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Free Will - PHI00017C

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  • Department: Philosophy
  • Module co-ordinator: Dr. Daniel Morgan
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: C
  • Academic year of delivery: 2024-25
    • See module specification for other years: 2023-24

Module summary

Free will seems practically very important, but theoretically fragile. If we are not free, our lives make no sense. But there is good reason to think we are not free. In this module, we investigate the problem of free will, and we use it as a jumping off point for some of the most fundamental questions in philosophy, including questions in metaphysics, ethics and about the nature of philosophy.

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching period
A Semester 2 2024-25

Module aims

  • To introduce students to philosophical ideas and argument that are exciting and have real world significance
  • To foster an appreciation of some of the key issues in the free will debate, and in immediately adjacent areas
  • To introduce students to the critical study of demanding texts.
  • To give students an appreciation of how different areas in philosophy, including in ethics and metaphysics, connect
  • To make students reflect on the nature of philosophical inquiry and sources of philosophical knowledge

Module learning outcomes

By the end of the module, students should be able to:

  • understand and explain a range of key problems, issues, and debates about free will and express this understanding in clear, precise, and accessible terms
  • develop and articulate ranges of alternative solutions to problems about free will in an open-minded way, drawing on module materials
  • develop and articulate arguments for the alternative solutions considered in relation to problems and issues about free will, drawing on module materials, identifying some points of weakness and some potential points for development
  • make a judgement about what is the best view on a particular problem about free will and argue in defence of this judgement
  • identify some of their strengths and weaknesses by evaluating their own work in relation to departmental marking criteria
  • apply simple strategies for improving their work, based on critical reflection, advice, and feedback

Module content

I have always thought that free will is the most interesting problem in philosophy. It is the most interesting because it already includes so many of the others – its solution requires getting straight about some of the most difficult philosophical concepts there are: causation, explanation, the self, the mind, the physical, power, possibility… (Helen Steward, Preface viii, A Metaphysics for Freedom, 2012)

Free will is the idea that we have a certain kind of control over our actions, that when I do something, I could have done otherwise. E.g. I drank tea this morning, but I could have instead drunk coffee. This idea seems central to many practical and moral aspects of our lives. One’s feeling of gratitude for a friend’s thoughtful gift would seem uncalled for if one’s friend couldn’t have done otherwise than give you the gift. The state’s ordering a murderer be locked up would seem unjust if the murderer couldn’t have done otherwise than perform the murder. But free will also seems theoretically fragile. Our actions are events in the world and there’s good reason to think that they are influenced by a variety of factors over which we lack control – e.g. our genes, our family upbringing, our cultural backgrounds, advertising, algorithms, the causal laws governing our universe, and, on certain theological views, God’s omniscience. Many philosophers, contemporary and historical, have suspected that our actions may even be determined by factors over which we lack control. But, if so, how can we be free?

Helen Steward notes in her quote above that deciding how to respond to this problem requires us to engage with some of the most fundamental and fascinating topics in philosophy. In this module, we’ll be investigating free will for its own sake, but also using it as a point of introduction to several key philosophical sub-fields and topics. Topics in metaphysics that we’ll engage with include:; the picture of the physical universe given by contemporary physics; the nature of action; our relationship to the physical universe and to the rest of the animal kingdom. Topics in ethics we’ll engage with include: the nature of moral responsibility; personal relationships and criminal justice; the meaning of life. We’ll also use the problem of free will to raise basic questions about the discipline you are studying, philosophy. What are the sources of philosophical knowledge (is common-sense, e.g. the commonsensical idea that you have free will, a source of philosophical knowledge? Is experimental neuroscience?)? Should one attempt to bring one’s life into line with ideas one accepts while thinking about philosophy?


Task Length % of module mark
Summative Essay
N/A 100

Special assessment rules


Additional assessment information

Formative Exercise: Four sentence essay - 'they say/I say/one might object/I would reply'. 500-750 words. To be submitted by 12 midday, Friday Week 6

Summative Essay: 2,000 words


Task Length % of module mark
Summative Essay
N/A 100

Module feedback

Formative feedback will take the form of written comments, produced by seminar leaders.

Summative assessment will be returned within current guidelines for turnaround.

Indicative reading

Derek Pereboom (2022): Free Will. Cambridge Elements in Philosophy of Mind.

Alysssa Ney (2014): Metaphysics. Routledge. (especially, chapter 9, ‘Free Will’)

Helen Steward (2011): A Metaphysics for freedom, OUP (somewhat advanced)

The information on this page is indicative of the module that is currently on offer. The University is constantly exploring ways to enhance and improve its degree programmes and therefore reserves the right to make variations to the content and method of delivery of modules, and to discontinue modules, if such action is reasonably considered to be necessary by the University. Where appropriate, the University will notify and consult with affected students in advance about any changes that are required in line with the University's policy on the Approval of Modifications to Existing Taught Programmes of Study.