The Boyle Lecture: The Legacy of Robert Boyle - then and now
Feb 16, 2010
The revival of the Boyle Lectures in recent years has focused attention, as Boyle would have wished, on the relations between a culture of science and the plausibility of religious claims. Much of course has changed since Boyle in his Will endowed the original lecture series, but there remain certain parallels between his own time and ours. In the Preface to his book The Christian Virtuoso, Boyle observed the 'great and deplorable growth of irreligion, especially among those that aspired to pass for wits and several of them too for philosophers.' On the other side were their opponents, who by virtue of 'well-meaning but ill-informed zeal, had brought many good men to think that religion and philosophy were incompatible.'
The consequence, in Boyle's words, was that libertines thought a scientific virtuoso ought not to be a Christian and the others that he could not be a true one. My intention in this lecture is to introduce and revisit Boyle himself, who sought to mend this situation. Known to many only as the originator of a 'law' governing the behaviour of gases, Boyle repays closer study as one who thought deeply about the meaning of the word 'nature' and the reality of a spirit world.
I shall suggest that while many of the assumptions underpinning his natural theology would have to be regarded as obsolete, some of his arguments for the compatibility of theism with the sciences had a depth that enabled them to survive in subsequent religious rhetoric. After noting the longevity and diversity of appeals to 'design' in nature, I shall consider what remains valuable in Boyle's legacy today.