Quotations: February 2009 Archives

The Covenant


from Morning Prayer

It was because the Lord loved you and because of his fidelity to the oath he had sworn to your fathers, that he brought you out with his strong hand from the place of slavery, and ransomed you from the hand of Pharaoh, king of Egypt. Understand, then, that the Lord, you God, is God indeed, the faithful God who keeps his mericful covenant down to the thousandth generation toward those who love him and keep his commandments. (Deut. 8-9)

And something more: He keeps that covenant even with those who are faithless, calling them again and again to come home, reminding them in due season of His presence, lavishing on them all signs of His love. In a special way this is a season of solemn celebration of that sacrificial love--a time to recall our own faithlessness and to come home--prodigals all--to the loving embrace of a Father who will not call us prodigal, but rather, "My child, my only child." For that is how He loves each of us, as though we were His only child. Each of us cherished as an only child, together a family rejoicing when another has joined the ranks of those so loved.

That is the end of the covenant.

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Ash Wednesday


"Disgrace not the throne of your glory;
remember your covenant with us, and break it note." Jer. 14: 21

from "Ash Wednesday"
T.S. Eliot

Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man's gift and that man's scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the aged eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?

Because I do not hope to know again
The infirm glory of the positive hour
Because I do not think
Because I know I shall not know
The one veritable transitory power
Because I cannot drink
There, where trees flower, and springs flow, for there is nothing again

Read the whole thing here

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Two from Brillat-Savarin


The discovery of a new dish does more for human happiness than the discovery of a new star.

Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.
Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, The Physiology of Taste, 1825

From those snippets if you require the whole, you may find it here. After all, is it possible to resist a book with the subtitle "Transcendental Gastronomy?"

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The (non-) Determinism of DNA

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Proust Was a Neuroscientist is an endlessly entertaining read, containing more passages to underline than not. It is one of those books in which it might be wiser simply to cross through the extra few lines one does not wish to reconsider in subsequent readings. While the author's attitudes and conclusions are sometimes at odds with my own, his presentation of hard data is fascinating.

from Proust was a Neuroscientist
Jonah Lehrer

What makes us human, and what makes each of us his or her own human, is not simply the genes that we have buried in our base pairs, but how our cells, in dialogue with our environment, feed back to our DNA, changing the way we read ourselves. Life is a dialectic. For example, the code sequence GTAAGT can be translated as instructions to insert the amino acid valine and serine; read as a spacer, a genetic pause that keeps other protein parts an appropriate distance from one another; or interpreted as a signal to cut the transcript at that point. Our human DNA is defined by its mulitplicity of possible meanings; it is a code that requires context. This is why we can share 42 percent of our genome with an insect and 98.7 percent with a chimpanzee and yet still be so completely different from both.

By demonstrating the limits of genetic determinism, the Human Genome Project ended up becoming an ironic affirmation of our individuality. By failing to explain us, the project showed that humanity is not simply a text. It forced molecular biology to focus on how our genes interact with the real world. Our nature, it turns out, is endlessly modified by our nurture. This uncharted area is where the questions get interesting (and inextricably difficult).

Add to these observations the fact that they stem from and flow back into discussion of great poets, novelists, painters, and even chefs, and you can see how the book might be a fascinating discussion of neurobiology and the human mind.

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DNA and Literature


Another useful, amusing insight from Lehrer, "If our DNA has a literary equivalent, it's Finnegan's Wake."

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Against Antineurogenesis


For those of us of a certain age, the truism was passed down that the human brain was more-or-less fixed at or short after birth. The neurons you had at the time of fixing were all that you would have your entire life and the brain was a rather obstinate and immaleable organ.

Jonah Lehrer recounts the work of Elizabeth Gould, who in 1989 began exploring the question of neurogenesis and discovered that, in fact, the human brain is a highly malleable organ with new neurons being generated regularly.

from Proust was a Neuroscientist
Jonah Lehrer

Neuroscience is just beginning to discover the profound ramifications of this discovery. The hippocampus, the part of the brain that modulates learning and memory, is continually supplied with new neurons, which help us to learn and remember new ideas and behaviors. Other scientists have discovered that antidepressants work by stimulating neurogenesis (at least in rodents) , implying that depression is ultimately caused by a decrease in the amount of new neurons, and not by a lack of seratonin. A new class of antidepressants is being developed that targets the neurogenesis pathway. For some reason, newborn brain cells make us happy.

And while freedom remains an abstract idea, neurogenesis is cellular evidence that we evolved to never stop evolving. Eliot was right: to be alive is to be ceaselessly beginning. As she wrote in Middlemarch, the "mind [is] as active as phosphorus." Since we start every day with a slightly new brain, neurogenesis ensures that we are never done with our changes. In the constant turmoil of our cells--in the irrepressible plasticity of our brains--we find our freedom.

The last sentence may be hyperbole (I'd have to give it more consideration that I have done), however, it is amazing to me that these insights should have been lilnked to the work of George Eliot. The human mind is capable of linking ideas that at first blush seem to have nothing to do with one another. It is this linking of ideas that moves us forward in science, the arts, and even civilization.

Someday, perhaps, we'll be able to make the logical, empathetic, and obvious link that a child in the womb is indeed a living creature separate from and dependent upon the mother for some period of time. Wouldn't it be marvelous if the implications of that statement could take hold of our collective hearts and minds and bring us out of the age of barbarism that we cast ourselves into in the name of some fictive freedom?

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But the real point is . . . Whitman


from Proust Was a Neuroscientist
Jonah Lehrer

But Whitman also knew that his poems were not simply odes to the material body. This was the mistake that his Victorian critics made; by taking his references to orgasms and organs literally, they missed his true poetic epiphany. The moral of Whitman's verse was that the body wasn't merely a body. Just as leaves of grass grow out of the dirt, feelings grow out of the flesh. What Whitman wanted to show was how these two different substances--the grass and the dirt, the body and the mind--were actually inseparable. You couldn't write poems about one without acknowledging the presence of the other. As Whitman declared, "I will make the poems of materials, for I think they are to be the most spiritual poems."

Sometime back on the Disputations blog, there was a lengthy interchange about the resurrection of the body, in which Tom repeatedly stated (and, I've come to acknowledge, correctly) that the resurrection of the body dealt with the real body that we experience and in some mysterious way ARE right now. That is to say that what we have now will be the real body we have at the resurrection. And this makes perfect sense if the body is more than a container, but is in some way the vehicle and the reality of much of what we are.

I know, that doesn't make any real sense, and I'll have to think it through further to say something more like what I mean. The bottom line is that the body helps to define the mind and the mind the body and moving our present intellect, and perhaps even spirit to some new conveyance would in a very deep way violate who we are. God would not do that because He loves us as we are and loves who we are--without our bodies we are not that same person.

Or so it would seem that Whitman says--and there is much to agree with in the hypothesis.

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Maimonides Quotation for the Day


From the book referenced below:

"A man should never cast his reason behind him, for the eyes are set in front, not in the back." Moses Maimonides

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Reading a marvelous book that I got as a result of being associated with Library Thing: Israel Drazin's Maimonides: The Exceptional Mind. From it, we get some very interesting insights such as:

from Maimonides: The Exceptional Mind
Israel Drazin

Nevertheless, Maimonides teaches that the acceptance of rabbinical opinions applies only to halakhah, rules relating to behavior, but not to rabbinical opinions on non-halakhic matters. The reason for this conclusion should be obvious. The early rabbis' views were usually based on the science of their times; these primitive conclusions inevitably led, at times to error on the part of the rabbis. Therefore, Maimonides insists, one is free to analyze and consider the opinions of the rabbis and then accept, reject, or modify them; in fact, this is the very purpose for which God granted humans intelligence: to study and evaluate.

Maimonides records his assessment of rabbis and other sages of the former historic period in the introduction to his Mishneh Torah. He writes that the halakhic component of "the Babylonian Talmud is binding on all Israel. . . because all the customs, decrees and institutions mentioned in the Talmud received the assent of all Israel." Thus only the "customs, decrees and institutions," the halahkic elements received "the assent of all Israel." However, the non-halakhic opinions did not receive that assent and thus are not obligatory.

It sounds something like a cross between Papal infallibility on matter of doctrine and the infallibility of the ordinary and universal magisterium . Either way, it seems a good summary of what infallibility touches and what it doesn't. The Pope's opinions about algebra, while conceivably interesting and worthy of pondering, are not binding. Nor is his opinion of evolution (except in its cautions related to the spiritual life), nor any scientific, literary, historical, or philosophical matter.

Of course, Papal infallibility is limited at any rate to ex Cathedra pronouncements and clear articulations of the ordinary and universal Magisterium of the Catholic Church. But the Pope's endorsement of a movie does not make that a good movie per se. His announcement (should he decide to decree one) that Titian was the world's foremost painter and should be revered for his voluptuous nudes would be merely an opinion. One would need to weigh that opinion against one's evaluation of the Pope as an art critic and aesthete, but one would under no circumstances be bound to obedience on the matter of Titian as uber-artist.

I don't know why I'm saying all of this except that I guess I thought it was interesting that this same point is a point of contention in circles outside of the Catholic Church. It had never occurred to me that others struggled with this same doctrine.

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Quotations category from February 2009.

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