Are we headed for more Calvin Ball?

Bishop Robert Barron uses the recent Kathy Griffin event as a spring-board to discuss in this video the trend over the last century away from objectivity and towards voluntarism. Comparing this to Calvin ball (from the Calvin and Hobbes cartoons) might make it seem relatively quaint and harmless, but are we really seeing the effects of this at a more serious level? Instead of a six year old kid having fun in the back yard, these are increasingly well-armed people commanding forces and wielding bombs.

Could it be that there need to be alliances formed just to re-evangelize objectivity to the world? Can (or should) religions x or y overlook their differences and come together to restore sanity? Science is not immune from this either and may need all the religious allies it can get. Or is this just the most recent manifestation of an age-old problem, and it too shall pass?


Barron is absolutely right, but seems to leave the impression that to avoid us all fighting each other, we should all recognise the need for reason. However it seems to me that those influencing opinion (note the campuses as the swellspring of such activism) have read Foucault and Nietsche, just as the leftist revolutionaries of former generations read the latter and knew how to manipulate “reasonable people” to outflank them and gain power - by appearing to appeal to reason.

An annual survey of attitudes in the UK has just come out, showing a profound shift in the view of Christians towards liberal views on single sex marriage, transgenderism, extramarital sex and even the longstanding issue of abortion (probably other things than the sexual too, but those were what press reports picked up). Now, that’s despite the fact that scarcely any mainstream denomination, apart from the Church of Scotland, has yet officially abandoned biblical teaching on these (which is to say, their theologians still insist it is biblical teaching, by objective reasoning).

Why? Because those engineering change know about manipulating opinion, whereas the Christians, used to the idea that one should discuss and reason, don’t. So they get manipulated to conform to the world, rather than being transformed by God’s word… That in turn depends on seeing biblical teaching as just another opinion in the mix rather than an objective standard. That idea too comes from the academy, where theologians too like the idea of postmodern voluntarism.

I agree with the re-evangelisation - but that requires proclamation of truth, perhaps, rather than pleading the virtues of reason amongst those who know very well the virtues of will-to-power (even when veiled in Foucault’s “power is oppression” terms).

This is correct, and those manipulators inevitably insist they are bringing freedom, avoiding discrimination, providing values that lead to the well being of everyone. Yet anyone who questions them and their motives will soon understand how free they wish for others.

The astonishing thing to me is the fact that, for example, same sex marriages in a recent census would account for less than 0.2% of the population, and yet they have invented terms (eg homophobic) which are meaningless but now accepted by politicians, and have dominated political discussion.

It is simply extraordinary that such a small proportion of a population should have such a disproportionate impact. It is a testimony to the powerful means available for mass media, but especially the education system - and the skill of some of these people.

Manipulations of reason are certainly commonplace and nearly always fresh on our minds from some event or another. @Jon_Garvey, might it be fair to observe that Barron is highlighting the necessity of reason, and you --while agreeing with him-- are nevertheless pointing out the insufficiency of reason? I imagine Barron would agree with us if we added that reason needs its axiomatic (faith) basis on which to perform its work. And that faith basis can be expanded dramatically to smuggle in a great many things prior to reason, for which reason then merely provides post-hoc justification. If I discern this correctly, then a large part of our battle might be to restore reason from its meager enlisted status back to its full officer rank. And then also (more importantly) to be culling back what all we admit into our axiomatic corpus. We Christians have a ready answer for that last part, even if we argue over many things from Scripture, we still have it broadly in common, and the rest of civilization has inherited much from the same even while they are casting about (as yet unsuccessfully) for something good to replace it.

I think there are two things being considered here.

The first would be ‘objectivity’

I’m all for objectivity and reason. ‘Reason’ can be shared but what we think constitutes ‘objectivity’ is a bit hazy. Math can be pretty objective. That is, one can identify the key axioms upon which reasoning will work and that tends toward conclusions that all participants will share. Science also achieves varying degrees of objectivity. There tend to be a larger number of axiomatic assumptions to be considered in science and many assumptions are more subject to reasonable dissent. Consequently, there tends to be less firm agreement on many conclusions and the results of such ‘reasoning’ are held more tentatively.

Achieving objectivity in social mechanics and politics is even more difficult. It’s not as bad as say, trying to assess art or sport team preferences objectively, but it’s very easy to make the case that perfectly reasonable people are likely to disagree about politics or some historical social ‘norms’.

Religious objectivity… well. I’m not too sure about that. People within a religious group can agree on any number of axioms or ‘divine commands’ and reason from them. However, given the less-than-objectively-communicable nature of the starting axioms, you’ll find that reasonable people can disagree with the both the starting position and the conclusions.

For example, many axioms Bishop Barron and the Catholic Church consider ‘objective’ are not shared across other Christian denominations, other religions, or other perfectly reasonable and rational people. Given the set of axioms or ‘objective truths’ held by Barron, I can reason to many of his conclusions he reaches. The problem is justifying the axioms. Consider something like birth control or the role of women in the church. Many Christian groups diverge significantly from the conclusions of Roman Catholic philosophical tradition.

What I think has happened (and what has happened many times in the past), is that certain axioms – perhaps bettered described as largely shared assumptions – are being reconsidered across society. This translates to shifts in behavior and changes in what people conclude. This is not a complete replacement of societal axioms and anarchy, but a shift in a few.

The second issue to consider is ‘civility’ and the ability to discuss different opinions calmly and respectfully. I would add to this the growing tendency to promulgate and tolerate outright lies.

This is not about ‘objectivity’ but rhetoric and emotional appeals over reason. Bishop Barren can point to Ms. Griffith, but he could also point to many other examples like the antics of Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingram, Alex Jones and Rush Limbaugh. And we’ve seen desperate, despicable acts like the recent shooting of US Congress people on a baseball field, the bombing of abortion clinics, the executions of staff working in the clinics, the Oklahoma City bombing, the Bundy brothers’ takeover of the Oregon Wildlife Refuge, the bombing of a recent concert in Manchester UK and the retaliatory car attack on people leaving a UK Mosque. This is not so much a liberal/conservative divide but a ratcheting up of incendiary rhetoric and casting those who disagree as dangerous ‘others’.

Still, I’m not in ‘The Sky is Falling’ camp. Yes, with relatively recent norms things are not so happy, but if we go back 60+ years one can find some pretty horrible characters and events in US history. And frankly, I don’t want to go back to the days of even 20 years ago in terms of social norms.

There are two ways in which reason might be said to be insufficient. I had in mind the first, which is that reason is powerless against the unreasonable, though superior. I’m reminded of Ecclesiastes “Wisdom is better than folly, but…” So on the one hand there’s a need to get people to be wise as serpents to see through manipulation before they can be innocent as doves in employing it.

The second insufficiency, I guess, is that (depending partly how you define reason) it is simply not the sole source of authentic knowledge. As Plantinga says, fiath in God, like belief in other minds, may be properly basic. But that wasn’t what I had in mind, and I guess it wasn’t what you were talking about either!

While it might be tricky to get some sort of comprehensive definition of objectivity, I would think short of that we could at least agree to an ingredient or two that all objectivity should have: and one such ingredient I propose would be its common availability to all thinking observers. That is part of what we mean by objective is it not? If you can’t hear the voices in my head, then that should hardly be considered objective, but if we can both look into a telescope eye piece and see a disc in the sky, then that observable phenomenon is. Of course, I’m trying [again!] to start into a book called “Godel, Escher, Bach” where even reason itself seems to be under scrutiny. But short of that, I think we can nearly all agree that an objective world exists for our apprehension. And that is a significant common ground for all sorts of people with religious and scientific inclinations (and often both) to be acting on and promoting, no?

…before they can be innocent as doves in employing … manipulation? Actually I guess I should assume you meant wisdom there, seeing the context of your sentence and knowing you. I was struck by Barron’s assertion that after argument (reason) is removed, all that is left is the clash of wills. Given the tragically commonplace occurrence of war all throughout human history, I guess one could note that this happens / has happened frequently. It might be an interesting exercise to ask in what sense you would think of an unreasoning agent as possibly superior? Superior power to enforce its will? I guess that is “superiority” of a sort – the same sort of superiority that the Roman centurions and mobs exercised over Jesus. I think our current world follows most of historical humanity in admiring such “superiority” and chasing after it. But it is far from unreasoning. We enlist reasoning to help us chase after such things which may finally leave us as Christians to wonder how different our axiomatic beginning points are from Jesus.

Actually, Merv, it was a Freudian slip revealing that I really want an anti-science theocracy based on lying for Jesus… on the other hand, I might just have been using “it” as a referent for the first thought in the paragraph, ie reason!

On your reference to the commonality of experience (of a disc in the sky, say) that is the basis of all shared knowledge, of course. But as many have said, perception is highly theory based - a modern person doesn’t actually see discs in the sky, but an (inferred) massive spheroid, whilst someone else may see … God’s provision of the government of the seasons.

In that case both would be valid, but (assuming recalcitance on the part of one or both parties) a clash of “reason” based on different starting points. At a more limited scale, reason might share axioms and lead to resolution: for example, person B says the disc is evidently a disc (painted on the sky), in which case scientific investigation would resolve the matter.

Or of course, a Brit like me might insist it’s a disk, not a disc, and start a war over it.

I’m sure doctoral theses have been written detailing the theoretical nature of human perception, but as a “man-on-the-street” in that regard, I am satisfied to insist that the disk (I’m hoping to avoid war with you theocratic Brits!) as it manifests on the retinas of the beholders is the objective part; i.e. available to all, and their understanding of it as either an enormous spheroid, a circle painted on the ceiling/sky, a sign put there by God to mark off the seasons, or some combination of those things … that all of those options are the less objective, potentially theory-laden part of the manifestation. Though having space craft fly by and see their circular profiles maintained from any arbitrary direction certainly brings their spherical natures into the realm of objectivity eliminating the painted disk option for anyone who isn’t nursing conspiracy theories about the space program.

Ah, that rumour about conspiracy theories has just been put about by the Illuminati to hide the fact that the earth is flat.

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