A Level (A2) Predictions 2017 – OCR Philosophy and Ethics

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It’s that time of year again. Let’s see whether we can take a look at the previous questions and take an educated guess about what might come up. The truth is that this has become harder and harder to do. A few years ago there were a few topics that hadn’t come up. Now everything has pretty much come up in previous years. Still, I’ll have a go at predictions. Just remember the usual disclaimer: I am not psychic and I don’t know the future. These are *guesses*! Anything could come up! Please revise all areas, you just may want to have a little look in more depth at these topics. OK, that said here goes:

Philosophy:

Religious Experience: ‘Voices are not proof of God but evidence of psychological neurosis.’ Discuss (35) (Click link for essay)

Miracles: ‘Hume’s understanding of miracles is flawed’. Discuss. (35)  (Click link for essay)

Attributes of God: ‘God’s foreknowledge is incompatible with human free will.’ Discuss. (35)

Life after Death: ‘Resurrection is more coherent than reincarnation’. Discuss. (35)

Religious Language: To what extent does analysis of the uses and purpose of religious language overcome the criticisms of the logical positivists? (35)

Ethics

Free Will and Determinism: Critically evaluate theological determinism. (35)

Conscience: How convincing are Newman’s claims that conscience is the voice of God? (35)

Virtue Ethics: ‘Virtue Ethics is the best approach to environmental issues.’ Discuss (35)

Sexual Ethics: Assess the usefulness of religious ethics as an approach to the issues surrounding contraception. (35)

So why have I predicted these ones? Well, in philosophy, the only topics that have never come up as far as I can see are voices in religious experience, Hume’s definition of miracles (different from his criticisms of miracles, which has come up), and the uses and purpose of religious language. Then the other two from life after death and attributes have not come up for a while.

With ethics it was a case of choosing between quite a few options – as far as I can see, no-one apart from Butler has been specified in a question, so there could be a question on any of the other conscience scholars. Also never seen a specific question on predestination which seems odd? The two applied topics have never come up in that combination.

There you go – hope that helps with revision! Now to do ‘predictions’ for AS – a bit pointless really as it is the first year, so literally anything could come up! That hasn’t stopped other people from having a go at it though!

BTW – are you interested in a really useful revision guide for AS? Get mine here: https://rs.pushmepress.com/titles/as-religious-studies-revision-guide-for-ocr-a-level-religious-studies/trade-paperback-uk

 

 

A2 OCR Philosophy of Religion Predictions 2016

Well here we are again, with just over a week until the exam, what is likely to come up this year? I have compiled a list with various questions that it might be worth practising, and some of them I provide links to exemplars for those questions. I do this most years, always with the caveat that it is never a good idea to base your revision on just these predictions, but it can’t do any harm to have a good look at them.

 

1.Miracles questions. Both myself and Peter Baron think the Miracles topic has been under-represented in past years; I think there could be a question on Hume’s understanding of miracles, which there has never been, and at Peped (Peter Baron’s site) they think there could be one on coincidence miracles. My question is:

‘Hume’s understanding of miracles is flawed’. Discuss. (35) (exemplar here) (discussion here)

and Peped:

Assess the claim that miracles are simply coincidences given religious significance. (35)

There has apparently never been a question on Holland and coincidence miracles.

 

2.Religious language. Specifically verification. It hasn’t come up before. Therefore:

Critically assess A J Ayer’s theory of verification. (35) (Exemplar here) (powerpoint here)

(my guess)

or what amounts to something similar:

‘God-talk is meaningless’. Discuss. (35)

 

3. Religious experience came up twice last year (yes revelation falls under religious experience), but Peter Baron’s site has a great question on this which as he says, has never come up:

‘Voices are not proof of God but evidence of psychological neurosis.’ Discuss. (35)

 

4. A few from the nature of God/life after death (just for s**ts and giggles):

God’s foreknowledge is incompatible with human free will. Discuss. (35)

Critically assess the belief that God is omnibenevolent. (35). (from Peped)

‘Resurrection is more coherent than reincarnation’. Discuss. (35)

 

What is a self-authenticating religious experience?

Looking at the 2014 examination predictions over on Philosophical Investigations I was interested to see the question ‘”Religious experiences are self-authenticating.” Discuss’. The word ‘self-authenticating’ doesn’t occur in the spec itself, nor is it an obvious element of James’ argument, so what does it mean?

The classical arguments for God’s existence have all faced major challenges from what might be called evidentialism. This is the position that a belief can only be justified in proportion to the available evidence for it. Contemporary debates about whether it is possible to know God revolve around the question of whether evidentialism should apply to religious beliefs.

The usual form the evidentialist argument takes when it comes to religious experience is that because of the private, subjective nature of religious experience combined with lack of publicly agreed evidence for a God, no experience of God is sufficient to establish proof of God, and indeed the experience is more likely to be a delusion.

Various solutions have been proposed to get around this challenge. Philosophers such as Swinburne, Alston and Plantinga have developed variations on what might be called a ‘self-authentication’ account of religious experience, whereby a purported experience of God is itself enough to justify believing in God on the basis of it. For instance, Plantinga calls religious beliefs ‘properly basic’. In other words they can act as the axioms of a belief system (they can be foundational to that belief system).

So to claim that an experience is self-authenticating is to deny that there is any point to external tests of its veridicality. Does this work? Alston has pointed out that religious believers themselves do not do this – they have actually consistently sought out external tests to verify them. For instance, within the Catholic tradition, a highly developed system of tests to distinguish between real experiences of God and false or delusional experiences (coming from the Devil) can be found.

Nonetheless, within religious traditions, Alston claims a certain degree of self-authentication occurs. This can be compared to the wine-tasting community. Once you learn the rules of wine-tasting you can begin to know what is being talked about, but before this you would not be able to fully enter into the experience and might criticise the language of the wine tasters as fanciful. Equally, a mystical tradition has its own set of ‘doxastic practices’ (Alston’s phrase), which authenticate the experiences which happen within it.

This sounds to me a bit like Wittgenstein’s language games, that you can’t criticise the mystical language game from outside of it. Is this just another form of fideism then?

Don’t forget to check out my posts on Rudolf Otto here and here , for more discussion on the nature of a self-authenticating experience. Otto and James to some extent based their arguments on this concept, which goes back to Schleiermacher.

 

Student essay: Critically examine A.J.Ayer’s theory of Verification (35)

This is another good (A grade) essay by a student, this time on Religious Language and A J Ayer. 

In his most famous work, Language, Truth and Logic, A.J. Ayer presents his theory of verification. Ayer was one of the logical positivists, a Viennese group of philosophers who were inspired by the theories of the early Wittgenstein and sought to answer rather than what makes a statement ‘meaningful’ as opposed to what makes it ‘true’. There have been two main editions to Language, Truth and Logic, both of which will be analysed and explained below.
Ayer begins his thesis by arguing that for a statement to be ‘meaningful’ or ‘factually significant’, it must either be a tautology or provable by sense experience. This approach is inspired by Hume’s fork, who claimed that meaningful language was either a priori analytic or a posteriori synthetic. Ayer’s belief also sides with the hypothetico-deductive – or scientific – approach. He argues that because statements such as ‘God Exists’ cannot be empirically proven and are not analytical (because he rejects the claims of the ontological argument), they are thus meaningless.

 

Many philosophers, such as J.H. Randall find weaknesses in these first predicate alone as it is too reductionist and reduces language to less than what it is. Philosophy thus becomes reduced to analysing syntax. On the other hand, it does provide a convenient and basic grounding for deciphering fact from meaningless statements, by examining language on a purely analytical form. John Hick refutes the notion that God’s existence cannot be proven by the senses. He gives a parable of the Celestials city, claiming that one would know its existence when one gets to the end of the road. Similarly, God’s existence could be eschatological verifiable when we die. It is implied here that Ayer is in the problem of reification, treating an abstract concept as though it is concrete. Although one religious experience is not verifiable, collectively they can prove empirical proof for the statement ‘people experience God’. When analysing the transcendent, Ayer must acknowledge other factors than just logic.


A ‘putative proposition’ is the name Ayer gives to statements yet to be verified. A putative statement is either verifiable practically or in principle. For instance, a statement such as “that is a red car” is verifiable in practice by looking at the car. However, a statement such as “There is life in another universe” is verifiable in principle but not in practice as we possess insufficient technology. Thus, Ayer then makes distinctions between strong and weak verification. Strong verification refers to any statement that can be verified as true beyond any doubts through sense experience, and a weakly verifiable proposition is most probable. Again, in terms of religious language, although Ayer acknowledges its emotive value, he denied that religious language was more than this, hence it was a pseudo-proposition. This is a very non-cognitive viewpoint.

However, as Davies points out, ‘Verification’ itself cannot be verified; we cannot use sense experience to prove the legitimacy of the theory. Thus, if Ayer holds his theory to be meaningful and not as a pseudo-proposition, there must be another category of language for which his statements are meaningful, and if this is true for the principle of Verification, it must also be true for religious language. On the other hand, if Ayer holds that this is not the case, then atheist statements such as ‘God does not exist’ are also meaningless. Although verification makes a clearer distinction between religious statements that have no basis in fact or reason by confining truth to logic, there seems to be too much leniency in this theory. After reflection, Ayer recognised that his own theory was “far too liberal”.

 

There is also a serious flaw with the strong and weak verification principle, which Ayer himself critiques in his second edition. The main flaw is that a strongly verifiable principle is impossible; it “has no possible application”. Especially because of the corrigible nature of science, there are no statements that we can hold absolutely true from the senses. Richard Swinburne, who uses the corrigibility of science in many of his arguments, argues that the people disagree about whether statements are factual. He gives the analogy of toys in a cupboard that come out at night when no one observes them. It could be meaningful, but is not testable and thus not even weakly verifiable. In trying to set absolute principle which could categorise statements, Ayer’s verification just opens up more room for debate.

 

In his second edition, Ayer amends the principle, changing the definition to “A statement it held to be meaningful if and only if analytically or empirically verifiable”. He also introduced the directly and indirectly verifiable categories. Directly verifiable statements are observable statements and indirect statements are ones which are verifiable if other directly verifiable statements can support it. For example, we can directly verify the statement ‘gas clouds orbit our galaxy’. By measuring the speed of a gas cloud, there is indirect verifiable proof that black holes exist, thus the statement ‘black holes exist’ is indirectly verifiable. This amendment does overcome the boundaries of strong and weak verification as it accepts that there is change.

 

Karl Popper, one of the founders of falsification, argues that the method of verification is flawed. When proving the meaningfulness, and thus the strength, of a hypothesis, we should seek to look for what could falsify it. Scientific experiments do not use a verification approach, otherwise all hypotheses would be accepted and science would not progress. It was his introduction of falsification which overtook verification in the following periods of analytic philosophy.

 

Overall, although Ayer’s verification principle is a strong start in deciphering religious language, it is weak in detail. Hick, Swinburne and Davies combined produce very strong criticisms against the main predicates of verification, and the fact that Ayer has to even write a second edition proves that the argument is fundamentally flawed. Popper’s falsification principle appeared stronger as it uses the scientific analysis approach more realistically.

Practice Questions A2

On a certain other Philosophy and Ethics website they have put their advice about what areas they think will come up this summer in the OCR Religious Studies exam (June 7th). However, you have to buy a copy of one of their books to find it. I don’t have the time to write a book on this, but I will have a go at telling you what I think it might be wise to revise, simply based on areas of the spec that haven’t come up for a long time. So here we go, four questions:

Critically assess Rudolf Otto’s concept of numinous experience.

‘Hume’s definition of miracles makes them impossible to believe in.’ Discuss.

‘Plato’s arguments for the soul are ineffective.’ Discuss.

Critically assess the view of scripture as revelation.

You could do a lot worse than have a go at writing an answer to these questions as part of your revision.

Critically assess the claim that the meaning of religious language lies in the context in which it is used.

The claim of a language game theorist is that the meaning of a phrase is found in its use or context. This was first proposed by Ludwig Wittgenstein in the early 20th century, whose thought grew out of the ideas of the Vienna Circle. At first Wittgenstein’s view resembled a positivist stance on language – that words and sentences were able to convey meaning because they referred to pictures of actual things and occurrences, but later he came to develop the view that meaning was not found directly in this one to one relationship, but rather that it was within the context of the words themselves and the way in which they are used. The consequences of this for religious language are that one has to be careful not to presume that a word will have the same meaning in different contexts and thus a sensitivity to the ways in which religious believers use language and what they are doing when they use it.

Language games theory has to show that religious language can be meaningful without being reductionist and without ignoring the ways in which believers actually believe. It also needs to be able to stand up to the accusations of fideism and relativism that its opponents have charged it with. I will consider in this essay the extent to which it actually does this.

A J Ayer criticised Wittgenstein’s views, saying that if his language games theory was correct, and we are required by it to withhold our judgement of religious statements because their validity can only be decided by the coherence of rules internal to the religious language game, then we are also required to do that for those people who claim to be witches and talk to fairies. The general problem here is that we do tend to believe that we can subject most talk to rational scrutiny and decide if it is valid or not. The belief that there are certain areas of life that are not amenable to this is called fideism – the belief that faith is beyond reason. It is important then to understand why Wittgenstein believed that it was a mistake to use the rules of one language game to judge another (if indeed he did actually believe this!).

Wittgenstein thought that many blunders were made in language by conflating two different uses of a word and believing that they meant the same in both contexts. He gives the example (developed later by D Z Phillips) of one person who says that they believe there is a German bomber overhead and another person who says he believes in the Last Judgement. The two statements are using the word belief but there is a chasm between the different meanings.

In other words, the factual significance of religious discourse is not the crucial thing – it has other important kinds of significance. Belief that a bomber is overhead comes down to a matter of observation, but belief in a last judgement does not solely depend on this kind of input. Religion, then does not come down to a set of hypotheses; Wittgenstein is clear – if you treat it as such you are bound to think it is mistaken. Rather, he says that belief in the Last Judgement is much more like a picture that I always think of when I act rather than anything that might play a predictive role, and that you either have that picture or you don’t, there is no sense of which person is right or wrong about it.

Many criticisms of Wittgenstein’s theories on religious language are actually criticisms of parodies of his position, often because he spoke infrequently on religion and many of his comments have only been made available posthumously as notes from his lectures. For this reason we should be wary of stating that he thought religion was a language game. He himself never states this, but rather uses examples of religious statements to make us pay attention to the subtle differences that arise in meaning in different contexts. This is perhaps best summarised in his admonition to “look and see”. Some later philosophers have taken him at his word and done this, in the process developing and extending his theory.

One key development of this is ‘functional analysis’ which has identified functions of language such as performative (eg. “I baptise thee” or “I now pronounce you husband and wife”), interrogative and imperative. J L Austin develops this in his theory of locutionary language and shows how far from a straightforward positivist interpretation of meaning much religious language is. Wittgenstein is then very important in breaking the dominance of positivism on questions of meaning. But some have claimed that his work capitulates too much ground to the positivists. In other words it retreats into the realm of non-cognitivism much like Flew argued.

For instance, some developments of his thought might sound like the sort of non-cognitivism proposed by R M Hare in his theory of a ‘blik’. If a belief functions as a ‘picture’ which is at the bottom of all someone’s actions and it is not open to questions of truth or falsity, then it seems to be no more than a fancy, as alluded to by Ayer.

R B Braithwaite has said that religious language has a moral function. He claims for instance that the narratives of Jesus’s teaching and healing should not be seen as merely assertions of fact but as expressions of intentions to live morally by the believer. He believes most people find it easier to act in a certain way if they associate those actions with certain stories. There seems to be some psychological basis for this – clearly humans are fascinated with stories – they are universal throughout cultures – and there appears to be an old tradition of using stories for moral formation. But some have claimed that Braithwaite changes religious language into a set of moral principles decorated with stories – ie. that it is reductionist. Donald Hudson says that this error is a violation of the “depth grammar” of religion.

So some of the developments of Wittgenstein’s ideas have fallen into the reductionist trap. D Z Phillips, another of Wittgenstein’s followers, was aware of these problems, especially the particular challenge that language games does not adequately describe how believers themselves take their religion to be, or at least a lot of it. For instance as Dawkins points out to Rowan Williams there are certain truths within religion which have to be taken as statements of fact, no matter how poetically they are described (like the incarnation – either it is true that God became man in Jesus or it isn’t – and believers have to taken certain of these as propositionally true before they can believe the rest). This is why Peterson et al say that language games theory fails to take seriously what ordinary religious believers take themselves to be saying.

Don Cupitt would argue that no experience comes to us pure and unmediated by language – indeed that all experience and thought is essentially linguistic – we can’t experience it if we don’t have words for it! This is an important recognition of the centrality of language to all human concerns, religion being one of them.

In summary then Wittgensteinian thinkers have done the important job of showing the ways in which religious language is significant as part of the complex web of actions, rituals, moral behaviour, thought and experience that make up religion. But in doing this I think they have too much emphasised this functional aspect of religious language and neglected its informative element. Ultimately many Wittgensteinian thinkers would have to concede questions of factual and cognitive significance to the field of science, and leave unsaid whether language can say anything about God as the ultimate reality. Even Aquinas, a distinct agnostic when it came to questions of what we can say about God was prepared to argue that with analogy we could say something positive about Him. Therefore I believe language games theory to be only moderately successful at explaining how religious language can be meaningful.