chapter  14
16 Pages

Unruly Weather: Natural Law Confronts Natural Variability

ByLorraine Daston

In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, it became a cliché in works of natural philosophy and, especially, of natural theology, to hold up inquiry into the laws of nature as a model for all knowledge. Natural laws, in both jurisprudence and natural philosophy, laid claim to universality and uniformity; positive laws (and religious doctrines) varied widely as to time and place. In his highly influential Analogy of Religion, Natural and Revealed (1736), Anglican bishop Joseph Butler recommended that rational Christians concentrate on ‘the Conduct of Nature with respect to intelligent Creatures; which may be resolved into General Laws or Rules of Administration, in the same way as many of the Laws of Nature respecting inanimate Matter may be collected from Experiments’, in the hopes of discovering a uniform doctrine amidst the Babel of sects.1 The English natural philosopher Robert Boyle thought God preferred uniformity even to benevolence:

And, that having, when all these things were in his prospect, settled among his corporeal works general and standing laws of motion suited to his wisdom, to prefer (unless in newly excepted cases) catholic laws, and higher ends, before subordinate ones, and uniformity in his conduct before making changes in it according to every sort of particular emergencies: and consequently, not to recede from the general laws he at first most wisely established, to comply with the appetites or needs of particular creatures, or to prevent some seeming irregularities (such as earthquakes, floods, famines, & c.) incommodious to them, which are no other, than such, as he foresaw would happen ...2