservables their opportunity to frustrate a human being by determining not what will happen, but when.

Earlier in this paper I suggested that unobservables might be supernatural creatures. Now let me suggest a little different approach. We are likely to use the term "supernatural" to describe things or events which cannot be otherwise satisfactorily explained within our respective philosophies. Thus, I suspect that the furor created when Pasteur announced the bacterial theory of disease resulted in part from the suggestion that creatures which had hitherto been outside of the philosophies of the other medical practitioners should be given a place in those philosophies. Yet bacteria were not supernatural; indeed they are more "natural" than men are, and have been around considerably longer. Men simply hadn't known of them because they didn't know how to look where for what. If there is not room in a person's philosophy of nature for a particular newly suggested phenomenon, he calls that phenomenon "supernatural." So "supernatural" is really a word which, for definition, relies on the philosophy of the speaker, not on nature or supernature, whatever that may be. And, to quote from the end of the first act of Hamlet, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

Return now to my hypothesis, that there often but unpredictably happen events which, if observed in a scientific way, would refuse to happen. That hypothesis cannot be proven wrong, and that those who would deny it do so without the support of rational thought. Other civilizations regularly recognized phenomena that we dismiss simply because such phenomena have a very low observability quotient, regardless of the obvious (though unprovable) effect they have on our lives. Examples abound of his effect, but because of the very nature of these phenomena, the examples are not the sort of evidence that establishes proof in the minds of those who uncritically accept the thought processes of modern western civilization, with its rejection of that which is not proven by observation. The causes of these events are assigned to chance, although we know well that whatever the cause are, they did happen and did produce the given result without human intervention. A perversity, doubly perverse in its unpredictability, pervades these events, and can be accounted for as manifestations of the unseen hands of creatures not made of matter which require a sustenance consisting of human frustration. And it is these creatures, operating in a milieu that we call chance, which govern the weather, the drawing of a single card or the one-time flip of a coin, and also which cause a slice of bread, coated on one side with jelly, when accidentally dropped, to fall jelly side down.

Typist comments:
This paper was retyped in August, 2011, by Luigi H. Mumford; a copy of the original paper in the Newberry Library was used. Three or four spelling "errors" were corrected, but no other corrections or changes were made intentionally.