The Marriage of Jerusalem and Athens

Jeffrey Brenzel: If you happen to be a Christian what you think of Christianity, the very concepts and ideas that form the basis for Christianity actually turn out to owe a great deal to Plato and Aristotle.

Virtually everything that Christianity teaches about God, about human nature, about human fulfillment arises from what the historians of religion like to call the marriage of Jerusalem and Athens that is the marriage of Greek and Jewish thinking.  One big moment for this process comes about eight centuries after Plato and Aristotle, four centuries after Christ when a man named St. Augustine writes a truly monumental work in the history of western thought, a real classic, The City of God.  He writes this book just as the Roman Empire is collapsing around his ears from invasion of barbarians.  Augustine was very influenced by platonic thinking even though he wasn’t all that familiar directly with Plato’s works and he sets the course of Christian thinking for a very long time.  In fact, if you’re knowledgeable about the history of Christian doctrine or Christian theology you’ll know that Augustine is influential right up to the current moment.  

Then another 800 years after St. Augustine a priest around the year 1250 named Thomas Aquinas rediscovers many of the lost works of Aristotle.  To put this very briefly, he puts together the thought of Aristotle with the thought of Augustine, comes up with a new synthesis for Christian thinking and it turns out to be a game-changer.  The result is for the most part, what the Roman Catholic Church teaches to this very day.  St. Thomas Aquinas is the primary orthodox theologian of Catholicism.

Meanwhile, the Italian poet Dante who lives one generation after Aquinas reads Aquinas, is influenced by his work and as one of the three or four greatest poets ever to live presents us with his own view of human nature, fulfillment and human destiny when he writes his three epic poems about hell, purgatory and heaven.  You’ve probably heard of Dante’s Inferno.  

So now fast forward another 250 years and we come to about the year 1500, Martin Luther in Germany.  Now Luther gets very angry about a lot of things that are happening in the Catholic Church.  He goes back and rips Aquinas apart.  He trashes Aristotle and he returns for his inspiration to the game-changing works of St. Augustine and St. Paul.  By doing this Luther also starts a process that splinters Christianity into a million pieces, game-changers.

Another hundred or so years after Luther we have John Milton.  Milton is an English poet.  He takes his inspiration from the reforming of Christianity, the Protestant reformation and he writes the greatest epic poem in the English language Paradise Lost.  It gives his own picture, the Protestant picture of human nature, human history, human destiny, God’s will.

So if you happen to be a Catholic and you believe that the Catholic Church teaches the same thing always and everywhere and has from the very beginning or if you’re an Evangelical Protestant and you believe that all of your own views come directly from a plain, straightforward reading of New Testament texts in either case you could not be more mistaken.  The very teachings of the Catholic Church or the very ways that a Protestant Christian interprets the words of the Bible, the scripture results from speculations and collisions taking place among ideas that involve Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, St. Paul, Dante, Martin Luther and Milton. 

In this selection from his Floating University lecture, "Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: The Essential Value of a Classic Education," Jeffrey Brenzel, Philosopher and Dean of Undergraduate Admissions at Yale University charts the development of Christian thinking through the works of Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, St. Paul, Dante, Martin Luther and Milton.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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