Book Reviews, epistemology, philosophy

Book Review: “Material Beings” by Peter van Inwagen

Peter van Inwagen presents a discussion of composition in his work, Material Beings. His central thesis is

there are no tables or chairs or any other visible objects except living organisms (1).

This sounds odd to a great many people, and he acknowledges this. The thesis, however, solves many of the standard problems of composition. Specifically, van Inwagen seeks to answer, specifically, the special composition question: “In what circumstances is a thing a (proper) part of something?” (21). He surveys traditional answers to this question and finds them wanting. Some have argued simply that “contact” is enough to deduce when an object is composed of other objects, but van Inwagen utilizes a series of thought experiments to show this cannot be right (33ff). Specific types of physical bonding fair no better (61ff) while nihilism (there are no composite objects) and universalism (one can’t compose something, because if there are disjoint xs they compose something [74]) fall victim to a number of difficulties (72ff).

Van Inwagen therefore suggests that one way to show that things are composed is:

(there is a y such that the xs composes y) iff the activity of the xs constitutes a life (or there is only one of the xs) (82).

He goes on to define what he means by life (87ff). Against those who argue that his answer violates ordinary beliefs, van Inwagen proposes various linguistic fixes to allow for everyday language to still be “correct” without violating his suggested answer to the composition question. Thought experiments about artifacts (constructs of people/other living things) help bolster his points (124ff).

After these sections, van Inwagen turns to questions over how to identify life as well as offering attempts to deal with various dilemmas presented to materialists. This composes most of the rest of his  work, but more on that shortly.

Van Inwagen’s analysis of the problem of composition seems quite sound, and while his proposed modifications of everyday language to fit into the philosophical answer he has proposed may seem a bit odd to many, they seem to answer the charges his opponent may level against him regarding such questions. Furthermore, his proposed answer gets past the difficulties of the other answers which have been proposed. The most intuitive answer, “contact,” van Inwagen shows is at least fraught with difficulties.

That said, there are some significant problems with van Inwagan’s approach, most of which stem from those which he, being a materialist, has presented to himself and other materialists.

First, he takes life as the basic indicator for when things are composed. But van Inwagen does little to clearly define life, only briefly touching on what it means to be “alive.” Although he devotes several chapters towards various problems about life, his basis for seeing something as alive or not is fairly weak. There is significant debate in scientific literature on what it means for something to be living (or indeed if “living” is a category at all separate from “nonliving”). While one can hardly fault van Inwagen for not dealing directly with these heavy issues in biology and philosophy of science, it is hard to feel comfortable accepting his thesis without a better understanding of what he means by “life.”

Second, van Inwagen has to resort to some extremely implausible positions regarding life. The reason van Inwagen must deal with such problems, I charge, is exactly because he is a materialist. [Astute readers will note that van Inwagen is a theistic materialist, but the problems I raise here go against any materialists who wish to hold to his analysis.]

One place to identify van Inwagen’s problematic approach is in section 12. He writes, “…the fact that I am a thinking being shows that there is at least one composite material object…” (120). He continues, “What is the ground of my unity? …It seems to me to be plausible to say that what binds [the simples which compose me] together is that their activites constitute a life…” (121).

These thoughts start to reveal the serious cracks in his view. He holds that he himself is a material object, which he takes to be demonstrated by the fact that he is thinking. Yet then he argues that what binds him together is the fact that he’s alive. But this is exactly what he is seeking to demonstrate via his observation that he is thinking. But what is “he”? He is a material object. Thus, we have the argument, tied to his thesis:

1) Only those things which are living are composite objects

2) I think

3) Thinking things must be alive [implicit premise given his conclusion on p. 120]

4) Therefore, I am alive

5) Therefore, I am a composite object

Now, wholly apart from whether or not “simples” can be thinking objects, this argument seems unsound. For, on materialism, what justifies 3? Why think that whatever thinks is alive? I’ve already noted that there are philosophers of science and biologists who seem to think there isn’t such a distinction as alive/nonliving (see, for example, Iris Fry’s work, The Emergence of Life on Earth). This therefore reflects the problem I’ve noted already: without a clearer definition of “life,” it is hard to analyze van Inwagen’s thesis.

Yet one may also question the second premise. Why suppose that “I think?” Materialists cannot be substance dualists and must therefore justify personhood in purely materialistic ways. As I’ve argued elsewhere, it seems that materialists almost must deny that there are such things as subjects. Yet van Inwagen just makes the assumption that “I think.” What is “I” on his view? Finally, why think that 1 is true?

One can see the great difficulties with his position illustrated when he turns to thought experiments about when human life begins. Van Inwagen argues that we cannot be the same as the zygote which was our intial state because it splits from A into B and C, neither of which is identical to A (152ff). He argues that the zygote ceases to exist. One instantly wonders how it is that “I” am therefore the same person as I was yesterday, or years ago when all the material which composes me is different. Van Inwagen’s answer is his thesis (above) with the supposition that life actively continues itself. But then one wonders why he doesn’t consider a zygote alive, because it clearly self-organizes, continues itself, etc. In fact,  when one examines van Inwagen’s definitions of life, one sees that a zygote meets every criteria. They maintain themselves, they are individuating events, they are “jealous events,” etc. (see his brief discussion 87-90). So why suppose that the zygote isn’t alive?

Again one can observe van Inwagen’s frustrations with brain transplants (section 15). Eventually, he resorts to a mock discourse in which he uses question-and-answer format to try to deal with some extremely illogical consequences of his own naturalism (196ff).

Similar confounding issues arise with the “vagueness of composition,” unity and thought, and the identity of material objects. One can see that van Inwagen’s materialistic bias truly undermines his position in each of these problems. If one holds to substance dualism, one can easily answer any of these problems. Not only that, but his “proposed answer” makes much more sense conjoined with substance dualism, which allows one to make sense of the persistence of persons, living things, etc. without any of the counter-intuitive solutions to which van Inwagen must adhere.

Thus, it seems to me that Material Beings is an excellent book which will provoke much thought, but that its author is, unfortunately, trapped within his own materialism. If he’d think outside the [brain] box, the seemingly insurmountable problems he honestly faces find solutions.


Peter van Inwagen, Material Beings (Ithaca, NY: Cornell, 1990).



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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick has an MA in Christian Apologetics from Biola University. His interests include theology, philosophy of religion--particularly the existence of God--astronomy, biology, archaeology, and sci-fi and fantasy novels.



  1. Pingback: Articles. « Loftier Musings - February 1, 2012

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