Sunday, July 5, 2009

Discovery and Invention

Our time is a time of invention and innovation. We expect a constant supply of new and better products. Our economy is based on a growth that is driven by these products and by new and better ways to do things. Our patent offices around the world are busier than ever before with all the new ideas that promise to make their inventors rich.

In contrast, the period of discovery is losing momentum. There are fewer and fewer unexplored places left on earth. No new maps are being made with the inviting words “Terra Incognita” written in far away places. This doesn’t mean that we’ve discovered everything there is to know - far from it. The oceans are still mostly mysterious to us, and many new species of living things are being found every year - sometimes in our own backyards. Even so, we are funding fewer and fewer taxonomists to handle the added diversity. There is a lot we still don’t know about our world, not to mention all that lives beyond it.

Bu in spite of all this, there has been a shift in the focus of or creativity. This shift may seem subtle but it is, I think, significant. Whereas discovery accepts the reality of the world as it is, invention attempts to re-create it. Neither discoverers nor inventers can claim a monopoly on virtue or take all the credit for improving the world. But when it comes to blame - blame for harming the world - inventers far exceed discoverers. Of course inventers usually don’t try and do this intentionally. But whether they do so intentionally or not, there is a different kind of arrogance that starts with a human construct outside of the natural order and imposes it upon the living world.

I say that this is a different kind of arrogance because I don’t wish to minimize the overweening pride of many discoverers and inventers alike. Without doubt the early explorers were often motivated by pride and their arrogance lead to much harm among conquered peoples. This is not all so different from many discoverers today who compete with each other in laboratories and in the field for recognition and prestige. It may even be true that the pride of discoverers is greater than that of inventers, who very often are more motivated by wealth than by pride.

But this is not the point I wish to emphasize. Human hubris - the kind that has disrupted our planet and threatens to destroy us in any number of ways - is a problem we have inherited from inventers and not so much from discoverers.

Now it is also true that inventers would have no basic building blocks to work with if it weren’t for the effort of the discoverers. And so it might be tempting to blame them as well, but this would be a mistake. I am not arguing for a cessation of inventions. In fact, if anything, I am asking for more - but for inventions of the right kinds - the kinds that respect the natural order of things.

There is nothing inherently wrong (or even sinful) about inventing, just as there is a lot of room for wrong (and even sin) in acts of discovery. The difference is that the act of discovery itself is grounded in the creation, and if it happens that the discoverer lacks any and all respect for the Creator, this grounding is at least a check on un-natural consequences.

The act of inventing, however, is a different thing. It often involves a modification of the natural order. When this saves lives or otherwise improves the world, it is commendable. As someone with a few patents to my name, I would be a hypocrite to argue otherwise.

But the part that we have ignored for too long is that there are consequences to everything we do. There are consequences that follow from natural events. These consequences are themselves part of the natural order. But consequences that stem from unnatural events can be an entirely different thing. Perhaps these consequences may be small - like a dry shirt as a consequence of using a clothespin on a rope. Or the consequence may be great - like the genocide of an atomic bomb. In some cases we don’t have the smallest idea of the consequences of the things that we invent.

But it’s about time that we started thinking about them a little more seriously, and stop supposing that invention is an unambiguous good. A good place to start is to ask the simple question about how an invention impacts the natural order. Subsequent questions follow naturally from this.

Come to think of it though, there’s even a more fundamental issue before we can ever start to ask this question. We need to start recognizing the fact that we are part of the natural order ourselves. When we ignore this, even while we unleash so many unnatural things upon the world, we risk much. Strange as it might seem, we need to “discover” again just how much a part of this order we belong to.

Daniel Boorstin pointed out several years ago that we are living more and more in a world of what he called pseudo-events. These are un-natural events that we as humans contrive for our convenience and pride and that now surround us and fill our lives to the exclusion of the natural order of things. A significant consequence of these many contrivances in our lives is that we are no longer grounded in reality. Boorstin writes,

“More and more of our experience thus becomes invention rather than discovery. The more planned and prefabricated our experience becomes, the more we include in it only what “interests” us. Then we can more effectively exclude the exotic world beyond our ken … and which we most need to make us more largely human.” (See The Image, A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America. Vintage Books (1987) p. 256.)

Of course the key issue here is a willingness to acknowledge that there is a natural order for us as humans and that it is not the same as for us as animals only. This was always evident to our ancestors – who in many ways were much wiser than we seem to be. This was evident to them because they were discoverers. They were discoverers of many things – including of what it means to be human.

So let’s continue to fill our patent offices with ways to improve the world. But let us be wise enough to realize that unless we also continue to discover what it means to be truly human, we run the very real risk of destroying ourselves and a whole lot more.

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