Re: [asa] Natural Agents - Cause and Effect, Non-Natural Agents

From: Ted Davis <>
Date: Thu Apr 16 2009 - 11:09:49 EDT

>>> "Cameron Wybrow" <> 4/16/2009 8:43 AM >>> asks some
excellent questions about Boyle and the larger issues:

The question which is left open by Boyle's remark is whether the origin of
the current structure of the universe, or of the living things in it, is the
proper object of natural science (natural philosophy), or whether it ought
to be assigned to the subject of theology. If the latter, then discussions
of origins would certainly, for Boyle, be allowed to make use of "miracles",
i.e., direct interventions of God which do not reflect "the ordinary course
of Nature".

Now I do not know Boyle's writing, but I am guessing that, as a
17th-century Christian, he would have accepted the Genesis account of
Creation, probably not with absolute literalness (since he would have known
the cosmography was wrong), but at least in its general outline, and that he
would have understood it as most men of his age understood it, i.e., as a
teaching about extraordinary actions of God. I would be interested in
hearing from you whether this is the case, and if it is not the case, I
would like to know how he interpreted Genesis, or Creation generally.

If I am right, then Boyle implicitly distinguished between "origins
science" and, for want of a better phrase, "operational science" (though of
course he would not have used those terms), assigning the former to
theology, and the latter to natural philosophy.

One can speculate about whether or not Boyle, had he lived later, would
have agreed with post-Enlightenment science in erasing the distinction
between origins science and operational science, but I am not sure that such
speculations can ever be profitable, as the theological responses of
individuals cannot easily be predicted. Is it not true, however, that
Boyle's understanding of origins, as we have it, was different from that of
Kant, Laplace, Darwin, etc.? And if so, what can we learn from that?
Merely that Boyle didn't live long enough to fully realize the implications
of modern science for origins questions? So that 17th-century science, in
its naivete about origins questions, was an immature, transitional phase, a
"halfway house" between medieval science and fully mature modern science?


Ted comments:

Actually, Cameron all of this occurred to me while I was writing the essay
from which I quoted. I realized at that point that Boyle probably took a
different view of origins, perhaps b/c he simply could not imagine the kind
of science that has developed since his day. I also wondered myself, what
he would say now, and (as you state) I was tempted to speculate (that's all
it would be) on what he might have said, if the science in his day had gone

 I might have gone into it, if I'd been given more space, but my essay was
already at nearly 12,000 words longer than most for that journal (Science &
Christian Belief) and I did not feel that I could deal adequately with the
very issue you raise in a short space. Nor can I do so here.

However, to give the gist of my thoughts along these lines, here is what I
would have said.

(1) Boyle was unambiguously -- insofar as anyone can unambiguously impose
our categories now onto his time, which is to say only ambiguously -- a YEC.
 Ussher was a good friend of his deceased father, and when Ussher personally
reproached Boyle for not knowing Greek, Boyle proceeded learn it (and
Hebrew) in order to study the Bible for himself in the original languages.
He explicitly rejected turning the creation stories "into an Allegory, so as
to overthrow the Literal and Historical sense of them." Also, like Ussher
(though he did not mention Ussher in this context), he was convinced that
the earth is not very old; though he did not embrace a specific date, he
limited its age to not more than about 10,000 years. The Chaldeans, he
noted, put it at "up to 40,000 or 50,000 years: Theology teaches us, that
the World is very far from being so old by 30 or 40 thousand years as they,
and by very many Ages, as divers others have presum'd ..." Boyle believed
that Adam was created fully mature and, "at the first opening of his eyes,
saw plants and animals at their full growth and their full perfection..."

Obviously--and if one doesn't understand why I say obviously, then
obviously one doesn't understand what it means to think historically--the
fact that Boyle was a YEC is meaningless, in terms of establishing any point
about being a YEC in 2009. There is no significance in that, any more than
it would be significant to say that he did not know about the atomic nucleus
or that Calvin did not (as far as we can tell) accept heliocentrism. We can
draw no conclusion from this at all, save that his *attitude* at that time
was to accept Genesis as a literal account of genuine history--which almost
everyone did, prior to the late 18th century, just as almost everyone prior
to 1610 took the Bible as literally teaching geocentrism.

(2) Concerning the source of design, Boyle believed that God had created
all things *directly*, and not even (as the Cambridge Platonists thought)
indirectly. He strongly dissented from Ralph Cudworth on this, in an
unpublished "post-Script" to his great treatise on the notion of nature.
Thus, design (which Boyle completely accepted as genuine and demonstrable
even within natural philosophy) was for him the direct result of creatio ex

(3) However my strong sense is that Boyle took this for special revelation.
 Though relevant to natural philosophy, insofar as one could not allow
philosophy to claim a world of infinite duration, it did not come from
natural philosophy. I don't want to apply the term "origins science" to
this, since Boyle did not think (at least I cannot find him saying) that
science could support this at all, unlike what the YECs say about a "recent"
creation. It was separate from science, but true nevertheless. He did not
classify this as one of those "truths above reason," such as the trinity,
but in a sense it might have been like this for him: it had been divinely
revealed in the book of scripture, not the book of nature (and those were
terms that he would use himself). In that crude and quite limited sense,
yes, he thought there was a separate knowledge ("Science" in the old sense)
of origins, and that the Bible provided this. He thought this, without the
barest thought of the possibility that "ordinary science" might someday give
us a competitor. What if he'd seen that possibility coming? We speculate,
clearly, and I can only give my gut level read of Boyle. Two decades of
immersion in his writings (published and unpublished) probably do give me
more of a right to speculate on this than almost anyone else, but it's still
just informed speculation rather than genuine knowledge or uninformed

My sense is that Boyle would have liked the idea of "front loaded" design.
It was Boyle, after all, not Newton, who was always invoking the clock
metaphor, and who stressed many times that God, in the beginning, had given
matter the properties and powers that it now has; and it was Boyle as much
as anyone else who stressed how much we could trust that mechanical picture
of nature, and it was Boyle who loved to compare God with the maker of the
clock at Strasburg. The same Boyle also stressed the ongoing dependence of
the creation on the creator, but at the same time the regularity of the
creation was a created property that God only rarely set aside for specific
purposes. So, I think our best guess -- at least, my best guess -- is that
Boyle would have liked front-loaded design, and that he would have been more
than open to a lawlike process such as natural selection. As for
"randomness," Boyle did believe that God's knowledge is higher than ours,
that God knows some things we cannot know, and I think he might have been
favorable toward the view that God guides the history of nature through
quantum uncertainties. Indeed, in many ways, I think that if Boyle were
alive today, he'd be John Polkinghorne. I've said that before, in other
places (including in a conversation with many ID advocates), and I am still
convinved of it.

(4) Boyle of course was a great ID advocate: design was not only a
legitimate inference, it was a legitimate inference within science itself,
esp in the realm of living things. At the same time, science needed to seek
explanations at the level of secondary causes. As I wrote in my essay, for
Boyle, "proper explanations ought to be suited to particular phenomena,
ought to declare what causes a thing and how it does so, ought to tell us
the means and process that produce an effect, and ought to focus on
mechanical means, not immaterial agents." I footnoted each part of that
claim with appropriate passages in his works -- those are pretty much his
words, not mine. Thus, he would not have regarded the "intelligent
designer," an immaterial agent (as all ID authors conceive the designer to
be), as part of a scientific explanation. Like Bacon, Boyle believed that
natural theology was a great foil to atheism, but that appeals to design
should not short circuit the search for actual mechanisms that cause things.
 The tensions inherent in his position, outlined here, are what Cameron was
asking me to talk about. I've done my best in a short space to explicate
them and even to suggest what he might have thought if he were alive today.

Finally, and summarily, I agree that MN probably means something different
to an atheist like Eugenie Scott than what it meant to the great Christian
theist, Robert Boyle. However, my point to Gregory stands: MN was to a very
significant degree something that Christian scientists themselves helped to
create, even a great Christian scientist like Boyle who was also a great ID
advocate. There are as far as I can tell two overall histories of
naturalism in recent scholarly literature, one by Ron Numbers and an earlier
one that I wrote with former TDI fellow Robin Collins. Ron stresses the
point I just made even more than I did. Christian scientists have nearly
always looked for ways to avoid bringing miracles into science, while at the
same time they have often upheld the reality of such events in human
history. I know that approach strikes the YECs and many IDs as muddled or
inconsistent, but I don't think it is. There are things that science cannot
know, but in creating a science of nature we have to stick to what we
actually do know, which is the properties and powers given to matter by the
creator (as Boyle would have put it). We can go beyond science (as Boyle,
with Polkinghorne, might say if he were thinking about this now) with
inferences about the Reason behind the reasons, but we do need to stick with
natural causes within natural philosophy.


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Received on Thu Apr 16 11:11:07 2009

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