Aquinas’ first cause argument successfully proves the existence of God. Discuss. (40)

Aquinas’ first cause argument is the second of his three versions of the Cosmological Argument, which form the first of his three ways to God in the first part of the Summa Theologica.  As a Cosmological Argument, Aquinas’ first cause argument starts from the observation of order, in this case causation, in the universe.  The word “Cosmological” derives from the Greek “Kosmos” which means both “order” and “universe”.  As Anthony Kenny[CV1]  explains, Aquinas relies on Aristotle’s theory of causation, as outlined in the Metaphysics Book IV.  Aristotle argued that all things in the universe have four causes, which can by understood in terms of the material, efficient, formal and final.  Material causes are the physical ingredients of things, efficient causes the agents that cause them to exist as they do, formal causes the definitions of things which make them what they are and the final cause to which things aim is their goal or telos and ultimately flourishing.  Focusing on efficient causation, Aquinas’ second way to God argues that everything in the universe is caused by one or more agents outside itself and nothing causes itself to exist.  If this is so then there is a problem – what was the first efficient cause.  An infinite chain of efficient causes makes no sense, because without a first cause nothing would exist.  Something cannot come out of nothing.  There must be a first efficient cause, but this must itself be uncaused, which makes it unlike any other thing.  The uncaused cause of the universe could then be said to be “neither something nor nothing” and, Aquinas concludes, this is what everybody calls God. As an inductive argument the conclusion of the Cosmological Argument, that God exists, is supported by observed premises which are falsifiable.  Because of this, Aquinas’ first cause argument cannot be said to prove God’s existence.  The problem of induction ensures that the most that the argument can be said to achieve is a very high degree of probability that its conclusions are, in fact, true[CV2] . Leaving the problem of induction and the issue of proof to one side: Aquinas’ first cause argument is still a convincing argument for the existence of God and, as William Lane Craig continues to argue, it is a useful means of defending the rationality of faith[CV3] . 

An immediate criticism of Aquinas’ argument is that it assumes that EVERYTHING in the universe is caused.  Although this claim is supported by Aristotle, it may be fair to suggest – as indeed JL Mackie did in “The Miracle of Theism” (1982[CV4] ) – that there may be things in the universe that are uncaused.  Indeed, Quantum Physics has concluded that there are sub-atomic particles that are in a sense uncaused. It could be that Aquinas’ first premise – that everything in the universe is caused – is untrue and if that is the case then the argument would fail. Nevertheless, it would be going too far to suggest that Physics has proven the existence of uncaused things in the universe.  Quantum particles could well be caused, for all we know, even though they appear not to be.  The most that Mackie’s criticism achieves is to show that Aquinas’ first premise must remain uncertain.  Although it seems likely on the basis of present experience that all things are caused, as Hume observed it is always possible that there are things in the universe that are uncaused and that these could explain the universe without recourse to God[CV5] . In this way, although Aquinas’ first cause argument is not entirely successful as an argument for God’s existence from observation, it is able to survive an obvious line of criticism.

In Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779) Hume went on to suggest that the universe itself could be the uncaused cause of itself.  Russell made a similar point in his debate with Frederick Copleston[CV6] , suggesting that the universe should be seen as a “brute fact”.  This is certainly possible; Aquinas’ might be guilty of committing the fallacy of composition in reasoning that just because things within the universe need causes that the universe as a whole needs a cause.  Russell gave the analogy of mothers – just because all men have mothers doesn’t mean that the human race has a mother.  While Hume and Russell could well be right and the universe might be the cause of itself, this goes well beyond our experience.  It is just as difficult to theorise about the universe being self-causing as it is to theorise that it has an uncaused cause.  Neither conclusion can be drawn with any degree of confidence.  What does seem certain is that Aquinas is correct to reason that the universe must be explained in terms of something that is uncaused, whether that is within the universe, the universe itself – or God.  William Lane Craig[CV7] , in adapting the Cosmological Argument for modern Christian Apologetics, chooses to leave the argument at its first conclusion – that there must exist an uncaused causer.  He leaves it to Theologians to convince people that the uncaused cause is in fact “what everybody calls God” and it seems that his caution is sensible. Neither Aquinas’ first cause argument nor any other version of the Cosmological Argument can conclusively prove the existence of God, but the argument can point to the rationality of faith given the necessity for a cause for the universe which is unlike anything within our normal experience[CV8] .

Immanuel Kant advised such caution when in the Critique of Pure Reason he argued that the Cosmological Argument, like other inductive arguments for God’s existence, goes beyond the boundaries of what we can claim to know.  It is reasonable to observe that all things are caused and that there is a tension implicit in this which demands explanation – but it is not reasonable to draw conclusions about that explanation when they go beyond possible experience.  Perhaps this is where faith comes in; the first cause argument cannot successfully PROVE the existence of God, but it can point towards a mystery which is evident in the observed universe, a mystery which is suggestive of the existence of something supernatural if not of the God of Classical Theism.  As Hume pointed out, the first cause argument cannot claim to lead to the God of Christianity – even to a single God in fact – but limited as it is, the argument provides a useful defence for the believer[CV9] . 

 [CV1]Precise relevant detail and range of scholarly views

 [CV2]Acknowledging & engaging with the precise wording of the title – This also works to show the LIMITATIONS of the argument.


 [CV4]Using a range of scholarly views.  This paragraph also serves as the COUNTERCLAIM, as it does cede some of the point that Mackie makes.

 [CV5]Evaluating the “maybe not everything has a cause” criticism, linking to the THESIS, justified, developed…

 [CV6]Range of scholarly views – again a bit of counterargument (balance) here, allowing that Hume and Russell have a point.

 [CV7]Range of scholarly views

 [CV8]Evaluating the fallacy of composition criticism and linking to the THESIS – justified, developed, sustained…

 [CV9]Drawing in Kant’s criticism & another of Hume’s in drawing the final CONCLUSION, which restates the THESIS – successful argument.  Builds step by step and is therefore convincing.

Plato’s theory of the forms is unconvincing. Discuss (40)

Plato’s theory of the forms is developed in several different places.  Most famously, Plato describes the world of the forms and how it relates to the world of human experience through his Allegory of the Cave, found in Book VII of The Republic.  Here, Plato describes how human beings are like prisoners, trapped by the cave of sense-experience and how it is possible to escape – through reason – coming to the realization that Ultimate Reality is metaphysical in the world of the “forms.”  Elsewhere, Plato used the analogies of the Sun and the Divided Line to explain his theory differently, but nowhere did Plato provide any systematic account of or argument for the theory.  It seems that for Plato, a form is the essence of something, what makes it what it is.  It is what enables us to recognize what something we encounter is and what makes it possible to judge whether it is a good (or bad) example of its type.  The word “form” is also used to refer to the model which a mason used to ensure all his carvings were the same; it is the blueprint, the type, the design.  Unlike things that we encounter through our senses, the form is unchanging, perfect, complete and it is this which makes it more “real” than physical things in the ever-changing partial and imperfect world of the senses.  “The Platonic idealist,” said George Santayana, “is the man by nature so wedded to perfection that he sees in everything not the reality but the faultless ideal which the reality misses and suggests.”  However, Plato is not clear how many forms exist – is there a form of everything or only a few or even one ultimate form?  Further, Plato fails to argue for his position, preferring to describe a worldview using allegories and analogies.  Julia Annas observed that

Plato not only has no word for “theory”; he nowhere in his dialogues has an extended discussion of Forms in which he pulls together the different lines of thought about them and tries to assess the needs they meet and whether they succeed in meeting them” An Introduction to Plato’s Republic, p217 

While it has been enormously influential and while it does have intuitive appeal, Plato’s theory of the forms is unconvincing because of this lack of coherent argument. 

Further, nothing much seems to separate Plato’s theory of the forms from speculation.  As Aristotle pointed out in Metaphysics Book 1,

“… If, then, a man has the theory without the experience, and recognizes the universal but does not know the individual included in this, he will often fail” 

Plato’s focus on reason as the only source of wisdom – and his belief that sense-experience could actually mislead people – means that his theory is not supported by any observable evidence.  There is no way to see, hear, smell, taste or touch the forms and, while Plato would suggest that this is just the point, what then distinguishes Plato’s theory from baseless speculation?  Take flat-earth theory or young earth creationism.  It is, as Bertrand Russell pointed out, impossible to disprove the idea that the universe was created with all the appearance of age 5 minutes ago… or indeed something over 6000 years ago in a period of 6 days.  While this would raise serious questions over His goodness, a mischievous creator could well have planted “fossils” in rock strata and rigged the moon-landings to deceive credulous scientists and identify those few with unshakable blind faith in what goes against the evidence to elevate to their eternal reward.   In the same way – in the absence of the sort of freak-chance-escape Plato describes in his allegory – it is impossible to disprove Plato’s proposal that we exist in a shadowy prison of the senses and that ultimate reality exists beyond in some forever-unattainable world of the forms.  Plato even acknowledges how the revelation of such news would be received by those still in the cave. In the absence of supporting evidence – and when Plato’s theory seems to call for an active suspension of disbelief – how is it more credible than flat-earth theory or young earth creationism?  In this way as well, Plato’s theory of the forms is unconvincing. 

Aristotle also criticized Plato for being inconsistent in his speculations; must there me a form of the yellow pencil with blunt lead and the form of my half-drunk cup of tea?  Why shouldn’t there be a form of evil, sin etc?  Also, what prevents there being an infinite regress of forms?  Plato himself acknowledged this as a problem for his theory in the dialogue Parmenides – in what Bertrand Russell in his “History of Western Philosophy” described as one of the most remarkable cases in history of self-criticism”.  Here,Plato seems to suggest that where things display a particular quality, such as greatness, there must be a form through which we perceive it to have this quality, a form of greatness through which to appreciate its greatness. The Form of greatness must be unchangeably perfect, supremely great as an example of greatness, but if the form of greatness is itself great, and thereby an example of greatness, there must be a separate form through which we perceive the greatness of the form of greatness… and another form through which we perceive the greatness of the form of the form of greatness and so on to infinity.  A similar problem was highlighted by Pelletier and Zalta in their 2003 article “How to Say Goodbye to the Third Man.”  They use the example of ‘Loveliness’: If all things lovely become such and acquire their loveliness by virtue of partaking in the respective Form of Loveliness, then they must themselves be ‘like’ that Form. Following from the “symmetry of likeness” it can be said that the Form must, then, be ‘like’ the objects which partake in it. If this is true, the Form of Loveliness and the lovely objects must resemble one another by virtue of a further Form, of which they both partake. This, again, continues ad infinitum, creating Forms interminably to explain the likeness of the Form to its instantiations.  Plato had no satisfactory answer to these problems, as Aristotle made clear in the Metaphysics, using the example of the third man.  In this way Plato’s theory of the forms is philosophically unconvincing. 

Nevertheless, George P Simmonds argues that Plato’s theory of the forms could survive Aristotle’s criticisms.  He points out that

the Third Man Argument relies too heavily on assumptions generated by a swift and unsophisticated interpretation of Plato’s thinking.”

And goes on to point out that far from being a sign that Plato was abandoning his theory of the forms, Plato’s inclusion of this line of criticism in Parmenides points to Plato’s confidence in his theory and in his students’ ability to see the weakness of this line of criticism. In particular, Simmonds takes issue with Aristotle’s assumption that Plato’s argument with respect of particular things also applies to the forms. Just because the greatness of things in the world necessitates the existence of a form of greatness through which we perceive that greatness, does not mean that the same applies in the world of the forms. Having said that, Simmonds’ defence of Plato fails to justify Plato in being inconsistent in his treatment of the forms or for failing to provide a systematic defence of his own work, so it goes only so far in making Plato’s theory more convincing.  

In conclusion, Plato’s theory of the forms is unconvincing because Plato fails to give a clear, consistent account of his theory.  While this conclusion it may be a little unfair to Plato, given that he lived nearly 2500 years ago and given the fragmentary nature of our records of his work, his theory is frequently presented as a philosophical argument today, and in this context it must be evaluated as such. Further, just because Plato’s theory of the forms is unconvincing does not mean it is not worthy of serious study and development into what may be far more convincing theories.  Indeed, Plato’s belief that ultimate reality is metaphysical is gaining popularity today through theories like the holographic universe and the simulated universe. 


Critically evaluate the view that religious experience is the best basis for belief in God. [40]

When compared with the classical arguments for God’s existence – Cosmological, Teleological and Ontological – Religious Experience might seem like the best basis for believing in God, because the God revealed through well-known experiences is more obviously what Pascal called “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” than the abstract “God of the Philosophers”.  In this way, Religious Experience would better support Religion or Classical Theism than the other arguments, which seem to support deism at best.  Nevertheless, on closer analysis Religious Experience does little more to support belief in the God of Religion, a personal deity, than the other arguments.  Because of this, coupled with the unique difficulties which beset Religious Experience as an argument for God’s existence, Religious Experience is not the best – or even a good – basis for belief in God.

Firstly, as William James argued in his “Varieties of Religious Experience” (1902) genuine religious experiences are ineffable and resist description in what Ramsey called “ordinary language”.  When somebody reports having “seen” the Virgin Mary or having “heard” the voice of God, the experience is not really like other sense-experiences through the eyes or ears.  Further, the object that people experience is not really personal.  As Otto argued, genuine religious experiences are of “the numinous”, “the Absolute” rather than any anthropomorphic being.  Stace concurred, arguing that genuine mystical experiences are of “an ultimate nonsensuous unity in all things, a oneness or a One to which neither the senses nor the reason can penetrate.” Happold agreed, arguing that genuine mysticism is characterized by a sense of love and union with all other beings which overcomes the anxiety we all feel at being separate and alone.  For James, Otto, Stace and Happold Religious Experiences point not towards the existence of “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” but to a “higher power” which, as James pointed out, need not be infinite, it need not be solitary. It might conceivably even be only a larger and more godlike self…” (Varieties of Religious Experience, Postscript) In this way, Religious Experience does not really serve to support belief in the God of Religion or even Classical Theism any more than the classical arguments do and so it is not the best basis for belief in such a God.

Secondly, Religious Experience is a weaker basis for belief in a “higher power” God than the classical arguments are.  This is because:

  1. Religious Experience is difficult to define.  While James, Otto and Stace recognize only solitary experiences, Richard Swinburne and Caroline Franks-Davis allow for corporate experiences as well.  While James, Otto and Stace suggest that all genuine experiences are beyond literal description, Swinburne and Franks-Davis allow for experiences which can be described using everyday language.  Because scholars differ about which experiences are possibly “authentic” and which are not, Religious Experience as a phenomenon is a less convincing basis of observation on which to build an inductive argument for God’s existence.  When compared with the Cosmological Argument, nobody questions Craig’s first premise “everything that begins to exist has a cause” even if they go on to criticize other premises or the conclusion of his argument. It follows that because of the difficulty in defining Religious Experience, is a weaker basis for an inductive argument for God’s existence than the classical arguments are
  2. As Swinburne points out, the argument from Religious Experience depends on assuming the Principles of Credulity and Testimony.  While it is far to say that the other arguments from observation also depend on the Principle of Credulity, Hume’s critique of Miracles in “An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding” Section X (1758) fatally undermines the Principle of Testimony as it applies to reports of religious experiences.  It is always more likely that somebody has made a mistake than that their experience, which goes against the established laws of nature, is genuine.  While it is, as Hick pointed out, bad science to ignore such reports, it is, as James pointed out, impossible to exclude the possibility that the person reporting a religious experience is mistaken because credible physiological and/or psychological explanations exist to account for everything reported.  For examples, as James discusses in his chapter on Conversion Experiences, psychiatry might account for very many of these including those of St Paul (as a response to a moral crisis according to Leuba) and of St Augustine (as a delayed adolescent crisis according to Starbuck).  While St Paul or St Augustine might themselves be convinced that their experience was authentic and be justified in believing in their object, there is no necessity for other people to believe either in the authenticity of their experiences or in what they seem to refer to.  So, because testimony always lacks credibility, an inductive argument based on Religious Experience will be weaker than the classical arguments in establishing a basis for belief in God.
  3. Finally, as Swinburne points out, accepting accounts of Religious Experience as possibly genuine depends on prior probability.  If you are what James called a “medical materialist“, reports of religious experience would be their very nature incredible.  In this way, reports of will only be entertained as the basis for belief in anything by those who are already open to the existence of that thing and the argument from Religious Experience is shown to be circular and so not as persuasive as the other classical arguments.

Clearly, Swinburne would disagree and would argue that Religious Experience is a better basis for believing in God than the other inductive arguments.  In his “The Existence of God” (1979) he set out a cumulative argument for God’s existence which employed Bayes’ Theorem to assess the relative probabilities of God and natural causes as explanations of causation, order and purpose, beauty and morality in the universe.  None of these arguments is conclusive in itself, argued Swinburne.  It takes Religious Experience to tip the balance in favour of God’s existence and provide a basis for believing in God.  Nevertheless, Swinburne’s cumulative argument has been widely criticized, not least by Anthony Flew, who compared it with “ten leaky buckets”.  A lot of bad arguments, each of which fails to justify belief in God in itself, are together not significantly better than one bad argument and so fail to justify religious belief.  Further, Swinburne’s contention that Religious Experience is the strongest argument, the argument which tips the balance of probability in favour of God’s existence, seems odd given that it depends on prior probability and so has no force without the other arguments having already established that God is slightly more probable than the natural alternative.  To what extent can an argument which is circular in itself be the deciding factor?  If the other arguments succeed in justifying an openness to the existence of God without depending on Prior Probability or the Principle of Testimony, then surely they are better bases for belief in God than Religious Experience.  For Swinburne, Religious Experience is a better basis for belief in God than the other arguments from observation even though it depends on Prior Probability and the Principle of Testimony because, as he sees it, Religious Experiences support belief in the personal God of Religion.  However, as has already been established here, this is not necessarily the case.  On close analysis, for those who have had no experience themselves, Religious Experiences can support openness to the existence of a “higher power” at most.  By contrast, the cosmological argument supports belief in a necessarily single, all-powerful creator God and the teleological argument supports belief in an omni-benevolent intelligent designer God, at least when “good” is understood in the purely Aristotelian sense.  In this way, Religious Experience is a worse basis for belief in God than either of the cosmological or teleological arguments, even when it comes to believing in “the God of the Philosophers” with the classical attributes.

In conclusion, Religious Experience is very far from being the best basis for belief in God. On close analysis, reports of such experiences fail to justify anything more than an openness to a “higher power” which would not have to have any of the classical attributes of God.  It is as impossible to exclude naturalistic explanations for Religious Experiences as it is to exclude the possibility that they have been caused by God, so the question of what they point towards must remain open.  Further, as an argument for God’s existence, Religious Experience is beset by problems of definition, credibility of testimony and circularity.  It is certainly not the decisive factor in demonstrating the existence of God that Swinburne claims, but is a bucket that is more leaky than most.

“Although it is reasonable to believe in God on the basis of a religious experience you yourself have had, it is wrong to believe on the basis of other peoples’ reports.” Critically evaluate this statement. [40]

This statement largely reflects the conclusion William James came to in his “Varieties of Religious Experience” (1902).  James argued that the people who have a religious experience are perfectly justified in believing in the object of that experience, but maintained that reports of other peoples’ religious experiences could not justify belief in anything more than “a higher power.”  On the basis of James’ conclusion and WK Clifford’s famous 1877 essay “The Ethics of Belief” it  would be fair to say that believing in the God of religion on the basis of others’ reported experiences is wrong because

“it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything on insufficient evidence.”

As Clifford pointed out, belief is not a private matter because belief affects how we act.  He gave the example of a ship owner sending an un-seaworthy vessel to sea on the basis of a belief that the hull was sound.  If the belief is not supported by sufficient evidence and not properly justified, it is morally wrong of the ship owner to hold that belief.  In the case of the title statement, a person who believed in anything more than “a higher power” on the basis of other peoples’ religious experiences would be morally wrong to do so because this belief affects their actions.  For example, a Christian who believed in the Christian God on the basis of the religious experiences described in the Bible would be morally wrong to do so because that belief would direct them to look down on non-Christian religion and make efforts to convert Muslims, Jews and Hindus on the grounds that St Paul reported a vision of the risen Jesus who directed him (via Ananias) to be baptized.  The reported vision in Acts 22 would be insufficient justification for the belief of the Christian today and the Christian would be wrong to believe in more than the existence of a “higher power” on the strength of such reports.  By this analysis, the title statement is correct.

In William James’ Gifford lectures, given between 1901 and 1902, James explored the topic of Religious Experience in detail, considering conversion experiences and mystical experiences in particular depth, before evaluating the extent to which these experiences could be used as evidence to support belief in God.  In Lecture I James challenged the dominant medical materialism, arguing that it is reductive and fails to do justice the the richness of human experience.  He later built on this theme in Lecture III pointing out the naivety discounting any claimed experience of anything which cannot be sensibly perceived because indeed all sense-experiences are mediated through the mind and its categories, none of which can themselves be perceived through the senses. In Lecture II James went on to limit the scope of his inquiry to address only

“the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine” p.32

His inquiry did not, therefore, address corporate religious experiences despite the fact that most previous work had focused on what Durkheim called

“an effervescent group phenomenon”

This was because corporate experiences are more plausibly explained in terms of mass hysteria.  After exploring the important place of religious experience in religiosity and outlining the common features of conversion experiences and mystical experiences, James concluded that there are religious experiences that are not easily reduced to medical or psychological phenomena.  In these cases, James argued, the people who have a religious experience are perfectly justified in believing in the object of that experience.  In fact, they can do no other.  Nevertheless, this left open the question of whether other people would be justified in believing in God on the strength of what recipients of mystical experiences report.  In Lecture XVIII James began to consider this question, discounting the efforts of Philosophers of Religion in proving God’s existence through reason and then pointing out that religious experiences neither support belief in the classical attributes of God nor evidence standard theological doctrines.  For James, then, belief in God as the object of Religion lay beyond rational proof and beyond what can be justified through religious experience either.  Nevertheless, as James concluded in Lecture XX, Religious Experience can and does justify belief in something other and larger than our conscious selves.  As James wrote in his Postscript,

“the practical needs and experiences of religion seem to me sufficiently met by the belief that… there exists a larger power… both other and larger than our conscious selves. Anything larger will do… It need not be infinite, it need not be solitary. It might conceivably even be only a larger and more godlike self…. … my only aim at present is to keep the testimony of religious experience clearly within its proper bounds.”

It is clear, then that James would have accepted the title statement insofar as “God” refers to the God of any specific religion.  There is no sense that others’ reports of religious experiences justify belief in anything beyond some larger power; certainly not being a Christian or defining God in terms of the classical attributes.  It follows that the title statement is correct insofar as others’ reports of religious experiences could not justify belief in God and so would render such a belief wrong by Clifford’s argument.

James’ argument that the human phenomenon of religious experience only justifies belief in a higher power and not the God of religion  is persuasive.  Firstly because Rudolph Otto in his The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and its Relation to the Rational (1917) argued that all genuine religious experiences are encounters with “the numinous” rather than either of what Pascal famously called “the God of the Philosophers” or “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob”.  While Otto’s description of the marks or characteristics of genuine religious experiences seems more tightly drawn than James’, his argument supports James’ conclusion that the phenomenon that some people experience for themselves and which others hear or read about points towards a more abstract “higher power” rather than the God of any particular religion.  Secondly because Walter Stace in The Teachings of the Mystics (1960) argued that:

“the central characteristic in which all fully developed mystical experiences agree… is that they involve the apprehension of an ultimate non-sensuous unity in all things, a oneness or a One to which neither the senses nor the reason can penetrate. In other words, it entirely transcends our sensory-intellectual consciousness.” p14-15

Stace’s description of mystical experiences as an encounter with larger reality supports James’ conclusion that religious experiences justify the belief that:

“there exists a larger power… both other and larger than our conscious selves. Anything larger will do… It need not be infinite, it need not be solitary.” Varieties of Religious Experience, Postscript, p.515-6

In this way James, Otto and Stace all support the title statement and agree that other peoples’ religious experiences could not justify belief in the “God” of any particular religion.  It follows that the title statement is correct insofar as others’ reports of religious experiences could not justify belief in the God of Religion and so would render exclusive Religious belief on the basis of reports of others’ experiences wrong by Clifford’s argument.

Clearly, Richard Swinburne would take issue with this conclusion.  In “The Existence of God” (1979) Chapter 13, Swinburne agreed with James that it is reasonable to believe in God on the basis of one’s own experience.  He pointed out that in the absence of any reason to disbelieve it, one should accept what appears to be true and called this the “Principle of Credulity”.  On this basis, Swinburne would disagree with Richard Dawkins who claimed in “The Blind Watchmaker”(1986) that if he saw a marble statue waving at him across a museum, he would sooner check into his local psychiatric hospital than believe his own eyes.   Swinburne also agreed with James’ broader critique of medical materialism, pointing out that accepting his arguments depends on “prior probability” and that those who have already excluded anything supernatural on ideological grounds will remain unconvinced by any evidence for God.  Nevertheless, Swinburne was more open than James to trusting the testimony of others as evidence for the existence of not only a higher power but more specifically the God of Religion.  Swinburne claimed that with the absence of any reason to disbelieve them, one should accept that believers are telling the truth when they testify about religious experiences.  On the basis of this “Principle of Testimony” Swinburne argued that the common occurrence of those Religious Experiences which conform to his broad, five-fold classification makes the existence of a single “God” (with at least the classical attributes of omnipotence and omnibenevolence) more probable than any alternative explanation of the universe.  For Swinburne, believing that God is single is a simpler, more elegant explanation than believing in multiple higher powers.  In this way (by the commonly accepted principle of Ockham’s razor) he reasons that whatever caused and designed the universe and whatever people encounter through religious experiences is more likely to be one God than several.  Further, by calling on the evidence of the Cosmological and Teleological arguments for God alongside Religious Experience, Swinburne reasons that the single God must be both the cause of everything and so be all-powerful and responsible for the order and purpose evident in the universe and so be omnibenevolent.  Swinburne would, therefore, disagree with the title statement and argue that Religious Experiences justify belief in a single all-powerful, all-good “God”, whether you have had one yourself or not.

Nevertheless, Swinburne’s argument is open to a number of criticisms.  Firstly, his cumulative approach was rejected by Anthony Flew, who compared it with “ten leaky buckets”.  A lot of bad arguments, each of which fails to justify belief in God in itself, are together not significantly better than one bad argument and so fail to justify religious belief.  Although JP Moreland attempted to defend Swinburne, pointing out that:

‘clearly if you jam ten leaky buckets together in such a way as the holes in the bottom of each bucket are squashed close to the solid parts of neighbouring buckets, you will get a container that holds water.

That is pushing the analogy too far.  Flew’s point that Swinburne’s cumulative approach fails to provide sufficient justification for believing in God still stands.  As Carl Sagan and later Christopher Hitchens pointed out, “exceptional claims demand exceptional evidence“.  The existence of the God of religion is certainly an exceptional claim and the evidence provided by Swinburne’s list of inductive arguments in the Existence of God fails to provide sufficient justification for anything beyond being open to a higher power as James, Stace and Otto argued.  Secondly, as David Hume and much later Richard Dawkins have pointed out, when people claim to have experienced something exceptional it is always more likely that they have made a mistake than that they are telling the truth.  While Swinburne criticizes this argument as bad science, it is reasonable for a scientist to explore whether statistical anomalies might be explained as mistakes first, before exploring other possibilities.  In the case of those people reporting religious experiences, there are established and credible physiological or psychological conditions which could explain the experiences without reference to a higher power, let alone a “God”.  This is why James rightly rejects the attempt to use other peoples’ Religious Experiences as proof for God.  Alternative explanations for the experiences can never be excluded, not least because experiences are ineffable, so descriptions of them are imprecise and can’t bear the weight of being used as evidence to justify belief in the God of Religion.  It follows that the title statement is indeed correct insofar as others’ reports of religious experiences could not justify belief in the God of Religion and so would render exclusive Religious belief on the basis of reports of others’ experiences wrong by Clifford’s argument.

In addition, while Swinburne’s reasoning that the “higher power” is more probably single than plural seems sensible, his claim that the higher power must have the attributes of omnipotence and/or omnibenevolence is not.  Firstly, Swinburne accepts that neither the Cosmological nor the Teleological Argument justifies belief in the existence of God in itself.  How then can he rely on the reasoning of the Cosmological argument to support that element of his conclusion which relates to God’s omnipotence or on the reasoning of the Teleological argument to support that element of his conclusion which relates to God’s omnibenevolence?  If an argument can’t justify belief in God’s existence why should it justify belief in God’s omnipotence or omnibenevolence?  Secondly, there is specific evidence against God’s power and goodness.  If God really was all-powerful, why would he need to break the laws of nature periodically to reveal His existence and His will or correct a sequence of events?  Further, if God really was all-good then why would he be so selective and arguably arbitrary in how, when, where and to whom he grants religious experiences?Why would he make eternal salvation dependent on that which only some people have the opportunity to demonstrate, namely having faith that goes beyond the evidence?  Swinburne argues that in the absence of a reason to believe otherwise we accept what we experience and what others report about their own experiences, but surely the fact that these experience point to what is inconsistent and incoherent should count as such a reason to believe otherwise.  It follows that the title statement is indeed correct insofar as others’ reports of religious experiences could not justify belief in the God of Religion and so would render exclusive Religious belief on the basis of reports of others’ experiences wrong by Clifford’s argument.

In conclusion, the title statement “although it is reasonable to believe in God on the basis of a religious experience you yourself have had, it is wrong to believe on the basis of other peoples’ reports” is correct.  In terms of believing an experience you yourself have had, both James and Swinburne suggest that it would be unreasonable to disbelieve the evidence of your own experience.  As William Alston wrote:

“It is clear that if I have directly experienced a personal deity… I have the strongest possible basis for believing that such a being exists; just as I have the strongest possible basis for believing that yaks exist if I really have seen one”

Richard Dawkins skepticism on this point seems at odds with the scientific reliance on personal experience and the fact that the whole of science depends on the cosmological principle, that things are the way they appear to be.  In terms of believing on the strength of others’ reported experiences, the reasoning of James, Otto and Stace that the most other peoples’ experiences can justify is being open to a “higher power” is more persuasive than that of Swinburne, that others’ religious experiences could justify belief in a single, all-powerful, all-good God.  Swinburne’s argument does appeal to common sense.  In normal circumstances it is fair to assume the Principle of Testimony because as Dean Inge pointed out:

“If a dozen honest men tell me that they have climbed the Matterhorn, it is reasonable to believe that the summit of that mountain is accessible, although I am not likely to get there myself.” 

Yet, as Sagan and Hitchens suggest, the exceptional nature of the claims people make about religious experiences mean that a higher standard of evidence is demanded.  By Clifford’s argument, it is wrong to base belief in the God of any specific religion on other peoples’ reports of religious experiences.  It is impossible to exclude a psychological or physiological explanation, people could have made a mistake, be wishful-thinking or outright lying however honest they may appear.  When religious beliefs dictate actions which can harm or even kill other people, it is wrong to hold them on such a basis.

Critically compare the cosmological and teleological arguments for God’s existence. [40]

St Thomas Aquinas presents five ways of demonstrating God’s existence based on observation in his Summa Theologica (1,2,3).  The first four of these ways are Cosmological arguments, reasoning from observations of movement, efficient causation, contingency and grades of perfection in the universe a posteriori to the conclusion that God as a Prime Mover, uncaused cause, necessary being and supreme perfection must exist.  The fifth way is a teleological argument, reasoning from observation of order and purpose (teleology) in the universe a posteriori to the existence of an intelligent designer “which is what everybody calls God.”  Clearly, Aquinas saw both Cosmological and Teleological Arguments as persuasive arguments for God’s existence, however the Teleological Argument offers better support to the God of Christian worship than the Cosmological Argument does.

David Hume criticised cosmological arguments in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779).  His character Philo pointed out that it is based on limited observations of the universe.  For all we know there might be uncaused things out there… as indeed Quantum Physics and Particle Physics has since shown to be the case.  Further, the argument is based on the fallacy of composition, the assumption that just because the parts of the universe have a cause that the whole universe must have a cause.  As Bertrand Russell later pointed out; just because all men have mothers doesn’t mean that the human race has a mother, it could be that the universe is a “brute fact”.  Hume’s criticisms of the cosmological argument are difficult to overcome.  While it is fair to say that Hume’s claims about the limitations of human observations as the basis for knowledge about natural laws are just as much of a problem for science as they are for religion, his other criticisms hit hard.  In truth, the universe might, for all we know, be uncaused or be its own cause.  It is fair to ask why what is true of the part should also have to be true of the whole.  Although William Lane Craig argues that the cosmological argument – at least in his own Kalam version, which stops short of concluding that the Prime Mover is “what everybody calls God” – is the best support for the reasonableness of faith, his claims about the impossibility of an actual infinite and about the Big Bang theory needing a cause have been shown to be mistaken by critics such as Erik Sotnak and Stephen Hawking.  While the cosmological argument might superficially seem to be supported by Big Bang theory, in reality Cosmology shows that the idea of causation cannot apply outside the space-time matrix of our universe.  While it seems incredible, as Terry Pratchett quipped, science proposes that “in the beginning there was nothing, which exploded.” It is clear, therefore, that the cosmological argument is not persuasive. 

Hume’s character Philo also attacked the teleological argument in the Dialogues, criticising the tendency to make the argument using inappropriate analogies and pointing out apparent imperfections in the design of the universe, which might undermine the idea that the designer would be perfect.  Later, both Charles Darwin and JS Mill pointed out the brutality in nature and reasoning that an Ichneumon wasp could not have been designed by the God of Christianity.

Nearly all the things which men are hanged or imprisoned for doing to one another are nature’s everyday performances.”  Mill: Three Essays on Religion

Nevertheless, these critics all failed to exclude the possibility that the universe could be designed to contain evil for some morally sufficient reason.  As St. Augustine argued, it could be that natural evil in the world is a just punishment for sin.  Moral evil could be the necessary bi-product of human freedom.  Evil does not necessarily undermine the claim that the universe was designed by God.  Alternatively, as John Hick argued, suffering could be positively created by God to afford the opportunity for “soul-making” with any injustices being accounted for through an afterlife.  Further, there are versions of the teleological argument which do not rely on spurious analogies – such as FR Tennant’s aesthetic argument and anthropic principle.  These are more persuasive than the cosmological argument.  Hume’s criticisms fall short of undermining Tennant’s claim that God is needed to explain beauty and human consciousness in the universe and evolution through natural selection fails to explain these aspects of the universe adequately either.  Modern Intelligent Design arguments – such as those proposed by Michael Behe from irreducible complexity and by William Dembski from specified complexity – show that evolution cannot provide the complete explanation that atheists like Richard Dawkins claim it can.  While Paley’s argument in Natural Theology can be rightly criticised for its use of the famous watchmaker analogy, its appeal to our incredulity at the scientific claim that all this could have arisen by chance is powerful.  To accept that evolution through natural selection can provide a complete explanation of the universe and that there is no intelligence guiding it is difficult to accept.  Take the Japanese puffer-fish… can evolution really account for the extent of the intricacy and beauty of its designs?  It is clear, therefore, that the teleological argument is more persuasive than the cosmological argument.

In addition, even if the cosmological argument was persuasive, it would only serve to demonstrate the existence of a Prime Mover, an uncaused cause, a necessary being outside time and space.  It is not easy to see how this being could be the God of Christian worship.  Aristotle stopped short of claiming that the Prime Mover could be a God in any normal sense, its power being limited to supporting the existence of all contingent things and its goodness being limited to being fully actualised and containing no potential. How could a God who is outside time and space act to create the universe when there could be no time before during or after his action and when there would be no space to differentiate the creation from the creator?  Both human understanding and the language which tries to communicate it struggles to cope with objects outside the space-time matrix which bounds our experience.  It might, of course, be fair to say that human understanding and language cannot expect to be able to comprehend or describe God.  Yet, without the ability to claim that God exists, that God is the all-powerful creator and that God is good with some content, it is difficult to see how Religion could prosper.  St. Thomas Aquinas attempted to show how human language could be used to describe God in positive terms as analogies, but even he admitted that he content of attributes such as goodness must needs be limited and cannot be understood in the same way as human goodness.  The teleological argument, by contrast, does not rely on locating God outside time and space.  As the intelligent designer, it seems likely that God would have defined the purpose of the universe from within the same logical framework which governs its operation today.  In this way, God’s power and goodness have real content, as they relate to how He created the complex order and purposiveness we can observe.  It follows that the teleological argument offers better support for the God of Christian worship than the cosmological argument does.

In conclusion, the teleological argument offers better support for the God of Christian worship than the cosmological argument does.  Clearly, the teleological argument relies on the possibility of defending God’s goodness and power against charges of creating or allowing evil and suffering, but it is still more persuasive than the cosmological argument.  Even Immanuel Kant, who rejected all the classical arguments for God’s existence in his Critique of Pure Reason, saw the age and persistence of the teleological argument as pointers to its status as the most powerful of the arguments for God’s existence.

Critically assess the claim that human beings have an immortal soul. (40)

The claim that human beings have an immoral soul is certainly ancient.  It is clear that Plato’s dualism was built on the foundation of Socrates’ belief in immortality and possibly reincarnation.  In addition, evidence from the Bible suggests that belief in an immortal soul predated Christianity – though the belief is not represented consistently in the Old Testament – and became increasingly important as hopes for an immanent eschaton faded with the 1st Century. Further, the idea that personal identity can survive trauma, aging and ultimately death fits with human experience and supports both morality and hopes for life after death which many of us want if not need to maintain.  Nevertheless, despite the persistence and appeal of these beliefs, claims that human beings have immortal souls lack credibility in the 21st Century.

Firstly, as Aristotle observed, “the soul is inseparable from its body” [On the Soul, Book II] He used the analogy of wax and a seal impression to make his point, writing “we must no more ask whether the soul and body are one than ask whether the wax and the figure impressed on it are one.” [Aristotle “Psychology” translated by E. Wallace, p. 61, 1882]  While he accepted that human beings have PSYCHE, and that these come in three parts, unlike his teacher Plato, Aristotle rejected the idea that this could ever be separated from the body or survive death.  As Brian Davies OP has noted, just because I consider myself to be sober doesn’t mean that I am. The fact that I feel separated from my body doesn’t mean that I am.  GEM Anscombe agreed, arguing that the feeling of having a separate soul is not a proper argument for the soul’s separability.  Further, as Gilbert Ryle suggested, the soul is the product of the parts and functions of the body operating together.  When we speak of “the soul” it is much like speaking of “the university” in Oxford or “team spirit” in cricket… these things are an undoubtedly part of our experience, but they cannot be separated from the components which make them up.  As Ryle wrote in “The Concept of Mind” (1949) Chapter 1, belief in a separate, separable and possibly immortal soul is the result of “that a family of radical category mistakes”… continuing, this “is the source of the double-life theory. The representation of a person as a ghost mysteriously ensconced in a machine derives from this argument”. To claim that human beings have separable souls, which – not least given our certain scientific knowledge that bodies decompose – is a precondition of having immortal souls, is to build assumptions on top of gut feelings in spite of the evidence, to make a “category mistake” and to take what is essentially a metaphor literally.  

Secondly, as Richard Dawkins has argued, the theory of evolution can account for the impression of consciousness which contributes to the claim that human beings have immortal souls.  In The Selfish Gene (1976) he wrote “we are survival machines – robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes.” In 1993 he speculated that the impression of consciousness and a separate soul has become an essential part of being human because it confers a survival advantage to our genes, suggesting that “brain hardware has co-evolved with the internal virtual worlds that it creates. This can be called hardware-software co-evolution.” The Evolutionary Future of Man (1993)  Dawkins’ reductive materialism is supported by the famous case of Phineas Gage, who suffered a traumatic brain injury and then experienced a complete transformation of personality and identity as a result.  The mind, consciousness or “soul” is nothing more than the impression given off by the normal operation of the brain.  Change the brain, change the “soul”.  Kill the brain, destroy the soul.  Basic biology shows that the soul is far from being immortal and that any claim that human beings have an immortal soul lacks credibility in the 21st Century. 

Further, Peter Geach agreed with the evolution argument, arguing that human beings are sophisticated animals and that our belief that we are somehow different is no more than “savage superstition” [God and the Soul (1969),quoted by John Haldane in Anscombe and Geach on Mind and Soul (2016)].  It is undoubtedly convenient that human beings claim to have a “soul” where other – genetically similar – animals do not.  For Christians, the existence of the soul explains the unique connection between human beings and God, in whose Image they are made.  Further, the existence of a soul both justifies our preferring members of the species homo sapiens in moral decision-making and supports the religious principle of the Sanctity of Human Life.  If human beings have no separable soul or any claim to immortality then it becomes more difficult to justify decisions which ignore the claim of tribes of orangutans on Indonesian rainforests or which deprive blue whales of their habitats for the benefit of a few human capitalists with financial interests in palm oil or Krill.  As far back as the 18th Century Immanuel Kant highlighted the importance of believing in immortality for moral philosophy.  As he argued, without believing in God, freedom and immortality it would be impossible to explain our duty to follow the moral law as there would be no reason to suppose that the law which appeals to us has authority, that we have the ability to do what we feel called to do or that there could be any ultimate point in doing so.  Without the possibility of immortality, which the separable soul supports, there is little reason to do what is right in a world where goodness is rarely rewarded in this life.  Nevertheless, the undesirability of the alternative conclusion is not a proper argument for the existence of an immortal soul in human beings, so the claim that human beings have an immortal soul lacks credibility.  

Clearly, there are arguments in favour of dualism.

Plato used his famous slave-boy in the Meno to argue that we have memories of the forms, either from past lives or from our soul’s previous home in the world of the forms, which best explain our ability to “learn” mathematics and logic quickly.  For Plato, learning is really remembering.  Today, Noam Chomsky’s work on language acquisition makes this idea more interesting  than it might have seemed a few decades ago, however even nativist accounts of language and research evidence indicating that the human brain is somehow “hardwired for language” does not take away from the possibility that this hard wiring could be explained by evolution, without the need to hypothesize the existence of an immortal soul.  

In addition, Descartes built on Plato’s scepticism about sense-data, pointing out the many ways in which the evidence of eyes and ears turns out to be mistaken.  A stick put in water surely does appear to bend.  Nevertheless, Descartes’ radical conclusion, that the only thing of which I can be certain is “cogito ergo sum” seems to go well beyond the evidence.  In 1968 Norman Malcolm poked holes in Descartes reasoning on a technical level, however even in the most obvious way it is apparent that while the senses do lie, conceptual analysis just as often deceives us.  As Aristotle himself pointed out, “if, then, a man has the theory without the experience, and recognizes the universal but does not know the individual included in this, he will often fail…” [Metaphysics Book 1:1]  Further, Descartes’ arguments for substance dualism, with the seat of the soul in the Pineal Gland, can only in the light of 21st Century science, be seen as uninformed speculation.  Descartes is far from being justified in his conclusion that “it is certain that I am really distinct from my body and can exist without it.” [Meditations Book VI, 54] and the claim that human beings have an immortal soul continues to lack credibility.  

Finally, paranormal experiences and particularly Near Death Experiences have been used to support claims that human beings have immortal souls.  For example, in 1991 American singer-songwriter Pam Reynolds had a powerful experience of being separated from and looking down on her body and of spending time in “heaven” during a stand-still operation for a brain aneurism.  Nevertheless, most of these experiences fail to stand up to careful scrutiny.  Susan Blackmore described her own journey to this realisation, writing

It was just over thirty years ago that I had the dramatic out-of-body experience that convinced me of the reality of psychic phenomena and launched me on a crusade to show those closed-minded scientists that consciousness could reach beyond the body and that death was not the end. Just a few years of careful experiments changed all that. I found no psychic phenomena—only wishful thinking, self-deception, experimental error and, occasionally, fraud. I became a sceptic” The New Scientist (2000)

Further, those experiences which resist explanation in simple physiological or psychological terms, such as those highlighted by Dr Sam Parnia in his Aware and Aware II studies, are few in number and may still be explained by scientific progress.  Just because we cannot explain a few experiences with current scientific models doesn’t give us a reason to ditch scientific materialism and regress to a primitive dualistic world view predicated on supernatural entities for which there is no evidence.  

In conclusion, the claim that human beings have immortal souls lacks credibility in the 21st Century.  While the claim speaks to the experience of being human and supports the convenient belief that human beings are ontologically different from animals, there is no proper evidence or sensible argument to support substance dualism.  Those with religious faith will, of course, continue to make the claim that human beings have immortal souls.  The claim is central to their world-view and it is difficult to imagine how Christianity in particular could function without it.  Yet in making the claim believers emphasize how far in faith they are willing to stray from what can be supported through evidence and argument.


  • Class Notes on Soul, Mind & Body
  • Gilbert Ryle “The Concept of Mind” Chapter 1
  • Susan Blackmore “Consciousness: An Introduction”

“Aquinas’ Cosmological Argument proves that God exists.” Critically evaluate this statement.  [40] 

Cosmological Arguments start with the existence of the universe (Greek = Kosmos) and conclude that God is the most logical explanation of it.  They are some of the oldest arguments for God’s existence and have an intuitive appeal.  As Richard Swinburne observed in “Is There a God?” (1996)

The human quest for explanation inevitably and rightly seeks for the ultimate explanation of everything observable.”

Cosmological Arguments can be found in the work of Plato (Laws Book X) and Aristotle (Physics Book II, Metaphysics Book IV) and make up the first four of Aquinas’ five ways to God in the Summa Theologica (1.2.3).   While Aquinas’ Cosmological Arguments are all framed as posteriori arguments – and so could never provide proof – they do provide strong support for the existence of a Prime Mover.  Nevertheless, Aquinas goes too far in his claim that this is what everybody calls God.

Aquinas’ first way draws on the Aristotelian concept of movement. In the Physics, Book V, Aristotle wrote, “all things that are in motion must be moved by something.”  Motion does not necessarily mean movement in the sense that things are is moving through space from location A to location B, but rather that they are moving from a state of potentiality to a state of actuality in multiple different respects. As Aristotle wrote, movement involves the… “actualizing of some potency. It is because things have real potencies that they are able to change.”  Aquinas later wrote, “for motion is nothing else than the reduction of something from potentiality to actuality.”  Whereas Plato’s argument, later refined by Muslim scholars of the 8th Century Kalam School and more recently by William Lane Craig, focuses on a temporal series of causes much like a domino-rally, pointing towards a beginning in time, an uncaused cause, which is what everybody calls God, for Aristotle and for Aquinas, even if the universe is as infinite as it appeared to be, there is still the need for a Prime Mover because everything depends on other things.  As Parmenides, Heraclitus and separately the Buddha observed, everything changes or moves and nothing stays the same, but nothing changes or moves without being moved by something else, even if that is just time itself.  As Aristotle wrote, “potential, precisely because it is potential, cannot make itself actual”.  Aristotle concluded that there must be a Prime Mover outside time and space, but stops short of claiming that this is God.  Aquinas went further, claiming that this Prime Mover is “what everybody calls God”, but in doing this he weakened the argument. It is true that the Prime Mover must be outside time and space and thus wholly simple and unchanging, pure actuality and with zero potentiality.  As Aquinas wrote,

“nothing can be reduced from potentiality to actuality, except by something in a state of actuality… it is impossible that in the same respect and in the same way a thing should be both mover and moved…” 

It is also true that everything ultimately depends on the Prime Mover for its existence.  As Aquinas wrote, “therefore it is necessary to arrive at a first mover, put in motion by no other”  However, it is a step too far to claim that the Prime Mover could be seen as the “creator”, let alone act in the world, speak to human beings or be crucified and rise again. When Aquinas writes “and this everyone understands to be God”  He goes beyond the evidence and possible knowledge.  In his book “The Nature of God” Gerard J. Hughes describes the Prime Mover changing potentiality to actuality in terms of a bowl of milk causing a cat to cross a room.  The bowl of milk does nothing, in the way that the Prime Mover – being timelessly unchanging and impassive – does nothing, because it has no potential and is pure act. It follows that Aquinas’ first framing of the Cosmological Argument provides strong support for the existence of a Prime Mover, but not for the existence of the God that Christians worship, because the Prime Mover would be unable to say “let there be light”, work miracles or judge individuals on the final day… all of these require in God potential and the ability to act in time, which the Prime Mover cannot have.

Aquinas’ second way draws on the Aristotelian concept of efficient causation.  For Aristotle, all things have four causes – material, formal, efficient and final.  Efficient causes are agents which bring things into being, in the way that parents bring their children into being or the earth, sun and rain bring the oak tree out of the acorn.  If everything depends on efficient causes to bring them into being, again there is a chain of causation which requires explanation.  The chain cannot be infinite, because if there was no first efficient cause there would be no subsequent causes and the universe would not exist.  Something cannot come out of or be caused by nothing. Similarly, there cannot be a first efficient cause like other things in the universe, as if there were it would need efficient causes of its own and could not, therefore, be the first.  Aquinas concludes, “it is necessary to admit a first efficient cause, to which everyone gives the name of God.” Again, Aquinas’ second Cosmological Argument provides strong support for the existence of an uncaused efficient cause and again, it is a step too far to claim that this must be the God of Christian worship.  This not least because efficient causes do not need to be sustaining causes in esse (as Frederick Copleston later called them) but could be a cause in fieri (again, to use Copleston’s terminology).   An uncaused cause which began the universe but has no further role in it is not the God of Christian theism; at most it supports deism.  Further, Aquinas admits that

There is no case known (neither is it, indeed, possible) in which a thing is found to be the efficient cause of itself; for so it would be PRIOR to itself, which is impossible.”

 This implies that as efficient cause the uncaused cause must be PRIOR to the universe, something which would be difficult to reconcile with Big Bang Theory as this suggests that as time itself was created at the Big Bang, it makes no sense to speak of anything being PRIOR to it or indeed, as Stephen Hawking observed, causing it.  In these ways, Aquinas goes beyond the evidence in claiming that the uncaused cause is that to “everyone gives the name of God”.

Aquinas’ third way develops the idea of the contingency of things in the universe, pointing out that everthing has the potential to be or not to be; “We find in nature things that are possible to be and not to be”.  In an infinite universe, all potentials not to be might be expected to have been realized; as something can’t come out of nothing, nothing would then exist and I could not be writing this essay.  It follows, therefore, that EITHER the universe cannot be infinite – in which case there would have to be a first cause in time which would be what everybody calls God – or the universe is infinite and there exists a “necessary being”, a fully actual “neither something nor nothing” which contains its own explanation and has no potential not to exist.  This, Aquinas claims, is what “all men speak of as God.”  Aquinas’ third Cosmological Argument is just as problematic as an argument for the existence of the God of Christian worship as the first and second.  Not only as an a posteriori argument does it stop short of providing proof, it also goes well beyond the observable evidence in concluding that the necessary being is God as Christians would define Him.  Leibniz later recast the third Cosmological Argument as an a priori argument, writing:

“Why is there something rather than nothing? The sufficient reason […] is found in a substance which […] is a necessary being bearing the reason for its existence within itself.” 

For Leibniz, anything that exists has a cause for its existence, either in the necessity of its own nature or in an external cause.  If the universe has an external cause for its existence, this cause must be God.  As the universe exists, it must have a cause for its existence, either in the necessity of its own nature or in an external cause.  Because the universe exists contingently, not necessarily, the universe must have an external cause and this must be God.  Nevertheless, like Aquinas, Leibniz argument fails to prove the existence of the God of Christian worship.  Causing the universe is not enough to be called God; the Christian God does rather more than an abstract singularity or the Higgs Boson does.  Further, it doesn’t make sense to predicate much of what the Christian God does to the necessary cause of the universe supported by Aquinas and by Leibniz in his supposed improvement of Aquinas’ third cosmological argument.  Both the God of Aquinas and the God of Leibniz are timelessly impassive and it is inconceivable how such a being could act even once to create the world, given that this would involve a change in its being incompatible with being timeless and fully actual with no potential.  Further, as Immanuel Kant observed, we have no experience of necessary beings so it makes little sense to speculate about their possible existence.  Also, it is inconsistent to start an argument by claiming that all things are contingent and conclude by hypothesizing something that is not contingent.  Again, while Aquinas’ third Cosmological Argument strongly points towards the existence of a necessary being or beings in the universe, it is far from being conclusive proof of such, even when recast as an a priori argument and cannot in any case justifiably claim that the necessary being is what Christians worship as God.

While it is true that most of the classical criticisms of Aquinas presented by David Hume and Bertrand Russell fail to undermine his Cosmological Arguments, the point (which they all make) about the Cosmological Argument failing to support the God of Christian worship stands.

Firstly, Hume criticized a version of the Cosmological Argument presented by his character Demea in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779) Book IX.  Cleanthes points out that there is no support for the claim that everything in the universe is moves and is moved, caused and is caused or is contingent.  We have a limited view of the universe and no sensible reason to believe that the universe is homogenous or that we see things the way they actually are, a principle known in science as isotropy.  For all we know, argues Cleanthes, there could be unmoved movers, uncaused causes or necessary beings within the universe which could explain its continued existence.  Nevertheless, accepting these criticisms of the Cosmological Argument entails abandoning Natural Science altogether.  Leibniz coined the term “Cosmological Principle” to refer to the principles of homogeneity and isotropy which all scientists must assume in order to reason inductively towards natural laws.  Without the Cosmological Principle, we could not make many scientific knowledge claims; Cosmology and Quantum Science, Medicine and Biochemistry would all be a waste of time.  In practice, laws of nature supported by inductive reasoning enable mobile phones and space shuttles to work, so it doesn’t make sense to doubt the authority of our observations as Hume, through Cleanthes, does.  These criticisms of Hume’s fail to undermine Aquinas’ Cosmological Arguments insofar as they point to a necessary cause for the universe.

Secondly, Cleanthes continues by criticizing the claim that just because the parts of the universe have causes, so must the universe as a whole.  Demea (and Aquinas) rely on the so-called fallacy of composition.   Further, Cleanthes asks why the universe cannot be the explanation of itself, why there must be an external cause for the universe.  Later, Bertrand Russell asked why the universe cannot be a “brute fact”.  Yet neither of these criticisms is conclusive.  As Leibniz points out, it is difficult to see how a universe of contingencies can itself exist necessarily.  Contingencies involve potential which cannot, by definition, exist within a necessary being.  Further, while characteristics of the parts do not necessarily have to be characteristics of the whole and while (as Russell argued) just because all men have mothers it doesn’t mean that the human race has a mother, it can sometimes follow.  Each strand of spaghetti has two ends, something which also applies to the whole packet of spaghetti.  In a sense and because it is made up of material in the way that things in the universe are, the universe is a thing.  Things exist contingently and need to be moved and caused by things other than themselves.  These criticisms of Hume’s fail to undermine Aquinas’ Cosmological Arguments insofar as they point to a necessary cause for the universe as well.

Nevertheless, Cleanthes’ criticism that the cause of the universe could not be said to have the attributes of the Christian God is, for reasons previously explored, is persuasive.  Again it is clear that while Aquinas’ Cosmological Arguments do offer support to the hypothesis that there is an uncaused, necessary cause for the universe, they are far from proving that the God of Christian worship exists. 

In conclusion, Aquinas’ Cosmological fail to prove that God exists, both because as a posteriori arguments they stop short of proving their conclusions and because even if they are reframed into a format which could provide proof, as Leibniz attempted, they demonstrate only the existence of an abstract necessary being far short of having the attributes of the God Christians worship. 



  • Class notes on the Cosmological Argument
  • Aristotle, Physics Book V
  • Aquinas, Summa Theologica 1, 2, 3
  • Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion Book IX
  • Vardy & Vardy “God Matters” Chapters 4 & 5

“Plato’s theory of the forms is unconvincing!” Discuss. (40)

For Plato, ultimate reality is metaphysical and exists in the “world of the forms” and that things in this world are merely shadows of the forms.  Most famously, Plato discussed his theory of forms through his Allegory of the Cave in Book VII of the Republic.  Here Plato suggests that the forms are accessible through reason and through the work of those who have managed to escape the “cave” of sense-experience to appreciate the ultimate reality beyond.  While Plato’s central point about ultimate reality being metaphysical is convincing, his lack of any real argument for the forms and the apparent inconsistency of his position on them make Plato’s so-called “theory” of the forms unconvincing. 

Plato is unclear about precisely which forms exist metaphysically.  As Julia Annas observes, “Plato never offers an argument for Forms that would establish them as entities suitable for a theory”[1] Further, Plato discusses the forms is presented in several different dialogues, dating from different times in his long philosophical career.  In Book X of the Republic, Plato implies that there are separate forms for tables, beds etc.  Socrates says to Glaucon: “Whenever a number of individuals have a common name we assume them to also have a corresponding idea or form.  Do you understand me? [I do]  Let us take any common instance; there are beds and tables in the world – plenty of them – are there not? [Yes] But there are only two ideas or forms of them – one of the idea of the bed, the other of a table.”[2] Meanwhile, in Book VI of the Republic, through his Allegory of the Sun, Plato implies that only one form ultimately exists – the Form of the Good – and that our impression that a diversity of things exist is a belief rather than actual knowledge, a result of our ideas being clouded by sense-experiences and so not being clear or distinct.  Here, as Julia Annas explains, “Plato contrasted Forms, which are objects of knowledge, with particular instances of Forms (things that ‘partake in’ Forms), which are objects of belief…” [3] The lack of any explicit argument for the forms and the inconsistency of Plato’s position make Plato’s theory of the forms unconvincing. 

In addition, it is not possible to support Plato’s theory of the forms, however it is presented, through either evidence or argument.  Nothing we can observe supports the existence of “forms” whether separately of beds and tables or indeed of the good.  Plato’s position – and that of modern Platonists who accept his theory of the forms – depends on reason alone.  Plato – through the character of Socrates – argues that the existence of the forms is known a priori, before and even without experience, because their necessary existence is contained within our understanding of all other things.  When we experience a chair, we understand what it is and how to use it because we have an idea of a chair which does not depend on having experienced that or any chair.  This explains why we can see a chair that is different from every other chair we have seen and still understand that it is a chair and how to use it.  We can even make judgments of whether it is a good chair or not and know how to design and make a different sort of chair.  “The maker… makes a bed or makes a table for our use, in accordance with the idea…”[4] Yet what is the difference between this sort of rational argument for ultimate reality in the world of the forms and speculation?  What could count against Plato’s argument for the forms if all experience is discounted?  Today, there is evidence to support Plato’s claim that ultimate reality is metaphysical.  Cosmology shows that neither time nor space are absolutes and Quantum Physics that matter consists only in potentialities.  The claim that “man is the measure of all things” and that the way our five human senses perceive reality is the way it really is, is incredible.  Further, there are alternative evidence-based, scientific explanations for our ability to understand, judge and create variations on what we perceive through the senses which do not rely on postulating a supernatural world of the forms.  For example, Noam Chomsky argues that the human brain is “hard wired” for language and that the forms exist in the structures of the brain and the parameters of human language rather than in some metaphysical world.  When there is no evidence to support the metaphysical existence of the forms and when such convincing scientific explanations are available, the claim that we know the forms a priori cannot be maintained.  Plato’s theory of the forms is not convincing, because it is asserted and assumed rather than systematically and consistently argued for. 

On the other hand, as Julia Annas observes, “Books on Plato often refer to Plato’s “Theory of Forms”, but this has to be handled with caution.  Plato not only has no word for “theory”[5] Perhaps Plato never intended to present the forms as a “theory” and it is consequently unfair to evaluate his work as such.  Further, Plato’s theory of the forms has been enormously influential through history and continues to capture the public imagination through films as varied as The Matrix and Interstellar.  However, neither of these counterclaims serve to make Plato’s forms convincing.  Even if Plato never intended to present a coherent theory, his work has widely been interpreted as doing this and other scholars have more than made up for Plato’s lack of argument. For just one example, Descartes developed Plato’s claim that ultimate reality is metaphysical, supporting this with his famous cogito argument in his “Meditations on First Philosophy”.  Descartes pointed out that the five senses are limited and often present flawed data; the only think that I can know with certainty is that I exist as a thinking being and from this I can establish the certain metaphysical existence of “clear and distinct ideas” very much like Plato’s forms.  However, Descartes’ argument has been widely criticised.  While he establishes that he exists as a thinking being, his arguments for the existence of other clear and distinct ideas such as God is widely deemed to have failed.  Kant said that Descartes so-called Ontological Argument for God was “so much labour and effort lost”[6]  Because of this, Descartes fails to offer Plato’s world-view much support.  In addition, that Plato’s theory has been influential and remains popular suggests nothing about whether it is convincing or not on a philosophical level.  A lot of unconvincing theories are popular and influence society… think carrots helping you see in the dark, spinach making you strong and magic charms getting rid of warts.  None of these “old wives tales” have any scientific basis, and yet many people still believe them and behave accordingly.  That Plato’s theory is influential is a poor reason to find it convincing, on a philosophical level.  

In conclusion, Plato’s theory of the forms is unconvincing.  While his basic point about ultimate reality being metaphysical might well be true and remains influential and popular, he fails to argue for the existence of a “world of the forms” or even to present a coherent picture of the same.

[40 minutes]


  • Class Notes
  • Crash Course video on Descartes
  • Julia Annas “An Introduction to Plato’s Republic” Chapters 9 & 10
  • Plato “The Republic”

[1]  An Introduction to Plato’s Republic p.234

[2] The Republic, Book X

[3] An Introduction to Plato’s Republic p.210

[4] The Republic, Book X

[5] An Introduction to Plato’s Republic p217

[6] Critique of Pure Reason, 1781

Critically compare Plato’s philosophical approach with that of Aristotle. [40]

Plato and Aristotle are usually understood to have completely contrasting philosophical approaches.  Although Plato was Aristotle’s teacher at the Academy in Athens, Aristotle rejected Plato’s focus on metaphysics and reason, choosing instead to explore the limits of Physics and observation.  Clearly, Aristotle’s philosophical approach has more influence today.  While modern science has moved way beyond some of the theories which Aristotle proposed on the basis of observation – such as that the universe is infinite, that birds turn into fish and that men implant a “homonucleid” in a woman’s womb – scientific method still accepts Aristotle’s claim that knowledge must begin with observation and that reason must not stray too far from what can be observed, into the realm of speculation.  Nevertheless, and despite the continued popularity of the naïve materialism that emerged out of Aristotle’s philosophical approach, relatively recent developments in philosophy and science have shown that it is Plato’s philosophical approach which is more compelling.

Aristotle’s philosophical approach was supported by Locke, Hume, Kant & Ayer.  All of these philosophers dismissed Plato’s claim that human beings are born with innate ideas which we “remember” through rational reflection.  Instead, like Aristotle, John Locke argued that human beings are born as tabula rasa – blank slates – and that all our knowledge comes from sense-experience, as processed and interpreted by reason.  Hume essentially agreed, as did Kant – who also limited possible knowledge-claims to the synthetic and the analytic – and later Hume’s biographer AJ Ayer in the 20th Century.  The very idea that human beings could source new knowledge in rational reflection without relying on sense-experience seemed to open the door for unsupported speculation, the opposite of knowledge and probably a barrier to attaining it.  Nevertheless, despite the common-sense appeal of empiricism, it has come under attack from several directions.  Firstly, the idea that the only meaningful knowledge-claims are those which can be verified through sense-experience (or are tautologies) was shown to be narrow and impractical.  Aristotle’s attempt to build out from sense-experience to demonstrate the necessary existence of a Prime Mover and a common human telos in which to ground a universal, absolute system of moral philosophy was widely criticised during the Enlightenment and then into the 20th Century.  Descartes and Berkeley pointed out the problems with relying on sense-experience at all.  The way I see things is not necessarily the way that they are; the senses are limited and frequently faulty. Further, there is no way to prove that the exterior world is real, not a dream-world and permanent; as Descartes pointed out, the only thing that I can know with certainty is cogito ergo sum. David Hume himself pointed out additional assumptions on which Aristotle’s reasoning rests, that our limited observations support universal claims about natural laws and that the impression of order and teleology is not just that, an impression.  Cartesian scepticism, Berkeley’s idealism and even Hume’s epistemology point to the shortcomings of Aristotle’s philosophical approach and Descartes and Berkeley’s arguments at least lend support to Platonic rationalism.

Secondly and despite the “liberalisation of empiricism” to include discussions of topics like history that are only weakly verifiable, the focus on sense-experience as the only source of new knowledge excludes important areas of human discussion – and experience – such as religion and morality.  Further, as erstwhile Logical Positivist Karl Popper pointed out, modern science cannot function under a verificationist approach to knowledge.  For example, quantum particles are changed by the act of observing them, demonstrating that the senses do not offer the transparent window on external reality that Aristotle or later empiricists and positivists claimed. Also, as GE Moore pointed out, there is no way to prove that “this is a hand”… at some point the attempt to describe and communicate about sense-experience relies on concepts and conventions, as Hume previously acknowledged when he pointed out that properties like colour are secondary, not primary qualities and this depend on the way we see things, not the way they really are.  It is true that Popper’s falsificationism does not stray too far from that which can at least in principle be experienced through the senses… and certainly does not seem to offer much support to Plato’s rationalism… but it allows for beliefs to be accepted as knowledge providing that criteria for their falsification are accepted.  In the scientific sense, falsification allows for scientists to speculate about the origins and fundamental nature of the universe and about multiverses – none of which can ever be directly observed – if they define the circumstances under which they would modify or abandon their theories.  In a broader sense, falsification enables people to propose moral laws meaningfully – laws which could never be seen, heard, touched, smelled or tasted – providing that they would be willing to accept falsifying evidence.  Alternative theories of knowledge, such as Quine’s holism, recognise the need to include all of human experience rather than just to focus on sense-experience, seeing mathematics as close to the centre of the “web of human experience”, and as such show that Aristotle’s narrower approach has been superseded.  The general rejection of the Verification Principle and the move to find other approaches to knowledge and meaning in the mid-20th century points to the fact that relying on the empirical senses as the source of all new human knowledge – as Aristotle and the empiricists did – is limiting and leads to an impoverished world-view.

Today, Plato’s is a more convincing as an approach to Philosophy than Aristotle’s, because he recognised that reason offers people a better means of understanding things as they really are… although he probably was too confident about how far this could go.  As Descartes pointed out in the 17th Century, reality goes much deeper than superficial appearances.  This begins with all the assumptions people made for millennia – that the earth is flat, the centre of the universe, orbited by the sun and stars in fixed orbits – and includes assumptions that even scientists still make every day – that matter is real, that the way we see things is the way they are, that this part of the universe is a fair sample of a homogenous whole.  To the sceptic, everything in the world of appearances is open to question and nothing is known for certain.  Nevertheless, starting with the foundational claim that I exist as a thinking being, we can have certain a priori knowledge of mathematics, which does more to explain the reality of the universe than ever can direct observations, as theoretical physicists will confirm.  This shows that Plato’s rationalism is more compelling, because it supports current thinking in Mathematics, Theoretical Physics, Particle Science and Cosmology.

In addition, seeing thought and reason as primary also makes more sense of the broader experience of being human.  Plato’s dualism, his suggestion that soul/mind and physical body are separate and even separable, remains far more popular than Aristotle’s suggestion that the soul and body are one and inseparable.  Despite Aquinas’ attempt to argue that an Aristotelian “soul” could be transferred to a new “heavenly” body in an afterlife, this raises more questions than it solves.  The belief in the afterlife, a belief which is extremely widespread, consistent and persistent and even, as Kant argued, required to explain the freedom we all experience as human beings, is much better supported by Platonic dualism than by Aristotlelian monism.  Most people experience a continuity of personal identity and sense of self from early childhood to death.  If the soul is the “formal cause of the body” and the body changes radically over time then we might expect the soul to change as well… but it is consistent.  Most people would agree that changes to the body – becoming a paraplegic for example – has little or no effect on the soul or sense of self, which we might expect to alter if the soul was just the formal cause of the body as Aristotle proposed.  Clearly, if Aristotle was here to defend himself he might point to the effects of traumatic brain injury or dementia, suggesting personal identity depends on the brain as a physical organ and is in no way separate or separable.  As Gilbert Ryle said, Plato’s talk of souls could rest on a category mistake; the soul could be no more than a “ghost in the machine”.  And yet, to dismiss all the evidence for out-of-body and near-death experiences just because it cannot be empirically verified would be hasty.  Recent medical studies by Dr Sam Parnia (AWARE and AWARE II) suggest that the evidence better supports the brain mediating rather than generating the mind.  To use Plato’s own allegory of the cave, might dismissing reports of a metaphysical reality and attacking those who make them be rather like the prisoners in the cave threatening the one who escaped and returned?  Are we satisfied to stay chained in the shadows, blocking out any evidence that could expand our world-view, or are we brave enough to contemplate the possibility of a bigger reality beyond? Plato’s dualism is more persuasive than Aristotelian materialism, because it accounts both for the experience of being human and research into Out of Body and Near Death Experiences.

Further, Plato’s world-view makes more sense of the human experience of morality than does Aristotle’s.  Both GE Moore in his “Principia Ethica” (1903) and later Iris Murdoch in her “Sovereignity of the Good” (1970) pointed out that we recognise goodness when it cannot be reduced to what is useful or makes people happy.  Not to be distracted by Plato’s language in relation to the forms, it is fair to say that there is an ideal of goodness which people experience as a rational intuition.  Kant described this in terms of the moral law, which appeals directly to reason as a synthetic a priori and shows all thinking people their duty to act transparently, on principle and with non-preferential humanitarian love.  Modern proponents of Natural Law like John Finnis explain what Aquinas called conscientia, the inbuilt desire to follow the direction of synderesis or what Aristotle called phronesis, in these terms.  It is difficult to explain why the way people do behave is the way they ought to behave without appealing to reason, to the sort of rational intuitions which Plato sought to explain.  The existence of a “form of the good”, howsoever this is described, explains the existence of the universal human virtues which CS Lewis and Alastair MacIntyre described and the absolute authority of agape-love which Joseph Fletcher appealed to.  Iris Murdoch developed her own version of Platonism in which she also proposed that human beings share rational intuitions of “forms” such as goodness and beauty.  This, she argued, explains why human beings seem to share the same ideas of what is good and beautiful, despite cultural and/or historical distance between them.  CS Lewis made a similar point in his “Mere Christianity” (1953), pointing out that ideas of justice exist in a similar way across time and the world.  This suggests that Plato’s philosophical approach makes more sense of human experience than scientific materialism, based on Aristotle’s philosophical approach, which tries to reduce morality and aesthetics to utilitarianism or evolutionary advantage.

Finally, the existence of innate ideas explains human language acquisition more convincingly than any other hypothesis.  As Noam Chomsky argues, human beings seem hard-wired for language, sharing a common conceptual and grammatical framework which needs only to be expressed through the conventions of a particular language.  Infants acquire language much more quickly than we might expect and non-human species (like chimps, dolphins and parrots) face an insuperable obstacle to using language rather than just naming things.  That no animal can talk is about much more than their lack of verbal dexterity, it is about their lack of the necessary neurological structures.  As Wittgenstein remarked in a different context, if a lion could talk we could not understand him.  Nativist theories of language acquisition like that of Chomsky would say that this is because the lion’s language would employ a whole other conceptual and grammatical framework as well as because the lion’s form of life is necessarily alien.  This shows that Plato’s philosophical approach, and particularly his belief in innate ideas, accounts for the evidence concerning human language acquisition better than Aristotelian materialism has.

In conclusion, despite the continued popularity of Aristotle’s philosophical approach, recent developments in both science and philosophy suggest that it is Plato’s approach which holds more interest going forward into the 21st century and beyond.

TRADE C video (simple)

TRADE C is a really simple way to structure an argument, whether in writing – such as for a GCSE AO2 answer or A Level essay – or when presenting an argument orally, such as in a debate. 

THESIS:  Begin by stating what you will argue in the simplest, clearest terms possible.  Answer the question, in a sentence, always using the wording of the question to signpost that this is your thesis and that you have answered the question.  

  • For example, if the question is “Capital punishment is never justified!” Discuss, your thesis might be “Capital punishment is sometimes justified.” 
  • For another example, if the question is “Critically evaluate the view that abortion is never justified”, your thesis could be “Abortion is never justified.” 
  • For a final example, if the question is “Critically compare Aquinas’ version of natural law with John Finnis’ version of natural law.  Which offers the most practical approach to making decisions about sex in the 21st Century?” then your thesis could be “Aquinas’ version of natural law offers a more practical approach to making decisions about sex than John Finnis’ version of natural law.”

REASONS:  Follow your thesis with 2/3 developed reasons to support your argument.  Conclusion because of this, this and that.  At GCSE a developed point is 3 sentences, Point, Evidence (ideally a quotation), Explanation – so at GCSE PEE, PEE, PEE.  At A Level a developed point follows the same PEE structure, but is more detailed, so demands a Link sentence at the end of each point to connect it back to the Thesis – so at A Level PEEL, PEEL, PEEL.  

AGREE:  Remember to include reference to a scholar and/or religious denomination who agrees with your argument.  You can either use scholarship / religious teachings in the Evidence of your Reasons paragraph, or failing that add another developed PEE(L) point here.  At GCSE you cannot get more than half the AO2 marks without referring to Religious teachings.  At A Level, you would struggle to get many marks at all – A01 or A02 – without referring to Scholarship, so a single point is a bare minimum… aim to get Agree into every Reasons paragraph. 

DISAGREE:  In the second half of your answer, outline at least one – ideally two – counterclaims, relating each to Scholarship and/or Religious teaching.    Point, Evidence (ideally quotation), Explain, Link back to your thesis, showing the implications of this counterclaim for your argument.  PEEL, PEEL

EVALUATE:  Either after each counterclaim or after you have outlined both, explain why you do not find the counterclaim convincing, using evidence (including quotations, scholars, religious teachings) and defending your thesis.  You MUST make judgments about the counterclaims in this section, signposting that you are doing this by using phrases such as:

  • This argument is poorly supported because…
  • This is not persuasive because…
  • This does not follow because…
  • This seems to ignore the fact that…  therefore this argument is weak…
  • This argument makes the assumption that… which is unreasonable because…

Evaluation is the key to getting high marks at both GCSE and A Level, so don’t cut this section short and make sure that you develop it as much as possible, using evidence to back up your judgments and making clear LINKS to the thesis after each evaluation point to show how you are advancing and defending your argument, not just describing ways to attack it!  PEEL PEEL.

CONCLUSION:  Finish your answer / essay by starting a new paragraph with “In conclusion” then restating your Thesis, using exactly the same words.  This signposts the fact that you have answered the question and proves that your argument has been coherent and well-structured (i.e. the Thesis and Conclusion match!).  If you have time, follow this by summarizing your best reason(s) and by acknowledging any limitations your argument has (i.e. what might change your mind, what your argument depends on, any areas for further consideration or research) and the implications of your conclusion (i.e. how people should think or act going forward).  PEEL

So, in summary…


  • T, RA(pee), RA(pee), DE(peel), C

A Level:

  • [Intro]T, RA(peel), RA(peel), RA(peel), DE(peel), DE(peel), C(peel)

NB: Be very careful about Introductions, either at GCSE or A level.  There is a big temptation to write down lots of irrelevant background information and forget to get down to the business of arguing your case until it is too late.  Stick to clarifying the wording of the question and/or limiting the scope of your answer.