Van Inwagen (Peter)
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Back Cover Blurb

  1. This core text introducing readers to the field of metaphysics is now revised and updated with a new chapter on being. In thoughtful and engaging prose, Peter van Inwagen examines three profound questions:
    1. What are the most general features of the world?
    2. Why is there a world? And,
    3. What is the place of human beings in the world?
  2. The third edition includes an entirely new chapter on ontology1. The new chapter presents a theory of the nature of being and proceeds to apply this theory to two problems of ontology:
    → The problem of non-existent objects and
    → The problem of universals2.
  3. Equally valuable as a textbook in a university course or an introduction to metaphysical thinking for the interested layperson, Metaphysics remains a fascinating book for a wide range of readers, from first-time students to the most sophisticated philosophers.
  4. Peter van Inwagen is John Cardinal O'Hara professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. A member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, he is the author of numerous books, including:-
    "Van Inwagen (Peter) - Ontology, Identity and Modality: Essays in metaphysics" and
    Christian Faith and the Problem of Evil.
Cover Affidavits
  1. "Peter van Inwagen's Metaphysics is a terrific upper division text — accessible, engaging, wide ranging, challenging, provocative. Chock-full of everyday examples that, upon analysis, reveal intriguing puzzles and perplexities, proposed solutions to which are subject to imaginative and rigorous argument, characteristic of this gifted philosopher and outstanding metaphysician.”
    Jonathan Adler, Brooklyn College
  2. ”In my judgment, Peter van Inwagen has authored the single best introductory text in metaphysics. On display throughout one finds examples of the remarkable insights and masterful style that have earned him a well-deserved place among our finest metaphysicians. I know of no one more careful in the presentation of philosophical ideas than van Inwagen."
    Hud Hudson, Western Washington University
  3. "Peter van Inwagen's Metaphysics has long been one of the best introductions to contemporary metaphysics available and with this new edition has only gotten better. Exhibiting Professor van Inwagen's characteristic clarity and engaging style throughout, this volume is not only chock-full of stimulating arguments but also wonderfully accessible to students. I highly recommend it."
    Alan Rhoda, University of Notre Dame
  4. "This is a superb book — a sophisticated but very accessible introduction to the basic issues of metaphysics by one of the very best philosophers world-wide. Highly recommended!"
    John Martin Fischer, University of California, Riverside
      Preface to the Third Edition – ix
    1. "Van Inwagen (Peter) - Metaphysics: Introduction" – 1
    "Van Inwagen (Peter) - Metaphysics: Part One: The Way The World Is - Introduction" – 23
    1. "Van Inwagen (Peter) - Individuality" – 27
    2. "Van Inwagen (Peter) - Externality" – 53
    3. "Van Inwagen (Peter) - Temporality" – 71
    4. "Van Inwagen (Peter) - Objectivity" – 93
    "Van Inwagen (Peter) - Metaphysics: Part Two: Why The World Is - Introduction" – 109
    1. "Van Inwagen (Peter) - Necessary Being: The Ontological Argument" – 115
    2. "Van Inwagen (Peter) - Necessary Being: The Cosmological Argument" – 145
    "Van Inwagen (Peter) - Metaphysics: Part Three: The Inhabitants of the World - Introduction" – 169
    1. "Van Inwagen (Peter) - What Rational Beings Are There?" – 175
    2. "Van Inwagen (Peter) - The Place of Rational Beings in the World: Design and Purpose" – 187
    3. "Van Inwagen (Peter) - The Nature of Rational Beings: Dualism and Physicalism" – 209
    4. "Van Inwagen (Peter) - The Nature of Rational Beings: Dualism and Personal Identity" – 235
    5. "Van Inwagen (Peter) - The Powers of Rational Beings: Freedom of the Will" – 253
    6. "Van Inwagen (Peter) - Metaphysics: Concluding Meditation" – 273
    Coda: "Van Inwagen (Peter) - Being" – 277
    Bibliography – 315
    Index – 319

Preface to the Third Edition
  1. This book is an introduction to metaphysics that presupposes no prior acquaintance with philosophy. It can be used either as an introductory textbook, suitable for an upper-level undergraduate course in metaphysics (where it would probably be supplemented by "readings" chosen by the instructor), or as a book that the — I hope not mythical — "interested general reader" can pick up and read without guidance from an instructor. It is primarily as an aid to this interested general reader that I have included Suggestions for Further Reading at the end of each chapter (but one).
  2. It should be noted that this book is a "systematic" rather than an "historical" introduction to metaphysics. Although it contains discussions of arguments that have their origins in the works of various of the great philosophers, it does not pretend to present these arguments in a way that does scholarly justice to the form in which they were originally presented. And no attempt is made at a connected history of metaphysics.
  3. For the benefit of the instructor who is considering using the book as a text, I list the basic questions that the book addresses and some of the topics that are considered in the course of addressing those questions:
    • What is metaphysics?
      → Appearance and reality;
      → Which questions are metaphysical questions;
      → Comparison of the task and methods of metaphysics with those of science and theology;
      → Diagnoses of the failure of metaphysics to provide agreed-upon answers to any metaphysical questions, particularly diagnoses of Kant and the logical positivists.
    • Is there a plurality of things, or is there only one thing?
      → Arguments for monism, particularly those of Spinoza and Bradley;
      → The authority of mystical experiences.
    • Is there an external world, a world of things that exist independently of human thought and sensation?
      → Berkeley's arguments.
    • Is time real?
      → Russell's "token-reflexive” theory;
      → McTaggart's argument.
    • Is there such a thing as objective truth?
      → Realism and anti-realism.
    • Why is there something rather than nothing?
      → Necessary and contingent existence;
      → The ontological and cosmological arguments;
      → The Principle of Sufficient Reason;
      → Dependent and independent beings;
      → The relevance of scientific considerations to this question.
    • Why are there rational beings?
      → Design and purpose in nature;
      → Physical cosmology and "fine-tuning";
      → The teleological argument;
      → The hypothesis of a Designer vs. the "many-worlds" hypothesis.
    • Are we physical or non-physical beings?
      → Dualism and physicalism;
      → Arguments for and against dualism and for physicalism;
      → Type—type physicalism and token—token physicalism;
      → Personal identity.
    • Have we free will?
      → Determinism and indeterminism;
      → Free choice;
      → The apparent incompatibility of free choice with both determinism and indeterminism.
  4. In this third edition, a chapter on ontology3 has been added at the end of the book, as a "Coda." This chapter discusses the concepts of being and existence, and applies the conclusions reached in this discussion to two ontological problems:
    1. the problem of non-existent objects and
    2. the problem of universals4.


Westview; 3rd Revised Edition (7 Aug 2008)

"Van Inwagen (Peter) - Metaphysics: Introduction"

Source: Van Inwagen (Peter) - Metaphysics, Chapter 1

  1. A very gentle introduction to what “metaphysics” is: according to PvI: “the study of ultimate reality”. What are “reality” and “ultimate”. The difference between appearance and reality. Example of the earth – appearing to be stationary, but not being so in reality. Second example of solid objects being “mostly empty space”, but then “empty space” – the quantum vacuum – being “very densely populated”.
  2. So, is there a (nested) appearance behind every reality, or does the regression stop somewhere? Then, if there is a reality that is not also an appearance, then this ultimate reality is the subject-matter of metaphysics. Otherwise (like astrology) it has no subject matter. But PvI finds this hard to imagine1.
  3. PvI argues that it is incoherent to claim there is no ultimate reality because then “ultimate reality” would just be the fact that there is an endless sequence of appearances, and the belief is self-defeating2.
  4. PvI is quick to point out (effectively) the distinction between metaphysics and epistemology; while he has shown (to his satisfaction) that there is an ultimate reality – so metaphysics does have a subject-matter – this says nothing about whether we can know what that ultimate reality is.
  5. PvI’s term for this ultimate reality is “the World3”, the totality of “things” (including God, if there is one). He will use another term – “the universe” (say) for what exists outside of God.
  6. PvI has three main questions, which he takes to be the fundamental questions of metaphysics, and which are addressed in the book’s three Parts:-
    • Q1: What is the World like?
    • Q2: Why does the World exist?
    • Q3: What is the place of human beings in the World?
  7. To get a handle on what is meant by these questions, PvI devotes a couple of pages outlining a couple of straw-man4 answers.
  8. The Medieval View:
    • A1: The World consists of an eternal and immaterial God – unlimited in knowledge, power and goodness – and what he has made – both spirits and material things, which are limited, and were made by God sometime in the past, though there will always be things made by God.
    • A2: God necessarily exists, but everything else is contingent, made by his free choice, and is sustained in existence by him.
    • A3: Human beings were created by God with the function to love and serve him forever, though they have free choice whether they fulfil it. Human history reflects this failure of function.
  9. The Nineteenth-Century View:
    • A1: The World consists of matter – all that exists – in motion according to invariable laws of physics.
    • A2: Since matter is neither created nor destroyed, the World has always existed and is eternal. Questions of why the World exists are meaningless, as such causal questions only apply to things with a beginning.
    • A3: Human beings are just complex configurations of matter, with no purpose, whose existence is unsurprising in a World of infinite duration. Our lives have no non-subjective meaning, and – in the absence of souls – cease at physical death.
  10. Despite these answers being radically opposed, they share various assumptions:-
    • Individual things exist – other views deny these “appearances”.
    • Time is real; others deny the passage of time and the use of “before” and “after”.
    • The same for space.
    • The material world is real, rather than existing only in the mind.
    • By answering the questions, they are taken not to be meaningless pseudo-questions5.
  11. Metaphysics must not be confused with other disciplines, especially:-
    • Fundamental physics: what PvI calls “physical cosmology” and which includes both cosmology and particle physics. This has a deep significance for metaphysics as if (for instance) the current theory that the physical universe came into existence 14 bn years ago, then any metaphysical speculation relying on infinite past time cannot be correct. However, PvI thinks it’s a false hope that physical cosmology can answer Q2, and will address the matter in "Van Inwagen (Peter) - Necessary Being: The Cosmological Argument". Also, Carl Sagan’s assertion that the physical universe is “all there is” – even if arguable, as it might be – is a metaphysical not a scientific claim.
    • Sacred or revealed theology: Natural theology partly overlaps with metaphysics, but the revealed theology of those Abrahamic religions that take God to be a “conscious purposive being who acts in history” is effectively an empirical matter, though the supposedly revealed truths are partly metaphysical in character.
  12. While both physical cosmology and revealed theology have metaphysical implications, their usage by metaphysicians differs:-
    • There ought not to be – though there might be (for political reasons) – more than one physical cosmology – but there is more than one (so-called) revealed theology.
    • There is a respected body of opinion that doubts there is any such thing as “revealed theology”, especially as there is little agreement across religions, while the same is not true of physical cosmology6. However, PvI notes that “respected opinion” doesn’t speak with one voice, either, so must sometimes be in error. Yet – even though he himself believes that there has been a (Christian) divine revelation, and that it has profound metaphysical implications – he will only appeal to physical cosmology and never to revealed theology as he doesn’t want to alienate his readership and speak only to Christians7.
  13. Metaphysics must also be distinguished from other branches of philosophy, though it is involved throughout philosophy. PvI gives the example of the attribution in ethics of the property being evil: this is a non-material property – if it exists – and, if so, the World in some sense contains non-physical things and must be more than “matter in motion”.
  14. PvI lists and briefly introduces the other branches of philosophy, other than Metaphysics and Ethics: Epistemology; Logic; Aesthetics; and8 various “Philosophies of X”, where X is Mind, Politics, Science, Mathematics, Language, Religion, History, Law, … All have important metaphysical consequences, so are not wholly distinct from metaphysics.
  15. Metaphysics differs from non-philosophical subjects in that there are no established facts to be learned, though in a footnote PvI points out that there are – he claims metaphysical facts that can be known. But they are not “established” in the sense of scientific facts. PvI thinks that his argument for the existence of ultimate reality is sound, but still thinks it is not intellectually perverse to resist it in the way it is to join the Flat Earth Society.
  16. To clarify, PvI points out that there are lots of historical facts about the metaphysical views of famous or esteemed philosophers, but they will rarely be mentioned in this book. In a footnote he points out that lack of facts does not equate to lack of consequences – good or bad.
  17. So, why is there no philosophical – and in particular, metaphysical – information? This is almost definitive of philosophy, for if a branch were suddenly to start to yield information, it would cease to be a branch of philosophy and would migrate to become a science – as with “natural philosophy” becoming physics, or Logic migrating to pure mathematics.
  18. So, why have a few former branches of philosophy made the successful transition out of the subject, but others not? PvI thinks this an interesting philosophical question – indeed, a metaphilosophical question – which (therefore) may have no uncontroversial answer. Possibilities:-
    • Stupidity: Despite some scientists’ suspicions, the reason for the lack of progress cannot be the stupidity of the professionals (a) statistically, and (b) by counter-example. Descartes and Leibniz were geniuses whose invention of analytic geometry and calculus, respectively, were of lasting benefit to maths + science, yet their philosophical contributions, while equally influential, have not stood the test of time and are now just part of the “history of philosophy”.
    • Meaninglessness: The logical positivists thought that metaphysical questions just had the form of questions, but were in fact meaningless; consequently, being only pseudo-questions, they had no answers. Sadly, Logical Positivism is itself a metaphysical position, and has been consigned to the history of philosophy, along with other attempts to diagnose the ills of metaphysics.
    • Beyond our ken: Maybe the human mind just isn’t up to it? This was Kant’s position – in the sense that (PvI says that) he thought that while they are meaningful, they result in contradictions9 if beings who form internal representations of the world try to answer them. PvI claims that any being that seeks knowledge – even of mundane matters like perception10 – has to form internal representations – and this would rule out any being – apart from maybe God – from being able to answer metaphysical questions.
    • Specifically human cognitive deficiencies: We might take a less radical view than Kant’s and say that it’s a cognitive deficit to specific to human beings, that evolutionary cognitive psychology might explain. PvI suggests that just as human acrobats use facilities “designed” for other purposes to do badly what apes do better without training, the same might be true of metaphysics. He alludes to Dr. Johnson’s remark – of a capacity11 like that of a dog walking on its hind legs – “it’s not well done, but you are surprised to find it done at all”.
    This final suggestion is PvI’s preferred explanation, but he admits that – while the lack of metaphysical “results” is incontrovertible – the “human cognitive deficit” explanation is “just more philosophy”.
  19. The bottom line is that a rebellious student of metaphysics – as distinct from a student of the “history of ideas12” (or physics, say) – isn’t simply wrong when he disagrees with the experts as there is no established body of facts to be wrong about.
  20. PvI gives the example of belief in immortal souls, which PvI happens NOT to believe in:-
    • A student should not be impressed by ridicule, which is not a reasonable counter-argument.
    • Nor is the non-existence of immortal souls an established fact – something that all educated13 people believe. Highly educated people have believed all sorts of rot14.
    • An argument may be given – involving various terms, distinctions and scientific facts. Then, a rebel may contest the facts, or the value of the terminology, or the form of the argument.
    • But even if a rebel can see no obvious flaw in the argument, she’s still within her rights to stick to her beliefs – at least for the time being. She may suppose that if the argument was unanswerable, all professional philosophers would accept it – yet (one may suspect) they don’t. The nay-sayers may not know all the arguments in favour of immortal souls – even experts don’t know everything about their area of expertise – or may not present them in their strongest form. Or you may simply take the line that you’re at a disadvantage – being less experienced as a debater – and that it’s adversarial skill rather than the truth of the matter that is winning out.
  21. PvI’s style in the rest of the book will be to work out and defend various metaphysical positions that he takes to be true. But no-one need feel constrained to accept them, for the reasons given above. Other equally well-qualified philosophers will reject them.
  22. We need to know PvI’s biases. He alludes to Bradley – in the form15 “metaphysics is the finding of bad reasons for what one was going to believe anyway”. He acknowledges that some philosophers have been convinced by metaphysical arguments to change their views, and some metaphysicians have had good reasons for their beliefs. But PvI admits that he’d carry on with some of his beliefs whatever the metaphysical arguments against them.
  23. So, PvI admits that his core metaphysical beliefs are pretty well summed up by the “medieval view” given above in answer to the three questions – and these are firm convictions rather than tentative views. While he has tried to be fair to opposing views, he has probably not succeeded.
  24. Whatever the authors of rival books may say they will also have “non-negotiable” views, even if dressed up in argumentative form that implies they started from an unbiased position.
  25. PvI thinks that there are many factors besides evidence and argument that form people’s views. He lists some16:-
    • Religion or anti-religion,
    • Loyalty to, or antipathy towards, political or social groups,
    • Desire for emotional comfort or the respect of one’s peers,
    • Desire to shock, or be thought original,
    • Desire to be in a position to force one’s opinions on others,
    • Desire to form part of a mutual admiration society that makes fun of outsiders,
    • Desire to be part of a small enlightened group struggling against the superstitions of the masses.
  26. PvI makes an important point, to the effect that there’s an ambiguity about “caring about the answer to a question”:-
    • Firstly, one might just want to know the right answer: such persons will be moved by evidence and argument.
    • Alternatively, one might want one’s preferred answer to be right: this probably applies to most who go to the trouble to write books, and these authors are most likely biased in (some of) the ways listed above.
  27. The same is sociologically true of scientists as much as philosophers, yet ultimately such biases in scientists are exposed by the recalcitrance of observational data. Unfortunately, the same correctives are not available in metaphysics. No data in the World will decide between competing metaphysical theories.
  28. PvI has a footnote to the effect that this is just what Kant and the logical positivists were complaining about – or at least he says that it would be a “very attractive position” to take it that a theory is “valueless” (if not “meaningless”) if it makes no predictions that can be put to experimental test. But, he thinks that all efforts to make such a position precise17 are “just more philosophy”.
  29. Further Reading:-

In-Page Footnotes ("Van Inwagen (Peter) - Metaphysics: Introduction")

Footnote 1: This – like much else in this book – including the ToC and the focus on “Necessary Being” – is rather tendentious and betrays PvI’s Christian leanings.

Footnote 2:
  • This is a (to my mind rather facile) argument-form beloved of religious types, and most famously used against logical positivism.
  • Note, however, that PvI does NOT say that “ultimate reality” is that there is no ultimate reality, though this is a possible line to take, and makes better use of the “self-defeating” claim.
  • I also think, that there’s some sleight of hand here. When people claim that there is an ultimate reality, the claim is that there’s no infinite regress, not that it’s “turtles all the way down” (see Wikipedia: Turtles all the way down).
Footnote 3:
  • So, contra the Tractarian Wittgenstein, where “the World” is the totality of facts – what is the case – rather than things.
  • Interestingly, this is exactly my approach in my “Christian Tractatus” - Click here for Note.
Footnote 4: I assume he doesn’t think these are the only alternatives.

Footnote 5: Some metaphysicians might take the view that Q2 is a pseudo-question, while the other two are fine.

Footnote 6:
  • PvI notes that few consider “it” to be a pseudo-science.
  • However, by bundling together cosmology and particle physics, we have two very different disciplines combined, and some might have different views to each.
  • For instance, particle physics is very much open to experimentation, while cosmology is only open to investigation and model-building.
  • So, those who take experimentation to be central to the scientific method might sniff at cosmology, while being happy with the methodology of particle physics.
Footnote 7: So, this is a different sort of book to "Hasker (William) - Metaphysics: Constructing a World View", which is intended to prop up a Christian worldview.

Footnote 8:
  1. For some reason, he doesn’t mention:-
    • The topics in the history of philosophy (eg. Greek, Modern, … philosophy) or
    • Of individuals (eg. Kant, Wittgenstein, … ) or
    • Those outside the European or Analytic traditions (eg. Indian Philosophy, Continental philosophy, …)
  2. My diagnosis of this dereliction is that PvI is after metaphysical truth and – while no doubt all sorts of truths may arise in the study of these disciplines, it’s a bit by the by and introductory / motivational.
Footnote 9: Footnote 10:
  • The example is knowing there’s a tree in front of you. Do dogs know this? Do dogs think?
  • I think they do – but some philosophers seem to think that thinking requires language – does PvI?
  • I think only a “language of thought” is required, and that dogs have one.
Footnote 11: PvI is reticent about the context, which is of women’s preaching – see Link.

Footnote 12: PvI notes that there is also license to disagree about the interpretation of an extinct philosopher’s works.

Footnote 13: Footnote 14:
  • PvI self-consciously illustrates this point (he doesn’t actually use the term “rot”, but implies it) by using “the beneficence of colonialism”, Freudianism and Marxism as examples of rot that no enlightened contemporary would believe.
  • Of course, many still believe in these hopeless causes, but the fact that they do doesn’t rescue the doctrines from the from the category “rot”; nor – even if no-one believed in them any more - would this make the doctrines false.
Footnote 15: See Wikiquote: F. H. Bradley for the accurate quotation.

Footnote 16:
  • These are worth bearing in mind and searching one’s soul over,
  • Some are very important, others – I suspect – reflect PvI’s personal gripes.
Footnote 17:
  • This whole position of PvI’s is very dispiriting. I think that part of PvI’s scepticism has to do with his choice of questions – in particular his second one “Why does the World exist” – his focus on “our place in it all”, and also his hiding of many of the more tractable questions.
  • So, the topic divisions in "Funkhouser (Eric) - Metaphysics, Spring 2014", for instance, don’t leave me in the same state of despair.
  • Ie. Identity, Ontology, Modality, Persistence, Persons, Properties & Causation.
  • The debates on the metaphysics of Time and Free Will (not explicitly mentioned above) have moved on as a result of scientific advances.
  • Anyway, I maintain that we need some way of evaluating theories so that any old bunk isn’t allowed.
  • There are some such – Occam’s razor, “the incredulous stare”, … as well as standard criteria like logical consistency
  • Metaphysical theories are not held in isolation, but have to fit together.
  • Theories held mainly for doubtful religious or political reasons – where these positions are agreed on all sides not to be rationally held – are especially dubious.
Footnote 18: And presumably superseded by Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

Footnote 19:

"Van Inwagen (Peter) - Necessary Being: the Ontological Argument"

Source: Stump (Eleanore) & Murray (Michael J.) - Philosophy of Religion: The Big Questions

  1. Anselm claims that the non-existence of God is self-contradictory, so that anyone who says “God does not exist” is contradicting himself just as, though not as blatantly as, someone who says a rectangle has 6 sides.
  2. If correct, Anselm’s argument answers the question why there should be anything at all (which is Van Inwagen’s interest in this article), though this isn’t the same question as why there should be a physical universe.
  3. Claims of “Scandalous invalidity” from Gaunilo to Schopenhauer, via Aquinas.
  4. Descartes’ argument – a variant of Anselm’s. Descartes takes the most perfect being to be God, and claims that existence is a perfection. Just as we can’t conceive of a triangle without 3-sidedness1, so we can’t conceive of God without existence.
  5. Existence as a “good thing” might be denied by suicides, but Kant2 allegedly had the answer, namely that existence is not a property. A concept is a list of properties. Analogy of “egmounts” – existing mountains of pure gold.
  6. Van Inwagen thinks Kant has only found a peripheral fault with Descartes argument, which can be re-stated without treating existence as a property.
  7. Something has necessary existence if its non-existence would have been impossible – by which Van Inwagen means “absolutely impossible” – ie. involving a logical contradiction.
  8. So, necessary existence is a property, and a more impressive property than mere existence (if it is a property) even if (maybe) necessary existence is not a possible one (it is hard to think of an uncontroversial example of something with necessary existence).
  9. Van Inwagen restates Descartes’ argument as:-
    • A perfect being has all perfections
    • Necessary existence is a perfection
      Hence, A perfect being has necessary existence
    • Whatever has necessary existence has existence
      Hence, A perfect being has existence
    • Whatever has existence exists
      Hence, A perfect being exists
  10. But this argument is obviously invalid, and Van Inwagen runs the argument through with a “negmount” – which is just an “egmount” with necessary existence; it has all “negmontanic” properties, of which necessary existence is one → So, while this argument “proves” that “negmounts” exist, it can’t possibly be sound as its conclusion is false – and necessarily so as physical objects are contingent, And, even if we cavil at this – the argument can be run through with “nousquares” – a necessarily existent round square.
  11. So, given that the argument’s invalid3, what’s wrong with it? Van Inwagen points out an ambiguity in “a negmount has all negmontanic properties” between:-
    • Anything that is a negmount has all negmontanic properties
    • There is a negmount that has all negmontanic properties.
    This is due to the ambiguity in the indefinite article, which may or may not imply existence.
  12. Hence we have two arguments bundled together, neither of which is convincing that negmounts exist.
    • One says that anything that is a negmount exists; the argument is sound but unexciting, as anything that is an X exists, whatever X.
    • The other proceeds from the premise that there is a negmount to the conclusion that there is a negmount that exists. This just begs the question.
    • Any plausibility in Descartes’ argument arises from running the two arguments together with the premise of the first argument leading to the conclusion of the second.
  13. Van Inwagen spells out all this for Descartes (revised) argument, and states his conviction that “the earlier argument4 of Anselm” is also a failure.
  14. But, Van Inwagen thinks that the modal5 argument has more going for it. This should be spelled out in terms of possible worlds. Van Inwagen gives a useful definition: “a possible world is a complete specification of the way the World might have been, one so precise that it settles every detail, no matter how minor6”. If everything there is or could be is subject to the flow of time (not7 a wise assumption, Van Inwagen says) then a possible world is detailed history-and-future. Van Inwagen gives an “impressionistic account” of the meaning of “truth in” and “existence in” a possible world.
  15. Then Van Inwagen moves on to defining modal8 operators – a proposition is possibly true if it is true in at least one possible world and necessarily true if true in all possible worlds. The actual world is the way that the world really is. He usefully notes that the actual world is just a specification9, so it is not the World itself. He (later) notes that actuality is an indexical notion, true “in” every possible world – so if we are in a possible world, that is the actual world. This is the only thing residents of different possible worlds disagree on about the set of possible worlds. He compares the reality of (even) the actual world to that of a computer program. The World is not a description, but the things themselves10. Possible-world semantics are not necessary for formulating modal11 ontological arguments, but are useful in avoiding logically invalid arguments that look valid.
  16. We now need two notions:-
    • A necessary being is one that exists in every possible world, and
    • An essential property is one without which a being could not exist. So, x has a property essentially if it has it in every possible world in which x exists.
  17. The converse terms are contingent and accidental. There are few examples of essential properties – for instance people disagree over whether we have the property human being essentially, because they disagree about what we are.
  18. Descartes tells us that the subject of the Ontological Argument – a perfect being – is one that possesses all perfections. But does this being possess the perfections essentially or contingently. Van Inwagen says it doesn’t matter12 (with one exception – that of necessary existence) what these perfections are – but takes wisdom as an example. He thinks that possessing wisdom essentially rather than accidentally would provide a better candidate for a perfect being, so takes the properties of the perfect being to be had essentially from now on.
  19. So, the Modal13 Ontological Argument is:-
    • A perfect being – one that possesses all perfections essentially – is not impossible.
    • Necessary existence is a perfection.
      Hence, A perfect being exists.
    So, we have two tasks: to determine whether the argument is valid, and whether the two premises should be granted.
  20. Van Inwagen describes world-diagrams. A world-diagram is “correct in” a given possible world if all its assertions are true in that world – including its assertions about other possible worlds. He then uses world diagrams, rather laboriously, to prove that the Modal14 Ontological Argument is valid.
  21. He rejects an objection based on the supposition that possibility is not fixed and necessary (ie. that some possible worlds – in particular that in which God is actual – do not exist from the perspective of all possible worlds). So, if God exists in all possible worlds but the actual world, but the other possible worlds cannot “see” the actual world, then they will think that God necessarily exists, as he exists in all the worlds they can see.
  22. Van Inwagen distinguishes “conditional” impossibilities that are dependent on other contingencies from “intrinsic” impossibilities, that aren’t. His claim is that while conditional possibilities may vary from world to world, intrinsic possibilities don’t. This “principle of modal15 inference” is effectively a third premise in the argument.
  23. The only outstanding obstacle – given that the argument is valid, and we’ve accepted the principle of inference and the second premise (that necessary existence is a perfection) – is the possibility of a perfect16 being. We cannot give the benefit of the doubt, as in common law, because pairs of alleged possibilities can be mutually incompatible.
  24. What are the options?
    • Instances: The most reliable way of proving possibility is to appeal to actuality, but there is no agreement that we have common knowledge that perfect beings exist.
    • Abstract Metaphysical Argument: Leibniz realised the importance of possibility, and argued as follows:-
      → A perfect being is perfect if it has all perfections.
      → It is possible if these perfections are consistent with one another.
      → Every perfection is a simple positive17 property, where “positive” simply means “not negative” (a negative property is eg. “being not round”).
      → Simple positive properties cannot conflict as this only arises where one is “X” and the other “not X”, or one a complex that includes the negative of a property in or included in the other.
      So, simple positive properties cannot conflict. But we need these properties to be had essentially. So, we need:-
      → if property X is a perfection, then the property “having property X essentially” is a perfection.
  25. There are many problems with Leibniz’s argument. Van Inwagen only discusses one – that of the analysis of properties, and the category “non-negative” in particular. Properties are not negative or positive in themselves as the same property can be named “simple” and “not having parts”.
  26. So, if we can’t prove that a perfect being is possible, can we prove that it is impossible? Findlay at one time thought he could prove that a necessary being was impossible. His reason was that necessarily true existential propositions are impossible, because all necessary truths are analytic – true merely because of our use of words, and we can’t define anything into existence. This ends in the modal18 ontological argument being deemed unsound, as it has a false premise (that a perfect being is possible).
  27. The problem with Findlay’s argument is with his theory of necessary truth which, while almost universally accepted in his day (194819), is no longer in fashion20. Van Inwagen gives the example “The atomic number of iron is 26”. Many philosophers take this to be a necessary truth, because the atomic number of an element is its essence, but not one due to the meaning of words as the meaning and reference of “iron” was set before anyone knew of the atomic theory, and something can be part of the meaning of a word only if a person who knows the meaning of the word knows it is.
  28. Even so, this doesn’t prove there are any necessary existential propositions, as “The atomic number of iron is 26” does not claim that any iron exists. But it does show that Findlay’s account of necessary truth is mistaken.
  29. Also, there are some propositions that some philosophers would claim to be “necessary existential”. Van Inwagen gives a mathematical example, and admits that this only implies the necessary existence of universals21. But, he claims that Findlay’s theory of necessity is independent of its subject-matter, and so is refuted by mathematics.
  30. Even so, we’ve not given an example of a necessarily existent individual thing, only a universal22. Van Inwagen claims that a perfect being would have to be an individual thing23. Van Inwagen knows of no non-Findlay-style arguments that purport to show that there could not be a necessarily-existent individual thing. They would have to show that “being necessarily existent” and “individual thing” are inconsistent, and Van Inwagen can’t see how this could be done, given that Findlay’s argument “proves too much” in denying the existence of universals24.
  31. So, we now have the minimal modal25 ontological argument:-
    • If a necessarily-existent individual is possible, then there is a necessarily-existent individual in some possible world.
    • Therefore, it is true in that possible world that that necessarily-existent individual exists in all possible worlds.
    • Since the only thing that changes from one possible world to another is which possible world is actual, it is true in every possible world that that necessarily-existent individual exists in all possible worlds.
    • The property being an individual thing is an essential property.
    • So, this thing is an individual thing in every possible world.
    • So, there is a necessarily-existent individual thing in every possible world, including the actual world.
    • So, there is a necessarily-existent individual thing.
  32. This argument has nothing to do with a perfect being, because it works for a necessarily-existent being with any set of essential properties whatever. Van Inwagen only needs the minimal argument for his purposes, which is to answer the question why there is something rather than nothing.
  33. So, is the contentious premise of the minimal modal26 ontological argument is true – that is, whether a necessarily-existent individual thing is possible, ie. whether existent necessarily and individual thing are compatible. He doesn’t think we can deduce a formal contradiction, yet they may be incompatible for all that.
  34. There are only two fool-proof ways of showing whether two properties are compatible:-
    • Positively: If we know of something that has both.
    • Negatively: If we can deduce a formal contradiction.
    If Van Inwagen had a positive example, he’d have no need of the argument; and yet he knows of no way of deducing a contradiction.
  35. If we can’t show that a necessarily-existent individual thing is possible, we certainly can’t show that a perfect being is possible, as this has further properties that might or might not be incompatible.
  36. Van Inwagen claims that all the extant attempted disproofs27 of the possibility of a perfect being all focus on the impossibility of necessary existence.
  37. In summary, all versions of the Ontological Argument are either invalid or have a premise of a truth-value we cannot evaluate. But if we could show that there was a necessarily-existent individual thing, then we’d know that it was impossible for there to be nothing, which would explain why there is something.
  38. Van Inwagen seems to think there’s a way forward, as many have suggested28 that without a necessary being, there could be no beings at all, and since there obviously are beings, there must be a necessarily-existent one.
  39. Further reading: Van Inwagen recommends:-
    → Plantinga, Alvin (Ed.) The Ontological Argument
    → "Plantinga (Alvin) - God, Freedom and Evil",
    → "Kripke (Saul) - Naming and Necessity",
    → "Hume (David), Tweyman (Stanley), Ed. - Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion", Part IX,
    → "Putnam (Hilary) - The Meaning of 'Meaning'", and
    → "Schwartz (Stephen P.), Ed. - Naming, Necessity and Natural Kinds", including
    → "Kripke (Saul) - Identity and Necessity".


In-Page Footnotes ("Van Inwagen (Peter) - Necessary Being: the Ontological Argument")

Footnote 1: Presumably the quotation is from the Third Meditation, as the Fifth refers to Pythagoras’ Theorem.

Footnote 2: The passage Van Inwagen quotes isn’t "Kant (Immanuel) - The Impossibility of an Ontological Proof of the Existence of God"; maybe it’s Van Inwagen’s exegesis.

Footnote 3:
  • I had thought that Van Inwagen was using “invalid” when he meant “unsound”.
  • I’d thought that the problem was not with the argument form, but with one of the premises.
  • But it turns out that it is the form that contains the problem.
Footnote 4:
  • So, not recognising that there are (according to Normal Malcolm and others) two arguments in Anselm.
  • Since Van Inwagen takes up the modal argument, he does agree with Anselm in a manner of speaking.
Footnote 6: This would seem to make possible worlds impossible to specify.

Footnote 7: Presumably if God is timeless rather than eternal.

Footnote 9: Presumably a realist about possible worlds would disagree.

Footnote 10: So introducing, but not mentioning, the de re / de dicto distinction.

Footnote 12: So, we need to watch out that this perfect being is in fact the theistic God.

Footnote 16: Which, as no other perfections have been mentioned, is simple a necessarily existent being.

Footnote 17: Godel picks up on this idea.

Footnote 19: Van Inwagen doesn’t quote which paper, but I assume it’s "Findlay (J.N.) - Can God's Existence Be Disproved?".

Footnote 20:
  • Van Inwagen doesn’t quote or refer to Kripke until the “further reading” section, but this change of perspective is down to him.
  • His example is of gold, atomic number 79, in "Kripke (Saul) - Naming and Necessity: Lecture III", section 4.8 of my précis.
Footnote 23: This sounds controversial, as God isn’t a thing.

Footnote 24:
  • But a nominalist would not be worried, as he denies that there are any such things as universals.
  • Do unicorns exist (as universals)?
Footnote 27: This is strange, as there are obvious tensions between (say) God’s omniscience and his granting of human free-will, or between God’s justice and his mercy, or of the concept of omnipotence itself.

Footnote 28: Van Inwagen doesn’t spell this out, but presumably it’s the Cosmological Argument he has in mind?

"Van Inwagen (Peter) - Metaphysics: Part One: The Way The World Is - Introduction"

Source: Van Inwagen (Peter) - Metaphysics

  1. Western-style atheists aside, most people’s conception of the World is mainly governed by their religion, but the World can be discussed without reference to the practical or emotional side of religion.
  2. In the first instance, PvI compares theists (he takes Catholics and orthodox Jews as his paradigm cases, with Hindus as contrasting theists) with atheists.
    • The theists see the World as essentially personal, because all that is not God was created according to a plan by the Person that is God.
    • In contrast, the atheist says that the World existed before there were any persons in it, and persons originally arose as a by-product of purposeless processes.
  3. Yet the Western theists and atheists agree on lots of metaphysical principles – in contrast to the intellectual Hindu (if not the “Hindu in the street”) who – along with some 19th-century Western idealists – would deny then all.
  4. The standard Western metaphysic would include the following claims1:-
    • Concrete particulars – whether natural or artifactual – really exist, distinct from each other and each with its own set of properties (which are independent of any person knowing what they are).
    • Distances are real,
    • Our minds have to conform to an external reality and we can get the properties of, or relations between, objects wrong.
    • Time is real. Objects come into existence and pass away, and – at a time – have a certain age.
    • Things – the very same things – persist through time despite a change in properties – including relational ones like position – or material.
    • These things influence one another.
    • We perceive things because of their influence on our sense-organs and brain.
  5. In contrast, the educated Hindu will deny all this and accuse the Western consensus of confusing appearance with reality.
  6. The Common Western Metaphysic seems obviously right to us Westerners, but is it? This question of whether the CWM is reality or mere appearance – will help organize this Part of the book into the four Chapters on Individuality, Externalist, Temporality and Objectivity.

COMMENT: Part One: The Way The World Is

In-Page Footnotes ("Van Inwagen (Peter) - Metaphysics: Part One: The Way The World Is - Introduction")

Footnote 1: PvI gives lots of concrete examples, which I’ve abstracted from.

"Van Inwagen (Peter) - Individuality"

Source: Van Inwagen (Peter) - Metaphysics, Chapter 2

Philosophers Index Abstract
  1. According to the Common Western Metaphysic, the world contains many individual things. Each human being, each living thing, each star, each atom, each building is an individual thing. Even God, if there is a God, is an individual thing. But what do we mean by calling all these very different things "individual" things? As far as dictionary meaning goes, we may say that an individual thing is a separate thing, a thing distinct from the rest of the World, but this statement does not really tell us very much, and its use of the word 'separate' has at least one misleading implication.
  2. Let us first deal with the misleading implication. We would not ordinarily say that an object and one of its parts – a tree and one of its leaves, say – were "separate" things. But a part of an individual thing may very well be itself an individual thing: a tree and one of its leaves, for example, are both individual things. The sense of 'separate' in which an individual thing must be a "separate" thing, therefore, is not the same as the sense of 'separate' in which a leaf is not "separate" from the tree it is a part of. A leaf still growing on a branch, a rabbit's foot (undetached), and the roof of a house are separate things in the required sense of 'separate'. But that sense is rather unclear. This unclarity is the reason why the dictionary sense of 'individual' is not very helpful in explaining the metaphysical concept of an individual thing. Perhaps the best way to say what is meant by 'individual thing' is to supplement our list of examples of individual things by giving some examples of things that are not individual things.
  3. First, a thing is not an individual thing if it is a mere modification of something else. For example, a wrinkle in a carpet is not an individual thing because it is a mere modification of the carpet. This use of the word 'modification' is a metaphysician's term. It may be explained as follows. One way to "modify" (or change) something is to add to its parts, as when we modify a house by adding a room. But we may modify a thing without adding to its parts: I can modify my hand by making a fist, modify a piece of string by tying a knot in it – or modify a carpet by wrinkling it. If something comes into existence as the direct and inevitable result of modifying a thing X in the second way – without causing x to gain any new parts – then we call the thing thereby brought into existence a mere modification of x. Thus, a fist is a mere modification of a hand, a knot in a piece of string is a mere modification of the string, and a wrinkle in a carpet is a mere modification of the carpet.

COMMENT: Part One: The Way The World Is

"Van Inwagen (Peter) - Externality"

Source: Van Inwagen (Peter) - Metaphysics, Chapter 3
COMMENT: Part One: The Way The World Is

"Van Inwagen (Peter) - Temporality"

Source: Van Inwagen (Peter) - Metaphysics, Chapter 4
COMMENT: Part One: The Way The World Is

"Van Inwagen (Peter) - Objectivity"

Source: Van Inwagen (Peter) - Metaphysics, Chapter 5
COMMENT: Part One: The Way The World Is

"Van Inwagen (Peter) - Metaphysics: Part Two: Why The World Is - Introduction"

Source: Van Inwagen (Peter) - Metaphysics

  1. This section deals with the issue of why there is something rather than nothing, and offers two arguments – the ontological and the cosmological – which (on the face of it) are arguments for the existence of God rather than answers to the question before us.
  2. We can’t use the anthropic principle – that the question is illegitimate because if the World didn’t exist we wouldn’t be here to ask such questions – because questions about the origin of the solar system, or of the human race are legitimate despite the fact that we wouldn’t be here if they weren’t. But I can’t see why anyone would try that line of argument.
  3. PvI admits that the question isn’t quite the same as – for instance – why the sun has planets or why there is life on earth. The latter questions deal with transforming one lot of stuff into another, and we know how to address these questions, but before there was a World there was – presumably – nothing. And it’s not clear that “before” makes sense in that context either.
  4. Also, “Nothing” is not a name for anything. We’re not to imagine “Nothing” as an empty expanse.
  5. PvI also says we’re not to imagine non-existent things interacting to produces existent things (by some sort of weak analogy with the pre-biotic soup producing life). There are no non-existent things. PvI states that ‘unicorn’ is not the name of a non-existent thing. I probably agree (see my Note1 on Fiction2).
  6. PvI asserts that it’s only under the influence of philosophy that religions have speculated on our question, providing answers either profound or silly. He won’t go into whether “what our culture calls” Creation Myths really were attempts to explain why there is something rather than nothing, but he is doubtful. He makes up one silly story, which doesn’t actually start from “Nothing”. He then quotes a Samoan3 account and the Genesis account. But they all seem to start with something – albeit “formless and empty” and God working on it; so, they don’t start with Nothing.
  7. Religions may have something to say on our question that goes beyond their creation stories, but only because they’ve absorbed philosophical speculation from their cultures.
  8. PvI asserts that the three Abrahamic religions are indebted to the Greeks for their speculation on the question before us, and claims that the work in this area by religious philosophers is independent of their specific religious commitments. He also asserts that the key to any putative answer is the concept of “a necessary being”.
  9. This may be so, in that necessary being is required to stop a vicious infinite regress; but I have a couple of concerns, which are somewhat related:-
    1. “Necessary being” is distinct from “A necessary being”. The latter implies individuality and distinction from everything else, already a confusion in this context. It’s easy to illicitly slip in a personal being via this route. It might be that an impersonal necessary ground of all being might be the end result of our cogitations.
    2. There’s no reason why such a necessary being should be identified with the Abrahamic God.

COMMENT: Part Two: Why The World Is

In-Page Footnotes ("Van Inwagen (Peter) - Metaphysics: Part Two: Why The World Is - Introduction")

Footnote 1:
  • I ought probably to deal with non-existent objects under my Note on Ontology.
Footnote 3:
  • This seems remarkably similar to the Genesis account, and may be indebted to it via the odd missionary, I’d have thought.

"Van Inwagen (Peter) - Necessary Being: The Ontological Argument"

Source: Van Inwagen (Peter) - Metaphysics, Chapter 6

For an analysis of an earlier version of this Chapter, see "Van Inwagen (Peter) - Necessary Being: the Ontological Argument".

COMMENT: Part Two: Why The World Is

"Van Inwagen (Peter) - Necessary Being: The Cosmological Argument"

Source: Van Inwagen (Peter) - Metaphysics, Chapter 7
COMMENT: Part Two: Why The World Is

"Van Inwagen (Peter) - Metaphysics: Part Three: The Inhabitants of the World - Introduction"

Source: Van Inwagen (Peter) - Metaphysics
COMMENT: Part Three: The Inhabitants of the World

"Van Inwagen (Peter) - What Rational Beings Are There?"

Source: Van Inwagen (Peter) - Metaphysics, Chapter 8
COMMENT: Part Three: The Inhabitants of the World

"Van Inwagen (Peter) - The Place of Rational Beings in the World: Design and Purpose"

Source: Van Inwagen (Peter) - Metaphysics, Chapter 9
COMMENT: Part Three: The Inhabitants of the World

"Van Inwagen (Peter) - The Nature of Rational Beings: Dualism and Physicalism"

Source: Van Inwagen (Peter) - Metaphysics, Chapter 10
COMMENT: Part Three: The Inhabitants of the World

"Van Inwagen (Peter) - The Nature of Rational Beings: Dualism and Personal Identity"

Source: Van Inwagen (Peter) - Metaphysics, Chapter 11
COMMENT: Part Three: The Inhabitants of the World

"Van Inwagen (Peter) - The Powers of Rational Beings: Freedom of the Will"

Source: Van Inwagen (Peter) - Metaphysics, Chapter 12
COMMENT: Part Three: The Inhabitants of the World

"Van Inwagen (Peter) - Metaphysics: Concluding Meditation"

Source: Van Inwagen (Peter) - Metaphysics, Chapter 13
COMMENT: Part Three: The Inhabitants of the World

"Van Inwagen (Peter) - Being"

Source: Van Inwagen (Peter) - Metaphysics, Coda

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