In 1675 the natural philosopher Robert Boyle (1627-1691) published a text with an unusual title – Some Physico-Theological Considerations about the Possibility of the Resurrection. Robert Boyle was a founding member of the Royal Society of London, and is mostly famous today for his contributions to the science that we now call chemistry.
Boyle was a man of deep Christian piety, and his activities as an experimental scientist were as much an expression of this piety as were his extensive writings on religious matters. Indeed Boyle wrote several books grappling – in an intellectually ambitious manner – with difficult questions about the role that scientific inquiry could play in bringing people closer to (what he saw as) theological truths. You can see Boyle’s Some Physico-Theological Considerations about the Possibility of the Resurrection as part of a broader effort on his part to work out the extent to which the powers of human reason could be used to make inferences out about the nature of God. In fact he published it at the end of a much longer book on just this topic – Some Considerations about The Reconcileableness of Reason and Religion.
In Some Physico-Theological Considerations Boyle carefully considered the extent to which science could furnish insights about one of the grandest claims made in the Bible. This was the promise that, at the very end of time, God would cause all the people who had ever lived to be resurrected, complete with their original bodies. From the outset, Boyle made it clear that his intention was not to argue that humans could understand exactly how such an event could take place. For Boyle, the resurrection would not be the outcome of the normal natural processes that natural philosophers could understand. God would make it happen through his endless power and wisdom:
“[…] when I treat of the possibility of the General Resurrection, I take it for granted, that God has been pleas’d to promise and declare, that there shall be one, and that it shall be effected, not by or according to the ordinary course of Nature, but by his own Power.”
In this way Boyle made it clear that he did not intend to inquire too far into sacred mysteries. His intention was not to explain the resurrection. He limited himself instead to a more modest aim – that of using his knowledge of natural processes to show that the resurrection was at least possible. What Boyle sought to do, then, was to show that some of the processes observable in natural phenomena had resurrection-like qualities.
Boyle therefore set about trying to understand what kinds of physical processes would need to take place for a human body to be resurrected. He quickly encountered a major problem. After death, human bodies generally decay and are transformed into other substances. How was it possible for God to restore out bodies to their original state if the matter that made us up had been distributed among countless other organisms, and even into the air itself? It was surely not possible that “so many scatter’d parts should be again brought together, and reunited after the same manner wherein they existed in a humane Body”.
Boyle’s strongest response to this objection consisted in a simple but rather profound observation. Far from being stable entities made up of the same matter all the time, our bodies are in fact in a state of continual flux. We are continually taking in matter, in the form of food, and shedding old matter. At no times is this truer than when the human body grows during childhood and adolescence:
“a Humane Body is not as a Statue of Brass or Marble, that may continue; as to sense, whole ages in a permanent state; but is in a perpetual flux or changing condition, since it grows in all its Parts, and all its Dimensions, from a Corpusculum, no bigger than an Insect, to the full stature of Man”
Boyle’s point, then, was that the matter making up a human body in fact changes a great deal over the course of a lifetime, and that human identity is not necessarily bound up with being made out of the same particles of matter at any given moment. This observation changed, for Boyle, the nature of the task that was ascribed to God in the promise of the resurrection. God did not need to gather together all the particles of matter that had once made up each individual. Doing this would actually result in the resurrection of deformed monsters, since God would end up gathering up much more matter than was actually required. Instead, all God needed to do was to be able to transform particles of matter into particles of the same kind that had made up human bodies. What God needed to do was to be able to chemically extract the particles of human matter that had been transformed into other substances after death, and return them to the bodies they had come from, in their original form and composition.
Now, Boyle did not think that natural philosophy could explain how such a massive and complex operation could actually take place. Yet he was confident that many examples of such chemical transformations – albeit on a smaller scale – could be observed in quite common natural phenomena and experiments. The transmutation of matter from one substance to another – and back again – was a surprisingly common occurrence.
To prove his point, Boyle used the example of a relatively simple chemical experiment – one that he had discussed in his earlier book about the theory of matter, The Origin of Forms and Qualities (1666). You can see this experiment in the youtube video below. All that happens is this. You start with concentrated sulphuric acid in a flask. If you add camphor to the flask, you end up with an odourless, yellow solution. For Boyle it was really important that the camphor appeared at this point to have become a different substance entirely. So he took time to point out that the main qualities associated with camphor – its white colour, brittle texture and sharp aroma – all disappear when it is mixed with the acid. Yet when water is added to this mixture, the camphor precipitates out of the solution again. The camphor is apparently resurrected through a chemical intervention, with its white colour, strong smell and even its brittle texture once again evident.
Here is Boyle’s description of the experiment:
“[…] if you take a piece of Camphire, and let it lie awhile upon Oyl of Vitriol, shaking them now and then, it will be so corroded by the Oyl, as totally to disappear therein without retaining so much as its smell, or any manifest quality, whereby one may suspect there is Camphire in that Mixture; and yet, that a Vegetable substance, thus swallowed up, and changed by one of the most fretting and destroying substances that is yet known in the world, should not only retain the essential qualities of its Nature, but be restorable to its obvious and sensible ones, in a minute, and that by so unpromising a medium as common water, you will readily grant, if you pour the dissolved Camphire into a large proportion of that Liquor, to whose upper parts it will immediately emerge white, brittle, strong-scented, and inflameable Camphire, as before.”
Boyle saw this experiment as a compelling piece of evidence for the possibility that God could effect the resurrection of all human bodies at the end of time. This was because it suggested the possibility not only of creating new substances through chemical interventions (mimicking the decomposition of the body after death), but even of restoring altered substances to their pristine states, just as the Bible promised would happen to human bodies at the end of time. For Boyle, then, chemical experiments could provide powerful evidence for his theological principles.
For a more detailed discussion of the themes in this article, check out my journal article ‘Robert Boyle and the Representation of Imperceptible Entities’.
The film featured in this video was made when I was a fellow (2013-14) in the Materialities, Texts and Images Program, a collaboration between Caltech and the Huntington Library. I am very grateful to all my colleagues at Caltech and the Huntington for making this filming possible, in particular John Brewer, Steve Hindle and Candace Younger. I am also very grateful to Melissa Ray and Kapauhi Stibbard for assisting me in making the film itself.