Philosophy Eats Science for Lunch

July 6, 2023 | Jarrod Saxton

Science woman doctor in a lab coat holding up an apple

There’s no denying the reach of science in our world today.

You can’t scroll through social media or browse your favourite online store without seeing taglines like “The science of sales” or “The step-by-step formula to success.” Scientific methods have become a catchy selling point, drawing us in with their promises of certainty and concrete results.

But the tricky thing about science is that, while it can show us what works, it doesn’t necessarily guide us towards what is right, suitable, or long-lasting. Let’s look at a few examples to illustrate my point.

Example 1

Consider the world of romantic relationships.

With advances in psychology and brain science, we now know strategies to make ourselves more attractive and to play the game of human attraction effectively. But let’s pause and ask, should we? Let’s say, through careful research, you’ve found that to attract a specific person, you must act in a way that doesn’t match your true character.

What happens then? Well, what you do to attract, is what you must do to keep. So, you will end up stuck in a role that isn’t truly you, creating a relationship based on false pretenses. Over time, keeping up this act can become tiring; you’ll eventually have no energy, be inauthentic, and problems will arise in the relationship, leading to heartbreak and pain.

In this case, scientific principles – regardless of their reliability and validity – miss the point entirely. It’s much healthier to show your true self and let attractions develop naturally, even if that means less certainty.

Example 2

Or, think about a company that makes products with both software and hardware parts.

They may be tempted by a new high-tech surface mount technology machine that promises to speed up the rate at which components are added to circuit boards. But what if the company’s bottleneck lies in hardware assembly?

The machine itself may have been proven to perform better by expert engineers, and there might even be studies and results that confirm it. The science and engineering check out. However, let’s look at it from a philosophical viewpoint. The company’s bottleneck is the assembly of hardware, and making more components faster isn’t going to make them money; it’s going to tie money up in a surplus of printed circuit boards. If they don’t opt to make more components, the company will have difficulty getting an ROI on the costly, underutilized machine.

Best to avoid getting into that dilemma altogether.

Example 3

And then there’s the example of the latest diet trends.

Say a fitness coach with a deep understanding of biology and nutrition develops a revolutionary meal plan guaranteed to get you into shape. But what if this diet involves hard-to-find ingredients and lots of preparation?

While scientifically robust, the solution might not be practical or long-term for many people, leading them back to their old habits and undoing any progress made to date.

What does this mean for you?

The common thread in these examples is this: blind trust in science can lead us the wrong way.

This isn’t to discredit science; science is undeniably powerful. But we have become so fascinated by its surefire answers that we often overlook the importance of philosophy – the field that forces us to ask “why.”

While science can explain the “how,” philosophy digs deeper, asking the reasons behind our actions, the negative side-effects, and the potential obstacles, it encourages us to think about the relevance of our chosen solution, to question whether we need it, and to find a more suitable alternative, possibly.

So, before we rush into the arms of science, let’s remember to take a step back and use our philosophical minds. Let’s ask the important “why” before diving into the “how.” Because at the end of the day, science may have the answers to many questions, but philosophy helps us figure out which questions are worth asking in the first place.

Remember: never answer a question with science, which you can instead answer with philosophy.

This is also why you should enrol in our next Thinking Foundations course.