ADELAIDE - Our very earliest ancestors were a very nervous lot indeed and had good cause to be.
They were small, slow, not very strong and had virtually no inbuilt weapons like large teeth and claws. They were easy prey for a host of predators.
They understood very little about the world in which they lived. The causes of natural phenomena were impenetrable mysteries to them. Events like earthquakes, eclipses, storms, disease and death were even more terrifying for being inexplicable.
To make sense of the natural world, our ancestors used their large brains, imaginations and mastery of language to create and describe vivid supernatural worlds, populated by gods of various kinds, their ancestors’ ghosts and any number of evil beings upon who could be cast blame for the horrible things that happened from time to time.
This supernatural world was a scary place, populated by beings both malevolent and benign. Humans could only exert influence over what happened there by observing certain rituals which ranged from prayer to human sacrifice.
Over time these simple belief systems changed into more and more complex religious systems through which a priestly cast could exert social, political and even economic control over their societies.
In this way, the ignorance and superstitious fear which afflicted most people in pre-modern societies could be usefully harnessed to direct how a society operated, almost invariably in ways that favoured the rich and powerful.
The European world was essentially governed and controlled in this way until about 1500, when the Renaissance triggered a scientific revolution that began to offer demonstrably true explanations for many previously inexplicable natural phenomena.
The rise of science threatened the primacy of the ubiquitous Roman Catholic Church and thus was not uncontested.
For example, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), an accomplished astronomer and scientist, was found guilty of heresy because he proclaimed that the heliocentric model for the solar system first proposed by Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) was in fact correct.
The Catholic Church of that period held that the Sun and Stars all revolved around the Earth, which thus was the centre of God's universe. It insisted that this was the truth, despite all evidence to the contrary, and described Galileo's views as "foolish and absurd".
Galileo was thus placed under house arrest for the remainder of his life, with his meticulously researched and documented discoveries being suppressed until after his death.
Of course, any primary school student now knows that Galileo was entirely correct. In fact, the Catholic Church knew this too but suppressed his ideas not because they were wrong but because they threatened to undermine a key source of its power, which was the ability to offer supernatural explanations to the ignorant and credulous for entirely natural events.
So determined has the Catholic Church been to do this that it is only comparatively recently (1950) that it conceded that Darwin's Theory of Evolution was not inconsistent with its beliefs.
Of course, still today there remain fundamentalist Christian groups all over the world who insist that Darwin is wrong and they preach creationism instead.
So it seems the persistence of belief in the supernatural is a more or less universal phenomenon. Even educated people in supposedly sophisticated societies cling to belief systems for which there is no credible evidence and, to the contrary, much evidence that such systems are based upon entirely wrong ideas.
These comments bring me Jordan Dean's article yesterday proclaiming that sorcery and sanguma are real. Jordan offers what he regards as proof of this fact by offering anecdotal examples, apparently from his personal experience.
Wardley Barry’s commentary below offered the following remarks on Jordan's article:
"I am convinced that most of the headlines (about alleged sorcerers) which read ‘falsely accused’ are misguided.
“The accused are in fact guilty but our courts lack the traditional and spiritual tools to administer justice.
“There is a need to bridge the chasm between the courts and culture — spiritualism is part of our culture and it is not ignorant. Only then can justice be truly served."
While I was perturbed by Jordan's comments, I was positively alarmed by Wardley's.
What he is effectively saying is that supernatural forces are real and that the legal system and other institutions of Papua New Guinea should reflect this fact.
In making their comments, Jordan and Wardley are flying in the face of modern science and, in a broader sense, of modernity.
They are also, whether they understand this or not, proposing a massive socio-political regression back to the darkest days of fear, ignorance and superstition that bedevilled pre-colonial PNG.
To the extent that there is any truth in what they apparently believe, it lies in the fact that people can persuade themselves that they have been the subject of sorcery and then inflict illness, disability and even death upon themselves through the power of that belief.
While this illustrates rather graphically the power of the human mind, it is in no way evidence that sorcery is real, merely that belief in sorcery can produce real effects. This is a very important distinction.
Scientists have repeatedly demonstrated the healing power of belief, commonly referred to as the placebo effect, whereby because a patient believes that a medical procedure or drug will work, it does work. This occurs even if the procedure is faked or the drug taken is in fact inert.
It follows from this that if a person strongly believes in malign sorcery then he or she is liable to fall victim to it.
It is significant that in the colonial era it rapidly became apparent to so-called sorcerers that their efforts to harm or kill Europeans invariably failed.
It was sometimes assumed that they were invulnerable to sorcery because of the power of their own (usually Christian) belief systems. However, the simple explanation was that Europeans did not believe in the supposed power of sorcery and ignored it, so it didn't work.
Let's be very clear about the supernatural: it is an invention of human beings and has no existence outside of the imaginations of believers.
The science on this is crystal clear, with not one shred of credible evidence to sustain the idea that there exists a world outside of the natural order of the universe. This applies to Christian belief systems just as much as it does to those traditionally found in PNG.
Consequently, there is no plausible way that any lawyer could rationally or logically demonstrate that sorcery or any other supposedly supernatural phenomena are real.
Jordan and Wardley are entirely wrong in their beliefs, but I doubt that anything I say can change their minds.
As a direct consequence, they make themselves vulnerable to those who maliciously use the beliefs of others to manipulate them or do them harm.
It was ever thus: the ignorant, the credulous and the stupid are easy prey for the many human predators living in our midst.
It will be an evil day indeed for PNG if Jordan and Wardley's notions about the supernatural world are acknowledged as even plausible let alone true.