How do consequentialists justify what the consequence of an action is? If you save a man from drowning who goes on to become a serial killer, I don't think it's right to say that your action had this consequence. Where do you draw the line between action-consequence pairs? Don't consequences of actions lead to actions themselves?

I think that you have put your finger on a big problem with consequentialism: There is no way to draw a line between consequences that "count" that those that don't; and there's no way to draw a line between consequences that it was reasonable to expect, and those that no one could have foreseen. What matters are actual consequences. Period. Consequentialists may respond that they are giving us an analysis of right action in terms of goodness of consequences, and you can't expect an analysis to give you real-life advice. You're right, I think, that consequences of actions can lead to further actions. 'Lead to' is a pretty vague term, and we'd need to decide exactly how we mean it here. But if we use 'lead to' so that A's action x leads to B's action y if A's action x gives B a reason to do y, then it seems to me that definitely actions have further actions as consequences. The further actions would be consequences of the first action, and they in turn would have consequences. This...

I'm applying to very competitive doctoral programs in philosophy. Everything in my application package is stellar except for my GRE scores. How much do admissions committees at competitive programs weigh GRE scores? Does Math matter more than Verbal? Is there a general baseline score I should try to aim at getting over?

Different departments weigh different parts of the application differently. I don't think that there's a universal baseline score for GREs. GREs are important if they are very low or very high. In my department (University of Massachusetts), we weigh the writing sample fairly heavily. If a graduate department is unfamiliar with your undergraduate institution or with your recommenders, then GREs and writing samples become more important. I'd recommend applying to a range of universities, so that you'll have some back-ups.

Do Existentialists believe that all actions are permitted because there is no God and no meaning to life?

Existentialism is not really a single movement as it is a general outlook. Thinkers as diverse as Pascal, Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche, and Sartre have been called 'existentialists.' Only the latter two were atheists. (Pascal is famous for his proof for the existence of God--Pascal's Wager.) Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky agreed on the proposition, "If God is dead, then everything is permitted." But whereas Nietzsche found the prospect exhilarating, Dostoyevsky found it terrifying. Some existentialists are theists (e.g., Buber) and others are atheists (e.g., Nietzsche). I venture to say that of the existentialists who hold that there is no God, most would diesagree that everything is permitted. Existentialists (theists and atheists) are apt to hold that actions committed in "bad faith" are not "permitted". They are also apt to create or find meaning in life.

If I am made up of countless organisms, who is experiencing the independent thoughts?

*You* are. You, the person, are the subject of your thoughts; you are the one whose thoughts they are. The countless organisms you mention make up one big organism--the human organism that constitutes you. It seems to me a mistake to think that your brain is the subject of thought. Your brain is the organ by means of which you think, just as your legs are the limbs by means of which you walk. There is a divide in philosophy (even today) among those who think that a subject of thought is immaterial (e.g., Plato, Descartes and his intellectual descendants) and those who think that subjects of thought can be fit into the material world (e.g., many who work in the sciences). It's really an interesting question. It seems to me reasonable to argue that subjects of thought are truly special--different in kind from other sorts of beings in the universe--and at the same to to deny that subjects of thought are immaterial. But, of course, many disagree!

If God is omnipotent then surely he can do anything!? My intuition tells me he can defy logic because surely he created it. I know philosophers will then ask me if it is possible for God to create a world where it both doesn't rain and rains at the same time. I am then forced to say that of course this doesn't seem possible. But...this leaves me with two questions: (a) Why do philosophers always have to talk about 'possible worlds'!? (b) Surely a world of contradictions only seems implausible to us because we are reasoning from the knowledge and experience we have in this world. We can't conceive of such ideas as not raining and raining at the same time because we are bound by the logic of this world.

Some philosophers agree with you that God created logic. Descartes, I believe, had a view like that. But most philosophers (I think!) believe that omnipotence only implies that God can do anything that is metaphysically possible. And it's not possible to make it rain and not rain at the same place at the same time (except when it drizzles; but leave that aside). I should mention that some philosophers (e.g., Graham Priest, JC Beall) have formulated a kind of logic that allows some contradictions to be true. So far, this has not become a popular position. (a) Philosophers talk about possible worlds as a way to make vivid various possibilities. Some philosophers (like David Lewis) take (nonactual) possible worlds to be concrete objects, just like the actual world. Many other philosophers take (nonactual) possible worlds to be just ways that the actual world might have been. If you understand possible worlds in the latter way, possible worlds are heuristically useful--but you are not...

This is kind of a counterfactual question. If the atmosphere in the past had been made more inviting to women would we presently have knowledge that we do not have at present? We all know I think that sensitivities enter and often create philosophy along with poetry. Some sensitivities have been left on the sidelines, just how heavy a price have we paid for this? Is it presently even productive to ask such a question? James Ont, Canada

I'm not sure what you include within the scope of 'knowledge'. Philosophy? Poetry? If the political atmosphere had been different in any number of ways, different people would have produced philosophy and poetry. It is reasonable to suppose that different people with different sensibilities would have pursued different projects and had different ideas. You wonder whether it's productive to ask your question. I think that any answer will be vague (as above) unless you have a well-worked-out theory of gender (or race or class or....) and a good historical understanding that allows you to apply the theory to the past.

I agree with Louise Antony on this matter. In my opinion, the contribution of feminism is to social justice, rather than to the theory of knowledge.

Philosophically (and perhaps linguistically, what is the difference between the question, "who are you?" and "what are you?". To answer the former, I often describe something about myself like my name or that I'm a student. The latter is often posed to me when people ask about my ethnicity or national origin. And perhaps more broadly, how do we "know" which sorts of identifying information is pertinent in answering either? Thanks, and great site.

One way that you might distinguish "What are you?" from "Who are you?" is to take the former question to be asking what kind of thing you are (e.g., a rational animal), and to take the latter question to be asking what distinguishes you from other (maybe, every other) member of your kind. When someone asks you one of the questions, you have to rely on context to decide what information is being asked for. Like you, I generally take "What are you?" to ask for more general information than "Who are you?"

How seriously is the idea taken that the passage of time is a purely subjective phenomenon? (I just read Palle Yourgrau's book on Gödel, who apparently came to such a conclusion via the theory of general relativity.) How might such an interpretation relate to Kant's view of time?

Many philosophers in the past half-century or so, especially those influenced by physics, have taken the passage of time to be wholly subjective. Physics (Newtonian as well as Einsteinian) appeals to temporal relations like 'earlier than' or 'simultaneous with', never to an ongoing now that passes. (Minkowski diagrams use 'now' as a label for a point of origin, but that's a far cry from passage of time.) Recently, some philosophers have turned the tables, and taken 'past','present' and 'future' to be fundamental (and not merely subjective). So, there is a lively debate now about the status of the present moment. For references on the contemporary debate, see the entry on "Time" in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (It's free on the internet, and a great resource.) Kant doesn't exactly fit into the terms of the contemporary debate. I'm no Kant scholar, but I think that Kant took time to be something like succession--we experience one thing after another. Kant took time to be...

This is a question about Hilary Putnam's twin earth thought experiment. After I read this thought experiment I was not convinced that Oscar's and twin-Oscar's "water" concept have different meanings. But most of the philosophers' intuitions are similar to Putnam (i.e., they think that Oscar's and twin-Oscar's "water" concept have different meanings). I thought that there might be something wrong with me. So I told this thought experiment to different people with different origins but without exception all of them responded that both Oscar's and twin-Oscar's "water" concept have the same meaning. So I still do not understand, why do so many philosophers' intuitions work like Putnam's? Thank you, Deniz

'Water' is a natural-kind term, and the natural-kind that 'water' refers to turned out to be H2O. In every possible situation, 'water' refers only to quantities of H2O. Twin-water is of a different natural kind, say, XYZ. The idea is that physical natural-kinds are defined by what they are made up of. So, the stuff made up of XYZ (and not H2O) is not water. The intuition that the XYZ-stuff on twin earth really is water may come from considerations like these: The XYZ-stuff on twin-earth looks and tastes just like water; it is used in the same way that we use water (brush teeth with it, wash clothes in it, etc.). But what determines the meaning of a physical natural-kind term (it is thought) is its physical make-up, not how it looks or what it's used for. How it looks and what it's used for "fix the reference" of 'water:' The stuff that looks like *that* (pointing on earth to H2O) and is used for teeth-brushing, etc. is water. It turned out (centuries later) that that stuff is H2O-...