More about “fringe cults” — What is “normal”?

April 21, 2007

Eariler today I posted a blog entry titled “Fringe cults”, about the debate following “The Devil Is In The Details” on the blog “Sailing to Byzantium.”

In response to my initial reply to “unitedcats,” I got replies not only from “unitedcats” himself but also from another person:

katyjane wrote::
April 18th, 2007 at 5:28 pm

dianavera… are you not guilty, in that last line, or doing the same thing you decried of unitedcats? Why would non-mainstream folks be “even more varied” than mainstream folks?

You get some pretty different ideas, regardless of where you’re looking.

I replied:

Diane Vera wrote::
April 20th, 2007 at 10:56 am

katyjane wrote:

“dianavera… are you not guilty, in that last line, or doing the same thing you decried of unitedcats? Why would non-mainstream folks be ‘even more varied’ than mainstream folks?”

Obviously there are more ways to differ from the norm than there are ways to be normal. That’s simple math.

Of course it’s true that even amongst “normal” folks there is quite a bit of variety.

I would add now that what I was doing was not at all the same thing that I (perhaps incorrectly) perceived that “unitedcats” was doing. I was not making a generalization about all people outside of some norm of my own.

As it turns out, I may have misperceived what “unitedcats” meant by “fringe cults.” (See my previous post,“Fringe cults”.)

Admittedly my reply to “katyjane” was rather abrupt, since I was arguing what seemed to me to be an extremely obvious point. But apparently it wasn’t.

katyjane wrote::
April 20th, 2007 at 11:14 am

Diane wrote:
“Obviously there are more ways to differ from the norm than there are ways to be normal. That’s simple math.

Of course it’s true that even amongst “normal” folks there is quite a bit of variety.”

It’s not simple math. If you asked me what ‘normal’ was, and then asked someone else, you’d have different answers. The math would be fuzzy at best.

Kullervo wrote::
April 20th, 2007 at 11:29 am

Indeed. There are as many ways to be “normal” as there are normal people. No two people are exactly the same. Not only is “normal” completely subjective, but it’s a continuum.

So I tried again:

Diane Vera wrote::
April 20th, 2007 at 11:40 am

Katyjane, what does the word “normal” mean to you?

To me, “normal” means “fitting into some norm.”

For example, here in the U.S.A., the majority of people are Christian; hence it’s “normal” to be Christian. Obviously there are many different non-Christian religions, and many of them differ from each other as much as or more than they differ from Christianity. For example, Judaism and Islam are staunchly monotheistic, whereas the Pagan Reconstructionist religions are staunchly polytheistic. Christianity it basically monotheistic, except that the “Trinity” idea looks borderline polythiestic and “idolatrous” to Jews and Muslims.

In the case of religion, one could expand one’s idea of “normal” to refer not just to Christians but also to several other “great” religions. But this still leaves thousands of other religions that differ from the so-called “great” religions — and from each other — in one way or another.

In retrospect, I see that I overgeneralized a bit about Christianity in the above. There do exist non-Trinitarian Christians, although the vast majority of Christians do believe in the Trinity, which has been considered by most to be the “normal” (i.e. “orthodox”) Christian belief for nearly all of Christianity’s history. But I also overgeneralized a bit about Jews. It can be argued (as some mainstream Jews have argued) that Jewish Kabbalists’ belief in the ten Sephiroth is as borderline-polytheistic as the Trinity. There is plenty of variation in belief among Jews, as there also is among Muslims, not to mention all the world’s many other religions, as well as among Christians Anyhow:

Diane Vera wrote::
April 20th, 2007 at 11:45 am

Kullervo:

“Indeed. There are as many ways to be “normal” as there are normal people. No two people are exactly the same. Not only is ‘normal’ completely subjective, but it’s a continuum.”

True. Still, no matter how you define “normal,” there will be more ways to differ from your norm than there are ways to fit within it.

Diane Vera wrote::
April 20th, 2007 at 12:03 pm

As for the “simple math” I referred to earlier:

Suppose you define “normal” as “having both trait A and trait B” (regardless of what traits A and B might actually be). There are three ways to differ from this norm:

  • having trait A but not B
  • having trait B but not A
  • having neither trait A nor trait B

Likewise, suppose you define “normal” as “having traits A, B, and C” (again, regardless of what A, B, and C actually are). There are at least seven ways to differ from this norm:

  • having trait A and B but not C
  • having trait B and C but not A
  • having trait A and C but not B
  • having trait A but neither B nor C
  • having trait B but neither A nor C
  • having trait C but neither A nor B
  • having none of traits A, B, or B

More generally, the number of ways to differ from your norm varies exponentially with the number of traits considered. if your definition of “normal” encompasses N traits, then the number of ways to differ from that norm is at least 2 to the N-1 power.

Not only that, but, for any given trait A, there is usually more than one way to be not-A, as in my religion example (where A = Christianity and not-A = the many non-Christian religions).

In that last paragraph I should have acknowledged that there is often more than one way to be A, as well as more than one way to be not-A. However, as in the religion example, the number of possible ways to be not-A would in most cases be vastly greater than the number of possible ways to be A, if A is any standard of “normality.”

Before I finished writing that last reply, the following also appeared:

Kullervo wrote::
April 20th, 2007 at 11:48 am

“Still, no matter how you define “normal,” there will be more ways to differ from your norm than there are ways to fit within it.”

You say that like it’s a truism, but I challenge your assertion.

To which I replied:

Diane Vera wrote::
April 20th, 2007 at 12:04 pm

Kullervo wrote: “You say that like it’s a truism, but I challenge your assertion.”

I challenge you to give me a counter-example.

At that point Kullervo decided to cut off the discussion:

Kullervo wrote::
April 20th, 2007 at 12:20 pm

Your simple math makes unfounded assumptions that “normalcy” is expressed in terms of simple traits with an on-off swtich. Like I said, most things that peope would come up with as “normal” are really points on a broad continuum.

For example, it is a misleading oversimplification to try to say that “Normal” means the trait “Christian.” There are as many different kinds of Christians as there are peoplwho call themselves Christian, with differences in approaches, attitudes, theological views, soteriology, etc. I don’t have to give you a counter-example, anyway. You’re the one making broad assertions.

Here’s what it boils down to: you’re mostly just arguing to argue, and I don’t want that here on my blog, so knock it off. Thanks.

No, I was NOT arguing just to argue.

I was offended by what I saw, perhaps incorrectly, as an egregious insult (by “unitedcats”) against all people of all nonmainstream religions.

I then pursued this discussion out of sheer startlement, then befuddlement, and finally sheer curiosity. I wondered — and still wonder — how any reasonably well-educated person could seriously believe that, whatever one’s own personal idea of a “norm” might happen to be, it isn’t just a tiny slice of the vast array of other possibilities? Of course, I do know that this kind of myopia is perfectly natural. It is all too easy for people to oversimplify “the other”; to see the world outside one’s own little box as a more-or-less undifferentiated blur, compared to the greater variety that one can more easily see within one’s own little box. However, in my experience, most educated people, other than dogmatic ideologues, are aware of this fallacy and can can easily recognize it when it is pointed out to them. “Kullervo” and “katyjane” both seem like reasonably well-educated people, and they do not seem like dogmatic ideologues, e.g. they don’t come across as the sort of Christians who believe that the differences amongst non-Christians are insignificant, compared to the differences amongst Christians, because all non-Christians are just going to hell anyway. On the contrary, “Kullervo,” the owner of the blog, actually seemed quite open-minded about LaVeyan Satanism. So, what on Earth was going on here?

Anyhow, to reply to Kullervo’s last reply to me:

Yes, I oversimplified by talking in discrete binary terms rather than continuous terms. However, similar principles do apply to continuous random variables as well. For example, on a bell curve, the portion of the X-axis that falls within one standard deviation of the mean is just a tiny slice of the entire infinitely long X-axis. Likewise the portion of the X-axis that falls within N standard deviations of the mean, no matter how large N is. And, again, all the more so is this true for a multi-dimensional distribution.

Yes, there is a wide variety of Christian beliefs. But do you deny that the range of variation of beliefs within the totality of all non-Christian religions is even greater than the range of variation of beliefs among Christians? How could it possibly not be?

Also, among Christians, there is a very specific set of beliefs which are held by the majority of Christians and which are considered by most Christian theologians to be “normal,” i.e. “orthodox,” whereas other Christian beliefs are deemed “hereticsl.” Obviously the range of variation of possible “heretical” Christian beliefs is far greater than the range of possible “orthodox” Christian beliefs — even though there is quite a bit of variation allowed within “orthodoxy” too, on matters considered “nonessential.”

To give yet another example from math (this one is only an example): The numbers that most people work with, most of the time, are rational numbers. So, in a sense, rational numbers can be considered “normal” numbers. But irrational numbers vastly outnumber rational numbers.

Anyhow, earlier today I posted on Kullervo’s blog an apology for the abrupt tone of some of my comments, and for not complimenting him earlier on his original post.

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One Response to “More about “fringe cults” — What is “normal”?”

  1. unitedcats Says:

    I have added you to my blogroll. We may not agree on all topics, but I respect the way you think.


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