To Discover or to Invent?

Are our highest values discovered or invented?

Posted on June 24, 2017

When Columbus went to discover a new sea route to India, he stumbled upon some other clusters of land. Europeans discovered Americas and started inventing their futures. One of the consequences has been the invention of the United States of America, which reinvents itself and the rest of the world ever since, with Civil Wars, World Wars, Dreams Last Night, Marshall plans and making the world safe for democracy.

When the best and the brightest went to invent nuclear weapons for the United States at war, they stumbled upon some rapid calculation problems. Crowdsourcing from Leibniz and Babbage to Turing, they had discovered army surplus radio lamps and invented a computer. One of the consequences has been the invention of the world wide web, which allowed Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak and the rest of mankind to discover thousand and one uses of artificial intelligence.

In both cases, the Columbus and the Manhattan project, discovery and invention had been tightly coupled, like dancing partners in a tango. When do they part, when do they dance solo? One of the basic philosophical questions of our times is the one about the origin and status of our highest values. They had evolved from a plea to love thy neighbor to the universal rights of (wo)man. But have they been more like a discovery? Or more like an invention? If we see them as a discovery due to divine revelation – they look more compelling. Stone tablets are stone tablets. Implementation is simpler. If we see them as an invention – they look more negotiable and open to future challenges. Implementation is open to unpredictable shifts and turns. More risk, but also more promise. Can we? Should we? Who can tell?


Slawek Magala

Rotterdam, June 24, 2017