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Inventing and Discovering

“You can’t say that Oxygen was invented, it was discovered”  My 4th grade science teacher explained.

“What’s the difference between the two?” I asked.

“Well when you discover something, it was already there to begin with, you didn’t create anything new. Whereas an Invention is something that did not exist before but that you made.”


I didn’t know it at the time but this little difference in definition is something which still puzzles philosophers to this day.

The problem in distinguishing between invention and discovery becomes more complicated once we take ideas into account. I’m sure many will easily agree that Narnia was a mental invention rather than a discovery. Likewise I expect that there will be significant agreement that the many pagan gods and myths of ancient times were also “invented” as Voltaire says “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him”.

Things get messy however when we delve into science. To what extent can we say that Oxygen was discovered rather than invented? The difference between the two is less clear than is generally thought. The atomic model which we are taught is very much an invention, atoms don’t look anything like the image we use to understand how they work. Things get worse as we get to smaller and smaller physical particles, or to larger and larger ones, it seems that given human physiological limitations, it is impossible to “see” any of the phenomenon that are happening. The use of instruments to portray these inaccessible levels of observation is problematic because instruments as inventions only show us the image that we construct them to. In which case all instrumental observation is just as much invention as it is discovery. To complicate matters further even at scales which humans operate on, it is difficult to conclude that our way of seeing the world is objectively accurate. Our sensory organs are all limited by their own methods of functioning, just as much as the instruments we construct.

A famous example of discovery turning to invention is in the Copernican revolution. In showing that the Earth’s centrality to the solar system was very much false Copernicus turned what had been established as fact into invention because it did not exist prior to our discovery.

All of the above discussion has dealt with questions of natural science, delving into the realm of the social the distinction between discovery and invention seems to fade away all together.  What is the difference between Narnia and “Democracy” or Gondor and the family unit. Perhaps this is a non-problem in that everything is an invention rather than discovery? Feyerabend calls all human enterprise to uncover nature (discovering and inventing) “sculpting” in that we shape the reality we look on.

In any case the problems involved do not look set to be solved anytime soon. Though the repercussions seem to foretell the unraveling of the fabric on which academia is built, the consequences of these questions have and should largely be ignored. The conclusion I prefer to draw from this is that the object of science is not the pursuit of truth, what it’s purpose is however is something we have yet to have an answer to.


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