- Last weekend, I made a bookcase. To begin with, I went and bought various pieces of wood and several screws. Then I screwed the pieces of wood together. In doing so, I created something new: my bookcase. And this bookcase is made up of the pieces of wood and the screws. In other words, they’re parts of it.
- It seems that many of the assertions we make when we’re not doing philosophy imply that there are things that have parts. We think that there are bookcases, and that lots of them have wooden parts. There are many more examples. For instance, we think that there are houses, and that they have bricks among their parts; we think that there are bicycles, and that they have wheels and handlebars among their parts.
- Things that have parts are philosophically puzzling. Let me briefly explain just one of the difficulties they raise. If I take a shelf away from my bookcase and replace it with a new one, I still have the same bookcase. But suppose I replace each of the pieces of wood and each of the screws, carefully storing the original parts in my shed. And suppose further that, after twenty years, I come across this useful collection and put them together into a bookcase. Which is the bookcase that I started off with? The bookcase made of the original parts? Or the bookcase made of their replacements1?
- There are many different ways of responding to puzzles such as this. My purpose here is to discuss a particularly simple response: that of denying that anything has parts. The doctrine that nothing has parts is called nihilism2. It is easy to see how nihilism deals with the bookcase puzzle. If there never was anything made up of the pieces of wood and the screws, then there can be no sensible debate about its identity. To a close approximation, this is the response that Peter Van Inwagen favours. Actually, van Inwagen thinks that living organisms have parts, but he denies that anything else does. For ease of exposition, I’ll ignore what van Inwagen says about organisms and treat him as a nihilist. Nothing will be lost, apart from a great deal of tedious qualification.
- I should stress that I am not arguing that van Inwagen’s response to the puzzles is ultimately the best one; although I think van Inwagen’s view demands to be taken seriously, I am not volunteering to defend it against all comers. Rather, my interest here is in an objection to van Inwagen’s view which alleges that it is self-contradictory. I’ll set out this objection in §3. Van Inwagen responds by claiming that certain sentences are context-sensitive: they have different truth-conditions in the context of philosophical discussions about ontology than they do in more ordinary contexts (§3). This claim is the focus of my discussion. I point out that it is problematic (§6), and I provide an alternative response to the threat of contradiction, which (I argue) is preferable to van Inwagen’s (§7). I defend this from two objections (§§8, 9). Along the way, I defend van Inwagen from an attack launched by Trenton Merricks (§§4, 7). But, first, I must set out van Inwagen’s views.
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