Boyle Lecture 2010

the legacy of robert boyle - then and now

at ST mary aldermary

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lecturer: professor john hedley brooke

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responder: professor geoffrey cantor

Geoffrey Cantor is professor of the History of Science at the University of Leeds. With a background in physics he moved first into the history of physics, with a focus on optics. His interest in the issues of science and religion first gelled in his research on Michael Faraday and Faraday’s involvement with the Sandemanian church.

His research in this area has subsequently developed in several directions including the 1995-96 Gifford Lectures at Glasgow (with John Brooke) which explored the uses of history in our understanding science-religion interrelations. He has also researched the attitudes towards science of small religious communities – specifically the Quakers and Anglo-Jewish communities – in 18th- and 19th-century Britain. His other main research focus is the SciPer project, which examines the role of science in the general periodical press of the 19th century.

His main publications in the area of science and religion are:
Optics after Newton.Theories of Light in Britain and Ireland, 1704-1840 (1983); Michael Faraday: Scientist and Sandemanian - A Study of Science and Religion in the Nineteenth Century (1991).
Co-authored with John Hedley Brooke: Reconstructing Nature: The Engagement of Science and Religion. The 1995-6 Gifford Lectures at Glasgow (1998). Quakers, Jews, and Science: Religious Responses to Modernity and the Sciences in Britain 1650-1900 (2005).

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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.