This is part of an on-going series of articles about largely unknown Christians who had an enormous impact on society by faithfully living out their biblical worldview in various areas of life.
When we think about the Scientific Revolution, we usually think of astronomy and people like Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton. This wasn’t the only branch of modern science with its origins in this period, however. For example, natural philosophers such as Vesalius and William Harvey made huge strides in anatomy and physiology. And the work of Robert Boyle helped turn alchemy into chemistry.
Boyle was born in Lismore Castle, County Waterford, Ireland, the seventh son and fourteenth child of Richard Boyle, the first Earl of Cork, and Catherine Fenton. Like his brothers, Robert was fostered to a neighboring family and received a private tutor. At age 8, his mother died and he was sent to Eton College. He spent three years at Eton, then travelled through Europe with his tutor. Among other things, he spent time with the aged Galileo in Florence in 1641 and was very impressed with him and his ideas.
In 1644, Boyle returned to England firmly dedicated to scientific research. His father, who had died in 1643, left him estates in both England and Ireland, and at first Boyle split his time between them. Ireland lacked the infrastructure he needed for his experiments, however, so he abandoned his estates there and moved to Oxford. In 1668 he moved in with his sister in Pall Mall, London, where he spent the rest of his life.
From 1644 to 1688, Boyle was a key figure in a loose group of natural philosophers known as the Invisible College (or sometimes in Bacon’s letters, “our philosophical college”). The Invisible College was dedicated to the pursuit of “the new philosophy” (i.e. the new ideas emerging in the Scientific Revolution) through empirical evidence and experimentation. In 1663, the Invisible College became the Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge.
Like many other natural philosophers in the period, Boyle worked in a wide range of fields. When he heard of Otto von Guericke’s invention of the air pump, Boyle went to work with Robert Hooke to improve on it, with the result that he developed his own version of the air pump in 1659. This enabled him to do experiments with air. He published these in 1660 under the title, New Experiments Physico-Mechanicall, Touching the Spring of the Air, and its Effects. This work generated some controversy, and in answering his critics Boyle first argued that the volume of a gas is inversely proportional to its pressure, a principle today known as Boyle’s Law.
Boyle is probably best known today for Boyle’s Law, but that is far from the extent of his work. For example, in his experiments with air, he discovered its role in combustion, in respiration and in the transmission of sound. He also worked with optics (including experiments in refraction, crystals, and working on a theory to explain color), hydrostatics and the expansion of freezing water, electricity, specific gravity, medicine, natural history and earth science, among other things. But his real love was chemistry.
It must be said at the outset that Boyle believed in alchemy, that is, he thought it was possible to transmute base metals into precious metals, notably gold. This was not unusual: it was widely accepted in Europe because of the Renaissance recovery of the so-called Hermetic tradition, and many other cultures around the world accepted alchemy in some form. What set Boyle apart, however, was his insistence on experimentation and observation and in his hesitation in adopting sweeping theories for which there was inadequate empirical evidence.
This rejection of abstract theories came to the fore in one of his earliest works, The Sceptical Chymist (1661), which attacked the widely accepted theories of Aristotle and Paracelsus on the nature of matter and on chemical analysis. In its place, he argued for the corpuscularian hypothesis, which held that everything is made up of tiny particles of the same basic substance, and that the only things that differed among these particles were their shapes and motions. He attempted to show experimental evidence for this in his 1666 work, Origine of Formes and Qualities.
Oddly enough, given his interest in alchemy, Boyle was heavily influenced by mechanical philosophy, the idea that everything in the universe can be explained by mechanical interactions (e.g. collisions, pushing, pulling, etc.) between particles. Mechanical philosophy developed as an alternative to Renaissance magic theories, which believed that there were occult (Latin for “hidden”) forces in the universe that could cause things to happen. For example, the witch sticks a pin in a voodoo doll and the person is hurt: there is no physical connection between the doll and the person, but through occult forces the witch causes “action at a distance,” to use the technical term. Astrology works the same way: the stars influence events on earth through occult forces without any physical connection to the earth. Mechanical philosophers, on the other hand, rejected the idea of occult forces altogether. They argued that the physical world could be explained mechanically, though they generally allowed for the mind, the soul, or the spirit as a non-physical component of reality.
So where did Boyle get his ideas on science? Mechanical philosophy was indirectly the child of heliocentrism—the idea that the sun, not the earth, was the center of the universe. This destroyed the fundamental premise of Aristotle’s physics, and as the evidence for heliocentrism mounted, natural philosophers were looking for an alternative. They found this in ancient Epicureanism, with its idea that nature was made up of atoms.
Methodologically, Boyle’s ideas were influenced by Francis Bacon (1561-1626). Bacon emphasized empirical evidence and the inductive method for discovering truth, and codified the scientific method. Francis Bacon, in turn, was influenced by Roger Bacon (c.1214-1294), who as we have seen had similar ideas about method several centuries earlier.
Both Francis Bacon, a Puritan, and Roger Bacon, a Franciscan, came to their ideas through very similar worldview concepts; both believed that God revealed Himself in the “two books” of the Bible and nature; both believed that since God made the world and we are made in God’s image, we can understand the world; both believed we needed to study Scripture and nature as they are, not as we think they should be; and thus both believed in the importance of first hand research to discover what God has revealed of Himself in both Scripture and nature. In other words, it was their faith that led them to develop the scientific method.
Boyle shared this faith with his predecessors. In addition to his scientific work, Boyle wrote theological treatises. In his youth, these were primarily devotional pieces, though as he matured he moved on to more polemical pieces against what he perceived as a rise in irreligion and atheism.
His mature theological writings were particularly concerned with reconciling the “new philosophy” and the Scientific Revolution with Christianity. For Boyle, studying science was an intrinsically religious activity that would reveal God’s goodness and beauty. He summarized his beliefs in The Christian Virtuoso (1690), which can be seen as a manifesto for the Christian involved in the sciences.
Boyle believed that his scientific work should have practical applications; for example, he applied his studies of chemistry to medicine. In the same way, he also believed that it was important for his faith to express itself in practical ways. As a governor of the British East India Company, he promoted the spread of Christianity in Asia and gave considerable amounts of money to support missionaries. He also believed that the Bible should be available to people in their own language (thus paralleling his insistence on first hand observation in the sciences); he thus sponsored a translation of the Bible into Gaelic and paid for its publication. And in his will, he left money for the defense of Christianity against “notorious infidels, namely atheists, deists, pagans, Jews and Muslims.”
Boyle is considered the father of modern chemistry and is rightly remembered as a very important figure in the history of science. His theological writings are less well known, and the connection between his faith and his scientific work is rarely mentioned. Nonetheless, as with Robert Grosseteste, Roger Bacon, Francis Bacon, and Kepler before him, it was precisely Boyle’s Christian commitments that led him to his methodologies and provided him with the worldview that made his discoveries possible.
Dr. Glenn Sunshine is a professor of history at Central Connecticut State University and a Senior Fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview.
 An inspiration for the Unseen University of Ankh-Morpork in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series.