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Confessions of an Editor

by Rick Lewis

These days, I’m happy to say, a very healthy number of articles are sent in to Philosophy Now – about three times as many as we have room to publish. This is wonderful, as it gives us plenty of choice as to what to print. Most of the articles we actually select are fine for publication with just a few trivial changes (a word altered here, a comma added there). Indeed, that’s one reason we choose those articles. There are others, however, which maybe aren’t in quite the best format for the magazine but which say something so outstandingly interesting that I want to publish them anyway. Sometimes the problem is that the style is slightly too academic, or there is a tad too much jargon. Sometimes they are simply too long. If I like the ideas they contain, I start to edit them a little, simplifying and shortening. I find myself changing phrases here and there to make sentences run more smoothly.

It feels rather presumptuous to mess around too much with what the author has produced, but the process of editing down has a kind of awful fascination to it. Once I start, I can’t stop! I find myself in the grip of a compulsion for concision, eliminating repetition, cutting a waffly paragraph down to a couple of sentences, then to a single, short phrase. The temptation is to keep tinkering with the text right up until it is time to send a proof copy to the author, zapping another unnecessary word here, or a surplus line there. I can’t tell you what pleasure it gives me to look at an article and realise that I’ve shortened it from six pages to four without losing any of the ideas; in fact in the process making the ideas stand out more clearly because I’ve stripped away some of the padding. Sometimes I feel that what I ultimately want is to reduce a whole article to a single short sentence which somehow sums up and encapsulates the truth of the whole.

Put down in black and white, this strange compulsion of mine looks rather sad. Readers may feel that the average trainspotter is a paragon of freeranging creative thought by comparison. In my defence, I’d like to point out that this urge to concision isn’t limited to editors. It underlies and motivates a great deal of contemporary thought, especially in physics. The universe is full of all sorts of entities from ants to comets – the variety is bewildering and the sheer quantity of detail is overwhelming. The whole thrust of physics has been to simplify the universe into a handful of equations, a Grand Unified Theory. Physicists have been the editors of reality, eliminating from the story all the window dressing,elaborations, and repetition of nature, to leave just the bare necessities, beautiful in their starkness and simplicity.

There is a fair amount about science in this issue. Generally if there is a theme to the issue, it is the relationship between reason and emotion. Carole Haynes-Curtis looks at emotion from an existentialist point of view. Matthew Kieran examines how violent films engage our emotions and the effects this can have. But the way people think and feel about science links in with this too. Many people are unhappy with science, or fear it, or feel that it is soulless. Others treat it with uncritical awe. Bob Fitter suggests that we shouldn’t just accept or reject science but should continually ask where it is taking us. After all, this sort of careful questioning of basic assumptions characterises all the best science and is a feature science has inherited from philosophy in the first place.

One question which intrigues me is what effect the transformation of our world by science and technology will have on the evolutionary future of our species. It would be incredibly arrogant to assume that evolution, having created us, will now stop. Our distant descendants (if there are any) may be as different from us as we are from the apes.

If the evolution of species is encouraged by changes in their environment, as it seems to be, then there must be a strong chance that the radical changes in our social and physical environment over the last three hundred years or so are going to trigger another major evolutionary change in our species, which may be going on unrecognised even now. Homo sapiens sapiens emerged about 100,000 years ago. When our descendants (if any) look back in 100,000 years time, will they say that ours was the millennium in which another new species emerged?

If that were the case, then it is reasonable to wonder what this new species might look like, and how it would differ from us. One area of modern science which has so far met only limited success is the development of artificial intelligence. Suppose that during the next century we do manage to develop self-aware, self-replicating computer programs. In many ways they would be mentally similar to ourselves (which is why we would recognise them as intelligent – read Danny Kodicek’s story ‘Humanity’, on the Turing Test). In that case, would it be correct to recognise them as a totally new creation, or would it make more sense to regard them as an evolutionary development of our own species – a new twig on our evolutionary family tree?

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