Skip Navigation

Natural Disasters

FS 100-08: FYI Seminar
Natural Disasters: Questions of Morality, Faith, and Science

Fall 2006
TTh 1:00-2:50 PM
Morse-Ingersoll 209

Professor: Matt Tedesco
          Phone: 363-2146

OL/TA: Ashley Vancil

Office Hours: T 11-12, Th 11-1, and by appointment
          Office: Morse-Ingersoll 210

1)       Lawrence Weschler, Mr. Wilsons Cabinet of Wonder (Vintage, 1996) [COMMON READING]
2)       Mark Larrimore (ed.), The Problem of Evil: A Reader (Blackwell, 2000)
3)       Peter Unger, Living High and Letting Die (Oxford UP, 1996)
4)       Richard A. Posner, Catastrophe: Risk and Response (Oxford UP, 2005)
5)       Elizabeth Kolbert, Field Notes from a Catastrophe (Bloomsbury, 2006)

The Class:

We are all the survivors of natural disasters.  We were not on the shores of Banda Aceh as the sea swallowed the land; we were not under the Ethiopian sun as harvests failed for lack of spring rains.  Yet here we are, the observers of calamitous events that defy our comprehension and force us to ask ultimate questions about the human condition.  Sometimes these are moral questions, where we wonder how we ought to respond to those distant to us who bear the brunt of natural disasters.  Sometimes these are theological questions, where we wonder how an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good God could stand aside as these catastrophes unfold.  We will confront these questions by reading and critically assessing the work of a range of thinkers who have themselves wrestled with these ultimate questions.  Sometimes we ask other kinds of practical questions, where we wonder what kinds of social policies we might consider adopting in the face of the looming possibility of disaster. We will also read the suggestions of those who have addressed these policy questions. Sometimes, too, the questions we ask are about the disasters themselves.  These are scientific questions, where we wonder about the natural forces that govern these disasters.  We will address these questions by evaluating the scientific merit of popular Hollywood disaster movies. By thinking through the range of questions that natural disasters lead us to ask, we should each come to a better understanding of the world we live in and our place in it.


Your grade in the class will be determined as follows, where all work must be completed satisfactorily in order for you to receive a passing grade in the class:

I. PAPERS (80%)

You will write four papers in this class, each worth 20% of your overall class grade. The first two may be re-written at your choosing; should you elect to re-write, your final paper grade will be an average of the original draft and the re-write. Details will be passed along as the semester progresses, but a brief overview of the papers is as follows:

1)       A 4-5 page paper critically responding to the problem of evil, due 9/26.
2)       A 4-5 page paper critically responding to the moral arguments of Unger as presented in Living High and Letting Die, due 10/26.
3)       A 4-5 page paper discussing global warming, due 12/5.
4)       A 4-5 page paper on the scientific veracity of the popular disaster movie that formed the basis for your group presentation, due the week following your group presentation. Note that, while the presentation is offered by your group, this report is an individual assignment.


Aside from your four papers, you will complete a number of reports, essays, reflections, and other writing exercises in this seminar. Details will be passed along as the semester progresses, but a brief overview of some of these assignments is as follows:

1)       A reflection on your expectations as the semester begins (1-2 pages)
2)       A self-evaluative reflection as the semester concludes (1-2 pages)
3)       A report on individual contributions to your group presentation (1-2 pages)
4)       A critical evaluation of the other group presentations (1-2 pages each, 3-6 pages total)
5)       A reflection on your experiences with community service (2-3 pages)


Early in the semester, you will be assigned to work with a group on investigating the scientific veracity of a popular Hollywood disaster movie. As a group, you will have one full class session to offer your presentation, as well as to field questions from the class. Note that your grade for this presentation will be determined largely by the class evaluations of your class session, as well as your own evaluations of the contributions of the individual members of your group.


The final component of your overall class grade encompasses several different elements, including (but not limited to) class participation and classroom behavior in general. This component is unique in that, unlike the other components, it is subjective. Attendance, first of all, is mandatory, and students with excessive absences will be penalized. In accordance with Beloit College policy, I expect everyone to come to class, and I furthermore expect everyone who comes to class to be alert and ready to participate. Participation also is mandatory. Though this requirement is most commonly met by making positive contributions to in-class discussion, it may also be met through e-mail communication or office visits that demonstrate a serious engagement with class material beyond the assigned reaction e-mails. Elements of class activity that may negatively impact your grade include disruptive behavior (e.g., engaging in side-conversations with others, ringing cell phones) or visibly obvious detachment from the class (e.g., reading outside material such as the newspaper or work for other classes, sleeping). Exceptionally strong class activity may raise your overall grade by one-third (e.g., if your final grade is a B, it may be raised to a B-plus), while poor class activity may lower your overall grade by at least one-third (e.g., from B to B-minus or lower).

If a situation of prolonged absence is unavoidable, please make sure to contact me about it. Be aware that I will request proper documentation should such a circumstance arise.


What follows is the plan for the semester as I see it now. Reading assignments should be completed before the class that theyre assigned. Note that this schedule is tentative; we may deviate from it as the semester progresses and class discussion takes on a life of its own. If changes are required, they will be announced in class.

If you have specific physical, psychiatric, or learning disabilities and require accommodations, please provide the appropriate documentation to me early in the semester so that your learning needs may be effectively met.

 Introductions and New Student Days

Reading: Mr. Wilsons Cabinet of Wonder
8/20:       9:30-12:00: introductions
                1:00-2:00: writing sample
                2:00-4:00: advising (group)
8/21:       9:00-12:00: class scavenger hunt
                1:30-2:30: survey
                2:30-5:30: advising (individual appointments)
8/22:       8:30-10:30: Group class (Richardson): Evaluating Truth Claims
                1:30-3:00: Part I: Inhaling the Spore (1-68)
                3:00-5:30: advising (individual appointments)
8/23:       9:00-12:00: Part II: Cerebral Growth (71-108)
                1:30-3:00: Mr. Wilsons Cabinet of Wonder continued
                3:00-5:30: advising (individual appointments)
8/24:       8:30: deadline for registration cards
                9:00: depart for day trip in Milwaukee
8/25:       8:00-12:30: community outreach projects (independent)
                3:15-5:00: distribution of schedule confirmation sheets, schedule adjustment planning (if needed)
8/28:       9:45: meet for Registration Day (if needed)
                10:00-10:15: registration (if needed), turn in signed registration forms
                11:00-12:00: turn in signed registration forms (students with no schedule changes)
                3:45: meet in Chapin Quad for Convocation @ 4:00               


Reading: selections from The Problem of Evil: A Reader
8/29:       Seneca, On Providence (19-22)
                Epictetus, Encheiridion (23-27)
                Sextus Empiricus, God (35-37)
                Lactantius, The Wrath of God (46-52)
8/31:       Augustine, City of God (53-61)
                Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy (69-74)
                Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica (95-102)
                Martin Luther, Prefaces to Job, Ecclestiases, and the Psalter (134-139)
9/5:         John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion (140-144)
                John Donne, Batter my heart, three-personed God (145)
                John Milton, Paradise Lost (155-162)
                Anne Conway, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy (174-178)
9/7:         G.W. Leibniz, Theodicy (191-200)               
                Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man (201-203)
                Voltaire, The Lisbon Earthquake:
                An Inquiry into the Maxim, Whatever is, is Right (204-209)
                Jean-Jacque Rousseau, Letter from J.-J. Rousseau to Mr. De Voltaire, August 18, 1756 (210-215)
9/12:       David Hume, Dialogues concerning Natural Religion (216-223)
                Thomas Robert Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population (237-240)
                John Keats, to George and Georgiana Keats, February 14 to May 8, 1819 (248-250)
                Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Tragic (256-261)
9/14:       Charles Darwin, to Asa Gray, May 22, 1860 (269-270)
                Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (277-282)
                William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (301-307)
                Thomas Hardy, Before Life and After (312)
9/19:       Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion (318-321)
                W.H. Auden, Musť•†de Beaux Arts (327-328)
                C.S. Lewis, Animal Pain (329-333)
                John Hick, The Vale of Soul-Making Theodicy (355-361)
9/21:       Continued
9/26:       Disaster movie: The Day After Tomorrow
                PAPER ONE DUE
9/28:       The science of The Day After Tomorrow: group presentation & discussion


Reading: Living High and Letting Die
10/3:       Ch. 1: Illusions of innocence: an introduction (3-23)
10/5:       Continued
                GROUP 1 PAPER DUE
10/10:    Ch. 2: Living high and letting die: a puzzle about behavior toward people in great need (24-61)
10/12:    Continued
10/17:    FALL BREAK
10/19:    FALL BREAK
10/24:    Ch. 6: Living high and letting die reconsidered: on the costs of a morally decent life (133-157)
10/26:    Disaster movie: Dantes Peak
                PAPER TWO DUE
10/31:    The science of Dantes Peak: group presentation & discussion


Reading: Catastrophe: Risk and Response
11/2:       Introduction (3-20)
               Ch. 1: What are the catastrophic risks, and how catastrophic are they? (21-91)
11/7:       Ch. 2: Why so little is being done about the catastrophic risks (92-138)
                GROUP 2 PAPER DUE
11/9:       Ch. 3: How to evaluate the catastrophic risks and the possible responses to them (139-198)
11/14:    Continued
11/16:    Disaster movie: The Core
11/21:    The science of The Core: group presentation & discussion

A contemporary disaster

Reading: Field Notes from a Catastrophe
11/28:    Part I: Nature (1-87)
                GROUP 3 PAPER DUE
11/30:    Part II: Man (91-187)
12/5:       Disaster movie: Deep Impact
                PAPER THREE DUE
12/7:       The science of Deep Impact: group presentation & discussion
12/12:    Class wrap-up/conclusions
                GROUP 4 PAPER DUE