Have we forgotten how to have an opinion and still be fair?

Maybe it was never true, but I have this sense that we’ve lost something in American public discourse over the last century. We’ve lost the conception of having an opinion and still being fair. It’s like we just can’t imagine both being true in the same brain. After watching the President’s speech tonight I realized that I feel seriously inhibited in what I say publicly because I want to maintain an impartial image so that people see GovTrack as an impartial source. Am I over concerned? I doubt it. This mistaken concept also underlies “professional journalism”, which is the style of most news operations now, and I think is perhaps the second greatest contributing factor to the downfall of news (after “The Internet”). More on that below.

People often mistake me as a liberal. And others mistake me as a conservative. Here’s a story about someone that did both. I’ve gotten some amusing feedback from people who mistook my GovTrack experiment in collaborative letter writing, for which I delievered an anti-gun-control letter to congressmen, as representing my own views. That couldn’t be further from the truth. If it were up to me, guns would be illegal. I explained this contradiction to someone who wrote me a letter. He said:

Julles: But don’t you see the similarities between what this administration is doing and what was done in Germany in the 30’s?

Then I replied:

Me: I really get personally offended sometimes. To compare a president who is trying to improve health care to a regime that killed however many millions is to belittle the damage and suffering done to anyone that experienced it. Disagree on policy all you want, but don’t belittle one of the world’s greatest tragedies.

And he replied:

Julles: HR3200 is a BAD bill . . . Open your eyes, kid.

(H.R. 3200 is the health care bill.) Expressions about eyes always strike a chord with me. But more to the point, I never told this guy I thought H.R. 3200 was a good bill. And, quite honestly, after the President’s speech tonight, I am not so enamored by where health care reform is going. In particular I wonder about the constitutional authority to require everyone to possess health insurance. I suspect it will be turned into a tax penalty to avoid a straightforward law and side-step constitutional questions.

I don’t have an agenda. But if I have an opinion, I may jeopardize the perception of fairness and accuracy in anything I do in the world of civics. Can I have an opinion and still be trusted to be fair when I put my nonpartisan hat on? I’m not even partisan. I vote Democratic, but so does most everyone else in the places I’ve ever lived. Am I allowed to say that? Have I lost credibility merely for being more open about my views?

And this is what I imagine journalists go through. They vote too, I hope. If they write for the New York Times, they probably live in New York and vote like most New Yorkers. But then they turn off their passion when they put their fingers down to the newsroom keyboard. And we suspend disbelief for a moment as we read their articles that journalists can’t have opinions and be fair at the same time. They make it easy for us to suspend disbelief because they write like they’re dead. No interest in the outcome. They’ve got to write a few words because they need to pay for the electricity that keeps their computers going, but if newspapers paid them to write a summary of the tax law they’d do that too. It doesn’t matter to them, at least as far as we can tell from reading.

This is ridiculous and, worse, counterproductive. I’d be more interested in news if articles pleaded with me that the issue was important, that it isn’t a conceptual exercise but that it even matters to the reporter. This is, apparently, how news used to be 100 to 250 years ago. It’s how the most compelling documentaries and long-form video news segments are today. Of course, it was also not very reliable 100-250 years ago. But I don’t think that dichotomy has to be so today. If we opened ourselves up to the idea that a reporter could have an opinion and still be fair, we wouldn’t need to suspend disbelief. Reporters wouldn’t have to die each time they start writing the next piece.

I don’t want reporters to die. Save the reporters. (Ironic hyperbole.)

“State of the Union” Is The Title Of This Post

There’s something funny about the title of this post, and it’s what happened at the start of the State of the Union tonight.  (By the way, kudos to MSNBC for posting the transcript, as spoken, immediately after the speech ended.)

Thank you very much. And tonight I have the high privilege and distinct honor of my own as the first president to begin the State of the Union message with these words: “Madame Speaker.”

Another lie?  Self-referential lies aren’t as bad as lies about weapons of mass destruction, but they’re more interesting to linguistics at least.  Why?  The first words of the State of the Union are “Thank you very much.”  They are not  “Madame Speaker” as he claimed.  It’s funny, of course, because the very utterance in which he makes a claim about what he said falsifies the claim.  The President ought to have said the following:

Thank you very much. And tonight I have the high privilege and distinct honor of my own as the first president to end the first paragraph the State of the Union message with these words: “Madame Speaker.”

But that’s not as elegant.  To preserve a different aspect of the meaning, he might have said:

“Madame Speaker” are words that tonight I have had the high privilege and distinct honor of my own of being the first president to begin the State of the Union message with.  Thank you very much.

(Not that I think he really should have said either of those, but it is, indeed, what he might have said if his speech writer were a stickler for precise, silly details.)
Maybe I haven’t given him enough benefit of the doubt.  Let’s call that paragraph meta-speech and not technically a part of the State of the Union.  Like, he gets to say it but we don’t count it as a part of the actual State of the Union. Because, if we consider the next two paragraphs as meta-speech also:

In his day, the late Congressman Thomas D’Alesandro, Jr. . . . Congratulations, Madame Speaker! Congratulations.

Two members of the House . . . Tim Johnson and Congressman Charlie Norwood.

Then finally we get to a point where he does seem to start up the “real” speech, starting in the traditional way, and with the words “Madam Speaker”.

Madam Speaker, Vice President Cheney, Members of Congress, distinguished guests, and fellow citizens . . .

But, ah-ha!  You may have noticed that the spelling of Madam changed from the first paragraph.  That was MSNBC’s doing, which seems like a subversive way of ensuring the President did not start with “Madame Speaker” after all.  It’s the left-wing media at work.

This of course all reminds me of Godel, Escher, Bach, which I finished reading recently.  In it, Achilles says someone keeps crank calling him on the phone and shouting:

“Is false when preceded by its negation!  Is false when preceded by its negation!”

The President may have inadvertently proved the incompleteness of number theory without realizing it.

Why do we follow the Golden Rule?

I’m way out of my league writing about the Golden Rule.
That said, here’s my two cents.  (Permanently posted here.)


The Golden Rule is the first rule of social behavior that
we were supposed to have learned as children: Behave toward others as
you would like them to behave toward you (or something like that).
Don’t hit people if you don’t want to be hit; don’t steal if you don’t
want your stuff stolen; respect people if you want to be respected.
By and large, people seem to follow this rule. After all, most people
don’t want to be hit and robbed, and most people don’t hit and steal.

The Golden Rule can be seen to extend to morality beyond
person-to-person interactions. Although cows don’t have the
opportunity to behave a certain way toward people, vegetarians
nonetheless treat them with respect — the same respect they
would expect to be treated with.

My goal here is to explain why people treat others with respect.
It’s one thing to say why a philosopher might think up a Golden Rule
and something else to explain why people unconsciously follow it. But
in fact the two explanations may be the same. Just as a philosopher
is trying to explain the world around him, so are our minds. Where
a philosopher could see the Golden Rule, our minds might see a means
to be treated the way we want. Philosophers, like our minds, witness
events and generalize rules to explain the events. Our minds go
on to put those rules into effect.

It’s Best for Society, So It’s Best for Me

The utilitarian philosopher would probably say that following the
Golden Rule maximizes everyone’s welfare, and that is why people follow
the rule. If we all follow the Golden Rule, there won’t be any stealing
or hitting, and we’ll all be happier than if there were. But in an
imperfect world where not everyone has the same Golden ideal, following
the Golden Rule won’t always maximize one’s welfare. In a world where
everyone cheats on taxes, it doesn’t help to be any more honest than the
next man. Utilitarianism doesn’t explain why anyone in an imperfect
world should follow the Golden Rule.


One interpretation of the Golden Rule is a phenomenon of society:
people are likely to treat you with respect if you do the same to
them. Even if there was no such thing called the Golden Rule
in our culture, even if no one had ever invented the phrase do
unto others
, this phenomenon would still be a fact of
humanity. My being nice to you is highly correlated with your
being nice to me, independent of the existence of the expression
the Golden Rule.

The social phenomenon is readily observable in society, and we should
expect people to take advantage of this fact. Knowing one will be
treated with respect in return for respecting others, people will learn
to treat others with respect. The Golden Rule is one way to express
this social strategy: If you want to be treated well, behave toward
others nicely so that they treat you the same way back.

In this light, the Golden Rule seems motivated merely by selfish
desires. If this were the reason people follow the Golden Rule,
then we would expect there to be no people that follow the Golden Rule
but don’t care how people treat them in return. Without a desire to be
treated better, there would be no reason to follow the rule. So, there
would be no genuine altruism; there would be no reason to show any
respect to others that we don’t expect to see again in the future;
and the Golden Rule would not apply to person-animal interactions.
This is not how our society generally works, and this is not why we follow
the rule.


Unconsciously, people like to make generalizations about the world
around them. We base our behavior on the generalizations we’ve made.
The selfish explanation for the Golden Rule is a generalization in the
following way. There is some particular event E in which I treated
someone else with respect, and that person treated me with the same
respect. I deem this event “good” because I benefited from reciprocity,
and so I generalize over E to maximize goodness. For all events, I
treat someone else with the same respect that I appreciated being

There are many possible reasons for following the Golden Rule.
The reasons above are one explanation: We each treat the other a certain way
because we want that person to treat us that way back. But that explanation
fails to apply in many situtions in which people treat others with
respect but no reciprocity is expected.

There is another way to generalize the reciprocity we observe. There
is some particular event E in which some particular person P treated
someone else with respect. In this event, that other person happened to
be me. I deem this event “good” because I appreciated the respect, and
so I generalize over E and P. All people in all events should treat the
other person with respect because this is “good”. All people includes
me, so I should treat others with respect, in all events, too.

This new generalization might be said if I want you to treat me a
certain way, then I want everyone, me included, to treat everything that
. This doesn’t depend on actual reciprocity as the selfish
generalization did, only on an innate desire to generalize events. The
things we treat with respect don’t need to be able to return the
respect. We only need to consider ourselves actors in the world like
those that treat us with respect. If this is the rule our minds have
generalized, it explains why we strive to treat others with respect
universally, irrespective of what we might get in return.


The Golden Rule is an observation of a social phenomenon,
but it is not clear why people often follow the Golden Rule
when there is no apparent benefit to doing so. For instance,
why do people give respect to people and things that will
not respect us back? The explanation may be found in how people
generalize over events they see. When we are treated with
respect and appreciate the treatment, we may generalize
the event as one in which a person treated something else with
respect. Because we considered the specific event good,
we consider the generalization good and strive to repeat it.

How We Exist

While updating my homepage, I wrote down my thoughts on how it is that we exist…

I think I’ve solved the mystery of why we’re “here.” 🙂 Think of this as a casual theory about why we’re living in The Matrix.

Tree Falls in an Empty Forrest

The problem, to me, is that there is no one to observe our universe from the outside. If our universe is truly all alone, then our universe might as well not exist in the first place. This is similar to the tree falling in a forest with no one around to hear it. Did it make a sound? If you would answer the question by falling back on the physics of sound, separate for the moment the notion of sound and vibration. Think of sound as just the sensation we perceive when we’re hearing something. If no one perceives a vibration, then by my definition of sound arguendo, there couldn’t have been a sound. Sounds only exist in the ears of the perceiver, and without perceivers there can’t be sound. If a tree falls in a forest an no one is around to perceive the resulting vibrations, then no sound was created.

Of course, this only applies for this narrow definition of sound. But, maybe it applies to everything. That is, nothing exists unless someone observes it (or can potentially observe it). Call this “nothing unobservable exists.” Maybe it’s true, maybe it’s not. For the sake of curiosity, I’ll assume it is true.

For everything we know in our world, and many things we don’t, the “nothing unobservable exists” line has no consequences. Everything around us we’ve either observed, or it’s possible someone will in the future.

Some things in our universe are potentially unobservable (i.e. scientists aren’t certain that they are unobservable). For instance, the innards of black holes might be unobservable since light cannot escape from black holes to indicate their contents. If black hole innards are in fact unobservable, then do the innards exist at all? Since a person at the center of a black hole, though physically impossible, could observe the contents of the black hole, then the contents are potentially observable to someone, so they can exist. Maybe.

No one outside of the black hole can observe the contents of the black hole. The presence of an observer within the black hole is unknowable to anyone outside of it, so as far as anyone outside of the black hole is concerned, the contents of the black hole might as well not exist.

Maybe it doesn’t matter what people outside of the black hole think about whether the contents of the black hole exist. But, maybe it does. Maybe the existence line was too weak. Maybe it should be “nothing externally unobservable exists.” Call this the strong hypothesis. If no one outside of the black hole can observe the inside of the black hole, then nothing at all exists within the black hole.

Observers on Our Universe

Who can observe our universe? We can. But, we’re in our universe, so under the strong hypothesis, we don’t count. If that line is true, then someone outside of our universe must be able to observe us.

Between two people, A and B, there are four states of observability that can obtain. 1) A and B can (potentially) observe each other. 2) Neither can observe the other (ever). 3) A can (potentially) observe B, but B cannot possibly observe A. And, 4) the reverse. Which is the relation between A, someone outside of our universe that can observe our universe, and B, someone in our universe? (2) and (4) are immediately ruled out. It doesn’t seem it can be (1) because if A and B can observe each other, then they are in the same universe. What’s left is (3), which tells us that if we find an observer who satisfies the strong hypothesis, then we can’t observe him.

This all seems pretty contradictory. Given the strong hypothesis, then there must exist someone who can observe us but we can’t observe him. Actually, it seems pretty spiritual.

Emergent Universe

To solve the problem of the strong hypothesis, one could postulate a god of some sort that exists at a level of existence outside of our universe. But, that explanation begs the question of how the god could exist, since someone must observe him too, and also if the god is not in our universe, how is he able to observe it? A better solution explains how the observer exists and how he is able to observe our universe.

Here’s the gist of my answer: Our universe is embedded in another, Matrix-style. This is the philosophically-loaded explanation. It’s a lot of hand-waving and is hardly a solid thesis. I’ll expand on it in the future.

Assume physicalism. Assume consciousness is the result of the functional state of the universe. Suppose that a copy of the physical state of the universe also copies its functional state. Encode the physical state of the universe in a computer simulation running in another universe. Since the functional state of the universe is preserved, our simulated equivalents will feel just as conscious and alive as we do. To them, they are in a universe — our universe.

Our simulated equivalents and ourselves are indistinguishable, so let’s assume we are them. We are being simulated in another universe. Does this help us find an observer of our universe ourside of our universe?

Anyone who can observe the computer simulation is, in a way, observing us. The people running our simulation in our “parent” universe can observe the simulation, and thus can observe us. They are also in their universe, and not ours. They satisfy the requirement that our universe have an external observer, and the way they can observe our universe is explained.

Then there is the second question to be answered about how these observers can themselves exist. They, too, can be simulated. There might be another way for their universe to be externally observable, but being simulated is one possible explanation.


The strong hypothesis is that nothing externally unobservable can exist. That is, given a self-contained system of some sort, if the system cannot be observed from outside of the system, then the system cannot exist. If the strong hypothesis is true, and if we believe physicalism, then one way our own universe can exist is if our universe is based on a computer-style simulation running in another universe. Since we can never observe our “parent” universe, there are no real consequences to believing the strong hypothesis.