The greatest scientist of the last century, Albert Einstein, never hesitated to express his metaphysical convictions and aesthetic instincts. Neither did Boyle. Indeed, they both wanted to know whether God had any choice when he made the universe, and important aspects of their science reflect this. Einstein’s unabashed rejection of quantum indeterminacy, which he famously summarized by telling Max Born that God “does not throw dice”, is a prime example. For Boyle, the nature of the created order depended on how God had freely chosen to make it, and our limited ability to probe the depths of creation by empirical methods resulted from our status as finite creatures in a world created by a free and omnipotent Creator.
The Limits of Reason in a Freely Created World
Boyle’s modest view of scientific knowledge and its limits was certainly consistent with his laboratory experience, which encouraged humility—a topic I will return to in my next column. However, it was also firmly grounded in his theological beliefs about God, nature, and the human mind. For Boyle, no less than for many other Christian thinkers for two millennia, our ability to understand the creation—what I’ll call the “horizontal” relationship—depended on the two “vertical” relationships: God’s relationship to the human mind and God’s relationship to the created order.
Contrary to what is commonly thought, the Christian doctrine of creation is not primarily about material origins. Rather, it’s aboutrelationships: how God relates to the created world, including us. Graphic by Edward B. Davis.
Boyle took a dim view of those who placed too much stock in reason, vis-à-vis God’s freedom and power. We “mistake and flatter Humane Nature too much, when we think our faculties of Understanding so unlimited, both in point of capacity and of extent, and so free and unprepossest, as many Philosophers seem to suppose.” Despite our high opinion of ourselves, “we are really but created and finite Beings (and that probably of none of the highest orders of intellectual Creatures) and we come into the world, but such, as it pleased the Almighty and most free Author of our Nature to make us.” Our mental abilities are “proportionable to Gods designs in creating us, and therefore may probably be supposed not to be capable of reaching to all kinds … of Truths, many of which may be unnecessary for us to know here,” in this world (Things Above Reason, in The Works of Robert Boyle, vol. 9, pp. 370-1).
In Boyle’s opinion, we are merely “purblind mortals” who can be only “incompetent judges” of God’s power, which “may justly be supposed to reach farther, than our limited intellects can apprehend, or for that reason, without a saucy rashness, can presume to bound.” He was intellectually cautious, concerned that we might place too much confidence in reason, in a world created by a God who is not bound to create things according to our specifications. If God is in fact “the author of things, it is rational to conceive, that he may have made them commensurate, rather to his own designs in them, than to the notions we men may best be able to frame of them.” Indeed, according to Genesis, “the world itself was first made before the contemplator of it, man: whence we may learn, that the author of nature consulted not, in the production of things, with human capacities; but first made things in such manner, as he was pleased to think fit, and afterwards left human understandings to speculate as well as they could upon those corporeal, as well as other things” (Christian Virtuoso, I, Appendix, in Works, vol. 12, pp. 374 and 397-8). In other words, we weren’t around when God made the world, so we didn’t have any input. We can’t presume that God must have done it our way. God did what he wanted, and we can only do our best to figure it out on our own.
A mosaic showing the creation of the heavens (late 12th century), from the Norman cathedral in Monreale, Sicily.
Boyle went even further than this in an unpublished manuscript. Imagining what it was like before “the beginning of the Creation,” when there was nothing “besides God himselfe who is Eternall,” Boyle noted that all other beings “must derive there [sic.] natures & all their faculties from his Arbitrary will.” Therefore, “man himselfe” and all other creatures “were but just shuch [such] as he thought fitt to make them,” so God “freely establisht … the Laws of Motion by which the universe was framed, & doth act” (Royal Society, Boyle Papers, vol. 36, fol. 46v). This conception of natural laws, in which regularities and patterns were imposed upon matter by the free choice of a sovereign God, is an example of Boyle’s commitment to theological “voluntarism”. The “voluntarist” God is not bound by any dictates other than his own, and thus “the Laws of Motion, without which the present State and Course of things could not be maintain’d, did not necessarily spring from the Nature of Matter, but depended upon the Will of the Divine Author of things” (Christian Virtuoso, I, in Works, vol. 11, p. 302).
Readers may find this difficult to grasp, so let me say it one more time—no, let Boyle say it himself, in another unpublished manuscript: “The Primordial system of the universe, or the great & Original fabrick of the world; was as to us arbitrarily establisht by God. Not that he created things without accompanying, & as it were regulating, his omnipotence, by his boundless wisdome; & consequently did nothing without weighty reasons: but because those reasons are a priori undiscoverable by us: such as are the number of the fixt stars, the colocation as well as number of the planetary globes, the lines & period of their motion, ... the bigness, shapes, & differing longevitys of Living creatures; & many other particulars: of which the onely Reason we can assign, is that it pleasd God at the beginning of things, to give the world & its parts also that disposition. (This may be also applyd to the states of bodys & the rules of motion.)” (Royal Society, Miscellaneous MS 185, fol. 29)
Did God have any choice when he made the world? Absolutely.
Divine Freedom and Multiple Worlds
Operating with a voluntarist conception of nature, it was easy for Boyle to consider the possibility of other worlds, quite different from ours: God simply chose to do things differently there. “Now if we grant with some modern Philosophers, that God has made other Worlds besides this of ours, it will be highly probable that he has there display’d His manifold Wisedom, in productions very differing from those wherein we here admire it.” In that case, “I think it may be probably suppos’d that God may have given peculiar and admirable instances of His inexhausted Wisedom in the Contrivance and Government of Systemes, that for ought we know may be fram’d and manag’d in a manner quite differing, from what is observ’d in that part of the Universe that is known to us” (Of the High Veneration Man’s Intellect Owes to God, in Works, vol. 10, pp. 172-3). The kinds of matter, the laws of motion, and the living creatures might all be highly unlike those in our own world.
It’s interesting that passages from Boyle such as this were overlooked by Stephen Dick, the leading historian of extraterrestrial life and author of the most comprehensive history of the idea of other worlds in the Scientific Revolution. Why? Perhaps he missed them, because Boyle wrote about these things in his theological works, not his scientific works—a distinction that Boyle himself drew. Dick’s book was published thirty years ago, at a time when most historians simply did not consider the possibility that theological ideas could have influenced scientific ideas in ways that were both substantive and positive. But, they did.
For an even more striking example, listen to what Boyle said about the eschaton, the time when God will someday create a new heaven and earth. “And who knows, but that in that new heaven, and new earth, (that is, by an usual Hebraism, that new world) that God will substitute for it, the primordial frames of things, and the laws of motion, and consequently, the nature of things corporeal, may be very differing from those that obtain in the present worlds” (Christian Virtuoso, II, in Works, vol. 12, p. 521). As he said elsewhere, only “God knows particularly both why and how the Universal matter was first contriv’d into this admirable Universe, rather than a World of any other of the numberless Constructions He could have given it; and both why those laws of Motion rather than others were establish’d: and how senseless Matter, to whose Nature Motion does not at all belong, comes to be both put into Motion, and qualifyed to transfer it according to determinate rules, which[matter] it self cannot understand” (Of the High Veneration Man’s Intellect Owes to God, in Works, vol. 10, p. 188).
Boyle’s discussion of contingency and other worlds resonates with the conversation about fine tuning and the multiverse today. I don’t want to double the length of this post, but let me say just this much: we know of no sufficient reason why the physical laws and constants of our universe had to be just as they are. This suggests God’s provision for our world—and for other any inhabited worlds (if they turn out to exist) where the constants aren’t so friendly to creatures like us.
The Last Judgment (11th or 12th century), Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, Torcello, Venice. The angel rolling up the starry scroll as the trumpets sound illustrates Revelation 6:14, “The heavens receded like a scroll being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place.” (NIV)
Reason, Experience, and God
To see more fully what Boyle was driving at, let’s contrast his position with that of Galileo. Although he was no less accomplished than Boyle as an experimentalist, Galileo’s view of scientific knowledge was quite different. For Galileo, science should aim for necessary demonstration, akin to mathematical certainty. As he said in his famous book about the Copernican theory, “The Divine intellect indeed knows infinitely more propositions [than we can ever know]. But with regard to those few which the human intellect does understand, I believe that its knowledge equals the Divine in objective certainty, for here it succeeds in understanding necessity, beyond which there can be no greater sureness” (Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, p. 103).
Several years earlier, in his great book on the philosophy of science, Galileo penned the following famous passage, in which he lays out his vision for a demonstrative science of nature. When you read it, keep in mind that in his day “philosophy” basically meant what we now call “science.” “Philosophy is written in this grand book—I mean the Universe—which stands continually open to our gaze, but it cannot be understood unless one first learns to comprehend the language and interpret the characters in which it is written. It is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles and other geometrical figures, without which it is humanly impossible to understand a single word of it” (The Assayer, pp. 237-8). Reading both of these passages together—which is fair, since both come from the same period in his life and both deal with mathematics—we see what Galileo was driving at: God wrote the book of nature in mathematical language, and when we speak God’s language we can be absolutely certain about our conclusions.
As we’ve seen, Boyle’s conception of scientific knowledge was markedly different. What can we conclude from this comparison? We can’t say that Galileo’s attitude wasn’t an important part of the Scientific Revolution. And, we can still find great scientists today with similar views: Steven Weinberg and Max Tegmark come to mind. Modern science involves a sophisticated interplay of reason and experience; both Galileo and Boyle contributed something essential. What we can say is this: Theological ideas about divine freedom and human reason encouraged an intellectually modest, empirical approach to nature during the Scientific Revolution—just as different theological ideas encouraged a more deductive approach. The common picture of ongoing, inevitable conflict between science and religion is not only false, but perverse, for it prevents us from seeing the kinds of deep connections I’ve shown here.
I’m hardly alone in saying this. Eighty years ago, philosopher Michael Beresford Foster put forth the abstract philosophical claim that theological voluntarism must have had consequences for conceptions of nature and scientific method in this period, since almost all of the scientists at that time were Christian theists. Foster did very little to show that this was actually true historically, but in recent decades several prominent historians have shown that he was at least partly correct. Some of the best-known scholars in this category are John Hedley Brooke,John Henry, the late Reijer Hooykaas, J. E. (“Ted”) McGuire, Francis Oakley, and the late Margaret J. Osler. Taken together, their work goes a long way toward bridging the gap between Foster’s abstract assumptions and the complex historical reality of early modern science.
Theology mattered. It still does.
The series concludes in February with an overall assessment of Boyle’s attitude as a Christian scientist, partly based on his last great work, The Christian Virtuoso (1690). That will be followed two weeks later by an epilogue in which I will pretend to be Robert Boyle, presenting his own life and work to Christians today.