Monday, January 18, 2010

What Today's Emerging Adults Think About Truth

"There is no way to know what is true -- in a final way." This is one of the "truths" Christian Smith has discovered in his analysis of today's American teens and young adults. I am certain he is correct about this. I have seen this thing manifest itself many times in my college philosophy classes.

I have not read Smith's book. I tried to access the relevant chapter from google books, but was blocked. So, let me extrapolate from that opening sentence and make some comments, understanding that I might not have it right.

  • Young adults today have no clue about inductive reasoning and probableistic truth. Most of the truths we believe in are of this variety. For example, no empirical truth can be conclusively verified. Consider a statement like "This is a computer," said as one points to a computer. This statement can be true, but only inductively so. When I hear someone say "You can't prove there is a God!" I think they are confusing deductive reasoning with inductive reasoning. Most philosophical proofs of God's existence use inductive reasoning, or reasoning by inference to the best explanation. They conclude with: Most probably, God exists.
  • One of my philosophy of religion classes is in room 228, building C, at Monroe County Community College, in Monroe, Michigan. In my class late this afternoon I made the statement, "The lights are now on in this room, room 228, building C, on the campus of Monroe County Community College, in Monroe, Michigan, on Jan. 18, 2010, 6 PM." As I made that statement the lights were in fact on. Therefore, that statement was true. I then say, "If that statement is true, then it is true for everyone in the world. It's as true for a person in China as it is for you and I here, in this room, now." When I make this claim a number of the students are wondering about it, like I have arrived from another planet to communciate to them in an alien language. "Truth" always marginalizes. "Marginalization" is bad. Therefore, I am now being a bad boy. How could I claim that any statement is true "for everybody?" But that, philosophically, is the way things are when it comes to truth. If the statement "God exists" is true, then it is true for everyone, to include atheists. If it is false, then it is false for everyone, to include theists like myself. I think it's important to understand this, and find that it feels radical to say such things. "Truth," in this sense (which is the sense philosophers have always been interested in), is not a matter of "true for me" or "true for you."
  • The belief that there is no way to know what is true is itself a strong claim to truth. Consider the statement: "There is no way to know what is true - in a final way." That statement is either true or false. Its truth or falsity is "final" in the sense that it applies to everybody. If anyone thinks that statement is true, they do so in a "final way." For how odd it would be to say that this statement is true, but not "finally" so, which means in the future it could be false.
Tensions rise in the classroom when I say things like "It is true that the lights in this room are now on." Worldviews are being shattered when I begin to talk about properly basic, "bedrock" beliefs, such as "1+1=2," a statement which everyone believes but not one of my students can prove. If someone says, "Well, we can't be sure that '1+1=2'... it might not be true," or "I am not sure that '1+1=2,'" I then tell them, if you think that, say, "1+1 = 3," then I want to exchange money with you all day.