Monday, February 1, 1999
Houston, Texas
Volume 64, Issue 83

De La Garza on Losers

Staff Editorial

About the Cougar

Yes, but can you prove you exist?

In the real world, there's no need for metaphysics

Austin Tice

I know what a chair is. I know that chairs exist. I also know that a phone book is not the same thing as a teacher.

At first glance, this doesn't seem like that big of a deal. Of course you know that chairs exist. Who doesn't know the difference between the Yellow Pages and a professor? Some people, however, find simple statements such as these quite difficult to believe.

Take my government professor, for example. He's what got me thinking about chairs in the first place.

My class has been trying to talk about the Declaration of Independence for almost three weeks. At this point, we've almost gotten through the header, which reads: In Congress, July 4, 1776 (The Unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen United States of America). This is all we've covered in four classes.

What's the hang-up?

My professor doesn't believe in facts. He doesn't believe that we can all agree on facts. He doesn't believe that what is a fact today will still be a fact tomorrow. He doesn't believe that facts are universal. He doesn't believe that ... I give up. I don't know what he believes.

One day in class, I sensed that he was wrong, so I objected. He asked me to name a fact. I told him that I was sitting on a chair.

"How do you know that you are sitting on a chair?" he asked smugly.

I confidently replied by saying that I could see it and feel it.

"How do you know that you aren't asleep?"

I know I'm not asleep because I woke up this morning and came to school.

"How do you know that what you're sitting in is a chair and not something else entirely?"

I think he eventually conceded to me that I was sitting in the chair, but the way he talks, I can never really tell.

He then wanted to know how he could be sure that I was sitting in the chair.

I replied that he could see I was sitting in the chair.

"How do I know that you aren't actually incredibly athletic and hovering a fraction of an inch above your chair?"

Another time, he asked my friend Stacy what a teacher was. She said it was someone who gave you information you didn't already have. So he asked her if a phone book was a teacher.

I see his point. Language can change, intentions can be misunderstood and assumptions can be wrong.

It is now, however, barely three weeks into the semester and we're already a week behind schedule.

In my English class, we're reading a book by the 17th century French philosopher Rene Descartes. His major philosophy was that nothing exists outside of that which can be independently reasoned by the mind. He claimed that mind is even more real than the physical, observable universe.

He didn't talk about chairs, but he did mention beeswax.

While he did have some interesting ideas, Descartes spent years of his life (and most of the book, for that matter) proving that he existed.

Proving that you exist is pointless. Proving that chairs exist is pointless. Proving that a phone book is not a teacher is pointless.

If I pulled your chair out from under you, it would not matter what you believed about chairs. If I told you to read the phone book, that would make me a pretty poor teacher. If I shot you in the head, it wouldn't matter if you believed I existed. You would cease to exist.

Mental exercises like these are fun and clever. If you can prove to me that I don't exist, I'm going to think you're pretty smart.

Beyond that, they have no practical application at all. I don't need to know any of this. What I need to know is why the founding fathers wrote the Declaration of Independence.

I need to know this so that I can understand the government of the country in which I live. At some time in the future, this is going to be information that I will need to have.

In order to function as a society, in order to stay alive, in order to study the Declaration of Independence, some things must be taken for granted. Without any assumptions, social life becomes impossible.

Which side of the road should I drive on? How fast should I drive? What is a red light?

Of course there are differences of opinion. But the very fact that there are differences at all proves that there is some sort of underlying assumption with which to disagree.

Other than independently wealthy Frenchmen and musty scholars, real people are concerned with the real world. If I can see it, I know it is real. If the numbers add up, I know it is real.

I don't care whether it is real in some sort of twisted metaphysical sense. I care if it is going to put a roof over me, a seat under me, a shirt on my back and food in my mouth.

If my professor thinks chairs are fascinating, he can discuss his theories on his own time, not while he's supposed to be teaching the students who pay his salary.

Tice, a sophomore University Studies student 
who's proving he exists by writing a weekly column
can be reached at

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