Tomorrow, May 9th, the world will be able to enjoy the transit of Mercury as it passes between the Sun and the Earth. Slooh.com has invited me to offer commentary on this transit at 8:00am CDT. My first experience with Slooh was very positive, sharing my thoughts on the lunar eclipse that occurred last fall. It was a fun and memorable experience to be interviewed by Bob Berman, a well known author and host for Slooh. Earlier this year, I was going to join Slooh for a special Valentine’s Day spot, talking about the Rosette Nebula and Saint Valentine. Unfortunately, a snow storm forced Slooh to cancel the special (weather, the constant x-factor even when it comes to online astronomy). I am happy to once again work with Slooh, offering a brief reflection on the transit of Mercury and the priest who first recorded the data of this astronomical event. Therefore, for a sneak peak of what I will be talking about with Slooh, check out this new reflection that will be a part of the “Priests, Deacons, and Religious of Science”series as I reflect on the transit of Mercury and Pierre Gassendi.
Planetary transits are quite rare since they only occur when the Sun, an inner planet (Mercury in this case), and the Earth are in alignment. The transit of Mercury occurs roughly 13 times each century, making this a noteworthy event. What is of particular interest from a Catholic perspective is that the first person to publish data pertaining to the transit of Mercury was a Catholic priest by the name of Pierre Gassendi. Gassendi lived from 1592 – 1655, overlapping the lives of Galileo and Kepler and would have been in the autumn of his life at the time of Isaac Newton’s birth (1643). He was known as a philosopher, astronomer, mathematician, and priest. His teaching career focused primarily upon the Philosophy of Aristotle, which he eventually rejected in light of the emerging physics of his day, and also rejected Descartes’ famous cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am). Central to Gassendi’s rejection of these two great thinkers was a move away from certainty in favor of reliability through sense experience. This led to Gassendi attempting to create a “Christian Materialism,” trying to marry the Copernican understanding of the universe, the philosophy of Epicurus, and Catholic Doctrine.
Central to Gassendi’s attempt to achieve this complex weave of science, philosophy, and theology was through the recovery of atomism. The philosophy of atomism originated with Leucippus and was furthered by his disciple Democritus (born in the year 460 B.C.). Central to atomism was a materialist worldview that believed all things were made of atoms, which were eternal in nature, unable to be divided, infinite in number (which Gassendi rejected), and professed that there was no purpose or design to creation. (These points were taken from the online Catholic Encyclopedia offered by newadvent.org) Gassendi’s attempt to adapt this philosophy to Church teaching was founded on the idea that atoms had a God given quality of self-motion (trying to address the “purposeless creation” belief of atomism). This argument thus rejected Aristotelian categories such as substance and accidents that also carried implications of meaning and purpose. Gassendi favored a view of the world that focused entirely upon our sense experience of the universe, but still defended the teaching authority of the Church, thus creating the foundation for what I am calling Christian Materialism. Though there was much that Gassendi got right with science and theology, his historical significance is minimal with his thought viewed as flawed by the scientific world, the philosophical world, and the Christian world. Nevertheless, his observation of the transit of Mercury, which confirmed Kepler’s predictions of such an event, led to naming one of the craters on the Moon after Gassendi.
On a personal level, I am not an expert on Gassendi and cannot speak to the finer points of his life and thought. However, exploring the basics of Gassendi reminds me of the theme of my last post, wondering if the Church is in need of someone who can synthesize faith and science in a way similar to how Thomas Aquinas incorporated Aristotle into his theological vision? A week later, as we enjoy the transit of Mercury, we encounter a figure that attempted this very synthesis by trying to bring together empiricism and Catholic Doctrine. What we find in the summary texts about Gassendi is a priest whose sincerity cannot be questioned, but his method can. A point of curiosity that would be worth looking into is how much influence did Christian Materialism play in setting the backdrop for the “God of the Gaps” problem that emerged after Newton? The foundation for this question is that if one tries to synthesis Christianity and Materialism, there is a high risk that God becomes reduced to one being in creation, which the Church rejects, instead of God as “being itself” or “the pure act of ‘to be.'” This reductionism of all things to the material can lead to the false notion that the only “space” for God’s activity in the world is through the gaps of knowledge we have about how creation works. For a nice summary of this problem, here is a video of Br. Guy explaining the God of the Gaps.
As I mentioned last week, the difficulty of creating a synthesis between faith and science is that categories pertaining to meaning, purpose, goodness, beauty, and ultimate ends are not a part of scientific method. Therefore, a synthesis of theology and science would either try to fit faith into a scientific framework or vice versa. In either case, it is my opinion that the best approach is to allow science to be science and theology to be theology, trusting that this mutual exploration of truth will provide natural “bridges” between these great disciplines while respecting the integrity of each.
Pierre Gassendi, an innovative thinker who made a historic observation we recall on Monday who also took a big risk, sincerely trying to marry the emerging scientific worldview of his time with Christian faith. Though his efforts may have fell short of his goal, let us appreciate his desire to create a bridge between faith and science, learning from his successes and failures, striving to advance our pursuit of truth.
- Note: It goes without saying that the transit of Mercury cannot be viewed with the naked eye, nor should anyone look into the Sun at any time. A transit like this can only be observed with special equipment that requires knowledge and experience in using. Therefore, if you want to view the transit, either contact your local Astronomy Club to see if they are having a public viewing or join us online at Slooh.com.