First and second things, and the operations of conscience in science
Bruce G. Charlton
Medical Hypotheses. 2010; Volume 74: Pages 1-3
Why is modern science less efficient than it used to be, why has revolutionary science declined, and why has science become so dishonest? One plausible explanation behind these observations comes from an essay First and second things published by CS Lewis. First Things are the goals that are given priority as the primary and ultimate aim in life. Second Things are subordinate goals or aims – which are justified in terms of the extent to which they assist in pursuing First Things. The classic First Thing in human society is some kind of religious or philosophical world view. Lewis regarded it as a ‘universal law’ that the pursuit of a Second Thing as if it was a First Thing led inevitably to the loss of that Second Thing: ‘You can’t get second things by putting them first; you can get second things only by putting first things first’. I would argue that the pursuit of science as a primary value will lead to the loss of science, because science is properly a Second Thing. Because when science is conceptualized as a First Thing the bottom-line or operational definition of ‘correct behaviour’ is approval and high status within the scientific community. However, this does nothing whatsoever to prevent science drifting-away from its proper function; and once science has drifted then the prevailing peer consensus will tend to maintain this state of corruption. I am saying that science is a Second Thing, and ought to be subordinate to the First Thing of transcendental truth. Truth impinges on scientific practice in the form of individual conscience (noting that, of course, the strength and validity of conscience varies between scientists). When the senior scientists, whose role is to uphold standards, fail to posses or respond-to informed conscience, science will inevitably go rotten from the head downwards. What, then, motivates a scientist to act upon conscience? I believe it requires a fundamental conviction of the reality and importance of truth as an essential part of the basic purpose and meaning of life. Without some such bedrock moral underpinning, there is little possibility that individual scientific conscience would ever have a chance of holding-out against an insidious drift toward corruption enforced by peer consensus.
"You can’t get second things by putting them first; you can get second things only by putting first things first." C.S. Lewis. First and second things.
Why is modern science less efficient than it used to be , why has revolutionary science declined , and why has science become so dishonest?  One plausible explanation behind these observations comes from an essay published by CS Lewis in 1942: First and second things .
First Things are the goals that are given priority, by a person or a group, as the primary and ultimate aim in life. They are the bottom line in which terms other things are justified. Second Things are subordinate goals or aims – which are justified in terms of the extent to which they assist in pursuing First Things.
The classic First Thing in human society is some kind of transcendental world view – whether religious (such as Judaism or Christianity) or philosophical (such as Platonism or Stoicism). As examples of First Things, Lewis states about earlier societies ‘they cared at different times for all sorts of things, the will of God, for glory, for personal honour, for doctrinal purity, for justice.’
If these are examples of ‘First Things’ then in such a society science would be regarded as a Second Thing: science would ultimately be justified in terms of its assisting in the pursuit of the First Thing. So in a society where the will of God was primary for almost everyone, science would be pursued insofar as it was seen (overall and on average) to further the will of God. But in a society where science was the First Thing, then science would be pursued without further justification, and other societal pursuits would need to justify themselves in term of enhancing the goals of science.
Superficially, it sounds as though science would work better if it was a First Thing – freed from external constraints such as religion – and that such a ‘science first’ world would be a marvellous place to work as a scientist! And, for a while, it was...
But the essential nature of the most developed societies (e.g. of the USA, UK, Europe, East Asia) is that there is no single First Thing: not science, and not anything else . Instead there are now only Second Things, pursued independently of each other. So the social systems – such as science, the arts, politics, public administration, law, the military, education, the mass media – are substantially independent and lack a common language. This is the idea of modernity, of a society based upon increasing autonomy of increasingly-specialized social systems.
The driving force behind modernity is increasing efficiency by means of functional differentiation, a general version of the principle that complexity is necessary to increased efficiency . In its first formulation, in economics, it was noticed by Adam Smith that division of labour can lead to greater productivity . At a societal level modern societies were conceptualized by Niklas Luhmann in terms that their continual functional differentiation enables all social systems to grow by increase in productivity but that no social system has priority over the others . In Lewis’s terms there is no overall First Thing, but instead each social system is a First Thing for itself.
The problem with this conceptualization is to understand how all these First Things are integrated and coordinated. My earlier answer to this was to assume a kind of mutual regulation of a mosaic type, so that each social system is regulated by some others but none has overall control . For instance, science depends on the educational system for expert manpower, the political system for peace, the economic system for resources etc. Then, in turn, the economic system depends on science for technological innovations and on the political system for international treaties and so on – with each system acting as a pressure group for some of the others, exerting influence to ensure that the other systems holds to their necessary functions and do not become too inefficient; thereby (I hoped!) this mosaic of mutual power and response acts to hold the whole society together .
I now find this proposed mechanism insufficient to ensure a stable society. It seems more likely that self-beneficial, even parasitic, change and growth within specific social systems has the potential to be much more rapid and parasitic than the evolution of mutual accommodation and symbiosis between autonomous systems that might ensure overall societal growth. Therefore, I would now expect a society of highly autonomous and rapidly-growing social systems that is lacking an overall First Thing to be much less cohesive and much more prone to collapse than I used to believe.
Another way of framing this issue is to ask what maintains the integrity of science. In other words, what keeps science pointing in the right direction, pursuing properly scientific goals as its main aim; and within the pursuit of these goals what keeps science honest in its internal dealings? In short, we need to understand the mechanism(s) that prevent science from becoming corrupt in the face of a continual tendency for short-termist and selfish behaviour to undermine cooperation and functionality. (This is the core problem which must be solved to enable the evolution of complex systems .)
My old idea  was that science would be kept honest and efficient by pressure from the main users of science – for example, engineers would keep physicists honest, agriculturalists would keep botanists honest, doctors would keep medical scientists honest, and so on. Yet science has, I now realize, become corrupted anyway , ,  and  – which means that either these corrective mechanisms are non-existent, too slow or too weak.
In general, when people notice corruption of science they appeal to the idea that science ought to be a First Thing – the ‘Humboldtian’ ideal of disinterested pursuit of knowledge ‘for its own sake’. However, this is a mistake if in reality science ought to be a Second Thing, and not a First Thing; if it is only by remaining a Second Thing that science can avoid being corrupted. Indeed, Lewis regarded it as a ‘universal law’ that the pursuit of a Second Thing as if it was a First Thing led inevitably to the loss of that Second Thing: ‘You can’t get second things by putting them first; you can get second things only by putting first things first’ .
Lewis’s example (writing during World War Two) was that the Western Civilization had been putting the value of ‘civilization’ first for the last thirty years. He regarded civilization as including ‘Peace, a high standard of life, hygiene, transport, science and amusement’ – and as a result Western civilization had come very close to losing all these things. So, pursuit of civilization as a First Thing very nearly led to the loss of civilization. In particular Lewis focused on how pacifism, or pursuit of peace as a First Thing, had been a major contributor to the occurrence and destructiveness of World War Two: ‘I think many would now agree that a foreign policy dominated by desire for peace is one of the many roads that lead to war’ .
The idea, then, is that the pursuit of science as a primary value will lead to the loss of science, because science is properly a Second Thing.
This may happen because when science is conceptualized as a First Thing the bottom-line or operational definition of ‘correct behaviour’ is achieving approval and high status within the scientific community. Science as a First Thing is judged by scientists only – so success is winning the esteem of colleagues. And this amounts to the scientist seeking conformity with the prevailing peer consensus – either immediately, or over the longer time span of their career.
However, by this First Thing conceptualization of science, there is nothing whatsoever to prevent science drifting-away from its original function, from its proper mission. Real science is replaced by the infinite varieties of self-seeking among scientists. And once science has drifted, and a sufficient proportion of scientists are no longer seeking-truth nor speaking-truth, then the prevailing peer consensus will tend maintain this corrupt situation. So that a scientist seeking the esteem of his colleagues will himself need to abandon truth-seeking and truth-speaking.
The alternative conceptualization is for each scientist to regard science as a Second Thing, and for the individual scientist to evaluate his work and its context in terms of their contribution to transcendental truth . When he regards the prevailing peer consensus as having diverged from truth in this transcendental sense, then the scientist may feel duty-bound to seek his own personal understanding of truth, and communicating what he personally regards as the truth, even when this conflicts with prevailing consensus and leads to lowered esteem among scientific colleagues and harms his career.
So, I am saying that science is a Second Thing, and the First Thing ought to be transcendental truth. A formulation of transcendental truth would be an attempted description of the nature of ultimate reality. But it may seem unclear how such a remote and abstract concept could affect scientific practice in real life situations. One answer would be that transcendental truth impinges on scientific practice in the form of conscience. In other words, transcendental truth in science could be ‘operationally-defined’ as the subjective workings of conscience in a scientist.
Conscience seems to be indicative of the First Thing as understood and appreciated in practice by an individual – and when science is a Second Thing, conscience is located outside of science, and science is judged by standards outside of science . Conscience about First Things makes itself felt in science as an inner sense of the nature of reality; such as the nagging doubts and persistent suspicions which afflict a scrupulous scientist when he feels that the consensus of his scientific colleagues is wrong. He has reservations about the validity of prevailing idea of truth, and hunches that he personally has a better idea of the truth than the majority of his powerful scientific peers.
In saying that conscience is the operational definition of transcendental truth, it is important to note that the strength and validity of conscience varies between scientists. Some scientists are unscrupulous and have no conscience to speak of; while other scientists are so inexperienced – or lacking in requisite knowledge or skill – that their conscience with regard to truth is unreliable. And while all scientists need to listen to their conscience, the main consciences of relevance to science are those of the scientific leadership; those whose own behaviour serves as a model for more junior scientists; and those scientists who are themselves responsible for choosing, educating, employing and promoting scientific personnel. It is primarily the senior scientists whose job is to uphold ethical standards, to enforce incentives and sanctions. If (and when) scientific leaders are lacking in informed conscience, or ignore the promptings of conscience, then science will inevitably go rotten from the head downwards [3,10].
Having a conscience about truth is the first step – but what motivates a scientist to listen to his conscience and act upon it? Firstly, if science is regarded as being in service to truth, then ideals of truth might enforce conscience. But then, what is so important about ‘truth’? And the final answer to all that, would be a fundamental conviction that truth is an essential part of what we conceive to be ‘the good’ – in other words the basic purpose and meaning of life. This has the corollary that if a person does not actually have a concept of the basic purpose and meaning of life – then their world view will intrinsically be lacking any firm ground on which they can stand in a situation where the pursuit of truth causes here-and-now disadvantage.
In this respect, science is paradoxically stronger when a Second Thing than as a First Thing. Because science is stronger when science is embedded in the larger value of truth, and when truth is embedded in the still-larger value of a concept of the good life. Of course, not all concepts of the good life will be equally supportive of good science; indeed some transcendental concepts are anti-scientific.
However, without an ultimate, bedrock moral underpinning of some kind, then there seems no possibility that individual scientific conscience would ever have a chance of holding-out against the insidious drift toward corruption enforced by peer consensus.
 J. Ziman, Real science, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK (2000).
 Smolin L. The trouble with physics. London: Allen Lane Penguin; 2006.
 B.G. Charlton, The vital role of transcendental truth in science, Med Hypotheses 72 (2009), pp. 373–376.
 C.S. Lewis, First and second things. In: W. Hooper, Editor, First and second things: essays on theology and ethics, Collins, Fount, London (1985), pp. 19–24.
 Charlton B, Andras P. The modernization imperative. Imprint Academic: Exeter 2003.
 A. Smith, The wealth of nations, London, Dent (1910) [originally published 1776–7].
 N. Luhmann, Social systems, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, USA (1995).
 B.G. Charlton and A. Miles, The rise and fall of EBM, QJM 91 (1998), pp. 371–374.
 Healy D. Let them eat Prozac. New York University Press: NY, USA; 2004.
 B.G. Charlton and Figureheads, ghost-writers and pseudonymous quant bloggers: the recent evolution of authorship in science publishing, Med Hypotheses 71 (2008), pp. 475–480.