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Robert Boyle and the representation of imperceptible entities



In this essay, I examine Robert Boyle's strategies for making imperceptible entities accessible to the senses. It is well known that, in his natural philosophy, Boyle confronted the challenge of making imperceptible particles of matter into objects of sensory experience. It has never been noted, however, that Boyle confronted a strikingly similar challenge in his natural theology – he needed to make an equally imperceptible God accessible to the senses. Taking this symmetrical difficulty as my starting point, I propose a new approach to thinking about the interconnections between Boyle's natural philosophy and natural theology. For the most part, studies of science and religion in the early modern period work by seeking out the influence of explicitly stated religious beliefs on scientific ideas. I argue, by contrast, that we need to focus on Boyle's representational practices, using his attempts to represent imperceptible entities as a means of uncovering metaphysical and theological presuppositions that he did not always articulate when stating his religious beliefs. With new interpretations of both A Discourse of Things Above Reason (1681) and Some Physico-Theological Considerations about the Possibility of the Resurrection (1675), I show that there were crucial similarities between Boyle's practices for representing both God and atoms. I go on to show, moreover, that Boyle used these practices to enact an ontological stance at odds with one of his most important professed beliefs.



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1 Boyle, Robert, A Discourse of Things Above Reason. Inquiring Whether a Philosopher should admit there are any such, London, 1681 , in Hunter, Michael and Davis, Edward B. (eds.), The Works of Robert Boyle, 14 vols., London: Pickering and Chatto, 1999–2000, vol. 9, pp. 361424, 377.

2 Boyle, Things Above Reason, op. cit. (1), p. 367.

3 Mandelbrote, Scott, ‘The uses of natural theology in seventeenth-century England’, Science in Context (2007) 20(3), pp. 451480, 459, 473.

4 Lewis, Rhodri, William Petty on the Order of Nature: An Unpublished Manuscript Treatise, Tempe: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2012, p. 31 . See also Ogilvie, Brian W., ‘Insects in John Ray's natural history and natural theology’, in Enenkel, Karl A.E. and Smith, Paul J. (eds.), Zoology in Early Modern Culture: Intersections of Science, Theology, Philology, and Political and Religious Education, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2014, pp. 235262, 257,

5 Sheehan, Jonathan, ‘Thomas Hobbes, D.D.: theology, orthodoxy, and history’, Journal of Modern History (2016) 88, pp. 249274, 260–261. See also Harrison, Peter, The Territories of Science and Religion, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2015, esp. Chapter 4, ‘Science and the origins of “religion”’, pp. 83–116.

6 Meillassoux, Quentin, After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency (tr. Brassier, Ray), London: Bloomsbury, 2012, pp. 19 . First published in French as Après la finitude, Paris: Editions du Seuil, 2006 .

7 Willis's work was originally published in Latin as Willis, Thomas, Cerebri Anatome: cui Accessit Nervorum Descriptio et Usus, London, 1664 . The work was published in English as part of Willis, , Dr. Willis's Practice of Physick, Being the whole Works of that Renowned and Famous Physician (tr. Pordage, Samuel), London, 1684 . The part corresponding to the Cerebri Anatome is entitled The Anatomy of the Brain, and has its own pagination. For Willis's account of the imagination, see Willis, Anatomy of the Brain, pp. 46, 75–79, 87. For Descartes's account of sensation, imagination and memory see Descartes, René, The World and Other Writings (ed. Gaukroger, Stephen), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998, pp. 146149 . On Boyle's broad agreement with such physiological accounts of the generation of ideas – if not their precise details – see MacIntosh, J.J., ‘Perception and imagination in Descartes, Boyle and Hooke’, Canadian Journal of Philosophy (1983) 13(3), pp. 327352, 334.

8 Hobbes, Thomas, Leviathan (ed. Tuck, Richard), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996, Chapter 3, p. 23. See also Chapter 31, p. 250.

9 Descartes, René, Meditations on First Philosophy with Selections from the Objections and Replies (tr. Moriarty, Michael), Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008 . Descartes's curt dismissal of physico-theology comes in the fourth of the Meditations, p. 40. In his replies to Pierre Gassendi's objections to the Meditations, he gave a more extended account of his thoughts. See pp. 191–193, esp. 193. For discussions of Descartes's rejection of physico-theology see also Jones, Matthew L., The Good Life in the Scientific Revolution: Descartes, Pascal, Leibniz, and the Cultivation of Virtue, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2006, p. 227 ; and Osler, Margaret J., ‘From immanent natures to nature as artifice: the reinterpretation of final causes in seventeenth-century natural philosophy’, The Monist (1996) 79(3), pp. 388407, 392–393.

10 This text was first published in Latin as Willis, Thomas, De Anima Brutorum, Oxford, 1672 . Like the Cerebri Anatome, it was published in English as part of Willis, Dr. Willis's Practice of Physick, op. cit. (7). De Anima Brutorum appeared in this edition, with separate pagination, as Willis, Two Discourses Concerning the Soul of Brutes. For Willis's remarks on the immortal soul see Willis, Soul of Brutes, p. 39.

11 Boyle, Things Above Reason, op. cit. (1), p. 415. See also Boyle, Robert, The Christian Virtuoso, London, 16901691 , in Boyle, Works, op. cit. (1), vol. 11, pp. 281–327, 285. ‘As if, because Rational Spirits are Invisible and Immaterial Beings, all Disquisitions about them must be airy and uncertain Speculations, and, like their Objects, devoid of Solidity and Usefulness. But though among these Ingenious Men there are several, whose Expectations from me I am much more disposed to Gratify, than Disappoint; yet, on such an occasion as this, I must take the liberty to own, That I do not think the Corporeal World, nor the Present State of Things, the Only or the Principal Subjects, than an Inquisitive Man's Pen may be worthily employed about’. On Boyle's agreement with Descartes on the limits of the imagination and the possibility of possessing immaterial ideas or intuitions see MacIntosh, op. cit. (7), pp. 328, 342.

12 Boyle, Robert, A Disquisition about the Final Causes of Natural Things (London, 1688), in Boyle, Works, op. cit. (1), vol. 11, pp. 79–168, 92–93, 118. For a more direct statement see Boyle, op. cit. (11), p. 297. Boyle engaged closely with Descartes's thought, enlisting the help of Robert Hooke. See Davis, Edward B., ‘“Parcere Nominibus”: Boyle, Hooke and the rhetorical interpretation of Descartes’, in Hunter, Michael (ed.), Robert Boyle Reconsidered, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994, pp. 157175 .

13 Hunter, Michael, ‘Casuistry in action: Robert Boyle's confessional interviews with Gilbert Burnet and Edward Stillingfleet, 1691’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History (1993) 44(1), pp. 8098 ; and Hunter, ‘The disquieted mind in casuistry and natural philosophy: Boyle and Thomas Barlow’, in Hunter, , Boyle Studies: Aspects of the Life and Thought of Robert Boyle (1627–91), Farnham: Ashgate, 2015, pp. 107129 .

14 Boyle, Things Above Reason, op. cit. (1), pp. 366–367, 404.

15 Boyle, Things Above Reason, op. cit. (1), pp. 367–369.

16 Wojcik, Jan W., Robert Boyle and the Limits of Reason, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997, pp. 4458 . On the – often subtle – influence of Socinianism among natural philosophers in the latter part of the seventeenth century see Poole, William, ‘Francis Lodwick's creation: theology and natural philosophy in the early Royal Society’, Journal of the History of Ideas (2005) 66(2), pp. 245263, esp. 259. On the English reception of Socinian thought in the first half of the century see Mortimer, Sarah, Reason and Religion in the English Revolution: The Challenge of Socinianism, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010 .

17 Wojcik, op. cit. (16), pp. 86–97.

18 Wojcik, op. cit. (16), pp. 106–108, 114–116.

19 Wojcik, op. cit. (16), p. 7.

20 On Boyle's approach to miracles see Harrison, Peter, ‘Newtonian science, miracles, and the laws of nature’, Journal of the History of Ideas (1995) 56(4), pp. 531553, 535. On the importance of theological voluntarism to the emergence of empiricism see Osler, Margaret J., ‘Mixing metaphors: science and religion or natural philosophy and theology in early modern Europe’, History of Science (1997) 35, pp. 91113, 104–106. On the role of voluntarism in Boyle's thought in particular see Osler, , ‘The intellectual sources of Robert Boyle's philosophy of nature: Gassendi's voluntarism and Boyle's physico-theological project’, in Kroll, Richard W.F., Ashcraft, Richard and Zagorin, Perez (eds.), Philosophy, Science, and Religion in England, 1640–1700, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992, pp. 178198, esp. 185–187. Neither the term ‘voluntarism’ not its antonym ‘intellectualism’ were in fact used during the seventeenth century to describe theological positions. Peter Harrison has thus questioned the tendency to classify natural philosophers such as Descartes and Boyle as either voluntarists or intellectualists, noting a good deal of fluidity and inconsistency in their positions. See Harrison, Peter, ‘Voluntarism and early modern science’, History of Science (2002) 40, pp. 6389 . Harrison's intervention led John Henry to respond by reasserting the value of the terms, seeking to remind Harrison that the theological distinction between voluntarists and intellectualists corresponded to the distinction between empiricists and rationalists in natural philosophy. See Henry, John, ‘Voluntarist theology at the origins of modern science: a response to Peter Harrison’, History of Science (2009) 47, pp. 79113 .

21 Wojcik, op. cit. (16), pp. 206–209.

22 Wojcik, op. cit. (16) pp. 168–204.

23 Boyle, Things Above Reason, op. cit. (1), pp. 398–399. See also p. 377, as cited above.

24 Grew, Nehemiah, Cosmologia Sacra: or a Discourse of the UNIVERSE as it is the Creature and Kingdom of GOD (London, 1701), p. 12 . On the preceding page Grew defines infinite divisibility not in absolute terms but rather in relation to human capacities: ‘For as far as the Whole is Extensible, so far the Parts are also Divisible, both Indefinitely; or as Mathematicians speak, Infinitely: that is, beyond any Human Observation or Conception.’

25 The passage is, for instance, given this interpretation by Lawrence M. Principe. See Principe, Lawrence M., The Aspiring Adept: Robert Boyle and His Alchemical Quest, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998, p. 194 . I regard this reading not as incorrect but rather as incomplete. It gives us an accurate account of one part of Boyle's intended meaning, but not the whole.

26 Boyle, Things Above Reason, op. cit. (1), p. 399.

27 Chalmers, Alan, ‘The lack of excellency of Boyle's mechanical philosophy’, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science (1993) 24(4), pp. 541564, 556–558.

28 Descartes, op. cit. (9), pp. 51–52. J.J. MacIntosh offers another interpretation of Boyle's treatment of Descartes's polygon example, stressing points of agreement between the two philosophers. See MacIntosh, op. cit. (7), p. 342.

29 Boyle, Things Above Reason, op. cit. (1), p. 377.

30 Boyle, Things Above Reason, op. cit. (1), p. 377.

31 Boyle, Things Above Reason, op. cit. (1), pp. 384–385. Other comparisons to the capacities of the eye are to be found at 380, 382–383, 386, 398–399, 401, 412, 415–416, 420. In addition, Boyle mobilized similar comparisons referring to the capacities of the imagination. Excluding the above-cited comparison involving many-sided polygons, these are to be found at 385, 403, 420 (part of the same example cited in the list of ‘eye’ comparisons in this footnote).

32 Boyle, Things Above Reason, op. cit. (1), pp. 377–378. Boyle again indicated that finite quantities imaginable to humans could be used to give an inadequate account of God's infinite perfections later in the work. See p. 389.

33 Boyle made this claim even though he was aware that, properly speaking, there could be no ratio between a finite quantity and an infinite quantity. See Boyle, Things Above Reason, op. cit. (1), p. 390. Boyle would also have been familiar with the argument from his engagement with Descartes's critique of physico-theology.

34 Grew, op. cit. (24), p. 11.

35 Ray, John, Three Physico-Theological Discourses, London, 1693, p. 52 .

36 Ricciardo, Salvatore, ‘Robert Boyle on God's “experiments”: resurrection, immortality and mechanical philosophy’, Intellectual History Review (2015) 25(1), pp. 97113, 101–102.

37 Boyle, Robert, Some Physico-Theological Considerations about the Possibility of the Resurrection, London, 1675 , in Boyle, Works, op. cit. (1), vol. 8, pp. 295–313, 303–304. For Boyle, the other most pressing objection was the problem of identity. His account of the resurrection depended on demonstrating that the human body does not always consist of the same particles of matter throughout its entire life. Making this case enabled him to propose that God could bring the resurrection about using any particles of matter he saw fit. He thus needed to demonstrate that, in spite of the changes in its material composition, the identity of the being inhabiting that body would remain the same. See Vidal, Fernando, ‘Brains, bodies, selves, and science: anthropologies of identity and the resurrection of the body’, Critical Inquiry (2002) 28(4), pp. 930974, 952–956.

38 Boyle, op. cit. (37), pp. 299–300, 309.

39 Boyle, op. cit. (37), p. 306.

40 Boyle, Robert, The Origine of Formes and Qualities, London, 1666 , in Boyle, Works, op. cit. (1), vol. 5., pp. 281–491, 395.

41 Newman, William R., Atoms and Alchemy: Chymistry and the Experimental Origins of the Scientific Revolution, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2006, pp. 158259, esp. 190–215.

42 For a general discussion of Boyle's use of this kind of inference see Newman, op. cit. (41), pp. 188–189.

43 Boyle, op. cit. (40), p. 352.

44 Wojcik, op. cit. (16), pp. 167–179, esp. 179.

45 It is worth mentioning that, as Daniel Garber has shown, Descartes eventually concluded that natural philosophy was incapable of yielding certainty about how the world had been put together. In the Principia Philosophiae he hinted that God could have created the universe in any number of different, but equally plausible, ways. Thus the natural philosopher could only hold up explanations as plausible explanations for how natural phenomena might function – not as accounts of how they actually functioned. See Garber, Daniel, Reading Cartesian Philosophy through Cartesian Science, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001, pp. 121128, esp. 125–126, 128.

46 Boyle, op. cit. (40). Cf. his remarks in the preface, p. 302, with pp. 355, 396–397. Boyle blurred the lines between plausible hypotheses and matters of fact on other occasions. Consider, for instance, his attempts to persuade contemporaries that the ‘spring of the air’ was an observable fact, rather than a mere hypothesis. See Shapin, Steven and Schaffer, Simon, Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985, pp. 50, 213.

47 For Boyle's discussion of palingenesis experiments see Boyle, op. cit. (37), p. 303. Michael Hunter has shown that there are significant overlaps between Possibility of the Resurrection and Boyle's earlier ‘Essay of the Holy Scriptures’. Ricciardo has shown, however, that discussions of palingenesis play a much larger role in the earlier text than they do in the version of Possibility of the Resurrection published by Boyle in 1675. See Hunter, Michael, Robert Boyle, 1627–91: Scrupulosity and Science, Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2000, p. 32 ; and Ricciardo, op. cit. (36), p. 106.

48 Boyle, op. cit. (37), pp. 307–308.

49 Boyle, op. cit. (37), p. 311.

50 Boyle, op. cit. (37), pp. 310–311.

51 Meillassoux, op. cit. (6), pp. 3–4.

52 Boyle, op. cit. (11), p. 287. Lotte Mulligan has also noted that Boyle's remarks here seem to bespeak a metaphysical argument as well as an approach to making things accessible to the imagination. See Mulligan, Lotte, ‘Robert Boyle, “right reason,” and the meaning of metaphor’, Journal of the History of Ideas (1994) 55(2), pp. 235257, 254–255.

53 On the ambiguous place of the comparison in early modern natural philosophy see Galison, Peter, ‘Descartes's comparisons: from the invisible to the visible’, Isis (1984) 75(2), pp. 311326, esp. 323; and Jones, op. cit. (9), pp. 71–75.

54 In this passage, Boyle indicated that the imagination – understood as the faculty responsible for presenting the mind with images derived from sensory experience – could play a role in the production of hypotheses in natural philosophy. At the same time, however, he acknowledged that the imagination was widely associated with poetic and rhetorical strategies for provoking vivid and pleasurable mental images. Elsewhere, I have shown that Boyle and his contemporaries made extensive use of comparisons in their descriptive works, seeking to associate the pleasures of the imagination with the production of knowledge. See Wragge-Morley, Alexander, ‘Vividness in English natural history and anatomy, 1650–1700’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society (2012) 66(4), pp. 341356 . For a more expansive account of the role of the imagination in early modern natural philosophy see Gal, Ofer and Chen-Morris, Raz, Baroque Science, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2013, pp. 233282 . See also Aït-Touati, Frédérique, Fictions of the Cosmos: Science and Literature in the Seventeenth Century, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2011, esp. pp. 7994 .

55 Mandelbrote, op. cit. (3), p. 468.

56 For Grew's position, see Harrison, op. cit. (20), pp. 540–541. Ray's position on miracles and portents fell somewhere between those of Grew and Boyle. In his discussion of the earthquake that took place in Jamaica in 1692, he indicated that such occurrences involved natural causes. On the other hand, however, he suggested that God's special intervention was required to make them happen at the right moment. See Ray, op. cit. (35), p. 208.

57 Grew, op. cit. (24), p. 17; and John Ray to Tancred Robinson, 12 May 1685, in Derham, William (ed.), Philosophical Letters between the Late Learned John Ray and several of his Ingenious Correspondents, London, 1718, pp. 183185, esp. 185.

For their help in preparing the article, I am grateful to Cécile Bishop, Danielle Carr, Michael Hunter, Joanna Picciotto, Courtney Weiss-Smith and the anonymous reviewers. I presented the first iteration of this article at the Depicting the Invisible workshop organized by Jenny Rampling at Princeton University (12–13 February 2016). I am thankful to Jenny for the opportunity to present my work at that excellent event, and to all the participants for their valuable thoughts. I would also like to thank Charlotte Sleigh and Trish Hatton for their excellent work in bringing this article to press. Finally, I am delighted to acknowledge the Leverhulme Trust and the Department of History at University College London for supporting my research.

Robert Boyle and the representation of imperceptible entities



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