Sam Harris does some shredding

In 2011  the University of Notre Dame in Indiana conducted a ‘God Debate’ between Dr William Lane Craig and Dr Sam Harris.

If you’ve a mind to, you can watch the whole thing here. I should probably warn you that it is more than two hours long, but in my opinion it is worth every second. Some years ago I covered here in some depth a series of speeches that made up an Oxford Union God debate. In terms of profundity this at Notre Dame makes that at Oxford look like a squabble in a Sunday School.

As a seeker after truth who cleaves to the mantra that emerged in this blog from the mouth of Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, “I do not know”, I find these discussions fascinating. I instinctively recoil from fundamentalism in all its guises, but I find listening to fundamentalists sometimes triggers creative streams of thought. Perhaps that is one reason for me to be such an uncompromising believer in free speech.

I prefer not to try to analyse two hours of deep discussion; but it happens that on YouTube someone has lifted one of Sam Harris’ speeches from the debate, and has posted it under the heading of Sam Harris demolishes Christianity. Shall we see?

Though quietly and soberly uttered, this is a powerful 11 minutes. It gives you some idea of the quality of the arguments that you will meet in the rest of the debate.

To me his most obvious weakness, and it seems always to occur in discussions of this nature, is in conflating religions with spirituality. They are not, despite what all religions claim, the same. The former are manmade attempts to codify the latter, and that process necessarily limits it by binding it into a particular shape. They each claim that theirs was a divinely inspired manmade shape, but then they would.

Harris does indeed here make a very effective job of shredding Christianity as it is taught – as the video claims – but he is attacking merely that manmade shape. To my mind he lays not a scratch on spirituality in general.

For instance let’s look at a small section that begins at the 50 second mark. This is the same tired argument that Stephen Fry offered here. Imagine a loving father standing at a kerb, holding the hand of his three-year-old toddler. On the other side of the road is an ice-cream kiosk, and the toddler wants ice-cream. The father will not allow it, perhaps because the road is too busy to cross safely, perhaps because the toddler has some sort of medical disorder causing an ice-cream intolerance. We can imagine very many legitimate reasons for the father to withhold this desired treat, but the 3-year-old cannot. At that moment, as far as the toddler is concerned, the father is behaving unkindly. The toddler is not in possession of the bigger picture.

If there were any spiritual entity, of whatever description, being the cause and the root of all existence – let’s, for the sake of argument, call it God though in truth it could be very different from any God that any religion has described – then it’s safe to assume that it would possess a picture bigger than ours. Now Harris’ argument in this small section, and Stephen Fry in that interview, sound like that toddler in ignorance throwing a tantrum. Yes, I am conscious that deprivation of ice-cream doesn’t have an obvious equivalence to thousands of deaths from a tsunami, but the abstract principle still holds. Now we see through a glass darkly.

This speech is a good appetiser for the whole debate, which I found deeply absorbing. Does it go anywhere towards crystallising my ill-, perhaps I should say un-, defined spirituality? No, but the seeking after truth is what matters. Like André Gide I mistrust any who claim to have found it.

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.

Eben Alexander met God

In November 2013 Westminster Town Hall Forum in Minneapolis presented a talk by Eben Alexander. He called it The Nature of Consciousness. Five years earlier almost to the day Alexander, an eminent neurosurgeon, contracted an intensely vicious variety of meningitis which put him into a coma for a week. His doctors gave him less than 2% chance of surviving, and even if he did survive he was sure to be a helpless invalid. They even gave up on the antibiotics, and at that point he began to pull back.

During that coma he had a Near Death Experience which he later recounted in his book, Proof of Heaven. He is now returned to complete health. As an eager seeker-after-truth, I read the book last year. I also read a review which scornfully dismissed the word ‘proof’. The reviewer was probably a mathematician; he certainly wasn’t a rhetorician. In rhetoric ‘proof’ means merely an offering of evidence. Alexander, as befits a neurosurgeon, offers a great deal of evidence along with a range of scientific arguments and suggested explanations.

If asked whether he convinced me, I would heroically retreat behind the mantra that Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev gives the seeker-after-truth. I do not know. I am sure that he himself is sincerely convinced; and he gave me quite enough food for thought to make me interested to hear him speak.

That still picture is not Eben Alexander but Tim Hart-Anderson who introduced him. Alexander begins at 2:00 and ends at 32:00. The rest is essentially questions. Gold star for precision of timing!

Till I saw this speech I had only the account in his book as evidence for his return to health. Now I can confirm that he looks pretty damn chipper!

For a minute I detect quite severe hump symptoms, so I am pleased when he asks the audience for a show of hands from anyone who has not read his book. Little devices like that are very good hump-busters, and I rather suspect this is there for that and no other reason. He doesn’t appear to do much with the information.

Once into his flow he is good. He is relaxed, fluent, personable, audible, and he shoots almost entirely from the hip. 

Nevertheless, if he consulted me, I should like to do some work on his material. There are some very good bits and a few rather loose bits. The overall message is strong and, I was pleased to find, devoid of airy-fairy mumbo-jumbo; but principally it’s the overall shape that I feel needs pulling about for added coherence.

There’s an excellent hanging thread at 6:00, but a curiously messy section when at 7:55 he refers back to “those three erroneous thoughts…” I had to replay the previous half minute twice before I began to see what he was getting at, and even then had to play it a couple of times more before I could find three distinct thoughts in the jumble of words. It merely needs a tightening up of the words, and perhaps enumerating with fingers, but that section needs something.

He says that he has not time to recount in detail his actual near death experience, but clearly he has to say something about it. At 11:30 he reaches the part where he became “a speck of awareness on a butterfly wing”. Only two paragraphs ago I absolved him of airy-fairy mumbo-jumbo, and now that phrase…? I can only excuse him and me by stressing that it is something in the matter of fact way he recounts it both here and in the book that makes it not seem at the time like airy-fairy mumbo-jumbo. Nevertheless he makes the point very strongly in the book that the experience he had was more real than reality yet so blindingly bizarre that words become inadequate. He met God, though he dislikes using the word. (If you think this is all getting a little crazy, I have to tell you that it seems to make perfect matter-of-fact sense in the book and to a lesser extent in this speech.) For two or three minutes, at any rate, the speech does become less coherent and the remedy would not be easy to find.

Explanations for his experience are absurdly easy to conceive, but as a brain surgeon he is very well placed to counter them. In his book he swats them like mosquitoes, but seems to sense that this audience does not need that. Back to his speech …

It hardens up immeasurably when he quotes two distinguished men of science, Sir James Jeans and more particularly Wilder Penfield. The latter having conducted thousands of neurological experiments over very many years had firmly concluded that –

The mind is not in the brain.

In my opinion that sentence would have made a far stronger title (Face) for the speech than the rather mundane and prosaic The Nature of Consciousness. It is so provocative! It provokes an inevitable and deafening question. Where the […] is it then?

I do not know.

Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev should have spoken at the God debate

In the five months since Rhetauracle was born the sheer internationality of the Internet has been brought dramatically home to me. Yes, of course I knew that it was all over the world: what I hadn’t altogether appreciated was how eager the world was to be reached. Already I have readers in around thirty countries. It seems therefore at least courteous that I avoid being too insular. The difficulty is that though I can stumblingly make myself halfway understood in three other languages it is only in English that I can hope to be able to analyse a speech.  Nevertheless the Anglosphere includes a huge subcontinent that I have thus far neglected. And the curious thing is that I was born in India, and my mother before me.

I found a rich seam to mine for speeches: The India Today Conclave. I shall be dipping into it over several postings, but first I want to explore a speech that frankly belonged in the series of postings that I concluded last week. Am I dreaming, or did I bemoan the lack of the word ‘spiritual’ in the Oxford Union God debate? Likewise, did I or did I not wearily regret the lack of new and inspirational lines of reasoning? And do you recall my quoting Andre Gide – “Believe those who are seeking the truth. Doubt those who find it.”? Stand by for a Seeker of Truth.

Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev begins speaking at 11:30.  Javed Akthar, who proceeds him makes a ten-minute speech that essentially introduces the debate entitled Is Spirituality Relevant To Leadership?. I may have a look at his speech in a future posting, but Jaggi Vasudev is today’s focus.

That’s what I call an opening! None of the speakers for the Oxford Union motion began their speech with a prayer. Why not? Debates in Parliament start with prayers.

Do you want to grab your audience? One way is to surprise them in some way. He surprised me twice: first with the chanting and then with the quiet “Hello everyone” that followed. It was a glorious amalgam of ethos and decorum. I sensed a smile of delight forming on my lips.

And it stayed there!

This man is awesome. I use the word literally: he fills me with awe. On many levels.

If you chose to click in around half a minute before he began you will have seen how he pointedly stood to one side of the lectern, causing one of the crew to have to move the microphone to him. (What a pity that he pointed the mic at his mouth. At his eyes would have been better, because we get a little bit of popping.) And there he stands, paperless of course, with beautiful wisdom pouring out of him for 45 minutes – yes, there’s also a part 2.

He expresses himself stunningly well. His enunciation is clear and effortless. The structure of his arguments makes for wonderful digestibility. His phrasing is that of one steeped not only in the wisdoms of the East but the finest literature of the West. Forget airy-fairy: his analysis of spirituality is right here, right now, feet firmly on the ground and fired at you from the hip in clusters of those figures of speech in my glossary. Between 15:13 and 16:40 you should spot two anaphoras, one epistrophe and an extended asyndeton.  In many ways he is a copybook speaker – so much so, that I think I shall have to go back and look for further examples of his speaking before I press the publish button and commit this many superlatives to posterity.

My notepad, as well as being smothered in technical observations (that I decided to spare you) is also covered in aphorisms for life, gleaned from this speech. I mentioned that there is a part 2. Beginning at 08:14 there’s a very funny story. It is with huge reluctance that I am telling you this, because I’m dying to steal it.

The Oxford Union brought in Cornel West for their Occupy Wall Street debate. For all that he was hypnotically compelling, West was something of a histrionic cabaret in that setting. Had Jaggi Vasudev been in the God debate, on their own terms and on their own turf, he’d have stormed them.

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 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.