Letters home from Eastern Canada…

Archive for March, 2011

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.

Learning to Speak French

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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