Robert Boyle’s Clockwork Universe
Woodcut by Tobias Stimmer, Astronomical Clock in the Cathedral in Strasbourg (1574), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, anonymous gift, accession number 2009.157. The second of three astronomical clocks to have been displayed in the Strasbourg Cathedral, this one was designed by Conrad Dasypodius, professor of mathematics at Strasbourg University, and completed in 1574 by Isaac and Josiah Habrecht. Boyle mentions this clock several times in his writings, but there is no evidence that he ever visited Strasbourg. He probably learned about it from the description in Dasypodius’ book, Horologii astronomici descriptio (1580).
The previous column introduced readers to the mechanical philosophy; if you haven’t read it yet, please do so before reading this one, which explains why Boyle found the mechanical philosophy so attractive theologically.
Why Boyle Found the Mechanical Philosophy So Attractive Theologically
Boyle’s belief in the biblical God substantially motivated his wholehearted embrace of the mechanical philosophy. He thought it was actually more consistent with biblical statements of divine sovereignty than the non-mechanistic views of Aristotle and Galen. This is the argument of his subtle treatise about God and nature, A Free Enquiry into the Vulgarly Receiv’d Notion of Nature, much of which was written at the height of his powers (in the 1660s) though it wasn’t published until twenty years later. To understand what he meant by the “Vulgarly Received Notion of Nature,” remember that “vulgar” originally meant ordinary or commonplace, and that Jerome’s Latin translation of the Bible was called the “Vulgate” for that reason. Boyle was referring to the Greek conception of nature, which was still widely accepted.
What did he think of the Greek notion of nature? Simply put, Boyle believed it was inappropriate—both theologically and scientifically—to speak of “Nature” doing anything at all. We’ve already had a glimpse of his scientific objections in my previous column. What were his theological objections? For starters, he couldn’t find an equivalent notion in the Bible. “I do not remember, that in the Old Testament, I have met with any one Hebrew word that properly signifies Nature, in the sense we take it in.” Though biblical authors “many times mention the Corporeal Works of God, yet they do not take notice of Nature, which our Philosophers would have his great Vicegerent in what relates to them.” Indeed, when Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “who were Greeks,” about sowing seeds (1 Cor. 15: 37-8), “he does not attribute the produc’d Body [the mature plant] to Nature, but when he had spoken of a grain of Wheat, or some other seed put into the ground, he adds, that God gives it such a Body as he pleaseth, and to every seed its own Body, i.e. the Body belonging to its kind” (The Works of Robert Boyle, vol. 10, pp. 459-60).
In other words, a more biblical conception of nature will focus on the properties and powers freely given to bodies by the Creator himself, not on an imaginary “Vicegerent” called “Nature,” that stands like “a Goddess, or a kind of Semi-Deity” between God and his creation (p. 456). By removing “Nature” as an intermediary, the mechanical philosophy benefitted theology by underscoring divine sovereignty: nature is a creation, not an independent being, and its created properties and powers are the proper subject of our study. At the same time, the “vulgar” view holds back scientific progress; “the veneration, wherewith Men are imbued for what they call Nature, has been a discouraging impediment to the Empire of Man over the inferior Creatures of God.” Many even thought it was actually “impious” to transcend “those Boundaries which Nature seems to have put and setled among her Productions.” Those who view “Nature” as “such a venerable thing … make a kind of scruple of Conscience, to endeavour so to emulate any of her Works, as to excel them” (p. 450). What Boyle called “the Empire of Man” was nothing other than the Genesis mandate, God’s command to humanity to “rule over” the rest of creation. To the extent that Greek conceptions impeded human dominion, to the same extent they were theologically objectionable.
Boyle’s Clockwork Universe
Finally, by underscoring the wonderful, astonishing complexity and intricacy of the created order, the mechanical philosophy powerfully focused our attention on the Creator: his wisdom, power, and goodness are seen abundantly in the creation. This is where the notion of a clockwork universe comes in: the mechanism requires a mechanic to make it. Boyle was hardly the first person to use the clock metaphor, but I doubt that anyone used it more often or more enthusiastically. Even before he adopted the mechanical philosophy, he had encountered essentially the same idea in A Woorke concerning the trewnesse of the Christian Religion, a treatise by the Huguenot writer Philippe de Mornay that deeply influenced Boyle’s development as a Christian thinker. Although Mornay was not (as far as I can tell) a mechanical philosopher, he spoke of “the great wheele of Heaven,” which “hath now of long time turned about without ceasing, wilt thou be so childish or so blind, as to belieeve that it hath turned so from everlasting? O man, the same workmayster which hath set up the Clock of thy hart for halfe a score yeares, hath also set up this huge engine of the Skyes for certeyne thousands of yeares” (p. 100).
Boyle appealed specifically to the clock metaphor in arguing for the superior theological implications (as he saw them) of the mechanical philosophy. Proponents of the vulgar conception of nature “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 over-rule, the Actions of the Engine; whereas, according to us, ’tis like a rare Clock, such as may be that at Strasbourg, where all things are so skilfully contriv’d, 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 perform these or those things, do not require, like those of Puppets, the peculiar interposing of the Artificer, or any Intelligent Agent imployed by him, but perform their functions upon particular occasions, by vertue of the General and Primitive Contrivance of the whole Engine” (The Works of Robert Boyle, vol. 10, p. 448).
The Relevance of Robert Boyle Today
Boyle’s clockwork universe united his natural theology inextricably with the mechanical philosophy. The degree to which the subsequent Anglo-American tradition of natural theology derives its impulse and content from Boyle is not fully appreciated: even Paley’s watch on a heath was already lodged in Boyle’s pocket. Consider the following passage, probably written in the last decade of Boyle’s life but never actually used in any of his printed books. A transcription was eventually published by Jack MacIntosh in 2006, but I’ll quote a copy of the manuscript I obtained in 1989, when I first read it in the library of the Royal Society and was thunderstruck by the remarkable similarity to Paley’s famous analogy: “if an Indian or Chinois [Chinese], should have found a Watch cast on shore in some Trunke or Casket of some shipwrackt European vessel; by observing the motions and figure of it, he would quickly conclude that ’twas made by some intelligent & skillfull Being” (Royal Society, Boyle Papers, vol. 5, fol. 105). Insofar as the modern ID movement is deeply indebted to Paley (and it is), it is no less indebted to Boyle.
The rock-bottom issue for Boyle—how we should conceive of nature—remains equally relevant to certain other important conversations today. Some feminists and environmentalists want us to reverse course and stop thinking of nature as an impersonal thing; they seem to prefer “Mother Nature,” or something similar. Some theologians (a prominent example is David Ray Griffin) want us to abandon the notion of a transcendent God; they would prefer to revive the Stoic notion of the “world-soul,” which Boyle vigorously opposed. Readers interested in any of these debates stand to benefit greatly from studying this subtle book—which is now back in print after three centuries.
I close with that recommendation.
Coupled with his commitment to the mechanical philosophy, Boyle also endorsed “methodological naturalism,” the philosophical position that miracles aren’t appropriate scientific explanations. At the same time he aggressively promoted “intelligent design.” Both parts of that interesting combination—which might strike readers as paradoxical—will be examined in upcoming columns.
References and Suggestions for Further Reading
This material is adapted from Edward B. Davis, “Robert Boyle’s Religious Life, Attitudes, and Vocation,” Science & Christian Belief 19 (2007): 117-38, with additional information from the introduction to Edward B. Davis and Michael Hunter, Robert Boyle, A Free Enquiry into the Vulgarly Received Notion of Nature (Cambridge University Press, 1996); Edward B. Davis, “Newton’s Rejection of the ‘Newtonian World View’: The Role of Divine Will in Newton’s Natural Philosophy,” in Facets of Faith and Science, Volume 3: The Role of Beliefs in the Natural Sciences, ed. Jitse M. van der Meer (University Press of America, 1996), pp. 75-96; Samuel L. Macey, Clocks and the Cosmos (Archon Books, 1980); and Liba Taub, “Orrery,” Instruments of Science: An Historical Encyclopedia, ed. Robert Bud et al. (Garland Publishing, 1998), pp. 429-30.
Quotations from A Free Enquiry are from the first edition, as reprinted in The Works of Robert Boyle, 14 vols., ed. Michael Hunter and Edward B. Davis (Pickering & Chatto, 1999-2000). I also quote Philippe de Mornay, A Woorke concerning the trewnesse of the Christian Religion (London, 1587), as translated by Sir Philip Sydney and Arthur Golding, the same edition Boyle himself read.