The Faith of a Great Scientist: Robert Boyle’s Religious Life, Attitudes, and Vocation, Part 1
Note: The picture above is Johann Kerseboom's Portrait of Robert Boyle (ca. 1689). Kerseboom and his assistants painted multiple versions of this portrait. This one, called the Shannon Portrait after the family that owned it,was unknown to scholars until early this century, when it came up for auction in London and was purchased by the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia.
Over the past several months, I’ve introduced readers to John Polkinghorne, a leading modern scientist who is also an outspoken Christian. This new series will introduce you to a great scientist from the period often called the “Scientific Revolution,” when modern science came into existence. The English chemist Robert Boyle (1627-1691) is an outstanding example of a Christian scientist whose faith interacted fundamentally with his science. His remarkable piety was closely linked with his interest in science, and his Christian character shaped the ways in which he conducted his scientific life. A deep love for scripture, coupled (ironically) with a lifelong struggle with religious doubt, led him to write several important books relating scientific and religious knowledge. We’ll explore aspects of this fascinating interaction over the next few months. I hope you’ll join us for the conversation.
Who Was Robert Boyle?
Robert Boyle is best known today as the person who published “Boyle’s Law,” the inverse relation between the pressure and volume of gases that is a standard part of a basic chemistry course. Often this is shown graphically as in this illustration, but Boyle didn’t present it in that way, nor did he write it down as an equation, such as PV = k, where P and V are the pressure and volume of the gas and k is a constant numerical value.
Boyle didn’t usually think in abstract mathematical terms. Rather, he thought concretely about specific measurements and how to make them as accurately and precisely as possible. Thus, he presented the relationship simply by giving a table of measured values for the pressure and volume of a small sample of air that he trapped under a column of mercury in a glass tube.
This was a major scientific discovery, but he did much more. Over a period of more than three decades, Boyle wrote extensively about various properties of matter in all three of its basic phases—liquid, solid, and gaseous. He also discussed important aspects of physiology, medicine, the planet earth (including the oceans and the atmosphere), while contributing key insights to matter theory and the philosophy of science. Indeed, it is not too much to say that Boyle was one of the founders of the modern scientific laboratory—conceive an experiment to test a hypothesis, assemble the apparatus and the people needed to carry out the experiment, and publish the results.
Boyle’s books and articles were in high demand throughout Europe during the Scientific Revolution. They were often pirated on the Continent, where his name was recognized everywhere that science was being done. One reason for his international reputation, I am convinced, was the exquisitely detailed, very clear descriptions of his experiments. Others could repeat them to check the results, or modify them to test further hypotheses of their own. Either way, they could count on Boyle to report honestly exactly what he had done and found—even when the experiment didn’t work, a frequent occurrence. Because of his many important contributions to science, Boyle is often described as “the father of chemistry and brother of the Earl of Cork,” to borrow an old witticism that is—quite wrongly—said to be the epitaph on his tombstone. What is absent from this popular image, however, is a deeper understanding of a deeply religious man who wrote as much about the nature of God as he did about the nature of air.
Evidence of Boyle’s intense religiosity and its influence on his scientific work is abundant. A particularly striking example involves Richard Baxter, the eminent Puritan divine. After reading one of Boyle’s meditative works in the summer of 1665, Baxter wrote Boyle to express appreciation: “I read your Theologie as the Life of your Philosophie, & your Philosophie as animated & dignifyed by your Theologie; yea indeed as its first Part.” Once we realize that when Baxter used the word “Philosophie,” he meant what we call “science,” we start to see the point. As historian Michael Hunter has recently said, “The central fact of Boyle’s life from his adolescence onwards was his deep piety, and it is impossible to understand him without doing justice to this.” [Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004), vol. 7, p. 106.] The columns in this series should be understood as my effort to do it justice.
Please return in about two weeks, when I’ll explore Boyle’s adolescent religious experiences, especially his dark, personal encounter with doubt—which had lifelong implications for his theological writings.
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. All articles from that journal number can now be downloaded at http://www.scienceandchristianbelief.org/toc.php?type=by_volume&volume=19&issue=2. That is where readers can find complete bibliographical information about my sources, many of them written either by Boyle himself or by people who actually knew him.
The principal biographer of Boyle, Michael Hunter, offers a short overview of “The Life and Thought of Robert Boyle” that is well worth reading in full. Hunter also created the Homepage of the Robert Boyle Project, where readers can view hundreds of pages of manuscripts from the Boyle Papers, housed at the library of the Royal Society in London.
Information about Boyle’s life and work is readily available online, but some is unreliable and much is not original—the same old material tends to be regurgitated, often by copying it verbatim without acknowledgement: plagiarism is rampant on the internet. Readers who want to go further are invited to visit a print library to consult the following authoritative sources:
R. Hooykaas, Robert Boyle: A Study in Science and Christian Belief . Translated by H. Van Dyke. University Press of America, 1997. The late Reijer Hooykaas, one of the leading historians of science of the last century, provides a sensitive and insightful account of the role of Christian beliefs in Boyle’s life and work. (The description of the author at amazon.com is erroneous.)
Michael Hunter. Boyle: Between Science and God. Yale University Press, 2009. Hunter knows more about Boyle than anyone else since Boyle’s own day. There really is no substitute for this book.
Ted Davis is Fellow of the History of Science for the BioLogos Foundation and Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. At Messiah, Davis teaches courses on historical and contemporary aspects of Christianity and science and directs the Central Pennsylvania Forum for Religion and Science.