Skip to main content

Physical Composition by Bonding

  • Chapter
  • First Online:
Peter van Inwagen

Part of the book series: Münster Lectures in Philosophy ((MUELP,volume 4))


Van Inwagen proposes that besides simples only living organisms exist as composite objects. This paper suggests expanding van Inwagen’s ontology by also accepting composite objects in the case that physical bonding occurs (plus some extra conditions). Such objects are not living organisms but rather physical bodies. They include (approximately) the complete realm of inanimate ordinary objects, like rocks and tables, as well as inanimate scientific objects, like atoms and molecules, the latter filling the ontological gap between simples and organisms in van Inwagen’s original picture. We thus propose a compositional pluralism claiming that composition arises if and only if bonding or life occurs.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in via an institution to check access.

Access this chapter

USD 16.99
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • Available as EPUB and PDF
  • Read on any device
  • Instant download
  • Own it forever
Softcover Book
USD 44.99
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • Compact, lightweight edition
  • Dispatched in 3 to 5 business days
  • Free shipping worldwide - see info
Hardcover Book
USD 64.99
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • Durable hardcover edition
  • Dispatched in 3 to 5 business days
  • Free shipping worldwide - see info

Tax calculation will be finalised at checkout

Purchases are for personal use only

Institutional subscriptions

Similar content being viewed by others


  1. 1.

    Two recent examples discussing the SCQ are Thomasson (2007, esp. 126–136) and Carmichael (2015), who both defend a commonsense view, the latter by giving a series-style answer. The question has been productive even outside of metaphysics. Chant (2006, 422), for instance, applies the SCQ in action theory by asking under what conditions several actions compose an extensive action. This is what she calls “The Special Composition Question in Action”.

  2. 2.

    Van Inwagen (1990, 23–27) introduces “the xs” as a plural name (“plural referring expression”) to be able to refer to certain objects as a plurality without talking about contested entities like the set of these objects.

  3. 3.

    But see Tallant (2014) for a critique of this strategy.

  4. 4.

    Cf. Lewis’ definition of intrinsic properties: “If something has an intrinsic property, then so does any perfect duplicate of that thing; whereas duplicates situated in different surroundings will differ in their extrinsic properties.” (Lewis 1983, 197) Van Inwagen reformulates this principle in the style of his SCQ to make it suitable for discussing composite objects.

  5. 5.

    Note that our proposal does not depend on the fact that these currently accepted fundamental objects are indeed indivisible; it only depends on the fact that objects from possible deeper levels compose in a similar way to these “fundamental” particles, as these compose to higher objects. Presupposing that there is a fundamental level at which certain simples exist, we should say that we do not discuss the case that the world might be “gunky”, i.e., infinitely divisible.

  6. 6.

    For mereological questions in the quantum realm see, for instance, Maudlin (1998) or Calosi and Tarozzi (2014).

  7. 7.

    The idea of series-style proposals is to say that there are several types of relations R 1, …, R n (e.g., several types of bonding) as well as several types of objects F 1, …, F n that have to be discerned for answering the SCQ; for the xs of a certain kind F i only compose something if they stand in the right kind of relation R i. More precisely:

    y (the xs compose y) if and only if the xs are F 1 and stand in R 1, or the xs are F 2 and stand in R 2, …, or the xs are F n and stand in R n.

    Van Inwagen (1990, 64–66) presents convincing arguments against this kind of proposal.

  8. 8.

    Unlike in other works on mereology, here fusion does not denote the mereological sum, but rather the very specific kind of bonding by merging.

  9. 9.

    Van Inwagen’s claim that he has no argument against contact might seem odd given that above we have presented his arguments from elementary particles lacking shape and definite location. The explanation seems to be that his argument from elementary particles presupposes quantum physics and after having presented that argument he asks to “imagine ourselves in a comfortable seventeenth-century physical world, a world that consists entirely of physical objects of various sizes – solid objects having surfaces and made of stuffs” (van Inwagen 1990, 34). It is only in this restricted classical image that van Inwagen is left with his example of two people shaking hands and cannot deliver an argument against contact. The situation, however, is not similar in the cases of bonding: there he only presents the modified examples of shaking hands – so in those cases there really seems to be no argument at all.

  10. 10.

    Locke calls such composite objects “mass” or “body” (1690, Essay II 27 §3).

  11. 11.

    The definition of a physical body through bonding applies without modification to the quantum case. However, the consequence implied by that definition and the finite distance condition that a physical body’s extension is limited rests on the classical assumption of definite locations for the involved objects – which is false in a standard interpretation of the quantum realm. There, objects do not have definite locations but only probabilities for being measured at certain locations; so in our reasoning one would have to replace spatial distance with probabilities of spatial distance.

  12. 12.

    The same is not true of the other fundamental interactions: Nuclear interactions (both weak and strong) are effective only at an atomic length scale (they do not act over large distances); and while gravitational influences – like electromagnetic ones – act over large distances, they are – in contrast to electromagnetic ones – always attractive (as, e.g., between the earth and the moon).

  13. 13.

    Precisely, H5 reads: Let the variable y range over all objects, x 1 and x 2 over the xs, and z over all objects except the xs. Then: ∃y (the xs compose y) if (a) ∀x 1x 2 (x 1x 2x 1 and x 2 bind directly or indirectly) and (b2) ¬∃zx 1 (z and x 1 bind directly).

  14. 14.

    Note that the handle satisfies both the finite distance and the joint movability condition for physical objects. Thus, it becomes apparent that these conditions are only necessary and not sufficient for physical composition.

  15. 15.

    But cf. Schaffer (2010) who defends an even more radical monism on the basis of quantum entanglement (which we have said to neglect here): He defends the thesis that there literally is only one object, the whole universe. So unlike the monism threatening from H5, Schaffer’s monism even denies the existence of simples.

  16. 16.

    If the point of zero energy is chosen at the maximum of the lowest potential barrier, the binding energy equals the negative total energy of a system.

  17. 17.

    The joule is the basic unit for measuring energy and “kJ” means “1000 joules”; specifying the binding energy per mole means to give the binding energy for 6.022 × 10−23 bonds of the same type, i.e. 1 kJ/mol = 6.022 x 10−20 J.

  18. 18.

    Here is H6 in a precise form: Let the variable y range over all objects, x 1 and x 2 over the xs, z over all objects except the xs, ​and e over possible energy values. Let us furthermore assume that if two objects bind directly, they are not identical. Then: ∃y (the xs compose y) if (a) ∀x 1x 2 (x 1x 2x 1 and x 2 bind directly or indirectly) and (b) ∃e [(b1) ∀x 1x 2 (x 1 and x 2 bind directly → binding energy(x 1, x 2) ≥ e) and (b2’) ¬ ∃zx 1 (z and x 1 bind directly & binding energy(z, x 1)≥ e)].

  19. 19.

    Evans (1978) presents, on a single page, a formal reductio argument showing that the assumption of vague existence is self-contradictory. In contrast, van Inwagen (1990, chap. 17) defends this idea. For an extensive investigation into the problem see Mancin (2012).

  20. 20.

    Precisely: Let the variables x 1 and x 2 range over the xs, e and e’ over possible energy values. An object a, which is composed by the xs, has robustness e if and only if ∃e [(b1) ∀x 1x 2 (x 1 and x2 bind directly → binding energy(x 1, x 2) ≥ e) and (b3) ∀e’ (e’ > e → ∃x 1x 2 (x 1 and x 2 bind directly & binding energy(x 1, x 2) < e’))].

  21. 21.

    Formally: Let the variable y range over all objects, x 1 and x 2 over the xs, z over all objects except thexs, e and e’ over possible energy values. Let us furthermore assume that if two objects bind directly, they are not identical. Then: ∃y (the xs compose y) if (a) ∀x 1x 2 (x 1x 2x 1 and x 2 bind directly or indirectly) and (b) ∃e [(b1) ∀x 1x 2 (x 1 and x 2 bind directly → binding energy(x 1, x 2) ≥ e) and (b2’) ¬ ∃zx 1 (z and x 1 bind directly & binding energy(z, x 1) ≥ e) and (b3) ∀e’ (e’ > e → ∃x 1x 2 (x 1 and x 2 bind directly & binding energy(x 1, x2) < e’))].


  • Aristotle. 1995. Metaphysics. In The complete works of Aristotle, ed. Jonathan Barnes. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Atkins, Peter W., and Julio de Paula. 2011. Physical chemistry for the life sciences. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Calosi, Claudio, and Gino Tarozzi. 2014. Parthood and composition in quantum mechanics. In Mereology and the sciences: Parts and wholes in the contemporary scientific context, ed. Claudio Calosi and Pierluigi Graziani, 53–84. Cham: Springer.

    Google Scholar 

  • Carmichael, Chad. 2015. Toward a commonsense answer to the special composition question. Australasian Journal of Philosophy 93: 475–490.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Chant, Sara R. 2006. The special composition question in action. Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 87: 422–441.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Christen, Hans R., and Gerd Meyer. 1997. Grundlagen der allgemeinen und anorganischen Chemie. Frankfurt am Main: Salle & Sauerländer.

    Google Scholar 

  • Evans, Gareth. 1978. Can there be vague objects? Analysis 38: 208.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hoffman, Joshua, and Gary S. Rosenkrantz. 1997. Substance: Its nature and existence. London: Routledge.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Hübner, Johannes. 2007. Komplexe Substanzen. Berlin: de Gruyter.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Lewis, David K. 1983. New work for a theory of universals. Australasian Journal of Philosophy 61: 343–377.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • ———. 1991. Parts of classes. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

    Google Scholar 

  • Locke, John. [1690] 1975. In An essay concerning human understanding, ed. Peter H. Nidditch. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Mancin, Giacomo. 2012. On the problem of vague existence. Doctoral thesis, Università Ca’Foscari, Venice. Accessed 3 Sept 2015.

  • Maudlin, Tim. 1998. Part and whole in quantum mechanics. In Interpreting bodies: Classical and quantum objects in modern physics, ed. Elena Castellani, 46–60. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Povh, Bogdan, Klaus Rith, Christoph Scholz, Frank Zetsche and Werner Rodejohann. 2015. Particles and Nuclei. Trans. Martin Lavelle. 7th ed. Heidelberg: Springer. (Translation of the 9th German ed., Teilchen und Kerne, 2014; 1st German ed. 1993).

    Google Scholar 

  • Rosen, Gideon and Cian Dorr. 2002. Composition as a fiction. In The Blackwell guide to metaphysics, ed. Richard Gale, 151–174. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

    Google Scholar 

  • Schaffer, Jonathan. 2010. Monism: The priority of the whole. Philosophical Review 119: 31–76.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Sider, Theodor. 2013. Against parthood. In Oxford studies in metaphysics: Volume 6, ed. Karen Bennett and Dean W. Zimmerman, 237–293. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Tallant, Jonathan. 2014. Against mereological nihilism. Synthese 191: 1511–1527.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Thomasson, Amie L. 2007. Ordinary objects. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • van Inwagen, Peter. 1981. The doctrine of arbitrary undetached parts. Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 62: 123–137.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • ———. 1987. When are objects parts? Philosophical Perspectives 1: 21–47.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • ———. 1990. Material beings. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Paul M. Näger .

Editor information

Editors and Affiliations

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

Copyright information

© 2018 Springer International Publishing AG

About this chapter

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this chapter

Husmann, J., Näger, P.M. (2018). Physical Composition by Bonding. In: Jansen, L., Näger, P. (eds) Peter van Inwagen. Münster Lectures in Philosophy, vol 4. Springer, Cham.

Download citation

Publish with us

Policies and ethics