Letters home from Eastern Canada…

The Islamic Threat

A narrative essay by – Heather Spoonheim

It has, of late, become impossible to compare or contrast the Abrahamic religions without encountering the theatrics of fear-mongering Islamophobes. Coherent dialogue rapidly becomes a phantom as emotional pleas propel themselves up slippery slopes, launching into nationalistic tirades. The greatest trick of the labyrinth lay in the abstractly, yet inextricably bound concepts of religion, culture, and government.

The enemies are as elusive as the various deities, who are, ironically, one. Each of the Abrahamic religions can be blamed for, as well as declared a victim of, some historic atrocity. Devotees of each chapter of the Abrahamic trilogy have killed, or been killed by, devotees of both other chapters. Many nations have state religions, or at least religions alleged to be at their foundation, but none of them rely on their god for protection; they turn, in his stead, to the weapons of man.

For most of the life of this writer, the balance of religious violence has been confined to the conflict between Israel and Palestine. Having been cognizant of this conflict and observing, at times, daily reports on the violence, political contexts, ideologies, and grievances for over 30 years while also having read over a dozen books on the subject, one thing is clear: religion no longer has anything to do with it. Jesus Christ could appear in the Hubble Telescope tomorrow, zooming in faster than light to take his throne in Jerusalem and the Israelis and Palestinians would both start shooting at him, each declaring him to be a fraud perpetrated by the other.

Even if the entire Jewish population of Israel converted to Islam tomorrow, Palestinians would still hate them and want to kill them; so too would it be vice versa. The erasure of religion altogether would not erase the hatred of groups identified as murderers, racially defined boundaries, or the lust of politicians for garnering station and status. Failing all else, cultures would be redefined by ideologies as arbitrary as opening boiled eggs from the big or small end.

For the rest of us, this Jewish/Muslim conflict spilled out onto the world stage on the 11th of September, in the year of the Christian lord, two thousand and one. The images of the horror were burned into the Western mind in a televised holocaust. The broadcasts repeatedly informed viewers that 50,000 people worked at the World Trade Center. As the towers collapsed, many viewers, including this writer, fell to their knees and were reminded yet again that 50,000 people worked in those towers.

Before the estimates of fatalities had dropped below ten thousand, the face and name of Osama Bin Laden were branded into the Western psyche. He was an Arab, and a known Islamic terrorist who was at the top of the FBI’s most wanted list: a prime suspect. As the estimates of fatalities continued to drop, the hatred of al-Qaeda, Islam, and Arabs in general, escalated – and the proverbial finger of blame began to swing wildly.

A Democratic President had rocketed al-Qaeda training camps but had failed to capture the Islamic terrorist who had openly declared war on the U.S. over 3 years earlier. The Republican Commander in Chief at the time of the attacks had failed to act on intelligence reports that might have saved so many lives. The American intelligence community had dropped the ball repeatedly by not sharing information efficiently. Noam Chomsky was quick to blame Western civilization itself but that finger of blame was leveled too quickly, too harshly, and was bitten off; many still chew on it.

By the end of the month some backward clerics from a podunk country were given an international audience. Osama Bin Laden was there, it was claimed, and that shoddy lineup of holy men wouldn’t hand him over. There was no way to declare war on the country, however, because those holy men were not recognized as the official government and, in any event, had no connection with the attacks. The solution was to declare a military action and label it a ‘War on Terror’; Ted Turner must have peed a little.

By the end of the year it was clear that roughly 3,000 Americans had died at the hands of terrorists in the September 11 attacks; little to no attention was given to the fact that during the course of that same year Americans themselves had killed roughly 16,000 Americans; it was time for the enemy to start spilling some blood. Who was this enemy though? We were told that we weren’t at war with Arabs, Islam, or even any single nation. In a post hoc twist, we were told that we weren’t even at war with al-Qaeda or Osama Bin Laden.

We were at war with those who despised freedom, and we had to sacrifice freedoms to protect freedoms. We were killing people overseas so that we could spread freedom. In America, habeas corpus was suspended, the intelligence community began illegal wire taps, secret warrants, courts, and arrests were authorized, and the American President himself gave the green-light to torture – all in the name of freedom. The notion of protecting freedom became as convoluted as the notion of a god who fathered himself so he could kill himself to appease himself at the anger he harboured for that which he had himself created in his own image. The scripture for protecting freedom became bound in The Patriot Act; a scripture that was re-consecrated today, a decade after the infamous attacks.

Somewhere along the way Iraq was invaded as well; it is still occupied. The determination of civilians and enemy combatants in an occupied country is a philosophical paradox but, nonetheless, the Iraqi death toll from the ‘War on Terror’ is irrefutably into the six figures and terrorism is more rampant there than ever before. The death toll in the Afghani theatre of the ‘War on Terror’ is impossible to establish, but it isn’t any better than in Iraq. This is the death toll inflicted by the West in the ‘War on Terror’: a war that has never been declared on Islam but which, nonetheless seems to claim primarily Islamic victims.

Today there are those who feel the need to declare Islam a threat, to ring the alarms, sound the bells, and run madly down the street screaming; others are much more eloquent in their declarations of the Islamic threat. Although terrorist have never, in a single calendar year, around the world, killed more people than Americans kill Americans in the same calendar year – they are a scourge on humanity and must be stopped. They have no nation other than Islam common to them, so it must be that religion of theirs that drives them to such madness. Their madness could not possibly derive from the occupation of their lands by foreign powers, for they have always been terrorists, all the way back to Sayyid Qutb, who was born as the world was shifting into a petroleum economy. This sarcasm only grows a little dry when it is pointed out that suicide bombers are far more frightening, even if less deadly, than American criminals with handguns.

The ‘War on Terror’ is an oxymoron, an hypocrisy, and an abject failure. The death tolls prove that the West has been the greatest terrorist in the world for the past decade. Freedom cannot be delivered to a nation; it must be won by that nation. Will the West recognize an elected Iraqi or Afghani government that does not espouse Western values? Are they free to adopt sharia as their system of law if they freely choose to do so?

Perhaps the greatest failure of the ‘War on Terror’ is the toll it has taken on the capacity and moral stance of the West to respond to the nuclear proliferation of Iran. The one country in the Middle East that was actually on course to pose a serious threat to the world has been left to develop its nuclear capabilities. Rather than chasing phantom enemies or developing a hatred for Islam, we would have been far better reasoned to focus on Mouhmoud Ahmadinejad. Let us not, however, make the mistake of calling this man an Islamic threat.

Unlike Osama Bin Laden, Mouhmoud Ahmadinejad is a head of state who openly declares his hatred of the West and all Judaism. He is actively pursuing nuclear technology and, although we have him surrounded, any move against him is going to seal our fate with all of Islam. We are at a precipice overlooking the eternal hatred that exists between Palestine and Israel. If we allow Islamophobia to control our adrenal gland, all the terrorists need do is say boo and we’ll be diving into an ocean of hatred that will outlast our species.

How can the West justify an attack on Iran while North Korea has been dealt with through economic sanctions? Islam is no justification at all considering the cult of personality that surrounds Kim Jong-Il; that guy makes Mouhmoud Ahmadinejad look like Sigmund Freud. Islam, however, will be seen as the culprit whether declared as such or not.

With the invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, the tolerance of torture and secret prisons, and a death toll that is still ticking, the West has lost the advantage of any moral stance to which it ever laid claim. Our open ended ‘War on Terror’ is one step away from being a war on Islam and most in the East perceive the West to have crossed that line 8 years ago in full sprint. Adding cultural hatred of Islam to our repertoire will only serve as the cement that binds us to our extinction.

If the West engages the East in a war of ideologies it will only be a matter of time until, like Israel and Palestine, religion will no longer be needed to perpetuate the violence. Honestly, this writer feels that the only option we have left is to allow Iran to develop its nuclear capability as we get our asses the hell out of there. We can always take solace in the fact that the only planet destroying nuclear arsenal in the world resides in the United States of America; let’s just make sure fundamentalist Christianity doesn’t gain control of it.

A report by – Heather Spoonheim

With estimates for civilian casualties in Iraq ranging from one hundred thousand to one million, one must wonder – what the hell is going on? For the most part, it seems, the parties producing these numbers are making no attempts whatsoever to mislead anyone. The reason such a wide discrepancy exists between the highest and lowest numbers being reported is that the statistic is simply not a straight forward matter at all.

In truth, only a window to an alternate reality could provide a truly objective evaluation of the civilian toll. If one could accurately determine civilian deaths in Iraq from that alternate reality and then compare those to the civilian deaths in the Iraq of our reality, the difference would provide a very objective basis for evaluation.

In lieu of such a window, however, one is left grasping for rather elusive evidence. Essentially, the best method left available to the statistician is determining and comparing mortality rates for before and after the invasion/occupation. In a culture that demands a body be in the ground in short order, however, and in an environment where the infrastructure required to establish firm records has been compromised, sourcing such statistics is difficult, at best.

One source, and a very fortunate one to have, is Iraq Body Count (IBC). Initially set up before the invasion of Iraq began, IBC has kept very meticulous records of confirmed civilian war/violence related fatalities throughout the conflict and occupation. Their record set is somewhat limited, however, since fatalities that are not reported by media sources available in English are not recorded by IBC. Even so, IBC fatality statistics must be highly regarded as setting a very reliable minimum number of civilian fatalities resulting from the Iraq war/occupation.

Substantiation of IBC’s numbers can be found in the Global Terrorism Database (GTD). The GTD is an extensive database of over 87,000 terrorist ‘events’ spanning the years 1970 through 2008. A query of the GTD for events that resulted in fatalities in Iraq from 2003 through 2008 provides a record set that seems to correlate with the IBC statement of civilian deaths attributable to suicide attacks and vehicle bombs over that same period. IBC reports those numbers as deaths per day for each year, and the table below compares those numbers with GTD results for those years divided by 365.

Year IBC/Day GTD/Day
2003 1.4 1.4
2004 5.2 7.4
2005 10.0 12.2
2006 16.0 12.6
2007 21.0 18.1
2008 10.0 7.7

It should be noted that the GTD records only events considered to be acts of terrorism. It is unlikely that acts of inter-sectarian violence are often classified as terrorist events, resulting in the GTD not recording many fatalities that are recorded by IBC. Furthermore, given that IBC only records civilian fatalities, the IBC does not record fatalities of military personnel listed in the GTD. Considering these differences in methodology, it is rather notable that the resulting numbers from each database correlate so tightly. The only year for which the GTD records more fatalities than IBC is 2004, although it might be assumed that in the early months following the invasion there were many more military than civilian targets, or that the military has been more capable than the general public in adapting defenses to suicide attacks and vehicle bombs.

The IBC firmly establishes the minimum number of violent civilian fatalities that have occurred during the Iraq war/occupation, and it is also an invaluable tool for determining an expected distribution of such fatalities. The full total of excess civilian deaths of the Iraq war/occupation, however, cannot be established with such certainty.

The methodology for determining total excess civilian deaths requires the use of well designed interviews of members of randomly selected clusters of households and established practices of interpreting the resulting data. To date there are only two peer reviewed studies that have attempted this task – a rather daunting one considering the security issues faced by doing door to door surveys in an unstable country, with at least one survey taker actually becoming a statistic himself.

One of those peer reviewed studies, published in the Lancet, estimated that there were over 600,000 excess violent civilian deaths from the invasion/occupation by June of 2006. The other peer reviewed study published in the New England Journal of Medicine by the Iraq Family Health Survey (IFHS) estimated that there were approximately 150,000 excess violent civilian deaths during the same period. By comparison, IBC reported approximately 100,000 confirmed violent civilian deaths being accumulated by October of 2006.

Given the 100,000 confirmed deaths recorded by IBC, one is left to wonder how the 600,000 estimate reported in the Lancet could vary so greatly from the 150,000 estimate reported by the IFHS. There have been wide ranging criticisms of both reports that go well beyond the scope of this short review. The criticisms of the Lancet report, however, seem to be made from incredulity and focus mostly on the sample sizes and true randomness of distribution. The criticisms of the IFHS report, on the other hand, seem to center on the potential for underreporting of violent causes of death due to the involvement of government affiliated survey takers and a ministry controlled by Moktada al Sadr.

As the death toll in Iraq continues to accumulate, those who profit from sensational headlines tend to gravitate towards seven figure casualty estimates. Staunchly conservative analysts, conversely, gravitate towards the barely six figure number of confirmed fatalities reported by IBC. The truth of the matter, however, would seem to lay somewhere in between. Even assuming a rather moderate figure of 250,000 civilian casualties of the Iraq war and occupation to date, it is sobering to realize that the civilian cost of just that one theatre of battle in the ‘War on Terror’ is greater than the total worldwide death toll from terrorism during the entire lifetime of this writer, and yet the occupation and violence are far from over.

A narrative essay by – Heather Spoonheim

As a ‘strong’ Atheist, I believe there are no gods. That is a belief that I am very comfortable, if not enthusiastic, to have challenged. The thing that irks me, however, is that those who try to challenge that belief almost never challenge it at all, but instead lay out a challenge to science. Now, I have an extremely eclectic resume but I am definitely not a scientist; as a matter of fact, at the time of this writing I make my living with a chef’s knife. What the hell could I possibly know about science that isn’t already published and open to criticism by anyone who actually cares to do so?

Why is it that my belief is so readily interpreted as a statement that I know how the universe came to be? I have absolutely no idea how the universe came to be and neither does science, as near as I can tell.

I realize that the distance between galaxies has been observed to be increasing at an accelerating rate, and that one can describe that behavior mathematically and then reverse the math to calculate that everything came from some singularity about 14 billion years ago – but that is where the current mathematical models break down, apparently. After that it’s really anybody’s guess.

Maybe the universe pulsates from singularity to some end point and back again, infinitely repeating. Maybe the singularity was actually a vortex from someplace else through which our universe got ‘sucked’ or ‘pushed’. Maybe the universe is just an attribute of a less finite context that itself is just an attribute of a less finite context and on and on infinitely. To be honest, I believe we will never know the complete picture.

The only people who have the audacity to claim knowledge of the complete picture seem to be those who claim that it’s a portrait of their invisible, imaginary friend. What a Kodak moment that must present – just keep shaking that Polaroid until the image clears up enough for me to take a look too, please. In the meantime, stop asking me where the universe came from.

Why is it that my belief is so readily interpreted as a statement that I know the details of abiogenesis and/or evolution? It really irks me when people ask me to explain these things, especially when they don’t even understand that they are different concepts. Abiogenesis really eludes me because it is based on such a large knowledge base of chemistry and still in such early phases of research.

Evolution can be even more difficult because so few people realize that it isn’t a fact at all, just an explanation that is supported by literally millions of facts that aren’t nearly as accessible to the layman as the cosmos. To make matters worse, although U.S. courts readily accept DNA evidence of two men being brothers as being rock solid enough to put a man to death, they won’t accept it as rock solid enough to establish the irrefutable relationship between humankind and the rest of the great apes. Fuckers.

Even if I were a scientist and had devoted my life to a field that fell within the bounds of one of the aforementioned scientific realms, that still wouldn’t give someone the right to demand free private lectures. These days I make my living in restaurants, and if you don’t believe that eggs and oil can be whisked into mayonnaise then you can go buy a fucking jar of Miracle Whip – it’s not my job to educate you and if you want my services then talk to your waiter. Furthermore, I have no idea how the absence of a conclusive scientific proof for anything serves as evidence to support the impossibly self-contradicting postulations made by Bronze Age holy books. For the most part those texts manage to completely disprove themselves without any need for science.

What I do know is that if you could pray to get shit done then people would pray and get shit done. If the god of Judaism existed then the Jews wouldn’t have spent their entire history getting their asses kicked all over the planet only to wind up back in the only part of the Middle East that doesn’t have any oil under it. If another god existed then I’m certain that the Jews, pragmatic people that they are, would have tossed their Torah and Talmud into the trash centuries ago and jumped on a bandwagon that actually had wheels. All I can say to deists is that I find their concept of god equivalent to fat-free, sugar-free, caramel syrup; if the word oxymoron didn’t just pop into your head then please look up the definitions of oxymoron, god, and syrup in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

Prayer doesn’t work, science does, and you don’t need to be an egghead to figure that out. Go get a job at the Cadillac factory like Johny Cash and take a toodle around on your lunch break. The engineers aren’t dressed in ceremonial robes reading incantations in a dead language as they wave a big brass incense ball over plans scrawled on parchment – they are at computers, punching in numbers, and using instruments to take measurements. Science works.

Science is for the public and you don’t need anymore than bus fare to find that out. Hop on a bus, head to a local campus, and casually walk into a lecture hall with a bunch of students, inconspicuously taking a seat near the back. Quick note – it might be a good idea to leave the holy books at home for a day and instead carry a binder or laptop or something to give the impression that you are literate. Anyway, you can sit there and listen to them speak and you’ll quickly discover there is no fucking conspiracy going on. Everything that they are saying can be confirmed at the library – the public library. Science is public.

Science is international and you don’t need to travel the world or speak seven languages to confirm that. You can pick a subject, like the second law of thermodynamics (a favorite of so many holy rollers), look it up on Wikipedia, and you’ll find that it is available in at least 30 languages. For those that have had their nose in the holy books too long, feel free to scroll through the list of languages and select ‘simple English’. If you doubt that this information is available around the planet then all you need to do is sign up for a myspace account using a picture of a blonde woman on your profile. Within hours some guy with a name like Achmed from Egypt or Morocco will send you a message requesting a conversation by webcam. Now, tell him you will turn your webcam on after he reads the Wikipedia article to you, confirming the translation in his native language – a lot of them seem to speak French as well so you can have them check that too. Science is international.

So, I would like to ask, once and for all, that all holy rollers please stop asking me to give them free science lessons. Everything that I know about science is publicly available at a nearby college, local library, or on the internet. I’m an Atheist, not a scientist.

A narrative essay by – Heather Spoonheim

I have a gambling problem – a very serious one. I have never lost so much money that I couldn’t pay the bills or had to sell prized possessions, but it is still a serious problem. The reason I think it is serious is because I have such a clear and perfect understanding of the futility of ever truly earning a profit at the activity but I just can’t ever get the thought of profit out of my mind when I’m taking part. If I had any sense at all I would never ever gamble again – but I will. I do have sense though, I’m sure of it, but I guess my wits become compromised whenever someone pulls out the cards and that is the behavioral dysfunction that is my gambling addiction.

I manage the problem very well and have kept my losses to under $1000 over the past decade. I do so by setting very strict limits and fighting desperately to maintain them. The most important tool in managing gambling addiction is to learn to swallow losses, no matter how bitter that pill might be. Your money is gone and you have nothing to show for it and that’s all there is to it. If you don’t give up the activity altogether, then you better get used to the taste of that bitter pill, because you’ll need to swallow it over and over again. If you are crazy enough to continue with the activity, well then learning to swallow that pill can at least offer you some protection. This is especially true when playing communal pot games like Texas Hold’em.

You see, a lot of gamblers become overwhelmed by Texas Hold’em because they fail to accept that the money they have put into the pot is no longer theirs – they’ve already lost it. You have to swallow your loss the very moment you pull those chips off of your stack. If you don’t swallow your loss right then and there then you will be left with the delusion that some of those chips in the middle of the table are yours – and this leads to the fallacy of believing that you will incur a loss if you fold.

When you swallow your loss the moment you pull those chips off of your stack then you will realize that folding doesn’t cost you a thing. With each round of betting you need to evaluate the revealed odds, consider the total prize available in the pot, and determine how much you are now willing to risk for that total prize. You just cannot factor loss into your evaluation at that point.

There are other factors like implied odds and evaluation of opponent behavior, but understanding that risk and reward are based on the current bet for the current pot is the most important thing to keep straight in your mind. If, even for a moment, the thought crosses your mind that you will lose chips if you fold then you had best pack up and go home. It NEVER costs you a penny to fold because the chips that you put in the pot were lost the moment you pushed them towards the center of the table.

I’ve watched so many gamblers lose all of their faculties by refusing to swallow their losses that I can’t even count them. Every time it happens at a Texas Hold’em game it is because they view the pot as an investment and just can’t bring themselves to accept that their investment is being wiped out. They start pushing good money into the void until they have no more to push and then, often enough, they start pushing the table itself. That money in the pot is NOT an investment to be pursued, pushing money onto the table does NOT secure an investment, and no one has any claim to the pot until it has been won.

This concept of recognizing risks and accepting losses at the moment I assume those risks has actually helped me a lot in business. When I buy a piece of equipment at auction, it usually comes ‘as is’ and without any options for recourse if I am unhappy with the purchase. I need to accept my loss at the time of purchase, and I am often happy to do so because I’m getting a $7,000 dishwasher for $850. I no longer have my $850, I have a dishwasher that didn’t cost me $7,000 and that’s a good thing. If it doesn’t work, I can’t very well go freaking out about my $850 because it isn’t my $850 to freak out about. I can get the machine repaired, or perhaps that is not viable and I need to dispose of it, but I can’t go lamenting about somebody else’s $850. In my experience the odds have been in my favour in these transactions, and accepting the losses at time of trade helps to keep me focused on my winnings.

Consider then a person who regularly gives their money to an investment firm. So many of these people walk around feeling secure that their money is still there and that there will be even more money awaiting them when they return. This is a complete fallacy though, because their money disappeared the moment they handed it over. What they purchased was incredibly strong odds that they can get the same amount of money back with the bonus of weaker odds that there might even be more money handed to them some day. There remains the risk, however small, that there will be zero money waiting for them when they return. Because of this risk, they really need to accept that the money they gave to the firm is gone – but just like compulsive gamblers, investors will find every rationalization they can to keep from swallowing that bitter pill. Even after being contacted by authorities and hearing all over the news that their investment firm left town over night, there is no way to prevent them from gathering outside the empty building to protest in vain. They will believe for years that ‘their’ money is safe and sound somewhere and that there exists some means of investigation that will reveal its location to them.

How, then, can I be the least bit surprised at the emotional reactions I get when I tell investors that their ultimate retirement plan is nothing more than a Ponzi scheme; when I tell them that the firm that they, their cousins, parents, and grandparents have been investing in will never payout one red cent; when I tell them that the retirement home where Grandma and Grandpa went is a big void and Grandma and Grandpa aren’t even there.

How can I be surprised when investors in such a firm react to the news by becoming more adamant than ever to push more chips to the center of the table? How can they do anything other than push all of their chips to the center and then start pushing on the table itself? How can I be surprised when they blow up and become madmen like so many compulsive gamblers I have faced across a poker table?

The fact of the matter is that most churches press hard to get people to put money into the pot. Those who can possibly afford to do so often give in to the pressure to push 10% of their earnings onto the table, although most will calculate on net rather than gross income. Those who can’t possibly afford it are pressed to put in more than they can possibly afford. Many of them have seen the remainder of their grandparent’s wealth pushed into the pot as well. Many of them have volunteered hours upon hours of their time to the special projects of their churches.

Imagine the 58 year old woman who has been tithing for over 30 years. If she has worked a professional career and never had children she might have easily invested $150,000. If, looking at her investment account, she realizes that she has invested the same amount of money in mutual funds and now that investment is waiting to pay her $500,000 then she has to swallow one hell of a loss and its going to be damn bitter. She could have literally been a millionaire. Worse yet, she stayed the course on that bad investment for 30 years, and that represents a lifetime of pushing chips into the void.

I think we all need to remember these things as we deal with theists. It’s easy to call them stubborn or pigheaded, but just think about what we represent to them – no one likes an armchair critic pointing out the odds after they’ve already put their life savings in the pot. When debating with theists, one should try to remember their own most difficult loss and remember how bitter that pill was to swallow. We would all do well to remember the bitterness of loss.

Theory of Mind

An essay by – Heather Spoonheim

A solid understanding of theory of mind (ToM) is extremely important to understanding some of the fallacies that derive from its misapplication. ToM “is the ability to attribute mental states—beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc.—to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires and intentions that are different from one’s own.”[1] To better understand this definition, let us consider a situation where ToM is applied both practically and accurately.

While Bob was out shopping, his wife, Mary, poured all of his whiskey down the sink. After Bob returned home, his boss, Phil, came over to visit and asked Bob for a drink of whiskey. Upon hearing this, Mary quickly excused herself and left the house.

If the above passage seems like anything more than a series of random events to you, then you have actually applied ToM several times, in several different ways and in only a matter of seconds. The most advanced computers available today could not begin to extrapolate all the information that you just did from that short passage.

Making sense of the above passage required imagining at least 2 different virtual models of the human mind. You realized that Bob didn’t know his whiskey had been poured down the sink and that he would likely be angry when he found out. To do this you had to keep track of beliefs, intents and knowledge, attribute them to different people and, finally, make a prediction of behavior based on those models. You even predicted Bob’s reaction without being prompted with a question as to how he might react.

Incredibly, you did not actually derive your prediction of Bob’s behavior from your own model of Bob’s mind. You analyzed Mary’s behavior, used it to extrapolate your model of her mind and realized that she was predicting Bob’s behavior based on her model of Bob’s mind. You did all of this with so little effort that you didn’t even realize that you were doing it. I bet you feel pretty smart right now, huh?

The Importance of ToM

The human ToM is one of the least talked about but most important aspects of human evolution. Our highly evolved ToM allowed for the development of complex social structures that gave us a significant advantage over other creatures that had evolved bigger teeth, bigger claws, and much more powerful limbs and jaws. We divided our duties of protecting our camps and children, hunting for meat, and gathering other foodstuffs because we understood that particular duties were being handled by others. We also developed highly organized strategies for hunting and killing large animals that would have been impossible to conquer using spontaneous blitz attacks.

As a simple example of the advantage of ToM to hunting, consider a Stone Age hunter tracking a wild boar. Part way down the trail, the hunter realizes that the boar is headed for a nearby watering hole and he also realizes that the boar has chosen the longer of two trails. Taking a shortcut, the hunter easily catches up to the boar at the watering hole and secures a feast for his entire clan. A pair of jackals might have also been on the trail of the boar but tracking only by scent, and lacking ToM, they do not have the advantage of predicting the boar’s destination. The jackals end up missing out on a valuable meal.

Upon returning with the slaughtered boar to camp, the hunter proceeds to divide the meat. He knows that the shaman likes the spleen for ritualistic practices. He knows that the old toothless woman likes the liver. He gives a strip of tenderloin to a young girl that he fancies and then quickly gives an entire shoulder to his rival for the girl’s attention – that he might appease his rival and reduce the potential for physical confrontation. These sorts of social dynamics are only possible with a very highly evolved theory of mind.

When people begin discussing human evolution and marvel at how we survived, against all odds, with such pathetic biological weaponry, they all too often seem to ignore the human capacity to model other minds: the minds of other hunters, other predators, the prey animal being pursued, and of other creatures that become silent or scurry away in reaction to the aforementioned animals. Humans can whip up numerous artificial minds instantaneously to keep track of all of these or they can hold onto long term models used to keep tabs on the social dynamics at work around them. Other animals can exhibit behaviors that suggest a theory of mind, but none have a theory of mind anywhere near as developed as that of man. It could easily be argued that it is the one area in which the greatest margin has evolved between humans and every other creature on the planet.

Fallacies of ToM

One drawback of our ToM is that it might be a little too highly developed. Humans are prone to whipping up a virtual model of the human mind without even considering whether or not it applies in a given situation. This leaves us exhibiting some extremely irrational behaviors such as having conversations with cats, begging stop lights to change, and commanding teetering objects not to fall as we run to catch them. In a rural setting we can do such silly things as begging fire to ignite, pleading with the sky for rain, and asking the wind in our most polite tone if it might not be so kind as to stop blowing for just one afternoon.

This sort of fallacious projection of human consciousness into elements of the environment can become so convoluted that we actually start to negotiate with the natural elements. Think for a moment about a drought stricken farmer standing in his field, looking up at the sky and saying, “If you would just be so kind as to give me a little rain I would love you so much! Give a guy just a little break, would ya?” It is easy to understand the desperation of such a man and overlook the irrational nature of his behavior. Although we might think he was slightly crazy if he started doing a little jig in the hopes that the sky might find him entertaining and thereby be more persuaded by his desires, some twentieth century farmers actually paid money for Native American rain dancers to do just that.

It shouldn’t be hard then to understand why so many primitive cultures have been documented as having beliefs in sun, sky, wind, and fire gods. Consider the modern phenomenon of clans decorating themselves in ritualistic colours, painting their faces to match, and standing in front of a video display screaming, “Run, you son-of-a-bitch, RUN!” There is absolutely no possibility that their screams can be heard by the player running with the ball but even the most intelligent, educated, otherwise reasonable individuals in the crowd form such vivid connections with the ToM that they have created for their favorite player that they just can’t help but scream as though the player himself is within earshot.

The Moral of the Story

As a species it is not only natural, but overwhelmingly compelling for us to try to understand and influence everything around us by leveraging our most powerful evolutionary tool – our ability to instantly and effortlessly fabricate a model of our own conscious mind. As a civilized society, however, it is important that we begin to realize the limitations of this highly evolved tool, and the fallacy of applying it erroneously to inanimate objects, house pets, and nature. Our theory of mind is the wrong tool to use for understanding such things and actually leads to a misunderstanding of these things. Furthermore, such a fallacious projection can lead to the very compelling and misleading belief that we can influence such things through verbal persuasion.

Genesis Rewritten

The book of Genesis paints a picture of a deity that is trivial when compared to the cosmos as we understand it today. If the hand that wrote Genesis had been divinely moved, it would have painted a picture of a deity that made the cosmos look trivial by comparison. Although the author of Genesis couldn’t possibly have comprehended even our knowledge of the cosmos, divine intervention would most certainly have found a way to use ancient language to paint that picture. That being said, here is my imagination of Genesis as it would have been written, and then translated into English, had there been divine guidance.

 

The Book Of Genesis

All the ages of man are but a moment in the Heavens, and all the ages of the Heavens are but a moment in the Lord. For the Lord hath known countless ages before the Heavens and shall know countless ages after the Heavens, for the ages of the Lord are without number; and all the ages before the Heavens, and all the ages after the Heavens, shall never be known to any man living under the Heavens.

And so it came to pass, after imaginations that can be neither measured nor numbered, that the Lord did imagine the Heavens. And in that thought the Lord numbered the Heavens, so that there might be numbers, and hurled the Heavens outward from his mind in only three directions, so that there might be only three directions, and set measure to these directions, so that there might be a space in which the Heavens might exist. All these things did the Lord do in one thought.

And in the same thought that the Lord did imagine the Heavens, he did imagine and set within them the path of life, so that from the path of life the Lord might perceive the Heavens with wonder. For so it is that the mind of the Lord is without wonder, for all is known in the mind of the Lord. And so it was that the path of life was set in the Heavens so that the Lord might perceive the wonder of the Heavens from within the bounds of the Heavens, for only from within the bounds of the Heavens may they be perceived in wonder. And so it was that the path of life was set forth in the same thought.

And the Earth is but one number in the numbers of the Heavens that the Lord did create. And it came to pass that the path of life crossed the Earth, and the Earth did burst forth with life. And life did flourish on the Earth, and from life did come the first spark of thought. But a spark of thought cannot contain the wonder of the Heavens for the Heavens are a wonder created by the Lord. And so it is that an animal, with a spark of thought, might wonder at that which is under the Heavens yet never know the wonder of the Heavens which the Lord did create.

And so, just as the Lord had imagined the path of life, the path of life imagined man. And man had more than a spark of thought and he did look up into the Heavens. And the thoughts of man were filled with a spark of wonder and the Lord was pleased to know this wonder. And this wonder filled man’s heart with joy as he basked in the glory of the Heavens that the Lord had created. The Lord, being pleased by man’s wonder and joy, set forth a covenant with man that he might know such wonder and joy for all the ages of man.

For a spark of wonder at the Heavens which the Lord did create fills the heart with joy, but fanning the flames of thought can consume that joy. Thus the Lord spake to the heart of man, saying, “This wonder is your gift to me and this joy is my gift to you, do not fan the flames of your thoughts lest they become an inferno that consumes these perfect gifts.” And so the Lord set forth a covenant with man that man might bask in wonder and joy for all his ages.

And so it was that the thoughts of man burned gently and were filled by a spark of wonder that filled his heart with joy. But man began to fan the flames of thought so that he might ignite his spark of wonder and the Lord did not stop him: for to do so would unset the path of life which the Lord had set within the Heavens. And so it was that man’s will was his own and his will was to fan the flames of his thought so that he might ignite the spark of his wonder.

And man’s thoughts became an inferno that consumed the joy in his heart. For as the thoughts of man became an inferno, man ceased being man and became men, each one knowing his days were numbered. And so the covenant that the Lord had set forth with man was broken by man. And so it came to pass that the thoughts of men are an inferno that consumes their joy because each one knows his days to be numbered. And so it is that the first flames of thought ignite a spark of wonder in a child that fills the child’s heart with a joy that can only radiate from the eyes of a child.

And so men began to flee the inferno of their thoughts so that they might escape the sorrow of knowing that their days were numbered. And as the men fled their thoughts they began to extinguish their spark of wonder. But without the spark of wonder their can be no joy. The Lord was pleased by the spark of wonder in men so he revealed another path to escape the heat of the inferno that burned in their thoughts. Thus, the Lord spake to the hearts of men saying, “Do not flee the inferno of your thoughts for you can temper the inferno with knowledge.”

And thus the Lord set forth a covenant with men. And so it was revealed that the inferno that burns in the thoughts of men can be tempered with knowledge. And so it was that thoughts tempered by knowledge did not become an inferno that consumed all joy. And so it came to pass that the warm fire of thoughts that were tempered by knowledge set wonder ablaze. Thusly, the Lord came to experience the blazing wonder of men who tempered their thoughts with knowledge, and it well pleased him.

Although the days of men are numbered, those men who temper their thoughts with knowledge are set ablaze with wonder and are remembered by the Lord, for the Lord set the path of life within the Heavens to experience the wonder of that which he created. Those who flee the inferno of their thoughts extinguish their wonder, never fill their hearts with joy, and are simply forgotten by the Lord. To be remembered by the Lord is to live for all eternity. To be forgotten by the Lord is to live just a number of days in all the ages of man, which are but a moment in all the ages of the Heavens, which are but a moment in the Lord, whose ages are without number.

My grade school French teachers allocated a lot of time to verb conjugation drills. I’m certain that we must have studied some other aspects of the language, but memories of those seemingly endless drills still send shivers down my spine; “je cours, tu cours, il court, nous courons, vous courez, ils courent.” Don’t even get me started on the irregular verbs.

Oddly enough, those inane drills were actually helpful in the development of my French literacy. I only wish that more time had been allocated to words like ‘always’, ‘never’, ‘everybody’, and ‘nobody’; words that are used far more often in common speech than in quality writing. When you first try to construct sentences in a new language, spoken or written, such words are essential and should be on the tip of your tongue or pen. Although good writers might prefer a phrase like, “There are those who,” a novice in the language can easily get by with “Some people.”

It would be nearly impossible for any Canadian to be completely French-illiterate. I say this even though I’ve spent years tutoring adult literacy in English. Total illiteracy is extremely rare and usually results from a combination of unusual circumstances. After all, years of dozing in front of our cornflakes ensures that even the extremely nearsighted and dull are able to recognize either “Milk” or “Lait” as the stuff we pour on our cereal. For those with the gumption to turn the cereal box around, words like “gratuit,” “jouet,” and “à l’intérieur,” rapidly become familiar.

When reading French, I can even stumble through a phrase like, “Il ya ceux qui déclarent le contraire.” I know that “Il y a” is “There is” and I can assume that “Il ya ceux” is a strange conjugation of that, like “there could be”. I know that “qui” is “who” and “déclarent le contraire” looks like “declare the contrary”. Putting it all together I would guess that, “Il ya ceux qui déclarent le contraire,” means “There are those who disagree” or “There are those who would say otherwise.”

Being able to decipher French is quite different than actually writing in French, however. Fortunately there are great translation websites now, and with the little French that I know I can actually catch the odd error in translation. Translating almost every e-mail has given me a lot of insight into idiomatic English expressions. For example, rather than saying, “I took French in school,” I find I get a better translation by saying, “I studied French in school.”

None of the above helps me much when I’m at work, however. If the chef took the time to write down what he wanted, and then gave me the time to decipher his message, I’m certain that my French literacy would rapidly develop to a fully fluent level. That is never going to happen though. He might say (in French), “Put down the bucket of squid and come help me drain this vat of pasta,” and I really only get one shot at interpreting what he is saying. Now I can recognize various forms of “aider” so I know he wants help, but the rest of the sentence is Greek to me (or Spanish, or literally French).

Complicating matters is the fact that people rarely say things the same way twice. He could start with the words, “Drop,” “Put down,” or “Forget about,” followed by “the bucket,” “the pail,” “the container,” or just “the squid.” There must be dozens of permutations for the first part of his command, and I only get one shot at interpreting the meaning before he tries a different permutation.

Even further complicating matters is the fact that people don’t pronounce things the way that they write them. My favorite example of this is the English phrase, “Do you want to go for coffee?” We tend to pronounce that phrase as, “Jewanna gopher coffee?” The same thing happens in French, and so suddenly I hear this out of place word like “gopher” where it doesn’t belong at all. It doesn’t help much that one cook has a thick Hungarian accent and the other has a thick Vietnamese accent. Fortunately the only important word in the aforementioned phrase is ‘coffee’ and it is easy to tell by the inflection that the rest of the sentence constitutes an invitation.

And so it is that I stumble through my days in Quebec catching maybe one word out of ten. I survive at work because I know my way around a kitchen and can usually anticipate what people will need or want me to do before a word is spoken. I get through stores by anticipating the generic scripts followed by all cashiers regardless of language. I survive commuting by bus by keeping a keen eye out for street signs and thumbing through my street atlas like it’s a treasure map. It’s hard to believe that I’ve lived in Canada for forty years and I still can’t understand the most basic spoken French phrases on the fly.

To this end I’ve taken to watching French movies. One of the problems with this strategy is that most French movies are made in France and so their accent is very different than the Quebecois accent. Movies that are dubbed into French occasionally have a Quebecois accent, but then the mouths don’t match the words so I get thrown off quite a bit. I’m hoping that I can find some good Quebecois television programs to watch. I guess that in retrospect I should have tuned the television into CBC Francais a lot more often.

So in summary I guess I can’t complain too much about my grade school French classes, although I wish there would have been more audio assignments. Had I spent as much time watching French television as I had reading cereal boxes I might be much further ahead today. Most francophones that I’ve met who have taught themselves to speak fundamental English tell me that English television was their greatest asset. I guess I’ll be spending a lot more time watching streaming television at the CBC website. Fortunately I am an optimist and I truly believe that eventually osmosis will prevail and I will end up fully bilingual. On the other hand, I am certain that il ya ceux qui déclarent le contraire.

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