Robert Boyle’s Experimental Proof of the Possibility of the Resurrection

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.

The ‘Shannon Portrait’ of Robert Boyle by Johann Kerseboom. Painted in 1698, the portrait can now be found at the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia, USA.

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.

Thanks:

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.

Robert Hooke’s Snowflakes

Many apologies for the long gap between posts! Now that my circumstances have changed, I expect to be able to post more often.

To get things going again I thought I would introduce two of my very favourite ruins, one natural and one artificial, over the course of three posts. In this post I will talk about a drawing of snowflakes by Robert Hooke, objects that Hooke thought to be ruins of once-perfect ice crystals. In the next post I will talk about a ruin that a number of seventeenth century architects, antiquarians and philosophers interpreted in a strangely similar way – Stonehenge. Finally, I’ll put up a third post explaining exactly why I think that Robert Hooke’s attempts to understand snowflakes are so comparable with the attempts of Inigo Jones, Walter Charleton, Isaac Newton and John Aubrey to interpret the meaning of Stonehenge. It might seem at first glance pretty strange to suggest that seventeenth century architects, antiquarians and natural philosophers approached natural and artificial things in very similar ways. But I want to suggest not only that this is exactly what they did, but that by exploring the connections between seventeenth century natural history, architecture and antiquarianism, we can come to understand that natural history at the time was very different to the scientific discipline carried on today in universities.

Robert Hooke’s Snowflakes

In the second volume of the Register Book of the Royal Society, we can find a drawing of snowflakes, made by Robert Hooke, perhaps in December 1662. The description consists of about one folio page of handwritten text, and an image that folds out sideways, a little smaller than a folio page turned on its side:

RegsiterBk(II)_HookeSnowflakes(2)

Photograph of Hooke’s fold-out ink-wash drawing of snowflakes, with inscribed compass and knife marks, in ‘Figures Observ’d in Snow by Mr. Hook’, Royal Society Register Book, Vol. II, p62. Royal Society Centre for the History of Science.

At first glance, Hooke’s image hardly seems worth giving serious attention. These blotchy and impressionistic snowflakes might even be the work of a child, and Hooke saw fit to apologise for them in the text, referring to them as ‘coarse draughts’. Yet, as Matthew Hunter has observed in his wonderful PhD thesis ‘Robert Hooke Fecit: Making and Knowing in Restoration London’, (University of Chicago, 2007), Hooke’s representative strategy was in fact very subtle. He painted each snowflake by laying a dark ink wash over a circle inscribed with a compass and a razor. He divided each circle into six using a straight edge and a razor, as if to construct a hexagon inside the circle.

Close-up detail showing (from the left) the fifth snowflake drawn in the middle row. ‘Figures Observ’d in Snow by Mr. Hook’, Royal Society Register Book, Vol. II, p. 62. Royal Society Centre for the History of Science.

Close-up detail showing (from the left) the fifth snowflake drawn in the middle row. ‘Figures Observ’d in Snow by Mr. Hook’, Royal Society Register Book, Vol. II, p. 62. Royal Society Centre for the History of Science.

The straight lines cut into the paper to make these divisions seem to have served Hooke as the guides for the arms of his snowflakes. If we refer to Hooke’s verbal description, things get even more interesting. He hardly referred at all to the images that he made with the black ink wash, but rather described the regular, geometrical markings he made with the compass, razor and rule: ‘In which I observ’d that if they were of any regular figures, they were always brancht out, with 6 principall branches’. His only remark on the different sorts of snowflake that he illustrated in ink was that they seemed to follow the same geometric pattern that he had also observed in frozen urine crystals: ‘the branches from each side of the stemms were parallel to the next stem on that side.’ We know from Hooke’s book containing verbal and graphic descriptions of microscopic things, Micrographia (1665), that he thought that snowflakes were ruins. Their more perfect geometric figures had been damaged by the wind during their descent from the clouds. ‘Could we have a sight of them through a Microscope as they are generated in the Clouds before their Figures are vitiated by external incidents’, he wrote, ‘they would exhibit abundance of curiosity and neatness.’

Hooke’s drawing of snowflakes takes into account his belief that they were really the ruins of more perfect forms. He did not describe exactly what one might see. Rather, he picked out features through his razored lines and circles and through his verbal description that gave him clues about a form the snowflakes once had, and about their design, shorn of extraneous details. As Matthew Hunter has also noted, Hooke brought to bear considerable experience of the formation of crystals with six branches. The item immediately preceding Hooke’s account of snowflakes in the Royal Society Register Book is an account of the formation of urine crystals, made under controlled, experimental conditions. This is an order that Hooke preserved in his Micrographia. In a section describing the crystals that form in liquids when frozen, an account of the crystals that form in urine crystals under experimental conditions comes immediately before the discussion of ruined snowflakes. Taken together, the descriptions seem to comprise an assertion that snowflakes would have a form as regular as that found in urine crystals, if only they could be observed before the battering that they receive at the hands of the wind on their way down to earth. Perhaps this justified Hooke’s incision of regular hexagons in the place of the multitude of irregular patterns that he actually admitted to finding.

I would suggest that Hooke felt able to impose the sorts of geometric shapes that he found in urine crystals on to snowflakes because he thought that it was possible to see a ‘design principle’ at work in the urine crystals that must apply to other sorts of crystals. He incised geometrical figures in his ruined snowflakes, comparing those figures with the ones he had found in other, more perfect, frozen crystals to get some sense of their meaning. His description highlights the geometrical qualities he found in these figures, and permits a comparison to other forms, better-known from observations and descriptions made of them in their pristine state. Hooke was much less interested in the forms of snowflakes as he found them than he was in the forms of snowflakes as they must once have been.

In this aim, Hooke had something very important in common with the seventeenth century architects, antiquarians and philosophers who inquired into Stonehenge. They took it for granted that Stonehenge was a ruin, only likely to be interpreted if one could work out what it had once looked like. Possessing almost no sense of prehistory, they thought that they could interpret Stonehenge if they could only work out what it had once looked like. Armed with that knowledge, they could trawl ancient texts for descriptions of similar buildings, or perhaps even find a more perfect, less ruined example of a similar structure. They went about trying to restore the form of Stonehenge using drawings and other techniques that were remarkably similar to those employed by Hooke in his efforts to understand snowflakes. To find out more about this, check out the next post!

 

I would like to emphasise that much of the writing here would have been impossible, had I not consulted Matthew Hunter’s PhD Thesis, ‘Robert Hooke Fecit: Making and Knowing in Restoration London’, (Unpublished Doctoral Thesis, University of Chicago, 2007). Although this blog post develops my own ideas about Hooke’s interpretation of snowflakes, it rests upon the excellent account that Hunter offers, especially his detailed attention to the incisions made in the snowflakes and his discussion of the links between the snowflake drawing and that of the urine crystals. My contribution here will be developed in the next two blog posts, when I discuss my interpretation of Hooke’s work in relation to contemporary discussions of Stonehenge.