Why philosophy? Mindful of truly urgent issues like climate change and the gulf oil gusher, if the question is existence or extinction, doesn't merely thinking about either seem a dubious luxury?

It depends on how you think of philosophy. If we think of it as an abstruse set of problems - then yes it does seem a luxury. Like doing crossword puzzles. On the other hand, philosophy is about the love of wisdom, which has much to do with a knowledge of how to live. And there can be no doubt that wisdom would be helpful in solving the world's problems. Of course, degrees and publications in philosophy are no guarantee that a person has wisdom.

Let's say there is some activity that your significant other wants to do together (going to the movies/opera/a sports event, or any number of things). You, personally, have a neutral attitude towards this particular activity, i.e., the activity itself doesn't give you any particular pleasure/happiness/utility in and of itself. However, you know that this activity DOES have intrinsic value to your significant other; they would be happy doing it in and of itself. However, you also know that they are not willing to do this activity unless a) you are willing to do it with them, and b) you are also getting pleasure out of it (they wouldn't want to do it if they knew that you were only doing it "for them"). My question is this: in this sort of situation, is it better to lie and say that it makes you happy, so that they will do this activity which gives them happiness, because you want them to be happy, or should you instead tell the truth on the principle that you shouldn't lie, especially not to your...

I would go with "I'm going to try and learn to enjoy this"- and since you are willing to do that (without whining) your significant other could make the effort to enjoy herself still knowing that this activity does not mean the same to you as it does to her. A little effort on both sides is required here. I appreciate your honesty and your significant other should as well. all the best, Gordon

Is it possible to quantify suffering philosophically? It's a foregone conclusion that pain has long been measured for actuarial purposes (with proportionate dollar amounts tagged to various injuries) so that an insurer can say, "the loss of vision is worth more than the loss of a pinkie," but can this be sustained philosophically? In other words, can one definitively answer the old parlour game question that usually comes down to, "Which you you rather experience? A long minor pain or a short major pain?" without resorting to the cop-out that "each individual suffers uniquely"?

I can't think of any uniquely philosophical answer to this one. Does it follow from the fact that 9999 people out 10000 would prefer to lose a pinkie rather than their eye sight imply that there is more pain in the latter than in the former? But then what would we say to that one person who wanted to hold on to her pinkie? That she was wrong to choose her finger over her sight. That she made a misjudgment about pain? I don't think so. There does seem to be something intrinsically subjective about these judgments. Might we be able to make them inter-subjective? Not sure. I know that there are people in psycho-physics working on scaling issues. Linda Bartoshuk is doing some brilliant research in this area. There is a profile of her work in the June 18 issue of Science.

I am sixty and I find myself becoming removed from my life (my very nice life, I might add). I watch, rather than participate. Everything I read about, see, or experience is similar to that which I have read about, seen or experienced before. I've been down that road before, I know where it goes, it's hard to stay engaged. It's hard to care. I know that in the broadest view everything turns out fine- all good things end and all bad things end. I am not unhappy at all. Am I just old?

Thanks for your very well put and honest sigh of a reflection. It does sound as though you are bored and detached. You say that it is hard to care - which is right to suggest that caring is an activity-- not a feeling that washes over. Could you make stronger efforts to care, to get involved? I've often found that Pascal was right - going through the motions can lead to authentic feelings. I'm in the same time territory and sometimes I think that there is nothing to look forward to - nothing good at least - just losing people I feel as though I can't live without, the body breaking down, not being taken seriously, the nursing home. I think it is a scary period. Not that this makes any difference, but it has also struck me how much being in the present, in America at least, depends upon having a future, a dream. It is as though for us, no tomorrow means no today. Sad. And at a certain point our future does in fact become pretty narrow and, well, terrifying. I just try to care - to be as kind as...