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.

Introduction

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.

References

BBC News. 2022. “Partygate: A Timeline of the Lockdown Gatherings.” BBC News, May 19, 2022, sec. UK Politics. https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-59952395.

Bloom, Dan. 2022. “Damning List of Chris Pincher Claims – and Questions of What Boris Johnson Knew.” Mirror. July 4, 2022. https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/politics/what-boris-johnson-know-chris-27392322.

Channel 4 News. 2022. The Best of Boris Johnson’s Tough PMQs Following Senior Resignations. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lgyp0BRtWlk.

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. https://www.cnn.com/2022/07/06/uk/boris-johnson-scandals-intl/index.html.

Encyclopedia. 2019. “God of the Gaps | Encyclopedia.Com.” Encyclopedia. 2019. https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/god-gaps.

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. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sPtN0VWRJNw.

The Independent. 2021. Boris Johnson Denies Breaking Covid Rules with No 10 Christmas Party. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5C9ZkPDYwDc.

Published by Philosopher Ad Absurdum

Student studying MA Philosophy of Mind and Cognitive Science at the University of Birmingham; First Class BA Philosophy and History from the University of Southampton.

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