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



Hume’s understanding of miracles is flawed. Discuss.

“Hume’s Understanding Of Miracles is Flawed” Discuss (35 Marks)

The general definition of a miracle is “an extraordinary and welcome event that is not explicable by natural or scientific laws”. However it is often disputed whether these events should be attributed to some sort of divine agency or just be deemed coincidences. Stories of miracles have been around as long as humans have lived in communities and have caused many theists to believe that miracles are an example of God actively making a difference in the world, confirming their faith. This is evident in Christianity where Jesus is seen healing people and calming storms and Moses is seen to turn a staff into a snake. Similarly, in modern times, the statue Nandi in a Hindu Mandir has been seen drinking milk. Philosophers like David Hume have aimed to disprove the existence of God through the falsification of miracles. In this essay I will analyse Hume’s theory and use Richard Swinburne’s counter argument to confirm that Hume’s understanding of miracles is flawed.

David Hume was a famous 18th century atheist philosopher. According to Hume, a miracle is “ a violation of the laws of nature”. To him the laws of nature were fixed, rigid statements that describe how the world works. Hume also puts forward two separate but closely related arguments against miracles.

The first argument is inductive is taken from his maxim “no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle unless the testimony be of such a kind that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavours to establish”. This means that the probability of miracles actually happening is so low that it is irrational and illogical to believe that miracles do occur. From this, Hume then goes onto suggest a process for looking at miracles; when investigating a miracle evidence can be collected, for example a witness testimony, laws of nature appear to be fixed and unvarying, for example as we know it, gravity is the same throughout the universe, miracles appear to violate the laws of nature and therefore we should conclude that it is more likely that the report of a miracle happening is incorrect that the laws of nature being violated.

A criticism of this argument is that the fact that something is more probable is not, on its own proof that it didn’t happen. This is true for detectives who often solve a case by showing that evidence proves that what is improbable is actually true. To add, another criticism of this argument is that you cannot attribute the actions of an omnipotent God to the word “probable”. As God by definition is all powerful, only he can choose when to perform an action and does not have to conform to any pattern that we, as lesser beings, would deem ‘logical’. Thus, the probability of God performing an action is not directly dependent on the frequency at which He does them, but in His ability to perform them at His own discretion. To add, Hume’s first argument is tautological as an atheist following his maxim will automatically believe that the miracle never happened due to its improbability. However a theist responding to Hume’s argument could state that the miracle did happen because the omnipotent God performs them at his own discretion and in an unpredictable manner. This therefore means that the question of the existence of God remains unresolved.

Richard Swinburne also comments on Hume’s argument and agrees that natural laws are based on people’s experiences of observing the world. However, contrastingly, he states that Hume does not recognise that laws of nature are simply generalisations as they only communicate a general picture of how the world functions. Additionally he claims that Hume fails to recognise that laws are “corrigible”. The law of nature is the best description of how the world works, as we currently can understand it but there may be soon be new discoveries that mean the “laws of nature” must be modified. This is shown in the fact that pre- socratic philosophers believed the world was flat but due to technology we know this to be incorrect. Swinburne also states that Hume is incorrect in saying that no evidence is reliable for us to say that miracles can happen as there are ways of collecting reliable evidence.Namely, through the testimonies of other people about their miraculous experiences, the understanding of modern science and knowledge of what is impossible, by means of memories of witnesses and through physical evidence i.e medical examinations.

On the other hand, the fact that Hume’s inductive argument can be challenged does not mean he is wrong. Instead the question is raised again of whether based on experiences of the world, the occurrences of miracles are improbable or not.

Hume’s second argument is that of practicality. He stated that often miracle accounts are taken from those who have a lack of education. This means stories can be exaggerated as gossiping is a part of human nature. Additionally Hume claimed that miracles only occur amongst the “ignorant and barbarous”. He argued that if you look at the histories of many countries, their earliest stories are full of miracles and visions, but, as the nation develops and becomes more civilised and educated, these kinds of stories disappear. This is a logical argument as it is true that newspapers of the 21st century do not tend to report many cases of miracles happening. In this argument, Hume also went on to say that reports of miracles happening in different religions contradict each other. He wrote that of one religion claims that a miracle proved their religion true, the value of their statement is cancelled out by the fact that other religions also claim the miracles that happen to them, confirm their religion.

In evaluation of Hume’s second argument, he wrote at a time where the support for miracles came from word of mouth. However, today, miracles are supported by unbiased, scientific evidence. This is shown at Lourdes, a place of Christian pilgrimage, where 68 carefully arrested claims of miraculous healing have occurred. The documents provided in support of their claims have been given by doctors whose evidence is incontrovertible. Furthermore, another criticism of this argument is that Hume sets so many criteria for the acceptance of miraculous events that he is not keen to allow himself to say that any extraordinary event could be miraculous. To add Hume ignores the significant effect that miracles have on their environments and those affected. For example Cardinal de Retz saw someone physically grow back a new limb- surely this would be a convincing account.

Richard Swinburne further criticises Hume by saying that he provides no method of recognising when one has a suitable large group of educated people and does not state which level of education is required for their intelligence to be sufficient. Swinburne considers what counts as “ignorant and barbarous” and suggests that it could mean a lack of familiarity with science. This gives more problems for Hume as many educated people claim to experience miracles. Additionally, Swinburne question whether miracles in different religions cancel each other out. He states that because most miracles concern God helping someone they are not about proving one religion’s beliefs correct and proving another religion’s beliefs wrong. To add Swinburne is a sceptic and automatically rejects stories about miracles without considering the evidence.

Swinburne then goes on to give his own definition of a miracle as “an occurrence of a non- repeatable counter instance to a law of nature”. This means a miracle is an event that does fit in with the laws of nature as we understand them, but equally, the event on its own is not enough to prove the law of nature inaccurate. He ensures that laws of nature are good general descriptions of how the world works but that does not remove the possibility of a miracle occurring. He then goes on to state the process in which you should devise an argument for a miracle; having identified the reliable evidence in any debate you must assess the evidence and deduce a conclusion. Swinburne’s process for dealing with claimed miracles that happened in the past is to devise a main argument, then subsidiary arguments. For the main argument you must accept as many sources of evidence as possible. The more evidence, the stronger the probability of the miracle happening. For the subsidiary arguments, different sources should be consistent and supportive of each other. Additionally, the value you place on a particular piece of evidence should depend upon its “empirical reliability” i.e of the witness is a known liar, similarly you should avoid rejecting, without good reason, evidence that may be relevant to the said miracle.

In conclusion I believe a miracle can be defined as a violation of the laws of nature as we know them which subjectively can be attributed to a divine agency. Overall, I believe that Hume’s argument is weak as it is tautological, generalises the term “laws of nature” and in being sceptical, fails to recognise the unchanging nature of science as we being to make new discoveries. I have used the support of Swinburne for my evaluation of Hume’s argument as he convincingly denotes Hume’s argument as being limited in its methods and unaware of the miracles experienced by intellectuals. For this reason I am more likely to favour Swinburne’s criteria for an argument in favour of miracles as it is logical and takes into account the profound effects that miracles have on people.


My comments:
A-grade essay.

Hume’s argument should be seen as a whole – so many criticisms seem to separate the two parts of his argument but they actually make much more sense together. Given that he says in part one that a sensible man weighs the evidence, and given that the evidence from the nature of miracles is going to be as entire as possible (because a miracle is by its very nature a one-off compared to the usual experience to the contrary), then a wise man proportions his belief to the evidence. And if the evidence is a one-off testimony – from a suspect source – then that testimony is really not worthy of consideration. The clever thing here is that the testimony cannot be considered apart from where or who it comes from, so that part one and two of the argument really need to be considered as a whole.

The second thing to say is that Swinburne seems to want to have his cake and eat it in your essay. If laws of nature are generalisations and corrigible, then what was thought to be a miracle isn’t really one, as it fits in with a revised law. But Swinburne makes other points. He does say that the laws of nature are statistical rather than prescriptive, but he also examines the possibility of ‘non-repeatable counter-instances of a law of nature’. This would prevent the miracle from being explained by a future revision of a law of nature.

I think then, in general it would be worth doing a little more of the AO1 explanation for both Hume and Swinburne, so that the examiner can see you clearly understand the argument.

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)


More Thoughts on Charles Taylor, Secularity and Miracles

In the last post I set out a brief overview of Charles Taylor’s critique of the secular. But how might this relate to Hume’s definition of and argument against miracles? I want to set out some points that may be useful.

1. Hume really seems to believe that the human approach to the world is that of a detached observer weighing up the likelihood of the evidence, but of course this ignores the fact that we are embodied minds, in a process of coping with the world. The view that we are able to stand outside of this network of significances in a neutral space is misguided. Therefore, Hume’s approach to miracles is misguided.

Another way of putting this point is that Hume deals with testimony for miracles, but his argument has nothing to say on what he would do if personally faced with a miracle – would he be able to be so detached?

Taylor points to the difference between the kind of philosophy Aristotle was doing, and that which Descartes did – a journey of nearly 2000 years which led from a view of humans as embodied beings upon which things make an impact, to a completely dualistic system in which the mind is able to stand apart from and rationally weigh up the embodied experiences.

2. We have seen from point (1) above that Hume’s epistemology is rather naive; it also leads to an empirical method and an understanding of induction that is too narrow. To use Taylor’s phrase, Hume is working with a closed world structure based on a very limited view of what counts as evidence. This is particularly evident in his four a posteriori arguments which discredit evidence because it comes from ‘ignorant and barbarous nations’, and from people  of  ‘insufficient education’. If you decide, before you see what the issues are that interest you, that only certain kinds of evidence are going to count, then you are loading the dice in favour of the outcome which you want.

3. Finally, this selecting of a narrow range of evidence is evident in the ‘violation’ definition of miracle as it presupposes a prescriptive rather than descriptive understanding of the laws of nature, which as we saw here, is mistaken.

I hope this has been of some help with Hume’s concept of miracles, it may give you an alternative philosopher with which to critique Hume, and one who is still very much alive! Have a look here to see a talk that Charles Taylor gave recently.

Charles Taylor, Secularity, and Miracles

In Charles Taylor’s essay What is Secularity? (in Transcending Boundaries in Philosophy and Theology, ed. Vanhoozer, K, and Warner, M, Ashgate, 2007) he develops the idea of closed world structures (CWS) which he uses to explain how the modern secular age came about.

He asks how belief in God has come to be seen as one option among many, when five hundred years ago unbelief was “close to inconceivable” for most people. He says that two things had to happen:

1. There had to come about a culture in which a clear division is made between the natural and the supernatural.

2. “It had to come to seem possible to live entirely within the natural.”

He says that number 2 came about inadvertently as a result of the striving for number 1.

Modernity, according to Taylor, has developed very powerful versions of phase 2. These are ‘closed’ or ‘horizontal’ worlds, which leave no place for the transcendent (or ‘vertical’) – they even render it inaccessible or unthinkable. I will give a brief picture of the contemporary western CWS.

The CWS he describes is the one most commonly held in the west today – a picture of individuals as knowing agents who build up their knowledge of the world by taking in information and forming mental pictures from which they build theories. An understanding of science often combines with this structure, and a series of priority relations tell us what is learned before what. Sense experience acts foundationally – “I must grasp the world as a fact before I can posit values.” In this CWS, any contact with the transcendent must come as an inference and “it is obvious that the inference to the transcendent is at the most extreme and most fragile end of a series of inferences; it is the most epistemically questionable.”

Taylor uses the work of post-modern thinkers such as Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty to deconstruct these ‘master-narratives’ of modernity and to show how they are constituted by a “massive self-blindness” – the supposed neutrality of secularity actually appears to be bogus.

Taylor explains the three aspects of a challenge to such an epistemological picture:

1. Our grasp of the world can’t be accounted for in the simple terms of mental representations of outer reality – such representations only get their meaning for us from a more fundamental process of ‘coping’ with the world as bodily, social and cultural beings.

2. This ‘coping’ activity is not primarily that of individuals, but is a social process which we are inducted into.

3. We do not deal with objects as part of the coping process, but what are called by Heidegger pragmata – the focal points of our coping, and which therefore already come to us with meaning and relevance.

The upshot of all these arguments is that they completely overturn the priority relations of foundationalist epistemology – as Taylor says, “there is no priority of the neutral grasp of things over their value”; things that are considered to be late and questionable inferences are seen to be part of our primary predicament, so that the sense that the divine comes as a remote inference is completely undercut by this challenge.

“From within itself, the epistemological picture seems unproblematic. It comes across as an obvious discovery we make when we reflect on our perception and acquisition of knowledge. All the great foundational figures – Descartes, Locke, Hume – claimed to be just saying what was obvious once one examined experience itself reflectively. Seen from the deconstruction, this is a most massive self-blindness. Rather what happened is that experience was carved into shape by a powerful theory which posited the primacy of the individual, the neutral, the intra-mental as the locus of certainty. What was driving this theory? Certain ‘values’, virtues, excellences: those of the independent, disengaged subject, reflexively controlling his own thought processes, ‘self-responsibly’ in Husserl’s phrase. There is an ethic here, of independence, self-control, self-responsibility, of a disengagement which brings control; a stance which requires courage, the refusal of the easy comforts of conformity to authority, of the consolations of an enchanted world, of the surrender to the promptings of the senses. The entire picture, shot through with ‘values’, which is meant to emerge out of the careful, objective, presuppositionless scrutiny, is now presented as having been there from the beginning, driving the whole process of ‘discovery’.”

Now, looking at this argument presented by Taylor, we can see several important points to bear in mind when examining Hume on miracles. In my next post I will present what I think are the most important.



The concept of miracle – including an understanding of Hume.

As soon as we take Hume’s definition of miracle: “violation of a law of nature”, we are thrown into the heart of the problem, because a law of nature is supposedly (according to Hume) fixed and regular, established by a uniform past experience.

For instance, I have always, when letting go of an object like a pen, experienced that object falling towards the ground. My past experience of that happening is entirely uniform. If one day I let go of a pen and it floated up to the ceiling I would be extremely shocked and probably conclude that a law of nature (gravity) had been broken.

However, given that neither I nor the vast majority of mankind have ever experienced this, not reported it to have happened, if someone told me that it had, I would, according to Hume, be unwise to believe them. I would use experience, observation, evidence and probability to examine the testimony of the levitating pen, and be forced to conclude that no such thing had happened.

From the nature of the case, given that it is more reasonable to believe what is more probable, it seems unreasonable to believe miracles have happened, as they are by definition highly improbable, because they supposedly go against a great mass of past experience.

So Hume says, for the wise man this high improbability amounts to a full proof against miracles. Notice that he doesn’t say it is a proof against miracles – merely that for all practical purposes the extreme improbability of it functions as a proof against it for those who are able to use reason correctly to weigh up testimonies for and against.

Therefore, you can view this ‘proof’ in two ways:

1. If you accept a definition of ‘proof’ to mean having considerable and weighty evidence for something, then you might be persuaded by Hume. This would be a looser definition than many require, but would still mean that something was highly likely to be the case.

2. However, on a more precise definition, proof means something more strict – an a priori state of affairs. As Ninian Smart says:

‘We cannot rule out a priori, i.e. without recourse to observing the way the world is, the possibility of miracles; and therefore we  cannot frame a rule about believing in them which would rule out the legitimacy of believing what we see, if we were to see a miracle’

In other words, given that a miracle is a violation of a law of nature, but the only way we have to judge that a law of nature is actually a law is past experience, we are unable to rule out their impossibility, because at any point an experience may happen to us which goes against what has previously happened.

Another way of saying that is that laws of nature are not like judicial laws – they are not prescriptive but descriptive. In other words they don’t say what can and cannot happen, only what has or has not happened so far in our experience. This is called the problem of induction. Russell’s Turkey is a good way of remembering it.

So there are large flaws in Hume’s argument, if you are not willing to give him a little latitude with his definition of ‘proof’. But even if you are, there is also a problem with another definition – the ‘violation’ definition.

There is a paradox in the idea that a miracle actually disregards or violates the laws of nature, but if such a thing does occur, how can it be a law of nature – it no longer operates as a reliable occurrence all the time?

To finish I want to quote from an unknown source (I really must take note of where I get things from – if anyone knows who wrote this I will be happy to credit them!):

“Hume’s argument against miracles (if it doesn’t rely on an overly simplistic account of induction) goes through only if it is assumed from the outset that my religious beliefs (as well as other religious beliefs for that matter) are highly antecedently improbable from the outset. But Hume’s argument is intended to show that my beliefs (and other religious beliefs) are highly antecedently improbable from the outset. So Hume’s argument succeeds only if it begs the question.

Yes, of course, if you can show that my religious beliefs are highly improbable from the outset on grounds other than Hume’s argument, then you will have provided me with a good reason to be incredulous about those beliefs. But Hume’s argument itself fails, without begging the question at least, to accomplish what it was intended to accomplish, regardless of your success or lack thereof in that endeavor.”

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.

“By definition a miracle can never happen” Discuss.

This title is asking the student to consider different definitions of miracles and in particular Hume’s definition of ‘a violation of a law of nature’ – which could be considered to make miracles almost by definition impossible. Students could assess the strength of Hume’s a priori argument, and then consider other definitions of miracles such as those of Tillich, Holland and Wiles. Lewis and Ward could be used to provide a critique of Hume and Wiles.

Ever since Hume’s definition of a miracle as a ‘violation’ of a law of nature, there has been debate over whether miracles do or even can happen. The question I will be addressing in this essay is whether the violation definition of a miracle makes miracles impossible, and considering the strengths of alternative definitions of miracle.