The Wisdom in Wood Rot: God in Eighteenth Century Scientific Explanation

In William Krieger (ed.), Science at the Frontiers: Perspectives on the History and Philosophy of Science. Lexington Books. pp. 17-35 (2011)

Eric Palmer
Allegheny College
This chapter presents a historical study of how science has developed and of how philosophical theories of many sorts – philosophy of science, theory of the understanding, and philosophical theology – both enable and constrain certain lines of development in scientific practice. Its topic is change in the legitimacy or acceptability of scientific explanation that invokes purposes, or ends; specifically in the argument from design, in the natural science field of physico-theology, around the start of the eighteenth century. ... The context that produced physico-theology was clearly religious and political. It is unsurprising that a large body of Protestant intellectuals well-placed in a relatively peaceful society with a strong tradition of open speech, would develop links between science and critical discussion of both divinity and the Bible. There were also bounds to the discussion, as Newton, who chose to sit on the sidelines, knew well. Many others on Europe’s continent lived much more intimately with religious division as well as the reminder, in 1633, of Galileo’s failure to arrange a peaceable arrangement between science and religion. These aspects of the rise of physico-theology have not been the focus of this chapter, which has surveyed the philosophical and social origins found in the English context. Science, philosophy of science and other English philosophical currents – most particularly the theory of ideas and understanding that we are familiar with in its later development by John Locke – were formative for a field that might alternatively have been called ‘empirical natural theology.’ Prior shifts in religious sensibility that emptied the Book of Nature of much of its content also prepared the ground. Other philosophical and theological currents not discussed here – most notably theories of divine agency and predestination – and other philosophical trends – the rise of Spinoza’s challenge to such natural theology on the continent – also had both shaping and limiting influences upon the field. Finally, philosophers, including natural philosophers, did much more to promote physico-theology than just write about it: Boyle in particular provided a very important launch pad for the further development of an already healthy tradition of natural theology with his named lectureship, which drew the interest of others in the Royal Society, most notably Isaac Newton, and which spawned two of the most influential physico-theological tracts shortly before and shortly after the turn of the eighteenth century.
Keywords Teleology  Boyle, Robert  Bacon, Francis  Royal Society  Philosophy of Science  Pluche, Abbé Antoine
Categories (categorize this paper)
Edit this record
Mark as duplicate
Export citation
Find it on Scholar
Request removal from index
Revision history

Download options

Our Archive
External links

Setup an account with your affiliations in order to access resources via your University's proxy server
Configure custom proxy (use this if your affiliation does not provide a proxy)
Through your library

References found in this work BETA

Boyle on Occasionalism: An Unexamined Source.Peter Anstey - 1999 - Journal of the History of Ideas 60 (1):57-81.

Add more references

Citations of this work BETA

No citations found.

Add more citations

Similar books and articles

The New Organon.Francis Bacon - 2007 - In Aloysius Martinich, Fritz Allhoff & Anand Vaidya (eds.), Early Modern Philosophy: Essential Readings with Commentary. Blackwell.
The Ends of Weather: Teleology in Renaissance Meteorology.Craig Martin - 2010 - Journal of the History of Philosophy 48 (3):259-282.
Kant on Experiment.Alberto Vanzo - 2012 - In James Maclaurin (ed.), Rationis Defensor. Springer. pp. 75-96.
Robert Boyle's Epistemology: The Interaction Between Scientific and Religious Knowledge.J. J. MacIntosh - 1992 - International Studies in the Philosophy of Science 6 (2):91 – 121.
Robert Boyle and the Masculine Methods of Science.Rose-Mary Sargent - 2002 - Philosophy of Science 71 (5):857-867.


Added to PP index

Total views
108 ( #69,815 of 2,248,766 )

Recent downloads (6 months)
13 ( #73,569 of 2,248,766 )

How can I increase my downloads?


My notes

Sign in to use this feature