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.


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.

God and the Origins of Neuroscience

This post accompanies a talk that given by me in Somerville College chapel on 27th January, 2013. Unlike many of the posts that I have put up so far, which have been related to my teaching, this is connected to my own research.  Over the next few months the blog will have a lot more to say about my research.

God and the Origins of Neuroscience

In 1664 one of the first thorough physiological descriptions of the brain and nerves was published, with the title Cerebri Anatome, cui accessit Nervorum Descriptio et Usus (‘The Anatomy of the Brain, to which is added the Description and Use of the Nerves’).  The book’s author was Thomas Willis (1621-1675), a prominent medical doctor and – by this time – the Sedleian Professor of Natural Philosophy at Oxford University.  Willis opened the book with a remarkable dedication to the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Gilbert Sheldon (the man who financed the building of the Sheldonian Theatre):

For when I had resolved to unlock the secret places of Mans Mind, and to look into the living and breathing Chapel of the Deity (as far as our weakness was able) I thought it not lawful to make use of the Favours and Patronage of a less Person, neither perhaps would it have become me. For You indeed are He, who most happily presides (both by Merit and Authority) over all our Temples and Sacred Things. Therefore after I had slain so many Victims, whole Hecatombs almost of all Animals, in the Anatomical Court, I could not have thought them rightly offered, unless they had been brought to the most holy Altar of Your Grace.

It is fascinating to see here how Willis suggests that the human brain – the object of his inquiries – was nothing less than ‘the living and breathing Chapel of the Deity’.  In fact, this entire passage is full of religious imagery; the last sentence paints a picture of Willis dedicating the many creatures that he dissected as sacrifices at the altar of the Temple of Solomon, depicting Sheldon as the High Priest.  The story that I will tell here about Willis’s Anatomy of the Brain is now, however, one about the interconnections between ‘science’ and ‘religion’ in the past.  Instead, it is about people for whom making such associations seemed entirely natural, and for whom dissecting the brain was to search for (what they saw as) the elusive, semi-divine immortal soul.

Thomas Willis and his Work

Thomas Willis, who ran an extremely successful medical practice, belonged to a philosophical circle based initially in Oxford that grew into Britain’s modern day academy of science, the Royal Society.  Among his friends and colleagues were the chemist Robert Boyle, John Wilkins (who attempted to devise a universal language) and Christopher Wren, architect of the Sheldonian Theatre.  By the 1660s Willis had decided to investigate the workings of the human brain and nervous system. With the assistance of several others, including Wren, he set about the large number of dissections of human and animal bodies that would be needed to complete the work.

Willis seems to have felt keenly the disturbing and unpleasant aspects of his work. On one occasion in 1650 Willis had been about to begin a dissection when he discovered that the body, freshly arrived from the gallows, was a still-living person who had somehow survived her execution.  Yet he also felt that dissection was the only way to get the knowledge that he sought:

Minerva was born from the Brain, Vulcan with his Instruments playing the Midwife: For either by this way, viz. by Wounds and Death, by Anatomy, and a Caesarean Birth, Truth will be brought to Light, or for ever lye hid.

Discoveries and Theories

By June 1663, according to a letter written by Willis’s assistant Richard Lower, the work was nearly at an end and Wren had nearly finished the book’s beautiful illustrations. In 1664, the book was published.

Ask any neurologist today why Willis’s work is important, and he or she will tell you that the Anatomy is the founding work of modern neurology (a term coined by Willis himself).  In the Cerebri Anatome he announced two discoveries – made as the result of exhaustive anatomies – that hold true today.  The first was a circle of arteries that supply blood to the base of the brain, the so-called ‘Circle of Willis‘.  Second, and even more important, was his successful demonstration that different parts of the brain, identifiable as separate structures, regulate distinct bodily and mental functions. The cerebellum and medulla oblongata, for example, appeared to regulate involuntary and motor functions.  Higher cognitive functions, including the operations of imagination (which for Willis meant, roughly speaking, having ideas of things and placing them alongside each other) and memory, belonged to the cerebrum, the brain proper.

Cut-away diagram depicting (among other things) the medulla oblongata and cerebellum. The cerebrum is not labelled but is coloured pink here.

Willis arrived at such interesting conclusions because he pursued a comparative method.  Rather than just investigate human brains, he dissected many different animal brains, including birds, cats and sheep, in order to compare them all together.  This revealed that human and animal brains are similar in many respects, and that some animal brains are more similar to human brains than others.

Let’s take the example of cats.  Willis observed that the cerebellum of cats is very similar to the human cerebellum, differing only in its size.  Yet the cerebrum in cats differs very much from the human cerebrum.  The human cerebrum is full of folds, giving the ‘grey matter’ its characteristic convoluted appearance.  But the cat’s cerebrum has many fewer of these folds, arranged in a much simpler fashion.  For Willis, these differences – a very similar cerebellum and a much simpler (and proportionately smaller) cerebrum – accounted in some measure for the differences in behaviour between cats and humans:

Those Gyrations or Turnings about in four footed beasts are fewer, and in some, as in a Cat, they are found to be in a certain figure and order: wherefore this Brute thinks on, or remembers scarce anything but that the instincts and needs of Nature suggest.  In the lesser four-footed beasts, also in Fowls and Fishes, the superficies of the brain being plain and even, wants all cranklings and turnings about: wherefore these sort of Animals comprehend or learn by imitation fewer things, and those almost only of one kind; for that in such, distinct cells, and parted one from another, are wanting, in which the divers Species and Ideas of things are kept apart.

To put it in simpler terms, Willis argued that humans and animals have similar involuntary and motor functions, and this could be accounted for by the presence of a near-identical structure in the brain.  But the human capacity for imagination – for combining ideas – and memory could partially be accounted for by the more complex structure of the cerebrum.

The Search for the Soul

But what about the creatures that in fact have very similar brains to humans?  Willis knew that some animals had brains with much better-developed cerebra.  I am not sure if Willis had primates in mind when he started to discuss this issue, but it is worth mentioning that by the end of the seventeenth century it was quite well known that primate brains were very similar to those of humans.  In 1698 Edward Tyson brought out Orang-Outang, sive Homo Sylvestris: or, the Anatomy of a Pygmie Compared with that of a Monkey, an Ape, and a Man, a work that explicitly noted this fact.  Compare his images of the Chimpanzee brain with that of a human from Willis’s Cerebri Anatome:

Tyson_Edward-Orangoutang_sive_Homo_sylvestris-Wing-T3598-299_12-p67 (2)

Images of a chimpanzee brain from Tyson’s Homo Sylvestris

T Willis, Cerebri Anatome

Image of the base of the human brain from Willis’s Cerebri Anatome

Willis did not deduce from this, as you might expect, a sort of evolutionary theory about human origins.  Instead, he used the similarity between human and animal brains to form conclusions about the thing that, in a way, he had been searching for all along – the immortal soul, referred to by him as the ‘rational soul’.  The problem was like this.  True, humans and animals had very similar brains.  But humans also seem to be capable of a great deal more conscious thought and deliberate action than animals.  Willis and others had noticed that animals such as primates (and even dolphins) seem to exhibit emotional states.  Nevertheless, Willis saw that the differences between human and animal cognition are very great indeed.  Since there was no structural difference in the brain (that he could observe), he attributed the differences to the presence, in the human brain, of an immortal soul – a unique gift from God that distinguished humans from animals.  Therefore, animals (Willis used the word ‘brutes’) had a machine-like soul, the functions of which could be attributed to the machinery of the brain.  Willis stated the matter in a later work, De Anima Brutorum (1672) (‘On the Soul of Brutes’), like this:

As we have shewn, by comparing the Corporeal [bodily] Soul of the Brute, with the Rational Soul of Man, what vast difference there is between them, perhaps it might be to this purpose, to compare the Brains of either, and to observe their differences.  But this Anatomy being elsewhere made, we have noted little or no difference in the Head of either, as to the Figures and Exterior Coformations of the Parts, the Bulk only excepted; that from hence we concluded, the Soul Common to Man with Brutes, to be only Corporeal [part of the body], and immediately to use these Organs

The search for the soul, and by extension an attempt to work out the place of humans in relation to God, was an important part of Willis’s anatomical agenda.  He lived in a time and a place when neurological research had striking, immediate implications for how people conceived of the experience of having feelings, ideas, knowing things and believing (or not) in God.  Willis was not alone in contemplating such things, and in trying to find out precisely where the soul might find its home in the brain.  Willis concluded that the soul must inhabit a body called the corpus callosum (see the diagram above), a structure that links the cerebrum with the cerebellum and medulla oblongata.  The great French philosopher René Descartes, meanwhile, had settled for the pineal gland, which sits nearby.

The Cerebri Anatome proved immensely influential  as soon as it came out, and contemporaries lost no time at all in working out its implications for matters of religious belief, mental health and the appreciation of the arts and literature. Although Willis decided to attribute many of the mind’s functions to the immortal soul, his argument that even some of our thoughts and feelings are caused by the mechanics of the brain was controversial, and powerful.  It provided people with new ways of thinking about the causes of pleasure and pain, as well as mental disturbance, in turn leading them to develop theories about art and mental illness that have powerful legacies today.  I will explore some of these in future posts.