Boris Johnson’s Death By A Thousand Qualifications: Anthony Flew’s Falsification and Johnson’s Resignation

Trigger Warning and Content Warning – mentions of sex scandals and sexual assault.  If you have been affected by these issues, you can access Rape Crisis at 0808 802 9999 who help those who have been raped or sexually assaulted.


On Thursday 7th June, Boris Johnson finally decided to resign as Prime Minister. For most, this departure was long overdue. The scandals while Johnson was Prime Minister included multiple Tory MPs committing sex crimes, a particularly ugly and expensive refurbishment of Ten Downing Street and Party Gate.  Though being slow to progress, such scandals finally led to the rebellion of the Tory Party itself with both Rishi Sunak (Chancellor) and Sajid Javid (Health Minister) resigning in protest at Johnson appointing a known sex predator to Chief Whip. The frustration of both sides of the House of Commons was summed up by Tim Loughton, a conservative MP, asking if there was any circumstances that would be enough to warrant Johnson’s resignation in Johnson’s eyes. While not realizing it, the sentiment expressed is one of the deep philosophical implications as it suggests Johnson died a death of a thousand qualifications.

What is Death by a Thousand Qualifications? Anthony Flew’s Falsification

The concept of a death by a thousand qualifications was created by Anthony Flew. Flew was a staunch atheist (someone who doesn’t believe in God). He argued that statements made by religious believers (such are ‘God exists’) are meaningless. In order to do this, he used the theory of falsification. This is a test where a statement can only be meaningful if there is some hypothetical method to falsify it. For instance, the statement ‘the cat is on the mat’ is meaningful because it can be proven false if the cat is not in fact on the mat. The statement doesn’t necessarily need to be proven false. Merely, there must be a hypothetical which could be used to falsify it.

To explain the impact of such a theory, Flew used an adapted version of John Wisdom’s Parable of the Invisible Gardener. The Parable focuses on two individuals walking through a jungle and coming across a clearing. The pro-gardener notices that there are flowers and holds that there must be a gardener. The anti-gardener challenges this and states that the gardener is nowhere in sight. The pro-gardener states that this is because the gardener only comes at night. The two decide to camp overnight but there is still no gardener. The pro-gardener then argues it is an invisible gardener so they change tact and get a bloodhound to detect the gardener. The guard dog doesn’t detect anything so the theist argues that the gardener is scentless and sets up an electric fence. There is still no gardener and the pro-gardener argues that there is a gardener but the gardener doesn’t have a physical body. Eventually, the anti-gardener asks what is the difference between a scentless, invisible gardener that only comes by night and cannot be detected by an electric fence and the gardener not existing at all.

What Flew argues here is that the statements of the pro-gardener are meaningless. The reason for this is that the pro-gardener keeps changing or adding the qualifications for their belief. Initially, they believe there is a gardener because of the flowers, but when presented with the fact that they cannot find the gardener they add the qualification that the gardener only comes at night. As more evidence is presented to disprove there is a gardener, more qualifications are added to try and keep the statement meaningful. However, the more evidence that is presented, the further away the person gets from the original meaning of the sentence. Eventually, they add so many qualifications that the original meaning of the statement is lost. Therefore, a death of a thousand qualifications occur.

Religious Application of Flew’s Parable

Flew used this to argue that statements around God are meaningless. The death by a thousand qualifications is paired with the idea of the ‘God of Gaps’. For many of the things we now have a scientific explanation for, God used to be used as the explanation. For instance, before the discovery of germs, illness was seen as a punishment sent by God on an individual. However, as science has developed God has been used to explain fewer things. The amount of things that God can be used for decreases with significant evidence against the religious believer increasing. To accommodate for this, religious believers merely change the scope of what God can be used to explain. However, eventually God can only explain a small number of things and is far different to the initial causal power of God. Flew would argue that the changing of the qualifications has become so significant that God becomes meaningless. God dies a death of a thousand qualifications.

While Flew focused his explanation on God, we can also apply such sentiments to the downfall of Boris Johnson.

Johnson’s Death by A Thousand Qualifications

Boris Johnson’s death by a thousand qualifications has been prominent in a number of his scandals, but most notably Party Gate. This was where a series of parties were held from May 2020 to April 2021 during periods of lockdown. At the time these events were held, it was illegal for any social events to occur. This included funerals, which were, at points, limited to 10 individuals in attendance. The symbolism of this sacrifice can be seen in the Queen sitting on her own during Prince Phillip’s funeral. While the most well-known, it reflected many individuals who were in similar positions, being unable to say goodbye to loved ones and being unable to attend their funerals.

When allegations first arose around Party Gate, Johnson denied that any events had occurred. However, then pictures arose of the gatherings, including one where Johnson and his wife were hosting a group in the back garden of Ten Downing Street. At this point, Johnson argued that the gatherings that were being questioned were work meetings which didn’t break the Covid rules. He decided to authorize a report, dictating that this should be used to decide whether the gatherings were parties or not. When this report was about to be published, he decided to change his mind and that the group that should dictate whether he broke any laws or not was the police. When both of these decided that the gatherings broke the law, he then proceeded to argue that he was not aware that such parties broke the rules.

The actions of Johnson can be seen to reflect the actions of the pro-gardener in Flew’s parable. Johnson kept changing the rules of what would qualify his statement to be false. Each time a challenge was presented (a photo, a report, the police investigation) Johnson merely changed the qualifications for his statement. Eventually, the statement was held to no longer be meaningful by many, including conservative MPs such as Theresa May calling the Prime Minister to resign. Despite this, Johnson continued being Prime Minister.

His final death was in the revelation of Chris Pincher, the Chief Whip of the conservative party, being revealed to be a sexual predator. In this, Johnson argued that he was not aware of previous sexual allegations of Pincher. However, Lord McDonald wrote a letter to Johnson revealing that Johnson did know of previous allegations before appointing Pincher to the role of Chief Whip, including ones from when Pincher worked in the Foreign Office.

At this point, Johnson finally died his death of a thousand qualifications. The statements he made were held to be meaningless by most politicians. Rishi Sunak (the Chancellor) and Sajid Javid (the Health Secretary) resigned on Tuesday 5th July, triggering a rebellion in the Conservative Party. On Wednesday 7th July, Johnson resigned as Prime Minister. 

Limitations of Understanding Johnson’s Resignation Through Flew

For most, the resignation of Johnson went far past that of a death by a thousand qualifications.  It cannot be denied that if Johnson’s resignation was down to how meaningful his words were, he would have resigned a long time ago. Certainly, his death by a thousand qualifications for most occurred after Party Gate. However, politics has never aligned well with morality and the politics of politicians supporting or rebelling against their leader in order to gain political power is beyond this blog.


BBC News. 2022. “Partygate: A Timeline of the Lockdown Gatherings.” BBC News, May 19, 2022, sec. UK Politics.

Bloom, Dan. 2022. “Damning List of Chris Pincher Claims – and Questions of What Boris Johnson Knew.” Mirror. July 4, 2022.

Channel 4 News. 2022. The Best of Boris Johnson’s Tough PMQs Following Senior Resignations.

CNN, Ivana Kottasová and Tara Subramaniam. n.d. “Boris Johnson’s Tenure Has Been Defined by Scandal. Here Are Some of the Biggest Ones.” CNN. Accessed July 16, 2022.

Encyclopedia. 2019. “God of the Gaps | Encyclopedia.Com.” Encyclopedia. 2019.

Flew, A., R. M. Hare, and B. Mitchell. 1971. “Theology & Falsification: A Symposium.” In The Philosophy of Religion, edited by Basil Mitchell, 7. Oxford Press.

Guardian News. 2022. “The Party’s over”: Keir Starmer Derides Boris Johnson’s Apology at PMQs.

The Independent. 2021. Boris Johnson Denies Breaking Covid Rules with No 10 Christmas Party.

What Do Frogs And Steam Trains Have To Do With The Human Mind? Huxley’s Epiphenomenalism And Mental Causation


The 19th century was an exciting time to be alive. Incredible inventions were being discovered (such as the steam engine) new scientific theories were being developed (such as Darwin’s theory of evolution) and new philosophical positions were being created (such as utilitarianism). The Victorians were also fascinated with carrying out lobotomies and decapitations on innocent frogs. So it was a terrifying time if you were a frog. Or any other animal to be fair. However, while deeply unethical, such experiments led to a new philosophy around how the body and mind interacted. It is not talked about much as a valid philosophical position today, other than as a warning for other positions. That position is epiphenomenalism.

The (Immoral) Science Experiments Of The Victorians

During the 19th century, many scientists became obsessed with carrying out decapitations on frogs and other similar, torturous experiments (always have to love the Victorians for their commitment to animal welfare). However, some interesting observations arose from these experiments. For instance, it was discovered that frogs could swim despite parts of their brains being destroyed.

Comparisons were also drawn to medical cases with humans. For instance, in 1870, a French soldier was observed by Thomas Huxley being able to carry out complex tasks such as reloading a gun despite the soldier having severe brain damage. Some individuals, such as Huxley, argued that neither the frogs nor the soldier were conscious due to the destruction of parts of their brain. However, despite this, both the frogs and soldier were still able to carry out complex tasks. If correct, Huxley believed that this had significant philosophical implications.

Enter Huxley

Huxley was born in 1825 and was a natural scientist. In his younger years, he joined the royal navy and travelled the world studying various different species of animal (again, thoroughly appreciating animal rights). He then went on to be a lecturer in London and was on multiple boards for education. Controversially for the time, he was an ardent defender of Darwin’s theory of evolution, controversial because it was a significant challenge to the church who was the main body of authority at the time.

In 1874, Huxley gave an address to the British Association For The Development of Science named ‘On the Hypothesis that Animals are Automata; and it’s History.’ In it, he defended his idea of how the mind and body interacted (mind-body theory) as a result of his experiments.

Huxley’s Opponent: Mental Causation

Before we look at Huxley’s position, we must first look at the point he was arguing against. This position is mental causation. This is the idea that the mental has causal power. Most people believe in mental causation. Even those who do not study philosophy believe in this, even if it is subconsciously. Most people would argue that, if we turn on a kettle, this is because we have a mental state that wants us to turn on the kettle. This may be because we want to make a cup of tea or fill up a water bottle. If we didn’t have these mental states then we wouldn’t turn on the kettle.

Rejecting Common Sense: Enter Epiphenomenalism

However, despite the evident nature of mental causation, Huxley challenged the idea of mental causation. To Huxley, the soldier and the decapitated frog showed that individuals could carry out actions even when they weren’t conscious. He argued that this showed that, even when there are no mental states, physical actions would occur. Thus, he challenged whether the mental had any causal power at all. He believed instead, that the physical alone was capable of carrying out actions. The mental had no causal power. This position became known as epiphenomenalism.

Cars, Steam Trains And Epiphenomenalism

This position may appear odd to most. However, it can be understood by imagining the shadow of a moving car. The physical mechanics carry out all of the actions. Nothing else is needed for the movement of the car other than the physical mechanics. However, from the car’s motion, a shadow is cast. This shadow plays no role in the action of the car. It is merely produced by the physical action. Another comparison Huxley used was to the whistle of a steam train. Again, the action of the steam train is physically complete without the whistle. The train would move whether there was a whistle or not. It is produced but has no causal bearing on the movement of the train.

In the same way, Huxley viewed the mental as the shadow of the brain. When turning on the kettle on, the physical action occurs. In some very botched science terms, neurons fire in your brain which cause your arm to move. and turn on the kettle This process produces the biproduct of wanting tea. However, this want for tea has no causal power. The physical mechanism is enough to carry out the action without the mental. The mental is merely a product of the physical process.

No Fans For Epiphenomenalism

It is safe to say not many philosopher’s have promoted Huxley’s view. While explaining mental causation is a huge problem in the philosophy of mind (more on that in a later blog) not many would want to argue that the mental is a ‘dangler’. It is clear that what we perceive as the mental does have some kind of effect. It is obvious to everyone. Philosopher’s don’t want to deny that, when we want to boil a kettle, what causes us to boil the kettle is the fact our mental states chose to. It would be too counterintuitive to deny this. Further, it has significant impact on our free-will. No mental causation would mean no personal responsibility. This is not a conclusion philosophers often willingly concede. Because of this, it has been argued that there are more promising ways to solve this problem such as reductive or non-reductive physicalism.

References/ Further Reading

Jaegwon Kim, Philosophy of Mind, 2010, Chapter 7 ‘Mental Causation’ Available here (affiliate link),immediately%20caused%20by%20molecular%20changes%20of%20the%20brain-substance.

Christmas Spirit In The Brain: Neural Imaging Finds Brain Network. The End of God’s Existence?

In 2015, a team of scientists in Copenhagen decided to see if they could find the parts of the brain responsible for the Christmas Spirit. They gathered ten individuals who had Christmas traditions and ten individuals who did not. Pictures related and unrelated to Christmas were shown while they underwent BOLD imaging (Blood Oxygen Level Dependent). By comparing the two groups, the scientists were able to discover that certain areas of the brain were activated more in individuals who had Christmas traditions than those which who did not. It was concluded that these areas of the brain were responsible for the Christmas spirit.

Such findings are not restricted to Christmas Spirit. Other brain networks have been discovered to be responsible for faith based activities. Such evidence has been used to suggest that a God does not exist. Any feeling of spirituality is the result of the brain, not a God. It is a psychological need. Not divine intervention. Thus, we do not need a God to exist.

Such arguments are not conclusive. There are still some options for the religious believer to use as a defense against such conclusions. For instance, they could assert that brain networks and the intervention of a divine God are two explanations that aren’t contradictory. God may have created our brains to have the capacity to be able to partake in the Christmas Spirit. Religious believers may also argue that of course God interacts with us through our brain. If our brain is a key part in how we perceive the physical world, then it would make sense for God to convey the Christmas spirit through it. Thus, they would argue atheists cannot use such scientific evidence to conclude that God does not exist.

However, this may not be a satisfying defense. The athiest may argue that this compromises the God that religious believers want to believe in. By God working through the brain, it seems to minimize God’s causal power that the religious believer initially assumes. If God designed the brain to have Christmas Spirit and leaves the brain, then God not be the interventionist that most religious believers want him to be. God may not be actively acting within the world but using it like a computer. This may be a compromise that the religious believer may not want to concede.


AQA A-Level Religious Studies Year 2 Text Book

A priori, A posteriori, A fortiori: What do they all mean? Philosophy Basics

A priori and a posteriori are common words within philosophy that are introduced to students on the A-Level specification. However, it wasn’t until I started my masters degree that I came across the term a fortiori. But what is the difference between them? And why are a priori and a posteriori paired together without a fortiori?

What does a priori mean?

A priori refers to something which is known without having to appeal to experience. If we were to lock ourselves into a cave and gained knowledge via purely thinking, this knowledge would be a priori. The justification for believing in such knowledge would be independent of experience. This can include:

A) Propositions
We can know 1+1=2 purely via thinking.

B) Arguments
Tautologies are the most common example. These are arguments which arise from definition. We can know that a bachelor is an unmarried man just by looking at a definition. Such arguments can include ontological arguments for the existence of God: if we define God as the perfect being and it is better to exist than not exist, then God must exist.

What does a posteriori mean? How does it relate to a priori?

A posteriori is the opposite to a priori. It refers to arguments or propositions where the justification involves appealing to experience.

A) Propositions
Ravens are black. You would not be able to know this if you hadn’t encountered some form of the concept of raven through interactions with the world.

B) Arguments
Design arguments are the most common (though not always – they can be a mixture of a priori and a posteriori premises.) Essentially, they look to features of the world and argue there are elements signify design. From this, they argue that there must be a designer, who is God. You would not be able to make such an argument without experiencing the world first and seeing the features of design. Thus, it is an a posteriori argument.

Is there any common ground between a fortiori and the previous definitions?

A fortiori refers to justification. However, it does not refer to experience. Instead, it signifies where we have stronger grounds for one argument or conclusion over another. It is similar to, ‘to an even greater extent.’ For instance, if you have a person who is 15 and deemed too young to drink alcohol, then, a fortiori, a person who is 13 is also deemed too young to drink alcohol. With the younger age, there is a greater extent to which that person is too young to drink.

A fortiori can also be used when we reject one conclusion in favor of another because we deem to have stronger justification. For instance, we may accept that God does not exist because, in our eyes, the argument from the problem of evil is a fortiori to any argument which provides alternative explanations as to why there is evil in the world.

Descartes Was Murdered… Or Was He? The Death Of Rene Descartes: Odd Histories

Rene Descartes is one of the most famous philosophers within the Western philosophical canon, contributing to many areas of philosophy such as metaphysics, philosophy of mind and philosophy of perception. However, his fame does not arise from his philosophical works alone. He also provides one of the most controversial deaths within the philosophy world. Not even Descartes could have predicted that, when he passed away in Stockholm in 1950 at the age of 53, that the theories around his death would mainly focus on murder…

Natural death was the official story.

Initially, when concerning the official story provided by the court, Descartes death looked to be down to natural causes. The physician to examine the body declared Descartes had died of pneumonia. It seemed a likely cause. Descartes had been treating the Ambassador to France for it one week before and it is argued that Descartes may not have been used to the Swedish winter. Even within his writings, Descartes commented on the cold Nordic weather and the fact he was struggling with it.

Pneumonia doesn’t explain skin pigmentation… but arsenic does.

However, there are some problems with this manner of death. The largest challenge to the pneumonia theory is founded in a letter written by Johann Van Wullen, who was the private doctor of the queen. Eike Pies found the letters as they were written to a relative of his. While he diagnosed Descartes with pneumonia, he noted some odd symptoms which did not align with the condition. This included increased skin pigmentation and blood in the urine, symptoms which are often associated with arsenic poisoning. The physician was also not allowed to examine the body properly, including bleeding the body. Thus, Pies concluded that Descartes had in fact been poisoned.

Poisoned to protect the queen.

After discovering this evidence in 1980, the prevailing theory was that Descartes was poisoned by an unknown Protestant vicar. Descartes was raised a Catholic. However, Stockholm had undergone a bloody battle to convert to Protestantism. With Descartes being in charge of the Queen’s education, it was feared that he would cause her to revert to Catholicism. Thus, he had to be gotten rid of and this was done through poisoning him.

Theodore Ebert took this in almost a contradictory direction. After reviewing the evidence available, Ebert argued that Descartes was poisoned by Jacques Viogue, a missionary in Stockholm. Viogue believed that Queen Christina was considering converting to Catholicism due to her Catholic tendencies. However, he saw Descartes as a barrier to this. While Descartes was raised a Catholic, Viogue saw his metaphysical picture as more Calvenist. Thus, he decided to poison Descartes in order to stop him influencing the queen not to convert.

Evidence of tumor… but was it Descartes’ skull?

One final argument of how Descartes died is provided by Phillipe Charlier. His conclusions derived from an examination of Descartes’ ‘skull,’ which resides at Paris’ National Museum of Natural History. While doing the examination, Charlier discovered evidence of a sinus tumor. This account is problematic on two accounts. Firstly, Descartes never reported symptoms of a sinus tumor within his writing. Secondly, no one knows exactly where Descartes skull is. There are multiple museums claiming they have Descartes’ skull as it was removed from the skeleton at an unknown point in history. Theories of where the skull is will be covered in a future blog post, but it is safe to say that analyzing a ‘skull’ said to be Descartes is not convincing evidence.


Descartes’ skull,got%20also%20ill%20and%20died%20one%20week%20later.

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