The Halo Effect and Super Happy Death Spirals

15 Jun

Recent posts have reminded me that no one is immune to Happy Death Spirals. I guess if I get nothing intelligent out of them (their point has already been addressed, reminding us that bad arguments are like roaches), those blogs are still a good example of what not to do from a cognitive science point of view; to remind myself that conclusions are never a good in and of themselves. That only correct methodology (the rules of logic and probability) is the “one true good”. Everything else is transitory:

Yesterday, I suggested that one key to resisting an affective death spiral is the principle of “burdensome details“—just remembering to question the specific details of each additional nice claim about the Great Idea. (It’s not trivial advice. People often don’t remember to do this when they’re listening to a futurist sketching amazingly detailed projections about the wonders of tomorrow, let alone when they’re thinking about their favorite idea ever.) This wouldn’t get rid of the halo effect, but it would hopefully reduce the resonance to below criticality, so that one nice-sounding claim triggers less than 1.0 additional nice-sounding claims, on average.

The diametric opposite of this advice, which sends the halo effect supercritical, is when it feels wrong to argue against any positive claim about the Great Idea. Politics is the mind-killer. Arguments are soldiers. Once you know which side you’re on, you must support all favorable claims, and argue against all unfavorable claims. Otherwise it’s like giving aid and comfort to the enemy, or stabbing your friends in the back.


  • …you feel that contradicting someone else who makes a flawed nice claim in favor of evolution, would be giving aid and comfort to the creationists;
  • …you feel like you get spiritual credit for each nice thing you say about God, and arguing about it would interfere with your relationship with God;
  • …you have the distinct sense that the other people in the room will dislike you for “not supporting our troops” if you argue against the latest war;
  • …saying anything against Communism gets you stoned to death shot;

…then the affective death spiral has gone supercritical. It is now a Super Happy Death Spiral.

What happens if “the existence of Jesus” is the Great Idea? You have to decide which side of the war you’re on. And of course, you just have to be on the side of the Great Idea. Now arguments are soldiers fighting for the Great Idea; any argument for the historicity of Jesus has to be good and must be supported (even if under normal circumstances it is a bad argument). Any argument or potential argument that could be used against the historicity of Jesus must be bad, and has to be fought at all costs.

This is war, folks. There is no mercy, no quarter, no solace for the enemy. They must be crushed and driven before you. Followed only by the lamentations of their women.

It just so happens that this mentality is exactly what creates an impenetrable wall of unfalsifiability around the Great Idea, even if the Great Idea would not be unfalsifiable absent a Super Happy Death Spiral.

Without thinking that conclusions must be defended at all costs, you start to see that there actually are some scraps of evidence that make better sense for the opposition than for you. To me, it’s highly unlikely that an all powerful god exists or that Christianity is true. Yet I’m not afraid to admit that some things make more sense under Christianity than under atheism. I’m not afraid to admit that there are some things that might make more sense under Creationism than evolution (I don’t know what those would be, but I don’t reject it out of hand). I’m not afraid of those sorts of evidences because resting an entire conclusion on them is the Base Rate Fallacy. P(E | H) is not P(H | E).

Similarly, there are some things that make more sense under Jesus mythicism than historicism (like Paul’s silence). And there are also things that make more sense under historicism than under mythicism (like brother of the Lord). Someone who is defending arguments with soldiers could never admit this, because it is giving ammunition to “the enemy”. Which leads to all types of sophistry. The true strength lies in methodology; of accumulating all evidence and seeing which hypothesis wins when all cards are put on the table.

But that cannot be done if the entire reason for the existence of your arguments is that they are soldiers fighting on the side of the Great Idea. This sort of thing leads to the absurdity of rejecting the laws of logic and probability and replacing it with your own flawed intuition.


Posted by on June 15, 2012 in cognitive science, jesus myth


3 responses to “The Halo Effect and Super Happy Death Spirals

  1. VinnyJH57

    June 17, 2012 at 2:03 am

    Christians accuse me of having an anti-supernatural presupposition, which is probably true. However, I do not have an anti-crazy-shit-I-can't-explain presupposition. I quite open to the possibility that Christians could come up with things that would make me say, "That's some crazy shit. That sure is a good one for your side."

  2. J. Quinton

    June 20, 2012 at 4:28 am

    I'm not sure it's fair that Christians accuse you of having an anti-supernatural bias. If they are positing some hypothesis that depends on the existence of the supernatural, and one is agnostic about the supernatural (50/50 either way), then necessarily that original hypothesis will have a less than 50% chance of being true.

  3. steph

    April 9, 2013 at 2:27 am

    While I know no modern evolved Christians who hold beliefs which contradict the evidence of science or natural order, I also know no conservative Christians who would concede their views on ‘God’ or would concede that their beliefs in peculiar events in time, are in any way ‘supernatural’. So I’m very surprised any Christians accuse Vinny of an anti ‘supernatural’ bias. ‘Supernatural’ as a term in philosophy has been deemed inadequate as a term and has been redundant since the nineteenth century. Unfortunately American atheists have resurrected it to slam at the religious and it has crept back into (mainly american) use.

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