by [anonymous] 3 min read3rd Oct 2010104 comments


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!