A free enquiry into the vulgarly receiv'd notion of nature made in an essay address'd to a friend
Boyle, Robert, 1627-1691.


I Know not Whether or no it be a Prerogative in the human Soul, that, as 'tis itself a True and Positive Being, so 'tis apt to conceive all other things, as True and Positive Beings also. But, Whe∣ther Page  2 or no this Propensity, to frame such kind of Idea's, suppose an excel∣lency, I fear it occasions mistakes; and makes us think and speak, after the manner of True and Positive Beings, of such things, as are but Chimeri∣cal, and some of them Negations or Privations themselves; as Death, Ignorance, Blindness, and the like.

It concerns us therefore, to stand very carefully upon our Guard, that we be not insensibly misled by such an innate and unheeded Tem∣ptation to error, as we bring into the World with us. And consequently I may be allowed to consider, whe∣ther, among other Particulars, in which this deluding Propensity of our minds has too great, though un∣suspected, an Influence upon us; it may not have impos'd on us, in the Notion we are wont to frame con∣cerning Nature. For this being the fruitful Parent of other Notions, as Nature herself is said to be of the Creatures of the Universe; the No∣tion is so general in its Applications, Page  3 and so important in its Influence; that we had need be jealously care∣ful, of not over-easily admitting a Notion, than which there can scarce be any that more deserves to be wa∣rily examin'd, before it be throughly entertain'd.

Let me therefore make bold to en∣quire freely, Whether That, of which we affirm such great Things, and to which we ascribe so many Feats, be that almost Divine thing, whose works among others we are; or a Notional thing, that in some sense is rather to be reckon'd among our works; as owing its Being to Human Intel∣lects.

I know, most men will be fore∣stall'd with no mean prejudices a∣gainst so venturous an Attempt; but I will not do Eleutherius the Injury, to measure Him by the prepossess'd generality of Men; yet there are two scruples which I think it not a∣miss to take notice of, to clear the way for what shall be presented you in the following Discourse.

Page  4 And first, it may seem an ingrate∣ful and unfilial thing, to dispute against Nature, that is taken by Man∣kind for the Common Parent of us all. But though it be an undutiful thing, to express a want of respect for an ac∣knowledg'd Parent, yet I know not, why it may not be allowable to que∣stion One, that a Man looks upon but as a pretended one, or at least does up∣on probable grounds doubt, Whether she be so or no; and, 'till it appear to me that she is so, I think it my duty to pay my gratitude, not to I know not what, but to that Deity, whose Wisdom and Goodness, not only design'd to make me a Man, and enjoy what I am here bless'd with, but contriv'd the World so, that even those Creatures of his, who by their inanimate condition are not ca∣pable of intending to gratifie me, should be as serviceable and useful to me, as they would be, if they could and did design the being so; and you may be pleas'd to remember, that, as men may now accuse such an Enqui∣rer, Page  5 as I am, of impiety and ingrati∣tude towards Nature: So the Persi∣ans, and other Worshipers of the Coe∣lestial Bodies, accus'd several of the Ancient Philosophers, and all the Primitive Christians, of the like Crimes, in reference to the Sun; whose Existence, and whose being a Benefactor to Mankind, was far more unquestionable, than that there is such a Semi-Deity as Men call Na∣ture: And it can be no great dispa∣ragement to me, to suffer on the like Account with 〈◊〉 good Company, especially, when several of the consi∣derations that Justifie them, may al∣so Apologize for me. I might add, that, it not being half so evident to me, that what is called Nature is my Parent, as that all Men are my Brothers,* by being the Off-spring of God; (for the 〈 in non-Latin alphabet 〉 of Aratus is adopted by St. Paul) I may justly prefer the doing of them a service, by disabusing them, to the paying of Her a Cere∣monial Respect. But setting Allego∣ries Page  6 aside, I have sometimes se∣riously doubted, whether the Vulgar Notion of Nature has not been both injurious to the Glory of God, and a great Impediment to the solid and useful Discovery of his Works.

And first, it seems to detract from the Honour of the great Author and Governor of the World; that Men should ascribe most of the admirable things that are to be met with in it, not to him, but to a certain Nature, which themselves do not well know what to make of. Tis true that ma∣ny confess, that this Nature is a thing of His establishing, and subordinate to Him; but, though many confess it when they are ask'd, Whether they do or no? yet, besides that ma∣ny seldom or never lifted up their eyes to any higher Cause, he that takes notice of their way of ascribing things to Nature, may easily discern, that, whatever their words some∣times be, the Agency of God is little taken notice of in their thoughts: And however, it does not a little Page  7 darken the Excellency of the Divine management of things, that, when a strange Thing is to be effected or accounted for, men so often have re∣course to Nature, and think she must extraordinarily interpose to bring such things about: Whereas it much more tends to the Illustration of God's Wisdom, to have so fram'd things at first, that there can sel∣dom or never need any extraordi∣nary Interposition of his Power. And, as it more recommends the skill of an Engineer, to contrive an Elaborate Engine, so as that there should need nothing to reach his ends in it, but the contrivance of parts devoid of understand∣ing; than if it were necessary, that ever and anon a discreet Servant should be employ'd, to concur nota∣bly to the Operations of this or that Part, or to hinder the Engine from being out of order: So it more sets off the Wisdom of God in the Fa∣brick of the Universe, that he can make so vast a Machine, perform all Page  8 those many things which he design'd it should, by the meer contrivance of Brute matter, managed by cer∣tain Laws of Local Motion, and up∣held by his ordinary and general con∣course; than if he imployed from time to time an Intelligent Overseer, such as Nature is fancied to be, to re∣gulate, assist, and controul the Moti∣ons of the Parts. In confirmation of which, you may remember, that the later Poets justly reprehended their Predecessors, for want of skill, in laying the Plots of their Plays, be∣cause they often suffered things to be reduced to that Pass, that they were fain to bring some Deity 〈 in non-Latin alphabet 〉 upon the Stage, to help them out.

(Nec Deus intersit, nisi dignus vindice nodus,) &c.

And let me tell you freely, that, though I will not say, That Aristotle meant the mischief his Doctrine did, yet I am apt to think, that the Grand Page  9 Enemy of God's Glory made great use of Aristotle's Authority and Er∣rors, to detract from it.

For as Aristotle, by introducing the Opinion of the Eternity of the World, (whereof he owns himself to have been the first Broacher) did, at least in almost all Mens Opinion, openly deny God the Production of the World: So, by ascribing the admirable Works of God, to what he calls Nature, he tacitly denies him the Government of the World. Which suspicion, if you judg severe, I shall not, at more leisure, refuse to acquaint you, (in a distinct Paper) why I take divers of Aristotle's Opi∣nions relating to Religion, to be more unfriendly, not to say pernicious, to It, than those of several other Hea∣then Philosophers.

And here give me leave to prevent an Objection, that some may make, as if, to deny the receiv'd Notion of Nature, a Man must also deny Provi∣dence; of which Nature is the Grand Instrument. For in the first place, Page  10 my Opinion hinders me not at all from acknowledging God to be the Author of the Universe, and the con∣tinual Preserver and Upholder of it; which is much more than the Peri∣patetick Hypothesis, which (as we were saying) makes the World Eternal, will allow its Embracers to admit; and those things which the School-Philosophers ascribe to the Agency of Nature, interposing according to Emergencies, I ascribe to the Wis∣dom of God in the first Fabrick of the Universe; which He so admira∣bly contrived, that, if He but conti∣nue his ordinary and general con∣course, there will be no necessity of extraordinary interpositions, which may reduce him, to seem as it were to Play After-Games; all those Exi∣gencies, upon whose account Philo∣sophers and Physicians seem to have devis'd what they call Nature, being foreseen and provided for in the first Fabrick of the World; so that meer Matter, so ordered, shall in such and such Conjunctures of Circumstan∣ces, Page  11 do all that Philosophers ascribe on such occasions to their almost Omniscient Nature, without any knowledg of what it does, or acting otherwise than according to the Ca∣tholick Laws of Motion. And me∣thinks the difference betwixt their Opinion of God's Agency in the World, and that which I would pro∣pose, may be somewhat adumbrated, by saying, That they seem to imagine the World to be after the nature of a Puppet, whose Contrivance indeed may be very Artificial, but yet is such, that almost every particular motion the Artificer is fain (by drawing sometimes one Wire or String, sometimes another) to guide, and oftentimes over-rule, the Acti∣ons of the Engine; whereas, accor∣ding to us, 'tis like a rare Clock, such as may be that at Strasbourg, where all things are so skilfully contriv'd, that the Engine being once set a Mo∣ving, all things proceed according to the Artificers first design, and the Motions of the little Statues, that at Page  12 such hours perform these or those things, do not require, like those of Puppets, the peculiar interposing of the Artificer, or any Intelligent Agent imployed by him, but perform their functions upon particular occasions, by vertue of the General and Primi∣tive Contrivance of the whole En∣gine. The Modern Aristotelians and other Philosophers would not be tax'd as injurious to Providence, though they now ascribe to the ordi∣nary course of Nature, those regular Motions of the Planets, that Aristotle and most of his Followers (and a∣mong them the Christian School-men) did formerly ascribe to the par∣ticular guidance of Intelligent and Immaterial Beings, which they as∣sign'd to be the Movers of the Coele∣stial Orbs. And when I consider, how many things, that seem Anoma∣lies to us, do frequently enough hap∣pen in the World, I think it is more consonant to the respect we owe to Divine Providence, to conceive, that as God is a most free, as well as a Page  13 most wise Agent, and may in many Things have ends unknown to us: He very well foresaw, and thought fit, that such seeming Anomalies should come to pass, since he made them (as is evident in the Eclipses of the Sun and Moon) the Genuine consequences of the Order, He was pleas'd to settle in the World; by whose Laws the Grand Agents in the Universe were impower'd and de∣termin'd, to act according to the re∣spective Natures he had given them; and the course of things was allow∣ed to run on, though that would in∣fer the happening of seeming Ano∣malies, and things really repugnant to the Good or Welfare of divers particular Portions of the Universe. This, I say, I think to be a Notion more respectful to Divine Provi∣dence, than to imagine, as we com∣monly do, that God has appointed an Intelligent and Powerful Being, called Nature, to be as his Vice-gerent, continually watchful for the good of the Universe in general, and of the Page  14 particular Bodies that compose it; whilst in the mean time, this Being appears not to have the skill, or the power, to prevent such Anomalies, which oftentimes prove destructive to multitudes of Animals, and other Noble Creatures, (as in Plagues, &c.) and sometimes prejudicial to greater Portions of the Universe, (as in Earth-quakes of a large spread, Eclip∣ses of the Luminaries, great and lasting Spots on the Sun, Eruptions of Vulcan, great Comets or new Stars that pass from one Region of Heaven to another.) And I am the more tender of admitting such a Lieutenant to Divine Providence, as Nature is fancied to be, because I shall hereafter give you some Instan∣ces, in which it seems, that, if there were such a thing, she must be said to act too blindly and impotent∣ly, to discharge well the Part she is said to be trusted with.

I shall add, that the Doctrine, I plead for, does much better than its Rival comply with what Religion Page  15 teaches us, about the extraordinary and supernatural Interpositions of Divine Providence. For when it pleases God to over-rule, or controul, the establish'd course of things in the World, by his own Omnipotent Hand, what is thus perform'd may be much easier discern'd and ac∣knowledg'd to be miraculous, by them that admit, in the ordinary course of Corporeal Things, nothing but Mat∣ter and Motion, whose Powers Men may well judg of; than by those who think there is besides, a certain Semi-Deity, which they call Nature, whose Skill and Power they acknow∣ledg to be exceeding great, and yet have no sure way of estimating how great they are, and how far they may extend. And give me leave to take notice to you, on this occasion, that I observe the Miracles of our Saviour and his Apostles, pleaded by Christi∣ans on the behalf of their Religion, to have been very differingly look'd on by Epicurean and other Corpus∣cularian Infidels, and by those other Page  16 Unbelievers who admit of a Soul of the World, or Spirits in the Stars, or, in a word, think the Universe to be Governed by Intellectual Be∣ings, distinct from the Supream Be∣ing we call God. For this later sort of Infidels have often admitted those matters of Fact, which we Christi∣ans call Miracles; and yet have en∣deavour'd to solve them by Astral Operations, and other Ways not here to be specified: Whereas the Epicu∣reàn Enemies of Christianity have thought themselves oblig'd, resolute∣ly to deny the matters of Fact them∣selves; as well discerning, that the things, said to be perform'd, exceed∣ed the Mechanical Powers of Matter and Motion, (as they were managed by those, that wrought the Miracles,) and consequently must either be de∣ny'd to have been done, or be con∣fess'd to have been truly Miraculous.

But there may hereaf∣ter be occasion,* both to improve the things already said, and add Page  17 others, to satisfie Theological scru∣ples about our Hypothesis.

I formerly told you, that 'twas not only to the Glory of God, (as that results from his Wisdom, Power, an Goodness, express'd in the World) that I suspected the Notion of Na∣ture, that I am examining, to be pre∣judicial, but also to the Discovery of his Works. And you will make no great difficulty to believe me, if you consider, that, whilst Men allow themselves so general and easie a way, or rendring accounts of things that are difficult, as to attribute them to Nature; shame will not reduce them to a more industrious scrutiny into the Reasons of Things, and curi∣osity itself will move them to it the more faintly: Of which we have a clear and eminent Example, in the Ascension of Water in Pumps, and in other Phaenomena's of that kind, whose true Physical Causes had ne∣ver been found out, if the Moderns had acquiesced, as their Predecessors did, in that imaginary one, that the Page  18 World was Govern'd by a Watchful Being, call'd Nature, and that she ab∣hors a vacuum, and consequently is still in a readiness, to do irresistibly whatever is necessary to prevent it: Nor must we expect any great Pro∣gress, in the discovery of the true Causes of natural Effects, whilst we are content to sit down with other, than the particular and immediate ones.

'Tis not that I deny, that there are divers things, as the number and si∣tuation of the Stars, the shapes and sizes of Animals, &c. About which, even a Philosopher being ask'd can say little, but that it pleased the Au∣thor of the Universe to make them so; but when we give such general Answers, we pretend not to give the particular Physical Reasons of the things propos'd, but do in effect con∣fess we do not know them. To this I add, that the veneration, wherewith Men are imbued for what they call Nature, has been a discouraging im∣pediment to the Empire of Man over Page  19 the inferior Creatures of God. For many have not only look'd upon it, as an impossible thing to compass, but as something of impious to attempt, the removing of those Boundaries which Nature seems to have put and setled among her Productions. And whilst they look upon her as such a venera∣ble thing, some make a kind of scru∣ple of Conscience, to endeavour so to emulate any of her Works, as to ex∣cel them.

I have staid so long, about remo∣ving the first of the two scruples I formerly propos'd against my pre∣sent attempt, that, not to tire your Patience, I shall in few words di∣spatch the second, which is, That I venture to contradict the sense of the generality of Mankind: To which I answer, That in Philosophical In∣quiries, it becomes not a Naturalist to be so solicitous, what has been, or is believ'd, as what ought to be so; and I have also elsewhere, on another occasion, shew'd, how little the sense of the generality of Men, ought to Page  20 sway us in some Questions: But that which I shall at present more direct∣ly reply, is, First, That 'tis no won∣der, Men should be generally prepos∣sest with such a Notion of Nature, as I call in question, since Education (especially in the Schools) has im∣bued them with it from their Infan∣cy, and even in their maturer years they find it taken for granted, and imployed not only by the Most but by the Learnedst Writers, and never hear it call'd in question by any; and then it exceedingly complies with our Innate Propensity, to think that we know more than we do, and to appear to do so. For to vouch Na∣ture for a Cause, is an Expedient, that can scarce be wanting to any Man, upon any occasion, to seem to know what he can indeed render no good reason of.

And to this first part of my An∣swer, I shall subjoin this second. That the general custom of Man∣kind, to talk of a Thing as a real and positive Being, and attribute great Page  21 matters to it, does but little weigh with me; when I consider, that, though Fortune be not any Physical thing, but a certain loose & undeter∣min'd Notion, which a Modern Meta-Physician would refer to the Classis of his non Entia, yet not only the Gentiles made it a Goddess,

(Nos te facimus, Fortuna, Deam, Coeloque locamus,)
which many of them seriously Wor∣ship'd, but eminent Writers, in Verse and in Prose, Ethnick and Christian, Ancient and Modern, and all sorts of Men, in their common Discourse do seriously talk of It, as if it were a kind of Antichrist, that usurped a great share in the Govern∣ment of the World; and ascribe lit∣tle less to It, than they do to Nature. And not to speak of what Poets, Mo∣ralists and Divines tell us of the Pow∣ers of Ignorance and Vice, which are but Moral defects: Let us consi∣der what things are not only by these Page  22 Men, but by the generality of Man∣kind seriously attributed to Death, to which so great and fatal a Domi∣nion is assign'd; and then if we con∣sider too, that this Death, which is said to do so many and such wonder∣ful things, is neither a Substance, nor a Positive Entity, but a meer Priva∣tion; we shall, I trust, the less be∣lieve, that the Feats ascribed to Na∣ture do infer, that there is really such a Physical Agent as is suppos'd.

And now having, as I presume, clear'd our Enquiry, as far as 'tis yet necessary, [and 'twill be further done hereafter] from those Prejudi∣ces, that might make the Attempt be censur'd before it be examin'd, I proceed to the Inquiry it self; wherein I shall endeavour (but with the brevity my want of leisure ex∣acts) to do these six things. First, To give you a short account of the great Ambiguity of the word Nature, ari∣sing from its various acceptions. Se∣condly, To shew you, that the Defi∣nition also, that Aristotle himself Page  23 gives of Nature, does not afford a clear or satisfactory Notion of it. Thirdly, To gather from the several things, that are wont to be affirmed of, or attributed to, Nature, the re∣ceived Notion of it, which cannot be well gathered from the Name, be∣cause of its great ambiguity. Fourth∣ly, I will mention some of those Rea∣sons, that dissuade me from admit∣ting this Notion of Nature. Fifth∣ly, I shall endeavour to answer seve∣rally the chief things, upon which Men seem to have taken up the Idea of Nature, that I disallow. And, Sixthly, I shall propose some of the chief Effata or Axioms, that are wont to be made use of, concerning Na∣ture in general, and shall shew, how far, and in what sense I may admit them.

And here it may be opportune, to prevent both mistakes and the neces∣sity of interrupting the Series of our Discourse, to set down two or three Advertisements.

Page  24 1. When any where in this Tract I speak of the Opinions of Aristotle and the Peripateticks, as I would not be thought to impute to him all the sentiments of those that will be thought his followers, some of which seem to me to have much mistaken his true meaning; so (on the other side) I did not conceive, that my Design oblig'd me to inquire anxi∣ously into his true sentiments, whe∣ther about the Origine of the Uni∣verse, (as whether or no it were self∣existent, as well as Eternal) or about less important Points: Since, besides that his expressions are oftentimes dark and ambiguous enough, and the things he delivers in several pas∣sages do not seem always very consi∣stent; it suffic'd for my purpose, which was to question Vulgar Noti∣ons, to examine those Opinions, that are by the generality of Scholars ta∣ken for the Aristotelian and Peripate∣tick Doctrines, by which, if he be mis-represented, the blame ought to light upon his Commentators and Followers.

Page  25 2. The Rational Soul or Mind of Man, as it is distinct from the sensi∣tive Soul, being an immaterial Spirit; is a substance of so Heteroclite a kind, in reference to things so vastly dif∣fering from it as mere Bodies are, that since I could neither, without injuring it, treat of it promiscuously with the Corporeal Works of God, nor speak worthily of it, without fre∣quently interrupting and disordering my Discourse by Exceptions, that would either make it appear intri∣cate, or would be very troublesome to you or any other that you may think fit to make my Reader; I thought I might, for others ease and my own, be allow'd to set aside the considerations of it in the present Treatise: And the rather, because all other parts of the Universe being, according to the receiv'd Opinion, the Works of Nature, we shall not want in them Subjects more than suf∣ficiently numerous, whereon to make our Examen. Though I shall here consider the World but as the great Page  26 System of things Corporeal, as it once really was, towards the close of the sixth day of the Creation, when God had finish'd all his material Works, but had not yet Created Man.