I’m somewhat ambivalent about the New Atheists. On the one hand I fully support their rationalist critique of religion. On the other I think they largely miss the point: that the brain ‘constructs’ reality through developing explanatory narratives and that it really, really likes a good story. In fact we could almost say the brain is addicted to narrative and often prefers fiction to cold, hard facts: artifice vs science, artifice wins.

It seems to me that the balance lies in holding both worldviews simultaneously; in knowing truth from fiction, whilst being able to immerse oneself in the pleasure of narrative – from whence all art derives.

At first I found myself agreeing with Sam. I do think a science based ethics is possible and it should be based on a nuanced consequentialist justification.

I would change the objective of such an ethics from ‘well being’ to ‘achieving one’s highest potential’. It seems to me that the latter necessarily achieves ‘well being’ whilst ‘well being’ might easily be construed in a rather mediocre sense – it would be possible to settle for a vague sense of ‘well being’ that is rather less than one’s highest potential.

I also agree with him that neuroscience is revolutionising our understanding of the mind. My novel Wild Child is ultimately about how a brain can be wired quite differently (Bliss has synesthesia and some of Dobrowski’s Overexcitabilities).

I also agree that a new ethics must be based on the findings of neuroscience. However, as I continued I became more and more restless. I thought he began to meander. At first I thought it was just my ill disciplined attention span, but then I realised he was jumping around a bit: citing the findings of various psychologists and then jumping to settling an old score. I think this is a problem of attempting to write two books at once. Perhaps it would have been a better book if he had simply focused on the science.

Okay, now to the substantive criticisms.

First, where is there any mention of Kohlberg? He is missing completely, yet his work is central to understanding the problem of moral reasoning. Kohlberg based his work on Piaget’s cognitive stages to devise a theory on the development of moral reasoning. Sam barely acknowledges that there are clear developmental differences. He does what too many do, he assumes all adults are the same. In fact on page 175 he says, defending his fellow New Atheists:

We are merely guilty of assuming that our fellow Homo Sapiens possess the requisite intelligence and emotional maturity to respond to rational argument…

The problem is that they don’t: a fact he recognises in his discussion of psychopathology. But psychopathology is NOT the only cause of cognitive impairment. Innate intelligence is central to our ability to reason and it is a curious twist of evolution that human intelligence can range across a rather broad spectrum from the average 100 to suboptimal levels regarded as an intellectual disability to highly functioning ‘gifted’ categories. This has a solid ‘scientific’ basis. In their paper Brain imaging studies of intelligence and creativity: what is the picture for education? Haier and Jung outline the neuroscience of intelligence, pointing to the results of both PET and fMRI scans that show

(a) not all brains work the same way, (b) some optimal combination of tissue density and activation in frontal and more posterior brain regions appear to underlie both intelligence and creativity, and (c) in some cases less is more best characterizes neuroimaging results in terms of efficiency (with regard to intelligence) and disengagement (with respect to creativity).

What Kohlberg did was to show that those people with higher cognitive functioning also apply this greater intelligence to moral reasoning. An example of this might be the studies that show the prison populations tend to have a lower than average IQ.

Sam uses a sophisticated ‘postconventional’ level of moral reasoning. He should not expect someone locked into ‘conventional’ moral reasoning to appreciate his argument.

The second problem with the book is that Sam falls into the very trap he ‘sort of’ tries to acknowledge. I say ‘sort of’ because I don’t think he really succeeds. The problem is that of prejudice and cultural bias. To be considered truly scientific any ethics must be free of unjustified, non-evidential assumptions. Sam at least acknowledges the problem but fails to provide a solution. And then compounds the problem by making a number of moralistic pronouncements based on false assumptions. If he can’t be ‘strictly’ objective, how can he expect others to be?

I noticed his forays into moralising because I’m interested in the problem of sexual ethics. Sam ought to know that the scientific study of sex is perhaps the one area still deeply contaminated by moral bias. It is also highly political, particularly in the US. Okay, so let’s look at his unjustified assumptions and factual errors.

For instance, the role played by violent pornography in these cases is difficult to overlook. Child pornography alone – which, as many have noted, is the visual record of an actual crime – is now a global, multibillion-dollar industry, involving kidnapping, “sex tourism,” organized crime, and great technical sophistication in the use of the internet.

First let me say that Sam must know that this is a highly emotive subject and that is precisely the way he has written that passage. But what are the facts? He says “as many have noted” but does not cite any examples of anyone who has. Professor Phillip Jenkins (author of Beyond Tolerance: Child Pornography on the Internet)  who has done extensive studies into online child porn warns

…that we need to keep the problem in perspective, ‘since the actual number of traffickers is not vast’. He estimates that people involved in the hardcore child porn subculture number in the tens of thousands globally, certainly a disturbing number but one that represents only a tiny fraction of online material. Quoted from pg 153 The Porn Report

Now how does a relatively small global community create a “multibillion-dollar industry”? Given that many of the online networks distribute material for free?

Furthermore, forensic psychologists, the very people who are supposed to understand the connection between paedophilia and child porn are not all that confident. In an article in Science Daily forensic psychologist Dr Charles Scott says

…it’s difficult to say that any type of pornography causes someone to commit a sexual crime.

And a report from the Canadian Justice Department stated:

According to retrospective clinical studies, most sex offenders, including those convicted of offences against children, report minimal or no exposure to child pornography. This is at odds with the anecdotal reports by law enforcement officials, which imply that the majority of preferential child molesters collect child pornography.

So, who are “the many” again?

Another problem is that Sam conflates child porn with child prostitution, which, while morally obnoxious, is not new. Indeed, sadly, it is as old as prostitution itself and is a part of some cultures. Whilst Thailand is infamous for its ‘sex tourism’, the majority of clients are Thai men – the same applies to India.

The problem is one of definition. Inspector John Rouse of Queensland’s Taskforce Argos, a world leader in tackling child abuse, says the police do not use the term ‘child pornography’, preferring instead ‘child abuse materials’ (pg 151, The Porn Report). Surely Sam must be aware that the term ‘pornography’ is problematic?

Thus, contrary to many explanations that aspire to universality, pornography is not defined by the artistry in the form or the intention of the maker but by the judgment of the perceiver. For this reason the pornographic is a fluid category… Entry on Pornography, pg 768 The Classical Tradition

Indeed, so fluid that it varies from country to country and from time to time. In the US, Lolicon (and certain types of Hentai, Shojo-Ai and Shonen-ai) which does not involve the use of real children, is considered child porn but is entirely legal in its native Japan. Nor does all material that is legally defined as child porn consist of child abuse material. In many countries children and adolescents who transmit nude pictures of themselves to friends (sexting) can be charged with producing child porn.

A 'legal' example of a type of Japanese manga called shoujo-ai (girl-girl)

Okay, so why is all of this important? Well, such discussions are ultimately discussions about ethics and morality. Child pornography is rightly seen as a moral evil. But to be consistent, Sam must base any moral judgment on accurate terms and the evidence, not on vague terms and exaggerated generalizations.

One might forgive him if he didn’t repeat the same ‘moralizing’ mistake in another section:

Clearly, it is in the genetic interests of every man that he not spend his life rearing another man’s children, and it is in the genetic interests of every woman that her mate not squander his resources on another woman and her children…Even here, however, the link to evolution appears less than straightforward: as evolution should actually favour indiscriminate heterosexual activity on the part of men, as long as these SCOUNDRELS (my emphasis) can avoid squandering their resources… (pg 147)

Scoundrels? That’s a somewhat pejorative and emotive term for a rationalist to use. But as Sex at Dawn argues, it is not at all ‘clear’ that any of the above is ‘in fact’ true. In fact the book sets about demolishing the standard evolutionary argument and the above begins to sound like pseudo-science.

I mention all this because I think the problem of sexual morality will prove a real challenge to Sam’s science based ‘moral landscape’. What if the evidence leads us in directions that Sam seems uncomfortable with? Will his resolve crack and will he revert to an emotive response, especially when it involves children?

His rational morality might not be all that easy.