A Level Philosophy Exam 2018

So the exam is tomorrow. Remember there will be 4 questions and you answer 3. They will be marked out of 40, 16 marks for AO1 and 24 for AO2, which means you must be evaluative and have an answer which is driven by answering the question rather than reciting a list of views. The questions could be from year 1:

Plato and Aristotle

Mind, Body and Soul

Arguments for God from experience

Arguments for God from reason

Religious Experience

Problem of Evil

or from Year 2:

Religious Language – traditional approaches

Religious language – 20th Century approaches

Nature of God

As this is the first year of this exam I have nothing to go on for a prediction as no areas have come up yet. However, I think it would be odd if they didn’t have at least 2 questions from the second year, perhaps even three. In that case there is likely to be a question on God’s nature, and one on religious language. So here we go, here are my four guesses – no idea if anything like this will come up, but it’s always good to have a focus, and as I say, there should be something in at least a few of these areas.

“The conflicts between the divine attributes make belief in the classical view of God impossible” Discuss.

Critically assess non-cognitive approaches to religious language.

“Tillich’s view of Symbol is incoherent” Discuss.

To what extent can teleological arguments be defended from the challenge of chance?

Update: The questions were:

Boethius on eternity and free will

Hume on arguments from observation

The Cataphatic Way

Corporate Experiences


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



“Ian Ramsey’s Religious Language, though admittedly more in the empiricist camp than displaying evident influence of Wittgenstein, was a pioneering book in the consideration of ‘ordinary’ religious language. Religious claims, according to Ramsey, should properly be considered as qualified models, or stories, which under the right circumstances can bring about religious discernment (“the penny drops”). Ramsey was at pains to insist that this language , though “logically odd”, was in some sense genuinely descriptive (“about God”) and not in some merely Braithwaitean sense about moral commitment to pursue a way of life.

While the invocation of models goes a good way towards showing how one might find religious language “meaningful”, it was not evident from Ramsey’s “Christian empiricism” how these disclosure situations might claim to be more than emotive response. Neo-Feuerbachians and anti-realists, such as Don Cupitt, are content to find religious language “meaningful” without committing themselves to belief in some absolute being who transcends the world.”

From Religious Language by Janet Soskice in Quinn and Taliaferro, A Companion to Philosophy of Religion

In an essay on Religious Language, and especially analogy, OCR A Level students might be expected to evaluate to what extent religious language can be said to be about God in any meaningful sense. The classical view that analogy was able to affirm in a limited way certain things about God on the basis of the connection between creator and created has been given a new slant by Ramsey. This passage asks the question (which students would do well to ask in an essay on this); to what extent are the insights into God supposedly provoked by religious language insights into an actual reality, rather than just heightened awareness of a particular state of mind (and therefore non-cognitive presumably)?

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.

January 17th A2 Philosophy of Religion OCR exam questions

For those taking the January module for Philosophy of Religion OCR A2 I have been asked if I can predict what will come up! The answer to that is no! Anything could come up! All I can point to is what hasn’t come up for a little while.

In June 2012 Eternity, Dawkins and Aristotle, Language Games (Wittgenstein) and Conversion experiences came up. I predicted three of those amongst some others.

The other topics that I noticed hadn’t occured for a while were: disembodied existence, definition of miracles (perhaps linked to Hume), main aims and conclusions of William James (not the 4 characteristics of mystical exp.), numinous experience (Rudolf Otto), and the via negativa. We haven’t had questions on revelation and sacred scripture for a little while either.

Good luck and remember, there is no guarantee that any of these will come up!

A2 Reading List

This is the start of a reading list that I will be updating, with weblinks to online versions of core texts and secondary material

Excellent Philosophy of Religion Websites

I have recently been given a ‘shoutout’ on the excellent Philosophy and Ethics website run by Mel Thompson. So I thought I’d return the favour! Mel has a range of very good quality lecture notes on  all sorts of topics for AS and A2 students on things like life after death and miracles.

While I’m at it another excellent website whose philosophy section grows daily is the Philosophical Investigations website, run by Peter Baron. Both of these sites are very useful if you are doing the OCR Philosophy and Ethics course, like my students.

Assess the claim that the universe provides no evidence for the existence of an omnipotent God. (35)

Here is my attempt at doing the Jan 2012 A2 question on omnipotence. I did it cold with no notes in 45 mins and you can tell!

Edit: I will be adding my own revisions to this essay in bold soon to show what I think I should have included. In the meantime, if you’re interested, there is a good discussion of omnipotence in chapter 13 of the Puzzle of God by Peter Vardy. Oh, and if I had to give this essay a grade I reckon it’s a C as it stands! I really feel sorry for you A Level students – it’s really hard to do anything in 45 minutes!

A posteriori arguments from the universe or its features to God often claim that God needs to be omnipotent to guarantee the particular nature of the universe that we live in but how true is this? Surely to provide many of these features you don not need an all-powerful God, simply a very powerful one? For instance Kant argues that God is needed to guarantee the summum bonum and punishment or reward in the afterlife, but it has been noted that a very powerful angel might be able to provide the same thing.

Before we can assess this we need to be aware of the different ways in which omnipotence is defined. The classical definition as formulated by Aquinas says that God is all-powerful meaning that he can do anything that it is logically possible to do. This solves many of the problems that people such as Dawkins have claimed make omnipotence incoherent. For instance, Dawkins said that it had not escaped atheist’s notice that if God knew that he was going to intervene in the future history of the world (because of his omniscience) then he was not free to refrain from doing so, which constrained his omnipotence. Of course, this seems to be a problem unless a full understanding of God’s character as eternal and simple is grasped.

The key is in the words ‘logically possible’ – Aquinas argues that God can do everything it is logically possible to do but not the logically impossible because this would be self-contradictory. He says that for instance he cannot change the past, because it is logically impossible for something both to have happened and not to have happened at the same time. Even God cannot make this contradiction true. This applies also to Dawkins’ problem – God cannot logically both decide and not decide to do something at the same time.

Others like Descartes claim that this is too great a restraint on God and that he can do both the logically possible and impossible, so he can make a square circle for example. Thirdly and finally, Kenny argues that omnipotence is an expression of the great power of God, but doesn’t necessarily see this as meaning he can do anything.

When we come to the question of whether the universe provides any evidence for any of these kinds of omnipotence we have a difficult task. There seem to be no reasons to particularly favour the first two kinds of omnipotence – the existence of evil and suffering in the universe seems to particularly imply that any design we find is flawed, and therefore that if there was a designer he may not have been able to prevent these flaws (especially if we believe he also is omnibenevolent).

On the other hand the sheer existence of the whole of space-time as the universe might need explaining (as eg. Copleston thought), in which case it seems illogical to argue that the creator of that was not omnipotent – after all, this being would have to be radically free of space and time itself, and thus would be so unlike us or anything else in the universe that it would surely need to be omnipotent?

Many would argue that the concept of God’s omnipotence is not so much a logical consequence of evidence from the universe but that it logically follows from the concept of God itself – they would thus be using a priori arguments like the ontological argument where God is that than which nothing greater can be conceived. If we accept this as the definition of God, they argue, then we need to accept that God is omnipotent in the classical sense.

In conclusion the evidence from the universe to a classically omnipotent God would seem to be very thin – rather we might need to accept Kenny’s definition and say that if there is a creator of the universe he might need to be only very powerful, and say that in the form of life of our faith, claims for omnipotence of God are expressions of our beliefs as a network that ties together different elements of our lives – in the religious language game, God’s omnipotence plays a meaningful role not subject to questions of truth and falsity from the standpoint of objective evidence. But in doing this we may be guilty of Flew’s ‘death by a thousand qualifications’.

After doing this I suddenly remembered miracles and religious experience as well as Biblical notions of God as a good creator! This shows how important it is to revise all the topics as many times at A2 it is the connections across topics – the synoptic element – that really counts, and a question on the nature of God is going to rely on these connections. So here’s what I would add:

Some religious believers would maintain that miracles are evidence of an omnipotent God, as scripture in the Judaeo-Christian tradition is seen as the unfolding  revelation of God through His intervention in history, specifically displaying his power over evil and the ultimate triumph of good. God is not merely as powerful as Satan – goodness is not on the same level as evil – love conquers all. Miracles such as the parting of the Red Sea, the raising of Lazarus to life or the granting of Hannah’s prayer for a child are all seen as the omnipotent power of God’s love. In the Christian tradition it is paradoxically Christ’s sacrificial death and suffering that guarantees this omnipotence.

Vardy claims this is another definition of omnipotence – as the irresistible power of God’s love – and uses St Teresa’s words – “Christ has no hands now on earth but ours” to show that an omnipotent God may still work through selfless acts of love by humans. So omnipotence does not refer to the acts of a creator god but to the inherent power of humans to love selflessly. This would be a revisionary view and it is open to the question of how closely it fits in with the beliefs of Christians – do we want to limit God’s action only to the work he does through us?

The other problem is whether it can be claimed that because scripture says in many places that God is the all-powerful creator of the universe (eg. ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’) this counts as evidence – many argue that scripture is propositional revelation and that such statements are literal descriptions. However, this assumes a faith standpoint and would not seem to be verifiable outside of this context.

Dawkin’s dilemma given at the beginning is also not as easily solvable as I said:

It appears that God could not choose to do an action because the notion of choice is fundamentally one of time implying a time before and after the action. It is not easy to see how God could choose timelessly – surely God is compelled by God’s own nature to act necessarily? This appears to be a logical problem with God’s omnipotence as he would be constrained from acting freely. This limit set on omnipotence would be another challenge to the idea of omnipotence as classically understood and might be decisive in any attempt to decide from evidence whether God is omnipotent.

Finally theists might argue that the only evidence needed for God’s omnipotence is his ability to make his presence felt personally to people through religious experience. For instance Rudolf Otto talked of the ‘mysterium tremendum et fascinans’ in which God manifests himself to people as an awe-inspiring and terrifying experience, thus demonstrating his majesty and power. This might lead many to conclude that these displays of power show his omnipotence in a direct sense.

However, as Freud, Feuerbach amongst others have shown, religious experiences like these may be products of the mind, projections of neurotic contents and so have physiological or psychological bases. In conclusion, it seems unlikely that any of these pieces of ‘evidence’ constitute strong enough evidence for God as omnipotent.