Berlinski and Hitchens: amazing debate

The late Christopher Hitchens is everywhere on YouTube, ferociously debating those who espouse religions of all types, and in my previous post I said that I avoided watching. This is true, but more because of the sterility of argument rather than a criticism of Hitchens. My having covered in depth the Oxford Union God Debate, it seemed to me that it always seemed to culminate in a Monty Python argument, with each side automatically gainsaying the other. And again this is not necessarily a reflection on the antagonists, but on the matter in hand. There is no proof, only faith. Therefore these debates are merely confrontations between the fundamentalist followers of two beliefs. Atheists might deny theirs is a belief, asserting that it is an absence of belief, but this is wrong. They believe fundamentally that there is no God.

I have little patience with fundamentalism of any sort. Peter Ustinov observed that “Beliefs are what divide people. Doubt unites them.” It is in the exploration of doubt that I believe the search for truth lies. For that reason, I am afraid my knee-jerk instinct when meeting someone’s conviction is to challenge it.

The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.  W.B.Yeats

Having long given up wasting time watching these debates, I came across David Berlinski being interviewed on Uncommon Knowledge. As a professor of mathematics seeking after truth, he likewise was challenging universally-held convictions wherever he found them. From Darwinism to global warming, he was delightfully dismissive of the paucity of scientific rigour applied; and what I found particularly appealing was that his standpoint was never that of one harbouring opposing beliefs but one with the humility to admit that he did not know the truth but was uneasy with the reasoning of those who claimed they did.

You may imagine therefore the excitement with which I came across this debate.

Hitchens was a very powerful debater, extraordinarily well-read with the instinctive elegance of phrasing thereby osmotically caused, articulate to a fault, more coherent than most, and apparently rock-solid in his atheistic conviction. Berlinski is every bit as well-read with the instinctive elegance of phrasing thereby osmotically caused, articulate to a fault, and more coherent than most. I have seen less evidence of his having done much debating, but his most potent weapon is his doubt: he offers no conviction for Hitchens to attack. Let battle commence…

Almost immediately Berlinski reveals his strength. With the proposition’s being Atheism Poisons Everything, there is no need for Berlinski to defend religion. We all know that huge amounts of evil have been done in the name of religion, but that fact leaves not a scratch on the proposition.

Hard on those heels he brings a smile to my face with an offering from Dr Johnson. The quotation can be paraphrased as, “the science is settled: the debate is over”.  Look back to my third paragraph to see how puckish this is.

Set-piece routines are paradoxically the bits of speeches that most often seem to fail. Berlinski’s button schtick at the end of his opening speech was doing fine till the final bit direct to Hitchens which was lame. Significantly that last was omitted from the transcript of this debate to be found here.

Hitchens knows full well that Berlinski has shown that attacking religion is pointless against this proposition, but what else is he to do? Without that, he is left with trying to prove a negative – a notoriously impossible task. He duly attacks religion and the evils done in its name; he rehashes arguments as to the impossibility of a God; he goes down all the familiar routes; but he is not addressing the unaddressable proposition.

Why did Hitchens agree to this debate without insisting on editing the wording of the proposition? Was his proselytising zeal so great that he could not resist the challenge?  The answer may possibly be found in his closing argument which is very good indeed and goes quite a long way to solving the insoluble problem in the previous paragraph.

Among other arguments he asserts at around 43:45 that the ‘little faction” of atheists with whom he is identified “is adamant for doubt”. Names that he has bandied elsewhere, and therefore presumably also belonging to this little faction, include people like Dawkins and Dennett. He maintains that they all explore uncertainty. In short he is seeking to exculpate them from fundamentalism. It’s a nice try, and it can be seen to be the only argument open to him, but I think he is misguided. People who plaster buses with posters containing puerile atheistic slogans are beyond doubt.

It’s time for me to shut up, and for you to enjoy the debate. I commend it.

David Berlinski – a class act

On 7 September 2010, at the Sheraton Birmingham Hotel in Alabama, the Fixed Point Foundation hosted a debate between Christopher Hitchens and David Berlinski. The motion was Atheism Poisons Everything.

A very effective way of using up a huge amount of time would be to tour YouTube, watching all the debates involving Christopher Hitchens on the subject of religion. So I don’t. But having recently watched David Berlinski on Uncommon Knowledge, being interviewed by my part-namesake, the excellent Peter Robinson, I was intrigued enough to make this an exception. By the way, I commend Uncommon Knowledge.

Larry Taunton occupies a few seconds less than 4 minutes introducing the debate, and Berlinski begins. Immediately a weird thing happens: a woman in the audience suddenly cackles in an insane fashion. Apart from fixing her with a startled and disapproving stare and pausing long enough for it to matter, Berlinski says nothing.

I like  this man. I like his erudition being very evident but somehow understated. I like the rather patrician image with which he cloaks himself, exhibiting suave condescension mixed with an air of faintly dissolute urbanity. It is a strong contrast to Hitchens’ terrier-like attack, and I find it significant that Hitchens seems on this occasion to tone down his bellicosity and unconsciously seems slightly to mirror Berlinski’s style. This may be indicative of his being awe-struck and psychologically dominated. It’s certainly indicative of respect. You don’t see this happen with Hitchens very often.

With my rhetor hat on I like the way Berlinski speaks very quietly, yet expressively, and despite no discernible effort to do so makes every word heard. Though I don’t suppose he has read my book on that subject, he follows all its strictures.

He uses no notes, and I think he is shooting from the hip. You may claim there is no distinction; but reciting a learnt script is not shooting from the hip. He has a turn of phrase burnished by much good reading, and I love the way he throws away his description of Robespierre as being ‘rabid as a bat’.

My only slight concern is that he is much more nervous than he needs to be.  You may notice that it is not till the rebuttals later that his shoulders descend to a relaxed level.

This opening address runs from 3:55 till 15:16.

As I remarked earlier Christopher Hitchens was a serial debater on religion; and he fairly regularly made mincemeat of his opponents – even (whisper it) his brother Peter; but pitting him against Berlinski was an inspired match. This debate was as fascinating as the Oxford Union God debate should have been but wasn’t. Forgive my veering towards cliché, but it generated more light than heat.

I want to examine the debate in depth, and more fully than as a footnote to Berlinski’s opening speech.  I shall return to it in my next posting.