Science and the Importance of Seeing

We usually visualise cells as colourless, stationary blobs; but new advances in imaging have radically changed our power to capture the lives of cells.

Science, we know, demands that we become comfortable dwelling within the abstract. No one can ever ‘see’ a quark or lepton, though we can listen to musical interpretations of the activity of subatomic particles. So too, the very cells that constitute our bodies are elusive; when we isolate them and direct light upon them to study them, we inevitably kill them. The less we can visualise, make auditory, or tactile the subjects of micro-science, the fewer chances are there that we will trade the mental state of wonderment for familiarity and comprehension. It may not be hyperbole to say that some of the philosophical questions that arise through science are merely the result of a lack of immediate, visual, auditory and tactile information about the object in question.

However, as the BBC Reports, a team of researchers led by physicist Eric Betzig have recently published in Nature Methods have shed new light– ‘Light Sheets’, to be exact– on the cell, allowing us for the first time to ‘see’ the living cell not only in movement, but in three dimensions. A short video of the cells can be seen here. The images are created by sending very thin discs of light through the cells, and then layering the resulting images, thereby avoiding damage to the organism.

Watching the cells move may at first merely appeal to our willingness to attribute intentionality to certain kinds of dynamic systems; wriggling, jerky movements rationalise judgement that the object in question behaves according to certain goals or ends, that it shares with us a relation to the world that is governed by pragmatic concerns. Perhaps one also feels rather shocked at realising just how volatile one’s body is at the cellular level. Greater visual understanding of life at the micro level might also affect our attitudes towards death; while many persons and philosophers currently treat death as merely involving the cessation of those cells that make up our cognitive lives, we may feel less willing to make such conclusions after we fill in much of our abstract knowledge.

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> Philosophical Issues in Neuroimaging

>The Psychology of Scientific Explanation

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