Do college students care about truth? What do they think truth is?

What is truth?
What is truth?

If I want to understand what college students think about truth, I ask my friend Eric Chabot. He is the Ratio Christi ninja at Ohio State University. He can tell you more about what college kids think about ultimate issues than probably anyone else you know.

Here is his latest blog post at Think Apologetics.

He introduces the topic like this:

Over the last ten years I have done outreach on a major college campus (The Ohio State University which has 56,000 students). I have had hundreds of spiritual conversations with students and direct an apologetics ministry called Ratio Christi Student Apologetics Alliance. It is no secret that many apologists have written books on the Truth question. In other words, the statement “we are living in postmodern times” has almost become cliche in today’s society. Hence, because of the impact of post-modernism, many seem to assume that college students are not interested in objective truth. So the supposed fallout is that people are not asking whether Christianity is true. Given my experience on the campus, I will respond to this issue. So the good news is that I am truly speaking from personal experience.

I will go ahead and give some definitions of truth here.

Eric likes to complain about pragmatism most, so he quotes a definition of the pragmatic view of truth:

#1 Truth is not “what works.” One popular theory is the pragmatic view of William James and his followers that truth is what works. According to James, “Truth is the expedient in the way of knowing. A statement is known to be true if it brings the right results. It is the expedient as confirmed by future experience.” That this is inadequate is evident from its confusion of cause and effect. If something is true it will work, at least in the long run. But simply because something works does not make it true. This is not how truth is understood in court. Judges tend to regard the expedient as perjury. Finally, the results do not settle the truth question. Even when results are in, one can still ask whether the initial statement corresponded to the facts. If it did not, it was not true, regardless of the results.

And here are a couple more definitions that he encounters from the college kids:

#5 Truth is not “what feels good.” The popular subjective view is that truth gives a satisfying feeling, and error feels bad. Truth is found in our subjective feelings. Many mystics and new age enthusiasts hold versions of this faulty view, though it also has a strong influence among some experientially oriented Christian groups. It is evident that bad news can be true. But if what feels good is always true, then we would not have to believe anything unpleasant. Bad report cards do not make a student feel good, but the student refuses to believe them at his or her academic peril. They are true. Feelings are also relevant to individual personalities. What feels good to one may feel bad to another. If so, then truth would be highly relative. But, as will be seen in some detail in the next article, truth cannot be relative. Even if truth makes us feel good—at least in the long run—this does not mean that what feels good is true. The nature of truth does not depend on the result of truth.

#6 Truth is not “what is existentially relevant.” Following Soren Kierkegaard and other existential philosophers, some have insisted that truth is what is relevant to our existence or life and false if it is not. Truth is subjectivity. Kierkegaard said: truth is livable. As Martin Buber stated, truth is found in persons, not in propositions. However, even if truth is existential in some sense, not all truth fits into the existential category. There are many kinds of truth, physical, mathematical, historical, and theoretical. But if truth by its very nature is found only subjectively in existential relevance, then none of these could be truth. What is true will be relevant, but not everything relevant is true. A pen is relevant to an atheist writer. And a gun is relevant to a murderer. But this does not make the former true nor the latter good. A truth about life will be relevant to life. But not everything relevant to one’s life will be true.

So what do students think?

The most popular view today seems to be #1 (a pragmatic view of truth) and then coming in second place is a tie between #5 and #6 (“Truth is what feels good” and “Truth is what is existentially relevant”).

Many, many, students are viewing the Christian faith as something that helps them have a better life. In other words, they are not asking whether it is objectively true. Comments like “I don’t see what difference Jesus would make in my life” and “I don’t think it is relevant whether God exists or Jesus is the Son of God” are somewhat common.

This shouldn’t be surprising given our entire culture is built on pragmatism. After all, people go to college to get a job that will work for them and help them get a good job. Furthermore, the Church has been embracing pragmatism for a long time. John MacArthur wrote an article called Church Pragmatism a long time ago. Not much has changed.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with getting a good job when you’re finished college, as long as when you get that job you proceed to study everything else that matters. This is especially important for Christian men, who shoulder the load of providing for a family and the people around them. But I get his point.

The rest of Eric’s post offers a solution for how Christians can deal with pragmatism. My solution is to investigate their overall worldview and then introduce evidence that conflicts with their stated beliefs. For example, the kalam cosmological argument and the cosmic fine-tuning argument. It works better if you really can speak about the scientific or historical evidence for Christianity with authority. Just say to them that it’s fine with you if they want to believe things that aren’t truth because they are comfortable with them, but sometimes that will have disastrous consequences. The best way to puncture the self-confidence that pragmatic people have is to show them that at least some of their beliefs are flat out false. They can say that they don’t care, but at least they can’t say that what they believe is true.

One thought on “Do college students care about truth? What do they think truth is?”

  1. It seems that the three most popular versions of “what truth is” default essentially to variations of existentialism, or there is no actual universal truth or universal meaning to existence. Therefore, I will decide, self-autonomously, what is true and try to construct my own meaning for my life.
    This certainly may work for a while and, sometimes, quite a while; but as we know, reality will bite each one of us in the backside sooner or later.
    I have found that trying to present the incoherence and contradiction in another’s worldview doesn’t quite do the job unless the other is at a place of seeking a different worldview i.e. usually at a place of significant suffering and loss. It never hurts to plant a seed, however.


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