The Quicksands of Belief

The Need for Skepticism

by Janet Winn Boehm (Author)
©2014 Monographs XXII, 247 Pages
Series: American University Studies, Volume 217


The Quicksands of Belief: The Need for Skepticism draws on history, anthropology, sociology, philosophy, and the cognitive sciences in an accessible, non-academic style in order to argue that humans don’t question enough. Instead, uncritically accepting the often absurd beliefs swirling around them, too many lack the skepticism needed to avoid global disaster. The claim of this book is that humans need to question everything they think they know.
The way the human brain works is impressive and has taken Homo sapiens a long way. However, it is also the source of our failure to doubt. Janet B. Winn explores consciousness first, then the sense of self and how it affects thought. Subsequent chapters deal with beliefs – about reality, politics, religion, pseudo-science – and attempts made to explain human behavior by the social sciences. This concept includes a consideration of the failure to grasp the meaning of evolution, the evolution of language, and how language distorts understanding, along with the role culture plays in these distortions. The remarkable human brain has made an extraordinary creativity possible, yet this ability is used to find ever-more powerful ways to destroy the planet and its inhabitants. Winn argues that this sequence follows primarily from absolutist thinking. In spite of the fact that we cannot know what is true with any certainty, we try to impose our certainties on each other, leading to the lies and chaos of the political world, to the destruction of the environment, and to war.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • What Is Skepticism?
  • I Saw It with My Own Eyes
  • Believing Isn’t Knowing
  • Brilliant and Gullible
  • 1 Imperfect Brains
  • Consciousness
  • How Do You Know You Are You?
  • Emotions
  • Emotions and Thought
  • 2 The Sense of Self
  • Switching Heads
  • Mind and Body are One
  • Brain Calling Body; Body Calling Brain
  • The Selfish Gene
  • 3 The Animal That Believes
  • The Cup from Which We Drink Our Lives
  • Social Myths
  • Religions Are Politics; Politics Are Religions
  • Cargo Cults
  • Mythos and Rebellion
  • The Web of Belief
  • 4 Irrationality and Religion
  • The Holy Tortilla
  • Fears Beget Beliefs
  • God, Economics, and Certainties
  • Violence in the Name of Religion
  • Anti-Reason
  • Life after Death
  • 5 Pseudo Science: Witches, Astrology, and Ufos
  • Anti-Scientism and Astrology
  • Extra-Terrestrials
  • Big Business and Pseudo-Science
  • Scared?
  • 6 Social Science: Efforts to Explain Ourselves
  • Sociology and the Creation of Problems
  • History: Creating Myths
  • Psychology: Art Not Science
  • Political Science: Shaped by Politics
  • 7 Evolving: The Human and His Chimp Cousins
  • The Creationist Universe
  • The Darwinian Universe
  • Intelligent Design and Mis-Education
  • Is Further Evolution of the Brain Possible?
  • 8 Humans Have Words
  • Contra Chomsky
  • Evolution of Language
  • Speech
  • Signing and Damaged Language
  • 9 Language, Reality and the Hopi Indian
  • The World Words Create
  • A Perceiver Is Not a Camera
  • Hopi Talk
  • No One Tells the Truth
  • 10 Culture as a Lens
  • The Genesis of Culture
  • Culture As a Social Construct
  • Diversity
  • Dictating Identity
  • 11 Creativity, for Better and Worse
  • Starting with Stone Tools
  • Picasso, Watson and Crick, and David Lodge
  • Creativity in Other Cultures
  • Destructive Creativity
  • 12 Absolute Certainties
  • No Exceptions Allowed
  • Oops
  • Absolutism and the Holocaust
  • Anything Goes?
  • 13 The Political Animal
  • The Dominant Male Baboon
  • For the Sake of Business
  • The Supremes
  • Manipulated Minds
  • Political Philosophy
  • 14 The Warring Animal
  • From Chimp to Man
  • Why War?
  • Myths That Kill
  • No End to War
  • 15 Survival
  • Notes
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1
  • Chapter 2
  • Chapter 3
  • Chapter 4
  • Chapter 5
  • Chapter 6
  • Chapter 7
  • Chapter 8
  • Chapter 9
  • Chapter 10
  • Chapter 11
  • Chapter 12
  • Chapter 13
  • Chapter 14
  • Chapter 15
  • Bibliography

| vii →


“The most common of all follies is to believe passionately in the palpably not true. This is the chief occupation of mankind.”

H. L. Menken

There is no excuse for certainty; there are only degrees of assurance. One can believe passionately, but with the awareness that what one believes is likely to be false.

Humanity is on a fast track to extinction. If we are to survive, we’d better learn to be skeptical; not to be is simply stupid. Menken has pegged us as fools.

Is the human animal stupid? We send earth-movers into rain forests to rip out ancient trees and erase magnificent domains of animals, butterflies, insects, snakes, and humans. Toss them aside. For what? We think we must have resources to run the machinery of modern life, including the means of, yes, killing each other. We don’t stop to question the means. In the process, we ignore the future. Seems really unintelligent, doesn’t it? Man is not the “rational animal,” but only the animal that is capable of rationality, as Jonathan Swift said in a letter to Alexander Pope.1

We are the most intelligent animal ever to live on the earth. But something vital is usually missing. This animal befouls his nest, turns rich forests into decaying slums. Marshes humming with myriad insects, plants and birds and secretive animals become stinking morasses that give off toxic fumes. Over and over again, ← vii | viii → the creature that builds magnificent cities, then bombs them into trash heaps of bricks and bodies. Creators of libraries full of pages that glow with human ethical wisdom, concern for other people and awareness of the value of life, are the same animals that indulge in torture. How can this be? The core of the problem is that we humans insistently claim to know what we cannot know. We fail to be skeptical, fail to ask questions and more questions. We fail to be tentative about what we think we know.

There is a story about three men traveling together, an economist, a logician, and a skeptic. Their train crosses the border from England into Scotland and they see a brown cow standing parallel to the tracks. The economist says, “Oh look! There are brown cows in Scotland!” The logician says, “No, there are cows in Scotland at least one of which is brown.” And the skeptic says, “No, there is at least one cow in Scotland, at least one side of which appears to be brown.”2 This book is an argument for the skeptic’s wisdom. I am making the claim that we cannot know anything with certainty.

What Is Skepticism?

Recent TV programs presenting discussions of global warming offered a panel that they claimed to balance with a “global warming skeptic.” Global warming, the set-up of the panel implied, is open to scientific dispute, and is a notion that we ought to discard. Although no serious, scientifically aware skeptic today would propose that global warming doesn’t exist, the so-called “skeptic,” paid by corporations such as Exxon Mobil, rolled out arguments to disprove the possibility that the environment is in any such danger. Pooh, he said, nobody has ever shown global warming in a laboratory, so why believe it exists? The tobacco industry fostered the same kind of doubts when threats to health from smoking were first understood. There are, thanks to smoking, still some half a million premature deaths each year, yet, as a cigarette manufacturer Brown & Williamson memo put it, “Doubt is our product,”3 doubt about any threat to human health from what they sell, missing the fact that while scientists do not speak to us with certainty, they can amass evidence we ignore at our peril. We have been presented with the pretense of promoting a healthy skepticism of both global warming and the harms of smoking. This is neither skepticism nor healthy.

Skepticism is not a matter of throwing up our hands and saying there’s no such thing as knowledge. Skepticism doesn’t mean we should ignore intelligently collected data. It simply means we can’t be certain that the cow is brown nor can ← viii | ix → we know that the unseen side is brown. Skepticism questions and rejects certainty. For many this is frightening. Skeptics are accused of stepping back from making value judgments, and therefore being unable to take a stand on any issue. But the accusations are false. The skeptic can make judgments, although without the claim he’s positive he’s right.

In the political world there is a wariness about the philosophic skeptic because this is taken to mean he won’t take a stand on any political issue, according to Barbara Hernstein Smith. But she argues that a political stand can take into consideration the interests of whatever groups are involved, and “rights” can be given “intellectually respectable justification.”4

Skepticism says, “Don’t tell me what to think. I want good reasons to accept an idea. Bad logic isn’t going to satisfy me. Emotional claims can’t compel me. Authority cannot direct me. Tradition will not bind me. I want sound, careful reasoning. I will take into account relevant information; I will learn all I can and still I will refuse to be absolutely sure.” A skeptic isn’t in despair at his lack of certainty. He just keeps it in mind. This is Socratic wisdom.

The Delphic oracle said that Socrates was the wisest man of all. The great philosopher wondered how this could be when, he said, he didn’t know anything. But that is just the point. Socrates meant he didn’t know in the sense of knowing with certainty. His wisdom lay in recognizing that he could never be absolutely positive.

Humans have brains sparking with ideas, hot with connections going off in all sorts of new directions, forever impatient with what was learned in the past in the eagerness for new discoveries. But I would suggest that these brains are not being used to the extent they might be. For all their brilliance, they are ignorant. Like many other creatures that have tromped the earth and then disappeared, we could become an extinct species, not necessarily in some far distant era. And that would be through our own stupidity.

We believe that we know. So what do we know? Imagine that the year is 2200. Brain scientists have by now decoded the brain’s electrochemical signals. They can trace the processes involved in experiencing the world. A child, Ludwig, is born with an irretrievably malformed body, doomed to die soon. But his brain is healthy. So doctors surgically remove the brain from the skull and place it in a vat. Along with the necessary supplies of nutrients, oxygen and blood, they attach a great many electrodes to the brain. These provide it with all the sensations a normal infant would experience. Ludwig’s brain, or, let’s say, Ludwig, has the pleasure of nursing at his mother’s breast, of focusing his eyes on her face and hearing her sing softly to him. Gradually, the scientists add all manner of further experiences. ← ix | x → Ludwig’s brain in the vat discovers what it is like to be separated from his mother, to enter a school room, listen to the noise of other children on a playground, watch them warily, and get into a fight with a boy who tries to take his lunch. He learns to read. Eventually, he is provided with the experience of wanting to kiss a girl, of going to a university, getting a job. Ludwig never knows he is a brain in a vat.5 How about you? Couldn’t you be a brain in a vat, programmed to think you live in the early years of the 21st century before such things were possible? How can you know this isn’t the case?

By 2200 neurologists might have secretly learned how to trace all of the processes involved in thinking, so they can track and record every step as a person’s mind take in information, mulls it, and comes to a conclusion. These scientists can watch how a brain formulates ideas, values, factual hypotheses, and beliefs. The operating system of the brain has become as clear to them as a computer’s. This organ, it turns out, operates quite logically. Look at a physical object, say a screw driver. You have memories of previous encounters with this object, so you think without a pause, “screw driver.” In that instant, your brain has gone through logical steps: If an object has characteristics A,B,C…and performs functions q,r,s…then it must be an X. The neurologists of 2200 understand specifically how sense experiences you have just had trigger what your brain did with them, and, how it reached a conclusion, even though that process is entirely outside of your awareness.

If scientists knew how to track the brain’s operations, they would be able to alter its program. Using electrical impulses, they could change the conclusions a person draws from specific data, so that, for example, you no longer think, “If the object has a metal shaft with an even edged tip and a plastic handle shaped for grasping, and is used to turn screws, then it must be a screw driver.” Instead, you have been supplied with a false premise: all objects with that shape are spoons. You now reason that given these characteristics, it must be a spoon. Your reasoning is logical; you have followed the rules. You would be convinced you had it right. Of course it’s a spoon. All sorts of false premises could be injected into brains: “Women are inferior to men,” “It is morally wrong to treat women as equals of men,” “All women are untrustworthy.” So when a person with an altered brain had a decision to make about how to treat men and women, he would be quite certain it is logical to treat them unequally.

While of course neurology is not yet this sophisticated, doesn’t this happen all the time, without the assistance of brain specialists? A brain absorbs bigotry from parents. A child can acquire certainty that characteristics F, G, H…mean a person is unreliable, contemptible, or evil. How can we ever be sure that our minds are free of false premises? We can’t. We all operate on the basis of our own ← x | xi → premises; what else do we have? And, to doubt the truth of our assumptions casts doubt, serious doubts, on the possibility of our coming to any absolutely certain conclusions about anything.

Yes, we are a brilliant, highly adaptable animal. Human brains have evolved to a point where we are not merely creatures responding to basic needs. We can do more than provide ourselves with a meat, a weapon, and sex. When hominids first walked, striding on feet no longer shaped for clinging to tree-branches, they demonstrated the brain power to adapt to new conditions, to look for new ways of finding food and protecting themselves from stronger animals. They had the intelligence to create tools of increasing complexity. They evolved into Homo sapiens, a creature who could not only make sounds, but could shape those sounds into syllables and give them meanings. Talk shaped meanings in many ways, often ugly ways but also useful ways.

Being able to talk allowed humans to cooperate with each other in order to protect themselves, to survive and reproduce in greater numbers. Once humans began speaking, their flourishing was stunningly rapid. Early humans learned, as some other animals have, that they are safer living in caves than sleeping out in the open. They could tell each other! The human had the intelligence to create his own caves and to place them in groups, so that a troop of humans could protect one another. Or, instead of living in a circle of grass or mud huts, they could live in pueblos, homes dug into high cliffs, or in shelters made from heaped stones, keeping out storms as well as animals that would attack them. They built and they talked about what they were doing.

These new, intelligent creatures began to migrate over long distances in search of food when drought withered what they were used to eating. They found places where water was plentiful or they figured out ways to manage with less water. In travelling, they sometimes entered unfamiliar climates including cold they’d never known before. They devised means of dealing with those new challenges, such as building fires and dressing in animal skins.

Troops of humans discovered that other humans could be a serious threat. Once on the move, they were likely to meet up with other humans and they feared each other or they all wanted the same resources. So they learned to arm themselves and to look for ways to defend what they had. Some set up clusters of shelters high on the tops of hills with a view in all directions as a means of protection against attackers. You can hurl a mean fusillade of rocks from a promontory.

Humans thrived and civilizations elaborated themselves in varieties of magnificent ways, such as pyramids and ziggurats. Persians built a great culture, Cyrus the Great expanding his empire across Central Asia and the Caucasus, succeeding ← xi | xii → because he respected the customs and religions of those places and established governments that shielded human rights and benefitted his subjects. Greek culture produced Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates, whose empires were philosophy, the arts, politics, and science. Abstract geometry was invented six hundred years before the birth of Christ and Pythagoras was able to understand that earth and sea are not static, that sea has at times displaced land, and vice versa, and that water erodes land. A follower of Pythagoras even said that the earth revolves around the sun. Far Eastern culture was standardizing language and measurements in the third century B.C. Between 206 B.C. and 220 A.D., the Han Dynasty had built a vast stable society and was trading over long distances with other peoples, using the Silk Road. So clearly humans demonstrated a capacity to live intelligently.


XXII, 247
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2014 (October)
history philosophy skepticism failure sociology
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 247 pp.

Biographical notes

Janet Winn Boehm (Author)

Janet B. Winn has a B.A. from Vassar College, where she was Phi Beta Kappa and was awarded a fellowship for graduate work. She earned an M.A. in philosophy from Stanford University, advanced credits in sociology at the State University of New York at New Paltz, and a Ph.D. in philosophy of social science from the State University of New York in Albany. She has taught both philosophy and sociology in the New York State university system. She is the author of The Open Mind and Sociology (Lang, 1988).


Title: The Quicksands of Belief
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272 pages