The challenge of life is often to make decisions during times of uncertainty. The larger the uncertainty, the more difficult the decision. However, many of the most important decisions cannot be avoided, however uncertain the situation.
As a result, human societies have developed a variety of methods to overcome uncertainty, some sophisticated, some sensible and some that are downright silly. But often the importance of these methods is not their accuracy but their ability to progress decision-making.
One of these approaches is religion. Religion operates as a mechanism to overcome the innate information problems of life. For some, at the end of rationality comes religion, partly explaining the tension between science and religion.
Of course religion is not the only mechanism for overcoming uncertainties of life. Another is heroic belief in human institutions and rationality. This is what the Enlightenment was about, and this movement appears to have reached some kind of peak in the mid/late 20th Century, when people really believed that everything was about to be discovered, and man would have, and should have, total control over his environment.
In recent decades, Western societies appear to have retreated somewhat from such both fuedal-era dependence on spiritual leaders, and modernist-era belief in big science, largely because of the Enlightenment and then the realisation that everything was more complex than first imagined. And so uncertainty has returned, and this has made us slightly uncomfortable. Hence post-modernity, and all the angst associated with it.
After the retreat of the state, and big-state worship, came the belief that the markets could, almost magically, resolve the difficulties of complex modern societies. People talked of the ‘invisible hand’, though rarely in the way that the phrase’s original author intended.
Humans tend towards faith, and so it was almost inevitable that their trust in the market would go too far. Hence the current problems we can see in the financial markets.
It could be worse, however. In the first half of the twentieth century, people’s obsessive faith in the nation-state led the world into massive, and murderous, wars. Meanwhile, previous generations’ faith in religious leaders led not to peace and prosperity, but centuries of mysticism, peculiar practices and institutional corruption and money-making on a scale that dwarfs even the largest of today’s City bonuses.
As such, it is difficult to read the recent comments of the Archbishops of York and Canterbury, criticising the workings of the financial markets with much respect. Indeed, I am tempted to believe that their problem with the market is not really drawn from a moral perspective but because market solutions to society’s problems appear to be in competition with those advocated by God’s right-hand men.
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