glyph 379: philosophy, religion, law, economics, reason, logic, tradition, myth ... spontaneous and designed orders ... civilization as an "extended order" ... the limits of man-like minds and the capacity of tradition to carry more information than we can derive from logic and science ... a caution against taking things apart that hold together only because of generally accepted stories ... denaturing the fabric of advanced civilizations by the heat of reason ... reason's response to this threat ... caution in the midst of daring, an entrepreneurial style of object-oriented composition resting on awareness of the power of limits


Hayek — Religion, Agnosticism, Support of Civilization

the fatal conceit: arrogant overestimation of the capacities of human-like minds

F. A. Hayek's The Fatal Conceit, tells the story of the evolution of a civilization, an "extended order", supportive of a high degree of individual choice of life paths. He explains how such order arose without design or foresight and is continually challenged by the conceit that we know how it works and that, without concern for adverse effects, we can remodel it in any manner that seems good. He warns us that this overestimation of our power is dangerous.

He ends the book with a reflection on the importance of religion:

So far as I personally am concerned I had better state that I feel as little entitled to assert as to deny the existence of what others call God, for I must admit that I just do not know what this word is supposed to mean. I certainly reject every anthropomorphic, personal, or animistic interpretation of the term, interpretations through which many people succeed in giving it meaning. The conception of a man-like or mind-like acting being appears to me rather the product of an arrogant overestimation of the capacities of a man-like mind. I cannot attach meaning to words that in the structure of my own thinking, or in my picture of the world, have no place that would give them meaning. It would thus be dishonest of me were I to use such words as if they expressed any belief that I hold.

I long hesitated whether to insert this personal note here, but ultimately decided to do so because support by a professed agnostic may help religious people more unhesitatingly to pursue those conclusions that we do share. Perhaps what many people mean in speaking of God is just a personification of that tradition of morals or values that keeps their community alive. The source of order that religion ascribes to a human-like divinity — the map or guide that will show a part successfully how to move within a whole — as we now learn to see to be not outside the physical world but one of its characteristics, one far too complex for any of its parts possibly to form an 'image' or 'picture' of it. Thus religious prohibitions against idolatry, against the making of such images, are well taken. Yet perhaps most people can conceive of abstract tradition only as a personal Will. If so, will they not be inclined to find this will in 'society' in an age in which more overt supernaturalisms are ruled out as superstitions?

On that question may rest the survival of our civilization.

Hayek's The Fatal Conceit is a treasure of insight into freeorder, i.e., quest- and life-supportive balances between designed and spontaneous orders. -leif smith
February 19, 2007; edited/updated May 15, 2022

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