Robert Boyle’s Clockwork Universe

| By Ted Davis on Reading the Book of Nature

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 theStrasbourg Cathedral, this one was designed byConrad Dasypodius, professor of mathematics at Strasbourg University, and completed in 1574 byIsaac 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.


Title page from Boyle’s Free Enquiry
Title page from Boyle’s Free Enquiry. The printed publication date of 1685/6 indicates that the sheets came from the printer (Henry Clark) prior to March 25 in 1686. In the “Old Style” English calendar, which was still the official legal calendar in Boyle’s time, the New Year began on March 25 rather than January 1. However the “New Style” dates were also coming into use, and we often find English printers using both dates simultaneously, as in this instance. The “Imprimatur” just above the publication information was an official license to print the book—a requirement in England for all books at the time. As the writing across the bottom of the page indicates, this particular copy was “Presented to the R[oyal]. Society [on] ye 16 June [16]86. By ye Hon[oura]ble Authour.” Contrary to what readers often assume, the “y” in “ye” is actually an archaic form of the dipthong “th,” known as the “thorn” letter, so that “ye” should be pronounced “the.” Photograph by Edward B. Davis, used by kind permission of the Royal Society.

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 ofSemi-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.


Painting: Joseph Wright of Derby, A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery
Joseph Wright of Derby, A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery (ca. 1776), Derby Museum and Art Gallery, Derby, UK. I used Wright’s famous painting of the air pump in a previous column. In this equally famous painting, a man who looks for all the world like Isaac Newton–probably a deliberate choice by Wright—demonstrates a lighted “orrery,” a mechanical model of the Solar System named after Charles Boyle, the 4th Earl of Orrery, for whom the first actual “orrery” was built in 1713 (contrary to the information in Wikipedia). Charles Boyle was a grandson of Roger Boyle, one of Robert Boyle’s six older brothers. This powerful image may have helped link Newton with the manifestly false view that he invented the idea of the clockwork universe, when in fact he rejected it as a theologically inappropriate notion. (Wikipedia was one of many sources endorsing this misconception, until my student Nathan Van Wyck corrected it in 2011.) The clock metaphor actually predates the Scientific Revolution, and it was Boyle, not Newton, who helped make it so popular.

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.

Looking Ahead

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.


About the Author

Ted Davis

Ted Davis is Fellow of the History of Science for the BioLogos Foundation and Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. A former high school science teacher, Ted studied history and philosophy of science at Indiana University, where his mentor was the late Richard S. Westfall, author of the definitive biography of Isaac Newton. With the English historian Michael Hunter, Ted edited The Works of Robert Boyle, 14 vols. (London: Pickering & Chatto, 1999-2000), but his interests include the whole 2000-year interaction of Christianity and science. Author of dozens of scholarly articles and essays, Ted is one of few historians who have written extensively about both the Scientific Revolution and modern America. He and his wife Kathy enjoy theater, music, and traveling to new places.