A couple of weeks ago, the Quite Interesting Twitter account posted a photograph of a paragraph from a paper by Robert Boyle, presented to the Royal Society in 1666. The topic of the paper was potential areas of research into England’s coal mining industry. One of the questions that Boyle posed was, ‘Whether the Diggers do ever really meet with any subterraneous Dæmons; and if they do, in what shape and manner they appear; what they portend; and what they do &c?’
Those early moderns were odd people, weren’t they, with their strange mix of scientific rationalism and religious superstition? Boyle, after all, is regarded as the first modern chemist. And yet he regarded the truth revealed in the Bible as the unshakeable foundation for his intellectual enquiries, and he wrote as extensively on theological matters as he did on scientific ones. No wonder he was concerned about the possibility of encounters with those subterraneous Dæmons.
I grew up when the secular myth of the rational disinterested scientist, unbeholden to religion or politics, was probably at its height. It wasn’t until I read Arthur Koestler’s book The Sleepwalkers that I realized just how un-modern the metaphysical assumptions of the early modern scientists were. Johannes Kepler, who formulated the laws of planetary motion, was inspired through all his cosmological investigations by the conviction that God had constructed the universe on an invisible framework of geometrical figures: the triangle, the square, the pentagon, the hexagon, and so on.
Isaac Newton spent as much time, perhaps more, studying theological and occult texts than he did astronomy and optics. He was certain that the Bible contain hidden mathematical and alchemical meanings. In one of his notebooks he wrote, ‘A certain infinite spirit pervades all space into infinity, and contains and vivifies the entire world’. There are many other examples of this combination of scientific and occult thinking. The most widely-read work of John Napier, the inventor of logarithms, was a book titled Plaine Discovery of the Whole Revelation of Saint John. The natural world and the spiritual world were both as real as the other, and both entwined.
The complex God-infused worldview of the likes of Boyle, Newton and Napier was only really left behind in the nineteenth century. What most of us think of as Science, that is the secular, rational, and somewhat detached investigation of the material world, was practiced from the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859 until the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003. Of course I’m simplifying. That age of science was never wholly value-free, nor should it have been. But something has changed in the last twenty years.
Boyle and his contemporaries could not divorce science, or natural philosophy as they called it, from theology. The twenty-first century scientist, in contrast, cannot divorce science from politics. Indeed, referencing power structures and relations is regarded as a mark of sophistication.
The most egregious recent example that comes to mind was during the Black Lives Matter protests, when the Covid19 counter-measure for social distancing, which all right-thinking scientists had been arguing for as a matter of life and death, was suddenly deemed not so important by the medico-scientific establishment in the US and the UK. Almost all those accredited experts took the line that the demonstrations were justified because racism was viewed as more damaging to public health than Covid-19. The ‘science’ changed under the political pressure of events.
Though Boyles’s subterranean demons have been banished from the scientific sphere, it seems increasingly that the ontological space is being filled with newer demons, psychic demons such as ‘White Privilege’, ’Patriarchy’, and ‘Heteronormativity’.
[Image of the Anima Mundi from Robert Fludd’s Utriusque Cosmi Historia courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.]