Is it logical to believe that a proof of God's existence or some other sort of "intelligent protector" is the fact that our society exists, in spite of the ever increasing possibility that it very well should have been destroyed due to galactic tragedies such as supernovas exploding near us or gamma rays? Over the billions of years in which we have been evolving, probability says that we should have been destroyed many times.

I agree that it can be unsettling to learn about the profound vulnerability of life. I don't think, however, that life's existence on earth constitutes evidence for God's existence: the universe is large, and for all we know life has failed to begin or has been extinguished many times at many places and we exist at one of those rare spots where life has managed to hang on (so far). Since there is a plausible atheistic explanation of the facts you describe, those mere facts by themselves do not prove that God exists.

Why is it that even a three-year-old child knows the answer to some major philosophical questions while philosophers sometimes spend their whole lives searching for an answer?

Perhaps this is the answer: Young children and philosophers can both discuss the world in unconventional ways, children because they have not yet learned to think conventionally and philosophers because they have unlearned this. Sometimes children will discuss the world in ways that also interest philosophers; philosophers, however, will address these issues in much more sophisticated ways, and the added complexity of their perspectives makes them much less likely to match a young child's confident assertiveness about the way the world is.

Why is it that there is often so much discussion in regard to what a particular philosopher meant to say (as opposed to the strength of his argument)? It seems unsurprising and yet kind of strange that we could be so unclear as to what philosophers' arguments are. People seem to find ample disagreement in their interpretation of even such philosophers as Hume who are widely regarded as extremely capable writers. I don't get it! This is not literature or fiction -- presumably most philosophers aren't interested in sowing ambiguity or couching their arguments in metaphors, so why the confusion?

Some philosophers revel in ambiguity or metaphor, but most do not;somephilosophers do not take the time to write clearly, but must takereasonable care about this. So, these factors don't get to the heart ofthe matter of why so much philosophicalwriting is so difficult to understand. I think the most important point is simply that philosophicaltopics are difficult to discuss clearly in the first place, andespecially so when they are first developed or when new types ofarguments are put forward. Given this, I'm not at all surprised that alot of exegetical work needs to be done before one can assess thestrengths of the arguments even of the best philosophical writers likeHume.

Does racism need to be legitimately harmful in order to be considered morally objectionable? Suppose that black men incite an admittedly irrational fear in me, so that whenever I see a black man in public I cross the street -- should I feel compelled to correct this phobia? Or how about this: I find black men unattractive, so I don't date them.

I'm not sure what you mean by "legitimate harm," but it strikes me that any failure to accord others the dignity they are due as human beings causes significant harm to oneself and to others. If you agree that racism is a failure to respect human dignity, you ought to recognize it as morally objectionable and ought work to correct that failure in your own life by, for example, striving to overcome the racist fears you describe.

Do the panel members believe that a student should be "talented" or in some way unique in order to seriously consider a career in philosophy? Philosophy graduate programs seem insanely exclusive, nevermind the less-than-scintillating job prospects which await after graduation; professional schools are difficult in their own way too, of course, and yet sometimes I get the impression that, whereas a "mediocre" doctor or lawyer will almost certainly find work, a "mediocre" philosopher will almost certainly be homeless. Would you ever counsel an undergraduate NOT to pursue her interest in philosophy, despite an ardent passion for the stuff?

Graduate study is not the only way to nurture an ardent passion in philosophy, and so passionate undergraduates should consider a doctorate only if they understand the job market and can live with all that it (and the prior extended period of study) entails economically and personally. Other panelists can comment on the rationality of the admissions processes at their own Universities, but it strikes me that there may well be an oversupply of doctorates and so admissions may not be exclusive enough. (I worry, in particular, that there are too many total doctorate programs because some Universities wish to "upgrade" to doctoral status for reasons that have nothing to do with the intellectual welfare or career prospects of their prospective graduate students.) All that said, doctorates who can't find satisfactory academic employment need not end up homeless because they have skills that are prized within business, law, and other professional fields.

In my country, and for at least dozens of years, many people evade taxes, especially in some professional groups. Tax evasion is recognized as a common behavior, even if accepted only in private (or at least not too public) conversations. There are some rough calculations about how big tax evasion is. This has had many consequences: a) Tax rates are a bit higher than they would be if there were no evasion; b) Unions agree on salaries knowing that their members will have to pay for these hight tax rates or, on the contrary, that they will be able to evade taxes; c) Professionals charge for their services knowing that they will be able to evade taxes; d) Some professionals and corporations evade taxes because, if they wouldn't, they wouldn't be able to compete with low prices; e) People who do not evade taxes, although they could, know that many other people do, and they do not evade either because they think that is the right thing to do, or because they are affraid that they are caught. Do you think...

Even though determining exactly when one should or should not obeylawful authority is complicated, nothing that you describe here strikesme as a moral reason to disobey. For a richly-nuanceddiscussion of breaking the law for moral reasons, see Henry DavidThoreau's classic 19th century essay "Civil Disobedience," whichaddresses Thoreau's moral opposition to legalizez slavery in America,his desire not to be an "agent of injustice to another," and and hisdecision not to pay several types of taxes. There are many other fascinating and relevant texts of political philosophy; Socrates's decision not to escape his execution is an especially interesting text to pair with Thoreau -- see Plato's Crito . Mybasic point would is that there is a strong moral obligation to obeylaws, and that none of the economica or social facts you mention raisethe sorts of moral issues that might override that obligation.Theoreau's desire to resist lawful slavery might do this; the desire tocompete in a capitalist...

I presume scientists (consciously or not) use some fundamental assumptions in their work. I can think of 'Our minds are capable of deriving rational theories' and 'There actually are consistent physical laws to be discovered'. I expect there are more than this. Is there a list someone has figured out? It probably applies to more non-scientists as well. Or if there isn't a list, why not? Thanks.

Certainly scientists make epistemological, metaphysical, ethical, and methodological assumptions that affect their work. Historians and philosophers of scientists have discussed this quite a bit, and so have sociologists of science. Although determing the exact content of these assumptions is too complicated and too controversial an endeavor for there to be a comprehensive non-controversial list, many specific examples have been proposed and debated. Panelists who work in this area can provide their own favorite examples and references, but if you have not read much about what philosophjers have said about this I recommend Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer's engaging historical study Leviathan and the Air-Pump and Thomas Kuhn's classic contemporary study The Structure of Scientific Revolutions . You are right that similar types of assumptions affect all of us in varied and sometimes profound ways. For an engaging study of this topic in a wider context than the practice of science, I find...

Is philosophy useful? I recently abandoned a course of philosophical study because I became overwhelmed by a sense that all I was doing - all I could ever do - was produce more philosophy. It was fun, it was interesting, I improved my research skills and now have a wider circle of strongly opinionated friends. But I couldn't escape the sense that real ideas were being abandoned in favour of increasingly intricate, but ultimately unhelpful semantic constructs and their counterexamples - for some reason, I am reminded of a paradox involving some ravens.

As you suggest, studying and practicing philosophy improve's one's analytical and creative skills: reading, writing, thinking. So, that is one significant way that philosophy is useful -- and especially so if it were true that doing philosophy is a comparatively powerful means of refining those skills. Likewise, studying philosophy (and perhaps especially the history of philosophy) can give you powerful insights about yourself, the history of your culture, and your world. Exactly what use you make of those increased skills and powerful insights is for you to determine, and I would submit that there are many opportunities to use them in productive and interesting ways. How to do this depends on your exact interests, goals, and passions with respect both to philosophy and your life goals, but certainly these opportunities extend far beyond publishing philosphical literature. About studying philospohy: If after thoughtful reflection you find some areas of philosophy narrowly uninteresting or...

My English teacher has said that it is important to read an author first, before reading her critics, so that one can form an opinion unpolluted by the arguments of others. Is philosophy like this as well? Should I read Wittgenstein before I read books and articles about Wittgenstein? Should I avoid books which try to summarize the great works of philosophy, in case theirs is a biased interpretation? Philosophy is pretty hard, and I think that few people can be expected to attack _The critique of pure reason_ alone; for the philosophy undergraduate, what should be the role of "secondary" sources?

With respect to beginning to study the history of philosophy, Ithink that it is almost always more interesting and rewarding to engagewith primary philosophical texts without consulting commentaries andother secondary sources: direct intellectual contact with the mostpoweful philosophers and philospohical arguments is a profoundlypowerful experience.You are right of course, that this is a difficult experience to secure, but the effort is almost always worth it. Patience is important. Reading even the most abstruse philosophical texts becomes much esaierwith practice; my general advice is to stick with the primary textswith a good degree of patience and confdence that you will becomecapable of more and more sophisticated engagement over time. Iknow that it is tempting to "turn to" secondary source when youconfront a difficult and frustrating text. If you are a student whowill be learning along with classmates and can gain additional insightfrom a professor, I urge you to resist this temptation --...

Can there be such a thing as 'progress' in human history? Does time and circumsance have a more than superficial bearing on our beings? Or are we essentially the same regardless of historical epoch or geographical conditioning? I refer to the so-called 'birth of reason' in 17th century Europe, and its so-said 'dawn of modernity'.

I agree with Peter that one need to specify exact criteria for progressbefore making the sort of assessment that you describe. All suchcritiera and assessments will be controversial because our knowledge ofourselves and our histories is limited and controversial, but this byno way means that producing and rationally defending such assessmentsis worthless -- on the contrary, they can be extremely useful andinteresting. Thepolitical theorist George Kateb provides an interesting--andfascinating--example of how to assess human progress in the modern age.In his recent collection of essays. Patriotism and Other Mistakes (Yale University Press, 2006), Kateb assesses human progresses on thebasis of a richly sophistcated conception of human and argues that theUnited States Constitution represents a significant achievement in thesupport of human dignity, which he defines (again, in a richlysophisticated and fascinating way) in terms of rights-basedindividualism. While Kateb's criteria for progress and...