Peter van Inwagen (born 1942) is John Cardinal O'Hara Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. He previously taught at Syracuse University and earned his PhD from the University of Rochester under the direction of Richard Taylor and Keith Lehrer. Van Inwagen is one of the leading figures in contemporary metaphysics, philosophy of religion, and philosophy of action.


His 1983 monograph An Essay on Free Will[1] played an important role in rehabilitating libertarianism with respect to free will in mainstream analytical philosophy.[2] 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.[3]

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."[4]

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."[5]

The Consequence Argument and the Mind Argument are the two horns in the classic dilemma and standard argument against free will.[6] 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.[7]

Van Inwagen concludes that "Free Will Remains a Mystery."[8] In an article written in the third person called "Van Inwagen on Free Will,"[9] he describes the problem with his incompatibilist free will if random chance directly causes our actions.[10] He imagines that God causes the universe to revert a thousand times to exactly the same circumstances[11] 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."[12]

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."[13]

In his book Material Beings[14], 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[15]. There van Inwagen argues that the argument from evil is a philosophical argument and, like most philosophical arguments, it fails.

Awards and honorsEdit

He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2005 and is currently President of the Central Division of the American Philosophical Association.

He has delivered important named lectures including:

  • The F.D. Maurice Lectures, three lectures delivered at the University of London in March, 1999
  • The Wilde Lectures on Natural Religion, eight lectures delivered at Oxford University in Trinity Term, 2000
  • The Stewart Lectures: three lectures delivered at Princeton University, October 2002
  • The Gifford Lectures, eight lectures delivered at the University of St. Andrews, May 2003
  • The Jellema Lectures: two lectures delivered at Calvin College, March 2004


His books are:

  • The Problem of Evil (2006)
  • (edited) Christian Faith and the Problem of Evil (2004)
  • Ontology, Identity, and Modality (2001)
  • (co-edited with Dean Zimmerman), Metaphysics: The Big Questions (1998)
  • The Possibility of Resurrection and Other Essays in Christian Apologetics (1997)
  • God, Knowledge and Mystery (1995)
  • Metaphysics (1993)
  • Material Beings (1990)
  • (co-edited with James Tomberlin), Alvin Plantinga (1985)
  • An Essay on Free Will (1983)
  • ed., Time and Cause: Essays Presented to Richard Taylor (1980)

Personal lifeEdit

Van Inwagen lives in Granger, Indiana, with his wife Lisette and stepdaughter Claire.

See alsoEdit


  1. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983)
  2. Robert Kane, A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will, Oxford (2005) p.23
  3. 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
  4. Essay, v
  5. Essay, 16
  6. Garden of Forking Paths Blog, June 26, 2009
  7. J. J. C. Smart, "Free-Will, Praise and Blame," Mind, July 1961, 291–306
  8. Philosophical Perspectives, vol. 14, 2000, p.14
  9. Chapter 10 in Freedom and Determinism, ed. Joseph Keim Campbell, et al., MIT Press 2004
  10. Chance not the direct cause of actions, retrieved September 13, 2009
  11. Free will in exactly the same circumstances?, retrieved September 13, 2009
  12. "Van Inwagen on Free Will," p.227
  13. Microsoft Word document, retrieved September 12, 2009
  14. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995)
  15. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006)

External linksEdit

de:Peter van Inwagen pl:Peter van Inwagen fi:Peter van Inwagen

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