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30 [deleted] 03 October 2010 02:47AM

I want to begin with a musical example.  The link is the Coronation Scene from Mussorsky's opera Boris Godunov, in which Boris is crowned Tsar while courtiers sing his praises.  The tune is quoted from an old Russian hymn, "Slava Bogu" or "Glory to God."  And, if I can trust the English subtitles, it's an apt choice, because the song in praise of the Tsar is not too far in tone from hymns in praise of God.  

There is a mode of human expression that I'll call praise, though it is different from the ordinary sort of praise we give someone for a job well done.  It glorifies its object; it piles glory upon glory; its aim is to uplift and exalt.  Praise is given with pomp and majesty, with visual and musical and verbal finery.  It is oddly circular: nobody is alluding to anything specific that's good about the Tsar, but only words like "supreme" and "glory."  Praise, in Hansonian terms, raises the status of the singers by affiliating with the object of praise.  But that curt description doesn't seem to capture the whole experience of praise, which is profoundly compelling, and very strange.

There are no more Tsars.  I can derive no possible advantage from a song in praise of a long-dead Tsar.  And yet I find the Mussorsky piece powerful, not just for the music but for the drama.  Praise also seems to attract people to traditional medievalist fantasy, with its rightful kings and oaths of fealty -- Tolkien, perhaps not coincidentally, included a praise song in his happy ending.  Readers gain no status from the glorification of imaginary kings.  African praise songs were sung not only to kings, gods, and heroes, but to plants and animals, who obviously cannot grant anything to those who praise them.  

I would suspect that there is a distinct human need filled by praise.  We want very badly for something to be an unalloyed repository of good.  It is not normally credible to conceive oneself as perfect, but we need at least something or someone to be worthy of praise. We want to look upwards, towards goodness and light; we want to be the kind of people who are capable of praise, capable of a reverent and appreciative frame of mind.  Unappreciativeness is an ugly emotion.  And it makes it much cognitively simpler if all the goodness and light is in one place.  James Joyce's notes to his play Exiles express something of this idea: "Robert is glad to have in Richard a personality to whom he can pay the tribute of complete admiration, that is to say, one to whom it is not necessary to give always a qualified and half-hearted praise. "

Rationalism would seem to require the end of praise that is anything but qualified.  After all, nothing in the empirical world is a perfect repository of all goodness, unless you define goodness in an unusual way.  Praise, of the kind offered to Tsar Boris or Shaka Zulu, would seem to have no place in our world.  It is irrational, except maybe as a sop to our frailty and sense of beauty. And yet Daniel Dennett, after nearly dying, thanked "goodness" for his recovery: the goodness of medicine, of the efforts and concerns of everyone who helped him.  "Goodness," which is found in many places, and in varying degrees, may be worthy of praise and a thing of glory, even if we have no Boris Godunov to praise.

Eliezer wondered why our kind can't cooperate.  But "our kind" do collaborate on projects: scientists and programmers do build and experiment together.  The technophile/libertarian/atheist/futurist cluster is excellent about sharing information and has no difficulty forming group organizations.  We're not bad at collaboration.  What we seem to have a problem with is praise.  As Eliezer mentioned, we criticize far more than we praise. And, though we sometimes take it to unreasonable extremes, the resistance to praise is not altogether irrational. We recognize praise as dangerous: the impulse to glorify is the same impulse that raises up monarchs and dictators and forms cults.  We call it the Dark Arts.

And yet it's really difficult to face living in a world without vast glory.  Even if you accept that "goodness" can be decentralized, scattered wherever people are doing good or remarkable things, it's more difficult to conceive of decentralized, abstract goodness than to picture all goodness residing in one visible person or thing.  There are distinctly atheist/futurist images of glory: the deepness of space, the march of science, the FOOM of the Singularity.  But these are not rationalist images.  Science progresses in fits and starts, and is plagued by ordinary fallibility and self-interest; there is no guarantee of a technological paradise ahead; even Space is a metaphor for certain evolution-based emotions, not really a deity. It seems that any form of glory, when examined critically, becomes qualified and limited.  If there are rationalist praise songs, they must be humbler. You can praise a heroic doctor (but he's not God), you can sing of the crash of the sea (but the sea is not God), you can hymn science (but science isn't God).  I don't know if this means that we need to curb our love of praise, or if we need to put a brighter emotional valence on these limited forms of praise.  

We can't sing "Glory be to Gauss in the Highest!"  Can we ever be satisfied with merely "Glory be to Gauss!"?


EDIT: In the comments I've seen a few types of responses.

1.  "Praise mode" (or, variously, adoration, glorification, worship) is a Bad Thing.  It's blind and unrealistic. It's what we're trying to get away from as rationalists.  There's no reason to miss its absence, and in fact it's unpleasant.

2. What's wrong with praising actual good things?  Nothing says they have to be perfect.  [I think this misunderstands the nature of praise mode.  Recognizing that apples or kindness are wonderful is not the same as a ritual of adoration.  I think this is really a variant of 1.]

3. Praise is attractive and compelling, but probably needs to be kept in check.  (Witness the large number of us who like Christian choral music, and also that several of us express discomfort with it and feel guilty about writing or performing it.)

4. Yes, you can go into "praise mode" in a secular or scientific way, and it's wonderful!  Hail Sagan!

Comments (103)

Comment author: [deleted] 03 October 2010 03:35:59AM *  4 points [-]

Can we give high praise to a person who changes their beliefs in a rational fashion and overcomes their emotional connection to said beliefs in the name of rationality? That, to me, is extraordinarily praiseworthy and seems to fall into the category of rationalist images of glory.

Comment author: Will_Newsome 03 October 2010 07:18:06AM 2 points [-]

It is important to remember that it's better to be right in the first place than to have to overcome a silly belief. And it is better to do so in the name of protecting that which you love than in the name of rationality itself.

Comment author: [deleted] 03 October 2010 02:12:55PM 2 points [-]

That's quite poetic, and I think I agree, especially with the idea of "something to protect." However, not everyone has the luxury of being right the first time around...

Comment author: pjeby 03 October 2010 03:43:04AM 1 point [-]

I have to say, I was really, really looking forward to the new insight or solution at the end of your post that would solve this problem, and was rather disappointed that one wasn't there.

Nonetheless, I shared my praise in the form of an upvote. ;-)

Comment author: [deleted] 03 October 2010 03:48:46AM 0 points [-]

Nah, SarahC's just following Eliezer's example and leaving it as an exercise for the reader :)

Comment author: Perplexed 03 October 2010 03:53:59AM 2 points [-]

We still sing songs of praise. We just don't sing them to people.

Comment author: [deleted] 03 October 2010 03:58:26AM 2 points [-]

And don't forget this one.

Comment author: [deleted] 03 October 2010 04:49:19AM 1 point [-]

I know, but my guess is that LW members are skeptical or ironic about these "songs of praise" (and I deliberately left out their counterparts in contemporary politics, but I hadn't forgotten about that.)

I have a favorite of my own.

Comment author: dclayh 04 October 2010 04:46:50PM 0 points [-]

Don't you think that one's a bit creepy, what with the Nazi-style saluting?

Comment author: [deleted] 04 October 2010 04:51:39PM 0 points [-]

The charm and creep are intermingled, as they almost always are with this style of music.

Comment author: komponisto 03 October 2010 04:17:04AM *  2 points [-]

A great point, which I myself alluded to here.

I have at times felt a desire -- perhaps even "need" is not too strong a word -- to compose a Mass setting. No secular text that I can think of seems to have quite the same level of solemnity (for lack of a better word) required to serve for a worthy successor to the Mass settings of the past. I'm not sure how much of this is due to a lack of imagination on my part, and how much is due to the fact that the perception of the Mass text is the result of cultural factors beyond my individual control, and beyond the content of the text itself. But in any case I fear I may be stuck with "yes, I'm an atheist, but only this would do."

Of course, I'll gladly take suggestions, if anyone has any.

Comment author: Mass_Driver 03 October 2010 05:22:04AM 5 points [-]

Two challenges:

*Have you tried to come up with a secular text? For a full five minutes? As opposed to, you know, generating reasons why there weren't likely to be any. If so, what was your best (but ultimately inadequate) possible text?

*To what extent are you looking for 'solemnity' rather than 'tradition'? Obviously no secular text will be as rich in traditional meaning and allusive power as the Mass, because no secular text has been in use for hundreds of years. But, if you choose a good one, maybe someday there -will- be a secular text that has an equally rich tradition: the one you chose and that future generations also worked with. If this doesn't seem to be the problem, can you come up with a working definition of "solemnity?"

Comment author: komponisto 03 October 2010 06:37:36AM *  1 point [-]

*To what extent are you looking for 'solemnity' rather than 'tradition'?

Tradition is really the point here, now that I think about it. The bind I'm in is that while I can write string quartets, symphonies, or operas with impunity, it would feel somewhat hypocritical of me to write a Mass -- even though in the context of history that's just one more musical genre like the others I mentioned, with its own conventions that make it suitable for particular types of compositional expression.

I should probably just either get over my fear of hypocrisy in this context, or else give up on the direct traditional link and use a text of my own choice, making for a different kind of work, hopefully satisfactory in its own way, that could be perceived as (musically) "related" to the sacred genres of the past.

Comment author: Will_Newsome 03 October 2010 07:07:54AM *  4 points [-]

Have you looked into video game religious music for inspiration? The Hymn of the Fayth was profoundly moving to me, but that might be because Final Fantasy X was such a big part of my youth. It ain't a mass, but it has a certain solemnity and implied tradition that moves me.

Comment author: komponisto 03 October 2010 07:26:28AM 0 points [-]

Fictional religious texts were going to be my answer to Mass Driver's question about the next best thing, but I decided that didn't really count.

Comment author: Leonhart 03 October 2010 12:32:30PM 1 point [-]

Seconded. The more obscure Ar Tonelico was also good at this (the game's magic system involved singing complicated choiral pieces that were both hymns of praise to, and deliberate invocations of program code on, the world-computer that basically was the setting. Some of the characters had been doing this for a very long time.)

Comment author: sketerpot 03 October 2010 10:16:20PM *  0 points [-]

I'll second the recommendation: some of the music from the Ar Tonelico series is remarkably good stuff, and I listen to it regularly. Most of it could be used as sacred music, easily.

The one problem with the Ar Tonelico music is that it's hard to get a large group of people to sing it, because the harmony is too tricky for untrained singers. My favorite sacred music is the hardcore religious Christmas carols, when sung in a simple form by a group of ordinary people. It's a hell of a lot more fun than any professional rendition of those songs, with the exception of Sufjan Stevens, who really gets it.

Comment author: erratio 03 October 2010 09:15:35PM 1 point [-]

For me it was just the piece itself, and the way they changed the flavour of it for the different temples and whatnot. Basically I think that personally I could get away with 'music composed in the style of religious choral pieces' .

Just remembering it makes me wish I could track down a longer/more complete version of it. I would totally listen to a canon or whatever of it.

Comment author: NihilCredo 04 October 2010 02:19:50AM 3 points [-]

Write a Black Mass. Lots of attendees aren't huge believers already, and they are in sore need of some decent ceremonial music. Plus you won't feel intimidated by having to compare yourself to the great masters.

Comment author: [deleted] 03 October 2010 05:37:27AM 1 point [-]

I haven't actually had difficulty finding secular texts that inspire a sense of solemnity. If you want older language, which usually translates to a solemn tone, the St. Crispin's Day speech in Henry V is not religious in subject, but it is solemn. There is no lack of inspiring expressions whose subject is not religious.

Atheists don't often express themselves with the intent to inspire, but they do sometimes, and they can be fairly effective. I think Bertrand Russell did a good job, although he did write in prose. My point was that these expressions are either not absolute praise (i.e. science is a very good tool, but only a tool) or they're not really rational (i.e. "secular religion") or they're absolute praise of something almost too abstract to conceive (i.e. "Thank Goodness.")

Comment author: komponisto 03 October 2010 06:25:06AM 1 point [-]

I haven't actually had difficulty finding secular texts that inspire a sense of solemnity...There is no lack of inspiring expressions whose subject is not religious...My point was that these expressions are either not absolute praise...

This is why I expressed discomfort with the word "solemnity". I'm really after something more like "extreme emotions expressed with extreme dignity, in a way everyone recognizes."

In any case I did not mean to imply that there are no secular texts of depth or inspirational power. I just haven't yet succeeded in coming up with the appropriate successor to the musical tradition of religious settings. It feels like too specific of a genre.

Comment author: soreff 03 October 2010 09:54:26PM 1 point [-]

just haven't yet succeeded in coming up with the appropriate successor to the musical tradition of religious settings.

There is a portion of the Jurassic Park theme which certainly sounds liturgical...

Comment author: CronoDAS 04 October 2010 12:26:33AM *  0 points [-]
Comment author: LucasSloan 04 October 2010 12:31:03AM *  3 points [-]

May I suggest you format those with text in them, so people don't have to click the links to see what you're suggesting?

Perhaps something like:

Gettysburg Address
I have a Dream Speech

Comment author: magfrump 03 October 2010 05:11:48AM 0 points [-]

You mention the technophile/libertarian/atheist/futurist cluster... I remember someone else mentioning the secular/buddhist/scientific cluster in some comment chain, which resonates with me more, and I would guess has an easier time with Praise.

Comment author: [deleted] 03 October 2010 05:22:21AM 3 points [-]

What do Buddhists praise?

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 03 October 2010 05:29:10AM 1 point [-]

I assume the Buddha.

Comment author: magfrump 03 October 2010 05:46:51AM 2 points [-]

The beauty and confounding nature of life and existence!

Comment author: rhollerith_dot_com 03 October 2010 07:31:08AM *  2 points [-]

Some praise "His Holiness the Dalai Lama".

Comment author: Will_Newsome 03 October 2010 07:15:57AM -1 points [-]

I remember someone else mentioning the secular/buddhist/scientific cluster in some comment chain, which resonates with me more, and I would guess has an easier time with Praise.

'Twas me, and I second that guess. Once I experienced such bliss in meditation (a jhana, I think) that I couldn't help but sing out 108 'Om Mane Padme Hum's. In general I hope that LW gets better introduced to Buddhist thought. The good parts are really good, and there's a surprising amount of goodness. I'm rather surprised at e.g. Eliezer's bias against it; it makes me think he must've gotten a mouth full of badly Westernized Mahayana or something as a kid.

Comment author: magfrump 03 October 2010 07:46:06AM *  0 points [-]

I would love to see a post about the rationalist lessons of Buddhism or Taoism. I actually recently ordered copies of the Tao Te Ching and Zhuangzhi, maybe I will write something about them when they get here!

Of course the last time I said that about something I ended up never going through with it so we'll see how this time fares >.>

edit: perhaps this is a start.

Comment author: Will_Newsome 03 October 2010 08:01:25AM 0 points [-]

Yup, Luke's awesome. He has a blog too, if you want a LW rationalist's intro to meditative Buddhism. http://universalprocess.wordpress.com/

Comment author: [deleted] 03 October 2010 09:14:22PM 0 points [-]

Not sure how active my blog will be in the future. I'd rather write here instead. :-)

Comment author: Will_Newsome 04 October 2010 04:49:46AM 0 points [-]

Do itttttttt. By the way, how does one travel between Davis and Santa Clara? I'd like to meet up and discuss things or learn to rock climb or whatever if you're free much. If you don't have a car it'd probably be easier for me to drive to Davis.

Comment author: [deleted] 04 October 2010 05:01:00AM 0 points [-]

By the way, how does one travel between Davis and Santa Clara?

It's 2 hours by car but I have no car. Public transportation seems hellish. So you could either come to Davis or we could intersect halfway in Berkeley.

I'd like to meet up and discuss things or learn to rock climb or whatever if you're free much.

Heck yes! First we'll solve the cosmological measure problem, then celebrate by climbing in the lushness of Kalymnos.

Comment author: h-H 15 October 2010 11:10:07PM *  2 points [-]

hmm, another positive reference to Buddhism.. I'm personally biased against in all of it's versions, more than I am of say christianity etc-IMO it does not deserve all the praise/advertisement it's been getting on LW of late, and my bias aganst it is confirmed by the ease with which it has suddenly creeped up LW.

as a rationalist-not technophile/libertarian etc but as one who seeks to be more rational, do you seriously believe in what Buddhism preaches? all of it?

if you're going to cherry pick then why call it Buddhism and praise it so? I fail to see this as being "less wrong" in any way, maybe I just don't get it, and if so I would greatly appreciate a simple and rational explanation of why I-or Eliezer or anyone else-should take "good" Buddhism seriously in our pursuit of rationality?

my problem is mainly, the attachment of Buddhist teaching with 'meditation'-which seems to be universal and not only a Buddhist practice-of some value but not more than say studying human bias or generally reading the average LW top post.

Comment author: Will_Newsome 16 October 2010 11:56:56AM *  -1 points [-]

as a rationalist-not technophile/libertarian etc but as one who seeks to be more rational, do you seriously believe in what Buddhism preaches? all of it?

The fact that you ask this question is strong evidence you are being careless. You assume stupidity and are self-satisfied. You will never be a strong rationalist this way. You need to cultivate a sense that much more is possible.

if you're going to cherry pick then why call it Buddhism and praise it so?

Did not praise. I know that you know that your assumptions are mostly rhetorical. Still dangerous. Carelessness. Not moving in harmony with the Bayes. Begging for confirmation, is this disposition of assumption. You will be pulled off course by this. These simple skills of rationality must be perfected if one is to build very strong rationality, with very complex skills. Necessary if you are to use all of your cognitive aspects and limitations to achieve all that is possible. Only possible to use limitation of affective thoughts for good after one is very consistently strong rationalist. Must be able to hold a very steady course in mindspace, in conceptspace, in identityspace, before one can try to use powerful attractors like affect to accelerate along that course. Less Wrong folk cannot do this consistently. Almost no one can. Enlightened people, mostly; maybe others from other disciplines that I know not. I cannot yet do so. Perhaps not far, though.

I would greatly appreciate a simple and rational explanation of why I-or Eliezer or anyone else-should take "good" Buddhism seriously in our pursuit of rationality?

Less Wrong is not really worth my time, except as providing a motivation to write. The epistemological gap between Less Wrong and me is growing too wide. Eliezer I may talk to next time he's around, I guess. The epistemological gap between Eliezer and me is growing narrower. Still many levels above me is Eliezer, but I think only 2.2 levels or so. Easily surmountable with recursive self-improvement.

my problem is mainly, the attachment of Buddhist teaching with 'meditation'-which seems to be universal and not only a Buddhist practice-of some value but not more than say studying human bias or generally reading the average LW top post.

We do not live in Gautama's time. Almost all of Theravada is true, but most is not relevant for rationalists of my caliber.

  • Virtues that he preached, we mostly have now. Smart people are cultured enough to have these virtues and understand their motivations. Evolutionary psychology and cultivated compassion. So virtue part of Buddhism, not as important, I think.
  • Community part of Buddhism, sangha, very important; but having a peer group of strong rationalists intent on leveling up, is its own sangha, and one better than any that could have arisen almost anywhere in the past.

  • Mindfulness, insight, concentration, self-control; these are the third branch of Buddhism, and the part Less Wrong needs. Thus I focus on that part. I know about human bias. I have read nearly every Less Wrong post. But understanding the algorithms behind human bias from the inside, feeling the qualia of cognitive subsystems, building those qualia, being mindful of attractors in mindspace; these are important skills for a rationalist. Knowledge of a bias is a knowledge. Important one, but so very limited. Having the disposition of feeling biases as pulls on cognition, at all levels of complexity of cognitive algorithms: this is much stronger skill. Necessary to become superintelligence. Which is everyone's desire, no? It should be, I think. Would be their desire if they knew more, thought faster, were wiser and more compassionate. Meditation, not only way of building this skill. Just oldest and most studied one. Many have tread this path and passed on knowledge. The skills of good computational cognitive scientist, also strong. But no one writes about these skills. I think becoming superintelligent probably not possible without them. But meditation builds similar skills, and is close. Both are metaskills. Epistemological bootstrapping mechanisms. There are meta-metaskills for this. Well, there aren't yet, but I am building one, and others are building some. We sense that more is possible. Buddhism is silly. Meditation, less silly, but not important of itself. Just one metaskill. Soon more will be possible. Not sure if it will trickle down to Less Wrong. Probably not. The gap is too wide.

Comment author: h-H 28 October 2010 11:20:38PM *  0 points [-]

ok, I was careless, I apologize, still the argument remains unanswered satisfactorily..

my-and others'-main argument against meditation as a rationality increasing tool is that the less than perfect brains we have are not sufficient at dealing with biases and so forth. I can see that you've pretty much said the same or close to it in your reply above, so that's that.

P.S disjointed sentences?

Comment author: multifoliaterose 03 October 2010 05:59:53AM *  4 points [-]

I don't have a good answer to your question, but I have some choral musical recommendations I've found powerful in the same way that you find Slava! powerful.

I'd recommend the Bach choral works to interested readers. The major ones (St. John Passion, St. Matthew Passion, Mass in B Minor, Christmas Oratorio, Easter Oratorio) are all worth listening to, but there are also a couple hundred of cantatas. Unfortunately, the sheer number of cantatas makes the collection overwhelming and in my opinion there's an issue of uneven quality, but there are some really excellent pieces among them and I've found it worthwhile to spend time with them as well.

I also really like the Brahms German Requiem, particularly the sixth movement.

Will add more examples as they occur to me.

Comment author: [deleted] 03 October 2010 06:08:23AM *  6 points [-]


I'm a card-carrying member of the (surprisingly large) camp of Non-Christians who Like Church Music.

I like to think I'm in good company.

Comment author: gjm 03 October 2010 09:24:18AM 0 points [-]

It shouldn't really be that surprising; there's an awful lot of church music, after all -- it was a very important and greatly admired genre for many many years. (Not so much now, though composers still write masses and requiems every now and then.)

Is that really the link you intended? It seems to go to a performance by Paul Simon of his "American Tune", which doesn't (so far as I can tell) have anything to do with non-Christians liking church music.

Paul Simon does, however, seem to be a non-Christian who likes church music; one of the tracks on Simon and Garfunkel's first album was a version of a Benedictus setting by Orlando di Lasso.

Comment author: [deleted] 03 October 2010 11:42:29AM 0 points [-]

Yeah, that was on purpose: the melody of "American Tune" is from the Matthaeus Passion.

Comment author: gjm 03 October 2010 07:52:31PM 0 points [-]

Oh, how unobservant of me. Sorry about that.

Comment author: Vladimir_Golovin 03 October 2010 09:52:09AM *  1 point [-]

Thirded. I can't say I like the entire genre, but Bach's Johannes Passion (BTW a great recording, the closest I heard to the version used in Tarkovsky's 'Mirror') and Arvo Pärt's Te Deum and De Profundis are sublime.

Comment author: wedrifid 03 October 2010 10:08:11AM 4 points [-]

I was at a wedding yesterday of Christian friend I met before my apostasy. The service left me wistful, reminding me that I did enjoy some of the music. The lead musician was even a trumpeter, a role I used to play. I had to suppress the impulse to go and snatch the instrument away from him when it became clear that his lips were tiring and he wasn't quite able to keep the higher notes on pitch without the occasional warble.

Comment author: mindspillage 03 October 2010 11:29:16AM 1 point [-]

Me too. Although I am conflicted about performing it, and try to draw some lines in doing so: if it's being played as concert music outside a religious context generally I will, but in a context where it will be understood as a religious expression/promoting religious values, I generally won't...

Comment author: thomblake 04 October 2010 07:39:03PM 0 points [-]

It's not all that surprising to me. Some of our best music has long been Christian. "Christian Rock" is a strange anomaly.

Five Iron Frenzy is some of the best of third-wave ska, and they're an explicitly Christian band with Christian subject matter.

And, of course, Black Sabbath had Ozzy in the character of the devil and used Christian themes extensively.

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 05 October 2010 02:13:59PM 0 points [-]

For some reason, I really like H.E.R.R.'s The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth, which is pretty much pure praise to God. There's something appealing in the image of an innocent and completely devoted singer that the song evokes.

Comment author: h-H 15 October 2010 10:48:15PM 0 points [-]

a reaction to cuteness more than anything else?

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 17 October 2010 07:02:24PM 0 points [-]

That's quite possible, though I also like the other songs on that album. Not as much as that one, though.

Comment author: Will_Newsome 03 October 2010 06:37:11AM *  1 point [-]

Douglas Adams' favorite piece of music was Ach Bleib Bei Uns Herr Jesu Christ (BWV 649, I think). If you've read Dirk Gentley, that's the beautiful music Dirk hears.

Comment author: mindspillage 03 October 2010 11:49:06AM 3 points [-]

I don't generally enjoy Mozart, but his Requiem is incredible.

"Salvation is Created" is a choral piece by Pavel Tchesnokov, mindblowingly beautiful, especially with a good section of deep Russian basses.

Many Renaissance masses and motets also, Josquin and Palestrina especially.

I am almost grateful these aren't usually performed in services--I won't speak of Bach, since it is almost worth pretending to have found faith just to sing in the church choir.

Comment author: AdeleneDawner 03 October 2010 01:06:37PM 0 points [-]

it is almost worth pretending to have found faith just to sing in the church choir.

It's too bad VOIP isn't reliably good enough for us to arrange our own choir.

Comment author: multifoliaterose 03 October 2010 02:11:24PM 0 points [-]

I don't generally enjoy Mozart, but his Requiem is incredible.

I feel the same way :-)

Thanks for the other references, I'll check them out.

Comment author: Interpolate 03 October 2010 12:57:05PM *  1 point [-]
Comment author: komponisto 03 October 2010 09:14:20PM *  2 points [-]

I suppose I'd better contribute to this list, since (a) I made another comment about possibly writing sacred music, and (b) no one has yet mentioned:

Comment author: multifoliaterose 03 October 2010 09:42:27PM 0 points [-]

Well, we have similar tastes :-)

Comment author: anonym 04 October 2010 08:55:12AM 0 points [-]

What's the other of your two most aesthetically perfect musical compositions?

Comment author: komponisto 04 October 2010 05:03:08PM 0 points [-]

The first movement of the Eroica symphony.

Comment author: Vladimir_M 03 October 2010 10:11:41PM *  4 points [-]

I'm surprised nobody mentioned Handel's Messiah. The Hallelujah chorus is, in my opinion, one of the best practical illustrations of the theme of the above article.

The traditional Catholic hymn Te Deum sounds beautifully solemn when sung as an a cappella Gregorian chant, but when done in an arrangement for chorus and organ, it is, for me at least, mind-blowing. (Of course, a Youtube recording doesn't come close to the experience of hearing it live in a church with a large organ.)

As for the Russian Orthodox music, this rendering of Grechaninov's Credo is one of my favorite vocal performances I've ever heard.

Comment author: [deleted] 03 October 2010 11:44:25PM 1 point [-]

A big one for me is Ein Feste Burg (BWV 80)

Comment author: multifoliaterose 04 October 2010 12:33:56AM 0 points [-]

Same here. I got to know it well because it was on the first cantata CD of the collection Bach Edition: Complete Works (155 CD Box Set).

Comment author: cousin_it 03 October 2010 08:54:08AM *  10 points [-]

Funny, when I read your post I immediately thought about Eliezer's writings, especially HP:MoR. One of the very few things I dislike about his style is that he sometimes goes into this "praise mode" all of a sudden and it feels very jarring. (Maybe I just have atypical tastes. My favorite sentence in MoR so far was "You're annoying. You should die.")

Comment author: sketerpot 03 October 2010 10:13:40PM *  1 point [-]

I'm not sure what you mean. Can you think of any particularly jarring examples, offhand?

Comment author: cousin_it 03 October 2010 10:24:21PM *  4 points [-]

Harry's thoughts toward the end of chapter 45 and his speeches (e.g. "I have a dream") in chapter 47. I couldn't even read them.

Comment author: MichaelVassar 16 October 2010 03:36:17PM 3 points [-]

Well how do you recommend we destroy dementors?

Comment author: NihilCredo 16 October 2010 04:01:16PM 1 point [-]

Throw them into the Sun?

Comment author: [deleted] 19 October 2010 12:49:26AM *  0 points [-]
Comment author: Alicorn 19 October 2010 03:15:14AM 6 points [-]

That link was nearly as bad as TV Tropes. I only just escaped.

Comment author: MartinB 19 October 2010 01:14:30PM 0 points [-]

SCP Foundation is linked from tvtropes. A lot.

Comment author: wedrifid 19 October 2010 01:50:19AM 3 points [-]

You have to be careful with the whole 'destroy the enormously destructive thing by throwing into the sun' move. Unless you know what you're doing the Sun might lose!

Comment author: MartinB 19 October 2010 01:19:08PM 0 points [-]

Some people even blow up suns in their spare time. Carter or McKay or Soran?

Comment author: wedrifid 19 October 2010 01:58:35AM 2 points [-]

Well how do you recommend we destroy dementors?

I don't know, but if the secret to Patronus 2.0 really is nausea I'm sure there is a better way...

Comment author: wedrifid 19 October 2010 01:51:42AM *  2 points [-]

Maybe I just have atypical tastes. My favorite sentence in MoR so far was "You're annoying. You should die."

Atypical perhaps, but not unique (I can assure you).

There was a compulsion to chew and swallow chocolate. The response to compulsion was killing.

People had gathered around and stared. That was annoying. The response to annoyance was killing.

Other people were chattering in the background. That was insolent. The response to insolence was to inflict pain, but since none of them were useful, killing them would be simpler.

Comment author: ShardPhoenix 03 October 2010 11:06:51AM 3 points [-]

I think this kind of thing may be at least partly driven by the desire for (extra-rational if necessary) unity amongst the praisers.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 03 October 2010 11:19:31AM 5 points [-]

I don't find some of your arguments convincing. I agree with this:

  • Praise taps into an emotional aspect of human mind, and so is sometimes pursued terminally, irrespective of its instrumental value (praising plants).

I'm not moved by:

  • Praise should be used exclusively to identify perfect things, and this is required by "rationalism". (If there is an emotional need for praise, it's marginally good to praise even random things, so if anything you should find something real to praise, not stipulate an almost-empty category. Goodness certainly fits the bill. "Rationalism" is never an argument in itself.)
  • Collaborating on projects in the cases you listed is related to Eliezer's article.
  • Stylistic disbalance of praise/criticism is justified by the danger of praise. (We don't seem to actually have this disbalance problem on LW; if disbalance is a problem, then the direction of improvement is more praise, not less, you can't argue both ways in the same situation.)
  • The concept of "rationalist images".
  • There not being a guarantee to implement X is an argument about X's properties. (This is even worse for "goodness".)

Overall, you seem to use "rationality" as a curiosity-stopper, giving it as a reason for some of your arguments, but not unpacking it to get at the actual reasons that can move the opponent.

Comment author: [deleted] 03 October 2010 12:03:19PM 4 points [-]

Thanks; I did write this all in one go and I may actually need to unpack the ideas better.

  1. I suspected that "goodness" would be something that one need have no qualms about praising -- the difficult with "goodness" is that it's hard to visualize it, not that there's anything wrong with praising it.

On whether it's "rational" to praise things at random -- the issue is, you have to believe your praise to some extent. Vladimir, you can say in a comment that it's good to praise even random things. But are you really going to say, with sincerity, "Oh Bayes from whom all blessings flow"? You can't, because that's a kind of willful self-deception: all blessings do not flow from Bayes. I'm saying that unless you turn your brain off from time to time, you're not going to be able to go into praise mode. If you know how to do otherwise -- if you can think of an example that you'd be able to carry out -- then do let me know.

  1. Are you saying that there is not more criticism than praise on LW? Just counting up comments, there is; it doesn't feel like a particularly critical environment because the tone is civil and there are areas of broad agreement, but we do criticize more than we praise.

  2. I've seen distinct criticism around here for, say, Kurtzweilian AI -- painting a picture of a utopia, claiming that it's likely to come about, without much justification, in fact letting the image of the utopia be most of the justification. Using "applause lights" is frowned on here. So, yes, there are some images that are irrational (if you believe in them.)

  3. Could you pray to goodness? Could you have a spiritual or transcendent relationship with a remote possibility (like very good future technology)? Would you want to? I would be surprised if anyone's answer here was "yes," but I can't see anything wrong with saying "yes." It just seems like it would bother people.

Comment author: Denseboy_Sparse 05 October 2010 04:09:17AM 1 point [-]

are you really going to say, with sincerity, "Oh Bayes from whom all blessings flow"?

We've come a long, long way together Through the hard times and the good I have to cerebrate you, baby I have to bayes you like I should

Comment author: wedrifid 05 October 2010 05:09:06AM 0 points [-]

Could you pray to goodness? Could you have a spiritual or transcendent relationship with a remote possibility (like very good future technology)? Would you want to? I would be surprised if anyone's answer here was "yes," but I can't see anything wrong with saying "yes." It just seems like it would bother people.

MoR:Harry comes pretty damn close.

Comment author: Craig_Heldreth 03 October 2010 02:36:10PM 16 points [-]

I think the praise appetite in western civilization is now filled by people like Tom Brady and Lebron James and Lady Gaga. When you go to a National Football League stadium on a fall Sunday afternoon, you see a communal ritual of adoration and submerging of self into group. It is fundamentally not rational.

I do not think rationalists have anything in this dimension. The closest that comes to mind is from Cosmos and Carl Sagan is standing on his star-trek-style set gazing at images of galaxies and whatnot and he has this look on his face of sex- or drug- or rock-and-roll- induced glow. Carl Sagan was a great rationalist and that television series was one of the greatest, but I found and continue to find that image disgusting.

Kind of how I imagine a Philadelphia Eagles fan and dog lover feels about rooting for Michael Vick today.

Comment author: [deleted] 03 October 2010 06:01:06PM 9 points [-]

Voted up, because I'm not sure I indicated well enough that praise has a dark side (and that some people might not find it appealing at all.) You defined it better than I did: "A communal ritual of adoration and submerging of self into group."

This is both compelling to many and repugnant to many. There are whole identities constructed around avoiding rituals of adoration, and instead valuing level-headedness and critical thinking. When democracies were founded, they deliberately avoided these kinds of monarchical displays of praise. I have seen fantasy novels, religion, celebrity culture, and contemporary politics criticized precisely because of the element of praise: some find that kind of worship "disgusting" and slavish.

Personally, I find praise intellectually troubling but emotionally compelling.

Comment author: sludgepuddle 05 October 2010 02:52:43AM 0 points [-]

Perhaps I'm just being dense, but I don't really get what Carl Sagan's look has to do with praise, or why you should find it disgusting.

Comment author: Craig_Heldreth 05 October 2010 01:08:45PM 4 points [-]

I am not describing Carl Sagan's default facial expression when on camera during his series, which I would describe as more of wonder and curiosity and "hey look at this cool thing I found out!"; this I enjoy and empathize with completely.

I am talking about those specific scenes which are patterned after the Star Trek television show on the set of the bridge of the starship Enterprise where the big video display has the stars whooshing by. In those scenes in Cosmos they have astronomical features--images of galaxies and nebula and planets and asteroids--on his "spaceship" monitor and they have closeups of Carl Sagan's orgasm look. The look the guys have in porno when they tell her "oh baby it's never been like this before".

Not that I have any provable idea what Sagan looked like when he had an orgasm. But I believe I do have a pretty good idea what Sagan's O face looked like after watching those scenes in Cosmos. I find that disgusting.

That is the risk with an appeal to emotion. If it is ineffective you can turn your audience off. Disgust them. The Enterprise bridge staging may have worked great in a cartoon Cosmos with Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny. In the real series it did not work for me at all.

Comment author: simplicio 03 October 2010 05:34:42PM *  4 points [-]

Glory be to Gauss in the Highest!

I think I just found the electrical engineering club their new T-shirt slogan. :)

So the problem is that when I start singing (badly) along to Jauchzet, Frohlocket or something, I might feel vaguely guilty because I'm getting emotionally carried away by music with an irrationalist message.

One of the most helpful of Eliezer's memes to me, has been to ask if State-of-Mind X is "something the truth can kill." Applying that criterion, I find I can easily get swept up in the music and in the posture of praise, but when it's over I discover that I don't believe anything I didn't believe before. Introspecting, I find that the feeling of praise - for me, at least - does not involve thinking about truth claims. It's purely emotional. (Not understanding the language being sung is very helpful.)

As to rationalists doing their own praising on their own terms... well, maybe we need to get less self-conscious as a movement before we're capable of that. Maybe when there are 15 existing hymns to the Andromeda galaxy, the 16th will be loved on pure aesthetic merit, rather than being something atheists dutifully praise to support the home team. Gravitas is pretty hard to get without the weight of tradition behind it.

Comment author: JenniferRM 05 October 2010 01:50:42AM 2 points [-]

Maybe when there are 15 existing hymns to the Andromeda galaxy, the 16th will be loved on pure aesthetic merit, rather than being something atheists dutifully praise to support the home team.

Indeed, a still more glorious dawn of artistic creation does await us!

...if no amen, then perhaps someone can give me a tortured groan? Any takers? Any takers? :-D

Comment author: JGWeissman 05 October 2010 02:24:10AM 2 points [-]

Yay slogans!

Comment author: rwallace 04 October 2010 01:29:45AM 6 points [-]

Good post, but I'm just not seeing why the emotion in question should in any way require a factual statement that something is (unattainably) perfect. Maybe this is just a basic philosophical difference? Certainly when I listen to some of these songs (highly recommended, BTW), I'm pretty sure it's with the same emotion (including the same neural circuits) with which a devout Christian listens to hymns, without any requirement that perfection come into it.

Comment author: [deleted] 04 October 2010 12:22:28PM 0 points [-]

Well, what's questionable is not so much whether the thing is perfect, as whether the attitude of adoration is appropriate to it. Can you get swept up in one of these moving secular songs, and then afterwards think that their subject actually deserved that depth of emotion? It sounds like you can, in which case: you probably have your answer.

Comment author: rwallace 04 October 2010 03:25:17PM 0 points [-]

Right: yes, I can.

Comment author: Armok_GoB 08 October 2010 01:48:34PM 1 point [-]

I'd give this 16 upvotes if I could. For awesome music link. Thanks!

Related to this, I assume everyone here has heard Symphony of Science?

Comment author: Dustin 04 October 2010 03:27:00AM 2 points [-]

I find the beliefs raised here to be quite alien to me, so I have a hard time understanding what the actual point is.

For example, I don't understand what this means:

And yet it's really difficult to face living in a world without vast glory.

Or this:

We want very badly for something to be an unalloyed repository of good. It is not normally credible to conceive oneself as perfect, but we need at least something or someone to be worthy of praise. We want to look upwards, towards goodness and light; we want to be the kind of people who are capable of praise, capable of a reverent and appreciative frame of mind.

Except for the last part...I do want to be the sort of person who can be appreciative of the things and people around me. I just totally disconnect from the rest of that.

Comment author: [deleted] 04 October 2010 06:57:52AM *  4 points [-]

Slava Bogu na višavah in na Zemlji mir ljudem!

I understand where you are coming from, these affects can be powerful, however singing rationalist hymns seems in a very basic way wrong to me. Whenever I get swept up by a hymn it is because I indulge (or so I believe) in accepting the values it really promotes.

A hymn feels to me like rejoicing the object you value of existing. It induces the belief that the very existence of God, the Revolution, the Tsar or some undefined X in itself hold value, and you then after excepting this premise rejoice and give up a part of yourself for the "common cause", melding with the others in intent. A intent to keep things as they are, or perhaps to aspire to make even more X-like or to make sure as much of existence is touched by X.

Rationalism dosen't really include ultimate values and this is why I feel uncomfortable risking making proxy values that help me achieve my primary values creep into the same emotional space.

What I just wrote is completely based on introspection, I can't really know if a hymn,anthem or whatever fits the OP, really can or does hijack my value system without (or perhaps with) my consent. But it sure feels like it.

Comment author: [deleted] 04 October 2010 12:17:31PM 1 point [-]

This isn't a post arguing for rationalist hymns. I'm skeptical that there can be rationalist hymns, for the reasons you mentioned. It's doubtful that there are any ultimate values -- it's even more doubtful that anything concrete and easy to visualize, like a single person, is an ultimate value. In a sense, what I'm talking about here is worship. Is there anything that it's all right for rationalists to worship?

I think the answer's probably "no," and I'm trying to find out if there's any way that can be made less disappointing.

Comment author: JohannesDahlstrom 04 October 2010 12:41:51PM 6 points [-]

African praise songs were sung not only to kings, gods, and heroes, but to plants and animals, who obviously cannot grant anything to those who praise them.

I'm not denying the powerful psychological effect of praise in these cases, but the animistic religions of a large number of indigenous hunter-gatherer cultures do assert that plants and animals (or, more accurately, their respective spirits) have agency, and that good fortune on future h/g excursions may be ensured by respectful behaviour towards the spirits in question.

Comment author: FrankAdamek 04 October 2010 03:14:36PM 0 points [-]

If certain bounds and constraints are considered to be inescapable, then under that assumption perfection too will abide by those constraints. It may be impossible to create a perfectly efficient engine, so our ideal of a real perfect engine won't be perfectly efficient. It is the difference between defining perfection as "without flaw" or as "best possible".

While this at first seemed to be a historically-recent, rational sort of re-framing, upon reflection it seems to be an ever-present assumption. Boris Godunov may have been seen as a "most glorious Tsar," but he didn't automatically generate limitless food out of the earth, conquer the world with a snap of his fingers, or solve every marital dispute in the country. Nobody expected that even in their ideal, everyone put assumptions of limitation on their idea of perfection. Likewise, even if you could create a perfectly efficient engine, wouldn't it be even better if it would make also make your favorite food, whenever you wanted, without your even asking? Perhaps reverence and praise has less to do with something being perfect than it does with something being really, really good.

Taken to one extreme, with sufficient limitations each person is the best possible person they could be. It is difficult or even impossible to make the brain really admire that kind of greatness, when it's spread everywhere with no gradient, and I myself haven't done it. To move somewhat close to it though may be both helpful and healthy, e.g. to see some measure of glory in a person's imperfect but significant victories over their personal limitations and weaknesses.

All in all, I don't think it is impossible to praise as well as ancient non-rationalists used to. It may be impossible to praise in the same way as they did, but I think it's very possible to praise as well as they did. For one thing, our future contains far better things than theirs did, in entities, institutions, and joys. None of us are angels, but that doesn't mean we won't be post-singularity, and that our current, godshatter-limited, halting efforts won't be enough to get us there. While I'm sure this has been mentioned in some other comment, I think that Eliezer spoke of glory when he spoke of all the trembling hands reaching up out of so much blood. With a proper accounting of how hard life can be, I think that real glory really can be seen all around us.

Comment author: wnoise 04 October 2010 03:55:27PM 2 points [-]

It may be impossible to create a perfectly efficient engine, so our ideal of a real perfect engine won't be perfectly efficient.

Our ideal is presumably an efficiency expressed as a number. Any efficiency less than 1 can be reached. Any efficiency less than 1 will have a higher efficiency that is still less than 1, and can be reached. Therefore no efficiency less than 1 can be our ideal.

Comment author: KennethMyers 04 October 2010 05:35:02PM 0 points [-]

SarahC, you've struck a chord with me. You've put my own secret thoughts into plain words, and Emerson is chastising me for it., (". . . to-morrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another.")

Amazing how often this blog can do that.

Anyways, on the subject - a little - I've found that Teilhard de Chardin (who worked on the Peking Man dig and talked about the intelligence explosion a year before I.J. Good, but everyone ignores because he was also a priest) was a man uniquely capable of writing hymns to science, such as:

(This should be read aloud, only, while listening to this: http://listen.grooveshark.com/#/s/Everyday/22o18a)

B. Science

Taken in the full modern sense of the word, science is the twin sister of mankind. Born together, the two ideas (or two dreams) grew up together to attain an almost religious valuation in the course of the last century. Subsequently they fell together into the same disrepute. But that does not prevent them, when mutually supporting one another as they do, from continuing to represent (in fact more than ever) the ideal forces upon which our imagination falls back whenever it seeks to materialise in terrestrial form its reasons for believing and hoping.

The future of science . . . As a first approximation it is outlined on our horizon as the establishment of an overall and completely coherent perspective of the universe. There was a time when the only part ascribed to knowledge lay in lighting up for our speculative pleasure the objects ready made and given around us. Nowadays, thanks to a philosophy which has given a meaning and a consecration to our thirst to think all things, we can glimpse that unconsciousness is a sort of ontological inferiority or evil, since the world can only fulfil itself in so far as it expresses itself in a systematic and reflective perception. Even (above all, maybe) in mathematics, is not 'discovery' the bringing into existence of something new? From this point of view, intellectual discovery and synthesis are no longer merely speculation but creation. Therefore, some physical consummation of things is bound up with the explicit perception we make of them. And therefore, they are (at least partially) nights who situate the crown of evolution in a supreme act of collective vision obtained by a pan-human effort of investigation and construction.4

Knowledge for its own sake. But also, and perhaps still more, knowledge for power.

Since its birth, science has made its greatest advances when stimulated by some particular problem of life needing a solution; and its most sublime theories would always have drifted, rootless, on the flood of human thought if they had not been promptly incorporated into some way of mastering the world. Accordingly the march of humanity, as a prolongation of that of all other animate forms, develops indubitably in the direction of a conquest of matter put to the service of mind, Increased power for increased action. But, finally and above all, increased action for increased being.

Of old, the forerunners of our chemists strove to find the philosophers' stone. Our ambition has grown since then. It is no longer to make gold but life; and in view of all that has happened in the last fifty years, who would dare to say that this is a mere mirage? With our knowledge of hormones we appear to be on the eve of having a hand in the development of our bodies and even our brains. With the discovery of genes it appears that we shall soon be able to control the mechanism of organic heredity. And with the synthesis of albuminoids imminent, we may well one day be capable of producing what the earth, left to itself, seems no longer able to produce: a new wave of organisms, an artificially provoked neo-life,5 Immense and prolonged as the universal groping has been since the beginning, many possible combinations have been able to slip through the fingers of chance and have had to await man's calculated efforts in order to appear. Thought might artificially perfect the thinking instrument itself; life might rebound forward under the collective effect of its reflection. The dream upon which human research obscurely feeds is fundamentally that of mastering, beyond all atomic or molecular affinities, the ultimate energy of which all other energies are merely servants; and thus, by grasping the very mainspring of evolution, seizing the tiller of the world.

I salute those who have the courage to admit that their hopes extend that far; they are the pinnacle of mankind and I would say to them that there is less difference than people think between research and adoration.

Comment author: Perplexed 04 October 2010 06:53:56PM 2 points [-]

A complimentary reference to Teilhard de Chardin cannot be allowed to stand in a forum about rationality unless a link to this classic book review by Peter Medawar is also present.

Comment author: [deleted] 04 October 2010 08:22:07PM 1 point [-]

Yes! Chardin's writing certainly seems like praise or worship, but I'm not at all sure that it's saying something correct.

Comment author: Perplexed 04 October 2010 08:45:13PM *  1 point [-]

Ah, yes. I had almost forgotten the context. This thread began with your observation that we modern rationalists tend to refrain from praise-speech and worship-speech lest we be mocked by someone practicing Medawar-speech. Isn't it sad Sacchin?

Well, that is true. But personally, I tend to find the cadences of Medawar's scorn to be every bit as exalting and ennobling as Mussorgsky's overture.

Comment author: gwern 05 October 2010 03:37:07PM *  4 points [-]

I am surprised no one mentioned "Ode to Joy", especially since Schiller's poem is very light on genuine religious sentiment (as opposed to stock imagery) and is very secular in portions:

45 Joyful, as His suns are flying,
46 Across the Firmament's splendid design,
47 Run, brothers, run your race,
48 Joyful, as a hero going to conquest.
49 As truth's fiery reflection
50 It smiles at the scientist.
51 To virtue's steep hill
52 It leads the sufferer on.
53 Atop faith's lofty summit
54 One sees its flags in the wind,
55 Through the cracks of burst-open coffins,
56 One sees it stand in the angels' chorus.
Comment author: mtraven 08 October 2010 08:41:01PM 2 points [-]

What a great post. Of course, I like it because it undermines the very reason most of you are here. Basically people aren't all that rational, they require something to praise, something to devote themselves to. You guys are trying to make "reason" be the object of devotion, but it's not a great fit to the mental slot (and it's been tried before).

One other note: the advantage of having your praise-object be something remote and universal (like God, or the Tsar (pretty remote for most Rus)) is that if your are expressing your allegiance to Lord Alfred and Lord Bob is in the next town over, Lords Alfred and Bob and their followers might have to have a war to determine who is indeed the deserving one. There's some kind of dynamics going on that favors larger-scale objects of worship and larger-scale social alliances.

Comment author: Nisan 15 October 2010 03:41:22PM 0 points [-]

I was so glad to learn that this post is not about the piece Slava! written by Leonard Bernstein in honor of Mstislav Rostropovich. I had to play that in school and it was sooo annoying.