Last June I attended the International Conference on Philosophy in Athens. I was in Europe for other matters and thought it might be worthwhile to include this conference.
It was an interesting experience. There were about 60 people present, presumably (almost) all philosophers. I did not meet any other theists. There was a philosopher from Notre Dame University, whom I thought would probably be Roman Catholic. However, when I chatted with him, it turned out that he was in fact a lapsed Roman Catholic; it was the problem of evil that drove him to atheism. It was intriguing to hear him tell of his interactions with his colleagues Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff, two well-known Christian philosophers at Notre Dame.
I presented a paper on the role of models and presuppositions in science. My thesis was that one’s worldview plays a decisive role both in justifying the presuppositions needed for doing science and in determining the actual content of science. I argued that naturalism fails to provide an adequate basis for science whereas Christianity does so very well. Allowance for Christianity, I noted, has significant implications for ontology (e.g., the existence of a spiritual reality), epistemology (e.g., divine revelation), and causality (e.g., supernatural events). These, in turn might well have great impact on the content of science, particularly with regards to questions of eschatology and origins..
My purpose for attending this conference (aside from the opportunity to visit Greece) was to test these ideas against a hostile audience. The response I received was polite disagreement regarding my theist presuppositions but a general acknowledgment that naturalism did have its problems.
Indeed, throughout the conference I noticed a widespread sense of frustration. One philosopher complained that Nietzsche left him feeling empty. The prime difficulty was the lack of absolutes. It was generally agreed, for example, that absolutes were essential for genuine morality. However, in the absence of an Absolute, there was no way to establish these. One philosopher proclaimed, “give me rationality and I can give you morality.” His idea was that morality could be established on a utilitarian basis once one had a properly grounded rationality. But he had no idea how the latter could be rigorously established. Another philosopher defended Descartes in arguing for a platonic realm for absolutes. Yet he had no way of connecting the inert platonic ideals with the actual, concrete material world. On this point he was unwilling to invoke theism, as Descartes had done.
In one of the last papers, the presenter defended “constructionist” mathematics. He objected to classical mathematics since this was based on the theist notion of an ideal Mathematician who knew everything and could manipulate infinite sets. Instead, he argued for a type of mathematics that allowed only for finite, human constructions. Such a restriction places severe limits on the content of mathematics. When I pointed out that constructionist mathematics was insufficient to prove advanced theorems needed for modern physics (particularly quantum mechanics and general relativity), he acknowledged this. He also agreed with my further claim that, if mathematics is just a convenient convention, with no claims to absolute truth, then the same must apply to physics, which is strongly dependent on math. Where, I asked, does this leave Big Bang cosmology, or the materialist basis of your philosophy? He just smiled and shrugged his shoulders. Ultimately, it seems, particularly given its nihilistic implications, naturalism can be accepted only on the basis of a rather a tough-minded faith that is firmly resolved to evade God.
If this is the best that naturalism can do, Christians have little to fear from its challenges. I left this conference feeling thankful for the joy, meaning, and hope that we have in Christ. It is clear that denying God leads only to intellectual frustration, not fulfillment.