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Dr. Barbara Forrest: Philosophy Professor, Southeastern Louisiana University & Member, NCSE Board of Directors

November 1, 2013

Interviewer: Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Numbering: Issue 3.A, Idea: Women in Academia (Part Two)

Place of Publication: Langley, British Columbia, Canada

Title: In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Undergraduate Journal

Web Domain: http://www.in-sightjournal.com

Individual Publication Date: November 1, 2013

Issue Publication Date: January 1, 2014

Name of Publisher: In-Sight Publishing

Frequency: Three Times Per Year

Words: 4,978

ISSN 2369-6885

Forrest November 2009

1. What academic positions have you held? What academic positions do you currently hold?

My current position is Professor of Philosophy in the Department of History and Political Science at Southeastern Louisiana University, where I have worked since I began teaching in 1981. I started as a part-time philosophy instructor and remained in that position for seven years until I completed my Ph.D. in philosophy at Tulane University in 1988. That year, the university created a tenure-track position for me as an assistant professor in philosophy, making me the first full-time, credentialed philosopher Southeastern ever hired. I earned tenure and promotion to associate professor in 1994, and ten years later I was promoted to full professor.

2. How was your youth? How did you come to this point? 

I was born and grew up in Hammond, Louisiana, a small city of 10,000 people that was the epitome of what people typically understand as the “deep South.” I was a bookworm and spent most of my spare time reading. Growing up in the 1950s and 60s, my childhood and adolescence were shaped mostly by the civil rights struggle, which was taking place in my own immediate area and throughout the South. I watched my town change from one in which the public schools were segregated to one in which both white and African-American children attended school together. I was among the first group of students to attend high school under the federal desegregation order, which, believe it or not, is still in effect in my old school district. So my early life was shaped by issues of social justice, particularly concerning race.

3. What was your original dream?  If it changed, how did it change?  Furthermore, what changed it?

My earliest career plan, my “dream,” was to become a physician. This dream was rooted in my concern for social justice and the deep religious faith that I had during childhood and adolescence. My role model was Dr. Albert Schweitzer, the famous Alsatian physician and theologian who left his life in Europe to run a hospital at Lambaréné in French Equatorial Africa. One of the highlights of my childhood was receiving a reply from his secretary to a letter I had sent to him in Lambaréné — several years after I wrote the letter! During recess in the sixth grade, I used to sit on the sidelines and read books about medicine rather than play with the other kids. I was a “nerd” before that word even existed! But at some point my goals changed. I had little aptitude for mathematics, which I knew that I would need in the study of the sciences necessary to medicine. I was also by nature more suited to teaching, and tackling the problem of ignorance was a very pressing concern to me since I was literally surrounded by it in the form of racism. I was extremely idealistic! So I went for the Ph.D. rather than the M.D. One of my sons is a physician, but he’s much better at math than I was!

4. When did Philosophy interest you?

I began taking philosophy courses when I was about halfway through college. My original goal was to become a high school English teacher since I loved books and had wonderful English teachers in the public schools I attended. I married at eighteen, so I was married when I started college. (And I am still married to the same guy after 43 years!) My husband urged me to take at least one philosophy course before I graduated, as he had done: “Everyone ought to take a philosophy course.” So my husband actually gets the credit for steering me toward my profession.

I was an English major and had always loved reading fiction. I loved “highbrow” fiction such as the novels of Thomas Hardy and philosophical poetry such as Alexander Pope’s “Essay on Man,” so I was clearly leaning in the direction of philosophy although I didn’t know it. I didn’t know anything about philosophy and had never considered taking any courses. So at my husband’s suggestion, I took a class and was hooked immediately. I loved ideas, and I thought that this was what would save mankind: using great ideas to overcome ignorance. As I said earlier, I was really idealistic.

I became certified to teach high school English, but my student teaching was enough to convince me that I didn’t want to spend my life disciplining other people’s children! I went straight to graduate school in philosophy and never looked back.

5. Where did you acquire your education?

I attended public schools in Hammond, where I grew up. Family circumstances required that I attend college and graduate school in my immediate area, so I was fortunate to live near public universities. The taxpayers of Louisiana provided me with scholarships, which enabled me to earn my B.A. in English at Southeastern, where I now work, and my M.A. in philosophy at Louisiana State University. I earned my Ph.D. in philosophy at Tulane University in New Orleans. Tulane was, and still is, the only Louisiana university to offer a Ph.D. in philosophy. Fortunately, I live only about an hour away, so I could drive to my classes and go home at night. My husband worked full-time for the state of Louisiana, but we also operated a commercial poultry farm that he inherited from his parents. We used the farm income to pay for our doctoral degrees. I am probably the only person in the history of Tulane University who financed a Ph.D. in philosophy by raising chickens.

6. What kinds of research have you conducted up to the present?

Most of my scholarly research has revolved around the issue of creationism, although I didn’t start out with that intention. Events in Louisiana — including a creationist threat to my own children’s science education — steered me in that direction. Fortunately, I was well prepared to write about creationism since my doctoral dissertation was about Sidney Hook’s philosophy of education. Hook was John Dewey’s most prominent disciple and worked closely with him, so I studied Dewey as well. They wrote extensively and insightfully about the importance of science and democracy to public education and about other, related public policy issues. These three concerns — science, democracy, and public education — were interwoven into much of their philosophical work.

I corresponded with Hook while writing my dissertation and eventually went to visit him; he helped me enormously. I learned from him that philosophers must understand the way the world outside the academy works if they want their professional work to be useful to people other than their fellow philosophers and if they want to be involved in policy issues. I have never wanted to be isolated in the “ivory tower,” producing publications that would be read only by other philosophers. I have always wanted my work to be useful to people outside my discipline. I also learned from Hook that careful attention to empirical data is essential to producing informed philosophical work. (Hook read avidly about history and science.) Finally, Hook was a master of clear, incisive analysis of other people’s ideas. Studying Sidney Hook’s work prepared me for writing about creationism.

I have also published on the subjects of philosophical and methodological naturalism, which was also one of Hook’s central concerns. Methodological naturalism is the procedural stance of the scientist, who is limited to seeking natural explanations for the natural world. Science doesn’t work when unverifiable supernatural concepts are incorporated into it. Philosophical naturalism, on the other hand, is a metaphysical view that excludes the supernatural. Scientists need not — and many do not — adopt naturalism as a personal worldview, even though they must leave the supernatural out of their work as scientists. They can be both good scientists and faithful believers as long as they respect the procedural limitations of their science and the epistemological limitations of their faith.

Creationists, however, especially the intelligent design creationists about whom I have written so much, deliberately conflate philosophical and methodological naturalism. They argue that leaving God out of scientific explanations is tantamount to personal atheism. So my concern as a researcher has been to clarify the relationship between philosophical and methodological naturalism. I argue that although philosophical naturalism rests on what we have learned about the world through the naturalistic methodology of science, methodological naturalism does not, conversely, require philosophical naturalism as a personal worldview because it does not exclude the logical possibility of the supernatural. I think that this is the most accurate and intellectually honest position to take even though I myself am no longer religious.

Finally, I have applied my research concerning creationism and naturalism to the discussion of public policy in regard to public education and the separation of church and state. These were natural extensions of my research into creationism.

7. If you currently conduct research, what form does it take?

I am not currently doing any research. My answer to this question is not what you expected, but I hope that you will print it. It illuminates what is happening across the United States to institutions whose operating budgets — hence whose students and faculty — are bearing the brunt of a conservative political philosophy that treats public universities, young people, and teachers as liabilities rather than assets. Ultimately, American society will pay a high price for this shortsightedness.

Louisiana is governed by a conservative Republican, Bobby Jindal, who treats public institutions as a liability rather than an investment in the future. In only five years, he has cut $650 million from public universities while privatizing state services and giving hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks to out-of-state companies. My university alone has absorbed $48 million in cuts since 2008. As a result, the university revoked reassigned time for faculty research, and teaching loads have increased. Despite being a tenured full professor who has published extensively in both scholarly and popular venues, I now have the teaching load of a beginning tenure-track instructor. I absolutely love teaching, but my philosophy colleague and I are currently teaching a total of nine undergraduate courses this semester alone. So my teaching load leaves me no time for research, despite the fact that I have achieved an international reputation for my work.

I am proof of the value of public schools and universities, having more than repaid the investment that my fellow citizens made in my education. Moreover, my work has been useful to people outside my discipline, which is something that I think most philosophers cannot say. The book I co-authored with scientist Paul R. Gross, Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design, was a central resource for the plaintiffs’ attorneys in the first legal case involving intelligent design creationism, Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School District (2005).

But because of the current political priorities in Louisiana, I have no time for research any more, despite the fact that I could still be doing productive scholarly work. On the other hand, I now have the luxury of reading books that I want to read for my own enjoyment. And my first grandchild was born recently, so I am delighted to have more time to be his grandmother!

8. If you had infinite funding and full academic freedom, what would you research? 

I am fortunate to already have full academic freedom at Southeastern. The university has been wonderfully supportive of my work, despite its being more controversial than what professors typically do. I would be quite happy with just enough funding for a one-course-per-semester teaching reduction! But if I had infinite funding, I would establish a research center for finding effective ways to counteract the influence of the Religious Right — specifically, the Christian Right — in American education, culture, and government policy. That’s a tall order, I admit. However, I see the Religious Right as one of the most destructive and pernicious influences in America today. It is the force behind creationism, anti-gay bigotry, and some types of mean-spirited economic policies. If I had infinite funding, I would use it to support focused, results-oriented research by philosophers and other scholars, journalists, and policy analysts in an effort to find effective ways to get past this perennial problem in American life.

Please note: I am not saying that religion is the most pernicious influence in America. I don’t believe that. Although religion has been a divisive force throughout most of human history, it is also a fascinating and important aspect of human experience. Having once been very devout myself, I have been on both sides of the religious divide and understand both sides. But the Religious Right has infused American culture and politics with bigotry and ignorance. Counteracting its agenda has required the expenditure of both time and money by people and organizations that otherwise could have and should have been doing more productive work. So the country needs a well-integrated, long-term commitment by people who can focus exclusively on how to help the country transcend the Religious Right’s influence. Even with infinite funding and infinite academic freedom, I couldn’t do that all by myself!

9. Since you began studying Philosophy, what do you consider the controversial topics? How do you examine the controversial topics?

I think that the most controversial topics concern the theory of knowledge, or epistemology.  Both historically and today, the ways in which people claim to know things have influenced everything that humans do, from founding religions to running governments. Knowledge claims also shape our moral conduct. Depending on what the answers to epistemological questions are, human beings can either benefit greatly or suffer terribly at each other’s hands.

The two most basic epistemological questions are these: (1) What truly qualifies as knowledge? and (2) How do humans acquire it? Given the fact that humans must get things done together on the basis of shared understandings of the world, nothing is more important than clarifying what it truly means to know something and creating a body of shared, publicly accessible knowledge. Actually, we already know how to do both of these things, but few people outside philosophy are either familiar with or concerned about epistemological questions. I was flabbergasted to read in Barack Obama’s book, The Audacity of Hope, his insightful discussion of precisely this issue. He understands that “the best we can do is to act in accordance with those things that are possible for all of us to know, understanding that a part of what we know to be true — as individuals or communities of faith — will be true for us alone” (p. 220). We cannot build public policy on private, hence unverifiable, religious experience, even if it is a genuine epistemic state. But such epistemological awareness is unusual in anyone outside academia, much less politicians.

There are only four basic ways in which people can claim to know things: (a) supernatural revelation, (b) some form of intuition, (c) rational reflection (reason), and (d) sense experience. The first two are highly problematic because they are by definition private and unverifiable. Revelation requires the psychological influence of charismatic leaders and the power of authoritative institutions to convince people of its truth. Intuition, similarly, can be used to assert literally anything without any accountability for one’s claims. So that leaves reason — or rational reflection, which everyone can do — and sense experience, which everyone naturally has, as the only reliable sources of knowledge. All humans have the natural equipment for those. Whatever progress humanity has made during our collective history has come from those two sources.

I see the lack of understanding of epistemological issues as at least part of the reason that the Religious Right has been able to accumulate the influence that it has. (But the problem is much more complicated than that.) People such as Tony Perkins, who runs the Family Research Council, promote harmful, insidious ideas that are unsupported by any rationally defensible arguments or evidence. The beliefs that Perkins and his FRC associates promote, such as the false claim that gay people are more likely to be pedophiles, are fuelled and funded by their supporters’ uncritical acceptance of their claims.

Consequently, in some of my work I have examined the issue of how public policy — for example, concerning the teaching of evolution in public schools — is shaped (or mis-shaped) by ideas about what qualifies as knowledge.

10. How would you describe your early philosophical framework? Did it change? If so, how did it change?

I am by nature a generalist. I think that the study of philosophy is enriched by integrating data from history, science, and other disciplines into it. I never teach my students about any philosopher without first setting up the broader context in which the philosopher’s work was done. This makes philosophy much more accessible to students. So I have always been drawn to philosophers who were interdisciplinary thinkers and who made a conscious effort to make their work accessible and useful to people outside philosophy. The greatest philosophers — for example, Plato, Aristotle, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, and others — addressed societal issues, and they interacted with people other than philosophers. These thinkers were broadly knowledgeable in areas other than their own disciplines. In addition to their purely philosophical work, they used their expertise to address matters of concern to their fellow citizens. This is why they are still worth studying.

So I began my formal study of philosophy with a strong attraction to whatever kind of philosophy would be useful in helping to solve “real-world” problems. The philosophers I studied who most effectively addressed such problems were the pragmatic naturalists, especially Sidney Hook and John Dewey, who understood, among other things, the importance of science and public education to democracy. They weren’t narrow specialists. I also studied some of their like-minded colleagues such as philosopher of science Ernest Nagel. Hook and Dewey’s pragmatic naturalism was a natural fit for me since I already leaned strongly in that direction. Of all the modern philosophers I have studied, their work made the most sense to me and still does. So I have not had any major shifts in my own philosophical framework.

11. In 2007, you co-authored with Dr. Paul R. Gross Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design, what is the origin of the title?  What does the book depict?

Our editor at Oxford University Press suggested the main title, Creationism’s Trojan Horse. Although at first I thought it was trite, it captures the essence of the intelligent design (ID) creationism movement: ID is nothing more than the most recent variant of creationism, which its proponents promote as science to gullible people. Paul and I came up with the subtitle to capture the most important aspects of the book’s focus. The book actually grew out of my research into the Discovery Institute’s “wedge strategy,” which is its plan for promoting ID. The strategy is outlined in a 1998 document entitled “The Wedge,” which was aimed at prospective donors. I was able to authenticate this document, which was leaked and posted on the Internet, and to establish that most of the strategy was being executed — with the exception of producing real science, of course. Paul, who is a distinguished scientist, did a very thorough and careful critique of the “scientific” claims of ID proponents.

The book brings together a huge amount of evidence showing that the Discovery Institute’s aims and rationale for ID are — as stated in their own words — explicitly religious. The Discovery Institute’s primary aim is to create an opening in the public mind — analogous to using a metal wedge to split a log — for the idea that the supernatural is essential to scientific explanations. They also aim to get ID into the public school science curriculum by exploiting policy-making processes.

12. You served as a Plaintiff on the first legal case involving Intelligent Design, Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School District, in 2005. What events preceded the case?  How did the litigation proceedings conclude? What does this case entail for future legal battles of this kind?

I was so proud that my work resulted in my being called as an expert witness for the plaintiffs, all of whom were parents of children in the Dover, Pennsylvania, school system. In 2004, eleven parents sued the Dover school board in federal court for trying to present intelligent design to children as a scientific alternative to evolution. The school board members weren’t doing this because they knew anything at all about science. In fact, they were completely ignorant about the science. They simply had personal religious objections to teaching evolution and were determined to force their views into the science classrooms of Dover High School.

The litigation ended in December 2005 with a ruling in favor of the plaintiffs. Judge John E. Jones III ruled that because ID is creationism, it is a religious view and therefore cannot be taught in a public school science class. He issued a permanent injunction against the school board. Even though his ruling is legally binding only in the Middle District of Pennsylvania, it has already dissuaded school boards in other parts of the country from following suit.

Whenever and wherever the next ID legal case comes up, the first thing that the presiding judge will do is read Judge Jones’ Memorandum Opinion, which is a powerful and thorough decision that he wrote with future cases in mind.

13. In 2006, you were the co-recipient with Dr. Kenneth Miller of the Public Service Award from the American Society for Cell Biology.  What does this award mean to you?  What further responsibilities does the award entail?

This was a very nice award from the scientific community in appreciation for the work that both Kenneth Miller and I had done to defend the teaching of science. Ken was also a Kitzmiller expert witness. We were both involved in such work even before that case. To me, the award signified the fact that I was able to successfully put my philosophical training to use for the public good, which I had always wanted to do. My work was just as important in the Kitzmiller case as that of the scientists.

As for further responsibilities, the award didn’t formally require anything. But I view my work against creationism as a civic duty, so I have continued to do it. For example, I serve on the Board of Directors of the National Center for Science Education. I would have done the same things even if I hadn’t received the award.

14. Who most influenced you? Can you recommend any seminal books/articles by them?

Keeping the list to just a few is difficult. As I said earlier, I am a generalist. But I would have to say that the philosophers whose work most influenced me are Plato, Aristotle, David Hume, John Stuart Mill, and Sidney Hook. Their influence stems from their ability to use their expertise to illuminate issues outside philosophy.

In the Republic, Plato stressed philosophers’ civic obligation to their fellow citizens, who, through a public education system, provided them with the finest education available. Philosophers must therefore make a concerted effort to contribute to the public good in payment of this debt. The Republic has guided me throughout my career in this respect.

The other thinkers influenced me because of their interdisciplinary orientation to philosophy. They thought deeply and broadly about practical issues. Aristotle, for example, in his Nichomachean Ethics, offers a still-workable ethical system based on virtues of character acquired through one’s actions. He stresses the civic importance of virtuous conduct.

In An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, David Hume, who was a major figure in the Scottish Enlightenment, presciently recognized the need to study human cognitive faculties empirically in order to analyze their capabilities and shortcomings. In doing that, he illuminated the epistemological deficiencies of supernaturalist religion. He also analyzed religion as a human phenomenon in The Natural History of Religion. He respected (although he was not convinced by) its more rational aspects, reflected in traditional arguments for God’s existence, while warning against its irrational manifestations such as clerical charlatans and what we now call fundamentalism. A century later, John Stuart Mill, a 19th-century thinker who embodied the best aspects of the Enlightenment, offered one of the most powerful defenses of intellectual and personal freedom in the English language in On Liberty. Everyone should read that.

No one, however, influenced me more indelibly than Hook, who was one of the most important public intellectuals of the 20th century. He wrote with a clarity and incisiveness that made the most complex ideas understandable. He avoided unnecessary philosophical jargon and never lost his ability to communicate with non-academics. I think that this stemmed from his very humble beginnings in the slums of Brooklyn.

Hook’s essays in The Quest for Being and Other Studies in Naturalism and Humanism influenced my own philosophical work. (This book is available in pdf at Internet Archive: https://archive.org/details/sidneyhooktheque033567mbp.) He discussed diverse topics such as “Philosophy and Human Conduct,” “Modern Knowledge and the Concept of God,” and “Scientific Knowledge and ‘Philosophical’ Knowledge.” He was never jealous of his philosophical turf. He understood that science has deprived philosophy of most of the metaphysical territory that philosophers have considered uniquely their own and argued that philosophy is more than metaphysical pipe dreams (my term, not his!). In Philosophy and Public Policy, he states forthrightly that philosophers must take time to learn the relevant facts if they wish to contribute effectively to policy issues. This statement struck me as I was casually browsing through the book in the university library when I was in graduate school. Knowing how disconnected philosophers can be from life outside the academy, I never forgot it, especially in my work on intelligent design creationism.

15. Where do you see Philosophy going?

My answer here is shaped by the fact that, except for a few other philosophers who are involved in the creationism issue, I have actually worked more with scientists than philosophers. So my vantage point is mostly from outside the community of academic philosophers.

Concerning philosophy as a teaching discipline, I think that reputable universities will continue to see its value in helping students learn to think about major questions with which human beings are concerned. Unless a university education is reduced to little more than vocational training, philosophy will continue to be a vital part of the humanities. Young people should learn to think critically and insightfully about how to live a moral life, how to address societal issues such as social justice and equitable distribution of resources, how scientific reasoning works, and, of course, how these issues intersect with epistemological ones. Students are very interested in those things. There is also tremendous value in studying the history of philosophy. Much can still be learned from Plato and Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, etc. Good teaching — which is the most important job of any academic — can highlight the continuing relevance of the great philosophers.

I am not as optimistic about the relevance of philosophy as a research discipline. Philosophers will certainly continue to do research and publish, but much of modern philosophy, in my opinion, has become largely irrelevant to what is happening outside both the discipline and the academy. If the budgets of public universities continue to be cut, philosophers will become vulnerable unless they can demonstrate that what they do is valuable to someone other than themselves. You probably couldn’t find ten people in a hundred in the United States who can name a single working philosopher. Most of them have heard of scientists such as Stephen Hawking because of the reach and influence of their work. One can learn about scientists merely by reading Google News! But people don’t know anything about living philosophers. This is because philosophical research has become so specialized and insular that it benefits virtually no one except other philosophers who are doing the same kind of work. Most philosophers live in a very comfortable academic bubble. (That is true of academics in general, however.)

There have been historically and are currently notable exceptions. For example, Kant was concerned about political issues and directed some of his work at a broader audience than other philosophers. Currently, Phillip Kitcher writes about the intersection of science, democratic society, and politics, and he makes an effort to address issues of concern to non-philosophers. Kitcher, too, has expressed concern about the “the increasing narrowness and professionalization of academic philosophy” (http://philosophy.columbia.edu/directories/faculty/philip-kitcher). In addition, my friend and colleague Robert Pennock, a philosopher of science at Michigan State University, set the standard for addressing the problem of creationism. And there are other philosophers who are using their professional expertise to communicate with and benefit the wider world.

Certainly, someone has to do the pure, basic philosophical thinking that helps to clarify the conceptual foundations of broader, more practical questions. But if that pure, foundational work is not at some point useful to people other than philosophers themselves, there is little point to it. To the extent that academic philosophy has a future, I think that it lies in taking a more interdisciplinary approach that demonstrates the relevance of philosophy to the concerns of scholars in other disciplines and, ultimately, to the concerns of ordinary people. Otherwise, most of us philosophers could drop off the planet tomorrow and the world would neither notice nor be any worse off.

License

Creative Commons Licence In-sight by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Copyright

© Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-sight, 2012-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-sight with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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