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


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:


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)


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



The philosophical problems with belief in an afterlife

WHAT DREAMS MAY COME, Robin Williams, 1998, (c)PolyGram Filmed Entertainment/courtesy Everett Collec

My somewhat odd blog post here describes a dream I had recently about hell. The concept of hell (and indeed of heaven) raises a number of philosophical questions, perhaps the principle one of which is: Would an all-loving, perfectly good God condemn someone to unending suffering in hell as punishment for a specific sin or sins? On the face of it, it seems too unbalanced – for even the most heinous of crimes, surely there will come a point where the punishment must end?

There are significant disagreements among theologians upon this point. Some modern theologians, notably Hans Urs Von Balthasar have taken the position that universal salvation is possible, in other words that God will condemn no-one to hell for eternity. Others think this a betrayal of scripture and the Church Fathers – indeed, Christ spoke of the hellfire and eternal punishment in various places in the Gospels (eg. Matt 5:22, 10:28, 23:33)


click here for an excellent discussion of this book

The question needs to be placed in the light of the considerable problem which the existence of evil raises for believers. In order to make sense of the evil actions of certain people, some of whom escape earthly punishment for their crimes, believers usually turn to the explanation that justice will be done in the afterlife, that God will set right the wrongs done in this life.

It therefore makes sense that some afterlife punishment and reward would be needed in order to maintain belief in a just Creator. The problem is the separation of God’s mercy and God’s justice. A God who forgives all no matter what they have done would be just as unjust as a God who punishes all. There is another problem with arguing that God forgives all. Johannes Bokmann puts it like this: “If one were certain of attaining the ultimate goal no matter what, a quite essential motivation to conversion and absolute Christian resolve would be lost.”

The OCR exam board has focused on this area in the past with questions such as: “To what extent is belief in an afterlife necessary in resolving problems raised by the existence of evil?”. The suggestions for answering this are that candidates can focus on the theodicies, or discuss whether reincarnation is less problematic than belief in heaven and hell. The key thing to do though, in the A02, is to evaluate what kind of God is implied by punishment/reward models of the afterlife, and whether, given some of the inconsistencies which arise in God’s omnipotence and omnibenevolence on these models, whether such models are necessary to solve the problem of evil.

I will end this post with some quotations from Balthasar’s book:

“Christ allocates ruin to no one; he himself is pure salvation, and whoever stands by him stands in the sphere of salvation and grace. The calamity is not imposed by him, but exists wherever man has remained distant from him; it arises through continuing to abide with oneself. The word of Christ, as the offering of salvation, will then make evident that the lost man has drawn the boundaries himself and cut himself off from salvation.” (Cardinal Ratzinger)

“Every shutting up of the creature within his own mind, is – in the end – hell” (C.S. Lewis)

“Therefore we must read the New Testament, and read it ever anew, in the light of divine love. Certainly there is talk of fire, worm and the second death that excludes one from the kingdom. Christ does not recognize the evildoers, distances them from him. But hell, as refusal of divine love, always exists on one side only: on the side of him who persists in creating it for himself. It is, however, impossible that God himself could cooperate in the slightest way in this aberration.”

I want to end with a parable from Dostoevsky’s great novel The Brothers Karamazov, which Von Balthasar quotes. It seems to me to completely capture the intricate connections between free will, sin, evil and God’s divine omnibenevolence better than pages of philosophical and theological analysis:

“Once upon a time there was a peasant woman and a very wicked woman she was. And she died and did not leave a single good deed behind. The devils caught her and plunged her into the lake of fire. So her guardian angel stood and wondered what good deed of hers he could remember to tell to God; ‘She once pulled up an onion in her garden,’ said he, ‘and gave it to a beggar woman.’ And God answered: ‘You take that onion then, hold it out to her in the lake, and let her take hold and be pulled out. And if you can pull her out of the lake, let her come to Paradise, but if the onion breaks, then the woman must stay where she is.’ The angel ran to the woman and held out the onion to her. ‘Come,’ said he, ‘catch hold and I’ll pull you out.’ he began cautiously pulling her out. He had just pulled her right out, when the other sinners in the lake, seeing how she was being drawn out, began catching hold of her so as to be pulled out with her. But she was a very wicked woman and she began kicking them. ‘I’m to be pulled out, not you. It’s my onion, not yours.’ As soon as she said that, the onion broke. And the woman fell into the lake and she is burning there to this day. So the angel wept and went away.”


Explain Gaunilo’s challenges to Anselm’s Ontological argument. (25)

I attempted this question in 25 minutes. It is not one that has come up in any recent exam, but students are required to have knowledge of Gaunilo’s challenges. So it would be useful to look it over. 


Gaunilo of Marmoutier disagreed with Anselm that the existence of God could be logically proved based on an understanding of his essence or his definition. Anselm’s claim that only a fool says ‘there is no God’ (because this is like saying ‘the thing that has to exist doesn’t exist’) is disputed by Gaunilo because he doesn’t believe it is possible to have an understanding of who God is in himself anyway.

This kind of belief that it is impossible to know the nature of God is often labelled a kind of agnosticism. This is not the usual use of the term for people who are undecided about God’s existence, but instead it means a more general lack of knowledge about who God is in himself. For instance Aquinas is also convinced that it is impossible to know the nature of God, because as creatures, our knowledge, or rationality is only capable of knowing things concretely. God, being an incorporeal being, and one who surpasses all created things in perfection, thus goes beyond the limits of what we can know with our reason.

Gaunilo claims that Anselm’s dependence in his argument on a definition of God as ‘that than which nothing greater can be conceived’ is flawed, as we simply cannot hold such a definition. Furthermore, to have this notion of God’s nature in one’s mind, as Anselm claims, would also be impossible for our reason.

Gaunilo’s second and more famous challenge to Anselm is that we cannot go from the definition of something to it’s existence. He uses a reductio ad absurdum argument, which aims to show the absurdity of holding the viewpoint of Anselm, by using the example of an island. He says: We can conceive of a perfect island. A perfect island must be more perfect in reality than in the mind. Therefore a perfect island exists. The perfect island stands for Anselm’s perfect being. Gaunilo aims to show with this example that Anselm’s argument is fallacious, as you can use his argument to prove the existence of things such as perfect islands.

Clearly, it is hard to see how a perfect island would have to exist just because of this argument, and Gaunilo believed he had proved that Anselm’s similar argument was flawed. However, in Reply to Gaunilo, Anselm refers him to the Proslogion 3, in which Anselm had pre-empted such a challenge with a second version of the ontological argument.

Explain Descartes’ understanding of existence as a perfection which God cannot lack (25)

Essay Plan:

Start with: Descartes’ method of doubt by which he tries to establish foundations beyond doubt upon which to build knowledge.

In his book Meditations, arrives at one certainty – that he is a thinking being (as he could be deceived about what he is thinking, but not about that he is thinking). Asks if there is anything else he can be certain of.

Decides that he can form clear and distinct impressions of mathematical objects and numbers, but these things exist in some sense independently of his mind.  He can “draw the idea of something from my thought”.

Explain the method he uses to do this, which is to meditate upon the essence of something, ie. what makes it what it is. With a triangle this is that its internal angles add up to 180 degrees.

This truth about triangles exists in his mind clearly and distinctly, and he argues that he can be certain of it.

How does he do this? From the preceding thought experiment he found out that the one thing he could be certain of was that he was a thinking thing, but that he might be deceived about having a body etc.

Therefore, he argues, things of the mind are more certain than physical things.

They are much more clearly and distinctly known than that of the body.

One such idea is the idea of God that Descartes finds in his mind. He says:

1. I have an idea of God, a perfect being.

2. There must be as much reality or perfection in the cause of any thing as in the effect.

a. This applies not only to the existence of ideas, but also to the reality of what they represent. Not only must the existence of the idea be explained, but also what it represents.

3. The idea of God represents something so perfect that I could not have been the cause of this idea.

Therefore, God must exist as the only possible cause of the perfection found in my idea of Him.

So far, this is all background to get you as far as Descartes’ idea of God in the mind. If you understand how he arrives at that, then you will be better equipped to answer a part b question.

Descartes then uses his version of the ontological argument –  the idea of God can be said to exist in reality, because existence is a perfection God cannot lack.

Use the example of rivers not being able to exist without banks – they logically have to go together. Triangles have to have three internal angles. God necessarily exists because he has all perfections (that’s what we mean by God) therefore God must have existence, as that is a perfection.

To explain this further talk about God’s essence including existence. Descartes tries to show that it is impossible for God not to exist.


The Aims and Main Conclusions Drawn by William James in ‘The Varieties of Religious Experience’

Here are some resources for William James:

A BBC radio discussion with Melvyn Bragg about The Varieties of Religious Experience: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00s9ftw

A link to an excellent online ‘Cliff’s notes’ style summary of Varieties of Religious Experiencehttp://www.psywww.com/psyrelig/fonda/jamesvre.htm

The entire book online free: http://www.psywww.com/psyrelig/james/toc.htm

My own summary of his main aims and conclusions:

James begins by distinguishing between two types of inquiry about a subject – first – how did it come about? and second what is its importance now that it is here? He says that the answer to the first will be an existential judgement – a judgement of being – and to the second a proposition of value, and that neither of these can be deduced immediately from the other.

What he is saying is that just because you have an explanation for the origin of a thing does not mean you can derive from that a judgement about its value. This is key to his project.

It is a direct answer to those like Freud and Marx who believed that because they could determine the psychological or sociological origin of religious belief, it followed that they had explained away its importance and it had become ‘nothing but’ a delusion and so on. He called this ‘medical materialism’ and deals very firmly with it in Lecture One .

James says the major flaw with explanations of religious experience which reduce them to medical or biological causes (St Theresa is a hysteric, St. Paul just an epileptic and so on) is that they are self-defeating as explanations (the same argument can apply to any reductionist or eliminative materialist explanation in other topics too – eg. free will or Life and Death) – in other words – all our beliefs, religious or non-religious, would be subject to the same material origin, and therefore the belief that religious experience has a material cause is itself the result of a material cause, unless it can be shown that religious beliefs are the only types of belief that this applies to. But James says medical materialism can point to no reason why it thinks the argument only applies to religious beliefs – he says “It is sure, just as every simple man is sure, that some states of mind are superior to others, and reveal to us more truth, and in this it simply makes use of an ordinary spiritual judgement.”

He goes on to conclude that the only way of making the second kind of judgement about religious experiences (value-judgements or statements of importance) is by looking at their “immediate luminousness”, which he unpacks as:

1. Philosophical reasonableness

2. Moral helpfulness

He says: “The degree in which our experience is productive of practice shows the degree in which our experience is spiritual and divine.”

This is explored fully in the book. James considers seriously all sorts of first hand accounts of experiences and examines different theories of their origin – he is careful to show the cases where religious experience seems to be a type of pathological behaviour (we might think here of the Toronto Blessing!), but he always looks at the question ‘what effect did the experience have on the life of the believer?’ in order to judge its value.

One thing that students commonly do when a question on religious experience or William James comes up is to simply state his 4 characteristics of mystical experience, then go on to say perhaps how Marx or Freud have shown that they could be delusions. What students don’t commonly realise is that James is already well aware of the Freudian critique of religious experience before he gives his lectures, and deals with it in the very first lecture. In doing so, he shows a nuanced and balanced approach to the topic.

Coming up in part two – the conclusions drawn by James.