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Machines Like Us interviews: Mano Singham

October 29, 2007

An outspoken atheist and social commentator, Mano Singham is currently Director of Case’s University Center for Innovation in Teaching and Education (UCITE) and Adjunct Associate Professor of Physics. He obtained his B.Sc. from the University of Colombo in Sri Lanka, and M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in theoretical nuclear physics from the University of Pittsburgh. He has researched and conducted seminars and workshops for university faculty on teaching and learning, and has conducted workshops around the country on Active Learning methods for science teachers at pre-college and college levels.

Singham is a Fellow of the American Physical Society, and in 2001 he won Case Western Reserve University’s Carl F. Wittke award for distinguished undergraduate teaching. He has written articles and given invited talks on The Achievement Gap in Science and Mathematics Education, Active Learning, and Science and Religion at professional meetings of scientists and educators. His recent research interests are in the fields of education, theories of knowledge, and physics and philosophy. His books include Quest for Truth: Scientific Progress and Religious Beliefs (2000), and The Achievement Gap in US Education: Canaries in the Mine (2005).

Interview conducted by Norm Nason.

MLU: It's wonderful to be able to interview you, Mano. Thanks for joining me.
MS: Actually, the pleasure is all mine. I feel honored because I do not think I quite belong alongside the really distinguished people you have interviewed in the past. Those people have made important contributions to their respective fields. I see myself as just an observer and commentator. Being interviewed is also a little strange to me because I used to see myself as a very private person but with my blog I have come to terms, at least partially, with the fact that one cannot help but reveal something of oneself when one writes so much about so many things that one cares about.
Answering your questions will give me an opportunity to piece together a statement about my own personal philosophy, so it should be a valuable learning experience in that I hope to learn something about myself in the process!
MLU: At some point during our association it occurred to me that although you are a physicist, teacher and writer, what you are above all is a philosopher. You have the uncanny ability to expose difficult questions, tweeze apart the various components of an argument, eliminate the fat and get at the essentials. How did you develop such an inquisitive nature and methodical way of examining the world? Was it something that was nurtured by your parents?
MS: I hesitate to call myself a philosopher because I have never taken a philosophy course and have never studied it in any formal way. The Sri Lankan education system is very narrow and deep. So in school and college I learned a huge amount of physics and mathematics but essentially nothing else. I have not even read completely the works of great philosophers, just bits and pieces here and there. What I have tried to do is create a coherent personal philosophy and to do that I have approached it from the world of science, in which I am more comfortable. I think that physics and biology give one valuable, perhaps even essential, tools for understanding the world. I have learned physics systematically, of course, but biology and especially evolution I have had to study on my own, having never taken a course in them either. So perhaps I am a 'natural philosopher' in the very old-fashioned sense of the term, someone who tries to make sense of the world using the tools of science.
It is hard to identify the specific contributions of various influences in one's life but I'll give it a shot. My mother and my late father and (and extended family in general) are generally very easy-going people. They are religious (mostly Protestant Christian) and have a very tolerant and inclusive mindset. Most importantly, they have a sense of humor and do not recoil from jokes and other forms of irreverence targeted at anything, even religion (including their own) and other sacred cows. So although I grew up adopting their religious attitudes and beliefs, the atmosphere surrounding me encouraged intellectual openness.
The other key influences that I can pinpoint are my middle school math teacher Ivan Jansze and my high school math and physics teacher G. Y. Sahayam, both of whom instilled in me a deep appreciation for the beauty of proofs and a sense of wonder at the ability of science to systematically build up knowledge and explain things in a coherent way. As a result, I have always had the desire to unify different areas of thought into one coherent philosophy. I find it hard to compartmentalize discordant knowledge structures or to ignore things that don't fit. 
During my college years, I was influenced by Reverend Arnold Cooper, my parish priest, who died just last year. He was a wonderful man who felt that I had a calling for the ministry, and who also instilled in me a modern and liberal theological attitude that encouraged me to question and seek answers and not try to dodge tough questions.
MLU: While other researchers highlighted on this website work to make machines more intelligent, your efforts focus on making humans more intelligent. We all grow up with unsubstantiated beliefs. What can we do to clear our heads of false biases, and shed our erroneous preconceptions?
MS: I think you have to be curious and self-reflective. I also think you have to have the ability to realize when an answer is not really an answer but simply a way of disguising ignorance. I think you also have to overcome the fear that comes with wondering if your questions are going to take you into 'forbidden' areas, things that you have grown up taking for granted and do not really wish to challenge.
For example, studying physics and biology and evolution has made me realize that all the things that tend to separate us (nation, race, religion, ethnicity, language) are silly and superficial. Just think of the implications of the fact that every single person who lives on Earth right now likely shares at least one common ancestor who lived merely a thousand or so years ago. Think further that all the people who lived just five thousand years ago are the common ancestors of every one of us today. And as we go back in time even further we find common ancestors with all the species. How can that knowledge not create a sense of universal oneness? Knowing that, how can anyone think that one ethnic group or religion or nation, groupings that formed more recently, is intrinsically superior to another?
I get really irritated with any claim that one group of people has some special virtue not possessed by another. The idea of some group thinking that they are 'god's chosen people' strikes me as dangerously silly because such thinking is the cause of much evil in the world. I also find it strange when people say they are 'proud' of belonging to some ethnic group or religion or nation. What is there to be proud of something that was a pure accident?
As you can imagine, calls to patriotism also leave me cold. As George Bernard Shaw said, "Patriotism is your conviction that this country is superior to all other countries because you were born in it." Am I supposed to think that the pure accident of my being born in some patch of land conferred some virtue on it or vice versa? How absurd is that? I also agree with Tolstoy when he said "Patriotism in its simplest, clearest, and most indubitable signification is nothing else but a means of obtaining for the rulers their ambitions and covetous desires, and for the ruled the abdication of human dignity, reason, and conscience, and a slavish enthrallment to those in power. And as such it is recommended wherever it is preached. Patriotism is slavery." Nationhood is to me merely a book-keeping device, to keep track of who lives where and under what rules.
I find it hard to imagine that I once thought that religion, ethnicity, nationhood, etc. actually had some meaning other than having some merely marginal utility value.
What science has taught me is that we are one universal humanity, inseparably linked together. For me the distinction that matters is that between exploiter and exploited, between oppressor and oppressed. The distinction depends on context of course. It is perfectly possible, and not at all unusual, for a single person to be oppressed in one time or place or situation and to be an oppressor in another. The only struggle that really matters to me is the one that seeks to eliminate those divisions.
I think I strayed quite a bit from the original question…!
MLU: Not at all; those are important points. Having once been a Methodist minister, you are in a unique position to discuss religion and atheism. How did you make the transition from believer to non-believer? Was it difficult?
MS: To be precise, I was not a fully ordained minister, but an ordained lay minister. This means that I had to study the Bible and theology and take exams but I was not employed by the church. Instead I had a job in the secular world but would conduct church services once a month or so. I was authorized to conduct the entire service except for the communion part.
The transition to atheism was not difficult in an intellectual sense. As I started learning more and more about science and tried to reconcile those ideas with my religious beliefs, I gradually started jettisoning those religious beliefs that could not be made to fit. At some point, I realized that I had abandoned enough dogma that I could no longer really call myself a Christian. I still retained a belief in a generic god but as I kept moving ahead until even that became untenable and I abandoned god altogether. The transition was slow and in the end painless. I recall one day asking myself what would happen if I stopped believing in god. I realized at that moment that everything would make a lot more sense. That was perhaps the sole epiphany in the journey and it brought with it a great sense of peace. Becoming an explicit atheist was probably just the conscious recognition of something that I had subconsciously arrived at earlier. That is usually the way with such fundamental changes in one's thinking.
Letting go of god emotionally was tougher. After all, much of my identity was tied up in my religious upbringing, and all my family remained religious. I kept quiet about my atheism for awhile and did not publicize my apostasy, but my writings got to be known among my family and relatives and friends and as they started asking me if I was still religious, I told them the truth. The response by them has been very accepting and in fact we have had many good discussions. In some ways, I think it has been a relief to some of them, that their own doubts have been kind of validated since I, once considered one of the most religious people in my extended family, did not believe anymore. A lot of people struggle with containing their doubts, thinking that others don't have them and therefore such doubts must be a sign of their own failings.
The most difficult part of stopping believing in god was also giving up the idea of the after life. My father died just before he reached the age of sixty, nearly thirty years ago, long before my own children were born, and it was nice to think that he could still somehow "see" them from somewhere and that I would meet him again someday. But one has to give up such illusions, attractive though they might be, if one is to hold on to rationality.
MLU: One of the problems atheists face when talking to religious believers is that those of faith often portray atheists as immoral heathens, and are openly hostile. What can non-believers do to promote a more constructive dialogue? Should we even try?
MS: I think we should try to have a constructive dialogue but realize that it is not likely to produce any short-term results. As Jonathan Swift said "You cannot reason a person out of a position he did not reason himself into in the first place." The best we can do is plant the seed for the growth of future doubt. But we should not be intimidated by the overwhelming conventional wisdom into not challenging fundamental ideas. It is easy to be seduced into not making waves, just going along all the time, by not criticizing religion. That just gives religion the free pass that it has enjoyed for so long  and does not deserve.
On the other hand, one does not have to be obnoxious and object to religion on every possible occasion. I try to differentiate the way I respond depending on whether the discussion is taking place in the public domain or in the private domain.

In the public domain (such as my blog), I have no hesitation in applying reason and logic ruthlessly, though politely of course. People are not forced to read my blog and I have zero power or influence over them. In the private domain (in conversations or in teaching) I tend not to take a hard line, and ignore religion unless someone specially asks me to comment or says something so egregiously offensive that to remain silent would be to be complicit in propagating really awful ideas. I instead encourage people to explore their own ideas and see where it leads them. I do not try to change their views but I am not shy about telling them what I believe (or not believe) and why.
I have learned to avoid trying to convince people to agree with me. This just leads to interminable and repetitive arguments. You cannot force people to change their minds on things they strongly believe. When I have said all that I have to say and listened to what they have said, I politely terminate the discussion. I believe that people change their minds only when they are good and ready to do so, as a result of their own needs and drives. After I have told them what I can, I leave them to dwell further on the ideas or not, depending on their preference.
MLU: How do you feel about our culture's religious-based conventions, such as marriage and funeral services?
MS: I think they are overblown. I think that marriage should be a thoroughly civil institution and that all the rights and privileges associated with it should be available independently of any religious considerations. Religions can, of course, have services to commemorate these occasions if they want.
As for death, we seem to be having an orgy of group pity and sorrow for every tragic death. Of course, it is sad when people die and one can understand the deceased person's loved ones grieving over it. But public grief seems to becoming an epidemic. Almost any unexpected death now seems to require periodic observances and memorials.
I myself am a minimalist. I like to keep ceremonial events simple and short.
MLU: Do you agree with Sam Harris when he says that even moderate religious sects are harmful in that they act as enablers for more radical fundamentalist views?
MS: My views on this have definitely changed. I would not have agreed with Harris a few years ago but now I think he is right.

MLU: What changed your mind?

MS: What changed my mind was the growing realization that 'moderation' in religion is something that describes an adult characteristic. But when children are brought up in a religious environment, even by 'moderate' parents, they are still being convinced to believe things purely on the basis of authority (person or text) and despite the lack of any evidence. Once children have accepted that this is intellectually acceptable to do so, even those with 'moderate' parents are easily susceptible to acquiring extremist thinking.

Another problem is that when one decides to not criticize the thinking of 'moderates', one has shut off the most powerful critiques one can make of extremists, which is that the whole edifice of thinking they adhere to has no evidentiary foundation and simply makes no sense. Trying to counter extremists without hurting the feelings of the 'moderates' is like agreeing to play chess while giving up the right to capture the opponent's queen. You are bound to lose, except against the most incompetent player.
MLU: Many of our schools seem to be under enormous pressure these days to conform to the desires of the religious majority -- to lessen emphasis on Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection, and promote the concept of intelligent design. Evolutionists have certainly mounted a strong defense recently, and you have done more than your share of work to help correct the problem. But what can concerned parents -- and rational laymen -- do to counter religious pressure in our schools?
MS: This is not an easy question because it centers on the question of who should control the curriculum of the schools. What should be the rightful balance between the role of public (who actually pay for the running of the schools and elect school boards and the like), the discipline experts (who know specific content in depth), and the pedagogy experts (who have good ideas on how best to teach)? If they all work together, things can be great. But what does one do when there are conflicts? I am not sure how these issues are resolved in other countries. In the US, since the US has specific constitutional provisions to deal with this issue, the courts also get into the picture.
On the specific issue of science and religion, the problem is largely the gap between what scientists think science is and what good science content consists of, and what the general public thinks about these two things. As long as that gap persists, there is going to be tension. I am, of course, in favor of good science but I am also not too keen on giving too much power to scientists and technocrats. That can lead to a form of elitism and violates my basic sense of how democracies should function.
Interestingly enough, I am currently in the process of researching and writing about how the religion-evolution-legal skirmish has evolved in the US over the years. It will appear on my blog fairly soon and I may try and get it published in time for the big Darwin year of 2009, the 200th anniversary of his birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species.
MLU: I look forward to that. Like Darwin, you are both a scientist and an atheist -- aspects which arguably go hand-in-hand. And yet, some scientists are religious practitioners. In your experience working among your colleagues, how is it possible that some scientists are not atheists also?
MS: In some sense I have an inside track on this question because there was a time when I was both a scientist and a believer in god. What I did was try to either compartmentalize my views by not letting the two ideas interfere with another (by adopting a popular model that says something like science deals with the physical world while god deals with the spiritual world or something like that), or by creating glib explanations to explain away any contradictions. I was a scientist by day and a believer in god by night, so to speak. I think that most religious scientists do something similar.
This is not as hard to do as one might think. Most scientists work in a very, very narrow area of specialization. As long as you keep god out of that area, you can allow yourself to believe that god acts in other areas. For example, when I was religious and doing research in nuclear physics, it was easy for me to think of god as influencing people via their thoughts and consciousness and brains. There was no cost to me in allowing this since I was not working in those areas. Religious cognitive scientists probably also can find some area outside their field for god to act, and so on.
This model of separation does not really hold up under close scrutiny and for me personally it started falling apart when I tried to think more globally and tried to integrate the two worlds of science and religion into a single coherent philosophy, without glossing over the difficulties. I realized that the two worlds just did not fit together and something had to go. The one for which there was no evidence was the god part, and so it got abandoned. But one has to realize that within the world of science there is little discussion of these kinds of things so it is easy to hold onto this kind of makeshift philosophy. One has to be internally driven to examine it.
MLU: The Bush Administration has done little to promote science research and education, and in some cases has been openly hostile to science. To name but a few of many cases: the President has repeatedly vetoed legislation for stem cell research, and fails to lead the charge to find alternative forms of energy. His space initiative seems more concerned with filling pockets than launching rockets. Since you are an educator, I wonder what you hear "in the trenches" about our government's apathetic science policy. Will America lose its technological edge? If you were President, what would you do differently?
MS: America is really fortunate in that it has such a huge reserve of scientific intellectual capital that the idiotic policies of a single president are unlikely to destroy it entirely. But that does not mean the US should be too sanguine. Even very wealthy people can go bankrupt if they make bad financial decisions on a sustained basis, and so one should avoid repeatedly putting into power people who for whom everything is subordinate to religious and other non-scientific agendas. It is natural for politicians to think politically but this administration seems to think only politically and that attitude can do serious damage over the long term.
If I were president, I would try to increase the role of peer review in setting science priorities. I do not think that scientists alone should make the decisions, though. As I said earlier, I am a believer in democracy and think that regular people should also have a say in what is done in their name. So I would try and ensure that philosophers, ethicists, and the general public had the means to provide input into the decision making process, by having various layered levels of discussion.
MLU: You have my vote! Immediately after the 9/11 attacks, American evangelists were up in arms, pulling the "god card." They said that (our) god was with us during the tragedy, and that he would soon help us avenge the perpetrators of this horrible crime brought against our citizens. How they actually knew this to be true is beyond me, but on another level such talk struck me as absurd -- for it was precisely the kind of zealous religious thinking that motivated those who attacked us in the first place. What is it about religion that takes believers to such extremes?
MS: I think this is where Sam Harris's point discussed earlier (also made by Richard Dawkins) has particular relevance. Once you concede the idea of a god, you have ceased to think rationally in that area of your life, and are prey to those who preach extreme forms of religion. Of course, most people do not go so far, but that is because most people are not really that religious, though they say and act like they are. In the TV show House, someone asks the title character whether he is an atheist and he replies "Only on Christmas and Easter. The rest of the time it doesn't seem to matter." I think he is right. Most people are just nominally religious and unlikely to go off the deep end. It is the deeply religious who can be persuaded to do appalling things in the name of god because it is only they who will let their humane and ethical and common senses be overridden by the idea that god wants them to commit specific acts.
MLU: Judging by your writings you appear to be a pacifist, promoting peaceful dialogue and condemning war wherever it occurs. The recent Ken Burns television documentary on World War II highlighted the allied fight against Nazi Germany and Imperialist Japan in the early 1940's, which many feel was both inevitable and necessary. Do you believe there is ever a just cause for war?
MS: I think war is a terrible thing but I don't know that I am truly a pacifist. I can see a case being made to go to war but the bar has to be a lot higher that it currently is. I can see only one truly defensible reason for going to war: self-defense because of an actual attack on one's territorial integrity. Another reason for war might be in defense of helpless victims because of the occurrence of an ongoing genocidal or otherwise clear and imminent catastrophe. But this latter kind of war should only be executed with very wide international agreement, so that the case for intervention is clear and unambiguous, and is not the hidden agenda of a few interested parties or nations.
MLU: In a recent Machines Like Us interview, artificial intelligence researcher Steve Grand estimated that 20% of the information in his step children's school textbooks is inaccurate. Do you find this to be the case with college texts as well, and, if so, how do you deal with such misinformation as a teacher?
MS: If only 20% is inaccurate, I think we are doing pretty well! I myself don't worry too much about inaccuracies. What worries me more is that we don't teach in a way that encourages people to instinctively pose questions to themselves when learning anything, questions such as "How do we know…? Why do I believe…? What is the evidence for…?
People are always going to encounter wrong information. After all, the history of science is the story of scientists believing wrong things thinking that they were right. And yet science survived and even prospered. We cannot shield people from wrong information. The best we can do is give them the tools to recognize when something seems not quite right, to investigate questions for themselves, and to arrive at judgments based on evidence and reason.
MLU: In 1987 Alan Bloom published a controversial book called The Closing of the American Mind, in which he detailed his experience teaching college students. His main thesis was that American students had become promoters of what he called value relativism, becoming more subjective and egocentric with each new year. Have you noticed any similar trends among your students? As a group, have they changed over time?
MS: I read Bloom's book a long time ago and I did not think much of it. He came across as a bit of a misanthrope. I am not in general a believer in the "good old days" of students and I get annoyed by the generalizing labels we stick on young people, such as Gen X or Gen Y or Millenials. I have taught both in America and Sri Lanka. I think my students have changed over time but mainly in the kinds of knowledge they acquire and their level of technical savvy, and not in any fundamental way. I have always found them to be unchanged in the more important things and wonderful to work with -- curious, fun-loving, friendly, and respectful. They tend to have strong views on certain topics and defend them vigorously, but that is fine.
MLU: Finally, although this website deals with the specifics of evolution, cognition, artificial life, and artificial intelligence, its main point is that the universe's many components and processes are not beyond our reach but ultimately comprehendible. For the most part, religious practitioners are comfortable in their ignorance, leaving cosmic mysteries to "the will of god." We, of course, will have none of that, and work every day to improve our comprehension of the universe, life, and the human mind. As a physicist, how do you rate humanity's current -- and potential -- understanding of the universe?
MS: Of course, we have made huge gains in our understanding of how the world works and will undoubtedly make more. I don't know how we can quantify our present stage along this scale and won't even try. I do believe that the universe is comprehensible in terms of natural laws. I am a supporter of the ideas of strong AI, and think that the brain and all that it does follows from its material basis (which is largely determined by our evolutionary history) coupled with the knowledge that we are able to acquire as a result of our having developed language to pass on information. It is not inconceivable that there may be some kind of fundamental difficulty in our brain grasping its own workings, not because of any metaphysical reasons, but due to a problem of internal consistency in its structure, like a dog that cannot catch its own tail because of the limitations of its physical structure. But this is an area that I really need to study more. I am really quite ignorant of much of the work that has been done in this enormously fascinating field. While I think that physics was the dominant science of the twentieth century, I think that biology and the brain is the next frontier and where most of the excitement will be in the century.

Read more Machines Like Us interviews here.