Science as Christian Vocation

| By Ted Davis on Reading the Book of Nature

Science as Christian Vocation


Engraved head of Boyle by George Vertue, after the portrait by Johann Kerseboom, used as the frontispiece to Peter Shaw’s The Philosophical Works of Robert Boyle, 3 vols. (London, 1738). The famous air pump, with a glass receiver and its unfortunate winged inhabitant, are depicted in the lower left. In the lower right are the chemist’s furnace, ladle, crucible tongs, and two crucibles.

Editorial note: When this article was first published, it was inadvertently released in truncated form. It has now been updated with the correct, full version.

So far this series has covered Boyle’s religious doubtspious demeanor and charitable spirit, andhis attitude toward the loose sexual morality that was commonplace in his own family and the upper-class circles in which they moved. We turn now to his view of science as a Christian vocation—his vocation.

Why Boyle Became a Scientist

It was only after writing all of the religious works I’ve already told you about, at some point in his twenty-third year, that Boyle embarked on serious scientific study. From that point on his pursuit of natural philosophy continued unabated until his death. Often we do not know precisely why a given person is drawn to any specific activity, and we must be careful not to jump to inappropriate conclusions simply by assuming a certain answer. As Mordechai Feingold has stressed, we must keep in mind the distinction between one’s actual motivation for doing science and the justification one then offers for it. This caveat is especially relevant to the Scientific Revolution, when so many scientists were ordained ministers who felt tugged in opposite directions by their callings as clergy and their fascination with mathematics or natural philosophy. Although Boyle was never ordained, we must still be careful not uncritically to equate his reasons for doing science with the justification he provided.

They were however very closely linked in his case. Clearly, Boyle found himself enraptured by his first experiences in the laboratory, and just as clearly he viewed his activitiessimultaneously in theological terms. His own account, from an exuberant letter to his sister Katherine, is mythical in its allusion and proportion: “Vulcan has so transported and bewitch’d mee, that as the Delights I tast in it, make me fancy my Laboratory a kind of Elizium; so as if the Threshold of it possest the quality the Poets ascrib’d to that Lethe their Fictions made men taste of before their Entrance into those seats of Blisse.” In short, Boyle simply lovedgetting his hands dirty doing chemical experiments. No surprise there, given how much time he would devote to them.

Just three sentences earlier, however Boyle had already mentioned “those Morall speculations, with which my Chymicall Practices have entertained mee,” mentioning specifically in this connection “a Discourse ... of the Theologicall Use of Naturall Filosophy; endeavoring to make the Contemplation of the Creatures contributory to the Instruction of the Prince, & to the Glory of the Author of them” (The Correspondence of Robert Boyle, vol. 1, pp. 82-3). The “Discourse” Boyle referred to was an essay, “Of the Study of the Booke of Nature,” which he originally intended to include with the homilies and meditations comprisingOccasional Reflections (from which I quoted in a previous entry). This is strong evidence by itself of the intimate connection that Boyle saw, right from the start, between his already highly developed religious life and his newly developing interest in science.

As this early essay reveals, even before beginning his laboratory activities Boyle was profoundly convicted that the investigation of nature was a fundamentally religious enterprise. “Both our Divines & our Philosophers,” the essay begins, “compose Man’s Library of three cheife Bookes, which to Expound, apply & Rectify, is the Taske of the rest.” What three “Bookes” did he have in mind? The “3 Volumes, are The Booke of Nature, the Book call’d Scripture, & the Booke of Conscience.” Having already said much about the latter two books in many other writings, Boyle’s goal in this essay was to “addict ... all capable & Intelligent Persons to the neglected study of the First,” that is, nature (The Works of Robert Boyle, vol. 13, p. 147). The intimate interplay between scientific and religious ideas would henceforth be an outstanding feature of his thought.

A further motive was Boyle’s strong desire to improve the human condition and to ameliorate suffering—especially through the application of chemical knowledge to medicine. The modern advertising slogan, “Better Living Through Chemistry,” never had a better exemplar than Robert Boyle. To some extent, Boyle’s interest in medicine reflected some unfortunate encounters with unhelpful physicians and his own generally poor health. His friend John Evelyn described him as “rather talle & slender of stature,” but “pale & much Emaciated,” and his diet as “extreamely Temperate & plaine” (Robert Boyle: By Himself and His Friends, pp. 88-9). More importantly, Boyle deeply felt that physicians had a religious duty to be more forthcoming with effective remedies—and to provide them even to those who could not afford to pay. It was a lifelong theme, running through many of his writings, which came to a climax near the end of his life, when he published a collection of medical recipes for this very purpose. John Wesley did precisely the same thing, for the same reasons, in the following century.


“Mr Boyle’s Receipts” book

A few years before his death, Boyle arranged for a collection of medical “receipts” (we would call them prescriptions) to be privately published—in other words, they were given personally by Boyle to friends and correspondents, not sold for profit to the general public by the book dealers. Boyle had been collecting remedies for various ailments for many years, using them himself and sharing them with others in a piecemeal fashion. He finally decided to print a collection in response to a request from William Avery, a physician in Boston, Massachusetts, who appealed to Boyle for some inexpensive yet effective medicines that he could use in colonial New England. In addition to sending some copies to America, Boyle gave them “gratis; not only to physitians, & surgeons, but cheifly to divines & Ladyes, & other persons residing in the countrey that were wont out of charity to give medicins to the poore” (Royal Society, MS 186, fols. 119v-20). The British Library used to have a copy of the first edition, Some Receipts of Medicines (1688), but it disappeared some time ago and no copy can now be located. A larger collection of remedies, collectively called Medicinal Experiments, was printed in stages after his death by his executors—including the great philosopher John Locke, who had studied medicine at Oxford, where he worked with Boyle. The edition shown here, from 1696, has an engraved portrait of Boyle opposite the title page. The source of this photograph (a book dealer’s catalog) is no longer available.

Boyle the Laboratory Scientist

Once Boyle had begun the investigation of nature, he never slackened, and he found his Christian character ideally suited to his new activities. The highly competitive aspect of modern science sometimes hides the fact that science is a fundamentally cooperative enterprise, in which groups of people work toward common goals. Boyle’s unquestioned honesty, unfailing charity, and genuine interest in the public welfare helped him gain the respect and friendship of an important community of learned “gentlemen,” who met regularly in John Wilkins’ rooms at Wadham College, Oxford, to view experiments and to discuss the latest scientific discoveries and ideas. When Wilkins moved to Cambridge in 1659, Boyle assumed the role of host. The following year, he and some of the same people joined with several others in London to found the Royal Society.

The next dozen years were the most productive of his life, earning him a worldwide reputation as the outstanding experimental scientist of his generation. His most famous contributions involved the use of an air pump, expertly made for him by Robert Hooke, a brilliant Oxford student who went on to become a great scientist himself. With this apparatus, Boyle demonstrated several properties of the air, confirming in clear and clever ways the hypothesis ofBlaise Pascal and others that the atmosphere is a vast fluid like the ocean. Just as water pressure increases with depth, so air pressure depends on the height of the atmosphere. Several other experiments, involving insects, birds, and small mammals, helped to illuminate the connections among respiration, combustion, and various components of the air.


The frontispiece from the second collection of Boyle’s experiments with air pumps

The frontispiece from the second collection of Boyle’s experiments with air pumps, A Continuation of New Experiments Physico-Mechanical, Touching the Spring and Weight of the Air, and their Effects (Oxford, 1669). The animal sealed inside the glass vessel in this particular experiment was a kitten.

Boyle’s involvement with animal experimentation calls for more comment. The Greco-Roman anatomist Galen had carried out numerous experiments on living animals–it was the only way in which many physiological phenomena could be seen at that time. However, according to Anita Guerrini, his methods were not employed again as part of a scientific research program until the first quarter of the 17th century, when the Oxford physician William Harvey used vivisection to help establish the circulation of the blood. By the 1650s, animal experimentation was practiced widely in England and had become indispensable for understanding respiration, in which Boyle and several of his contemporaries had keen interest.

For this and other purposes, Boyle carried out numerous experiments involving live dogs, cats, birds, mice, frogs, snakes, worms, and insects. He repeated what he called “the Experiment of killing Birds in a small Receiver” often enough to refer to it in that matter-of-fact manner. To some extent, animal experimentation was encouraged by René Descartes’ view that animals were merely machines lacking reason and sensation, a concept that became known as the “beast-machine,” but Boyle did not entirely accept that notion. He sometimes expressed remorse for laboratory animals, on the assumption that they actually did suffer, and even showed compassion in some cases by declining to subject animals to multiple experiments. As Malcolm Oster has shown (cited below), Boyle considered gratuitous cruelty to animals blasphemous, while at the same time he believed it legitimate to use animals for experiments that would advance human knowledge.


Painting: “An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump” (1768)

Joseph Wright of Derby, An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768), National Gallery, London. The scene Wright depicted in one of his most famous paintings corresponds closely to an incident Boyle described in his first book about the air pump, New Experiments Physico-Mechanicall, Touching the Spring of the Air, and its Effects (Oxford, 1660). His account is as follows: “having divers times try’d the Experiment of killing Birds in a small Receiver, we commonly found, that within half a minute of an hour, or thereabouts, the Bird would be surpris’d by mortal Convulsions, and within about a minute more would be stark dead ... Which sort of Experiments seem so strange, that we were oblig’d to make it several times, which gain’d it the Advantage of having Persons of differing Qualities, Professions and Sexes, (as not onely Ladies and Lords, but Doctors and Mathematicians) to witness it.” However, following an occasion when “the pitty of some Fair Lady’s” interfered to save the life of one of the birds, Boyle “resolv’d not to be interrupted in our Experiment,” and so he repeated it in the dead of night, when there were (presumably) no women around (The Works of Robert Boyle, vol. 1, pp. 286-7).

Looking Ahead

Up next: more on Boyle’s science, especially his commitment to what he called “the mechanical philosophy,” the conception of nature as a vast, impersonal machine—created by an infinite, personal God. That will set us up for another column, dealing with Boyle’s commitment to what we now call “methodological naturalism.” These are very important topics that are highly relevant to the modern conversation about science and Christianity. Be sure not to miss them!


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.