By Ron Cooper

Presidential Address of the 45th Annual Meeting

of the Florida Philosophical Association

Ron Cooper, Central Florida Community College

A couple of years ago a student in my ethics class stopped by my office about half-way through the semester. Rachel was a very bright young woman—quiet and reserved, but her test scores were quite high. She told me that she had taken the course on the recommendation of a friend who was “into” philosophy, and although she enjoyed the class, she had hoped that we would discuss other subjects: the mind, the truth about life after death, the nature of time, “more metaphysical things” as she put it. “What you want is introduction to philosophy,” I told her. And she was delighted to find out that she could take my introduction to philosophy class the next semester.

Rachel made an “A” in ethics, and sure enough I saw her the next semester in introduction to philosophy. Again, about half-way through the semester she stopped by my office to express her disappointment. It turned out that when Rachel had told me that she was interested in the mind, she meant, as she put it “the 90% of the mind that we don’t use, that can be used for ESP.” By life after death, she meant near-death and out-of-body experiences, and by the nature of time, she had meant the fact that time is, as she said, “not really real, since people like Nostradamus are able to see into the future.”

In the old screwball comedy films of the forties, it was possible to slap somebody across the cheek, give ’em a good shaking, holler “Snap out of it!” and they’d come to their senses. Too bad that doesn’t work with all the Rachels of the world, who are perhaps genuine seekers who want to get things figured out, but go about it the wrong way. Perhaps the same sense of wonder that led us to lives of philosophical study and leads others to physics or biology or history, sometimes leads down the path to wierdo-ville. But shouldn’t education set people on the right path, one that doesn’t lead them to call Dionne Warwick’s Psychic Friends’ Hotline, at $5 a minute?

Through further discussion I found that Rachel was a science major—she had taken biology, chemistry, geology, and was currently enrolled in physics. She made an “A” in each of them. Why hadn’t she learned something about the scientific method, about how to evaluate evidence, about how to tell a good theory from a bad one?

Perhaps Rachel is just a victim of her generation, the so-called Generation X. You may have read Peter Sacks’ book Generation X Goes to College: An Eye-Opening Account of Teaching in Postmodern America, in which a journalist turned academic describes how his dreams of the joyous fulfillment that comes from seeing young minds inspired were soon dashed by row upon row of blank faces under backwards baseball caps. Many of his complaints are familiar: the students won’t read their assignments, they won’t participate in class, they refuse to believe that the material is relevant, they answer their cell phones in class, etc. What’s worse than their apathy, writes Sacks, is that Generation X has given up on truth. Belief in alien abductions, astrology, or angels watching over them is as valid to Xers as anything else. A professor who uses phrases such as “really happened,” “is the case,” or “can know with certainty” is dismissed. But Sacks thinks that we can’t really blame them. They move about in a world without absolutes, a world that, for complicated reasons, has been a long time coming.

Maybe things aren’t really so bad. After all, my professors probably said the same about my generation when I was an undergraduate 20 years ago. And for those of you who were undergraduates 40 years ago, THE SAME WAS PROBABLY SAID OF YOU. There is a short piece of writing from ancient Sumer over 4,000 years old complaining that the youth were even dumber than the previous generation. And we all remember Plato’s lament in the Laws that Greeks of his day were scientifically and mathematically illiterate.

But we’re in a different boat. We live in the best-educated age the world has ever known. Until a couple of centuries ago, literacy world-over was the privilege of a tiny elite class. Today, there is no one in the United States who can’t read because of lack of access to education. Ninety percent of Americans finish high school, forty percent go to college, and over twenty percent of all Americans complete college. You’d expect that ordinary folks would know something about science, something about history, and maybe even, dare I suggest, a thing or two about philosophy. If despite modern-day education, we can still with some legitimacy complain about how clueless the present generation is, what can we do about it? What can we as philosophers do about it?

happen to think that there is something to Peter Sacks’ evaluation of Generation X, but I think it is not restricted to young people. I think that, as educators, we have failed for a long time to offer guidance on how to think about the big questions. We have especially failed as philosophers to provide that guidance. There is a seeker somewhere within us all, but sometimes that search gets diverted, as with my student Rachel. Sometimes the payoff of the search doesn’t seem worth the effort, as with members of Generation X. Some people think they’ve completed the search and are busy trying to direct us down their paths, as with religious zealots. But what you won’t find on the search is a philosopher sitting at the desk of the welcome center handing out maps.

I’m not very sure anymore about what use we serve as philosophers. How many Americans with college degrees can even name a philosopher? They might remember Plato or Descartes from a class they took years before, but could any of them name one from this century, much less a living one? Peter Singer may be the only living philosopher who’s had any effect on the public—far more than anyone else he’s convinced hundreds of thousands of people world-wide to take animal welfare seriously. Unfortunately, most people in this country probably know him better as that philosopher up at Princeton who wants to kill all the babies! We’re all convinced that what we do as philosophers is important and that Carnap and Wittgenstein and Husserl and Derrida are important people—and we’re right, on a certain level. Those “big guys” made tremendous contributions to philosophy, and when we publish another article in a journal or read a paper at a conference like this, we too make contributions to philosophy. But do we do anything more? Could we do anything more?

At the 20th World Philosophy Congress held in Boston just over a year ago (some of you attended), a panel of eminent thinkers was asked what we’ve learned from philosophy this century. W.V. Quine, may his name be blessed, passed on the question! The other panelists just hemmed and hawed too. The fact is that many of the answers to the big perennial questions have come, not from philosophy, but from science. The nature of matter is the domain of quantum physics, time and space are described by relativity theory, philosophy of mind is largely responses to neuroscience, and the origin of the universe is sorted out by astronomers.

Now if you ask a panel of eminent scientists about what science has done in this century, you get some straightforward answers. What’s more, ordinary Americans know something about these things, because they have enormous influence in our daily lives. Perhaps most important is in medicine. Many diseases that were fatal only a century ago, like leukemia and diabetes, are now treatable. Many have been virtually eradicated, like small pox, cholera, black plague, and polio. A hundred years ago there was little that could be done to save the life of a prematurely born infant. And if you had a heart attack at age 35, there was no one standing nearby who took a three hour course in CPR at the local community education center who could save your life.

Scientists discovered DNA, cloned sheep, sent astronauts to the moon, created radios, TVs, and computers. Where were philosophers when the major advances of this century were made? Not needed! Enormous social progress has been made, too. But who led the battles for human rights around the world? Heidegger? Let’s not kid ourselves: who’d want to invite us to the shaping-of-the-millennium party anyway when we have the reputation of never being able to agree on anything? (Which, of course, is true.) We used to be the people who asked the big questions, about the meaning of life, about death, the existence of God—questions that we used to claim should be asked by everyone. But when a student asks us about the meaning of life, say, we’re more likely to rattle on about the meaning of the term “meaning” than to offer some real help.

So what can we expect from philosophy in the next millennium? Let me make it clear that I hope we continue to do what we do already, even though nobody else gives a damn. But other than our discussions with each other in the philosophical journals and at conferences, is there something else we should be doing, some sort of practical contribution to society? People do want answers to the big questions, but they usually find them coming from science. Whatever’s left over, they leave up to their religion or to Dionne Warwick. My concern is not so much that Americans don’t know any science, although that’s a serious problem, too. Two-thirds of American adults don’t know that dinosaurs died before humans appeared. Three-quarters don’t know that the sun is a star. One-half don’t know that it takes a year for the Earth to orbit the sun. The more serious concern is that most people don’t know how science works. And it’s there that I think we have our niche. We’re in the midst of rapid technological advance that will continue at an ever-increasing pace in the next century. Because of this, more than ever, philosophers are needed. Our job (in addition to traditional philosophical discussion) will be to explain to the public the scientific method, broadly conceived, so that the public will be better equipped to (1) distinguish science from technology so that they can make informed ethical decisions, (2) distinguish science from religion so that they can free themselves from superstition, and (3) distinguish science from pseudoscience so that they can take better control of their own lives.

Now why should this be our problem? Well, because we do it better than anyone else. Nobel laureate Peter Medawar said it best: “Ask a scientist what he conceives the scientific method to be and he will adopt an expression at once solemn and shifty-eyed: solemn, because he feels he ought to declare an opinion; shifty-eyed, because he is wondering how to conceal the fact that he has no opinion to declare.” Scientists are especially good at making and reporting discoveries, at formulating hypotheses and testing theories, but they’re god-awful at articulating how they do it. Ordinary folk commonly speak of “taking a scientific look at” something, or going about an inquiry “scientifically,” but they really don’t know what this means. It’s high time for somebody to explain why the scientific method works and how it is not a separate enterprise from establishing truth and probability in all manner of daily affairs. If philosophers are concerned with protecting our society from the threat of technopoly, the false promises and intolerance of religion, and the lies of pseudoscience, that somebody is us.

Science is a two-edged sword, and we can readily see the promise and danger of the modernist, scientific world-view in the work of Francis Bacon. More than anyone else, Bacon helped create the scientific method, but his work is a call to arms to rush into nature and force from it the information that will allow us to harness the world’s powers, for “Truth therefore and utility are here the very same things….” His writing is replete with the language of violence as it rouses us to take command of an unruly nature, for only when “she is forced out of her natural state, and squeezed and moulded” can we understand her. He even speaks of an “inquisition of nature” whereby it is put on the rack and tortured and forced to yield its mysteries, and the scientific method that he helped to invent is the way to unveil nature’s “feminine” secrets, for “there are still laid up in the womb of nature many secrets of excellent use.” Bacon says that he is suggesting only that “the human race recover that right over nature which belongs to it by divine bequest.” To him, science and technology are identical.

Although I am praising the scientific method and scientific progress in general, I am also pointing out that the technology produced by science has also given us thalidomide, nuclear weapons, DDT, and chlorofluorocarbons. The same technology that has doubled the world-wide human life expectancy in a century and a half now forces all of us to confront painful end-of-life decisions, since we can extend lives virtually indefinitely. No better than scientists do ordinary folk clearly distinguish science and technology, and when they become aware of ethical dilemmas created by technology, they turn to scientists for answers. This is especially true in the case of environmental ethics. Philosophers have not responded well, for environmental philosophy has so far been largely uncritical of Bacon’s central modernist contention 1 simply because it has faithfully taken the findings of science as the only way of defining our ecological problems, and indeed as our only hope for correcting those problems.

I’m suggesting that an important service of philosophy in the near future will be to inform the public that science and technology are separate, that the ethical issues created by technology are not answered by technology, and that the most pressing of these issues is to help the public make sense of environmental ethics.

A better understanding of how scientific research proceeds, how theories are weighed, how discoveries are made, and how evidence is evaluated can also help in deciding what is sensible and what should be rejected regarding the claims of religion. The diplomatic view is that science and religion do not conflict: with just a little chipping away at most believers’ tendency toward literalism, they will agree that scriptures offer no historical accounts, but are really attempts to convey spiritual wisdom clothed in the garb of myth. Creation stories, resurrections from the dead, miraculous healings, are not to be understood as actual events but as heuristic devices illustrating somehow a deeper meaning of human existence. Well, it would be nice if believers really thought this way. While some religions do not ask that you accept their myths at face value (there are very few Hindus, for example, who would claim that Vishnu in his incarnation as Rama actually fought a ten-headed monster with the help of a magic monkey), the great majority of mainstream members of western religions are quite firm in their conviction that scientists routinely make claims that conflict with the tenets of faith. After all, 70% of all Americans believe that Adam & Eve were real people and that Noah’s flood really occurred.

A century after Nietzsche’s death, God is alive and well in the United States. A 1996 Gallup poll reported that 96% of American adults believe in God, 90% believe in heaven, 80% believe in miracles, 73% believe in hell, 72% believe in angels, and 65% believe in Satan. Now education makes a difference, but not as much as you might expect. Belief in heaven, for example, breaks down like this: 94% for those with no college; 90% for those with some college; 80% for college graduates; 75% for those with graduate degrees.

It’s not so much belief in God that bothers me. Personally, I’m not a believer, although at times there are some process thinkers, especially Charles Hartshorne, whom I think might be onto something. But I’m not addressing the plausibility of the views discussed within philosophical theology. I worry about the rank and file believers for whom belief in God comes as part and parcel of a world view that allows for all manner of superstition, intolerance, and exploitation.

Take the belief in miracles. Christians world-wide seem to think that religion demands belief in miracles. A good example is the claimed appearance of the Virgin Mary at Lourdes in 1858. She appeared, witnesses said, to declare that her birth had indeed been due to immaculate conception. This was good timing, by the way, because Pope Pious IX had just proclaimed the doctrine three years earlier. Since then, over 100 million people have visited the site to be cured of various diseases. Now the Catholic Church has accepted 65 of those as true, miraculous cures. So according to the Church, your chances of miraculous cure at Lourdes are less than 1 in a million! Now the chances of spontaneous remission of cancer (when you lump together all forms of cancer) are from 1 out of 10 thousand to 1 out of 100 thousand. Now only three of those 65 people deemed cured at Lourdes had cancer. So, their chances of beating cancer would have been better had they stayed home!

This sort of irrationality presents unlimited opportunities for exploitation from charlatans like faith healers. One of my heroes is James Randi, also known as the “Amazing Randi.” He is a world-class magician who has tirelessly exposed frauds for over thirty years. His James Randi Educational Foundation is just up the road in Ft. Lauderdale. One of his famous feats was when he exposed a popular faith healer named Peter Popoff in the 80s. Popoff appeared to be able to divine ailments of audience members who would then come up to the stage for a curing. Randi discovered that Popoff’s wife worked the crowd by having them fill out little cards, and then she’d transmit the information by radio from backstage to her husband who listened in through his “hearing aid.” (Why would a faith healer need a hearing aid?) Randi played a videotape complete with the radio transmissions on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and Popoff was ruined. However, Randi received hundreds of letters from Popoff’s ex-followers thanking him for exposing Popoff. Now, they said, they’d turned to other faith healers whom they know to be honest. Popoff, by the way, has recently recovered and is back up to his old tricks again, and he’s doing fine now.

We have scientology, founded by the science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard who bragged to his friends in the late 50s that he’d invented a religion and was on his way to making millions. We have Hal Lindsey who continues to exploit religious people’s apocalyptic fears as he did in his book The Late Great Planet Earth, which has sold over 20 million copies! We have perennial presidential hopeful Pat Robertson with his multi-million-dollar enterprise the Christian Broadcasting Network, who urges viewers to send in their donations to help fight the satanist-communist powers in Washington, to make sure that we can survive Y2K catastrophes (because computers are somehow the mark of the beast), and to ensure that we can arm ourselves in the soon-to-come battle of Armageddon.

There are other religious currents that may not be based on exploitation but can be just as dangerous in other ways. Christian Scientists have recently endorsed quantum physics as proof of their belief that matter is not real and thus disease is illusory—this from a church that has consistently rejected physics for the entire century. There is the growing movement of the Promise Keepers. Openly anti-gay and anti-feminist, they urge men to reclaim their role as the head of the household and urge women to become “suitable helpers” for their husbands.

If you think that such currents are only minor disturbances that do not really count as evidence of any real threat, since we have a firm constitutional guarantee of the separation of church and state, think again. Earlier this year the state of Kansas removed evolution from its public schools’ science standards. (Toto, I’m not sure where the hell we are.) In 1996 Arizona did the same. Things have since gotten a little better there, because science teachers appealed to the very same “equal time” notion that creationists have championed so often. We all know that these situations arise not because of good evidence from alternative scientific views but from religious fundamentalists. By the way, 45% of Americans say that they “accept evolution,” but only 9% say that they accept the view that humans evolved from now extinct forms. On June 29th of this year (1999, Eds.), the United States House of representatives voted 275 to 140 in favor of establishing a national day of prayer and fasting—it failed only because House rules require a 2/3 majority for certain kinds of legislation. Here in Florida we have our school voucher program, which allows public funds to be used to send children to private, that is, religious (and usually racially segregated) schools.

So my complaint about religion is not just that it makes unreasonable claims that are nevertheless believed by so many because they don’t understand the scientific approach, but more that the stench of that irrationality draws the flies of exploitation and breeds the vermin that chew away at secular government. (Sorry—I was feeling a little Voltairesque there.) My worry about religion is not very different from my concern about other forms of irrationality. The turn of the millennium has produced plenty of religious looney toons predicting doomsday, just like other self-proclaimed prophets have done for centuries. But what we’ve really witnessed in this decade is an enormous growth in the public’s interest in pseudoscience. Over half of all Americans believe in astrology, ESP, and communication with the dead. One-third say that they’ve seen ghosts. Two-thirds say that they’ve had a psychic experience. One-third believe in Atlantis, and one-quarter believe that aliens visit our planet. Who can blame them? The newspapers publish astrological charts, psychics advertise in Psychology Today magazine, popular bookstores often devote a shelf to philosophy/new age, and the commercials for Dionne Warwick’s Psychic Friends’ Hotline are filled with the happy testimonials of toothy celebrities and chirpy callers. There has been a lot of talk lately about the popularity of the TV show the X Files, in which in nearly every episode another paranormal incident is investigated and left unsolved, implying that the only explanation is a supernatural one. This is a far cry from Scooby Doo, a kids’ cartoon from 30 years ago which is still a regular feature on Cartoon Network. The Scooby Doo Gang always solved the mystery by exposing the perpetrator as a very natural villain who had avoided detection by playing upon the local folk’s proclivity for superstition.

Perhaps trying to correct public belief in the paranormal is to tilt at windmills. In The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Gibbon wrote that “the practice of superstition is so congenial to the multitude that, if they are forcibly awakened, they still regret the loss of their pleasing vision…. So urgent on the vulgar is their necessity of believing, that the fall of any system of mythology will most probably be succeeded by the introduction of some other mode of superstition.” How else do we explain the persistent belief in a supernatural cause for crop circles when it’s been shown time and again that they are made by pranksters? Why the continued (and recently increased) interest in Nostradamus despite his hopelessly nebulous French and despite the fact that his supporters claim proof that his prophecies are accurate only after the supposed events have occurred? I recently remarked to a colleague that alien abductions are just today’s version of the incubi and succubi of the Middle Ages. The same fears were expressed by the ancient Greeks whose gods had sex with mortal women, and the ancient Hebrews, whose book of Genesis mentions the “sons of God” who took wives from the daughters of men. My colleague’s serious reply was that that was not evidence against alien abductions, but that it only proved that alien abductions have been going on for thousands of years!

Perhaps our tendency to seek patterns where there are none, to draw conclusions from the thinnest of evidence, and to wish so hard for comfort that we find it in the least welcoming places is hardwired into our brains. How else do we explain the voluntary assent to the patently ludicrous ideas and the astonishing behavior of cults like Heaven’s Gate? Are these just cranks who were victims of their own stupidity, or are they evidence of our being programmed to be readily manipulated? Perhaps these traits are somehow evolutionarily connected with certain forms of creativity that are as responsible for glorious achievement as they are for dismal folly.

There is an overlap in paranormal and religious beliefs, of course. Many people draw religious implications from research on near-death and out-of-body experiences. The reports of these experiences, they say, provide evidence that we survive death. Books by Raymond Moody sell millions, but the same is not true of books by skeptics like British parapsychologist Susan Blackmore. Blackmore points out that such experiences are caused by neural disinhibition and can be induced by LSD, a bang on the head, or a lack of oxygen. Fighter pilots in training experience them regularly when subjected to high g-forces. But what’s more important is that Blackmore left her old field of study when she became fed up with the sloppiness involved in parapsychological research—it just wasn’t science at all.

Other areas of pseudoscience don’t appeal to religious tendencies so much as they simply resemble, on the surface, real science. Medical quackery runs the gamut from psychic surgery in the Philippines (in which the desperately ill spend thousands of dollars to have a sleight-of-hand artist produce a few chicken parts and proclaim the patient cured, who then returns home to die) to Deepak Chopra (who appears on his PBS specials, handsome and sophisticated, and tells you that in order to feel good you just have to, well, feel good). In between there’s therapeutic touch, debunked by a nine-year-old girl’s simple experiment published in a prestigious medical journal, yet still taught in numerous nursing programs around the country. There are homeopathic medicines, which claim to work on two principles: (1) induce the opposite of the desired effect—if you have insomnia, you need some caffeine; and (2) dilute the active ingredient until it has probably disappeared—if the active ingredient in your insomnia remedy is caffeine, the bottle is likely to tell you that there is a solution of 6x, which means one part caffeine to one million parts water. So what you get is, well, very pure water—so it can’t hurt.

Another medical humbug is the very popular use of magnets, for which there has been a number of endorsements by famous sports figures. I have a friend who used to work as a horse trainer (I live in Ocala, which is horse country). He began selling blankets and leg wrappings with magnets in them to horse owners, who tend to be highly superstitious anyway. They’re supposed to make the horse feel peppy and run faster or something. He then branched out into a line of products made for humans: magnetized bracelets, shoe inserts, underwear, what have you. He explained to me that the human body is really a big magnet, and the products he sold enhanced and re-aligned our bodies’ electromagnetic charges. But if the body is magnet, I asked, why do we need a bracelet to hold his magnets on? Wouldn’t they just stick to us? It’s a lot more complicated, he replied, it has to do with physics and all that. I took one of his belts that are used for the relief of back pain, slid a magnet out from its little pocket in the belt, and stuck it to a metal filing cabinet. Then I took a few sheets of paper, about a dozen, and placed them between the cabinet and the magnet, but then the magnet wouldn’t hold. It seems unlikely to me, I told him, that the magnetic force would penetrate the skin (which is quite thick on your back); so it wouldn’t seem to have any effect on the muscles beneath. But it will, he answered, after the skin itself becomes charged, which might take an hour or two, and in turn magnetizes the muscles below. You can guess where that conversation went, and his magnet business is doing fine now.

The Federal Drug Administration is virtually powerless to regulate these sorts of swindles, because most of them existed before the agency was created and so have been grandfathered in. It’s even tougher to protect the public from all the garbage that passes for psychological counseling. The most popular explanation in this decade for why we’re all emotional wrecks is childhood sexual abuse. The top-ten ailments that are commonly cited as evidence of childhood sexual abuse are: headaches, sleeplessness, overeating, vague anxieties, too much affection for one’s parents, lack of sexual desire, too much sexual desire, having sought psychotherapy, having avoided psychotherapy, and (number one) the inability to remember childhood sexual abuse.

I have no illusions about philosophers saving the world. Nor do I pretend to know what’s best for philosophy. But I do think that our society is facing challenges that will amplify in the next century. The responses to those challenges require a certain expertise, and we have that expertise. Merleau-Ponty characterized philosophy as vigilance. Perhaps we can pass along some of that.

My student Rachel graduated last year and is now in our nursing program. She drops by my office every week or so to talk philosophy. She’s become really interested in philosophy of mind—she says that Daniel Dennett “rocks.” She’s also come to see that all those science courses she took supplied her with much more than a body of “facts.” She now considers a terrestrial life form like an amoeba more interesting than any purported alien form. She still believes that celestial bodies exert powerful influences, but she knows that those forces are the stuff of astronomical observation and not astrological dreams. And although it wasn’t apparent then, her geology class taught her something about how to tell not just shale from Shine-o-la. I like to think that Rachel’s transformation is due to what she learned in philosophy class and in private conversations with me about philosophy. She’s still a seeker, but I’m much more confident now that her searches will lead her to something worth finding. Now if I can just get her away from Dennett!


  1. Editors’ Note: Feminist theorists have been and are addressing this problem in ways different from the stereotypical modernist approach(es).

Ron Cooper

Ron Cooper, a South Carolina native, holds a Ph.D. from Rutgers University and has taught at Central Florida Community College since 1995. He is the author of Heidegger and Whitehead: A Phenomenological Examination into the Intelligibility of Experience (Ohio University Press, 1993) and essays primarily on phenomenology and environmental philosophy. He has recently completed a novel entitled Hume’s Fork.