Vignette by Hubert-François Gravelot, from the title page of Thomas Birch’s six-volume quarto edition of The Works of the Honourable Robert Boyle (London, 1772); the same image had graced the five-volume folio edition of 1744. The objects on the shelf represent Boyle’s contributions to chemistry (the furnace, pots, and ladle), pneumatics (the air pump and associated glassware), and scholarship (the books), all inspired by a Muse. The Latin words running across the shelf (“From the causes of things to know the Supreme Cause [God]”) echo Boyle’s pre-eminence in natural theology—a role that eighteenth-century readers would have immediately recognized. Only a handful of scientists have ever matched the intensity of Boyle’s emphasis on arguments for proving God’s existence, and none has done more to advance the whole enterprise.
Early in this series, I said that Boyle’s abiding interest in Christian apologetics reflects the lifelong conversation he had with his own religious doubts. Right in the center of this conversation we find his outspoken advocacy of the design argument for God’s existence. Indeed, considering the depth of his commitment to it, the substantial financial support he provided for others to promote it after his death, and the close resemblance between his attitudes and arguments and those of modern ID advocates, it’s entirely appropriate to see Boyle as the “Father of Intelligent Design.”
Boyle on Design in Nature
As we’ve already seen, Boyle saw the mechanical philosophy as a powerful ally for religion, and the clock metaphor was integral to his apologetics. He found the mechanical philosophy attractive for two nearly opposite reasons. On the one hand, it drew our attention more deeply into nature, by stressing the created mechanisms themselves as the proper subjects of our scientific investigations. On the other hand, it drew our attention away from nature itself, pointing clearly and powerfully to the One who had fashioned it exquisitely as the proper object of our worship.
Thus, Boyle argued that design principles—what Aristotle had called “final causes”— have a proper place within natural philosophy. However, he added a crucial caveat, printed in italics for emphasis: “That the Naturalist should not suffer the Search or the Discovery of a Final Cause of Nature’s Works, to make him Undervalue or Neglect the studious Indagation of their Efficient Causes.” What Aristotle called “efficient causes” were just the actual physical causes at hand. Francis Bacon had offered the same caution decades earlier in The Advancement of Learning. Given that Bacon was a regular part of Boyle’s intellectual diet, it’s safe to assume a specific influence here. Although neglecting efficient causes “would render Physiology [i.e., scientific investigation] Useless,” Boyle added, “the studious Indagation of them, will not Prejudice the Contemplation of Final Causes” (A Disquisition on the Final Causes of Natural Things, in The Works of Robert Boyle, vol. 11, pp. 149-50).
Boyle’s important treatise, A Disquisition on the Final Causes of Natural Things (1688), examines the role of design arguments (final causes) in biology. The subtitle is important: “Wherein it is inquir’d, whether, and (if at all) with what cautions, a naturalist should admit them?” Boyle steered a moderate course, in between those (like Descartes) who denied that humans could know any of God’s purposes, and those who thought that all of God’s purposes were always clearly displayed in the creation. Boyle published this work under the initials, “by T[he]. H[onourable]. R[obert]. B[oyle].,” a transparent mask, perhaps out of respect for the Royal Society’s stated practice of avoiding religious and political topics to steer clear of controversy. In this copy, owned by the Royal Society, his name has been lightly penciled into the right-hand margin next to the byline. Photograph by Edward B. Davis, used by kind permission of the Royal Society.
In other words, diligently pursue the physical causes of things, for that’s how science is done; but, at the same time, design is sometimes evident in the whole contrivance one is studying. Indeed, “the Wise Author of Nature has so excellently Contriv’d the Universe, that the more Clearly and Particularly we Discern, how Congruous the Means are to the Ends to be obtain’d by them, the more Plainly we Discern the Admirable Wisdom of the Omniscient Author of Things; of whom it is Truly said by a Prophet, that He is Wonderful in Counsel, and Excellent in Working.” Consequently, neither the present “Fabrick of the Universe” nor the “First Formationof the Universe” could rationally be ascribed to “so Blind a Cause as Chance” (Final Causes, in Works, vol. 11, pp. 150-51, quoting Isa. 28:29).
Throughout his voluminous writings, Boyle insisted that intelligence be invoked as a principle of world-formation; the appeal to “chance” or “nature” alone without God guiding the parts of matter was religiously dangerous. He loved to cite the Presocratic philosopher Anaxagoras as an example of a mechanical philosopher with similar views. Anaxagoras saw nature as an ordered cosmos rather than a random chaos; he stressed the formative influence of an immaterial nous (intellect or mind). In a fascinating unfinished essay, Boyle even described himself as an “Anaxagorean” philosopher to set himself apart from the “Epicurean & such like Attomists who after Leucippus & Democritus ascribe not only the particular effects produc’d in the world but the first formation of the world it selfe to the casual concourse of indivissible Corpuscles of Uncreated Matter moveing from all Eternity in an infinite empty space without takeing in any Diety or other incorporeal substance to sett these Attomes a moveing or regulate their Motions” (Works, vol. 14, pp. 148). Never has there been a more strongly committed proponent of Intelligent Design.
The Boyle Lectures, “Atheists,” and Boyle’s Priestly Role
In truth, Boyle went even further than most contemporary ID advocates. In his view, science did not merely establish the existence of an intelligent designer for the universe and some of its parts; science could actually show the truth of Christianity itself. For this reason, he put a provision in his will to endow a lectureship for “proveing the Christian Religion against notorious Infidels (viz) Atheists, Theists [today we would say “deists”], Pagans, Jews and Mahometans, not descending lower to any Controversies that are among Christians themselves” (Maddison, Life of Boyle, p. 274). The specific language here, uncharacteristically (for Boyle) pointed against Jews and Muslims while characteristically generous toward fellow Christians of all types, was apparently based on a similar phrase from the title page of A Woorke concerning the trewnesse of the Christian Religion (1587), a treatise by Philippe de Mornay that Boyle had read as a young man. Mornay had announced that his book was written “Against Atheists, Epicures, Paynims, Jewes, Mahumetists, and other Infidels.”
The Boyle Lectures began in March 1692, scarcely two months after Boyle’s death, when theologian Richard Bentley spoke in a London church. They continued for forty years before ceasing, but many similar events in subsequent centuries have been called “Boyle Lectures” by their sponsors. In 2004, a group including the current Earl of Cork and Orrery revived them yet again.
Although Boyle often targeted “atheists” in his writings, using that word or a cognate several dozen times, he realized that genuine philosophical atheism was rare in his day. His real targets were the lust, greed, vanity, and open mockery of the Bible exhibited by courtiers and self-styled literary “wits,” the type of people whom he called “practical Atheists,” or “baptized infidels,” who lived as if there were no God to judge them—and here he thought the design argument had its greatest value. As he stated in his book about design, he desired “that my Reader should not barely observe the Wisdom of God, but be in some measure Affectively Convinc’d of it.” Note that he said “affectively,” not “effectively,” a subtlety that we must not overlook: natural theology was a means to make his own intense piety more contagious.
There was no better way, in Boyle’s opinion, to “give us so great a Wonder and Veneration” for God’s wisdom, than “by Knowing and Considering the Admirable Contrivance of the Particular Productions of that Immense Wisdom,” by which he mainly meant the exquisitely fashioned parts of animals both great and small. Thereby, Boyle believed, “Men may be brought, upon the same account, both to acknowledge God, to admire Him, and tothank Him” (Final Causes, in Works, vol. 11, pp. 145 and 195). Surely, this is the ultimate goal of the modern ID movement, despite a certain reluctance to speak openly about God.
For reasons such as these, Boyle unhesitatingly described himself as a “priest of nature” (Christian Virtuoso, II, in Works, vol. 12, p. 490, his italics). He believed it was “an act of Piety to offer up [on behalf of] the Creatures the Sacrifice of Praise to the Creator” (Usefulness of Natural Philosophy, in Works, vol. 3, p. 203). God wanted us “to have his Works regarded & taken Notice of,” Boyle emphasized. From this he inferred that “the study of the Booke of Nature, is one of the Ends of the Institution of the Sabbath,” adding that ‘I scruple not (when Opportunity invites) to spend some [time on the Sabbath] in Studying the Booke of the Creatures, either by instructing my selfe in the Theory of Nature; or trying those Experiments, that may improve my Acquaintance with her” (“Of the Study of the Book of Nature,” in Works, vol. 13, pp. 154-5). No Puritan view of the Sabbath for Boyle, apparently.
Boyle’s Christian beliefs had two further consequences for his science that we will explore in the final parts of the series. Later this month, we will see how his understanding of God’s freedom and power influenced his view of scientific knowledge and its limits. The series concludes in early February, with Boyle’s reflections on how the practice of science actually makes one a better Christian.