Freshman seminar: Free will and the problem of evil

Instructor: Adam Elga <> (includes information on office hours)

This page:

Registrar’s page for this seminar

Seminar meetings: 1:30-4:20p Thursdays by teleconference

Schedule of who is assigned to write papers and be explicators for which days. (Last updated 2020-02-06.)

1 Description

If God exists, why would God allow anyone to suffer? Perhaps it is because there is no best possible world, and so God could have done better no matter what world is created. Perhaps it is because even if there is a best possible world, God is not obligated to create it. Or perhaps it is because it is valuable that there be creatures who make significant free choices, and there is no way to create such creatures without risking that they choose wrongly (and thereby cause suffering).

These three answers to the traditional problem of evil share an interesting feature. Though each concerns, in the first place, God’s choices, each raises central philosophical issues about the choices we (ordinary humans) make. For example, they raise such questions as:

  • When to dissolve a charitable trust that will do more good the longer it exists (but will only start doing good once it is dissolved)?
  • Are we morally obligated to have the best possible children we can?
  • Is free will compatible with determinism?
  • Can you be responsible for an action even if you couldn’t do otherwise?
  • Does the neuroscience of human decision-making teach us that our feeling of deciding what to do is a cognitive illusion?

Through detailed engagement with contemporary philosophical arguments and relevant scientific work, we will address both the problem of evil itself and a host of surrounding philosophical questions.

2 In-class work

  • There will be considerable in-class work with other students. When we split up for individual or small-group work in class, if you should finish the assigned work or get stuck, please let me know. Please do not do other work, chat about off-topc matters, or use phone etc.
  • While you are working in pairs or small groups, I’ll be circulating to answer questions and look at your progress. Finally we will all reconvene to consolidate ideas.

3 Weekly topics and readings

The readings are linked below, organized by topic. Starred readings are required and any remaining readings are optional background. Note that sometimes a section or page range is indicated after a required reading. In such cases, only the indicated portion of that reading is required.

To access the readings, use the password distributed in class.

In addition, you may wish to access a folder containing all of the assigned papers (together with optional background readings, including ones not listed below).

Feb 6. Introduction

  • No assigned readings.

Feb 13. Problem of evil

  • * Antony, Louise. “No good reason”. In Byrne, Alex, Gideon Rosen, Elizabeth Harman, Joshua Cohen, and Seana Shiffrin. 2018. The Norton Introduction to Philosophy, 2nd Edition. W.W. Norton & Company.
  • * McHarry, J. D. (1978). A theodicy. Analysis, 38(3), 132–134.
  • Rowe, W.L. (1979) The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism. American Philosophical Quarterly 16: 335-41.

Feb 20. Normative constraints on divine creation

  • * Adams, R. M. Must God create the best? Philosophical Review. JL 72; 81: 317-332.
  • * Parfit, Derek. “The non-identity problem”, sections 119-123. From Chapter 16 of Reasons and Persons, Oxford University Press, 1984.

Feb 27. Normative constraints on human creation

  • * Spriggs, M. “Lesbian couple create a child who is deaf like them”
  • * Silver, Lee. Remaking Eden, 233-237 and 249-265.
  • Bostrom, N., & Ord, T. (2006). The Reversal Test: Eliminating Status Quo Bias in Applied Ethics. Ethics, 116(4), 656–679.

Mar 5. The free will defense to the problem of evil

  • * Plantinga, Alvin. “God, evil, and the metaphysics of freedom”. Sections 1-4.
  • * Lewis, David. 1993. “Evil for Freedom’s Sake?”. Read sections 3-4.

Mar 12. Free will overview

  • * Taylor, Richard. 2009. “Freedom and Determinism.” In Exploring Philosophy: An Introductory Anthology, edited by Steven M. Cahn. Oxford University Press. Read from section “Freedom” (starting on p. 42) through the end of section “Simple Indeterminism” (ending on p. 48).
  • * Ayer, A. J. “Freedom and necessity”

Mar 19. No seminar meeting (Spring Break)

Mar 26. The consequence argument for incompatibilism

  • * Van Inwagen, Peter. “The Powers of Rational Beings: Freedom of the Will.” Chapter 12 of Metaphysics. Read from p. 7 (“There are certain facts that no human being…) through p. 10 (”…If the Principle were false, that would be a great mystery indeed.“)
  • * Lewis, David. 1981. “Are We Free to Break the Laws?” Theoria 47 (3): 113–21.
  • Van Inwagen, Peter. “The consequence argument”.
  • Vihvelin, Kadri. 2000. “Libertarian Compatibilism.” Philosophical Perspectives 14: 139–66.

Apr 2. Freedom, responsibility, and higher-order desires

  • * Harry Frankfurt, “Alternate possibilities and moral responsibility”. Read from the beginning through “…vanish by bringing the relevant moral phenomena into sharper focus.” (830), and also from “Suppose someone—Black, let us say—wants Jones4 to perform a certain action…” (835) to the end.
  • Dennett, Daniel. 2015. “Please Don’t Feed the Bugbears.” In Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting. MIT Press. Read from p. 6 (“If having free will matters, it must…”) through the end of section 3.
  • Harry Frankfurt, “Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person”
  • Ginet, Carl. 1996. “In Defense of the Principle of Alternative Possibilities: Why I Don’t Find Frankfurt’s Argument Convincing.” Noûs 30: 403.

Apr 9. No seminar meeting.

Apr 16. 8:30am-11:20am Freedom through agent causation?

  • * Roderick M. Chisholm, “Human Freedom and the Self”. Read sections 1-2, 4-6, 11-12.
  • * Markosian, N. (2012). Agent causation as the solution to all the compatibilist’s problems. Philosophical Studies, 157(3), 383–398. Read: beginning - “…are both causes of a single event (e5).” (4), “The first of the six problems facing compatibilism…” (8) - “…due to the manipulation by aliens.” (10), “I take it that the standard response…” (11) - “…among the causes of what you do next.” (15).

Apr 23. Hard incompatibilism

  • * Pereboom, Derk. “Why we have no free will and can live without it”. In Byrne, Alex, Gideon Rosen, Elizabeth Harman, Joshua Cohen, and Seana Shiffrin. 2018. The Norton Introduction to Philosophy, 2nd Edition. W.W. Norton & Company. Sections 1-2.
  • * Pereboom, Derk. “Why we have no free will and can live without it”. In Byrne, Alex, Gideon Rosen, Elizabeth Harman, Joshua Cohen, and Seana Shiffrin. 2018. The Norton Introduction to Philosophy, 2nd Edition. W.W. Norton & Company. Sections 5-7.
  • Pereboom, Derk. 2005. “Defending Hard Incompatibilism.” Midwest Studies in Philosophy 29 (1): 228–47.

Apr 30. Is conscious will an illusion?

  • For an in-class demonstration, please bring a small pendulum to class. A chain at least 6 inches long with a pendant will do, if you have one. Or you could make a pendulum by attaching any small weight to the end of any piece of 6-inch-long string. For example, you could tie a ring to the end of a shoelace, or tape a coin to the end of a length of dental floss.
  • * Wegner, D. M. (2003). “The experience of will”. Chapter 3 of The illusion of conscious will. MIT Press. Read beginning (63) - “…the person’s thought cannot have created the action.” (78), “The processes described in this chapter rest…” (95) - end (98).
  • * Wegner, Daniel M. 2004. “Precis of The Illusion of Conscious Will.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences; New York 27 (5): 649–59. Read from beginning through and including section 1.2.1.
  • Haynes, J.-D. (2011). Decoding and predicting intentions. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1224(1), 9–21.

May 7 11:30a-2:20p 8:30a-11:20a. Final paper workshop

  • Note special time during reading period.
  • While there is no work formally due for this session, you will get much more out of it if you have a worked out sense of what you hope to argue. What matters is not having pages of polished prose written, but rather that:
    • You have chosen a particular argument that you hope to make progress on.
      • Ideally you should be able to point to a specific paragraph or two in the reading where the guts of that argument occurs.
    • You understand that argument. (Or if not, you have specific questions about it that you can try to get clear on.)
    • You have a sense of how you want to make progress on the argument.
      • Do you have an objection to a premise or step of the argument? Which one?
      • Do you hope to support a premise of the argument? How?
      • Do you hope to defend the argument against an objection? Which objection, and where do you think that objection goes wrong?
  • One thing we will do early on is to divide into pairs. One member of the pair (the “writer”) will describe their paper idea to the other (the “listener”) and answer clarifying questions. Then the pair will together come up with the top one or two questions or issues about the paper to bring to the group discussion. The “listener” will initally report the results to the group.

Overflow: Neuroscience of free will

  • Paglieri, F. (2013). There’s Nothing Like Being Free: Default Dispositions, Judgments of Freedom, and the Phenomenology of Coercion. Oxford University Press.
  • Haggard, P. (2011). Neuroethics of Free Will. Oxford Handbook of Neuroethics.
  • Soon, Chun Siong; Brass, Marcel; Heinze, Hans-Jochen; Haynes, John-Dylan (2008). “Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain”. Nature Neuroscience. 11 (5): 543–5. 10.1038/nn.2112. PMID 18408715. (selections)

Overflow: Is free will a mystery?

  • van Inwagen, Peter. “The problem of evil, the problem of air, and the problem of silence”, sections I-II (pp. 136-152).
  • van Inwagen, Peter. 2000. “Free Will Remains a Mystery.” Nous 34 (s14): 1–19.

Overflow: More on what happens if there is no best possible world

Overflow: free will and punishment

4 Responsibilities

Weekly responsibilities

  • Do the required reading before class, which will typically be two philosophy articles. Do the readings with enough care (and take enough notes) so that if in class you are randomly selected to give a brief recap of a central argument contained in either reading you are able to do so, or at least say with some degree of specificity why you had difficulty understanding that argument.
    • You may if you wish write out in advance and bring to class a paragraph of prose that you read or refer to if you are asked to give a recap. Doing so is optional. What is required is that you have some sort of notes or annotations that allow you to give a reasonable brief exposition of the main arguments of the required reading.
  • Participate fully in class, which I take to include leaving laptop screens closed except when in use for small-group work or completing writing assignments, and leaving phones in pockets or bags. It also includes coming on time and prepared, staying on task during class time, advancing group and pair discussions without monopolizing them, and bringing out the best in your partners.
  • Submit periodic short-answer assignments on time.

Main assignments

  • Be “the explicator”
    • Topic: a starred reading from the syllabus that is not from the same week as a reading that is the topic of your Paper 1 or Paper 2.
    • Your job is solely to understand and explain the reading and to help structure the discussion. In your role as explicator you are not expected to come up with creative new ideas or objections of your own.
    • Write a 1-2 page “bullet-point” handout:
      • Due at noon the day before we discuss that reading. For example, if we discuss the reading on February 20 the paper is due at noon on February 19.
      • Maximum length 300 words.
      • Using bullet points, numbered lists, named claims, and/or outline structure, state in your own words the main arguments and claims from the reading, distilling these claims down to their essence.
      • If the reading accomplishes more than one main task, your handout should be clearly broken into parts corresponding to each main task.
      • For at least one central argument in the paper, lay out the argument in premise-conclusion form.
      • If something important in the reading is unclear to you, explain briefly what that is. (Perhaps we can clarify it in class.)
      • The role of your handout is to act as a “skeleton” for a portion of the seminar discussion that day
    • Responsibilities during class discussion:
      • Be prepared to help lead the class by giving a 1-to-3-minute mini-introduction to get the ball rolling for several phases of the discussion. You might for example direct attention to a portion of your handout, explain it, and ask a pertinent question to start a discussion on that portion of your handout.
      • Note that part of giving an ideal mini-presentation is giving the presentation and then stopping within 1 to 3 minutes (without my having to stop you). This is difficult because 3 minutes is so short. It is almost impossible to do well unless you practice your mini-presentation in advance with the help of a stopwatch.
      • One of your goals as explicator should be to bring out the best in the other students in the class. That means fostering discussion (perhaps by posing questions using the opt-out convention).
      • Try to especially encourage participation from students who have spoken less (during the day’s session, and over the course of the semester).
  • Paper 1
    • Maximum length 500 words.
    • Due at noon the day before we discuss that reading. For example, if we discuss the reading on February 20 the paper is due at noon on February 19.
    • Topic: an argument or arguments from a starred reading from the syllabus for weeks 2-6.
    • Aim to make the most interesting/surprising contribution that you can support well. You will need to home in on a very specific argument in order to make progress with respect to it. (Also applies to Paper 2 and Paper 3.)
    • Include only as much description of the author’s argument as is needed to make your point understandable.
    • Those who submit paper 1 in the first couple of weeks get special grading consideration because they won’t have the benefit of having seen feedback on papers others wrote.
  • Paper 2 canceled
  • Paper 3
    • Maximum length 1,000 words.
    • Topic: any single argument from an assigned portion of a starred reading on the syllabus, except that you should not write your paper on the same reading that you wrote your paper 1 on.
      • Other topics allowed only if approved by the instructor no later than April 23.
    • Due at noon on Monday May 11.
  • General paper guidelines
    • Things to think about when getting started on your paper
      • First read the paper and get clear on what the arguments are.
      • Do you see a non-obvious objection to an argument’s premise? Do you see a way to strengthen an argument in the paper? Do you see an objection someone might raise against an argument that you have an answer to? Do you see a reason someone might think supports one of the premises of the argument, but which you think is no good? Do you see any non-obvious or implausible implications of the argument? Answering any of these questions and supporting your answer are all ways to make progress on an argument.
      • In each case it is not sufficient to merely assert your agreement or disagreement with a particular position. Rather, you should give supporting reasons.
      • Your job in writing your paper is to explain the relevant portion of an argument and the progress you make on it as clearly, simply, and succinctly as possible.
    • Structuring your paper 3

      The structure of your paper should make it blindingly obvious to the reader what argument your paper considers, and exactly what progress your paper makes on that argument. One straightforward and good way to proceed:

      • Have an introduction briefly describing the contention of the argument you consider and the way in which you propose to make progress on the argument.
      • Give just enough explanation of the target argument that the reader will be able to understand the progress you propose to make on it. One common pitfall is spending too much space on this part of the paper, leaving not enough space for you to develop your own idea and objections to it.
      • Make your progress. This is the most important part of your paper. Here you describe your counterexample, or explain your new supporting consideration, or explain an objection and say how to answer it, etc.
      • Anticipate objections. Think about the weakest point or two of your proposal, or the best way to object to it. Answer the objection if you have a good answer. But if you notice a serious objection that you don’t know how to answer, it is better to describe the objection and admit that you don’t have an answer than to ignore it.
      • A brief conclusion is optional.
    • How your paper will be assessed

      In assessing your papers, your grader will in part be asking “Which of the following boxes can I check off in good conscience?”. Your grader will also take into account the word-limit constraints you are operating under for each paper.

      • The paper focuses on just one argument and gives it careful attention, rather than listing a number of considerations and giving them superficial treatment.
      • The paper reflects and conveys a correct understanding of that argument.
      • The paper gives reasons, rather than simply asserting that such-and-such argument is or is not convincing.
      • The content of the paper was easy to follow. I didn’t have to go back and reread it to figure out what was going on.
      • The language was simple, clear and clean. The sentences were short and punchy. Simple words were used wherever possible, rather than obscure or unfamiliar jargon.
      • Direct quotation was used sparingly, if at all. No large “filler” quotations were included.
      • The writing was grammatical and everything was spelled and punctuated properly.
      • The paper gave just enough background to make sense of its reasoning, and no more. It didn’t have unnecessary “filler” text that explained peripheral matters.
      • The paper reflects a creative contribution. Either it introduces a novel argument or provided a fresh perspective, criticism, or supporting point to an argument. Perhaps the contribution isn’t mind-blowing, but it also is not one that occurs to one right away, given the readings.
      • No straightforward objection to reasoning in the paper occurred to me. Or if it did, the paper addressed that objection somehow (even if only to register it at as an unsolved problem).
      • The paper included the author’s name in the header, an appropriate word count, and page numbers.
      • The paper reflects not a mechanical slog but rather a genuine spark of interest from the author in the topic.

5 Course mechanics and policies


Please allow 1-2 business days for email replies. I love when students ask about course content, and prefer that such questions be asked in class or during office hours.

Office hours

My office hours will be posted on my web page.


I encourage you to bring snacks to class. It is fine with me if you eat during class as long as you clean up after yourself.

Stretching and bathroom breaks

Standing up and stretching is permitted and indeed encouraged during both regular class time and during breaks. Obviously, feel free to leave class briefly at any time if you need a bathroom break.

How to submit work

  • Submit work by way of the homework submission form. (Link will be posted to blackboard and an announcement will be sent out once it is posted.)
  • Please include a word count. Include your name and what category the work falls under (eg “Paper 1” or “Explication handout”) in the header, even if that information is also included in the filename. Number your pages. Any standard bibliographic/citation style (such as APA, MLA, or Chicago Manual of Style), consistently applied, is acceptable.
  • For all work, don’t forget to credit those who helped you by saying how they helped.
  • For Papers 1-3, include at the bottom the standard university-wide statement of academic integrity.

Late work policy

how late penalty
< 1 hour 0%
\(\ge\) 1 and < 6 hours 5%
\(\ge\) 6 and < 12 hours 15%
\(\ge\) 12 and < 24 hours 50%
\(\ge\) 24 hours not accepted
  • Note: if homework is submitted less than one hour late, no penalty will be imposed. This is a grace period, but please do not abuse it. Take the real (noon) deadline seriously.
  • For example, work otherwise graded at 85% but submitted more than 1 but less than 6 hours late would get a grade of 80%.
  • Work more than 24 hours late will not be accepted without the permission of your residential college dean or director of studies. Similarly, if an extraordinary circumstance warrants an extension, please contact your residential college dean or director of studies, ideally well before the original due date.

If you miss a seminar session

If you need to miss a seminar session, please email me in advance. If you have a continuing challenge in making the sessions (for example, due to connectivity or time zone problems), please contact me separately so we may work out a solution.

I will try to leave the whiteboard notes for each session up and make session recordings available whenever possible, for those who need to miss class.

Collaboration policy

  • For preparing your explications and papers (but not your short answer assignments), you are permitted to talk with other students about the assigned reading and the arguments contained in them, provided that:
    1. You meticulously document who you talked to.
    2. The work you produce arises from your own understanding of the material. In other words, talk with others to help understand the argument, but write your own paper or handout. Do not, under any circumstances, copy another person’s map or writing. When in doubt, ask the instructor for guidance.
    3. You do the readings on your own before you begin discussing them with others.
  • More detailed guidance especially relevant to the papers:

    You must write your own paper. However, you may discuss the ideas in your paper with others in the class. In particular, you may if you wish brainstorm for paper ideas together with others from the class. You must give credit where credit is due: if you write a paper based on your own development of an idea kernel that someone else came up with, you must explicitly credit that person. More generally, document what help you have received by not just listing who helped you, but how exactly each of the people helped you did so. Examples of (some of) the sorts of information it would be appropriate to include:

    “Quentin reacted to my argument that such-and-such with the objection that so-and-so. That led to me writing the discussion in section 3 of my paper.”

    “I discussed such-and-such paper with Una. She thought it odd that [so-and-so]. That led to the idea that […], which led to the main idea of my paper, which is […].”

    Another example: suppose that you have a paper idea. You may explain the idea to someone else from the class to see if it makes sense to them. You may ask them to help you come up with objections and weak points in your reasoning. But this should all take place within the context of a discussion of ideas, as opposed to the manner in which those ideas get expressed. As usual, give credit for any objections or observations that your classmates supply.

    You should not be working with anyone else when you are actually typing the text of your paper.

Use of work

The work you do for this course may be anonymously used for the benefit of other students. If you would prefer that your work not be used in this way, please email the course instructor at any time in the semester. No explanation is required: an email with subject line “I opt out of future use of work I do for this class” is sufficient. Students who opt out will not be penalized in any way. Also, if you are generally ok with such use but there is a particular assignment you’d prefer to be kept private, feel free to include a note saying so at the top of that assignment.

Grade percentages (supercedes information on registrar’s page)

Each component below be graded pass/D/fail. Your grade for the course will be the minimum grade you receive on any component.

  • Explicator
  • Paper 1
  • Paper 2
  • Paper 3
  • In-class work / participation / short homework assignments

Grading standards

Regardless of what the average of your graded materials, to pass the course all of the following conditions must be met:

  • No more than two unexcused absences (Special allowances made for absences due to difficulty making teleconference meetings.)
  • At least a minimal level of attention and engagement during discussion and small-group work
  • Submit a Paper 3 that gets a passing grade
  • A-range work will typically have the following characteristics
    • Papers
      • All assignments submitted on time in the specified format according to the submission guidelines
      • Written assignments rarely contain mechanical errors
      • Written assignments all reflect having read the assigned readings carefully and having thought about and digested them
      • Many papers contain a worthwhile and original high-quality thought or suggestion
      • All writing is extremely clear
    • In-class small-group work sessions
      • Full attendance
      • “Share the wheel”:
        • Work with your partner together on work done in pairs
        • Contribute your own ideas and ask questions to clarify matters, even if you are confused and/or feel as though your partner understands things better than you. In other words: don’t just be a “passenger” and let your partner steer the work the whole time.
        • Let your partner contribute to the project, and help answer their questions, even if you know just what to do and/or feel as though you understand things better than your partner. In other words: don’t just be “the driver” and steer the work the whole time.
      • Keep discussion on class-related matters (as opposed to general chatting)
      • Do not use phone or laptop for non-class purposes. For example, don’t check messages even a single time during the semester. (Checking messages during a designated in-class break is OK.)
      • If you and your partner get done with the assignment or get stuck before time is up, ask the instructor to come over so that they can take a look at your work, set you up with something to think about, or give you help, as appropriate. Do not just start chatting about non-class matters or stare into space.
    • In-class discussions
      • Whenever called upon to lay out a central argument from the readings, have read and taken adequate notes on the reading to give a sensible account of the argument (this is compatible with your identifying points or aspects of the argument that you had a hard time following).
      • Your comments in class reflect having done all of the required reading carefully. For this component of your grade, there is no expectation that you read any of the optional readings.
      • You come to each class session with some sort of angle or issue that your consideration of the assigned reading raised. For example, you might have identified a portion of the reading that you had trouble following, or that you have an objection to or question about, or that you think could be strengthened with an additional consideration. Or maybe the reading got you to think of an argument of your own on the topic. This goes beyond just reading passively, and is often associated with the sort of reading that one needs to have a pen or laptop in hand to do (to make notes and record questions).
      • When an instructor or student says something you don’t understand, you typically ask a question.
  • B-range work will typically have some of the following characteristics
    • Papers
      • Written assignments contain a few mechanical errors
      • Written assignments almost all reflect having read the assigned readings fairly carefully and having thought about them a bit
      • Some papers contain a worthwhile and original thought or suggestion
    • In-class small-group work sessions
      • Full attendance or perhaps one partial absence
      • “Share the wheel” followed fairly well, but some times of either wheel-hogging or pure-passengering
      • A small amount of non-class-related-chatting
    • In-class discussions
      • Mostly, when called upon to lay out a central argument from the readings, you have read and taken adequate notes on the reading to give a sensible account of the argument
      • Your comments in class mostly reflect having done all of the required reading reasonably carefully.
      • You come to several class sessions with some sort of angle or issue that your consideration of the assigned reading raised.
      • When an instructor or student says something you don’t understand, you sometimes ask a question.
  • Work that earns a C-range grade or below
    • Overall, lowered versions of the above standards are met or some of the above standards are met but others are very far from being met

Academic integrity policy

The policy for giving credit to others in your papers is the standard University academic integrity policy. When you have collaborated on work of any kind, always detail what help you received from collaborators.

Academic accommodations because of a disability

Students requesting academic accommodations must register with the Office of Disability Services (ODS) (609-258-8840) for disability verification and determination of eligibility for reasonable academic accommodations. If you are approved for accommodations and would like to discuss implementation with me, please make an appointment to meet in order to maintain confidentiality in addressing your needs. Requests for testing accommodations for this course should be made at least two weeks in advance, or as soon as possible for newly approved students, in order to make arrangements to implement the accommodations. No accommodations may be given without authorization from ODS, or without reasonable advance notice.