Was lasagne discovered or invented? No, this isn’t a cry for help.
What keeps you up at night, dear reader? The prospect of a second term for the current occupant of the White House? Existential dread? A lifetime of regret? Whatever it is, knowing that you’re a reader of The Saint, you should probably get help for it. What keeps me up are the big questions of the day: Are we alone in the universe? Is there life after death? Was lasagne invented or discovered? That last one may seem ever so slightly out of place, but hear me out.
There are new inventions all the time, but what really is there to separate, say, Samsung’s new flip smartphone from the discovery of COVID-19? At this point, I would imagine you are thinking that the former is an invention, the latter a discovery. And you would be lexicologically correct: Dictionary.com defines “invention” as “to originate or create as a product of one’s own ingenuity, experimentation, or contrivance.” And by this definition, lasagne is an invention, too. Problem solved. Article over. See you next time.
NOT QUITE! 1. Dictionaries are meaningless and ; 2. Invention as denoting discovery is a modern concept. The archaic usage of “invent” is objectively different from the contemporary definition, you see. Rather than being the result of ‘one’s own ingenuity’, an archaic “invention” was ‘to come upon, find’. This is because ‘invent’ comes from the Latin inventu , itself meaning to encounter, come upon, find. So, for the first millennium and a bit, we saw invention as the process of discovering something already in existence.
One could, by that definition, say that fire was invented, just like the wheel; whereas now, it is consensus that fire was discovered, the wheel invented. So a clear, objective distinction has been made between the former and latter, on the basis that rather than being already in existence, it was human brilliance—not some predeterminate cosmic endowment—that the wheel came into being.
This leads us to the titular question which has been keeping me up at night: does the existence of the ingredients required to “invent” lasagne—meat, pasta, sauce—mean that lasagne existed before the ingredients were combined, or was it the point at which the ingredients were so deliciously combined for the first time that lasagne could be said to have been “invented?” Of course, this need not apply just to lasagne. You could take anything that has ever been in existence—say, maracas or the name Jessica—and the same logic applies. Or even things that have yet to exist— like curtains for your glasses that allow you to block out what’s in front of you, or Victoria sponge in which pesto is used in place of jam.
In the world of mathematics, there is a not-so-delicious but nonetheless similar debate over whether numbers are real or imaginary (pun definitely intended.) On one side are the Platonists and nominalists, who believe that the concept of numbers is embedded in our universe, and numbers would exist in all their dullness whether we happened to be here or not. On the other side are the fictionalists, who believe in numbers as a human invention—that is, that we created numbers from our need to quantitatively categorise and make some sense of the world we exist within.
To the fictionalist, numbers are simply false; that is to say the rules governing mathematics are baloney, and two plus two may as well equal lasagne as four. If you’re still having a bit of trouble with this, think of the fictionalists as the mathematical equivalent of the flat earthers (come on history, prove me wrong!)
I think these debates—Platonist-nominalist vs fictionalist; cosmic lasagne vs human lasagne—are more important than you would perhaps imagine. They represent a secular shift towards a belief in the self-determination of our species; the shift from a worshipping of God to a worshipping of ourselves. Or, rather more simply, the “invention” of lasagne as creation rather than discovery is symbolic of the move into anthropocentrism. Extending this conclusion further, if we just began again to believe that lasagne—like all other things that ever were, are, will or could be in existence— existed already in the memory banks of the universe, then perhaps we could avoid the very much man-made climate change and save our planet from becoming one big oven in which we are the human lasagne. So whilst you’re lying in bed counting sheep, or sleep paralysis demons—really, go get help for that— I’ll be thinking about who I can thank for lasagne. Oh, and also my not-so-future nonexistence in which lasagne, and me, and all the other things I love will be swallowed up into the vast, unforgiving expanse of the universe as a result of the insatiable human appetite for more : money, clothes, cars,… lasagne. Until that point, however, and after eight-hundred of my finest words, my perennial question remains unanswered.