Material Beings: Preface
Van Inwagen (Peter)
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  1. The theory of material things presented in this book has seemed to many of the philosophers who have read the book in manuscript to be a very strange one. This reaction seems to be based on a single consequence of the theory: that there are no tables or chairs or any other visible objects except living organisms. Let us call this consequence of the theory "the Denial". It is the Denial that evokes what David Lewis (who knows them well) has called the incredulous stares. The first thing I want to do in this Preface is to make clear the nature of the Denial — of my denial that there are any of the things the medievals called "substances existing by art" (tables, statues, houses) or "substances existing by accident" (sticks, stones, severed limbs). I want to do this because, or so I judge, all the attempts I have heard at articulations of the incredulity behind the stares involve misrepresentations of the Denial. No doubt many philosophers who understand the Denial perfectly will find it incredible, but I prefer informed incredulity to uninformed incredulity. I have gone into the nature of the Denial very carefully in Section1 10, but what I have said there seems to have escaped the attention of many readers of the manuscript. I fear that it is also likely to escape the attention of many readers of the book. I propose, therefore, to try to attract attention to the content of Section 10 by giving a brief exposition of it here at the very beginning of the book.
  2. The key to understanding the Denial is an analogy2: My denial that there are tables and chairs should be understood by analogy to Copernicus' denial that the sun moves.
  3. Here is a brief sketch of this analogy, which is developed systematically in Section 10 and extended and applied in incidental passages in the succeeding sections. I say (A); imagine Copernicus saying (B):
    • (A) Non-philosophers, people immersed in the business of ordinary life, hardly ever say things like "There are chairs." But they do say things like “Some of her chairs are very good nineteenth-century copies of Chippendales." My position is that the proposition that someone who had no interest in metaphysics might express by uttering or writing the latter sentence in ordinary circumstances is consistent with the proposition that I, when I am talking or writing about metaphysics, express by uttering or writing the sentence 'There are no chairs'.
    • (B) Non-astronomers, people immersed in the business of ordinary life, hardly ever say things like "The sun moves." But they do say things like "It was cooler in the garden after the sun had moved behind the elms." My position is that the proposition that someone who had no interest in astronomy might express by uttering or writing the latter sentence in ordinary circumstances is consistent with the proposition that I, when I am talking or writing about astronomy, express by uttering or writing the sentence 'The sun does not move'.
    I will not develop this analogy here. But I would ask readers who object to the Denial to attempt, first, to articulate their objections with care, and, secondly, to try to transform these objections — using the contrasted theses (A) and (B) above as a model for the transformation — into objections to the Copernican denial that the sun moves. Since (I believe it will transpire) the objections that result from this exercise will not render the Copernican denial implausible, I would ask the critics of the Denial to explain why their objections to that thesis nevertheless render it implausible. This, I suppose, amounts to a request for an argument to show that the Denial and Copernicus' denial that the sun moves differ in some way that diminishes the force of my analogy. I do not make this request as an expression of a complacent confidence that any forthcoming argument must be a bad one. I make this request because I think that such arguments, if they can be given, will be very helpful in evaluating objections to the Denial.
  4. Having completed the first task that I want to accomplish in this Preface, I now will explain what has led me to a theory that has such an odd consequence. What is it that leads me to accept a theory that commits me to the Denial? I have come to hold the theory presented in this book because it is a sort of vector sum or resultant of a great many of my metaphysical convictions. This metaphor can be pressed a bit. One might know a lot, even all there is to know, about the forces acting on a body and still not know how that body will move — not till one has calculated the direction and magnitude of the sum of those forces. I want now to lay out the metaphysical convictions whose "vector sum" has determined the final direction my theorizing has taken. (One aspect of the "vector sum" metaphor needs qualification. A set of vectors has a unique sum. But it may well be that there is more than one theory that is consistent with my metaphysical convictions. It might be better to view my convictions not as "forces" but as "constraints." The theory presented in the book should be viewed from that perspective as a theory that satisfies those constraints; the only one I am aware of at present, and, in all probability, the one I should find most attractive if others should come to light.) Some of these convictions will turn up in various places in the book as premises of arguments; others are implicit in the way I present arguments, examples, and analogies, and, perhaps, implicit in what I do not do, paths I do not explore. Here I attempt to isolate them and present them in systematic order. It would not be accurate to say that all ten of the "convictions" that I am about to record are unargued-for presuppositions of the book. Some of them I argue for in the body of the book, and one of them — number (9), anti-conventionalism — I present a rather lengthy argument for here. It would be better to say that they are propositions that I should have accepted even if I had been able to think of no arguments for them. But even this careful generalization is not exactly right, for my faith in one of these propositions is not as robust as it once was. I touch on my recent tendency to apostasy3 in the next paragraph.
Van Inwagen’s Ten Presuppositions4
  1. In this book I presuppose a "classical" or "absolute" view of the identity relation. Some of the central arguments of the book would have quite large holes in them if, for example, the following were possible: x and y are both persons and both living organisms, but x and y are the same organism and different persons. To my chagrin, however, while I was engaged in making a long series of revisions of the first draft, I acquired — owing to reflection on matters quite unrelated5 to the metaphysics of material objects — a certain sympathy with the idea of "relative identity." But not everything can be discussed in one book, and I have done almost nothing to soften the stern "classical" line on identity that I unreflectively took when writing the first draft. (In Section 16, I have very briefly indicated how an allegiance to relative identity might affect one's perspective on certain matters.) There is, after all, so much to be said for the classical or "absolute" view of identity that it seems a reasonable candidate for a view that can be presupposed without argument. The reader who is committed to a "relative" view of identity may regard the conclusions of this book as hypothetical: given that we accept the classical view of identity as one of the constraints on our theorizing about material things, our theories will have such-and-such a character.
  2. Material things endure through time and (typically) change with the passage of time. They are not extended in time. "Temporal extent" is not one of the dimensions that figure in determining the size of an object. People and cats and whatever other things there are that endure and change are three-dimensional objects. (Or, at any rate, they have only as many dimensions as space has. I don't mean to quarrel with the "super-string" theorists who postulate nine spatial dimensions.) And this is not to say that they are three-dimensional "slices" of four-dimensional objects, for that would imply that the cat sleeping here today and the cat that slept here yesterday are numerically distinct objects (albeit they are "genidentical") — but today's cat and yesterday's cat are one and the same. I do not object to the relativistic reification of "space-time" as a physically real four-dimensional continuum. But I insist that distinct regions of space-time are in some cases "occupied" by numerically the same three-dimensional object. (I have developed this idea in "Four-Dimensional Objects," Nous 24 [1990]: 245-556.) The original plan of this book included an appendix devoted to the case against the thesis that people and cats and such are four-dimensional objects, extended in time as well as in space. Owing to considerations of both time and space, however, I have had to abandon this plan. Again, those who are committed to the thesis whose falsity I presuppose (in this case "four-dimensionalism") may regard the conclusions of the book as hypothetical: given that we accept "three-dimensionalism" as one of the constraints on our theorizing about material things, our theories will have such-and-such a character.
  3. The book adheres to standard logic as an ideal. Considerations having to do with the vagueness of material things will force us in the final sections of the book to accept certain revisions7 of standard logic. But I have not regarded this unfortunate consequence of the vagueness of material things as providing me with a license to abandon (say) the Principle of the Transitivity of Identity whenever that might help with the problem at hand. I have tried to construct a theory that violates the constraints of standard logic only in extreme cases; and I have regarded it as important to construct a theory according to which our everyday adventures (as opposed to bizarre8 adventures imagined by a philosopher or a science-fiction writer) do not involve such extreme cases and thus conform to the requirements of standard logic. I believe that, as a physical theory ought not to tell us that we cannot employ Euclidean geometry when we are designing suspension bridges, so9 a metaphysical theory ought not to tell us that we cannot employ standard logic when we reason about the commonplace.
  4. I have not adopted a counterpart-theoretical understanding of modal statements about individuals — not even to deal with extreme cases. The reason I have not done this is that, when you come right down to it, I simply do not like10 counterpart theory. But this constraint, unlike most of the other constraints in the list I am giving, could be abandoned without requiring much revision of what is said in most of the book. And it would certainly make matters much simpler: most of the worries expressed in Section 14 about "counterfactual identity" would simply disappear, and the few positive things I have been able to say about counterfactual identity could be "built into" the similarity measure that defines the counterpart relation. Anyone who is comfortable with counterpart theory should feel free to produce his own counterpart-theoretical version of my theses about counterfactual identity.
  5. I assume in this book that matter is ultimately particulate. I assume that every material thing is composed of things that have no proper parts: "elementary particles" or "mereological atoms" or "metaphysical simples." I suppose that questions about whether two objects are composed of or constituted by the same "quantity" or "parcel" of matter — or "the same matter" tout court — make sense only in the case of composite objects, and that in that case these questions must be understood as asking whether the composite objects are composed of the same ultimate parts. Thus11, in my view, there is no notion of sameness of matter that is prior to or independent of the notion of sameness of objects.
  6. I suppose that two objects cannot12 be composed of exactly the same (proper) parts at the same time. Some philosophers maintain that a man and "his body" (or a gold statue and "the gold of which it is made") are numerically distinct objects that occupy the same space at the same time. But this must entail that the atoms that compose the man (the statue) simultaneously compose a distinct object, the body (the gold). I must therefore reject their position.
  7. It is my conviction that mental predicates (like 'is in pain', or 'is thinking of Vienna') require a subject. In the case of any particular episode of thought or sensation, there must be a thing, one thing, that is doing the thinking and feeling. In order to suppose that the historian who writes "The Paston family was in the ascendancy throughout the sixteenth century" thereby asserts a truth, one need not (though one may) regard 'the Paston family' as the name of a certain object13 — as it may be, the mereological sum of all the Pastons. One may, and this seems to be an eminently reasonable position, say instead that our historian's assertion is best understood (by one who shares the preoccupations of the metaphysician) as a thesis about the interconnected and cooperative, but ultimately individual, activities and adventures of the several Pastons. Thus — one may say — although the predicate 'was (a family that was) in the ascendancy throughout the sixteenth century' is grammatically singular, one need not take this feature of its grammar as a guide in serious studies of what there is. My position is that matters are quite otherwise with predicates like 'is thinking of Vienna' and 'is in pain'. The facts expressed by concatenating such predicates with singular terms — and the sentences so constructed often do express facts — must be taken at face value: their grammatically singular subject and grammatically singular predicate get the ontology of thought and sensation right. When I say to my students, "Descartes invented analytical geometry," what I have told them cannot be true unless 'Descartes' denotes an object (the same object that Descartes called 'moi' and 'ego') and that object had the property of having invented analytical geometry. What I have told them, moreover, is true, is as strictly and literally true as any assertion that has ever been made.
    • I suppose that such objects — Descartes, you, I — are material objects, in the sense that they are ultimately composed entirely of quarks and electrons. They are, moreover, a very special sort of material object. They are not brains or cerebral hemispheres. They are living animals; being human animals, they are things shaped roughly like statues of human beings. (When Descartes used the words 'moi' and 'ego' he was referring malgre lui to a living animal, a biological organism. When Hume looked within himself and failed to find himself, he was looking in the wrong place: like everyone else, he could see himself with his eyes open.) It follows from this, and from well-known facts about animals, that it is possible for a material object to be composed of different elementary particles at different times. "Mereological essentialism" is therefore false.
    • Descartes and his fellow human beings are not immaterial things, as he and Plato imagined. And they are certainly not, as some philosophers seem to think (but I have a hard time believing that this can really be what they mean), wholly abstract objects like computer programs. While there are, or so I believe, immaterial persons — God, say, or the Archangel Michael — that is just not what we human persons are. And there are no abstract, program-like persons. That idea makes no more sense than the idea of an abstract, program-like waterfall or hydraulic jack.
    • I suppose that what there is, is never a matter of stipulation or convention. (This conviction would seem to entail that I am a "realist" in at least one sense of that versatile word.) I do not, of course, deny that one can appropriate or invent a word or phrase and stipulate a meaning for it — thereby establishing a convention among those who agree to use that word or phrase in the sense one has stipulated, a convention that will have the consequence that certain existential sentences express truths. I can stipulate that, or adopt the convention that, I shall call something a "dwod" if it is either a dog or a squid. And I can go on to say (correctly) that there are dwods; but this thing that I can go on to say is correct only because there are animals of at least one of the kinds dog and squid. Whether there are dogs or squid, however, is not a matter that can be settled by establishing conventions: the conventions governing the use of 'dog' and 'squid' were established by our ancestors and we are more or less stuck with them; more to the point, if our ancestors had, for some reason, not established these conventions, there would still be dogs and squid.
    • Convention regulates behavior, including linguistic behavior, and regulating behavior has no ontological implications beyond implying the existence of regularities in behavior. By establishing a convention, I bring it about that there exists a convention having certain features, and there's an end on't. But many able philosophers do not see matters this way. Consider, for example, the following passage from a paper by Carl Ginet:
      But is it incoherent to suppose a type of material thing whose constitutive matter could completely change from one time to another in a nonpiecemeal fashion? Could I not introduce such a type of material thing by definition? I might stipulate that a monewment is a material object performing the same sort of function as a monument (commemorating something) and such that monewment x at t2 is the same monewment as monewment y at t1, if the matter constituting y at t1 were subsequently destroyed all at once and thereafter new matter of pretty much the same sort and shape were put in the same place in order to restore the commemorating in the same fashion of whatever it was that monewment y at t1 commemorated.
      Perhaps Ginet has a coherent idea here and I have failed to understand it; but it seems to me that the thesis of this passage is at best extremely elusive, and that the locus of the trouble is the words 'introduce such a type of material thing by definition'. One can, of course, stipulate that the word 'monewment' is to apply to objects having features A, B, and C. But that stipulation will not ensure that the neologism actually applies to anything; that, by definition, will occur just in the case that something has the properties A, B, and C — and making a stipulation does not normally ensure that anything has the properties that one mentions in the course of making it. (Not normally: one could, of course, stipulate that a 'stipulaytion' will be any stipulation that contains the quotation-name of a neologism that is pronounced the same as some already-existing word.) Let us always remember Abraham Lincoln's undeservedly neglected riddle: How many legs has a dog got if you call a tail a leg? The answer, said Lincoln, and he was right, is four, because calling a tail a leg doesn't make it one.
    • Ginet's "monewment" example and the argument in which it figures have been carefully analyzed by Alvin Plantinga (in the "Replies" section of the book in which Ginet's paper is printed), and Plantinga's analysis is, in my view, correct. I have nothing to add to what he says about the "monewment" example, but I want to make some general remarks about the "stipulationist" point of view that Ginet's use of this example illustrates.
    • Suppose that the world consists of certain mereological atoms (things without proper parts) and such other things as have these as their ultimate parts. "Such other things" — but what other things? Could there be any room for stipulation or convention here? Suppose that X, Y, and Z are three atoms. Can we stipulate that or establish a convention that or make it true by definition that there is an object that has X, Y, and Z (and no other atoms) as parts? Let us ask what one might actually say in order to accomplish something along these lines.
    • Let us begin with the most straightforward candidate. One might say, "I hereby stipulate that there exists an object that has X, Y, Z, and no other atoms as parts." But then one might say, "I hereby stipulate that a rich aunt has died and left me ten million dollars." Neither of these sentences makes any sense. One stipulates not facts but meanings for words. Of course, one could ignore the dictionary meanings of individual words like 'rich' and 'aunt' and stipulate that the complex predicate 'has been left ten million dollars by a rich aunt' is to have the same meaning as some predicate that one satisfies. And one could stipulate that the predicate 'is a thing that has X, Y, Z, and no other atoms as parts' is to have the same meaning as some predicate that is satisfied; for good measure, some predicate that is satisfied uniquely if and only if X, Y, and Z exist, and is otherwise not satisfied — perhaps 'is identical with X, and such that Y and Z exist'. The trouble with this strategy is that the individual words 'parts' and 'has' (like 'rich' and 'aunt') already have meanings, and these meanings have sufficient content to ensure that anything that has X, Y, Z, and no other atoms as parts will have a certain rather comprehensive set of properties. If it happens that nothing has that set of properties, then any stipulation to the effect that 'is a thing that has X, Y, Z and no other atoms as parts' is to have the same meaning as some specified predicate (a predicate that is satisfied) will have the following consequence: 'is a thing that has X, Y, Z, and no other atoms as parts' will be satisfied by something that has properties that would not belong to a thing that had X, Y, Z, and no other atoms as parts. Suppose, for example, that the antecedent meanings of 'parts' and 'has' are such as to ensure that whatever satisfies the complex predicate 'is a thing that .. will have the properties A, B, and C. (To take a wholly uncontroversial example, A might be "has X, Y, and Z as parts.") And suppose that nothing has A, B, and C. Suppose we make the stipulation suggested above: our predicate is to mean 'is identical with X, and such that Y and Z exist'. Then 'is a thing that has X, Y, Z, and no other atoms as parts' will apply to an object of which Y and Z are not parts. Our first attempt to imagine what one might say in order to "stipulate that there is an object that has X, Y, Z, and no other atoms as parts" would therefore seem to be a failure.
    • Let us make a second attempt. One might say, "I hereby stipulate that 'Alfred' will name the object that has X, Y, Z, and no other atoms as parts " And one might say, "I hereby stipulate that 'Bertha' will name the rich aunt who has died and left me ten million dollars."
    • Let us make a third attempt. One might say, "Without prejudice to the question whether there really is an object that has X, Y, Z, and no other atoms as parts, I propose to talk and act as if there were: I will talk and act as if, for any time at which X, Y, and Z all exist, there were then an object which individually occupied the region of space these three atoms jointly occupied, and which then had as its mass the sum of the masses they had; and I will talk and act as if, for any t1 and t2 at which X, Y, and Z all exist, the object whose spatial extent and mass at t1 were, in the way I have described, determined by the spatial extents and masses of X, Y, and Z at t1 was the same object as the one whose spatial extent and mass at t2 were determined by the spatial extents and masses of X, Y, and Z at t2.” (In saying these words one would be making a resolution, and not stating a definition or making a stipulation. But I suppose one could be said to be establishing a convention.) And one might say, "Without prejudice to the question whether I really have inherited ten million dollars from a rich aunt, I propose to talk and act as if I had: I will write checks for vast amounts...:'
    • It may be that stipulations about parts and wholes are, in some way that undermines my materteral analogies, unlike stipulations about aunts and legacies. But I confess that I don't see what the difference might be.
    • I can think of nothing else that one might say if it were one's intention to "stipulate that" or "establish a convention that" or "make it true by definition that" there was an object that had X, Y, Z, and no other atoms as parts. But if these phrases make sense, then, one would suppose, there would be something one could say to effect the ends these phrases are supposed by their users to describe. I tentatively conclude that there are no such ends and that these phrases do not make sense.
    • Before leaving the topic of "defining things into existence" (a phrase which one usually encounters in dismissive accounts of the ontological argument, but which seems at least equally appropriate in the present context), I want to describe a procedure that is not a case of "introducing a type of material thing by definition" (or "by stipulation" or "by establishing a convention"). I think that some philosophers may have had something like this procedure in mind when they have used phrases like the ones I have put in scare-quotes.
    • Suppose there is a philosopher — call him Q — who believes that every "filled region of space-time" is occupied by a material object and that every material object occupies a filled region of space-time. (Q may, or may not, hold the further view that in this setting 'is occupied by' and 'occupies' mean 'is identical with'.) These 'material objects" are, of course, four-dimensional objects of the kind deprecated in (2) above. Three-dimensional material objects, insofar as there are such things, are instantaneous "slices" of four-dimensional material objects. It is obvious that Q believes in a great many material things. Most of them will be too complex for any finite being to be aware of or to describe. Of the infinitesimal residue that people like us could perceive or form a conception of, most will be too widely scattered and too involuted to be of any practical, or even theoretical, interest to us. But changes in our practical and theoretical interests might compel us to pay attention to objects that we had previously not even thought about. One way to pay attention to an object is to name it. One way to pay attention to a class of objects is to devise a general term that has that class as its extension. Names and general terms come to exist (sounds or marks become names or general terms) by means of definition, stipulation, or the establishment of convention. If Ginet subscribed to Q's ontology of the material world, he could introduce the word 'monewment' into his discourse in words not entirely unlike the words of the passage I have quoted. 'Monewment' would then be a general term whose extension was a certain class of filled regions of space-time (or a certain class of occupants of filled regions of space-time). But this would not be a case of "introducing a type of material thing by definition," whatever exactly that means. It is, if Q is right, simply a case of providing a general term to cover a class of material objects whose members are "already there" But suppose Q is not right. Suppose they are not already there. Suppose Q's general ontology of the material world is wrong. Or, in order to avoid large ontological questions, let us simply consider the fact that there are those who don't accept Q's ontology. Suppose a philosopher called Carl-prime attempts to introduce the word 'monewment' into a conversation he is having with me — for I am one of those philosophers who do not accept Q's general ontology of the material world — as a general term covering a certain class of items belonging to Q's ontology. I shall have to interrupt him and say something like "Hold on — I don't think that there are any objects having the right properties to fall under the general term 'monewment' as you have explained it." At this point, if Carl-prime wants the conversation (eventually) to proceed on the course he has anticipated, he will have to digress and attempt to get me to accept Q's general ontology of the material world. And this, I believe, brings the distinction between Ginet and Carl-prime into high relief. I would not expect Ginet to reply to my interruption by defending a general thesis about what there is, Q's or any other. I would expect Ginet to reply by saying something along the lines of "You don't understand — I'm introducing such objects by definition." And this I certainly don't understand. It is only when one has some sort of grip on what exists independently of convention that one can establish conventions that regulate one's conceptual dealings with what exists. Lines and meridians are "drawn" on the globe by convention to enable navigators and cartographers to deal with the globe. But the globe itself is there, antecedently to any convention; if it weren't, there'd be nothing to draw the lines on.
    • This point applies a fortiori to the philosopher who proposes to introduce by definition not merely a type of object but a general theory of what there is. Suppose, for example, that someone were to say that he was "introducing" Q's ontology of the material world "by definition" or that he was adopting a convention to the effect that things are as Q says. I should regard this as a perfectly maddening statement. I think I should reply by saying that I had adopted a convention to the effect that one couldn't introduce Q's ontology by adopting a convention, and let it go at that. But, really, no such retaliatory convention is needed, for it makes no sense to talk of "introducing" Q's ontology or any other by adopting a convention. Q's ontology is a substantive philosophical theory; it entails comprehensive and intransigent theses about what exists. If, moreover, we propose to identify cows (say) with certain of the items in Q's universe, it entails comprehensive and intransigent theses about cows. The business of this book is to investigate competing ontologies of this comprehensive sort and to try to decide which of them to accept.
    • Before leaving this topic, I will note that my use of Q's theory has been merely illustrative. Many theories of the material world are like Q's theory in that they endorse some very general and very powerful principles about what material things there are. Any such theory will assert the existence of material objects that, at any given moment, we have no "use" for. And it is generally imaginable that we should come to recognize a need to refer to sorts of objects that we have not hitherto had any use for. If our ontology tells us that there are no objects of kinds that would satisfy our newly recognized needs, we have a prima facie reason for trying to devise a new ontology. If, however, our ontology tells us that there are indeed objects that meet our needs (or if it allows us to construct them, as the unfortunate idiom has it), we can establish conventions that enable us to recognize them — in the sense of enabling us to refer to them by short, handy terms like 'monewment', as opposed to predicates that take half a page to write out. This, I believe, is the only coherently specifiable procedure that could possibly be referred to by phrases like 'introduce objects of such-and-such a kind by definition' or 'establish a convention that there exist objects of such-and-such a kind'. But these phrases are not correct descriptions of that procedure, or, at best, they are very misleading descriptions of it. We should therefore avoid them. (After reading the foregoing, Carl Ginet has informed me that his own view is that of "Carl-prime" and not that of "Ginet." Such are the hazards of interpreting the writings of a living philosopher! Unfortunately, I learned of my mistake too late to do anything more about it than add this brief acknowledgment of its existence. Let the reader regard the "Ginet" of the preceding pages as an imaginary philosopher who wrote the same words as Ginet and who meant by them what I thought Ginet meant.)
    • Whether certain objects add up to or compose some larger object does not depend on anything besides the spatial and causal relations they bear to one another. If, for example, someone wants to know whether the bricks in a certain brickyard make up a composite object, he need not attend to anything outside the brickyard, for no information gathered from that quarter could possibly be relevant to his question. An important special case of this general principle is the following: he need not attend to the beliefs, attitudes, or interests of any person outside the brickyard. (Or inside it, for that matter. The brickyard is meant to define an easily visualizable region of space that contains certain bricks, but the essential point I want to make is that nothing outside any region of space that contains the bricks is relevant to the question whether they compose anything. Every person will, of course, be outside some region that includes the bricks.) A similar point, but it is harder to state, applies to identity across time. If object A is at place x at t1, and if object B is at place y at t2, then nothing besides the causal processes or chains of events that connect what is going on at x at t1 with what is going on at y at t2 is relevant to the question whether A and B are the same object. "Closest Continuer" or "Best Candidate" theories of identity across time provide examples of theories that violate this principle. Closest Continuer theories permit cases of the following description: (1) the man at x at t1 and the man at y at t2 are the same man, but (2) there is a possible world W in which the man at x at t1 is the man who is actually at x at t1; and the man at y at t2 in W is descriptively identical with the man who is actually at y at t2; and the causal processes or chains of events that link what is going on at x at t1 in W with what is going on at y at t2 in W are the actual ones; and the man at x at t1 in W is not the man at y at t2 in W. Such a case could arise if in W (and not in the actual world) there is a man — perhaps on another continent — who is a better candidate for being the "continuer" of the man at x at t1 than is the man at y at t2. The idea of a "better candidate" is, moreover, to be spelled out partly in terms of the interests of certain citizens of W: as it may be, the man who is at y at t2, his "rival," and the friends, relations, and creditors of the man who was at x at t1. The essential idea is that the "continuer" of a given person at a given future time will be the best candidate (or perhaps the best candidate on some slate that contains candidates that satisfy some minimal set of requirements) for that office. In the actual world the man at y at t2 is the best candidate for "continuer of the man at x at t1" and thus is his continuer, is he; but the descriptively identical man at y at t2 in W is not chosen for that office since there is, in W, a better man for the job.
    • We should note that the principle I am now describing is not equivalent to the denial of the "conventionalism" that was rejected in (9). If someone holds that "external" factors are relevant to the identity of an object through time, or to its existence at a time, this position would not seem to commit him to the position that it is a matter of convention whether this is so, or to the position that the "external" factors affecting the identity of an object through time, or its existence at a time, might be modified by a change in the prevailing conventions.
    • We should also note that the principle I am endorsing does not entail that "internal" spatial or causal factors are relevant to the identity of an object across time or its existence at a time. The principle entails only that if any spatial or causal factors are relevant to these things, then these factors must be "internal." Consider, for example, the position that the members of any set of atoms whatever must compose an object — and must always compose the same object — no matter how widely those atoms may be separated and no matter what causal relations (even none at all) they may bear to one another. This position entails that spatial and causal factors are irrelevant to questions of existence and identity. It is therefore consistent with our "internalist" principle, since it entails that external spatial and causal factors are irrelevant to questions of existence and identity.
  1. This completes the promised list of constraints. The body of this book consists of an attempt to construct a theory of material objects that is consistent with these ten constraints. (Cutting the list off at this point is somewhat arbitrary. I have recently read a paper by a philosopher who believes that many objects can be identical with one object — for example, that one forest can be identical with many trees. This idea makes no sense to me, and I might add its rejection to my list of constraints. But one must make an end somewhere.) If my ten constraints are considered individually, it will be seen that each of them has its adherents. But no other philosopher, I believe, subscribes to all ten of them. It is for this reason that the argument of the book makes only incidental reference to the writings of many philosophers who have written about material objects and their parts. I very much admire the work14 on the ontology of the material world that has been produced by such philosophers as Richard Cartwright, Roderick Chisholm, Mark Heller, Eli Hirsch, Mark Johnston, Derek Parfit, W. V. Quine, Nathan Salmon, Peter Simons, Ernest Sosa, Judith Jarvis Thomson, James Van Cleve, Samuel C. Wheeler III, and David Wiggins. Their thinking on these matters has been (and continues to be) serious, imaginative, and able. But none of them has accepted the same system of constraints as I, and their work has, as a consequence, taken them in directions in which I cannot follow. In almost every case, in fact, if you set a paper or book by one of these philosophers alongside the present book, you will see that the two works diverge almost immediately. Each of the works goes in a direction permitted by the constraints the author accepts, and my constraints, at least, allow me little latitude. (Of course, many of the authors I have mentioned operate under constraints that I am free from: "mereological essentialism," for example. From their point of view, therefore, I almost immediately set off in a direction in which they cannot follow.) One's theorizing about material objects seems to be extraordinarily sensitive to the system of constraints one adopts: differing systems of constraints almost always lead to immediate divergence. As a result, most of what is said in this book can be of little use to someone who accepts different constraints. And, sadly, the reverse is true. Most of what is said on the topic of material objects by a philosopher who believes that objects are extended in time as well as in space, or that the same atoms can simultaneously compose two material objects, or that human persons do not strictly persist through time, or that human persons are immaterial substances, can be of no use to me in my theorizing — not unless it converts me; but then I must scrap almost all of my work and start over. A philosopher who accepts a different system of constraints will see no problems where I see only problems and will see only problems where I see no problems. He will regard my book as a sustained attempt to solve problems that do not exist and will charge it with failing to consider the real problems or with "solving" them by theft where he has toiled honestly. And I, sadly, will regard his book the same way.
  2. Nevertheless, his book and mine are in competition. Each of us lays his work before the same philosophical public, who must make their own judgments about who has the better theory.
  3. What I have said does not apply only to living philosophers. The philosopher who comes closest to sharing my constraints is Aristotle. The only one of them he clearly rejects is (5) — that matter is ultimately particulate. But it is difficult to translate Aristotle's thought into the idiom of twentieth-century analytical philosophy, and one risks anachronism if one tries. I will point out, however, that the theory of individual substances that Montgomery Furth finds in Metaphysics (see his "Trans-temporal Stability in Aristotelian Substances," Journal of Philosophy 75 [19781: 624-4615) seems to me to be extraordinarily like the theory of material objects presented in this book — and this despite Aristotle's rejection, and my espousal, of atomism.
  4. There are certain points of contact between what John Locke says about living organisms and what I say about them. I discuss these points of contact in Section 14. Jonathan Bennett has pointed out to me that the questions I have raised concerning the factors that bind parts together to form a whole had been raised by Leibniz in his correspondence with Arnauld. (See Leibniz's letter of 28 November - 8 December 1686, and particularly his discussion of the first five of the seven objections that Arnauld had raised against the idea that the soul is the "substantial form" of the body.) I cannot accept Leibniz's answer to the question, What are the factors that bind parts together to form a whole? but his way of posing this question is characteristically clear and beautiful. If it were not so readily available, I would include it in this book as an appendix.
  5. Three of the nineteen sections of this book (4, 5, and 7) contain some rather difficult material that is riot necessary to the main thread of the argument. Readers who wish to do so may skip them without fear of losing their way. I have marked these sections with asterisks.
  6. Very little of the material in the book has appeared in any other form. Parts of Sections 1 through 8 are contained in "When Are Objects Parts?" (Philosophical Perspectives 1 [19871: 21-4716). A part of Section 18 has appeared as "How to Reason about Vague Objects," Philosophical Topics 16, no. 1 (1988): 255-84. I thank the editors of these journals for the permission to reprint this material.
  7. The first draft of the book was written while I held a Research Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1983-84. I am very grateful to the Endowment for its generous support.
  8. Many philosophers have given me the benefit of their criticism. I want to single out five people for special thanks. Jonathan Bennett convinced me that my discussion of physical bonding in Section 6 was incomplete because it did not consider the possibility that I now examine in Section 7. Frances Howard, an assiduous reader of drafts of this book, has brought to my attention more invalid arguments, unclear transitions of thought, and puzzling statements than I care to dwell on. David Lewis made me see clearly that if the theory presented in this book is correct, then existence and identity must be vague. Nathan Salmon gave me the benefit of extensive comments on the paper ("How to Reason about Vague Objects") on which Section 18 is based. Peter Unger's "nihilistic" arguments (and my correspondence and conversation with him) have had a deep influence on almost every section of the book. If this is a good book, it would have been much less good without their help; if it is a bad book, it would have been far worse.


Annotated printout filed in "Various - Papers on Identity Boxes: Vol 18 (T-V)".

In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 1: Peter Van Inwagen (hereafter PVI) uniformly refers in this Preface to (what seem to be) Chapters as Sections.

Footnote 2: Footnote 3: The apostasy is sympathy for Relative Identity (see Click here for Note). As Relative Identity is widely seen to be incoherent, this may indicate something unsound in PVI’s whole account.

Footnote 4: These are succinctly laid out in "Van Inwagen (Peter) - Précis of Material Beings". My own labels would be:- Footnote 5: What was the motivation for PVI’s heretical sympathies for Relative Identity?

Footnote 6: See "Van Inwagen (Peter) - Four-Dimensional Objects".

Footnote 7: Another retreat from standard logic. This is one of Williamson’s complaints, and the main motivator for his epistemic view. I need to read / review "Williamson (Timothy) - Vagueness". But, see "Cowles (David) - On Van Inwagen's Defense of Vague Identity", which might be quicker!

Footnote 8: Why should the “bizarreness" of a situation affect the logic?

Footnote 9: Another analogy – is this one valid?

Footnote 10: What are PVI’s reasons for disliking counterpart theory? I need to review modal logic to remind myself how it all works. I supposing reading / re-reading the following would be a good start:- Footnote 11: I didn’t understand this argument. I know PVI denies that random collections of particles constitute anything. He also denies that objects have undetached proper parts. So, for him, an object is immediately composed of particles. I’m suspicious of this premise, as it seems superficially to be atomism, but is probably much more.

Footnote 12: I don’t think I agree with this. It would be worth making a list of which philosophers allow two objects (of different sorts) to be co-located. Baker does – it’s the essence of her “constitution view” (Click here for Note). Olson probably doesn’t. Wiggins does (see "Wiggins (David) - On Being in the Same Place at the Same Time").

Footnote 13: What is PVI on about here? He starts of talking about the subjects of mental predicates, and then goes on about (scattered) objects.

Footnote 14: Footnote 15: See "Furth (Montgomery) - Transtemporal Stability in Aristotelian Substances".

Footnote 16: See "Van Inwagen (Peter) - When are Objects Parts?".

Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)

  1. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2017
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