Comments on Van Inwagen’s ‘When are objects parts?’

This essay aims to defend nihilism about objects from the objections given by van Inwagen in his paper titled When are objects parts? He argues, for reasons that will be discussed below, that nihilism does not offer a satisfactory answer to the Special Composition Question (SPQ), and the General Composition Question (GCQ). The central argument of this essay is that what we commonly refer to as objects, for instance chairs, tables, people, etc., are nothing over and above the simple particles that make them up. In order to make this argument, firstly this essay will summarize van Inwagen’s view. Secondly, the essay will show that different properties of “objects” are caused by varying combinations of the simple particles, which compose them.

Van Inwagen defines nihilism thus: ‘It is impossible for one to bring it about that something is such that the xs compose it, because necessarily, (if the xs are two or more) nothing is such that the xs compose it’¬†(Van Inwagen, 1987). The ‘xs’ are the simplest possible particles. For the sake of simplicity this essay will assume that they are protons, neutrons and electrons, though it is possible that even more basic particles exist. According to van Inwagen, this view leads to two possible consequences. The first is that there are no material objects at all. Van Inwagen simply states that he will not bother discussing this possibility¬†(Van Inwagen, 1987). Rightly so, as the simple particles themselves must be material in nature. The second possibility is that the only material objects are simples. This consequence while perhaps intuitively unacceptable, also appears to be the best solution to SPQ and GCQ.

For van Inwagen, the second consequence of nihilism is unacceptable. He agrees that nihilism does entail an answer to GCQ, which is that ‘the xs compose y if and only if each of the xs is y’ (Van Inwagen, 1987). This leads to a problem according to him. He and writer of this paper are material things, and not simple. There are, if nothing else elementary particles composing both individuals. Yet, both individuals exist.

It appears then that what one needs to show to defend nihilism from van Inwagen’s objections is to show that truly, neither individual exists. On the surface, it appears that the previous statement is ridiculous. It seems inconceivable to truly believe that the computer on which this essay is being written on, or the individual writing it, do not exist. Empirically however, we can show that only basic sub-atomic particles exist. To continue using van Inwagen’s language, they will be referred to as ‘simples’. Chemistry and physics show us that those sub-atomic particles can interact in various ways, they can contact, cohere or fuse. More importantly, they can form complex systems. The basic nature of the simples does not change though. They remain protons, electrons and neutrons. Van Inwagen, in his paper shows that contact, cohesion or even fusion do not constitute the creation of a new object. Since, his arguments are sufficient regarding these three concepts, they will not be discussed further.

The simples can form systems, which differ depending on the number and kind of simples involved. Furthermore, simple systems of simples can combine to form more complex systems. For instance, some simple particles combine to make up Bill Murray’s liver. Others make up his lungs. Others still make up the rest of his body. John Malkovich is made up of similar kinds and quantities of simples, however they are combined in slightly different proportions and order. Numerically, they are also different simples. As such, John and Bill both share some basic characteristics, they have hands, feet, etc. They are however different systems of simples, and as such different individuals.

From the above discussion, it becomes evident that the complex systems can always be explained in their properties in terms of the simple particles which compose them. The system is nothing over and above a collection of simples. The method of talking about what commonly is referred to as ‘objects’ as ‘systems’ helps diffuse some problems which van Inwagen poses, as well as some other conceivable issues which will be addressed below.

Firstly, van Inwagen’s argument that while not simple, it is clear that individuals do exist. What he is referring to as ‘individuals’ are nothing but complex systems of simples. Throughout the life of the system, some simples leave it, and new ones are included. It is quite clear that the composition of systems can be fluctuating. For instance each cell, and consequently simple particle in the human body gets replaced every few years. Due to this the system can evolve. In humans we refer to it as ageing. The system however remains the same system. To support this, one can imagine a car that needs to have the door replaced. The door itself is a system of simples, and it will be attached to the body of the car, which is another system, and those together with some other systems form the more complex system called the car. The replacement of the door does not change the overall identity of the system. It is still the same car. It merely has a different property caused by a new combination of simples.

At this stage, the way in which systems can persist through time has been shown, what remains is to show the way in which systems of simples originate and cease to exist. It is clear that as soon as two simples interact in any way they form a system. It might be a nondescript system with no special properties, but a system none the less. There are clear ways to establish the origin of some systems. For instance, Benzene originates as soon as six hydrogen atoms and six carbon atoms bond in the appropriate way. This example shows that it is possible to clearly define the origins of systems.

The end of a system could also be clearly defined, thanks to the assumption that there is nothing over and above simples. Consider a cube that is composed of eight simples. At time T1 the system consists of the eight simples. Now imagine that one of those simples has been taken away. At T2 the system no longer consists of eight simples, but of seven, and it has lost the property of being cubic in shape. Now let us take away another simple, one neighbouring to the first one that way taken away. At T3 then, the system consists of six simples, and if looked at from the appropriate angle, would be shaped like the letter “L”. By the change in the amount of simples, the properties of the system change. More and more simples are taken away, until only two are left. The system still exists, however it’s properties have changed yet again. Consider then taking away one more simple. At the second they are separated, the system ceases to exist. This is because the simplest system is that which consists of two simples. If no simples are interacting there is no system.

While it is obvious that simples can form systems, it is also clear that the various properties of systems are merely caused by the sort, proportions and amount of simples that they contain and the way in which those simples are combined. Van Inwagen claimed that nihilism seemed false because he and his reader while not being simple, existed. It is clear though that what actually exists are only simples and the systems that simples form. One might be tempted to say that even the simplest system formed by simples should be treated as an object in itself. Van Inwagen outlines however convincing reasons for why new objects are not formed by the ways in which simples can interact. If new objects are not formed when two simples are in contact, are fastened together, cohere or are fused, then it is clear that a new object cannot be formed from simples interacting in those ways. As such, nihilism regarding objects other than simples is the most reasonable answer.

Van Inwagen, P., 1987. When are objects parts?. Philosophical Perspectives, Volume I, pp. 21-47.