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.

Peter Hitchens lays into his opponents

The third speaker in favour of the motion This House Believes in God in the debate at the Oxford Union, was Peter Hitchens. He hates this argument – he told us so.

“I hate this argument!” That’s his high-impact opener. And he stokes the impact by explaining that he has to defend a philosophy of love while kicking his opponents in the crotch. Did he assume that humour centred around genitalia would be a sure-fire laugh with an undergraduate audience?  Probably, and he was right.

That is not the end of the beginning. He now appears to get seriously offensive about his opponents but defuses it all with a twist that I won’t spoil for you. Again he is rewarded with a laugh. The twist has a half-hidden facet that partly re-establishes the offence, though the nature of the laugh suggests that most of the audience did not notice.

The endorsement from the market (the laugh) reassured me, because I had this down as a good opening. It was brave, because it was enacted through his (barely visible) hump and only a slight error in timing would have harpooned it; but he knows what he is doing. In his newspaper column and blog he carefully maintains a reputation for bellicosity, and this sort of knock-about insult is his meat and drink. On the quality of argument so far offered by his opponents he pours a measure of scorn that teeters on the lip of argumentum ad hominem, but uses schoolboy language to neutralise the sting. It’s clever.

When he reaches the serious stuff, introduced with a reading from the book of Job, he makes the point that no one can prove, or otherwise, the existence of God; it is a matter of belief, and belief is a matter of opinion, and opinion is a matter of choice. He chooses to believe in a concept that maintains order in what otherwise is chaos. In the process of delivering this reasoning he gets bellicose again with his opponents, casting serious aspersions on their motives for choosing to believe what they do.

At times in the process he does slip into ad hominem, and again he finds a way to pull the sting. Someone in the audience wants to ask a question, and he declines to surrender the floor, “No, not just now. I’m about to finish, and I’ve decided to give them a Christian kicking.” It’s a beautifully oxymoronic ad lib and the audience loves it.  Speaking of ad lib, he shoots the entire speech from the hip. The only time he turns to paper is for the biblical reading. This guy is good.

Nevertheless I need to say something about his enunciation. Let us return to his opening sentence – “I hate this argument.” The word ‘argument’, after its first syllable, disappears. Hitchens commits a diction error that goes like this…

All multi-syllable words have a prosodic rhythm that stresses some syllables and relegates others to relative insignificance. Face to face it doesn’t matter, because we hear enough to understand. In a large hall we instinctively raise the volume on the important syllables, but being used to leaving the other ones to fend for themselves we forget them and they easily get lost. We need to bring up the relative volume on all syllables. I have a short chapter on this in The Face & Tripod, and cover it in greater depth in Every Word HeardIt is a widespread error that Hitchens commits often, and is very easily fixed.

Speaking of chapters in The Face & Tripod, did you notice the degree to which he kept fiddling with that pen?  If not he may have proved the point with which I conclude the chapter on Mannerisms.

If I may doff my rhetor hat, I’d like to say that what I found particularly appealing about this speech was that he returned to the motion. The word ‘existence’ was crucially not in the motion though too many speakers treated it is if it had been, subtly changing (and infantilising) the nature of the argument. “I believe in God” does not mean the same as “I believe in the existence of God”.

There are on YouTube other debates about God. One such between Peter Hitchens and his late brother, Christopher, is good stuff! Neither takes prisoners. I shall have to address it one day on this blog.