Astronomers routinely observe the most distant objects and the earliest events in the universe. If we had a telescope powerful enough, could we observe the Big Bang and if so, could it be observed whichever way we looked?

The following comment has been kindly sent in by Professor Kannan Jagannathan (Department of Physics, Amherst College): "The best evidence we have for the isotropy andhomogeneity of space leads cosmologists to hold that the universe hasno center and no periphery. If the universe is infinite now, it was soat the Big Bang, and the bang occurred everywhere (in such a case, thedensity of the universe would have been infinite at BB); if theuniverse is finite (and unbounded) now, it was probably point-like atBB, but it is not to be thought of as embedded in some larger space. That was all there was as far as space was concerned; it was'everywhere' then, and is everywhere now. In the standard model of cosmology, as well as inmost variants of it, the initial rate of increase of the scaleparameter (crudely, the radius of the universe, or the rate ofexpansion of space) would have been bigger, perhaps much bigger, thanthe speed of light. The combination of these two points would suggestthat if...

I am a philosophy undergrad. What should I do to guarantee I get the most I can out of grad school?

Remain fascinated to the point of distraction by the questions, problems,solutions, arguments of philosophy. I don't know how much this is inone's control: you can avoid bad teachers and seek out inspiring ones;you can select to focus on areas that grip you; you can learn to put aproject away for a while if it's causing you grief; etc. But there'sonly so far one can force a fascination. Sadly, there are no guaranteesof the kind you seek. Or rather, not so sadly.

Is it possible to philosophize about the human condition from a lofty philosophical viewpoint rather than gleaning humble wisdom through the experience of engaging with the messy experience of meeting, befriending and loving the mass of mere humanity?

Often when non-philosophers think of philosophy they think of an extremely abstract discipline with only tenuous connections to everyday life. As Jyl says, this isn't so: many if not most philosophical problems take off from a perplexity regarding some very mundane and ubiquitous feature of life. When philosophers get abstract, and they can, it's not because they're seeking some "lofty" ground, animated by a horror of the messiness of the everyday. lt's rather that they have no hope of getting the understanding they crave of the notions that make up the everyday without disentangling concepts from one another. And this process of disentanglement can result in abstractness.

Does it really matter if there is a God? And if you think so, why?

I'm not sure I understand what people mean when they ask, in adecontextualized way, "whether something matters". It seems likewhether something matters to you depends on what your project or goal is at themoment. If you're doing your laundry, it matters that you've gotdetergent, whereas that doesn't really matter if what you're trying to do is prepare dinner. Are there projects for which God's existence does matter? Some people think that if you're reflecting on how one oughtto act, God's existence matters a whole lot. Elsewhere here ,DavidBrink argues that that isn't so, that God's existence doesn'treally matter as far as moral issues are concerned. Still, it seemsthat there are projects relative to which it does matter whether God exists. For instance, if I'm striving to devote mylife to theservice of God, then it should matter a very great deal to me whether Godexists; it matters enormously, for if He doesn't exist then that projectsimply cannot be carried out.

Is nothing impossible? Is it just that a lot of things have infinitely small probabilities of occurring?

(This evening, shortly after reading this, I had dinner at arestaurant in NYC — and there was Mayor Bloomberg at the next table. I heard someone say, "Nothing's impossible after all.") I'm not sure what an infinitely small probability would be. Perhapsjust a probability of 0? But that sounds like an impossible event. Soperhaps you're asking whether all events have some finite non-zeroprobability of occurring — and whether the events we call "impossible"really just have a very small finite probability. Philosophershave spent a lot of time trying to figure out what we're actuallysaying when we assign a probability to an event. Are we making someclaim about the world? Or are we making a claim about our degree ofconfidence in some judgment about the world? I won't go into that hereand instead will say a few words about impossibility. Philosophersoften distinguish between different kinds of impossibilities. Somesituations would conflict with the laws of logic: for instance, thestate of...

If we built a computer that could analyse our minds, and it figured out how they work and explained it to us, would we be able to understand?

The great Austrian logician, Kurt Gödel, proved a remarkable theorem in 1931 that he thought was relevant to this question. His theorem wasn't about minds, but with a bit of license, it could be taken to have some implications about them. For instance, this one: Assume our minds are like powerful computers, devices that manipulate symbols according to well-defined rules. Assume , moreover, that these rules are consistent with one another, that is, that they do not yield conflicting results. Then it "follows" from Gödel's result that there is some basic fact about our minds that we cannot ever know, that we could not in principle access. I suppose you might put it, as Peter Lipton did, by saying that that basic fact is "too difficult" for us to understand. But just a slightly more powerful mind would be able to grasp the fact in question about our minds! And that slightly more powerful mind would, in turn, fail to be able to grasp the same basic fact about its own functioning! So, if ...

Can Non-Being and Being occupy the same space at the same time or does Being displace Non-Being? Or Does Non-Being displace Being? Does Non-Being even exist?

How many hands do you have? Two? Or do you havethree? Your left hand, your right hand, and the non-existent third handthat's attached to your head? Obviously, that last "hand" shouldn'tcount. To say that you don't have a third hand isn't to say that youhave a hand that possesses the particularly stunting property ofnon-existence. We get ourselves into a real muddle if we take claims ofnon-existence to mean that there is some object that has the propertyof non-existence; for then that object must both exist (to have anyproperties) and not exist, and that can't be. So when we say that noone came to the party, we mean to deny that someone came to the party — not to affirm that at least one person did, namely "no one", the"non-person", the person with the rather anti-social property of non-existence. This confusion becomes unavoidable if one assumesthat every noun in a language must refer to something. For if youassume that, then when you come upon a sentence like "Nothing beats aroyal flush" you'll...

Why does anything exist? Wouldn't it be more believable if nothing existed?

Whenever anyone would raise this question, my much missed teacher, thelate Sidney Morgenbesser, used to say: "And if there were nothing,you're the kind of person who would ask 'Why isn't there something?'!" You might also consider looking at Robert Nozick's discussion of thisquestion in his book Philosophical Explanations .

Is faith in something intangible ultimately delusional?

Is this another way of asking whether belief in the existence of Godmust be irrational in light of God's intangibility? If so, I wouldanswer No. There are many things that I cannot touch in whoseexistence I believe. For instance, I believe in the existence of Mars,but I'll never touch it. You might think that's a bad example because,while I can't actually touch Mars, I could in principle touch it: intheory, I could build a space ship that will bring me to Mars. God, onthe other hand, seems to be something that I couldn't even in principletouch: according to many, God simply isn't located anywhere in thephysical universe. But don't we believe in the existence ofintangible things even in that stronger sense of "intangible"? Forinstance, most of us believe that the Equator exists, but it's nottangible (you can't trip over the Equator). Or, to take Richard's example , we all believe that the play A Comedy of Errors exists, even though it can't be touched, ripped up, or burned. Orfinally, most of...