First and second things, and the operations of conscience in science

Bruce G. Charlton

Medical Hypotheses

Abstract: 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.


Charlton BG. First and second things, and the operations of conscience in science. Med Hypotheses. 2010 Jan;74(1):1-3. Epub 2009 Sep 5.

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