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.

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.

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.

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!

Dr Joanna Collicutt needs both my books.

Probably the most sensible thing that anyone has said, with respect to the Oxford Union God debate, came from the daughter of the speaker we shall be examining here. I’ll come to that in a few seconds. The Revd Dr Joanna Collicutt McGrath was the second speaker in support of the motion, This House Believes in God.

She opens with that quote from her daughter saying, “What is there to debate? You either do or you don’t, and that’s an end to it.” What wise words! Dr Collicutt doesn’t quite agree enough to stop there, or they would all have got tucked into their G&D’s ice-cream rather sooner than they did.

I have published two little books on the subject of speaking.

The Face & Tripod (affectionately known as F&T) though it’s specifically targeted at business speaking is every bit as useful for any other type. Anyone who has explored this blog will not be surprised to learn that one of F&T’s principal thrusts concerns paperless speaking. If the material is properly and well enough structured anyone can go out in front of an audience and deliver even quite a long speech without reference to a script or notes. I call it ‘shooting from the hip’.

I bet you have worked out why I mention that here. Dr Collicutt is a talking head. She is wedded (or possibly welded) to the words she has written. And the truly frustrating and tantalising thing is that she has one of the clearest and easiest structures imaginable. It is one of those I commend in F&T – chronology. And what is the chronological path she has given herself to follow? Why, her own life! Yes, gentle reader, Dr Collicutt’s speech is auto-biographical; and still she doesn’t trust herself to be able to remember it. Let’s not castigate her: there are two ingredients to being able to deliver a paperless speech. You have to know how to, and you have to know you can. She hasn’t had me to prove to her beyond doubt that she can do it. I know she can, and her speaking would light up if she did.

I have published another little book – even littler! It is called Every Word Heard, and there’s a second half to that title, “- without discernible effort”.  That is the key to good enunciation. Anyone can make every word heard if they are prepared to sound weird. Dr Collicutt sounds as most people would, under the misguidance of too many people who don’t understand what good diction is. This is the sort of over-emphasised clarity that you get each Christmas from the boy chorister that does one of the readings at the Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College Cambridge. The poor thing has been bullied into reading it like that, and I know what I’d like to say to the half-witted grown-up that did the bullying. It’s the sort of over-emphasised clarity that you get from rookie BBC reporters. It’s the sort of … but I think you’ve probably got the picture.

It is perfectly possible – indeed easy, if you know how – to sound completely normal and still have every word heard even in a large hall. Speech is not a series of individual words, all gummed together in a given order: speech is a flow of phrases and clauses and sentences that have beautiful rhythm. If – you – utter – each – word – as – if – it – had – come – individually – wrapped, you do yourself and your speaking no favours at all.

Gosh, how I’d like to help Dr Collicutt!

Perhaps I should be grateful to her for providing me with such graphic examples with which to publicise my books, but I’d rather she did proper justice to her carefully reasoned speech.

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.

John Lennox at the Oxford Union – inspirational, when he sets himself free

As I announced here that I would, I am shining an analytical spotlight on The Oxford Union debate, This house believes in God. It took place in 2012, around the end of October or beginning of November if the poppies are anything to go by.  Professor John Lennox was speaking for the motion.

Wow what a fabulous, uncompromising opening! Anaphora comprising four elements, the first of which is “I believe in God.” How hugely refreshing to hear someone openly scorning the right-on, apologetic, desperate-to-be-fashionably-agnostic, wishy-washy, mealy-mouthed mumblings that usually are the alternative to downright denial. Regardless of my own beliefs – which here do not matter – I love it when a head rises this far above any parapet. True to the first Cardinal Rule in my book, he has something to say and he is damn well going to say it. This man will take no prisoners.

Lennox addresses the matter from a standpoint of pure logic and reason – as befits a professor of mathematics. No one should be foolish enough to try to tell him that he is clinging to an irrational superstition. On the contrary he professes astonishment that any rational human should not believe in God, because rationality itself is self-evidently a divine gift. The comprehensibility of the universe is manifestly a direct result of its having been designed by the same divine hand that created the brain that comprehends it.

He quotes numerous eminent thinkers down the ages to reinforce his case; and this brings me to a question I was once asked during a master-class. What’s the difference between quoting people and argumentum ad verecundiamI replied that in a sense it was the same as the difference between research and plagiarism. If your research is restricted to just one source from which your argument is slavishly reproduced it is plagiarism. If you have several sources, from which you draw a range of threads in order to help assemble (or illustrate) your own original work then it is research. In short, standing on the shoulders of giants is not enough: you must still scan the resultant horizon for yourself. Lennox’s citing of great thinkers is more to illuminate than support his theme. And he produces some corkers!

There’s a section in the sixth and seventh minutes where he presents mathematical proof that atheism is illogical. It is all so counter to the bien pensant fashion of our age that I bask in it.

He turns his attention from the universe to ethics, and quotes a colleague in the Russian Academy of Sciences. “We thought we could abolish God and maintain a value for humans. We found we couldn’t, and we murdered millions.” That’s a powerful opening for a powerful section!

The whole speech is very powerful, but it could so easily be even more so. This is where I ram my rhetor hat down over my ears, and regular readers know what I am going to say. Too much of what he speaks he reads. Reading some of those long quotations is fine – in fact it is more than fine. That is the best way to deliver them, even if you know them by heart. It is when he is reading the rest of it that it bothers me. With all the delight that the speech gives me I just want him to learn how to sectionalise and stream his material in order to reduce his paper-dependency to zero. I was wondering how to persuade you, the reader, how much better it would be if he did, when he supplied his own demonstration.

At 11:42 his elbow goes down onto the dispatch box; and this seems to trigger around half a minute of more personal and passionate speaking that makes his notes temporarily redundant. It’s as if he has gone into high-definition, and it’s so exciting! I start feeling desperate for him to do it again, and at 13:10 he does.

He has addressed the knotty conundrum of evil and pain, and we feel an auxesis coming. The more it warms up the less he looks at his paper. Passion is beginning to pour out of him and at 13:25 he removes his spectacles – how symbolic is that! This is his peroration and where before he was merely very good now he is magnificent. Now he is not so much shooting from the hip as speaking from the soul, and I want to cheer. His final words are, “God is real, and worthy to be trusted.”

He could have delivered all of it without paper – he’s perfectly capable of it – and, apart from the quotations, I wish he had. The interesting thing is that a couple of times, when he was reading, he stumbled over his words. When he was shooting from the hip he never did. How often have I sweated to persuade trainees that speaking without notes (if you do it right) is actually more secure! For our part, in the audience, we watched slightly as if through a glass darkly till he set himself free. Yes, I know, I’m quibbling; but that is what I do.

Well! What a start for this debate! I find myself not caring who wins this: I just want more argument of this quality. Let us see whether we get it.