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Tollensing van Inwagen

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Van Inwagen (1990) has an ingenious argument for the non-existence of human artefacts (and other non-living complex things). But the argument cannot be accepted, since human artefacts are everywhere. However, it cannot be ignored. The proper response to it is to treat it as a refutation of its least plausible premise, i.e., to ‘tollens’ it. I first set out van Inwagen’s argument. I then identify its least plausible premise and explain the consequence of denying it, that is, the acceptance of a plenitudinous, pluralist ontology. I argue that denying it is not so difficult, since its denial is an easy consequence of ordinary beliefs. I finish by explaining why van Inwagen has not persuaded me that it may be that artefacts do not exist and conclude that nothing stands in the way of tollensing van Inwagen and accepting the consequence of doing so.

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  1. 1.

    Of course, the sceptic about the external world will deny my claim to know this. But this is no help to van Inwagen. His claim is not that I do not know that human artefacts exist, but that they do not, though there are material particles, some arranged ‘chairwise’, some ‘tablewise’ etc. (and plants and animals). This is equally open to challenge by the external world sceptic.

  2. 2.

    The plausibility of the thought behind the rhetorical question here—that if you can make an artefact of a certain kind out of certain inanimate components, you can make an artefact of that same kind out of animate components, as long as they are capable of performing the right functional job—is illustrated by the example given below of the whip made of snakes.

  3. 3.

    Rock gardens; bird cages consisting of magnetically suspended and spatially separated bits of wire, space stations with separated living quarters and ablution blocks, the USA.

  4. 4.

    ‘… it is undeniably true that, if there are any composite material objects at all, they are composed of elementary particles and the elementary particles that compose a given material object are not in contact.’

  5. 5.

    So, it should be noted, van Inwagen’s only argument that fastening does not suffice for composition collapses, since it rests on the false claim that ‘it is certainly not true that an object composed of you and me comes into existence at the instant our [entwined] fingers become paralysed’ (1990: 58).

  6. 6.

    But then, why has van Inwagen’s initial ‘handshake’ example (1990: 35) encountered so little resistance? When people touch shoulders, or shake hands then, in the absence of appropriate intentions, no new artefact is brought into existence (contrast, a wall of policemen standing shoulder to shoulder again rioters, a Conga line, a handshake posed for painting or sculpting). Nor is the short-lived object such free, unconstrained, human agents compose easily conceived as usable as an artefact (unlike rocks, mountains and molecules, arrangements of wooden bricks, accidentally entangled snakes, or objects composed of people glued together or ‘daisy-chained’ together by a mad surgeon (van Inwagen 1990: 59)). But we tend to ignore things we cannot see as having a purpose or being in some way usable for a purpose. However, whether or not this is true, it remains that it is an easy consequence of our everyday beliefs that there is something that comes into being whenever people come into contact—even if we are not disposed, in certain cases, to accept it, or even disposed to reject it.

  7. 7.

    Others (e.g., Merricks 2001) deny the existence of artefacts but do not attempt this reconciliation. They are not the topic of this paper. I think that the premises of their arguments are as easily deniable as van Inwagen’s. However, my main aim is not to engage in this dispute but to get clear about the (plenitudinous, pluralist) ontological commitment of everyday belief.

  8. 8.

    He also gives the Copernican analogy, but this is less close (the corresponding sentences are not grammatically existential). Anyway, this has been definitively refuted by Mackie (1993).


  1. Hirsch, T. (1993). Peter van Inwagen’s material beings. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 53(3), 687–691.

  2. Mackie, P. (1993). Ordinary language and metaphysical commitment. Analysis, 53(4), 243–251.

  3. Merricks, T. (2001). Objects and persons. Oxford: Clarendon.

  4. Van Inwagen, P. (1990). Material beings. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

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I am grateful to an anonymous reviewer for helpful comments.

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Correspondence to Harold W. Noonan.

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Noonan, H.W. Tollensing van Inwagen. Philosophia 42, 1055–1061 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11406-014-9521-2

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  • Van Inwagen
  • Pluralism
  • Artefacts
  • Plenitudinous ontology