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The Quicksands of Belief

The Need for Skepticism


Janet Winn Boehm

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.
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9 Language, Reality and the Hopi Indian


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Language, Reality and the Hopi Indian

An understanding of language should make skeptics of us all. Humans mentally devise a world in which their experiences take place. They make it up! They do so with language. What the human thinks and the claims he makes are given their shape and meaning by the ways in which a particular culture has taught him to talk. He sees through a mind shaped by words. He must; it is the only way he can make sense of what he experiences.

A child at a Halloween party is told to enter a dark room and guess what it is she finds. She has never been in this place before; she has no idea what she will encounter. Arms out-stretched, she feels her way across the space. She finds a solid flat object, a low table, and, running her hand across the surface, her hand encounters a heap of … “worms!” she shrieks. She gropes her way back to the door and is greeted by laughter. “Not worms. Only cold spaghetti.” But the child is sobbing. She knows she felt worms. “Not spaghetti; it’s worms,” she shouts. Reality is, to her, exactly what she says it is, at the moment. When a girl of twelve is mocked as a “creepy wimp,” she has been labeled. She may begin to conform to the label as it penetrates her mind as real. She is a creepy wimp.

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