The problem of 'normal'

Discussion in 'General Philosophy' started by James R, Jul 20, 2018.

  1. James R Just this guy, you know? Staff Member

    I'd like to discuss what the word 'normal' means, and how it is often used.

    Perhaps it is best to start with a dictionary definition:
    normal (a.):
    1. Being usual, typical or standard; not abnormal.
    2. In accordance with scientific laws.
    3. Being approximately average or within certain limits.
    4. Having a normal distribution.

    Definition 1 is the most common usage. It is rather vague, and questions immediately arise as to what makes something 'usual, typical or standard'. Obviously, we need some kind of sample space to compare to in order to decide whether something is 'typical'. If we're worried about what is 'usual', then there's a temporal element and a implied necessity for repeating occurrences - a comparison between past and present. Something is 'standard' only when a standard has been decided upon by somebody. "Not abnormal" is unhelpful in terms of defining normality, although it suggests perhaps that the category of 'normal' is usually envisaged as being somewhat larger than the category of 'abnormal' (which is also implied by 'typical' and 'usual').

    Definition 2 puts 'normal' in contrast with the supernatural or 'paranormal'.

    Definition 3 invites the question, in particular cases, as to what the limits are, and who is defining them.

    Definition 4 is a specific, mathematically precise one, but it is not often used in this sense by anybody other than specialists such as statisticians, scientists, and engineers.

    To get the discussion going, I'll take as an example human traits, both physical and behavioural. The first thing to say is that most such traits exist on a continuum. Even something as apparently binary as whether a person is left- or right-handed in reality exists on a continuum: those who overwhelming preference one hand over the other are at the extremes, the truly ambidextrous are in the centre, and those who use both hands to different degrees are in between.

    Is it 'normal' to be left-handed?

    This seems a sensible sort of question, at first glance. But notice that, straight away as we frame the question, the implication is a binary rather than the continuum that is the reality. We've already mentally divided the world into 'left-handed' and 'every other kind of handedness' by putting the question this way. The temptation, of course, is to ignore the centre completely, and assume that there's a true binary - either you're left-handed or else you're right-handed, and just forget about the people who use their right hand for writing and their left for holding a tennis racquet.

    Now, we are told that predominantly left-handed people make up around 10% of the population. With an apparent nine to one ratio against left-handedness, are we therefore to conclude that left-handedness is 'abnormal'? Is it 'typical, usual or standard' enough to be considered 'normal'? There are 7 billion human beings in the world, and so 700 million lefties. Can a group of 700 million people be 'abnormal'? Here lies another part of the problem with asking what 'normal' is.

    Maybe 'normal', in common usage, has more to do with a 'surprise factor'. Would you be especially surprised to discover that somebody you were talking to was left-handed? I think not, unless you happened to be at an exclusive convention for the right-handed. So maybe left-handedness is 'normal' after all, in some sense.

    We are told, similarly, that about 10% of the population is homosexual. Again, we are invited to gloss over the continuum in sexual preference in order to consider a binary - either you're gay or you're hetero, and forget the myriad variations in between. But, in contrast to the case of handedness, which has a similar prevalence in human beings, we seem to hear far more often that homosexuality is 'abnormal'. Why is that? It seems like a different criterion of 'normal' is being applied.

    Maybe 'normal', in everyday speech, means little more than "what I find acceptable". Left-handedness - probably no big deal, so normal enough. Homosexuality - well, opinions there are more variable.

    Which brings me to another point I want to raise in this opening post: the fallacy of equating 'normality' with moral goodness. Quite often, I see arguments that boil down to "that's not normal, so therefore it's bad/evil/undesirable".

    The Romans, of course, had a word for the left-handedness. Sinister. Left-handedness is less common than right-handedness. Therefore, left-handedness is not 'normal'. Therefore, lefties are to be treated with suspicion, by default. If they are not 'normal' in that sense, who knows how many other ways they might be 'abnormal'? Clearly, they are not like the majority of 'us' and they shouldn't be trusted.

    Is there a cure for the problem of 'normal'? I think there is.

    For starters, try to let go of the idea that the world is made up of binaries. It's not 'us' and 'them', the 'lefties' and 'righties', the 'straight' and 'gay'.

    Second, once you appreciate that there is a continuum, recognise that what you have is not 'normal' and 'abnormal', but rather only 'more commonly seen' vs 'less commonly seen'. If 1 in 100 people is over 7 feet tall, they aren't 'abnormal', they are just unusual (but there are still going to be 70 million of them in the world).

    Third, if you can't cope with the idea of a continuum, try a trinary classification rather than a binary one. That allows for two extremes, and one middle category. Make sure that most of the population is in the middle category: set your limits appropriately. If you do this, you will quickly realise that there are very few raving Liberals and very few arch Conservatives, and quite a lot of people who are centrist (leaning one way or another, if you want to be less rigid about the trinary thing.)

    Last, if you must pretend that a continuum is a binary, then avoid making moral judgments based on "what is normal is good" and "what is abnormal is bad".

    If in doubt, avoid 'normal' completely.
    Last edited: Jul 20, 2018
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  3. Seattle Valued Senior Member

    Can we now define "God", "Good", "Consciousness", "Soul" and "Mind"?

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  5. Michael 345 New year. PRESENT is 71 years old Valued Senior Member

    700 million people be 'abnormal'

    I'd put it as a deviation (in hand preference)

    The abnormal would be those who use their feet (for whatever reason) to perform tasks normally performed with hands

    Part of the reason would be feet are not designed for hand task

    However for those who do use feet for hand task - it is normal for them

    More a Bell curve

    Do you really think such disparate concepts can mix into a palatable idea????

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  7. gmilam Valued Senior Member

    On the first day of seventh grade my science teacher discussed the word "normal" with us... He concluded by saying we should use the word "average" instead.
    TabbyStar likes this.
  8. Bowser Namaste Valued Senior Member

    It seems people are trying hard to be abnormal these days, most notably through body modification. And in doing so they are establishing a new norm.
    Jan Ardena likes this.
  9. spidergoat Liddle' Dick Tater Valued Senior Member

    That's correct, as soon as lots of people try to be cool in the same way, it becomes less cool.

    More broadly, normal isn't a scientific term, and so resists quantification.
  10. sideshowbob Sorry, wrong number. Valued Senior Member

    I'd say it has more to do with getting your point across than with precise definitions. If your audience is likely to divide the subject into normal and not normal, then you might be well-advised to choose a different word.
  11. DaveC426913 Valued Senior Member

    Or better yet, a different audience.
    sideshowbob likes this.
  12. cluelusshusbund + Public Dilemma + Valued Senior Member

    Yeah... whats normal depends on the purpose/context that the word is bein used... but in the big pitcher... i see everthang that exists as bein normal.!!!
    Magical Realist and river like this.
  13. Bowser Namaste Valued Senior Member

    I've been meaning to ask "The Blue Man" what his message might be. I see him downtown in front of Nordstrom's every afternoon. He wears all blue clothing and blue face paint. Carries a megaphone but never says anything. Looks harmless enough.
  14. Yazata Valued Senior Member

    Arguably, there's another one too. It would be a teleological spin on your #1, such that

    5. Behaving so as to fulfill an inherent function.

    We see this one a lot in biology and medicine. 'His kidneys are functioning normally' iff they are performing their physiological job and contributing to the health of the larger organism.

    This teleological usage also is very historical, coming as it does from Aristotle by way of the medievals.

    Historically, this kind of idea has sometimes been used outside biology in ethical arguments. Things like homosexuality and masturbation have been condemned in some circles because they involve use of the sex organs in ways that don't contribute to their reproductive function. This kind of ethical use of #5 seems to depend on an additional premise that 'not-functional' = 'bad' (in some morally relevant sense). Imagine an acorn (the hard nut-like seed of an oak). Its function is to grow into an oak tree. If a particular acorn's development unfolds abnormally so that no oak tree results, then it's natural to say that it was a 'bad' acorn and that its development has 'gone wrong'.

    This latter ethicizing move has often been associated with the 'everything happens for a purpose' idea and with the idea that purpose infuses the behavior of the entire universe, so that all events happen so as to bring about some future culmination, some ideal state. So 'abnormal' behavior in this case would be behavior that contradicts the proper unfolding of reality and the realization of its final goal. (Realization of its 'final cause', often historically associated in various theologies with God.)
    Last edited: Jul 24, 2018
    Musika likes this.
  15. sweetpea Valued Senior Member

    Wonder how long it will be before Vappers outnumber the ''normal'' smokers? Both being forms of internal organ ''modification.''
  16. gmilam Valued Senior Member

    There are some Spanish pigs that, if they could talk, would tell you the purpose of an acorn is for them to eat it.ón
  17. sideshowbob Sorry, wrong number. Valued Senior Member

    Being eaten is a normal means of distribution for many seeds. Eating is also normal.
  18. Bowser Namaste Valued Senior Member

    I'm looking at switching to vaping, and I've been a smoker for decades. It's a curious thing though, the number of cigarette smokers I see every day while in town--more than I imagined.
  19. naturallygorg Registered Member

    Vaping or smoking. I think that the effects on the lungs, biologically, are still the same. My partner was a cigarette smoker when he was a teen but stopped with the cigarettes and switched to weeds. But now, he said that smoking weeds feels the same way with smoking cigarettes.
  20. Bowser Namaste Valued Senior Member

    I believe vape has far less toxins than smoking tobacco. It's a nicotine delivery system totally different from burning a weed. My son let me try his and apparently there is a technique to using the vape. I tried hitting it like I was smoking pot and nearly choked.

    Considering the investment involved, you really need to be committed to switching over from tobacco, but I've been told that after the initial investment, the overall cost is lower than buying a carton of smokes every week.
  21. river

    The problem of normal , is that it refuses to be more informed , about anything . In depth .
  22. TheFrogger Banned Valued Senior Member

    "Normal" means "not bad." "No mal." As in mal-function. ☺
  23. RainbowSingularity Valued Senior Member

    i was looking for some information & found a corporate advisory notice to management.
    it was about Gender Transition Guidelines and protocol.
    i felt like a caveman reading the star trek hand book... in other words...more precisely... i was truly inspired.

    the pervasive Chauvinism that seems to be cultured into competative personality paradigms it was quite distasteful and in some groups considered "normal".

    being able to observe management target and remove this poison that was starting to creep in and destroy a top achiving team was like a refreshing swim in the ocean.

    Diversity is not offensive or weak. normal is not good. normal is a word that applys to mild intransient emotional flux which is tempered to the nature of value.

    observing normal being restored was watching an invasive undercurrent of ad-norm-nausia be removed.

    to me, normal is diversity & awesomeness, caring and quirkiness

    normal was restored

    fyi i have been lucky enough to work amongst straight gay bi transgender(LGBTQ) people for most of my working career.

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