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.

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.]