In this roster of great scientists who were Christians and creationists, occasionally one stands out as worthy of a gold medal. The requirements are stringent. The person needs to have performed exceptional scientific work, that produced some fundamental discovery, or advanced the scientific enterprise in a highly significant way; perhaps to be known as the father of a branch of science or the discoverer of a fundamental law of nature. Simultaneously, the person needs to have been a devout Christian whose personal life and character was befitting the honor (this eliminates Newton). Yet some who fulfilled both these qualifications did little to relate their Christian faith to their scientific work; they were Sunday Christians and weekday secular scientists.
The third qualification involves advancing philosophical understanding of the relationship between science and Biblical Christianity, or actively combatting unbelief and skepticism. All these requirements were met with room to spare in the next honoree of this series, Robert Boyle. He not only can be considered a pillar of modern science – and one of its most eminent practitioners – but he also left the world a profound legacy of rich literature explaining the Christian foundation for science. The title of one of his many books was The Christian Virtuoso (i.e., Bible-believing scientist), and to historians, he was one of the best examples.
Like most in this series, Boyle’s life and adventures make for a good story, but let’s consider first some of the impacts he made on the practice of science: (1) An emphasis on experiment instead of reason. (2) Publication of experimental results. (3) Popularization of scientific discoveries. (4) Collaboration of scientists in professional societies. (5) Mathematical formulations of laws. (6) Putting all claims about nature, no matter the reputation of the authority, to the test of experiment.
Of course, no one works in a vacuum (no pun intended, as we will see); Boyle was not the only one to advance these ideals. He was influenced by Bacon, Galileo and Kepler before him, and there were contemporaries who also practiced one or more of these principles. But among his peers, Boyle was an eminent leader in all of them. He took the initiative where others stuck to old habits, and he led by example. He is the considered the father of chemistry and a law was named in his honor. The world’s first and oldest professional scientific society with the longest record of continuous publication is due largely to Robert Boyle and the colleagues he attracted with his energy, drive, and enthusiasm for science. That enthusiasm came directly out of his Christian faith. To Boyle, love of God came first, and everything else second. Science was a means to a higher end: loving God with all one’s heart, soul, strength, and mind.
Because Boyle’s philosophical thought will be our emphasis, we will give an abbreviated version of his life story and refer the interested reader to the biographies by John Hudson Tiner and others for details.
Despite being born with a silver spoon in his mouth, the privileged son of a rich and prestigious landowner and friend of the king, Robert Boyle would know before long the meaning of hardship. As the 14th of 15 children in the family of the great Earl of Cork in Ireland, young Robyn had no lack of any material thing. Yet his wise father knew the values of self-discipline, education and hard work, and ensured his children were not idle but given the best training for honorable life. Robyn himself was sent for his first five years to be raised by a peasant family rather than live in his father’s rich estate. Sadly, many of the children grew up to be profligate and wild, but not Robyn or his older sister Katherine.
In the schools of the time, Aristotle still held sway over almost every field of natural knowledge. Education consisted largely of memorizing what authorities had said. Some schools actually prohibited original thinking. If Aristotle said a vacuum cannot exist, then that was that; memorize it and regurgitate it on the test. But early in his education, Robyn learned to question the opinions of mere men. He was introduced by a teacher to the new “experimental method” of learning. Young Boyle also had a bright mind that asked questions, that was unsatisfied by rote answers from experts. He wanted to know how the authorities knew what they claimed, and why it was necessary to follow them. After all, who had been their authorities?
At age 17 Boyle’s life took a dramatic turn. Though certainly not a spoiled rich child, he was suddenly transferred to the school of hard knocks. While on an extended, all-expense-paid educational tour of Europe with his brother Frank and a tutor, war broke out in Ireland. Oblivious to the crisis at home, Robert visited leading scientists. He almost got to see Galileo, missing the opportunity by a few months due to the great astronomer’s death. Paris, Rome, the great centers of learning had been on their itinerary when the word reached them from their desperate father that the war had hit home. King Charles, occupied with other conflicts, had been unable to aid the Irish landowners against the popular uprising, and the Earl of Cork had to spend every resource to protect his estate. In dire straits, his father wrote to the sons that no more money could be forthcoming. To the boys’ tutor, he wrote, “For with inward grief of soul I write this truth unto you that I am no longer able to supply them beyond this last payment. But if they serve God and be careful and discreet in their carriage [i.e., lifestyle], God will bless them and provide for them as hitherto He has done for me.”
Frank rushed back home to help, but Robyn had been too ill to be of military assistance, and remained back in Geneva with the tutor. It was no use. Lewis, a brother, died in battle. Lord Barrymore, the Great Earl’s favorite son-in-law, died in battle; and the grief-stricken father died the day the truce was signed – not only had the rebels destroyed his property and foundries, scattered his family and stolen all his possessions, but as part of the peace treaty, the king sacrificed all the Earl’s land to the rebels. Now orphaned, Robyn stayed two years in Geneva with the tutor, until he could no longer bear burdening his host. Selling the last remaining valuables, he boarded a ship for London. He was 17 years old. Tiner describes the setting: “Robyn had begun his travels from this city. When he left he’d enjoyed every possible advantage. His future seemed secure. He could look forward to wealth, an estate in the country, and perhaps a family with Lady Ann Howard as his wife. Now, five years later, Robyn walked the streets of London penniless and alone.”
A famous gospel preacher once said, “The test of a man’s character is what it takes to stop him.” Young Robert Boyle’s character now faced the acid test. Coming from such a large family, he did have siblings. Robert moved in with his sister Katherine, 13 years older, who was a widow after surviving a very unhappy arranged marriage to a churlish alcoholic named Viscount Ranelagh (fortunately for her, he died young). Katherine and Robert were alike in that they both loved learning and were not rebellious like many of the other Boyle children. It would take years for Robert to regain control of his share of his father’s assets, and he considered his situation unworthy of the marriage that had been arranged for him. Nevertheless, with Lady Ranelagh’s help and some remaining properties, he was not destitute. Another productive influence she provided him were her social contacts. Katherine had many friends who were scientists and intellectuals. A group of Oxford scholars under John Wilkins had formed a loosely-knit science club they dubbed the “Invisible College,” because it had no formal organization or meeting place. Though a mere teenager to these intellectuals, Robert impressed them with his aptitude and knowledge. His mind continued to flourish within this non-traditional university program.
Politically, it was a tense time; these were the days leading up to the Cromwell revolution, when Parliament and King Charles were at odds and tensions ran high. Boyle took refuge in a family manor in Dorset and kept a low profile. He devoted himself to his three loves: reading, writing, and dabbling in science. During this period some profound works came from his pen on theology and personal Christian living, including Style of the Scriptures, Occasional Reflections, Ethics, and Some Motives and Incentives to the Love of God. Katherine distributed copies of some of these to her friends. As a result, Robert’s reputation as a writer began to grow. Robert recalled how at age 13 he had learned the fear of God. Awakened by a thunderstorm, the reality of God’s judgment flowed into his mind. He realized right then that he was not ready to face his Maker. He knew his good works were not enough: he needed salvation, and cried out to God for forgiveness. From that night forward, he kept his promise to live as a true Christian, not just going to church and being “good,” but sincerely trusting in the gift of God through Jesus Christ and following Him as his Lord and Savior. Now at Stalbridge Manor, the young man was writing about how to see God’s providence in all things.
During this period of his 20’s, Boyle read voraciously and also tried scientific experiments, inspired by Galileo’s writings and his contacts from the Invisible College. Bad experiences with doctor’s medicines (carelessly prescribed without standards or quality control in those days) also motivated him to learn chemistry; Robert was frail in health much of his life and took great interest in finding effective medicines as well as avoiding bad ones. These years were somewhat unstructured and lonely for him. After ten years at Stalbridge, at age 27 he was invited to come to Oxford, the leading intellectual center in England in those times.
This move launched his scientific career. Now with greater insight and maturity from his reading and experiments, Boyle was again in touch with the Invisible College, made up of doctors, scientists and theologians who for the most part were devout Christians. Like the other participants, Robert was excited about the prospects of the “new learning” and “experimental philosophy” inspired by the works of Francis Bacon and Galileo. Committed to the principle that science should be used not just for pride of knowing but for the good of mankind, the College promoted experimentation on a variety of subjects: chemistry, physics, and medicine. During his six years of informal association with the Invisible College at Oxford, Boyle was largely self-taught. He did not earn a degree or professorship. Soon, however, he would be the most eminent scientist in Britain.
Robert Boyle was a self-starter. He did not need a graduate adviser to point the way. Eager to discover the natural laws the Creator had devised, and with financial resources sufficiently restored, Robert built a laboratory, equipped it, and hired assistants. His most capable assistant was a young man named Robert Hooke. What Hooke lacked in social skills he made up for engineering acumen (the prototype nerd); the master would tell him what he needed, and Hooke would invent it. Boyle had heard about interesting preliminary experiments with vacuum pumps. Otto von Guericke had demonstrated by 1650 the ability to pump the air out of a wine barrel, and then a copper globe, but the devices were clumsy and difficult to operate, requiring the efforts of two strong men. Boyle was intrigued by the idea of creating a vacuum. Aristotle had claimed “Nature abhors a vacuum”; Descartes, many Jesuits and most others never thought to question that dogma. To Boyle, this was a chance to show the superiority of the experimental philosophy, so he asked Hooke to help him make a better air pump. What followed was groundbreaking science, methods that set standards for empirical work that survive to this day.
Hooke’s ingenuity provided Boyle with an easily-operated air pump with a glass receiver, into which the duo inserted a variety of items that could be easily observed as the air was pumped out. They put a ticking clock in and noticed the sound drop to silence as air was removed. They put a bird and a kitten in and watched them struggle, then succumb, for lack of air. They observed that sound, but not light, was affected by the vacuum. They watched a candle go out. Each observation was meticulously recorded, but beyond the mere collection of facts, Boyle had the insight to interpret the results and formulate hypotheses that could be tested. A suite of cleverly-contrived experiments provided Boyle and Hooke with many exciting results, some that contradicted common sense, and many that contradicted Aristotle.
Then, Boyle set two other important precedents: he published his results in lively English, leading to the tradition of popularizing science, and he carefully described his apparatus so that others could try to reproduce the experiments, leading to the principle of repeatability. He was even brutally honest about failures and errors, feeling these were necessary parts of the learning process. All this was almost unheard of in the practice of science. His first paper in 1660, New Experiments Physico-Mechanicall Touching the Spring of the Air, and its Effects, created no small stir. Some critics thought it unwise to question the great master Aristotle. Others thought science should be published only in Latin.
Most, however, read his work with great eagerness. Boyle, in effect, showed that science belonged to every man, and that it had very practical effects. It led to principles that could be tested and repeated by anyone (though few could hope to exceed the precision and thoroughness of his experiments). Marie Boas Hall, writing for Scientific American (1967), judged one of Boyle’s most novel creations the idea that one could test the validity of a scientific theory by experiment – an idea we take for granted today, but nearly the reverse of the Aristotelian/deductive approach to science of his time.
Boyle and Hooke’s lab teamwork led to many discoveries. Air, he proved, acted much like a spring; it acted like a “mechanical” substance (i.e., one subject to laws, not spirits or essences). Air contained ingredients essential to life and combustion. Advancing the earlier work of Torricelli, they showed air had weight and pressure. They experimented with colors, optics, and chemical analysis, including the first crude litmus test for acids and bases. By testing combinations of substances, Boyle deduced that complex chemicals could be classified into simpler elements (but not the Aristotelian view of elements such as earth, air, fire and water, of which everything was supposed to contain proportions). In his best-known experiment, he poured mercury into a J-shaped tube and observed the size of the air column trapped as he added more fluid. With fastidious measurements, he discovered that doubling the pressure cut the volume in half: P = k/V, a relationship later named Boyle’s Law in his honor. This was on the cutting edge of the concept that there existed “laws of nature” that were discoverable by experiment.
Well into his senior years, Boyle continued his experiments, discoveries and publications. His work contributed to the understanding of phosphorus, acids and bases, salts, precipitates and chemical elements. His achievements in chemistry, both practical and theoretical, began to steer it from the mystical and secretive arts of the alchemists, leading many historians to consider him the Father of Chemistry. Notice how Aristotle’s statement “Nature abhors a vacuum” implied a kind of animistic character to the world; Boyle’s approach began to steer science away from a personified nature, and view it as a machine created by God and operating according to laws. Though Boyle was not alone in this approach, he showed originality and creative insight. Marie Hall Boas explains:
The English scientists were much influenced by Descartes’ careful formulation of his mechanical philosophy, toward which they were further predisposed by their adherence to similar ideas of Bacon’s. … [She describes the influence also of Gassendi and Epicurus.] By the middle 1650’s Boyle had worked out his own version of the mechanical philosophy—the “corpuscular philosophy,” as he called it—in which he drew on both the Cartesian and the atomic views but wholly accepted neither. He believed “those two grand and most Catholic [i.e., universal] principles, matter and motion,” sufficed to explain all the properties of matter as we experience it.
As we experience it indicates that Boyle understood the limitations of science. His other writings, additionally, make it clear he believed in the immanence of God, that the Creator is active in his creation. Boyle was not a “mechanist” in the sense of denying the possibility of miracles. He believed only that in the normal workings of Nature, God’s providence operated through uniform mechanical principles accessible to observation. Hall describes Boyle’s disagreements with Descartes, Spinoza, and Huygens who felt that “the ultimate test of a theory was the appeal to reason.” On the contrary, Boyle believed it was possible to prove a theory by experiment. This was a novel idea, not universally accepted at the time, Hall claims, and she feels it is evidence for “the originality of Boyle’s approach to scientific proof—and to chemistry.” Obviously, the scientific world followed Boyle’s lead. This establishes his importance not only as an experimenter, but as a pioneering philosopher of science. The wealth of his experimental work demonstrates that he walked his talk.
Robert Boyle was one of the 12 charter members of a new organization founded in 1662, The Royal Society for the Improving of Natural Knowledge. Its charter was to promote the experimental philosophy for the common good. In clear contradistinction to the Aristotelians, they made their motto Nothing by mere authority; in other words, submit all claims about nature to the test of experiment. The founders and early members were predominantly Christians, especially Puritans. Henry Oldenberg, Boyle’s literary assistant, was secretary. The charter issue of their publication, the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, written in Oldenberg’s hand (readable still today on the Royal Society website), reflects the Christian and humanitarian ideals of the organization. Though Boyle refused the presidency of the Royal Society because of scruples about taking an oath, he was its most influential and esteemed member, especially at the time young Isaac Newton was just becoming a rising star. There had been academies and scientific clubs before, like the Academy of the Lynx to which Galileo belonged, but the Royal Society was the first true formal institution dedicated to experimental science, and its Philosophical Transactions is the longest-running scientific journal in the world. As the number of “fellows” grew and meetings shared the latest experimental demonstrations at Gresham College in London, the fledgling organization became the cheerleader for the scientific revolution.
At this point it is instructive to note some early crooked swaths that soon became entrenched, leading to unintended consequences. Why is the Royal Society the quintessential naturalist-Darwinist-atheist organization it is today? Surely Boyle, John Wilkins, Henry Oldenberg and the other founders would be appalled to see their journals filled with absurd evolutionary speculations on every subject, propounding atheism as science and ridiculing belief in the Bible and creation, as do most other scientific societies in our post-Darwinist world. What happened? In an article in Christian History magazine (issue 76 – November 2002, pp. 39-40), Chris Armstrong argues that the charter members defended religion but laid the groundwork for irreligion through compromise. The Royal Society was a curious blend of Puritan and Anglican, those who put all authority in the Bible and those who valued tradition. They thought they could ignore their religious differences and unite around the new experimental philosophy, because all of them agreed that nature’s “admirable contrivance” and “accurate order and symmetry” glorified the Creator, His power and glory. It does, of course, but this lowest-common-denominator approach glosses over deeper issues: does the authority of the word of God extend to science? Is fallen man capable of discerning truth apart from the spirit of God? “For both pragmatic and pious reasons,” Armstrong writes, “some members of the Royal Society were influenced by the rationalist approach to religion urged by the Cambridge Platonists. In their public discourse they gravitated toward an essential Christianity that affirmed only the existence of God, the soul’s immortality, and each person’s ethical obligation to others.”
That is why their meetings were soon obsessed with microscopic images of fly eyes and plant seeds and euphoria about all the possible benefits of science, but lost its focus on the Creator – till the temple was filled with syncretistic idols, and like Ezekiel describes, the spirit of God, by stages, departed. Why didn’t the deeply religious members see this coming? Sadly, their compromise put them on the defensive. “They faced charges of irreligion themselves,” Armstrong notes, and Hall adds, “they were denounced from the pulpit, and its Fellows came to be touchy about any accusation of godlessness.” “They answered these charges,” Armstrong alleges, “by insisting that the evidences of lawfulness and design in the fabric of things pointed not away from by toward God.” Little did they realize, he argues, that the broadly-shared, lowest common denominator principle of design would become, in the next century, “a substitute for the Christ-centered teachings of the historic church.” There was a God, all would agree, but like Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat, He would slowly vanish till just the grin was left. The distant “clockmaker God” of the deist would displace the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, because there was no need of that hypothesis. Is history repeating itself? Those in the intelligent design movement, who think Muslims and Jews and Christians and even atheists can rally around the banner of design would do well to study the history of the Royal Society. It’s not that design arguments are unsound or unconvincing; but unless men are brought all the way to the gospel of Christ and their minds are renewed by the Holy Spirit, the demon is not dislodged; he returns with seven more, till the last situation is worse than the first.
This parenthesis was necessary before turning to the philosophical works of Robert Boyle. There is no question of his commitment to historic Christianity and the authority of the Bible. Mulfinger writes that he was strictly orthodox in his Christian beliefs, and “was intolerant of preachers who spiritualized or allegorized important truths of the Bible rather than accepting them at face value.” Though he remained within the Anglican church, he was a Puritan at heart, supportive of the nonconformists who had left the state church; he even supported some financially and had many Puritan friends. Boyle studied the Scriptures in the original languages and accepted the Genesis accounts as literal, historical truth. His faith was well reasoned and not traditional, refined in the furnace of dealing with intellectual doubt, as was surely a trial any must face in an intellectual climate. But he knew even as a young man that doubt was a refining fire: “He whose Faith never doubted,” he stated in 1647, “may justly doubt his faith.” That his faith passed the refinement crucible to the point of reasoned commitment was made clear when he said, “I am not a Christian, because it is the religion of my country, and my friends, when I chuse to travel in the beaten road, it is not, because I find it is the road, but because I judge it is the way.”
Perhaps in hindsight the Puritan members could have taken stronger steps to steer the Royal Society away from compromise. They did oppose the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, and most of its members were godly men: John Wilkins, the first secretary, was similarly convinced of the authority of Scripture, and over half the original Fellows were Puritans. Nevertheless, its purpose was to promote experimental science, not theology. The unintended consequence of any institution that seeks to uncover truth apart from a prior commitment to Christian revelation is that it will never be content to stay within the bounds of observable and repeatable phenomena. It will want to explain everything, even First Causes, by natural means. Eventually, it becomes a substitute religion, arrogating to itself the right to explain all that is, was and ever will be.
The Royal Society charter, God-fearing as it is, makes the hidden assumption that unregenerate men are perfectly capable of discerning truth, without having a commitment to the One who is the way, the Truth, and the Life. It presumes an incomplete Fall, treating the mind as unaffected. Given those assumptions, human pride resulting from sin will generate a science that refuses to accept its limitations and moral flaws. It gives Satan a handle to turn an honorable thing into a tool of skepticism. The end result is seen in papers published in today’s Philosophical Transactions that seek to explain the evolution of morals and the origin of the universe from nothing. It leads to arrogant addresses by its officers that “science” is superior to Christian faith as a path to truth in all areas of inquiry.
In those first decades, however, the Royal Society was blessed by the virtuous Christian testimony and reasoned faith of Robert Boyle. His integrity was impeccable. Throughout his life, Boyle was humble, gracious, prayerful, and peace-loving. He was conscientious to a fault, even stopping to pause respectfully before mentioning the name of God. He was adamantly intolerant of swearing. Never physically robust, it is remarkable how productive he was. His secret powerhouse was passionate love of God and fascination with creation. Boyle’s pastor described him in these words: “His great thoughts of God, and his contemplation of his works, were to him sources of continual joy, which never could be exhausted.” Apparently this is part of the reason he never married, along with his distaste for the abuse of marriage that was prevalent among men of his day. Instead, he devoted himself wholeheartedly to his work. Furthermore, he was strong supporter of foreign missions; For years, he financially supported Christian missionaries and Bible translations to the far east, to the Irish (those who had robbed his father’s lands), and to the Indians across the sea in the thriving American colonies. He lived frugally, but gave profligately toward the advancement of the gospel.
His zeal for spreading the good news of Jesus Christ was matched by his zeal against atheism. To him, science never rated even a close second to Christian faith in importance. He said, “For I, that had much rather have men not philosophers than not Christians, should be better content to see you ignore the mysteries of nature, than deny the author of it.” (By atheism, Boyle did not mean just philosophical denial of God, which was less common in his day, but the practical atheism that makes even a believer live as if there was no God.) In his will, he established a fund for a series of eight lectures, to be given once a year, for the defense of the historic Christian faith against atheism, and the demonstration of the superior reasonableness of Biblical Christianity against any philosophy or arguments of critics and skeptics. The “Boyle Lectures,” as they came to be known, continued for many years.
In his writings, Robert Boyle advanced the study of the relationship between the Christianity and science. His words are well-reasoned, profound and enlightening. He did not fall into the trap of relegating the Bible to matters of morals and faith alone; without qualification, he applied II Tim. 3:16 (“All Scripture is given by inspiration of God”) to the entire Bible, including Genesis. Furthermore, he believed in verbal inspiration, meaning that God’s revelation was contained in the very words, not just the meaning, of the text (the latter view opening the door to unlimited human paraphrasing.) This drove him to study the ancient languages to understand the primitive sense of the original words, especially for passages that, in English translation, presented difficulties.
In approaching difficulties, Boyle recognized that the Bible’s purpose was not to provide quantitative scientific descriptions of the natural world like a textbook. Using this interpretive framework, he dealt forthrightly with issues of when to evaluate a passage as poetry or narrative, and when it should be treated as descriptive vs. prescriptive. He followed Calvin’s teaching on accommodation, that the Holy Spirit used language appropriate to the common man, not specialists. The Bible contains easily-understood phrases such as the rising and setting of the sun, using the language of appearance instead of quantitative, technical description. Thus, passages that seemed to teach geocentricity could be understood as figures of speech without sacrificing verbal inspiration. As such, Boyle is a good model for today’s Christian virtuosi who desire to advance science without sacrificing Biblical authority. Michael Hunter, a Boyle historian and compiler of his voluminous output, is impressed with the depth and breadth of his thinking on these subjects:
Boyle’s major preoccupation was the relationship between God’s power, the created realm, and man’s perception of it, a topic on which he wrote extensively. … Boyle laid stress on the extent to which God’s omniscience transcended the limited bounds of human reason, taking a position that contrasted with the rather complacent rationalism of contemporary divines …. He also reflected at length on the proper understanding of final causes, and in conjunction with this provided one of the most sophisticated expositions of the design argument in his period. Boyle’s significance for the history of science depends almost as much on the profound views on difficult issues put forward in these philosophical writings as it does on his experimental treatises.
Hunter goes on to describe the intense hostility Boyle expressed against any “views of nature that he saw as detracting from a proper appreciation of God’s power in his creation.” These included lengthy published arguments against Aristotelianism and the materialism of Thomas Hobbes, “despite his professed disinclination to involve himself in philosophical disputes.” On the positive side, the titles of some of Boyle’s books hint at their rich contents: Some Considerations touching the Usefulness of Experimental Natural Philosophy; Free Enquiry into the Vulgarly Receiv’d Notion of Nature; The Excellency of Theology, Compar’d with Natural Philosophy, Discourse of Things Above Reason, Disquisition about the Final Causes of Natural Things, and especially, The Christian Virtuoso. “In these,” Hunter writes, “Boyle made a profound contribution to an understanding of what he saw as the proper relationship between God and the natural world, and man’s potential for comprehending this.”
It is enriching to read Boyle’s own words on the relation of science and Scripture. There is so much of it, only excerpts are provided below. For those who wish to dig deeper into the mind of this great creation scientist, see the Boyle website. There, Michael Hunter and a group of scholars are compiling and publishing the works of Robert Boyle. They even publish a newsletter, On the Boyle about latest efforts to collect and disseminate his works.
Among the wealth of words we could quote in closing, perhaps the most succinct is the best. It states clearly and simply the reason a Christian should be a virtuoso, which in his time meant a lover of knowledge (a synonym for natural philosopher or scientist). It echoes a familiar theme running through this book, a motivation stated by many science-loving Christians from the early middle ages on into the 21st century. Boyle encapsulates it in only ten words:
“From a knowledge of His work, we shall know Him.”
Selections from Boyle’s writings
Note: Boyle’s writing takes a little getting used to. Spellings, meanings and style have changed a bit since the 17th century. Today’s English teachers would surely red-line his long, run-on sentences, the ubiquitous commas and frequent diversions of thought that were characteristic of good writing in his day. But the wisdom and depth of his words will be evident in these brief examples from his voluminous output.
Except where indicated, excerpts are taken from Robert Boyle on Natural Philosophy: An Essay with Selections from His Writings by Marie Boas Hall (Indiana University Press, 1965). Ellipses are Hall’s.
The Excellency of Theology, compared with Natural Philosophy (as both are Objects of Men’s Study)
Written 1665, published 1974 (excerpt)
In this selection, Boyle discusses the advantages a scientist has over a preacher in witnessing to unbelievers.
I am not so little acquainted with the temper of this age, and of the persons, that are likeliest to be perusers of the following tract, as not to foresee it to be probable enough, that some will ask, for what reason a discourse of this nature was written at all, and that others will be displeased, that it has been written by me. Those, that would know, by what inducements my pen was engaged on this subject, may be in great part informed by the epistle itself, in divers places whereof, as especially about the beginning, and at the close, the motives, that invited me to put pen to paper, are sufficiently expressed. And though several of those things are peculiarly applied, and (if I may so speak) appropriated to the person the letter is addressed to; yet that under-valuation, I would dissuade him from, of the study of things sacred, is not his fault alone, but is grown so rife among many (otherwise ingenious) persons, especially studiers of physicks, that I wish the ensuing discourse were much less seasonable than I fear it is.
But I doubt, that some readers, who would think: a discourse of this nature needless or useless, may yet not be pleased at its being written by one, whom they imagine the acceptance his endeavours have met with, ought to oblige to spend his whole time in cultivating that natural philosophy, which in this letter he would persuade to quit the precedency, they think it may well challenge, before all other sorts of learning.
I am not unsensible of the favourable reception, that the philosophical papers, I have hitherto ventured abroad, have had the happiness to receive from the curious: but I hope, they will not be displeased, if I represent, that I am no lecturer, or professor of physicks, nor have ever engaged myself, by any promise made to the publick, to confine myself never to write of any other subject; nor is it reasonable, that what I did, or may write, to gratify other men’s curiosity, should deprive me of mine own liberty, and confine me to one subject; especially, since there are divers persons, for whom I have a great esteem and kindness, who think they have as much right to solicit me for composures of the nature of this, that they will now have to go abroad, as the virtuosi have to exact of me physiological pieces. And though I be not ignorant, that, in particular, the following discourse, which seems to depreciate the study of nature, may, at first sight, appear somewhat improper for a person, that has purposely written to show the excellence and usefulness of it; yet I confess, that upon a more attentive consideration of the matter, I cannot reject, no, nor resist their reasons, who are of a quite differing judgement.
And 1. My condition, and my being a secular person (as they speak) are looked upon as circumstances, that may advantage an author, that is to write upon such a subject as I have handled. I need not tell you, that as to religious books in general, it has been observed, that those penned by lay’men, and especially gentlemen, have (caeteris paribus) been better entertained, and more effectual, than those of ecclesiastics. And indeed it is no great wonder, that exhortations to piety, and dissuasions from vice, and from the lusts and vanities of the world, should be the more prevalent for being pressed by those, who have, and yet decline, the opportunities to enjoy plentifully themselves the pleasures they dissuade others from. And (to come yet closer to our present purpose) though I will not venture to say with an excellent divine, that whatever comes out of the pulpit, does with many pass but for the foolishness of preaching; yet it cannot well be denied, but that if all other circumstances be equal, he is the fittest to commend divinity, whose profession it is not; and that it will somewhat add to the reputation of almost any study, and consequently to that of things divine, that it is praised and preferred by those, whose condition and course of life exempting them from being of any particular calling in the commonwealth of learning, frees them from the usual temptations to partiality to this or that sort of study, which may be engaged to magnify, because it is their trade or their interest, or because it is expected from them; whereas these gentlemen are obliged to commend it, only because they really love and value it.
But there is another thing, that seems to make it yet more fit, that a treatise on such a subject should be penned by the author of this: for professed divines are supposed to be busied about studies, that even, by their being of an higher, are confessed to be of another nature, than those, that treat of things corporal. And since it may be observed, that there is scarce any sort of learned men, that is more apt to undervalue those, that are versed only in other parts of knowledge, than many of our modern naturalists, (who are conscious of the excellency of the science they cultivate) it is much to be feared, that what would be said of the pre-eminence of divinity above physiology, by preachers (in whom the study of the latter is thought either but a preparatory thing, or an excursion) would be looked upon as the decision of an incompetent, as well as interested judge; and their undervaluations of the advantages of the study of creatures would be (as their depreciating the enjoyment of the creatures too often is) thought to proceed but from their not having had sufficient opportunities to relish the pleasures of them. But these prejudices will not lie against a person, who has made the investigation of nature somewhat more than a parergon, and having, by a not lazy, nor short enquiry, manifested, how much he loves and can relish the delight it affords, has had the good fortune to make some discoveries in it, and the honour to have them publicly, and but too complimentally, taken notice of by the virtuosi. And it may not be impertinent to add, that those, who make natural philosophy their mistress, will probably, be the less offended to find her in this tract represented, if not as a handmaid to divinity, yet as a lady of a lower rank; because the inferiority of the study of nature is maintained by a person, who, even whilst he asserts it, continues, if not a passionate, an assiduous courter of nature: so that as far as his example can reach, it may show, that as on the one side a man need not be acquainted with, or, unfit to relish the lessons taught us in the book of the creatures, to think them less excellent than those, that may be learned in the book of the scriptures; so on the other side, the preference of this last book is very consistent with an high esteem and an assiduous study of the first.
The Requisites of a Good Hypothesis
This may have formed the outline of an unfinished treatise on philosophy of science by Robert Boyle. It’s instructive to compare these criteria with Darwin’s theory of evolution.
The Requisites of a Good Hypothesis are:
- That it be Intelligible.
- That it neither Assume nor suppose anything Impossible, Unintelligible, absurd, or demonstrably False.
- That it be Consistent with it self.
- That it be fit and sufficient to Explicate the Phaenomena, especially the chief.
- That it be, at least consistent, with the rest of the Phaenomena it particularly relate to; and do not contradict any other known Phaenomena of Nature, or manifest Physical Truth.
The Qualityes & Conditions of an Excellent Hypothesis are:
- That it be not Precarious, but have sufficient Grounds in the Nature of the Thing itself, or at least be well recommended by some Auxiliary Proofs.
- That it be the simplest of all the Good ones we are able to frame, at least containing nothing that is superfluous or Impertinent.
- That it be the only Hypothesis that can Explicate the Phaenomena; or at least, that dos explicate them so well.
- That it enable a skilful Naturalist to foretell future Phaenomena by their Congruity or Incongruity to it; and especially the events of such Experiments as are aptly devis’d to examine it, as Things that ought or ought not, to be consequent to it.
A Disquisition About the Final Causes of Natural Things
This conclusion of one of Robert Boyle’s works sums up his answer to the question, should we consider final causes in science, or only efficient causes? In other words, should we look for purpose in things, or just describe immediate cause and effect relationships? Boyle answers that final causes are valid, but must be used with caution.
The result of what has been hitherto discoursed, upon the four questions proposed at the beginning of this small treatise, amounts in short to this:
That all consideration of final causes is not to be banished from natural philosophy; but that it is rather allowable, and in some cases commendable, to observe and argue from the manifest uses of things, that the author of nature pre-ordained those ends and uses.
That the sun, moon and other celestial bodies, excellently declare the power and wisdom, and consequently the glory of God; and were some of them, among other purposes, made to be serviceable to man.
That from the supposed ends of inanimate bodies, whether celestial or sublunary, it is very unsafe to draw arguments to prove the particular nature of those bodies, or the true system of the universe.
That as to animals, and the more perfect sorts of vegetables, it is warrantable, not presumptuous, to say, that such and such parts were pre-ordained to such and such uses, relating to the welfare of the animal (or plant) itself, or to the species it belongs to: but that such arguments may easily deceive, if those, that frame them, are not very cautious, and careful to avoid mistaking, among the various ends, that nature may have in the contrivance of an animal’s body, and the various ways, which she may successfully take to compass the same ends. And,
That, however, a naturalist, who would deserve that name, must not let the search or knowledge of final causes make him neglect the industrious indagation of efficients.
Of this treatise, Edward B. Davis writes:
Also related to Boyle’s piety was his strong advocacy of the argument from design. This is nowhere more evident than in his Disquisition on the Final Causes of Natural Things (1688). It was his stated desire “that my reader should not barely observe the wisdom of God, but be, in some measure, affectively convinced of it”. There was no better way to “give us so great a wonder and veneration for it … [than] by knowing and considering the admirable contrivance of the particular productions of that immense wisdom, and their exquisite fitness for those ends and uses, to which they appear to have been destinated.” Thereby, Boyle believed, “men may be brought, upon the same account, both to acknowledge God, to admire Him, and to thank Him.”
– Edward B. Davis (History of Science professor, Messiah College), “Robert Boyle, the Christian Virtuoso,” from a talk given at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 9 January 1998, in the series, “The Faith of Great Scientists.”
A Free Inquiry into the Vulgarly Received Notion of Nature
In this excerpt, Robert Boyle argues against personifying “nature” as some intermediary between God and the world; i.e., “nature gave us good weather today,” as common (“vulgar”) talk suggests. Instead, Boyle feels God is honored more by having arranged the world to run according to laws that rarely if ever need His direct intervention.
Boyle’s thesis here, though sensible, must be tempered, because in succeeding years philosophers extrapolated it to include the mind and free will of man – applications Boyle surely would have opposed. He meant it in the sphere of natural phenomena like chemical reactions, sound waves, and revolutions of the planets. As a Bible believer, Boyle was no deist; some of his writings defended the Biblical miracles, including the resurrection of Christ and the saving of Daniel’s three friends in the fiery furnace.
Even a good idea as expressed below can be misapplied or exaggerated. He would probably have been appalled at those theistic evolutionists today who disallow miracles to such an extent as to deny God’s freedom to act in response to the free will of His creatures.
It seems to detract from the honour of the great author and governor of the world, that men should ascribe most of the admirable things, that are to be met with in it, not to him but to a certain nature, which themselves do not well know what to make of. It is true, that many confess, that this nature is a thing of his establishing, and subordinate to him: but, though many confess it, when they are asked, whether they do or no? yet, besides that many seldom or never lifted up their eyes to any higher cause, he, that takes notice of their way of ascribing things to nature, may easily discern, that, whatever their words sometimes be, the agency of God is little taken notice of in their thoughts: and however, it does not a little darken the excellency of the divine management of things, that, when a strange thing is to be accounted for, men so often have recourse to nature, and think she must extraordinarily interpose to bring such things about; whereas it much more tends to the illustration of God’s wisdom, to have so framed things at first, that there can seldom or never need any extraordinary interposition of his power. And, as it more recommends the skill of an engineer to contrive an elaborate engine so, as that there should need nothing to reach his ends in it but the contrivance of parts devoid of understanding, than if it were necessary, that ever and anon a discreet servant should be employed to concur notably to the operations of this or that part, or to hinder the engine from being out of order; so it more sets off the wisdom of God in the fabric of the universe, that he can make so vast a machine perform all those many things, which he designed it should, by the mere contrivance of brute matter managed by certain laws of local motion and upheld by his ordinary and general concourse, than if he employed from time to time an intelligent overseer, such as nature is fancied to be, to regulate, assist, and control the motions of the parts. . . .
And here give me leave, to prevent an objection, that some may make, as if to deny the received notion of nature, a man must also deny providence, of which nature is the grand instrument. For, in the first place, my opinion hinders me not at all from acknowledging God to be the author of the universe, and the continual preserver and upholder of it; which is much more than the Peripatetick hypothesis, which . . . makes the world eternal, will allow its embracers to admit: and those things, which the school philosophers ascribe to the agency of nature interposing according to emergencies, I ascribe to the wisdom of God in the first fabric of the universe, which he so admirably contrived, that, if he but continue his ordinary and general concourse, there will be no necessity of extraordinary interpositions, which may reduce him to seem, as it were, to play after-games; all those exigencies, upon whose account philosophers and physicians seem to have devised what they call nature, being foreseen and provided for in the first fabric of the world; so that mere matter, so ordered, shall, in such and such conjunctures of circumstances, do all, that philosophers ascribe on such occasions to their almost omniscient nature, without any knowledge of what it does, or acting otherwise than according to the catholic laws of motion. And methinks the difference betwixt their opinion of God’s agency in the world, and that, which I would propose, may be somewhat adumbrated by saying, that they seem to imagine the world to be after the nature of a puppet, whose contrivance indeed may be very artificial, but yet is such, that almost every particular motion the artificer is fain (by drawing sometimes one wire or string, sometimes another) to guide and oftentimes overrule the actions of the engine; whereas, according to us, it is like a rare clock, such as may be that at Strasbourg, where all things are so skilfully contrived, that the engine being once set a-moving, all things proceed, according to the artificers first design, and the motions of the little statues, that at such hours performs these or those things, do not require, like those of puppets, the peculiar interposing of the artificer, or any intelligent agent employed by him, but perform their functions upon particular occasions, by virtue of the general and primitive contrivance of the whole engine. . . . And when I consider, how many things, that seem anomalies to us, do frequently enough happen in the world, I think it is more consonant to the respect we owe to divine providence, to conceive, that as God is a most free, as well as a most wise agent, and may in many things have ends unknown to us, he very well foresaw, and thought fit, that such seeming anomalies should come to pass, since he made them (as is evident in the eclipses of the sun and moon) the genuine consequences of the order he was pleased to settle in the world; by whose laws the grand agents in the universe were impowered and determined to act, according to the respective natures he had given them, and the course of things was allowed to run on, though that would infer the happenings of seeming anomalies and things really repugnant to the good or welfare of divers particular portions of the universe: this, I say, I think to be a notion more respectful to divine providence, than to imagine, as we commonly do, that God has appointed an intelligent and powerful Being, called nature, to be, as his viceregent, continually watchful for the good of the universe in general, and of the particular bodies, that compose it. . . .
[Works, V, 162-64]
Of the Usefulness of Experimental Natural Philosophy
PART I: Of its Usefulness in reference to the Mind of Man
In this treatise, Robert Boyle attempts to “sell” the experimental philosophy of science (as opposed to deductive learning from Aristotle and other presumed Authorities), by discussing the many useful benefits that flow from it.
In the following excerpts, he addresses Christians and theologians with six main arguments proving the usefulness of natural philosophy (i.e., science) in promoting faith and appreciation of the Creator. He points out attributes of God discernible in nature: particularly, His power, wisdom and love. Countering the criticisms of some preachers that science tends a man toward atheism, he demonstrates how the study of nature, on the contrary, provides all observers, even those not having Biblical revelation, the most cogent evidences against unbelief.
The fairly new concept of natural laws, set up by the Creator at the beginning, is evident in his section. Boyle, however, did not believe the normal workings of nature according to natural laws precluded miracles or the immanent supervision of God, as did some later deists. He was a thoroughly Biblical Christian; his Scripture quotations flow naturally from his personal faith. He argues cogently that natural laws cannot invent themselves.
Another notable aspect of this discourse is Boyle’s introduction of the “Watchmaker Argument” for the existence of a Divine artificer, long before William Paley employed it so famously in Natural Theology (1802). Boyle’s arguments are as timely as ever for confronting today’s atheistic philosophies of science. Note: Boyle uses “naturalist” in the favorable meaning of a student of natural science. Today the term can also mean a materialist philosopher – a position Boyle would most certainly oppose.
The natural philosophy, wont to be taught in schools, being little other than a system of the opinions of Aristotle, and some few other writers, is not, I confess, . . . very difficult to be learned; as being attainable by the perusal of a few of the more current authors. But . . . that experimental philosophy, which you will find treated of in the following Essays, is a study, if duly prosecuted, so difficult, so chargeable, and so toilsome, that I think it requisite before I propose any particular subjects to your enquiries, to possess you with a just value of true and solid physiology; and to convince you, that by endeavoring to addict you to it, I invite you not to mispend your time or trouble on a science unable to merit and requite it. In order . . . to the giving you this satisfaction, give me leave to mind you, that it was a saying of Pythagoras, worthy of so celebrated a philosopher, that there are two things. which most enoble man, and make him resemble the gods: to know the truth, and to do good. For . . . that diviner part of man, the soul, which alone is capable of wearing the glorious image of its author, being endowed with two chief faculties, the understanding and the will; the former is blest and perfectionated by knowledge, and the latter’s loveliest and most improving property is goodness. A due reflection upon this excellent sentence of him, to whom philosophers owe that modest name, should, methinks, . . . very much endear to us the study of natural philosophy. For there is no human science, that does more to gratify and enrich the understanding with variety of choice and acceptable truths; nor scarce any, that does more enable a willing mind to exercise a goodness beneficial to others.
To manifest these truths more distinctly, . . . and yet without exceeding that brevity, my avocations and the bounds of an essay exact of me, I shall, among the numerous advantages accruing to men from the study of the book of nature, content myself to instance only in a couple, that relate more properly to the improving of men’s understandings, and to mention a few of those many, by which it encreases their power.
The two chief advantages, which a real acquaintance with nature brings to our minds, are, first, by instructing our understandings, and gratifying our curiosities; and next, by exciting and cherishing our devotion. . . .
The next advantage . . . that we mentioned the knowledge of nature to bring to the minds of men, is, that therein it excites and cherishes devotion; which when I say, . . . I forget not, that there are several divines (and some of them eminent ones) that out of a holy jealousy (as they think) for religion, labour to deter men from addicting themselves to serious and thorough inquiries into nature, as from a study unsafe for a Christian, and likely to end in atheism, by making it possible for men (that I may propose to you their objection as much to its advantage as I can) to give themselves such an account of all the wonders of nature, by the single knowledge of second causes, as may bring them to disbelieve the necessity of a first. And certainly . . . . if this apprehension were well grounded, I should think the threatened evil so considerable, that instead of inviting you to the study of natural philosophy, I should very earnestly labour to dissuade you from it. For I, that had much rather have men not philosophers than not Christians, should be better content to see you ignore the mysteries of nature, than deny the author of it. But though the zeal of their intentions keep me from harbouring any unfavourable opinion of the persons of these men, yet the prejudice that might redound from their doctrine (if generally received) both to the glory of God from the creatures, and to the empire of man over them, forbids me to leave their opinion unanswered; though I am sorry, that the necessity of vindicating the study I recommend to you from so heinous a crime as they have accused it of, will compel me to theologize in a philosophical discourse: which that I may do, with as much brevity as the weight and exigency of my subject will permit, I shall content myself only in the explication of my own thoughts, to hint to you the grounds of answering what is alledged against them. . . .
Now if you should put me upon telling you . . . what those attributes of God are, which I so often mention to be visibly displayed in the fabrick of the world, I can readily answer you, that though many of God’s attributes are legible in his creatures, yet those, that are most conspicuous there, are his power, his wisdom, and his goodness, in which the world, as well as the Bible, though in a differing, and in some points a darker way, is designed to instruct us; which, that you may not think to be affirmed gratis, we must insist a while on each of the three.
And first, how boundless a power, or rather what an almightiness is eminently displayed in God’s making out of nothing all things, and without materials or instruments constructing this immense fabrick of the world, whose vastness is such, that even what may be proved of it, can scarcely be conceived, and after a mathematical demonstration its greatness is distrusted! which yet is, I confess, a wonder less to be admired, than the power expressed by God in so immense a work, which nevertheless some modern philosophers (whose opinions I find some cabalists to countenance) suppose to be not the only production of God’s omnipotence. . . .
The next attribute of God, that shines forth in his creatures, is his wisdom; which to an intelligent considerer appears very manifestly expressed in the world, whether you contemplate it as an aggregate or system of all natural bodies, or consider the creatures it is made up of, both in their particular and distinct natures, and in relation to each other, and the universe they constitute. In some of these the wisdom of God is so conspicuous, and written in such large characters, that it is legible even to a vulgar reader: but in many others the lineaments and traces of it are so delicate and slender, or so wrapt up and covered with corporeity, that it requires an attentive and intelligent peruser. So numberless a multitude, and so great a variety of birds, beasts, fishes, reptiles, herbs, shrubs, trees, stones, metals, minerals, stars, &c. and everyone of them plentifully furnished and endowed with all the qualifications requisite to the attainment of the respective ends of its creation, are productions of a wisdom too limitless not to be peculiar to God: to insist on anyone of them in particular (besides that it would too much swell this discourse) might appear injurious to the rest; which do all of them deserve that extensive exclamation of the Psalmist, “How manifold are thy works, 0 Lord; in wisdom hast thou made them all.” [Ps 104:24] And therefore I shall content myself to observe in general, that, as highly as some naturalists are pleased to value their own knowledge, it can at best attain but to understand and applaud, not emulate the productions of God. For as a novice, when the curiousest watch the rarest artist can make, is taken in pieces and set before him, may easily enough discern the workmanship and contrivance of it to be excellent, but had he not been shown it, could never have of himself devised so skilful and rare a piece of work; so, for instance, an anatomist, though when by many and dextrous dissections of human bodies, and by the help of mechanical principles and rules (without a competent skill wherein, a man can scarce be an accomplished and philosophical anatomist) he has learned the structure, use and harmony of the parts of the body, he is able to discern that matchless engine to be admirably contrived, in order to the exercise of all the motions and functions, whereto it was designed: and yet this artist, had he never contemplated a human body, could never have imagined or devised an engine of no greater bulk, any thing near so fitted to perform all the variety of actions we daily see performed either in or by a human body. Thus the circular motion of the blood, and structure of the valves of the heart and veins (the consideration whereof, as he himself told me, first hinted the circulation to our famous Harvey) though now modern experiments have for the main (the modus not seeming yet so fully explicated) convinced us of them, we acknowledge them to be very expedient, and can admire God’s wisdom in contriving them: yet those many learned anatomists, that have for many succeeding ages preceded both Dr. Harvey and Columbus, Cesalpinus, Padre Paulo, and Mr. Warner (for each of these four last are supposed by some to have had some notion of the circulation) by all their diligent contemplation of human bodies, never dreamed (for aught appears) of so advantageous an use of the valves of the heart, nor that nimble circular motion of the blood, of which our modern circulators think they discern such excellent use, not to say, necessity. . . .
And in a word, there is a multitude of problems, especially such as belong to the use of the parts of the human body, and to the causes and cures of the diseases incident thereunto, in whose explication those, we write of, content themselves to tell us, that nature does such and such a thing, because it was fit for her so to do; but they endeavour not to make intelligible to us, what they mean by this nature, and how mere, and consequently brute, bodies can act according to laws, and for determinate ends, without any knowledge either of the one or of the other. Let them therefore, until they have made out their hypothesis more intelligibly, either cease to ascribe to irrational creatures such actions, as in men are apparently the productions of reason and choice, and sometimes even of industry and virtue; or else let them with us acknowledge, that such actions of creatures in themselves irrational are performed under the superintendence and guidance of a wise and intelligent author of things. But that you may not mistake me . . . it will be requisite for me, to acquaint you, in two or three words, with some of my present thoughts concerning this subject: that there are some actions so peculiar to man, upon the account of his intellect and will, that they cannot be satisfactorily explicated after the manner of the actings of mere corporeal agents, I am very much inclined to believe. And whether or no there may be some actions of some other animals, which cannot well be mechanically explicated, I have not here leisure or opportunity to examine. But for (most of) the other phaenomena of nature, methinks we may, without absurdity, conceive, that God, of whom in the scripture it is affirmed, “That all his works are known to him from the beginning,” [Acts 15:18] having resolved, before the creation, to make such a world as this of ours, did divide (at least if he did not create it incoherent) that matter which he had provided, into an innumerable multitude of very variously figured corpuscles, and both connected those particles into such textures or particular bodies. and placed them in such situations, and put them into such motions, that by assistance of his ordinary preserving concourse, the phaenomena, which he intended should appear in the universe, must as orderly follow, and be exhibited by the bodies necessarily acting according to those impressions or laws, though they understand them not at all, as if each of those creatures had a design of self-preservation, and were furnished with knowledge and industry to prosecute it; and as if there were diffused through the universe an intelligent being, watchful over the publick good of it, and careful to administer all things wisely for the good of the particular parts of it, but so far forth as is consistent with the good of the whole, and the preservation of the primitive and catholick laws established by the supreme cause; as in the . . . clock of Strasbourg, the several pieces making up that curious engine are so framed and adapted, and are put into such a motion, that though the numerous wheels, and other parts of it, move several ways, and that without any thing either of knowledge or design; yet each performs its part in order to the various end, for which it was contrived, as regularly and uniformly as if it knew and were concerned to do its duty. And the various motions of the wheels and other parts concur to exhibit the phaenomena designed by the artificer in the engine, as exactly as if they were animated by a common principle, which makes them knowingly conspire to do so, and might, to a rude Indian, seem to be more intelligent than Conradus Dasypodius himself, that published a description of it; wherein he tells the world, that he contrived it, who could not tell the hours, and measure time so accurately as his clock. . . . When I see in a curious clock, how orderly every wheel and other parts perform its own motions, and with what seeming unanimity they conspire to show the hour, and accomplish the other designs of the artificer; I do not imagine, that any of the wheels, &c. or the engine it self is endowed with reason, but commend that of the workman, who framed it so artificially. So when I contemplate the actions of those several creatures, that make up the world, I do not conclude the inanimate pieces, at least, that it is made up of, or the vast engine it self, to act with reason or design, but admire and praise the most wise Author, who by his admirable contrivance can so regularly produce effects, to which so great a number of successive and conspiring causes are required. . . .
In the third place then I consider, that whether or no it be true, which our antagonists suggest, that there are some things in nature, which tempt philosophers more than they do the vulgar, to doubt or deny a God; yet certainly there are divers things in nature, that do much conduce to the evincing of a Deity, which naturalists either alone discern, or at least discern them better than other men. For besides the abstruse properties of particular bodies, not discovered by any but those, that make particular inquiries into those bodies, there are many things in nature, which to a superficial observer seem to have no relation to one another; whereas to a knowing naturalist, that is able to discern their secret correspondencies and alliances, these things, which seem to be altogether irrelative each to other, appear so proportionate and so harmonious both betwixt themselves, and in reference to the universe they are parts of, that they represent to him a very differing and incomparably better prospect than to another man: as he, that looks upon a picture made up of scattered and deformed pieces, beholding them united Into one face by a cylindrical looking glass aptly placed, discerns the skill of the artist, that drew it, better than he, that looks only on the single parts of that picture, or upon the whole picture, without the uniting cylinder. . . .
In the fourth place, I consider, that the universal experience of all ages manifests, that the contemplation of the world has been much more prevalent to make those, that have addicted themselves to it, believers, than deniers of a Deity. For it is very apparent, that the old philosophers, for the most part, acknowledged a God; and as evident it is, by their want of revelation, by many passages in their writings, and by divers others things not now to be insisted on; that the consideration of the works of nature was the chief thing, that induced them to acknowledge a divine author of them. . . .
In the fifth place . . . I consider, that when the divines we are answering, suppose physiology likely to render a man an atheist, they do it (as hath above been noted already) upon this ground, that natural philosophy may enable him to explicate both the regular phaenomena, and the aberrations of nature, without having recourse to a first cause or God. But though this supposal were as great a truth, as we have endeavoured to make it a mistake, yet I see not, why a studier of physiology, though ever so great a proficient in it, may not rationally be an utter enemy to atheism. For the contemplation of the creatures is but one of the ways of coming to be convinced, that there is a God; and therefore, though religion were unable to make use of the argument drawn from the works of nature, to prove the existence of a Deity, yet has she other arguments enough besides, to keep any considerate and impartial man from growing an atheist. . . .
In the sixth and last place, I will here add (on this occasion) that an insight into physiological principles may very much assist a man to answer the objections of atheists against the being of a Deity, and the exceptions they make to the arguments brought to prove, that there is one. For though it has long been the custom of such men, to talk, as if themselves, and those of their mind, were not alone the best, but almost the only naturalists; and to perplex others with pretending, that, whereas it is not conceivable, how there can be a God; all things are by the principles of the atomical philosophy, made clear and facile; Though this, I say, have long been used among the opposers of a Deity, yet he, that, not regarding their confidence, shall attentively consider the very first principles of things, may plainly enough discern, that of the arguments, wherewith natural philosophy has furnished atheists, those, that are indeed considerable, are far fewer than one would readily think; and that the difficulty of conceiving the eternity, self-existence, and some other attributes of God (though that afford them their grand objection) proceeds not so much from any absurdity belonging to the notion of a Deity, as such; as from the difficulty, which our dim human intellects find to conceive the nature of those first things (whatever we suppose them) which, to be the causes of all others, must be themselves without cause: for he, that shall attentively consider, what the atomists themselves may be compelled to allow, concerning the eternity of matter, the origin of local motion (which plainly belongs not to the nature of body) the infinity or boundlessness of space, the divisibleness or non-divisibility of each corporeal substance into infinite material parts, may clearly perceive, that the atomist, by denying, that there is a God, cannot free his understanding from such puzzling difficulties, as he pretends to be the reasons of his denial: for instead of one God, he must confess an infinite number of atoms to be eternal, self-existent, immortal, self-moving, and must make suppositions, incumbered with difficulties enough to him, that has competently accustomed his thoughts to leave second causes, beneath them, and contemplate those causes, that have none. . . .
[Works, II, 5-6, 15, 20-22, 38-40, 49-30,55, 58, .59]
Short Quotes by ROBERT BOYLE
On being a Christian and a scientist:
There is no inconsistence between a man’s being an industrious virtuoso, and a good Christian.
–The Christian Virtuoso, cited in Mulfinger, p. 41.
On the design argument:
The vastness, beauty, orderliness, of the heavenly bodies, the excellent structure of animals and plants; and the other phenomena of nature justly induce an intelligent and unprejudiced observer to conclude a supremely powerful, just, and good author.
– cited by Mulfinger, p. 41.
On first causes:
Is it wise to dispute anxiously about the properties of an atom, and be careless about the enquiry into the attributes of the great God, who formed all things?
– cited by Mulfinger, p. 41.
A man can be a champion of truth without being an enemy of civility.
– cited by Mulfinger, p. 42.
In his will, he wrote to the Royal Society:
Wishing them also a most happy success in their laudable attempts to discover the true nature of the works of God, and praying, that they and all other searchers into physical truths may cordially refer their attainments to the glory of the Author of Nature, and the benefit of mankind.
– cited by Mulfinger, p. 46.
He whose Faith never doubted, may justly doubt of his Faith.
– cited by Edward B. Davis.
I am not a Christian, because it is the religion of my country, and my friends, when I chuse to travel in the beaten road; it is not, because I find it is the road, but because I judge it is the way.
– cited by Edward B. Davis.
We must never venture to wander far from God, upon the Presumption that Death is far enough from us, but rather in the very height of our Jollities, we should endeavour to remember, that they who feast themselves to-day, may themselves prove Feasts for the Worms tomorrow.
– from Occasional Reflections, cited by Edward B. Davis.
On alleged contradictions between the Bible and science:
If we lay aside all the irrational opinions, that are unreasonably fathered on the Christian religion, and all erroneous conceits repugnant to Christianity, which have been groundlessly fathered upon Philosophy, the seeming contradictions betwixt Divinity and true Philosophy, will be but few, and the real ones none at all.
– cited by David L. Woodall.
On motivation for scientific research:
From a knowledge of His work, we shall know Him.
– cited by John Hudson Tiner, p. 179.