One of a series of lectures delivered by Peter Millican (2009) to first-year philosophy students at the University of Oxford as part of the General Philosophy course.
This year’s 5th Annual Robert Boyle Summer School which runs from June 23 2016 explores ‘Science and Irish Identity’. Organiser Eoin Gill argues that in Ireland, scientific achievements are less celebrated than literary ones. Gill says that1:
It is not unusual for people to talk openly about Yeats and Joyce and their significance in our history and culture. Science has been squeezed out, and some suggest it is because many of our leading scientists were Anglo-Irish and science therefore was seen as an Anglo-Irish pursuit and spurned by the Free State. Others claim that the Catholic Church was wary of science and some even suggest that Catholics themselves leaned more towards superstition than rational inquiry.
The Robert Boyle Summer School 2016 (an event aimed at all interested in exploring different aspects of culture) will explore Science and Irish Identity. See details of the programme here on robertboyle.ie. Book tickets via Eventbrite.
Ireland’s literary and musical achievements are well acknowledged home and abroad and celebrated in many successful and long established summer schools. The Robert Boyle Summer School was established to explore the place of science in our heritage and culture and the 2016 School will address the theme “Science and Irish Identity”. This theme will resonate with the commemorations of the 1916 Rising and the Battle of the Somme and the school will take place in between these events from 23-26 June. The theme presents the opportunity to explore different Irish Identities not in terms of conflict but in their involvement in and attitudes towards science.
That both parties agree in deducing all the Phaenomena of Nature from Matter and Local motion; I esteem‘d that notwithstanding those things wherein the Atomists and the Cartesians differ’d, they might be thought to agree in the main, and their Hypotheses might by a Person of a reconciling Disposition be look’d on as, upon the matter, one Philosophy. Which because it explicates things by Corpuscles, or minute Bodies, may (not very unﬁtly) be call’d Corpuscular.
Robert Boyle, The Physiological Essays, 1661.
Robert Boyle’s attempt to redraw the 17th century lines of debate about nature. For Boyle the major dividing line is between the scholastics who invoke forms to explain nature, while the Cartesians and the Atomists agree that the effects of nature can be explained using the principles of matter and motion. The latter two he therefore groups together under the Corpuscular Philosophy. Boyle argues that the differences between Cartesians and Atomists are either purely metaphysical or of minor theoretical importance. One such difference was that the Cartesians argued for a plenum (an entirely “full” world with no gaps) while the atomists believed the world was particles in a vacuum. Boyle describes himself as a corpuscularian, avoiding the term atomist which had become strongly linked to atheism.
This essay was the subject of correspondence between Henry Oldenburg and Spinoza, with Boyle participating at second hand in certain of the letters. Spinoza explicitly disagreed on some points of Boyle’s, for example the existence of vacuum, and even Boyle’s attempt at broad agreement between Cartesians and atomists was problematic for his philosophy. For more on the correspondence and the differences in position of Spinoza and Boyle see:
Filip Buyse (2013) Boyle, Spinoza and the Hartlib Circle: The Correspondence Which Never Took Place (online)
Filip Buyse (2010) Spinoza and Robert Boyle’s Definition of Mechanical Philosophy, Historia Philosophica, 8:73-89. (Academia)
Peter Millican (2009) Robert Boyle’s Corpuscularian Theory, YouTube.
The Robert Boyle Summer School takes place this year (2015) from June 25th-28th in Lismore Heritage Town, Co Waterford. This summer school will attract people interested in exploring different aspects of culture. It is not a “scientific conference” but will be of special interest to scientists, engineers, technologists, along with historians, educators and anyone with … Read more
Melvyn Bragg discusses the life and work of Robert Boyle with Simon Schaffer, Michael Hunter and Anna Marie Roos.
Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss the life and work of Robert Boyle, a pioneering scientist and a founder member of the Royal Society. Born in Ireland in 1627, Boyle was one of the first natural philosophers to conduct rigorous experiments, laid the foundations of modern chemistry and derived Boyle’s Law, describing the physical properties of gases. In addition to his experimental work he left a substantial body of writings about philosophy and religion; his piety was one of the most important factors in his intellectual activities, prompting a celebrated dispute with his contemporary Thomas Hobbes.
The two pictures above are a to-do list for future scientists written by Robert Boyle in his own beautiful hand. Click to see the originals on Anna Marie Roos’ blog post, together with a list of to-dos for future scientists compiled by scientists of today. She notes that, “As part of a charter granted by King Charles II, the Society charged itself, in that delightfully immodest manner characteristic of the Restoration, to ‘extend not only the boundaries of the Empire, but also the very arts and sciences.’ So, the list Boyle left us was all about boundary breaking, and a successful list it was.”
The “desiderata” are:
The Prolongation of Life.
The Recovery of Youth, or at least some of the Marks of it, as new Teeth, new Hair colour’d as in youth.
The Art of Flying.
The Art of Continuing long under water, and exercising functions freely there.
The Cure of Wounds at a Distance.
The Cure of Diseases at a distance or at least by Transplantation.
The Attaining Gigantick Dimensions.
The Emulating of Fish without Engines by Custome and Education only.
The Acceleration of the Production of things out of Seed.
The Transmutation of Metalls.
The makeing of Glass Malleable.
The Transmutation of Species in Mineralls, Animals, and Vegetables.
The Liquid Alkaest and Other dissolving Menstruums.
The making of Parabolicall and Hyperbolicall Glasses.
The making Armor light and extremely hard.
The practicable and certain way of finding Longitudes.
The use of Pendulums at Sea and in Journeys, and the Application of it to watches.
Potent Druggs to alter or Exalt Imagination, Waking, Memory, and other functions, and appease pain, procure innocent sleep, harmless dreams, etc.
A Ship to saile with All Winds, and A Ship not to be Sunk.
Freedom from Necessity of much Sleeping exemplify’d by the Operations of Tea and what happens in Mad-Men.
Pleasing Dreams and physicall Exercises exemplify’d by the Egyptian Electuary and by the Fungus mentioned by the French Author.
Great Strength and Agility of Body exemplify’d by that of Frantick Epileptick and Hystericall persons.
A perpetuall Light.
Varnishes perfumable by Rubbing.
No longer did scientists think in terms of organisms: they thought in terms of machines. […] The 17th-century English chemist and philosopher Robert Boyle realised that as soon as you start to think in the mechanical fashion, then talking about ends and purposes really isn’t very helpful. A planet goes round and round the Sun; you want to know the mechanism by which it happens, not to imagine some higher purpose for it. In the same way, when you look at a clock you want to know what makes the hands go round the dial — you want the proximate causes.
But surely machines have purposes just as much as organisms do? The clock exists in order to tell the time just as much as the eye exists in order to see. True, but as Boyle also saw, it is one thing to talk about intentions and purposes in a general, perhaps theological way, but another thing to do this as part of science. You can take the Platonic route and talk about God’s creative intentions for the universe, that’s fine. But, really, this is no longer part of science (if it ever was) and has little explanatory power. “
Anglo-Irish chemist and philosopher if you please. And look out for theRobert Boyle Summer School.
From Does life have a purpose?, by Michael Ruse in Aeon Magazine, on the move away from teleology (the focus on the purpose of things) in science.