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Experimental philosophy and religion

Peter Anstey writes …

From the first decade of its existence early modern experimental philosophy enjoyed an intimate relation with Christianity. This manifested itself in at least two ways. First, experimental philosophy, it was argued, was a great help in the development of the mind and character of the Christian. Second, and later, it came to play a central role in Christian apologetics. As for experimental philosophy and Christian living, some of the Fellows of the early Royal Society like Joseph Glanvill wrote extensively on the theme of the positive benefits of the practice of experimental philosophy for Christians. See, for example, Glanvill’s Philosopia Pia: or a Discourse of the Religious Temper, and Tendencies of the Experimental Philosophy (1671).

Once experimental philosophy had consolidated its position as a prominent new approach to natural philosophy it began to be used for the purposes of Christian apologetics. In Robert Boyle experimental philosophers had the archetypal Christian virtuoso who not only manifested the benefits of practising Christianity in his character but also did much to promote the link between the new experimental natural philosophy and the defense of the faith. In The Christian Virtuoso he claimed that:

the Experimental Philosophy giving us a more clear discovery, …, of the divine Excellencies display’d in the Fabrick and Conduct of the Universe, and of the Creatures it consists of, … leads it [the mind] directly to the acknowledgment and adoration of a most Intelligent, Powerful and Benign Author of things. (Works of Robert Boyle, 14 vols, eds Hunter and Davis, London, 1999–2000, 11, 293)

Boyle’s ultimate legacy in this regard was the provision in his will for the Boyle Lectures. And it was the inaugural Boyle Lecturer, Richard Bentley, who first mobilized Newton’s new natural philosophy in Christian apologetics in his seventh lecture, published after extensive correspondence with Newton himself (The Folly and Unreasonableness of Atheism, 1693). Once the precedent was established it was continued and augmented in works such as George Cheyne’s Philosophical Principles of Natural Religion (1705), William Derham’s Astro-Theology: or a Demonstration of the Being and Attributes of God, from a Survey of the Heavens (1715) and William Whiston’s Astronomical Principles of Religion, Natural and Revealed (1717).

Interestingly, it was actually the connection with religion that first raised the reading public’s consciousness of experimental philosophy in the Netherlands. For, it is now thought that the publication of Bernard Nieuwentijt’s Het regt gebruik in 1715 marks an important moment in the awakening to experimental philosophy in Holland. This work was translated into English in 1718 by Peter Chamberlayne as The Religious Philosopher with a prefatory letter to the translator by the leading pedagogue of experimental philosophy in England, John Theophilus Desaguliers. Desaguliers commends the work because:

it contains several fine Observations and Experiments, which are altogether new, as is also his manner of treating the most common Phaenomena; from which he deduces admirable Consequences in favour of a Religious Life.

Likewise, Ten Kate’s Dutch adaptation of George Cheyne’s Philosophical Principles of Natural Religion published in Amsterdam in 1716 turned experimental philosophy to apologetical use. Kate claims ‘some distinguished men in England, who disliked the uncertainties of hypotheses [of Cartesianism], have based themselves only on a Philosophia Experimentalis, by means of mathematics’ (Jorink and Zuidervaart, Newton and the Netherlands: how Isaac Newton was Fashioned in the Dutch Republic, 2012, 31). He drew a strong connection between Newton’s natural philosophy and evidence for God’s hand in creation.

Here then, we have an obvious difference between early modern experimental philosophy and its contemporary namesake. I would value references to other works, particularly works in languages other than English, that discuss the practical and apologetical benefits of experimental philosophy to the Christian religion. Let me know if you can help.



4 thoughts on “Experimental philosophy and religion

  1. It seems to me somewhat odd that you ignore Bacon in this post, seeing as it’s hard not to think of him as an experimental philosopher, and equally hard to ignore the explicitly theological tenor of his Instauratio magna.

  2. I’m glad that you have mentioned Bacon because, while he does have a central role for knowledge of the divine as well as a role for experiment in natural philosophy, our view is that he was not an experimental philosopher. This highlights the important difference between those who practise natural philosophy using and/or advocating experiments, such as Bacon and Galileo, and those who self-identified as experimental philosophers once this movement emerged in the 1660s. Of course, Bacon was regarded by many (such as Voltaire) as the father of experimental philosophy and in a loose sense he was. However, this epithet was also used of Robert Boyle (born the year after Bacon died), and in our strict sense of the term ‘experimental philosophy’ this is correct. This is not ‘hair-splitting’ because we believe that these two senses of the term fit the historical record: once the movement was established it was easy for experimental philosophers and others to project it back onto its forbears.

  3. So, what is your ‘strict sense of the term’? I ask mainly because I’m troubled by the statement ‘those who self-identified as experimental philosophers once this movement emerged in the 1660s’. I don’t disagree that such self-identification occurred, or that there was a movement, merely wonder how much influence this has on defining the term. I don’t see it as quite as cut and dried as 1834: scientist, for example.

  4. There is no doubt that the case of the term ‘experimental philosophy’ is not as clear cut as ‘scientist’. It is fairly rare before the late 1650s. From 1660, however, it is widely used and begins to be used in book titles from 1663. The early usages that have survived, are mainly among the Hartlib Circle and it’s pretty clear that the meaning of the term is quite fluid. Alberto Vanzo and I have tried to explain the origins of the strict sense of ‘experimental philosophy’ in an article in Intellectual History Review, vol. 22, 2012. Moti Feingold has a paper (not yet published) on the pre-1660 uses of the term. I recommend that you look at the Hartlib Papers online to get a feel for the early history of the term.