Our third instalment of Science Friday celebrates the birthday of Pierre Gassendi, born on this day, 418 years ago, in Champtercier, near Digne, in France.
Gassendi, a Doctor of Theology, made significant contributions to the fields of both philosophy and science. For more details on his life, I recommend his Wikipedia entry, and for his philosophy, his entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Far be it for me to attempt to outdo the two excellent sources above; instead, I’d just like to highlight his work reconciling Epicurian atomism with Christianity, and placing the spiritual above the material:
Indeed, insofar as Gassendi considers pleasure to be a materially-realized phenomenon, he shares Hobbes’s view of the morally correct as something that can be defined in physical terms. However, according to Gassendi and the lessons he draws from his Epicurean and Stoic sources, any spirtually-related pleasure trumps any materially-related one (O II 710a-b). The truest pleasures—hence goods—are defined along the lines of Epicurean ataraxia (attainment of tranquility) and Christian virtues, including in particular love of God, and friendship and good will among persons. The guarantee of our ability to seek tranquility or fulfill these virtues is our free intellectual judgment (libertas). Such a freedom consists in the ability of our intellects to choose between good and evil, and this is turn yields our capacity for volition, or free will (O II 821b-822b).
Fisher, Saul, “Pierre Gassendi”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
In our current time, all too often religion and science does not see eye to eye. Science is not taught sufficiently in our public schools, and too many people of faith, even among the leadership, persist in advocating outdated tenets that so obviously contradict modern scientific discoveries, that it is inevitable that scientists are more likely than the average person to be atheists.
This cleavage is dangerous, and indeed, as demonstrated by Gassendi and others, not even necessary. We should all honor the past, certainly, but not idolize a non-existent, illusory religious nirvana. For is that not idolatry itself?