Peter van Inwagen

Last updated
Peter van Inwagen
Born (1942-09-21) September 21, 1942 (age 76)
Alma mater
Era 20th-/21st-century philosophy
Region Western philosophy
School Analytic philosophy
Doctoral advisor Richard Taylor
Main interests
Philosophy of religion
Philosophy of action
Notable ideas
Consequence argument
No forking paths argument [1]

Peter van Inwagen ( /vænɪnˈwɑːɡən/ ; born September 21, 1942) is an American analytic philosopher and the John Cardinal O'Hara Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. He is also a Research Professor of Philosophy at Duke University each Spring. [2] He previously taught at Syracuse University and earned his PhD from the University of Rochester in 1969 [3] under the direction of Richard Taylor. [4] Van Inwagen is one of the leading figures in contemporary metaphysics, philosophy of religion, and philosophy of action. He was the president of the Society of Christian Philosophers from 2010 to 2013. [5]

Analytic philosophy style of philosophy

Analytic philosophy is a style of philosophy that became dominant in the Western world at the beginning of the 20th century. The term can refer to one of several things:

University of Notre Dame Private Catholic university in Notre Dame, Indiana, United States

The University of Notre Dame du Lac is a private Catholic research university in Notre Dame, Indiana. The main campus covers 1,261 acres (510 ha) in a suburban setting and it contains a number of recognizable landmarks, such as the Golden Dome, the Word of Life mural, the Notre Dame Stadium, and the Basilica. The school was founded on November 26, 1842, by Edward Sorin, who was also its first president.

Duke University private university in Durham, North Carolina, United States

Duke University is a private research university in Durham, North Carolina. Founded by Methodists and Quakers in the present-day town of Trinity in 1838, the school moved to Durham in 1892. In 1924, tobacco and electric power industrialist James Buchanan Duke established The Duke Endowment and the institution changed its name to honor his deceased father, Washington Duke.



His 1983 monograph An Essay on Free Will [6] played an important role in rehabilitating libertarianism with respect to free will in mainstream analytical philosophy. [7] In the book, Van Inwagen introduces the term incompatibilism about free will and determinism, to stand in contrast to compatibilism - the view that free will is compatible with determinism. [8]

Free will Ability of agents to make choices free from certain kinds of constraints

Free will is the ability to choose between different possible courses of action unimpeded.

Incompatibilism view that a deterministic universe is completely at odds with the notion that persons have a free will; that there is a dichotomy between determinism and free will where philosophers must choose one or the other

Incompatibilism is the view that a deterministic universe is completely at odds with the notion that persons have a free will; that there is a dichotomy between determinism and free will where philosophers must choose one or the other. This view is pursued in at least three ways: libertarians deny that the universe is deterministic, the hard determinists deny that any free will exists, and pessimistic incompatibilists deny both that the universe is determined and that free will exists.

Determinism is the philosophical idea that all events, including moral choices, are determined completely by previously existing causes. Determinism is at times understood to preclude free will because it entails that humans cannot act otherwise than they do. It can also be called hard determinism from this point of view. Hard determinism is a position on the relationship of determinism to free will. The theory holds that the universe is utterly rational because complete knowledge of any given situation assures that unerring knowledge of its future is also possible. Some philosophers suggest variants around this basic definition. Deterministic theories throughout the history of philosophy have sprung from diverse and sometimes overlapping motives and considerations. The opposite of determinism is some kind of indeterminism. Determinism is often contrasted with free will.

Van Inwagen's central argument (the Consequence Argument) for this view says that "If determinism is true, then our acts are the consequences of the laws of nature and events in the remote past. But it is not up to us what went on before we were born, and neither is it up to us what the laws of nature are. Therefore, the consequences of those things (including our present acts) are not up to us." [9]

Van Inwagen also added what he called the Mind Argument (after the philosophical journal Mind where such arguments often appeared). "The Mind argument proceeds by identifying indeterminism with chance and by arguing that an act that occurs by chance, if an event that occurs by chance can be called an act, cannot be under the control of its alleged agent and hence cannot have been performed freely. Proponents of [this argument] conclude, therefore, that free will is not only compatible with determinism but entails determinism." [10]

<i>Mind</i> (journal) journal

Mind is a quarterly peer-reviewed academic journal published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Mind Association. Having previously published exclusively philosophy in the analytic tradition, it now "aims to take quality to be the sole criterion of publication, with no area of philosophy, no style of philosophy, and no school of philosophy excluded." Its institutional home is shared between the University of Oxford and University College London.

The Consequence Argument and the Mind Argument are the two horns in the classic dilemma and standard argument against free will. [11] If determinism is true, our actions are not free. If indeterminism is true, our actions are random and our will can not be morally responsible for them. [12]

In philosophy, moral responsibility is the status of morally deserving praise, blame, reward, or punishment for an act or omission performed or neglected in accordance with one's moral obligations. Deciding what counts as "morally obligatory" is a principal concern of ethics.

Van Inwagen concludes that "Free Will Remains a Mystery." [13] In an article written in the third person called "Van Inwagen on Free Will," [14] he describes the problem with his incompatibilist free will if random chance directly causes our actions. [15] He imagines that God causes the universe to revert a thousand times to exactly the same circumstances [16] that it was in at some earlier time and we could observe all the "replays." If the agent's actions are random, she sometimes "would have agent-caused the crucial brain event and sometimes (in seventy percent of the replays, let us say) she would not have... I conclude that even if an episode of agent causation is among the causal antecedents of every voluntary human action, these episodes do nothing to undermine the prima facie impossibility of an undetermined free act." [17]

In a paper submitted to The Journal of Ethics entitled "How to Think about the Problem of Free Will," Van Inwagen worries that the concept "free will" may be incoherent. He says "There are seemingly unanswerable arguments that (if they are indeed unanswerable) demonstrate that free will is incompatible with determinism. And there are seemingly unanswerable arguments that ... demonstrate that free will is incompatible with indeterminism. But if free will is incompatible both with determinism and indeterminism, the concept 'free will' is incoherent, and the thing free will does not exist." [18]

In his book Material Beings, [19] Van Inwagen argues that all material objects are either elementary particles or living organisms. Every composite material object is made up of elementary particles, and the only such composite objects are living organisms. A consequence of this view is that everyday objects such as tables, chairs, cars, buildings, and clouds do not exist. While there seem to be such things, this is only because there are elementary particles arranged in specific ways. For example, where it seems that there is a chair, Van Inwagen says that there are only elementary particles arranged chairwise. These particles do not compose an object, any more than a swarm of bees composes an object. Like a swarm of bees, the particles we call a chair maintain a more or less stable arrangement for a while, which gives the impression of a single object. An individual bee, by contrast, has parts that are unified in the right way to constitute a single object (namely, a bee).

Van Inwagen gave the 2003 Gifford Lectures; the lectures are published in his The Problem of Evil. [20] There Van Inwagen argues that the argument from evil is a philosophical argument and, like most philosophical arguments, it fails.

In recent years, Van Inwagen has shown an interest in the afterlife debate, particularly in relation to resurrection of the body. In his unpublished article, "I Look for the Resurrection of the Dead and the Life of the World to Come," Van Inwagen concludes that Christians must account for some sort of physical continuity in their account of existence of the same person after death. In particular, Van Inwagen notes, this is a problem for the Christian materialist, one who believes that human beings are physical substances.

Awards and honors

He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2005 [21] and was President of the Central Division of the American Philosophical Association in 2008/09. He was the President of the Society of Christian Philosophers from 2010 to 2013. [5]

He has delivered important named lectures including:

In May 2011 it was announced that he is to receive an honorary doctorate from the University of St Andrews, Scotland. [22]


Personal life

Van Inwagen lives in Granger, Indiana, with his wife Elisabeth. Van Inwagen converted to Christianity in 1980.

See also


  1. Arguments for Incompatibilism (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
  2. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2015-03-05. Retrieved 2015-07-02.
  3. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2015-10-03. Retrieved 2015-10-03.
  4. "Peter van Inwagen". The Gifford Lectures. Retrieved 17 November 2017.
  5. 1 2 "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2012-08-02. Retrieved 2015-10-03.
  6. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983)
  7. Robert Kane, A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will, Oxford (2005) p.23
  8. Indeed some philosophers suggest free will must be compatible with determinism otherwise we could not be responsible for our actions. R. E. Hobart, Free Will As Involving Determination and Inconceivable Without It, Mind, vol.43, (1934) 1-27
  9. Essay, v
  10. Essay, 16
  11. "The Garden of Forking Paths". Retrieved 17 November 2017.
  12. J. J. C. Smart, "Free-Will, Praise and Blame," Mind, July 1961, 291–306
  13. Philosophical Perspectives, vol. 14, 2000, p.14
  14. Chapter 10 in Freedom and Determinism, ed. Joseph Keim Campbell, et al., MIT Press 2004
  15. "Chance NOT the Direct Cause of Human Action". Retrieved 17 November 2017.
  16. "Exactly The Same Circumstances". Retrieved 17 November 2017.
  17. "Van Inwagen on Free Will," p.227
  18. Peter van Inwagen (2008). "How to think about the problem of free will". The Journal of Ethics. 12 (3-4): 327–341. doi:10.1007/s10892-008-9038-7. A pdf file can be found here.
  19. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995)
  20. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006)
  21. Dame, Marketing Communications: Web // University of Notre. "Philosopher elected to American Academy of Arts and Sciences". Notre Dame News. Retrieved 17 November 2017.
  22. "St Andrews to honour David Attenborough". University of St Andrews . Retrieved 20 May 2011.

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