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Being, Freedom, and MethodThemes from the Philosophy of Peter van Inwagen$

John A. Keller

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9780198715702

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2017

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198715702.001.0001

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(p.1) Introduction
Being, Freedom, and Method

John A. Keller

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Reflective persons unswayed by wishful thinking can themselves now and again have cause to wonder what, if anything, they are talking about.

Quine (1960: 242)1

1 Reproduced with permission from Willard van Orman Quine, Word and Object, and The MIT Press.

Famously, or perhaps infamously, Peter van Inwagen doesn’t understand some things. Of course, there are things that few or none of us understand. But van Inwagen doesn’t understand some things that the rest of us seem to. For that reason, many people find van Inwagen’s incomprehension—or at least his ...

Reflective persons unswayed by wishful thinking can themselves now and again have cause to wonder what, if anything, they are talking about.

Quine (1960: 242)1

Famously, or perhaps infamously, Peter van Inwagen doesn’t understand some things. Of course, there are things that few or none of us understand. But van Inwagen doesn’t understand some things that the rest of us seem to. For that reason, many people find van Inwagen’s incomprehension—or at least his professed incomprehension—to be off-putting, offensive, or insincere.

Whether people find it off-putting, offensive, or insincere to fail to understand something seems to have very much to do with what that thing is. No one, or hardly anyone, gets upset if, like van Inwagen, you say that certain unfashionable things like agent causation, bare particulars, or hylomorphism make no sense. But if, also like van Inwagen, you say that temporal parts, substitutional quantification, or tropes make no sense, you are likely to be accused of deliberately not understanding things, or of lying about what you understand, or worse. But why should this be? Most of us think that many locutions that were once widespread in metaphysical theorizing are ultimately incoherent. But then how can we be sure that locutions that are currently widespread in metaphysical theorizing are not ultimately incoherent? How indeed? We must admit, if we are being honest, that some of the locutions currently employed by metaphysicians will turn out to be just as incoherent as some of the locutions employed in the past. But then none of us understand them, at least if the following principle is true:

The Nonsense Principle: If something doesn’t make sense, then no one understands it.

Of course, as Annette Baier (1972) notes, there are many different things we call “nonsense,” including mere blatant falsehoods.2 ‘I have 2.3 children’ is a kind of nonsense—what we might call silly nonsense—but what it means is easily understood, and understood to be false: that’s the problem with it. When van Inwagen calls (p.2) something nonsense, however, he typically means that it fails to have a meaning (at least in context), and this is the kind of nonsense governed by The Nonsense Principle. Call such nonsense semantic nonsense. One way for semantic nonsense to arise is for a term to be introduced via a “failed introduction”: e.g., “let ‘Vulcan’ refer to the planet perturbing Mercury’s orbit.” Such terms simply don’t have meanings, even if speakers think they do. But semantic nonsense also arises when a term has been given more than one meaning (“multiple introductions”), and there is nothing in the context (including speaker intentions) to differentiate between them. In such contexts, these terms have, at best, “indeterminate meanings.” Herman Cappelen (2013) argues that many philosophers’ uses of the word ‘intuition’ are semantic nonsense, and that many of us speak and believe semantic nonsense. Speaking and believing semantic nonsense has nothing to do with lack of education or intelligence—philosophers lack neither. The problem is simply that we don’t know we are speaking and believing semantic nonsense: both unnoticed failed introductions and unnoticed multiple introductions can give rise to what Gareth Evans (1982) calls “illusions of thought.”3

If there is semantic nonsense, there are things that no one understands, and if there are things no one understands, surely some metaphysical terms of art are among them. But if none of us understand these expressions, why shouldn’t van Inwagen—someone with, shall we say, rather stringent expectations when it comes to clarity—be among the first to notice?4 And while no one likes to be found to have been talking nonsense, we really shouldn’t be surprised or offended if we are. As van Inwagen says:

I do not understand what philosophers say…when they utter [certain sentences], and I think the reason I do not understand them is that they have failed to explain what they mean…And I think the reason they have failed to explain what they mean is that there is nothing, or nothing coherent, that they do mean…

It is not my intention to insult anyone. It is very hard to make any sense at all when talking about philosophical matters, and it is not necessarily a disgrace for a philosopher to lapse into nonsense. It is not, or should not be, any more insulting to say to a philosopher, ‘What you say is nonsense’, than it is to say, ‘What you say is false’. Very great philosophers, philosophers whose shoes I am not fit to untie, have talked mostly nonsense…[N]onsense is as variable in its quality as falsity…Descartes’ philosophy and what I wrote in my undergraduate (p.3) philosophy papers are equally nonsense. But…[w]ould that I were capable of such nonsense [as Descartes]! (Van Inwagen 1980: 285)

If the Nonsense principle is true, it is likely that there are currently fashionable idioms that none of us understand. But is the Nonsense Principle true? It is at least superficially plausible: ‘understand’ is a success term, and so while many people think they understand things that they in fact do not understand, no one understands something that cannot be understood. And isn’t it true that if something makes no sense, then no one can understand it? What would it be to understand something that makes no sense? ‘p makes no sense, but she understands it’ has a paradoxical air about it, does it not? If p is semantic nonsense, there is just nothing there to understand (in the relevant sense).5

If the Nonsense Principle is true, it follows that if, as some philosophers believe, agent causation makes no sense, then no one understands agent causation. It also follows that if, as some philosophers believe, the notion of a bare particular makes no sense, no one understands the notion of a bare particular. Similarly, it follows that if the idea of form—something that is supposed to be neither concrete nor abstract—doesn’t make sense, then no one, not even Aristotle himself, understands hylomorphic theories that rely on that notion. And of course it follows that if substitutional quantification, temporal parts, tropes, and so on make no sense, then no one understands them, even the very smart people who have devoted their lives to their defense.6

(p.4) And so, I ask you again: given that a great many previously popular metaphysical locutions make no sense, what are the chances that all currently popular metaphysical locutions make sense? I think there is only one possible honest and self-aware answer to this question.

But enough. It is not my purpose here to defend van Inwagen’s incomprehension.7 Rather, I want to point out the merits of his incomprehension, whatever its demerits. Technical terms abound in philosophy, and they are not always introduced via explicit definition. Technical terms without explicit definitions might be semantic nonsense, but even when they aren’t, providing such definitions is a source of clarity, and often results in unexpected benefits: a term turns out to be harder to define than one expects, and different ways of defining it carry surprising philosophical commitments (or render phrases making use of the term silly nonsense). Van Inwagen’s insistence that we carefully define our terms does us a service, even if we don’t enjoy it. We should be grateful for this treatment, and not judge van Inwagen “the way a doctor would be judged by a jury of children if a pastry chef were to bring accusations against him” (Gorgias: 521e2–4).8

But as valuable as clarity is, I think van Inwagen’s incomprehension has another and perhaps more important benefit: it has forced him to approach philosophical topics from new perspectives, thereby creating new questions and new debates about how to answer them. Only six philosophers appear more than once on Kieran Healy’s list of the “top fifty” most influential publications in the second half of the twentieth century.9 They are David Lewis, Timothy Williamson, Donald Davidson, Jerry Fodor, Hillary Putnam, and Peter van Inwagen.10 The list speaks for itself, but it is worth calling attention to what it tells us about the benefits of rejecting fashionable ways of framing philosophical problems and their solution sets. Over the course of his career, van Inwagen’s incomprehension has led to immensely fruitful questioning—questioning that opened up new and productive avenues of inquiry. Failing to understand the standard options is a powerful impetus for discovering new ones, and the landscape in the philosophy of action, metaphysics, meta-philosophy, and philosophy of religion has been profoundly altered by van Inwagen’s work over (p.5) the last four decades. As Timothy Williamson put it, van Inwagen’s work is among the “liveliest, exactest, and most creative…of the final third of the 20th Century” (Williamson 2007: 19). The essays in this volume reflect the impact of this work, and aim to further it. Some of the essays are on themes from van Inwagen’s work that are well explored, while others are on themes that are in their philosophical infancy. All the themes will be important for years to come.

This volume is divided into five parts, the first four reflecting van Inwagen’s primary areas of philosophical interest: Being (metaphysics), Freedom (philosophy of action), God (philosophy of religion), and Method (meta-philosophy). The final section contains reflections by van Inwagen on selected essays from the previous sections.


In the 1980s and 1990s, van Inwagen created, almost ex nihilo, a new domain of metaphysical inquiry: questions about “material constitution.” Many philosophers regard van Inwagen’s Material Beings (van Inwagen 1990) as the best book on metaphysics published in the 1990s. It is, I think, certainly the most influential: the debate about material constitution is now one of the most central and important areas of contemporary metaphysics, and animalism has become a mainstream position about the metaphysics of the human person. And of course van Inwagen has also done extremely influential work in other areas of metaphysics, including modality (where he defends an “abstractionist” modal ontology), modal epistemology (where he defends a limited form of modal skepticism), the existence of abstracta (defending platonism), and the ontology of fiction (defending the existence of creatures of fiction).

The essays in this section are, however, focused on more recent themes in van Inwagen’s work. While his best-known work in metaphysics is on material composition and the metaphysics of the human person, some of van Inwagen’s recent work is transforming the literature on time travel and constituent ontologies. Sara Bernstein’s contribution to this section explores the model of time travel proposed by van Inwagen in ‘Changing the Past’ (van Inwagen 2010), and the papers by Michael Loux, Laurie Paul, and Eric Olson all respond, in different ways, to van Inwagen’s arguments for preferring a relational to a constituent ontology (in, e.g., van Inwagen 2011). Loux’s contribution uses terminology made mainstream by van Inwagen to categorize different positions on what it is for a thing to have the character (or properties) that it does; Olson follows van Inwagen in critiquing constituent ontologies; and Paul defends a version of constituent ontology that is immune to many of van Inwagen’s (and Olson’s) complaints.


Van Inwagen’s work on free will in the 1970s and 1980s was instrumental in undoing a near consensus amongst Anglophone philosophers in favor of some form of compatibilism—a consensus that had reigned since roughly the time of Mill. In conjunction with several important essays written in the 1970s, van Inwagen’s An (p.6) Essay on Free Will (van Inwagen 1983) cemented incompatibilism’s place at the philosophical table, and remains widely regarded as one of the best and most important books in the philosophy of action. The central argument of that book, the Consequence Argument, is generally thought to be the single most important argument for incompatibilism. Van Inwagen also instigated the contemporary debate about the frequency of free actions, and has been one of the most forceful critics of Harry Frankfurt’s arguments that moral responsibility is compatible with causal determinism.

The essays in this section press van Inwagen on his views about freedom. Neal Tognazzini and John Martin Fischer square off with Wesley Holliday concerning the incompatibilist’s contention that we are unable to change the past and about the relationship between freedom and modality more generally. Alicia Finch proposes a new version of the Mind argument, utilizing the notion of grounding, which she argues is valid if the Consequence Argument is. Finally, Mark Heller develops an underexplored argument against libertarianism, hinging on the notion of degrees of influence, and is led to endorse a form of contextualism about free will according to which there are contexts such that it is correct to say ‘Compatibilism is true and we have free will’ and others such that it is correct to say ‘Compatibilism is false and we lack free will’, but no contexts such that it is correct to say ‘Compatibilism is false and we have free will’.


After metaphysics and free will, van Inwagen is most famous for his work on the philosophy of religion. He has written extensively on the problem of evil, the Doctrine of the Trinity, and arguments for the existence of God. He is also one of the primary defenders of “open theism” and one of the most prominent defenders of the compatibility of evolutionary theory and Christianity.

Many of these themes and conclusions are explored in the essays in this section. Alex Rosenberg argues, contra van Inwagen, that evolution and theism are incompatible, while Daniel Howard-Snyder argues that Paul Draper’s (2008) influential argument for this incompatibility claim is a failure. Louise Antony critiques van Inwagen’s reply to the argument from evil (in his 2006), while Frances Howard-Snyder sympathetically explores some of the moral underpinnings of that reply. Eleonore Stump lays the groundwork for a unified understanding of both the problem of evil and the doctrine of the atonement. Finally, Lynne Baker pushes back on van Inwagen’s dismissal of the ontological argument, arguing that Anselm’s version of the argument does not hinge on an implausible Meinongian ontology.


Given the extent of van Inwagen’s contributions to the philosophy of religion, metaphysics, and the philosophy of action, it is perhaps not surprising that his contributions to philosophical methodology are less well recognized that his contributions to those sub-disciplines. But van Inwagen’s work on philosophical method has been at least as important: his work on the philosophy of philosophy has been (p.7) both trailblazing and trendsetting. Van Inwagen wrote the foundational essay (van Inwagen 1996) in the contemporary debate about the epistemic significance of disagreement, and his work on meta-ontology (e.g., van Inwagen 1998a) is largely responsible for the currently feverish level of interest in this topic.

While both meta-ontology and disagreement remain topics of tremendous import and interest, there is no lack of good work on them. But van Inwagen has recently ignited another meta-philosophical debate, giving a novel and fascinating account of what is required for an argument to be a success, and arguing that there are no successful arguments for substantive philosophical conclusions.11 The three essays in this section all focus on this topic. David Chalmers investigates the connection between success and progress, distinguishes three different questions that might be expressed by ‘Why isn’t there more progress in philosophy?’, and explores some competing answers to them. John Keller argues that there is no useful objective notion of argumentative success—that many arguments (and most philosophical arguments) can only be usefully evaluated for success relative to individuals. Finally, Thomas Kelly and Sarah McGrath criticize van Inwagen’s account of success and failure and argue that there are, in fact, successful philosophical arguments.

Concluding Meditation

In this last part of the volume, van Inwagen responds to the papers by Louise Antony, David Chalmers, John Keller, Thomas Kelly and Sarah McGrath, Michael Loux, Laurie Paul, and Alex Rosenberg. These responses give a nice indication of where the next rounds of debate will be conducted.


Thanks to Lorraine Juliano Keller, Steve Petersen, Peter van Inwagen, and Dean Zimmerman for helpful comments on this introduction.


Bibliography references:

Baier, A. (1972), ‘Nonsense’, in P. Edwards (ed.), The Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Macmillian).

Cappelen, H. (2013), ‘Nonsense and Illusions of Thought’, in Philosophical Perspectives: Philosophy of Language 27: 22–50.

Diamond, C. (1981), ‘What Nonsense Might Be’, Philosophy 56: 5–22.

Draper, P. (2008), ‘Evolution and the Problem of Evil’, in L. Pojman and M. Rea (eds.), Philosophy of Religion: An Anthology, 5th edn. (Wadsworth): 207–19.

Evans, G. (1982), Varieties of Reference (Oxford).

Kripke, S. (1980), Naming and Necessity (Harvard).

Plato (1987), Gorgias, translated by Zeyl, D. (Hackett).

Quine, W.O. (1960), Word and Object (MIT Press).

Recanati, F. (1997), ‘Can We Believe What We Do Not Understand?’, Mind & Language 12: 84–100. (p.8)

Van Inwagen, P. (1980), ‘Philosophers and the Words “Human Body”’, in P. van Inwagen (ed.), Time and Cause: Essays Presented to Richard Taylor (Springer), 283–300.

Van Inwagen, P. (1981), ‘Why I Do Not Understand Substitutional Quantification’, Philosophical Studies 39: 281–5. Reprinted in van Inwagen (2001).

Van Inwagen, P. (1983), An Essay on Free Will (Oxford).

Van Inwagen, P. (1988), ‘On Always Being Wrong’, Midwest Studies in Philosophy 12: 95–111.

Van Inwagen, P. (1990), Material Beings (Cornell).

Van Inwagen, P. (1996), ‘It is Wrong Everywhere, Always and for Anyone, to Believe Anything Upon Insufficient Evidence’, in J. Jordan and D. Howard-Snyder (eds.), Faith, Freedom, and Rationality (Rowman & Littlefield).

Van Inwagen, P. (1998a), ‘Meta-ontology’, Erkenntnis 48: 233–50. Reprinted in van Inwagen (2001).

Van Inwagen, P. (1998b), ‘Modal Epistemology’, Philosophical Studies 92: 67–84. Reprinted in van Inwagen (2001).

Van Inwagen, P. (2000), ‘Temporal Parts and Identity Across Time’, The Monist 83: 437–59. Reprinted in van Inwagen (2001).

Van Inwagen, P. (2001), Ontology, Identity, and Modality (Cambridge).

Van Inwagen, P. (2006), The Problem of Evil (Oxford).

Van Inwagen, P. (2008), ‘How to Think about the Problem of Free Will’, Journal of Ethics 12: 327–41.

Van Inwagen, P. (2010), ‘Changing the Past’, in K. Bennett and D. Zimmerman (eds.), Oxford Studies in Metaphysics, vol. 5 (Oxford), 3–28.

Van Inwagen, P. (2011), ‘Relational vs. Constituent Ontologies’, in Philosophical Perspectives: Metaphysics.

Van Inwagen, P. (2014), ‘Five Questions’, in Existence: Essays in Ontology (Oxford).

Williamson, T. (2007), The Philosophy of Philosophy (Oxford).


(1) Reproduced with permission from Willard van Orman Quine, Word and Object, and The MIT Press.

(2) See Diamond (1981) for discussion. Van Inwagen makes a similar observation—see note 6.

(3) See Cappelen (2013), and also Recanati (1997), for further discussion. Of course, if there can be “illusions of thought,” there can presumably also be “illusions of nonsense”—cases where something that makes sense seems to be nonsense (e.g., “wave particle duality” and “there are as many even numbers as numbers”).

(4) In addition to his preference for strict “Chisholm-style” definitions, van Inwagen’s Wittgensteinian streak is relevant, as is his skepticism about our ability to know interesting or substantive modal facts (see van Inwagen (2014, 1988, and 1998b), respectively, for discussion). Many philosophers are drawn to “desert landscapes”: austere ontologies that, e.g., reduce everything to physics and eliminate what cannot be so reduced. Van Inwagen is drawn to austere methods that reduce the epistemology of philosophy to the epistemology of non-philosophy (science, ordinary inquiry, etc.) and eliminate philosophical methods that cannot be so reduced. Hence his skepticism about metaphysical explanation (see, e.g., his 2011) and his requirement that all terms be ultimately definable using only antecedently understood bits of ordinary language (see, e.g., his 2008).

(5) There are many different senses of ‘understanding’, and one might worry that if the primary objects of our understanding (in the relevant sense) are propositions, but the things that make sense (or not) are sentences, the Nonsense Principle itself doesn’t make sense. (In fact, Neal Tognazzini did express this worry to me.) But we can (at least derivatively) be said to understand a sentence (or term) s if we understand the proposition (or concept) p expressed by s and know that p is expressed by s. Call this sense of understanding ‘understandings’. The Nonsense Principle could then be expressed as follows:

The Nonsense Principles: If something is semantic nonsense (in context c), then no one understandss it.

Another worry about the Nonsense Principle is that understanding comes in degrees—to understands a sentence one needn’t fully grasp the proposition it expresses, or to be able to narrow down the different potential meanings to one. Rather, partially grasping the proposition it expresses, or being able to narrow down the range to a few propositions, might count as partially understandings the sentence. This won’t help with sentences that express too few (i.e., zero) propositions (due to failed introductions), but it may help with sentences that can be used to express too many propositions (due to multiple introductions). If one sees that a sentence s may be used to express (only) propositions p and q in context c, then it seems fair to say that one has some understandings of the sentence (in c). On the other hand, if the speaker insists that she doesn’t mean p or q, then I think that it is fair to say that one doesn’t understands her use of that sentence (in c). In some such cases, it is plausible that s doesn’t express anything at all. Cf. van Inwagen (1981) on substitutional quantification.

(6) Of course, we can often transform semantic nonsense into silly nonsense via explicit definition, but that doesn’t necessarily yield understanding. As van Inwagen says about David Lewis’s definition of ‘temporal part’:

Since I understand [the definition], I understand “Lewis-part” and I know what Lewis-parts are. In a way. In the same way as the way in which I should understand talk of “propertyless objects” if I were told that “propertyless object” meant “object of which nothing is true”; in the same way as that in which I should understand talk of “two-dimensional cups” if I were told that “two-dimensional cup” meant “cup that lies entirely in a plane.” These phrases would not be…“semantical nonsense”…; they would not be like “abracadabra” or…“Das Nichts nichtet.” But I should hardly care to say that I understood what someone was talking about…who talked of propertyless objects or two-dimensional cups, and who, moreover, talked of them in a way that suggested that he supposed there were such things. For I cannot see how there could be any such things. In fact, I think I can see clearly and distinctly why there could not possibly be any propertyless objects or two-dimensional cups (so defined).

(Van Inwagen 2000)

(7) I should, however, note that there are at least two cases where I thought I understood something—where I thought I believed something—only to come to realize that what I “believed” made no sense. These realizations came after years of (internal) eye rolling when van Inwagen professed not to be able to understand me. Thanks Peter!

(8) (Translation from Plato 1987.) For those who don’t know the reference, the gist of it is that children are wont to choose what feels good rather than what is good: they’ll happily scarf down pastry after pastry but won’t take their medicine or eat their vegetables. We should take our medicine.

(10) David Lewis appears on the list eight times; the others appear twice each. Obviously, this is nowhere near the whole story—Kripke and Quine, for example, only appear once on the list, but Naming and Necessity (Kripke 1980) and Word and Object (Quine 1960) were each referenced more than the sum of Putnam’s, Fodor’s, and van Inwagen’s top two publications.

(11) In van Inwagen (2006).