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Linné on line arrow The History of Ideas arrow Physicotheology


The relationship between God, nature, and humans was something that thoroughly occupied the minds of 18th-century scientists and philosophers. This issue was of crucial importance in the branch of thought that is usually called ‘physicotheology’ and was embraced by many natural scientists both in Sweden and abroad. The Englishman William Derham, who in 1713 published the book Physico-theology, is usually claimed to be the creator of physicotheology and its greatest exponent. In Sweden Linnaeus is usually counted among the leading representatives. He perceived nature as a wonder created by God, which is expressed, among other places, in the speech “On the Remarkableness of Insects,” which he gave at the Royal Academy of Sciences in 1739.

Scientists in the 18th century felt that studying nature was also a way to gain knowledge about God’s Creation.

The physicotheologists asserted that both religion and nature research were vital to humankind. Through the study of nature our knowledge of God and His Creation would be enhanced; it can therefore be said that science had a religious utility. This way of thinking was typical of Linnaeus, see Linnaeus’ view of nature. In his treatise Cui bono? (“To What Good?”), he asks what the purpose of everything is, and his answer is that everything is part of God’s grand scheme.

By this he means that God never created anything unnecessarily, that every object is an important part of Creation. The task of the naturalist is therefore to discover this purpose. In doing so, the glory of God would be made manifest and economic utility would be promoted.

Physicotheology goes together with a teleological view of the world, meaning a perspective that emphasizes the ultimate purpose of nature. Philosophers and theologians sometimes speak of the teleological proof of the existence of God, which means the belief that nature is so perfectly ordered that it could not possibly arise by chance, but must have been created by a benevolent and omnipotent God.

It could be said that many arguments propounded by modern ecologists in principle already existed in 18th-century physicotheology. This is true of the opinion that everything in nature belongs together or that all living beings are valuable in a sense.

Clarence J. Glacken, Traces on the Rhodian Shore: Nature and Culture in Western Thought From Ancient Times to the End of the Eighteenth Century (1967)