The Miraculous Meniscus of Mercury

An article of surprisingly strong relevance to some of our conversations here lately by @TedDavis, from 2013.

As I pointed out in an earlier column, some of Boyle’s experiments led to fascinating debates about the space above the meniscus in a mercury barometer: is it really completely empty of matter? It wasn’t a purely physical question; a metaphysical dimension was also prominently present, as Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer have shown. Even today, metaphysical issues are not entirely separate from science (despite the reluctance of some scientists to acknowledge it), but during the Scientific Revolution they were almost ubiquitous.

The apparently empty space above the meniscus in the barometer was the subject, and the need for nature to avoid a vacuum was the problem. What was the solution? Line proposed that something he called a “funiculus,” formed from the “rarefied and extended upper surface of the mercury,” functions like a string adhering to the top of the glass tube, upholding the column of mercury in the tube and preventing a vacuum from forming (translation from Reilly, Francis Line, p. 66). In this way, Line believed he could preserve the Aristotelian principle that “Nature abhors a vacuum.”

How could this be possible? How could the mercury itself expand almost magically in this way, as if on demand in order to prevent a vacuum? According to Line, such a thing was at least possible “ divinitus ”—in other words, by God’s absolute power—and therefore it had to be consistent with the nature of matter. The sound of Boyle taking a deep breath is audible even now. “None is more willing to acknowledge and venerate Divine Omnipotence” than me, he replied, entirely without exaggeration. “I say, that our Controversie is not what God can do , but about what can be done by Natural Agents , not elevated above the sphere of Nature. For though God can both create and annihilate, yet Nature can do neither: and in the judgment of true Philosophers I suppose our Hypothesis would need no other advantage to make it be preferred before our Adversaries, then that in ours things are explicated by the ordinary course of Nature, whereas in the other recourse must be had to miracles” (Defence Against Linus, in The Works of Robert Boyle, vol. 3, p. 48).

So here is my questions regarding ID.

How do we know if God creates the vacuum above mercury or not? In principle, he could be doing so, so why not allow for that possibility? If we can’t adjudicate this question, with an experiment we can see with our own eyes, what hope do we have of adjudicating this in any other experiment?

When we have produced evidence of IC systems evolving from scratch (e.g. T-urf13), Behe’s response was that somehow (not specified really) God did it. How could we tell one way or another? If evidence supporting can always be written off as God’s design, why even ask for evidence?

If we could see, for example, a flagellum form in an in vitro experiment, how would we rule out God’s involvement there? Of course God could have done it, but then why even ask for an experiment to demonstrate this?


Here is how I approach this topic:

Both the philosopher and the theologian certainly can and do allow for such possibilities. But a scientist works within the definition of science—explaining by investigating and better understanding natural processes—just as a classical geometer restricts himself/herself to proving by means of compass and straight-edge only. Classical geometry doesn’t consider protractors and tape-measures evil. Nor does it deny the usefulness of other ways of constructing proofs. It is an approach, a methodology, within plain geometry which is simply defined and yet extremely powerful. Even high school sophomore learn to appreciate it, even if they dread it! Classical plain geometry has great value precisely because of its simplicity and the fact that everybody understands the rules, the standard which guides the investigation.

I view science like that. The fact that it is defined in recognition of definite restrictions and boundaries is a strength, not a deficiency. And anyone who dislikes the boundaries and limitations of the Scientific Method can always approach the study of reality as a philosopher or theologian. Those fields aren’t confined to the boundaries of science.

This brings to mind a conversation I had with an Emeritus Professor when I was a grad student. In mid-career he had moved from the physics department [if my memories are sound] to the Department of Philosophy. When I asked him why, he said in so many words: “I like to think big.”

{POSTSCRIPT: What a fascinating article from Ted Davis and Biologos! If were still writing and performing song parodies and “witty-ditties”, The Miraculous Meniscus of Mercury would be an irresistible opportunity. Perhaps it deserves a Gilbert & Sullivan type of style. Or perhaps an entire Stephen Sondheim screenplay.}