The Limit of Science

Never let me convince you I know what I’m talking about.

Senescence is derived from the Latin ‘senescere,’ meaning “to grow old.”

Senescent human cells are big and flat. It’s as if they’re finally able to relax so they stretch out the very edges of their bodies, lying deflated and flat on the surface of the culture dish. Their work is done and it’s time for slumber.

Senescent cells take up more space than young cells, unfurled, thin and limp on the surface of the dish. It’s just an illusion of course; they haven’t actually grown, they just don’t have the strength to fight gravity anymore.

If you watch them day after day, you’ll see nothing change. Young cells are constantly growing, dividing and multiplying, but senescent cells don’t move. They take up their residence, adhering to the dish and then stay in the same position indefinitely. Irreversibly static.

Senescent cells produce more of certain proteins and less of other proteins than young cells. The difference between old and young can be shown clearly and conclusively if we quantify protein abundances.

I’ve spent a year studying senescent cells as a PhD molecular biologist. In this year, I’ve learned so much about senescent cells that I’ve convinced myself I know what I’m talking about.

I’ve learned to identify them objectively. I know their attributes. I know their characteristics. And I would tell you that I know the explanations behind these characteristics.

But really, these “explanations” are just mechanisms.

If a building burned down and I told you it burned “because there were flames,” you’d tell me that explanation is rubbish. It’s merely descriptive. It doesn’t actually explain anything.

I tell myself that by knowing the traits and mechanisms of senescence, I’ve explained the reality of senescence when all I’ve really done is learned to describe reality. Objective analysis is very good at providing descriptions. But but reality is full of patterns and truths that cannot be unraveled by descriptions.

Senescent cells tell us a deep truth about reality: existence is temporary. Things don’t last forever. Aging is inevitable and death is always a partner of life. Our bodies tell us this story on a cellular level. How would I begin to explain this? My self-proclaimed explanations can’t come close to explaining this pattern. It’s mysterious, it’s unseen, it pervades reality and I myself am caught up in it.

Knowledge is alluring. The concrete, the rational, the objective promises to answer all of our questions. It glimmers and sparkles and enraptures us. It seems fulfilling. It seems like the answer to all the questions we could ever have. We tell ourselves time and again that what we see is all there is, that our abilities to perceive, to rationalize, to understand, are all-pervasive. Our modern theories, our explanations are the best we’ve ever had — look how far we’ve come!

But our explanations are just descriptions.

Our definitions are, at best, poor approximations.

Our language reduces truth to soupy, murky ambiguity.

Our knowledge — our truth — is a flat image of a multi-dimensional reality, a reduction of truth laced with metaphor.

But this is the best we have.

So I plea with truth to save me from my truth.

Remind me there is more than I can name and define. Remind me I see only the face of reality, and I have to pay attention to find the mysteries of reality. Free me from names, definitions, boundaries and categories.

Senescent cells are more than their traits, more than their attributes, more than the molecules they produce. They’re more than I can observe, extract or freeze in time and space. They’re part of the same fabric the same ground of being that reality stands upon, and they are more than knowledge alone can capture.

As characters in the same narrative as the rest of nature, we access the deep truths of reality by participation with them. We are made of this stuff and when I ponder a cell I ponder myself. We — the cell and I — are not so different. We are woven into the same fabric, we stand on the same ground of being, we are subject to the same patterns. If I trick myself into believing that rational objective science is all there is, I hack off all but the face of reality. I attempt to move through the world, seeing only the face, bumping into limbs and torsos, confused and belligerent and scrambling to find better explanations. The whole of my reality becomes traits and attributes. But there is more than this. Beyond explanations there is participation.

So I pray, truth, save me from my truth.

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