Daniel Dennett should play to his strength

At the Global Atheist Convention, in Melbourne Australia, in April 2012, Daniel Dennett was one of the speakers. Having seen Dennett interviewed, and thereby having felt him to be not one of those faintly hysterical tub-thumpers that can so easily ruin one’s digestion, I was eager – my being a devout doubter – to see whether this talk might contain some new thinking. It was entitled How To Tell You’re an Atheist.

I like the opening. I call it ‘outflanking the subject’, and I commend it in my courses and seminars. For nearly 3 minutes he appears to be discussing something completely different, thus distributing a layer of mystery over the proceedings and inducing curiosity in his audience. When he reveals the link between that and the matter in hand the audience shows its pent-up satisfaction with applause – a full 8 seconds of it (8 seconds is Par for spontaneous applause).

We can’t see a lectern, but it seems clear that when he looks down he is being prompted. Though I’d always prefer a speaker to be not at all dependent upon paper, I have to admit he manages it very well. It all comes across as spontaneous. I like the epistrophe (“…noticed this pattern”) at 4.20.

He proceeds to narrate research he has done with preachers who are secret atheists, so I am unsurprised to hear Dan Barker‘s name cropping up. I can feel myself getting nervous lest his arguments are going to go down the same old weary paths.

He gets from the audience a couple of laughs that are just a little too easy. I remind myself that this is a conference about and for atheism, so he is addressing a very sympathetic crowd, but still audiences don’t laugh that readily unless they’re a little nervous – in need of reassurance.

Dennett feels no such concern. On the contrary, those laughs persuade him to play to the gallery. In order to mock some theist argument, he affects a silly voice. That is a mistake: such devices cheapen the image of the speaker not his opposition. If you are going to play silly voices, you need to be better at it than this. Also subtlety would help.

Just after 18:30 he begins getting a little more serious, and moves into discussing the work of The Clergy Project, a support group for priests who have lost their faith. Apart from that neat opening, this is the best part of the talk so far. Furthermore when he gets back to atheism he covers areas that are less puerile than earlier, and this is a relief.

In fact this talk suddenly gets quite worth while for a time, only collapsing in the final minute when he absurdly asserts that a sense of humour is the exclusive preserve of the non-believer. What is true is that while he may be a fine philosopher, as a comedian he … is a fine philosopher.

Peter Millican concludes the God debate.

This is the sixth and final speaker at the Oxford Union God Debate. We have been working our way through the speeches of those offering arguments for and against the motion This House Believes in God. Professor Peter Millican is concluding the case against the motion.

If you have read any of this blog before you have only to look at that still picture to know what I am going to say first. Peter Millican, clutching that paper, is a talking head. Immediately at least 40% of his potential sparkle has been squandered by his being welded to that bloody script. It’s not just that it acts as a barrier between him and the audience, but also – as I have observed with other talking heads – he is speaking in written rather than spoken English. You do not have to look: merely listening you can tell that he is reading.

There’s a further detail that bothers me. For nearly all of the first five minutes, whenever Millican raises his eyes from the paper, he seems to look not at the audience but way above their heads. This can be a serious nerve symptom – frightened of eye-contact – or it could be that he is conscientiously including audience members in the gallery up there. If it is the first it’s a problem that should be addressed, if the second he is richly to be applauded.

Let’s look more closely at some specific points.

His hump does not last very long. You see a few symptoms like needless over-straightening of papers, a few brief seconds of not knowing where to put his hands, but it all calms down pretty quickly. At 0:42 he has a short period when he is speaking personally about Belief. His face comes up, he speaks directly to the audience and for 20 seconds he’s strongly communicating. If only he would continue like that! But he doesn’t. Like far too many people he regards the wisdom of his written reasoning as so brilliant and valuable that it must be read, whereas the tiny moments that he shoots from the hip he reserves for the asides. for the dross. It’s exactly the wrong way round.

Reading is full of difficulties that hem in your interpretative ability – and I should know: I often perform readings of poetry or prose. While preparing I smother my typescript in red ink annotations that guide me through the phrasing. You don’t need any of that when you are shooting from the hip. Listen to the sentence he begins at 2:55 and you hear a couple of small stumbles that typify momentary phrasing doubt and are very specific to reading. You may think I am being picky, and you’d be right, but for me it represents a huge screen separating a speaker from his audience. I want to take a sledge hammer to it.

The trouble with a debate on this motion is that it covers a subject that has been argued many times for many years (it might have been argued for many centuries but the church closed down debate on pain of combustibility). I classify myself as a devout doubter, who attends church fairly regularly because he finds the rituals spiritually refreshing (‘spiritual’ was a word rather conspicuous by its rarity in this debate). Whenever someone argues, as Millican does, that there is not a ‘shred of proof…’ I want to sigh that I had kinda noticed this. Indeed at 7:09 Peter Hitchens interjects that the motion is not that this house knows that there is a God, but that it believes there is a God. When I first spotted this debate and decided to delve into it I suppose I sought a completely fresh line of reasoning. It was a long shot. Barker and Shermer did not impress me with their arguments, principally because I had wearily heard nearly all of them before. Millican did no better. What was different about Lennox was the refreshing statement of faith which then turned into his mathematical proving of it. (Not being a mathematician I could not follow but, seduced by his childlike enthusiasm, I could enjoy.) Hitchens came very close to a fresh approach by defining belief as a matter of choice. I fear that Collicutt, because she was a talking head and because of her weird enunciation, turned me off completely.

That brings me back to my department – the quality of the actual speaking. The trophy goes to Hitchens. Shooting entirely from the hip his audience engagement and spontaneity of expression were of a very high standard. Barker and Shermer were not far behind, but they were treading paths that they had too obviously trodden often enough to have worn away a layer of spontaneity. Lennox deserted his script at a couple of key points, and when he did it was tremendously exciting – I wish he’d do that more. I fear that Millican and Collicutt, talking heads both, bring up the rear.

You may think I dwell too much on my no-paper obsession. You may think I regard it as a brilliant show-off, a circus stunt to be applauded for its own sake. No: it is what it does for the quality of the speaking. Yes, audiences do love it and are impressed by it (though if you are interesting enough they may not even notice). My love for paperless speaking stems from the way it sets a speaker free to engage spontaneously, almost intimately, with the audience. Done properly the speaker doesn’t lose the thread and doesn’t waffle. Anyone can be taught to do it: Hitchens did it. You may argue that he is a professional communicator, but what is a university lecturer if not one too? I don’t want to be hard on them: they are in a huge majority. Paperless speaking is shamefully and unnecessarily rare.

If I have begun to bore on the subject of talking heads, that is evidence alone of how widespread it is.

Dr Shermer delivers in stripes.

Dr Michael Shermer was the second to speak against the Oxford Union debate motion, This House Believes in God. Previous speakers had been John Lennox and Joanna Collicutt, for the motion, and Dan Barker, against.

Almost immediately there is a pulse-quickening puzzlement! Shermer seems to be heading madly for an argumentum ad populum – in reverse. He opens by quoting the Oxford World Christian Encyclopedia to the effect that 5.9 billion people – 84% of the world’s population – belong to a religion. Why inform us of a huge consensus when you are about to tell us they are wrong? Is this a double-bluff to heighten our interest? No.

The reasoning that he produces goes like this: there are thousands and thousands of religions, cults and sects. As they can’t all be right, this proves there is no God. Got that? Has he noticed that though there are many different types of car, Detroit exists? After a little to-ing and fro-ing it is after all argumentum ad populum because anyone who adheres to one liturgy is therefore at odds with all the billions that don’t.

So now we have it straight. A believer outnumbered by all those whose belief is slightly different must be completely wrong. A non-believer outnumbered by believers is nevertheless right, presumably because believers accumulate an unassailable store of wrongness every time they are outnumbered by other believers. Good: I’m glad we cleared up that doubt.

Speaking of doubt, he wears on his lapel a brooch in the shape of a word – Skeptic. You may think this appropriate for the founder of the Skeptics Society (I hope that is a plural and not evidence that they don’t believe in apostrophes either). I regard myself as a sceptic (I spell it the English way): I cleave to the quotation from André Gide, “Believe those who are seeking the truth. Doubt those who find it.” My trouble is that I find in his total conviction evidence that he is actually not a sceptic at all. If he was saying “I don’t believe it, and here’s why…” his position would be much more respectable than what he appears to offer, “It’s all nonsense, and I can prove it”.

As a speaker he is actually not bad at all. While he is churning out the statistics of all the religions of the world for the first minute of the speech, he is constantly referring to a sheet of paper. Some readers might be surprised that I applaud this. If you are obviously quoting from another source, being seen to read what you are quoting adds verisimilitude. At around 1:15 he puts the paper down and starts shooting from the hip. He presents what I call a Contents Page, outlining how he proposes to state his case, and this will be in two sections. Off he goes on the first section as fluent as can be, and reaches  its end at 7:25.

At this point everything changes. It appears that his first section was a familiar module whereas the second less so. He turns to the dispatch box, picks up a stack of papers and transforms into a talking head for an essay. It is a really stark illustration of the difference between speaking and reading. Yes, there is plenty of material in this section when he again is quoting other sources but for five minutes with his face glued to a script a huge amount of his engagement of his audience evaporates. Just before 13:00 he puts the paper down for half a minute and back comes the engagement!  And these stripes of engagement and non-engagement happen again – and always they are caused by paper. He is brilliantly supporting the message I constantly repeat.

The moral for him and everyone could not be clearer: learn how to bin your paper!

Dan Barker wears eye-catching braces at the Oxford Union God Debate.

When you have an argument that is both unverifiable and unfalsifiable, existing only as a matter of faith, and when that argument has been joined countless times over the ages by a large number of very clever people, then holding yet another debate on the same subject is itself an act of faith. You are hoping that either someone will say something completely new or that a previously promoted facet to the argument will be put in a new way or that someone will express themselves with such potent charisma that even a weary commonplace will suddenly seem fresh. It was this last hope that attracted me as a student of speaking to the Oxford Union God Debate. John Lennox, opening the batting for the motion, came very close to fulfilling that, How would Dan Barker follow?

Oh dear! That still picture that YouTube has caused to represent this video has Barker looking mighty fierce. Be reassured: he isn’t.

He opens with a very strong introduction. Before becoming an atheist he had been an ordained minister for a great many years, preaching the gospel of Jesus. That’s about as good an ethos as you could want under the circumstances. He has another detail up his sleeve though – a joke. In describing how evangelical he was, he quotes Richard Dawkins as having written that he was the sort of preacher you wouldn’t want to sit next to on a bus. It gets a good laugh, and deserves to because of the way he delivers it. There’s a problem though: it instantly triggered in my mind the realisation that the gospels have his case covered in the parable of the sower.

I find myself torn! On the one hand he graphically stokes up his ethos and gets an excellent laugh, on the other he slightly over-eggs it in the process and (for me personally) actually weakens the ethos. I am a very long way from being a theologian, but I did pass Scripture O-level (half a century ago).  If I, then who else would suddenly think of the seed that fell on stony ground? I really don’t know how I would advise him.

Barker has obviously said much of this before. He has been in essence a professional atheist for many years; and he is able to stand, paperless, and let the arguments pour out of him. As a fierce advocate of paperless speaking, I am delighted at how powerful that makes him.

He needs that power. Even though the intellectually lazy might regard his stance as self-evident, it’s all much more complex than that. His case is not easy: you cannot prove a negative. The best you can do is break down the arguments of those trying to prove the positive. Meanwhile they do not have to prove anything: they merely have to affirm their faith. I am impressed that, rather than merely revisiting his normal schtick, he is tailoring his case to address the specific arguments promoted just a few minutes before by Lennox. He even eyeballs Lennox sometimes while doing it.

Nevertheless there is one idiotically trivial detail that bothers me. I am not exaggerating when I call it trivial. Have you ever sat in the open-air sunshine intending to read a book, and had a fly constantly buzzing around your head till, maddened, you retreat indoors? For me, Barker’s braces are that fly! He is a musician. His braces are patterned like a piano keyboard.  I spotted them when he did a high hand-gesture and the jacket opened just enough to reveal them. Thereafter they are a perpetual distraction. There I am, trying to concentrate on what he is saying, and I’m thinking about those bloody braces.

Suddenly I am reminded of a television interview I saw with the great Vladimir Horowitz. The legendary pianist was wearing a keyboard-pattern bow-tie, and at the end of the interview I couldn’t remember a word he’d said. Now, decades later, I still can’t remember what he said; but I remember the tie. Am I seriously saying that it is tiny things like this that can sabotage a speech? Yes, I am afraid I might be.

The Oxford Union God Debate – coming soon!

I recently had fun with a debate from The Oxford Union on a motion concerned with Occupy Wall Street. If you missed it my coverage of that begins here.

YouTube knows what it’s doing when it comes to advertising, so inevitably every time I went there to look at the speeches my eye was caught by offerings from another Oxford Union event whose shorthand title was The God Debate. I resolved to take a closer look.

The motion was This House Believes in God. I was interested in how the matter would be argued. In my experience it is a subject whose reasoning seems to attract not only profundity – which you might expect – but also too often a level of jaw-droppingly puerile shallowness. Surely we should expect the best from the Oxford Union. We shall see.

If you are – like me – a sad git that studies rhetoric, then a debate gets really interesting as it returns the art to its roots. The teachings of the classical masters, from Corax to Cicero, were all concerned with adversarial speaking – whether legal or political. That is not to say that we should expect these adversarial speakers to orate as if standing on the Pnyx (look it up); but there are classical structural techniques that we might see.

We may also see logical fallacies being deployed. There are several such, but these days there are a few favourites –

  • Argumentum ad populum – the headcount argument: “Everyone else believes this, so there”.
  • Argumentum ad verecundiam – the authority argument: “I was told this by someone who knows stuff.”

I sincerely hope the speakers will not descend to –

  • Argumentum ad baculum – the threat argument: “If you don’t say you agree with me I’ll smash your face in.”
  • Argumentum ad hominem – the personal argument: “He was once seen in a strip club, so you can’t believe him.”

If I seem to have dealt rather flippantly with these it is for clarity. Their usual deployment is somewhat more subtle. For instance baculum could concern the withholding of research funding. I shall add these to the glossary page if and when they occur.

I want to cover all six speeches in the order they were delivered. I am indebted to one of the speakers, Peter Hitchens, for publishing his recollection of the order because I could not find the information anywhere else. 

Professor John Lennox – for the motion

Dan Barker – against

Dr Joanna Collicutt McGrath – for

Dr Michael Shermer – against

Peter Hitchens – for

Professor Peter Millican – against.

That race card is packing some serious authority. My expectations are high and I am hugely looking forward to covering this. The first posting should appear in a couple of days.

[N.B. I have hitherto carefully ignored the spelling mistake of ‘arguement’ that consistently appears in the posting notice on YouTube for bits of Oxford Union video –  it was always there for the previous debate I covered. I can contain myself no longer because for this debate it has been joined by the word ‘existance’. I fervently hope this is not the work of an Oxford student.]