Peter van Inwagen's Material Beings (Cornell UP, 1990) is a very strange book, but he is a brilliant man, so one can expect to learn something from it. A central claim is that artifacts such as tables and chairs and ships do not exist. One can appreciate that if there are no ships then the ancient puzzle about identity known as the Ship of Theseus has a very quick (dis)solution.
The Ship of Theseus is a puzzle about diachronic artifact identity. Here is one version. You have a ship, or a rowboat, or any object, composed entirely of wooden planks. You remove one of the planks and replace it with an aluminum plank of the same size. The wooden plank is placed in a warehouse. After this minor replacement, you have a ship and indeed numerically the same ship as the one you started with. It is not a numerically different ship. Now replace a second wooden plank with an aluminum plank, and place the second wooden plank in the warehouse. Again, the numerical identity of the original ship has been preserved. Continue the replacement process until all of the wooden planks have been replaced with aluminum planks. You now have a wholly aluminum ship that is presumably numerically identical to the original wholly wooden ship despite the fact that none of the original matter is to be found in the aluminum ship. After all, the aluminum ship 'grew out of' the original wooden ship by minor changes each of which is identity-preserving.
Now take the wooden planks from the warehouse and assemble them in the form of a ship and in such a way that the planks bear the same relations to one another as the planks in the original wooden ship bore to one another. You now have two ships, a wooden one and an aluminum one. The question is: which of these ships is identical to the original wooden one?
Suppose the two ships collide on the high seas, and suppose the captain of the original ship had taken a solemn vow to go down with his ship. Where does his duty lie? With the wooden ship or with the aluminum one? Is the original ship identical to the resultant aluminum ship? One will be tempted to say 'yes' since the aluminum ship 'grew out' of the original wooden ship by minor transformations each of which was identity-preserving. Or is the original ship identical to the wooden ship that resulted from the re-assembly of the wooden planks? After all, it consists of the original matter arranged in the original way. Since the resultant wooden and aluminum ships are numerically distinct, they cannot both be identical to the original ship.
Van Inwagen makes short work of the puzzle: "There are no ships, and hence there are no puzzles about the identities of ships." (128) One way van Inwagen supports this bizarre solution is by re-telling the story in language that does not make even apparent reference to ships. Here is his retelling:
Once upon a time, there were certain planks that were arranged shipwise. Call then the First Planks. . . . One of the First Planks was removed from the others and placed in a field. Then it was replaced by a new plank; that is, a carpenter caused the new plank and the remaining First Planks to be arranged shipwise, and in just such a way that the new plank was in contact with the same planks that the removed planks had been in contact with, and at exactly the same points. Call the planks that were then arranged shipwise the Second Planks. A plank that was both one of the First Planks and one of the Second Planks was removed from the others and placed in the field and replaced (according to the procedure laid down above), with the consequence that certain planks, the Third Planks, were arranged shipwise. Then a plank that was one of the First Planks and one of the Second Planks and one of the Third Planks . . . . This process was repeated till all the First Planks were in the field. Then the First Planks were caused to be arranged shipwise, and in just such a way that each of them was in contact with the same planks it had been in contact with when the First Planks had last been arranged shipwise, and was in contact with them at just the same points. (128-129)
If I understand what van Inwagen is claiming here, it is that there is nothing in the standard telling of the story, a version of which I presented above, that is not captured in his re-telling. But since there is no mention of any ships in the re-telling, no puzzle about ship-identity can arise. Perhaps van Inwagen's point could be put by saying that the puzzle about identity is an 'artifact' of a certain way of talking that can be paraphased away. Instead of talking about ships, we can talk about shipwise arrangements of planks. The planks do not then compose a ship, he thinks, and so there is no whole of which they are proper parts, and consequently no question about how this whole maintains its diachronic identity under replacement of its parts.
What are we to say about van Inwagen's dissolution of the puzzle? What I find dubious is van Inwagen's claim that ". . . at no time do two or more of these planks compose anything, and no plank is a proper part of anything." (129) This strikes me as plainly false. If the First Planks are arranged shipwise, then there is a distinction beween the First Planks and their shipwise arrangement. The latter is the whole ship and the former are its proper parts. So how can van Inwagen claim that the planks do not compose a ship? Van Inwagen seems to think that if the planks were parts of a whole, and there were n planks, then the whole would be an n + 1 th entity. Rejecting this extreme, he goes to the other extreme: there is no whole of parts. If there were ships, they would be wholes of parts, but there are no artifactual wholes of parts, so there are no ships. The idea seems to be that when we build an artifact like a ship we are not causing something new to come into existence; we are merely re-arranging what already exists. If so, then although a ship's planks exist, the ship does not exist. Consider what van Inwagen says on p. 35:
If I bring two cubes into contact so that the face of one is conterminous with the face of the other, have I thereby brought into existence a solid that is twice as long as it is wide? Or have I merely rearranged the furniture of the earth without adding to it?
Van Inwagen seems to be saying that when it comes to artifacts, there is only rearrangement, no 'addition to existence.' As a general thesis, this strikes me as false. A ship is more than its planks, and van Inwagen seems to concede as much with his talk of a shipwise arrangement of planks; but this shipwise arrangement brings something new into being, namely, a thing that has causal powers that its constituents do not have. For example, a boat made of metal planks properly arranged will float, while the planks themselves will not float.