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Can society function in an epistemic crisis?

  • 10 November 2023
The recent national debate over whether to enshrine the rights of First Nations Peoples in Australia's Constitution has laid bare a troubling gap in our public discourse, with clear deficiencies in our ability to engage in constructive and respectful dialogue. It seems we're at an impasse, where a once-unifying conversation has devolved into a battleground with an intense clash of viewpoints threatening social conceptions of the common good.

And this isn’t just a matter of differing opinions. Rapid advances in our digital landscape have altered how individuals and society at large perceive reality, splintering the communal lens through which we once viewed our world and our responsibilities within it.

Now, more than ever, it is crucial to address how these divergent perceptions of reality affect our dedication to our societal obligations and the upkeep of our shared core values. If left unchecked, this drift away from a shared understanding of the common good will further undermine trust and mutual respect that bind us together, challenging the very foundations of a humane, civilised and inclusive society.


To understand how we got here, we need to look back with a wide-angle lens. Over the course of human evolution, symbols, sounds and languages have been developed to create and share meaning,  allowing us to share, interpret, and understand the world around us. This evolution was facilitated and complemented by the development of higher-order cognitive capabilities in the frontal cortex of our brains; the parts that govern memory, language, reasoning and problem solving. With the development of these cognitive processes, primal instincts, visceral emotions, brute force and superstition have progressively given way to science, reason, shared knowledge and an evolving hierarchy of rules and values that shape the relationship between the individual and the collective. 

The principles that shape social relationships in contemporary Western societies are largely derived from 18th century Enlightenment values that assert the inalienable rights of individuals to life, liberty, equality, dignity, property, justice, and with State authority derived from the collective will of its citizens. In this shift, the light of reason began to outshine the lamps of belief and the divine right of kings. The Enlightenment instilled a deep-seated belief in individualism and rational thought, in the notion that we are always moving forward, propelled by the twin engines of innovation and scientific inquiry. It also signalled a move away from the shadows of monarchy, the dictates of religion, the chains of superstition, and