Monday, January 14, 2013

Communication and Apologetics

I saw a video (link) recently posted on facebook wherein Eric Hovind – the son of Kent Hovind – attempts to answer a question by an 11 year old who seems to be the debate opponent’s son. It brought to mind my argument that revelation from one who is omniscient is a precondition for knowledge. That isn’t to say I agree with Hovind’s conclusion, much less the means by which he attempts to prove it. But it at least seemed similar enough to warrant discussion of Hovind’s method of communication in his response.

Now, it doesn’t take a paranoid to suspect Hovind was set-up. And even if this 6th grader wasn’t prepped by his father, a three minute gotcha clip isn’t really a fair representation of the merits of a debater in general. But that’s a price one knowingly pays for marketing and presenting oneself as a public speaker and debater.

The impression I get from this video and another video I recall watching in which he debated some atheist from Youtube is that Hovind is not a particularly good communicator. He exudes the recognizable air of Southen Baptist fundamentalism, and that doesn’t connect with most people. When it comes to verbal communication about controversial subjects, that’s a general difficulty: Christians need to keep in mind that people in general and strangers in particular are prone to judge based on reasons other than the arguments one presents. Appearance, tone, presentation, delivery, etc. will often prejudice a listener even before he has heard the full argument. Not to mention that most people already have some sort of opinion, and others just don’t care.

So it’s hard not to feel a little sympathy for Hovind. Either he treats the kid with kid gloves and then is surprised by a poignant question (as in the video), or he answers on the assumption the kid is capable of fully grasping an intricate argument, in which case it could appear that he would be purposefully talking nonsense, unable to break his argument down to the level a child can understand. Well, that was the ostensive design in having a kid ask the question. It takes a practiced communicator with a full understanding of his argument – neither of which I am sure Hovind possesses – to relate complex truths to adults, let alone to know-it-all adolescents. And even in the case Hovind were able to do so, the best case scenario is that no clip would have been posted. He would merely break even.

I myself am not a great verbal communicator; I am a much better writer than I am a speaker. And in general, I try to stick to what I consider my strengths. But that’s not always possible. People who know me well enough know I am interested in philosophy and theology. Of these people, a few are bound to engage me in conversation about certain subjects. How I answer depends on the context of the situation and the identity of the questioner. I answer atheist acquaintances differently than I do my friends. And that’s how I prefer it, because by having the conversation initiated by another, I can dictate how I want to frame my response without appearing as if I just want to show-off. If they ask a question about a complicated subject, I can tell them they should expect a complicated answer. The more close-minded who are not interested in, unreasonably disagree with, or are irritated by my answers should obviously either ask different questions or ask different people those questions.

While there are differences between the personal situations I describe and the more public setting of a debate – most obviously, a debater implicitly asserts he is some sort of authority on a topic whereas a layman can legitimately plead ignorance – in both circumstances, what can’t happen is actually what happens in the video of Hovind: dumbing down truth to the point that it’s no longer truth. If one must know all things to know any one thing, then the kid would be right. We wouldn’t be able to know God because we are not omniscient. Subsequent backtracking then sounds ad hoc. Hovind says his argument is simple. But it is evident he either simplified it to the point it couldn’t be defended, or it was too simple in the first place.

Corollary to this point, we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be shown up by assuming the people with whom we interact are in need of what we can teach. That may very well be the case, but that is something that is demonstrated over time. This may sound as though it contradicts what I said above: a public debater by definition implicitly asserts he is some sort of authority on a topic. But what I mean is that Hovind’s reputation is not that of William Lane Craig’s. Only so many apologists – whether professional or lay – can pull off a lecturer-student relationship with his audience without challenge. So if a kid thinks he is intellectually able to deal with my argument on my terms, so be it. Hovind sounded like he was trying to communicate to a Sunday schooler or willing pupil rather than someone hostile to God’s word and in good need of a harsh reality check. He didn’t correctly read the context clues. If that really was the case, I hope next time he doesn’t restrain himself. Otherwise, I would recommend a different line of work.

1 comment:

Max said...

"I you don't know everything, you can't know anything," that doesn't make sense. I stopped the video there. I agree with Vincent Cheung: God just speaks to me, so that's how I know. Any other method fails! hahaha