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  • Boyle on Atheism
  • A.H. de Quehen
Robert Boyle . Boyle on Atheism. Transcribed and edited by J.J. MacIntosh. University of Toronto Press. xxvi, 494. $95.00

In 'the weightiest, and most solemn part' of his History of the Royal Society Thomas Sprat explains how 'their Enterprise . . . will be found as much averse from Atheism, in its issue and consequences, as it was in its original purpose.' No experimenter was more averse than Robert Boyle. His projected book on the causes and remedies of atheism remained unpublished, but his manuscripts contain a mass of drafts and related writings, which J.J. MacIntosh has now collected and arranged according to Boyle's general scheme. The three major sections are 'Demonstration and Its Difficulties,' 'Arguments for God's Existence,' and 'The Unprevalence of Arguments against God's Existence,' each with a substantial introduction where MacIntosh analyzes Boyle's arguments, not just in their seventeenth-century phase but from their classical or mediaeval origins through to their most recent formulations. This is all immensely informative and provides, in conjunction with the explanatory notes on passages and the detailed account of manuscript changes, a clear view of Boyle's thought and its development. Collecting passages from different places according to topic does highlight Boyle's 'well-known tendency to repeat himself'; however, his verbal alterations are often interesting. If one is curious to know what comes before or after in the manuscript, MacIntosh's appendix is of some help; but it is best to have on hand Michael Hunter's revised catalogue in The Boyle Papers (2007), which includes cross-references to Boyle on Atheism. As almost all MacIntosh's material is from the manuscript volumes not yet online, one must still consult microfilms of the originals.

Boyle saw the hand of providence in surviving his childhood accidents: for example, when he was at Eton with his brother and 'a greate part of the wall of their chamber, with the Bed, Chaires, Bookes & furniture of the next chamber over it, fell downe upon their Heads.' MacIntosh, after referring readers to Michael Hunter for Boyle's later [End Page 245] career, concentrates his introductory biography on those early years during which Boyle became a committed Christian. (The publisher has the idealized young Boyle ofWilliam Holl's 1828 engraving on the book's jacket – wrongly captioned 'The original is in the collection of The Earl of Liverpool' as the painting passed to the Cotes family on the third earl's death in 1851.) Boyle takes the conventional view, 'not to expect metaphysical or rigid Demonstrations of a Deity, but to be content with a moral one,' and he uses a favourite analogy – 'the incommensurableness of the side and Diagonal of a square' – to counter the atheist's argument 'That there are some things belonging to the receiv'd Notions & Attributes of a Deity, that are not comprehensible by Human Reason, & therefore ought not be admitted by it.' Believing as Bentley would do when he gave the first Boyle Lectures that 'our moderne Atheists . . . are Somatists, who admit no substance but Body; and relye wholly upon the Epicurean principles & Hypothesis,' Boyle concentrates his attack on Epicurus. For example (anticipating Paley's Natural Theology), '[W]hen I consider, that all the Action that one part of matter can have upon another, is to put it into motion, and by the intervention of That, produce those Effects that are the natural Results of Local motion; I do not expect that chance can make a Clock, that shall know it selfe to be a Clock, and invent the art of makeing other Clocks; and reason about the notion of Time which it measures.' But precisely because Epicureans, 'allowing nothing substantial but Bodyes, reject many things & admit so very few' to which others assent, it is particularly hard 'to dispute with them upon their owne Principles.' In the end Boyle accepts that 'resolv'd Atheists' must be reclaimed 'not by Gods ordinary workes, but by his Extraordinary Power.' Hence his great interest in miracles and his preferring 'the Miracle at Pentecost to any other, because it evinces among other Truths, that of the Resurrection itself: which is tho< ught&gt...


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