The Curious Case of Futility

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For better or worse: It’s human nature to divide ourselves into groups and categorize our existence

You can see an “us” against “them” differentiation, anytime and anywhere.

And it so happens that when it comes to the supernatural and the unexplained, you get two broad teams: the believers and the skeptics.

The Mulders and the Scullys…

and The Ryans and the Shanes.

It is not my intention to pick a side or to defend a position. Nonetheless, exploring curious cases that may defy what you think is the truth is always interesting.

Strange occurrences that make you look a little bit beyond your steadfast position.

Enter Futility, a short novella authored by one Morgan Robertson and published in 1898.

Odds are that it doesn’t sound familiar. And I can’t blame you – it’s an average writing project, perhaps destined for mediocrity.

At least it would have been – if it wasn’t for the timing of its publication… and its full name.

Fiction Foresees Reality. Morgan Robertson’s story:

The novella, published in 1898, recounts the fictional tale of a large passenger ship that would become true 14 years later—on April 15, 1912, when the RMS Titanic sank in the Atlantic Ocean.

The description, details, and eventual fate of the ship are some of the eeriest coincidences ever between fiction and reality.

Futility follows the doomed tale of the Titan, a British ship with an edge-cutting structure by the era’s standards.

Like the similarly-named and equally-British Titanic:

  • it was the largest ship ever created
  • It could host over 3,000 passengers
  • Its design was praised as unsinkable.

Size-wise, both ships are nearly identical:

…the Titan being merely 25 meters smaller than the Titanic—a minimal difference when considering their massive structures.

Likewise, they both display the same speed capacity, masts, and type of propellers.

At this point, it’s clear both ships are nearly undistinguishable in appearance.

But that’s not where the unnerving coincidences end.

More eerily, they are both described as not having enough lifeboats for the passengers aboard, just a tad bit above 20.

After all—spoiler alert!—we have a sinking to address.

Much like the Titanic, in Futility, the Titan collides with an iceberg and sinks soon after. But that’s not all:

In both cases, the ships collide with an iceberg on the Atlantic Ocean near Newfoundland, hitting the starboard while moving at a speed of over 20 knots.

It’s time for a recap:

Our two ships have similar names, similar sizes, near-identical built and structure, and the same flaws. Likewise, they both sank after colliding with icebergs at the same speed, place, and location. Food for thought.

A Skeptic’s Dismissal:

Although the coincidences are unnerving enough to grant you some degree of morbid fascination, the skeptic’s side has an invaluable ally:

Morgan Robertson himself.

After the Titanic’s tragedy, it did not take people too long to realize Futility’s near-prophetic outlook. However, when pressed for answers, Robertson immediately dismissed all supernatural claims.

Why? From his point of view, it is merely a matter of knowing a subject matter a little too well.

You see, Robertson was an experienced sailor before becoming a writer, published numerous texts focused on matters of the sea, and also grew up with a ship captain father. You get the point—he spent more time sailing than walking, which made him an expert on seafaring matters. As such, he argued that he foresaw the greed for luxurious large ships and deducted the potential risks and downsides.

Does it make sense? Yeah, of course it does.

Luxury ships kept growing in size, and cross-Atlantic voyages were the most popular during the Victorian and Edwardian eras. An experienced sailor would have known the true dangers of icebergs and, therefore, deduct that a disaster like the Titanic’s was just a matter of time.

But…

…does mere logic account for every shared detail? How does rational thinking explain the near-identical names and precise crashing location? What about the number of lifeboats?

Believers and non-believers cannot agree.

Which is exactly what makes Futility one of the most exciting case studies to define the line between expert foresight…

…and mystical clairvoyance.


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Virgindog
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November 7, 2022 8:27 am

I’m going to side with expert foresight here. Robertson designed his fictional ship to be what he thought would be unsinkable in the same way that Titanic’s engineers designed their nonfictional ship to be what they thought was unsinkable. There are only so many possible variations. It’s not surprising at all that the ships are similar.

The location isn’t a coincidence either, because Robertson knew where icebergs are prevalent. As for the names, you wouldn’t name the world’s biggest ship “Daisy.” You’d go with something huge, and there are only a handful of words that mean gigantic.

Nice first article, Blossom!

mt58
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November 7, 2022 9:00 am
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Virgindog
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November 7, 2022 10:42 am
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♪♫ My boat Buttercup ♫♪ You make my heart go giddy up ♪♫♪

dutchg8r
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November 9, 2022 5:43 pm
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Boaty McBigBoat.

Phylum of Alexandria
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November 7, 2022 9:07 am

Nice write up! And welcome to the contributor circle! Is this a Stereogum commenter under a different name?

As for today’s topic, I do think the believers and the skeptics each get some things right and wrong about the human experience.

Skeptics tend to focus on claims and evidence that can be tested and falsified, leading to knowledge that can help us better predict or control the world around us. But, perhaps seduced by how darn impressive such knowledge gains can be, they tend to overgeneralize the value of predictive knowledge to all domains of human experience. Such efforts often lead to overly simplistic, aesthetically impoverished takes on human psychology, sociology, moral philosophy, the humanities, etc.

People who are inclined to believe in the supernatural phenomena–by far the majority around the world and across history–are simply listening to urges that come quite naturally to human beings. Why deny such a universal trait, something that may be intrinsic to human nature? And they rightly point out to the skeptics that an absence of evidence is not positive evidence of absence. There are limitations to the scientific method that may simply make it an inadequate avenue to definitively explore certain metaphysical notions. That’s possible, and we may have to remain formally agnostic on those questions.

But…if we are specifically talking about predictive value, certainly the scientifically-tested stuff really proves its worth, by definition. Do people who believe in certain supernatural phenomena believe in it to the extent that they would trust their lives with such knowledge–in the same way that one trusts an airplane to safely blast us from one region to another? I guess I can’t say, because I myself do lean toward skepticism, even if I’m trying to be mindful of how hard I lean.

This particular case is rather interesting, in that while it’s usually the skeptics who are inclined to disbelieve personal testimony, and the supernaturally-inclined people who tend to put great value in individual experiences, here one would have to disbelieve Robertson’s own testimony explaining his creative process and the similarities to the Titanic tragedy in order to infer something supernatural. Either he was mistaken or he was covering it up. Moreover, I’m not sure what the mechanism for such knowledge is supposed to be. Visions? Dreams?

According to Robertson, it was education, and imagination that allowed him to capture such a probable future event. There is something wondrous about the human capacity for writers and artists to find insights that can extend into possible or probable future states.

That power shouldn’t be minimized, and perhaps we can look upon it with a sort of mystical reverence, but do we need to invoke something supernatural? I guess I’m not inclined to, but I already stated my inclination right off the bat!

mt58
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November 7, 2022 9:33 am

It looks like Blossom W has struck a chord with Phylum!

Phylum of Alexandria
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November 7, 2022 9:41 am
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A chord of interest, certainly! A sign of a good TNOCS post.

Pauly Steyreen
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November 7, 2022 10:05 am
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Specifically a chordata…

lovethisconcept
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November 7, 2022 10:44 am

Can imagination be considered a supernatural gift? The reasoning can go round and round, and humans seem to focus automatically on that which supports our own inclinations.

Phylum of Alexandria
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November 7, 2022 10:56 am

It certainly can be thought of as a supernaturally-endowed gift. And as someone who used to do neuroscience research, I can say that we are a long ways away from understanding many mysteries of the brain–some of which may simply be beyond the reach of scientific disconfirmation.

I fully resonate with Alan Moore’s assertion that imagination, creativity, and the arts should all be revered as magic of some sort. But for me, I see no need to make a supernatural/natural distinction. Natural doesn’t have to mean boring, predictable, materialistic–although some skeptics certainly make it seem that way.

Phylum of Alexandria
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November 7, 2022 11:40 am

Just putting this here for fun:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k1qACd0wHd0

Pauly Steyreen
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November 7, 2022 10:19 am

Welcome to the party, Blossom W!

I enjoyed your piece. As an engineer, I can definitely see the author’s perspective… if you know a subject, you can deduce a lot. It’s almost like Sherlock Holmes in reverse.

But hey people believe in LOTS of things that are irrational. I’d guess that even the most rational among us has some “woo-woo” skeletons in our closet of beliefs. Pointedly skipping the topic of religion entirely 🤐, I’ll note that belief in ghosts has been on the rise, with 40% of Americans believing in them and 20% claiming to have seen one. I myself have not and do not. But I don’t believe it’s impossible, just that I haven’t seen sufficient proof to back up such a belief.

UFO’s on the other hand, I’m still agnostic but leaning toward maybe believing one day, given the recent military footage that’s been released. I certainly believe there’s a high likelihood other intelligent life exists in this universe. The part I’m skeptical about is them taking any interest in our random little planet or dumb ass species. (Maybe they really care more about the dolphins. So long and thanks for all the fish!)

Phylum of Alexandria
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November 7, 2022 10:38 am
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I think part of the issue for all of these debates, religion included, is the inadequacy of language to capture everything we’re feeling in a given moment, especially because language has more dimensions to it than mere description.

The word “believe” seems so simple and self-evident in its meaning, but it’s actually rather thorny. When people say they believe in something, it’s often stated as a declaration of fealty to a given group or doctrine. It could be a church or political faction, or a philosophical stance like the naturalism of the skeptics, or the rationalism of the New Atheists.

But what about feelings that aren’t well captured by such declarations? What about what you feel when you’re alone in an old, decrepit building after dark? My mind certainly behaves as if it believes in ghosts…in certain settings. And yet I subscribe to philosophical naturalism, and so I tend to explain it all as an important part of the human experience (like love and justice) rather than something both in and out it (like light and gravity).

But I dunno, I feel like this inchoate sense of dread should be thought of as a type of belief, regardless of what my rational mind (my inner press secretary) spins for other people.

(to say nothing of the word “God.” But I won’t go down that rabbit hole…)

Last edited 26 days ago by Phylum of Alexandria
lovethisconcept
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November 7, 2022 10:42 am
Reply to  Pauly Steyreen

Always an upvote for a Douglas Adams reference.

thegue
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November 7, 2022 10:56 am
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WE APOLOGIZE FOR THE INCONVENIENCE.

thegue
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November 7, 2022 12:38 pm
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UFOs:

I’d love to write an article on this, but it’s way out of my field. However, I’ll leave you all with this…something I share with my students.

  1. We’ve never been visited by aliens.
  2. There is too much evidence as to what would happen had it occurred. See Spanish/English/Portuguese visits to the New World.
  3. Also, the laws of physics generally make it impossible.

HOWEVER:

  1. We do NOT understand the “alternate universes”/string theory ramifications yet, or rather, explored what they might mean.
  2. Which means (and I argue), IF we’ve been visited, it wasn’t by visitors from another star/galaxy. It would be “humans”, who figured out how to cross between universes located in the same time/space.
Phylum of Alexandria
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November 7, 2022 1:12 pm
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I think it’s germane to consider the role that bacteria and immunity would play in any interplanetary meetings.

That said, I wonder what physicists would say how germ immunity would play into the notion of intersecting dimensions? Maybe it’s a game of chance as to whether or not the immune systems are compatible? This stuff ties my head in knots…

lovethisconcept
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November 7, 2022 10:45 am

Welcome Blossom W!

cappiethedog
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November 7, 2022 1:10 pm

I forgot to write this in my post. Welcome, indeed.

JJ Live At Leeds
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November 7, 2022 1:06 pm

Welcome aboard Blossom!

I’ve found that as I’ve got older I’ve become more of a sceptic. When I was a kid I loved ghost stories and weird phenomenon (whatever happened to spontaneous combustion? – it was always in books about the unexplained but seems to have been pushed aside now. Or maybe I just don’t read the right books). Now I’m more inclined to look for a rational explanation. I still like seeking out the weird and wonderful and I appreciate the romantic notion that there are things that may defy explanation but then I like to find a rational explanation. As such I’m with Morgan on this one, debunking his own legend. There are some who think the Titanic never actually sunk (it was an insurance scam using sister ship Olympic) or was sunk deliberately so maybe the perpetrators just read Morgan’s book as a manual for what to do.

My grandma told me how she met someone that survived the Titanic as a child. Wish I had a time machine to go back and take in the details of the story properly now.

cappiethedog
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November 7, 2022 9:18 pm

It’s a well-known fact that the Titanic was beamed up by an alien spacecraft and deposited in the Gobi Desert.

mt58
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November 7, 2022 10:51 pm
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Last edited 26 days ago by mt58
cappiethedog
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November 7, 2022 1:08 pm

This is some amazing information you’re imparting, Blossom W. Morgan Robertson is my new hero. He could have made a killing as a clairvoyant.

I like the World Series prediction from Back to the Future, but this easily tops it.

Dance Fever
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November 7, 2022 3:52 pm

Quite a subject to start a weekday with, Blossom W.
As an avid reader of sci-fi and things that go bang in the dark, I love
the skeptic vs. believer argument.
Robertson’s book reminds me of the works of Verne and Welles who used the same reasoning to predict launch sites of rockets and the effect of our environment on extra terrestrials.
One thing that hasn’t been touched on today is dreams and the effect of dreaming on our everyday lives.
The prevalent belief ( if I’m correct) is that dreams are the brains way of dealing with the information that pours into our body daily i.e. sights, sounds, smells, bits of info etc.
I’ll use an example from my past.
We were facing a very tough opponent the next week on the football field in a game that would decide whether we were home for the first round of playoff games or had to travel to another school.
I “dreamed” that weekend that we would win the game on a last second field goal and, indeed, that’s just what we did!
Now. the believer would say I had foresight and could see outcomes because I
had fully concentrated on them.
The skeptic would point out that our games against this particular opponent
were hard fought, low scoring affairs and given that we had one of the best
field goal kickers in the state, the outcome would certainly resemble the result.
I can see both sides but the romantic in me says maybe I did have a bit of foresight.
I guess it depends on whether you’re Scully or Mulder.

dutchg8r
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November 9, 2022 5:42 pm

Dude, this was fascinating; great debut here Blossom!!

I was totally Team ‘Spooky’ Mulder, but that was more because he was a friggin hottie and ShallowDutch had quite the thing for him… But my thinking is, if people can win a multi billion dollar lottery against ridiculous odds, or poor Steve Irwin dies in the most unbelievably random yet ironic way you could imagine where the odds of that happening would have approached infinity, there’s always a chance for ANYTHING happening; I don’t ever dismiss anything anymore.

*Edited to add – this seems to happen every year with someone realizing how prophetic a Simpsons episode was 25 years ago…. 😉

Last edited 24 days ago by dutchg8r
Edith G
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November 10, 2022 5:45 pm

Great debut @Blossom W!
It’s an interesting subject and there are things that cannot be explained and becomes fascinating to analyze.

Last edited 23 days ago by Edith G
mt58
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November 10, 2022 5:57 pm
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Hey, Edith G! You’re rocking that new avatar!

Edith G
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November 10, 2022 6:18 pm
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Thank you mt ☺️. I’m barely catching up with the reading, because I had a lot of work, and then I went a few days for vacation.

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