Lessons we might have missed
Australian resilience is an oxymoron

The difficult road to modernity


ADELAIDE – In an insightful piece, ‘A Place, A Time & Lessons Learned, Jim Moore writes that “we humans share so many common traits and characteristics that transcend time and place [and] we need to recognise that we don't know it all... that we’re not members of an exceptional tribe”.

We humans do indeed share many common characteristics, and simultaneously our different cultures create endless opportunities for misunderstanding and conflict.

Superimpose upon these many fracture lines a whole range of philosophical, religious and ideological ideas, that we sometimes unthinkingly adhere to, and the opportunities for confusion and conflict are multiplied many times.

Those in Europe who created what we call the Age of Enlightenment in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries sought to, amongst much else, replace what they understood as irrationality and illogic with something profoundly different.

In doing so they invented the modern world and its crowning jewel, the scientific method.

A necessary feature of the scientific method is that, while much can be learned and known about our world with a high level of confidence in its basic truth, the inherent uncertainty of our universe means that there must always be an acceptance that there will always be gaps in our knowledge.

This means that, as new things are discovered or understood, so we must adjust our understanding of the world. Thus a scientific 'truth' can change with the acquisition of more and better knowledge and insight.

But the radical doubt and uncertainty required by science is intolerable and unsettling to people whose dogma requires uncritical acceptance of, and adherence to, a particular world view, be it religious, philosophical or ideological.

This leads to anti-intellectualism and anti-scientific thinking, which is vividly on display in our supposedly developed world at the moment.

In this world we inhabit some people are literally choosing to die rather than accept what is demonstrably true, such as that Covid-19 is a real and lethal disease.

As Jim Moore noted, at present vox populi (the voice of the people) is distant not only from justice but from observable reality as well.

Seen in this context, some of the behaviours, attitudes and thinking that we confronted in Papua New Guinea long ago are more explicable.

They reflect the sort of pre-enlightenment thinking that our own ancestors manifested a very short time ago and which still persist today despite, for example, an education system that was supposed to consign these ideas to the dustbin of history.

We kiaps and other representatives of the colonial regime attempted to reconcile the belief systems of Papua New Guineans with the concepts and ideas of what we regarded as the 'modern world’.

Sometimes this worked and sometimes it didn't. This is still the situation today, and it is the same in Australia, the USA and the UK as well.

So here we are, 50 years later, still baffled at how our species can keep repeating the obvious errors of the past despite all of the advantages conferred by fantastic science and technology.

Someone once said that we humans have medieval minds combined with modern technology and I think that is a fair description of the situation for perhaps the great majority of humanity.

In that sense, Papua New Guinea is probably little different today than it was in 1960.

It seems that the road to true modernity is likely to be much longer and harder than anyone could have anticipated.


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