Proposed: The Metaphysics of Freedom

Course Description

Very few questions receive as passionate responses as the question “Do we have free will?” That we have the freedom to do otherwise is the basis of our ethical, legal, and educational systems, yet a growing body of evidence in physics and biology suggests that we have very little, if any, control over our behaviour. How can we maintain that we have free will if it seems like there is no place for it? Why should we punish people for acting in certain ways if it was never possible for them to act otherwise? What do such systems say about the possibility of an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good divine being?

In this course, we will examine central questions in the debate between determinism and free will from both a historical and topical standpoint. We will learn about the various kinds of determinism, and the distinct challenges they pose for defenders of free will. We will consider the metaphysics of causation and how this informs our accounts of action. We shall consider whether we truly have the ‘ability to do otherwise’, and what it means to act against our best judgement. Finally, we will consider how we may conceive of moral responsibility in a deterministic universe.

Course Texts

  1. Various readings on reserve. (Required)

Summary of Course Requirements

Requirement Description Weight Date
Midterm One in-class midterm on ‘Determinism & Compatibilism’. 20% Week 05
Essay Project One 2250-word (+/-10%) essay completed in three stages. 50% See description
Participation Assessed on the quality and quantity of participation. 10% See description
Final Examination One sit-down, cumulative examination. 30% TBA

Course Schedule

All information subject to change with notice.

Week Readings
01 James, W. “The Dilemma of Determinism”

Determinism & Compatibilism

02 Hobbes, T. Leviathan (selections)
03 van Inwagen, Peter. “An Argument for Incompatibilism”
04 Kane, Robert. “Two Kinds of Incompatibilism”

Intending to Act

05 Wittgenstein, L. Philosophical Investigations (selections)
06 Anscombe, G.E.M. Intention (selections)
07 Hornsby, J. “Trying to Act”


08 Augustine, Confessions. Romans 7.
09 Holton, Richard. “Intention & Weakness of Will”
10 Bromhall, Kyle. “Embodied Akrasia: James on Motivation and Weakness of Will”

Determinism and Responsibility

11 Smart, J.J.C. “Free Will, Praise and Blame”
12 Frankfurt, H. “Alternative Possibilities and Moral Responsibility”
13 Wolf, Susan. “Sanity and the Metaphysics of Responsibility”