The Little Onion

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.

Fyodor Dostoevsky

New OCR AS Spec – Augustine on Original Sin

Original Sin and its Effects on the Will and Human Societies

The will was profoundly marked by THE FALL. It is divided and therefore weak. Augustine sees the rebellious state of the will as a direct result of Adam’s sin of disobedience.

Adam’s SIN OF DISOBEDIENCE was the cause of the state in which we find ourselves – that of Original Sin. This is a hereditary stain with which we are born as a result of Adam’s sin.

Romans 5:12 is a key text:

“It was through one man that guilt came into the world; and, since death came owing to guilt, death was handed on to all mankind by one man.”

ORIGINAL SIN only deprives man of those Divine gifts to which his nature had no right; humans have not lost the possession of their natural faculties such as reason. Some of the effects of Original Sin are:

  • CONCUPISCENCE – this is the privation of the complete mastery over the passions which was a DIVINE GIFT. In other words man is no longer able to control his appetites, including his libido (sexual desire). This does not mean that the body is evil – the body is created good (see Genesis), but the will is weak and divided, and this means that the appetites can dominate – therefore the body can be overrun by gluttony, love of money and power, and sexual desire
  • DEATH OF THE BODY – Romans is clear that this is one of the results of Original Sin
  • PRIVATION OF SANCTIFYING GRACE – Death of the soul. Not only the body dies as a result of Original Sin, but humans are deprived of grace – this is holiness, and holiness is union with God. Grace is not any particular good act, but a permanent tendency towards God as we shall see. Without grace the soul cannot live, as vices grow stronger and choke its life

PRIVATION OF THE VISION OF GOD in the next life. Without the effect of grace, it is impossible to see God, as the soul’s vision is distorted by the appetites. The beatitude says:

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matt 5)

This was an excerpt from my forthcoming revision guide for Developments in Christian Thought – if you would like more material please leave an email address and I will put you on a mailing list.

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

St-Teresa-of-Avila-The-Interior-Castle-AN-Intellectual-Vision-or-Locution

Here is my attempt at doing this question. I have to say, if a question on voices came up, I think a lot of students would avoid it, as the text-books have very little to say on this topic. It is tempting to just fall into a generic template for or against religious experience, but the topic of voices has some issues specific to it. For instance, and I didn’t say this in the essay, voices are usually linked to prophetic apparitions such as those of Fatima. The prophetic element is obviously explained by the need to convey a message. One of the strangest examples of voices is that of Pope Leo XIII on October 13 1884, 33 years to the day before the Fatima visions, hearing two voices – one kind and gentle, the other guttural and harsh, conversing. The conversation was supposedly between Christ and the devil, over how much time would be given to the devil for him to do his work in bringing down humanity.

Voices or locutions (from the latin locutio – speech) are a common aspect of certain types of religious experience, and are seen by the Catholic Church as a supernatural communication to the ear, imagination or directly to the intellect. They are supernatural in that the locution is meant to have its origin in a spiritual realm either heavenly or demonic. In most examples of this type of experience the voice is only heard by one person or a few individuals. Occasionally though, the locution does come from sound waves travelling to the ear, and thus has an external source Often, voices are accompanied by visions, but not always. A clear example of this is the revelations of the Virgin Mary to the three children Lucia, Jacinta and Francisco at Fatima in Portugal in 1917. The children saw a lady who showed them visions, for instance of hell, and they were also instructed by her as to the meaning of the visions. However, only Lucia and Jacinta heard and saw all that was revealed, whilst Francisco just saw the visions but did not hear the speech.

However, according to Teresa of Avila, voices should be tested to see if they have a natural or supernatural source. If natural they should be rejected as the result of an overactive imagination. If they are supernatural it is still to be discerned whether they are from God or the Devil. The only way this can be decided is in the effect it has on the person. St Teresa describes some of the effects of true locutions: they have a sense of certainty, power and authority, they bring calm and tranquility, and they are remembered for a long time. On the contrary, voices from the devil produce agitation or over-excitement in the recipient and make him fall prey to pride and other sins.

The issue that is often raised in connection to voices is the possibility of a non-supernatural origin, indeed skeptics would say that there is always a psychological explanation for this kind of religious experience. This is particularly the case with voices as they are very commonly reported by people suffering from certain kinds of mental illness such as schizophrenia or other psychotic episodes. The most common psychiatric explanation for psychosis is that part of the conscious mind of the person becomes overwhelmed by unconscious contents and seems to take on its own significance over and against the conscious ego-centre of the individual, such that they feel powerless to control it, and experience the psychosis in the form of voices or hallucinations which are usually unpleasant and which interfere with the autonomy of the mentally ill person.

In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James gives a psychological explanation for voices which seems at least sympathetic to this view. Firstly, he outlines the passivity of someone undergoing a religious experience, so that it seems to come from the ‘other’ and the receiver can do nothing about it. This would seem to echo the psychologist’s understanding of what happens in psychosis. Secondly, in James’ discussion of what he calls the ‘sick soul’, he explicitly draws parallels between a certain religious type, and certain kinds of mental illness in which voices occur. For instance, he describes the melancholy temperament of John Bunyan, who was ‘sensitive of conscience, beset by doubts, fears and insistent ideas, and a victim of verbal automatisms…these were usually texts of scripture, which…would come as if they were voices and fasten on his mind…’.

James goes on  to link the crisis that often comes to the sick soul type, and how they can become ‘twice-born’ ie. flooded with a newfound conviction in God, after much despair, and he says that these conversions are often linked to voices and visions. He relates how many religious founders or important figures such as George Fox or John Wesley heard voices because they were of ‘exalted sensibility’. He leaves open the question of whether these ‘incursions from beyond’ have their origin in the unconscious mind, or whether they have an ultimately supernatural origin.

Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, had a purely reductionist view of religious experiences, and locutions would have been for him a psychotic or neurotic manifestation of unresolved trauma from childhood.

Freud felt that Religious experience is explicable in terms of psychological factors acting on the personality, factors that are ultimately based on childhood traumatic experiences involving the parents. For Freud the human condition is one of fear in the face of our mortality, and helplessness in the face of nature. Thus we need comfort – as children this comes from the father, later in religion the father-in-the-sky. This religious comfort is wish-fulfilment – Freud believed that powerful wishes could find outlets in dreams, but also in other delusory states – essentially then religious visions, voices and experiences are hallucinations which come from our powerful need to feel control over our own helpless state.

With this interpretation, it must be remembered, Freud did not mean to dismiss religious experience as untrue, he said that just because religious experiences are illusions, it doesn’t mean they are false, an illusion like this is not an error, as it is based on one of the oldest, strongest wishes of humankind. Presumably he meant by this that there is a certain meaningfulness or significance to religious experience because they come from such a deep-rooted and universal source, but it is hard to see how I can retain my belief in the veridicality of my experience whilst also seeing it as a wish-fulfilment. If it is caused by my desire for security and meaning in my life its source can’t be in the divine or supernatural realm.

It seems to me that St. Teresa could very easily be updated for modern times to critique Freud. What she called voices from the devil, could be seen to be the voices that mentally ill people hear, as their effect is usually disconcerting and negative. Whereas if we apply her and James’ criteria of positive emotional and behavioural impact on the believer we have a way of easily distinguishing ‘real’ voices from false ones.

Freud’s disciple Jung claims that the divine reality cannot be a ‘nothing-but’ – voices have important psychological benefits which can lead to the integration of the personality – a wholeness that the conscious mind usually resists at its peril.

Equally, Swinburne argues we cannot just dismiss voices and other religious experiences with an automatic skepticism, indeed, his principles of credulity and testimony turn the tables on the skeptic and challenge him to take voices seriously.

In conclusion, it cannot be stated that voices are evidence of psychological neurosis, as this is a blanket statement, assuming a reductive materialism which ignores the epistemological problems with all experience, and which doesn’t do justice to the ‘fruits’ of the experience of the voices in the life of the believer. Clearly, there are many cases of voices being heard in neurotic episodes, but as stated above, and as James attests, unlike voices in religious experiences these do not lead to an integrated, stable, compassionate and insightful individual, capable of ministering to others and organising practical matters such as St. Teresa or John of the Cross (who both founded and led religious orders), but rather to individuals who sadly are unable to function well in society.

However, just because voices are not always evidence of psychological neurosis, by no means proves that they are from God – and it may be that there is some depth psychological explanation which is the best explanation for them. Both Jung and James thought that if there was a divine reality on the other side of the experiences of the mind, then it can only be known through that experience, and both remained essentially agnostic (with some qualification) on the matter.

 

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)

 

AS OCR Philosophy Predictions 2016

It’s that time of year once again! Peter Baron has some very insightful predictions up on his site; check it out.

I agree with him that a Gaunilo question could make an appearance. You can find my exemplar essay on this here.

Another thing that I think could come up is a question on Hume’s criticisms of the cosmological argument. See here for my part a essay and for part b See here for my essay on this.

Good luck!

William James: Six Key Points

Points to revise:

1. Know PINT and be able to explain how it contributes to his argument.
(It enables him to argue for a ‘common core’ to all religious experience, which is a universal feature of all religions. If it is universal, it must point to a greater reality behind the different beliefs)

2. Know and understand how his:

a)philosophical pragmatism
b) his psychologist training and
c) his empirical approach
contribute to his argument.
(a: it meant he could argue for the truth of religious experience based on the positive behavioural and moral effect it had on people’s lives.
b: it meant he was very aware of how our mental and emotional mind states affect our beliefs and experiences
c: it meant he was interested in gathering as much data as possible (ie testimonies), and also in looking for evidence which counted against religious experience.)

3. Know Swinburne’s principles of credulity and testimony and how they support James.

4. Know how conversion experiences are important to his argument. (They have a psychological basis but result in genuine ‘fruits’ on the moral life, eg. kindness, selflessness etc.)

5. Know Mackie’s criticisms.

6. Know general strengths/weaknesses. Eg. a key weakness is his protestant based assumption that only personal experiences are the real source of faith, and doctrines are a later addition. Too individualistic. Another key weakness: seems to be arguing for non-cognitive status of religious experience (psychological/emotional ) but also cognitive (noetic = intuitive knowledge of what?)