What Is Normal? What Is Natural?

Is homosexuality normal?

Is polyamory normal?

Is transgenderism normal?

Is left-handedness normal?

Is belief in God normal?

Is death normal?

Picture of a NormHow one answers such questions will hang on how one understands the term normal. The word ‘normal’ is etymologically related to ‘norm’ and ‘normative’. A norm is a standard or rule by which something is evaluated, by which it is judged to be good or bad, right or wrong. Thus the primary meaning of normal has to do with conformance to some norm. The claim that X is normal presupposes that there are norms for X (or for whatever kind of thing X is) and X conforms to those norms. The antonym of normal is abnormal, which implies some fault or failure to meet a standard: a deviation from the norm.

Accordingly the term normal, used in this primary sense, has a normative aspect to it; it involves some kind of evaluation or value judgment. A simple example of this usage would be if someone were to say, “It’s not normal to have three ears.” Evidently the speaker is taking for granted that there’s a proper form for human anatomy and having three ears is a deviation from that norm. Put simply, human beings shouldn’t have three ears.

There is a secondary sense of the term, however, which needs to be distinguished from the first. Normal can also be used to mean usual or typical. Understood that way, it merely reflects a statistical generalization and therefore doesn’t imply any value judgment. For example, if I were to say, “A high of 70 degrees is normal for Charlotte in April,” I’m only making a claim about the average temperature (or something along those lines). There’s no right or wrong about that temperature. It’s just a statistical fact for that geographical location. My statement was merely descriptive rather than normative or evaluative.

Consider how the two distinct meanings of normal are reflected in these two sample dictionary definitions:

1 Conforming to a standard; usual, typical, or expected. [source]

2 a : according with, constituting, or not deviating from a norm, rule, or principle b : conforming to a type, standard, or regular pattern [source]

Note how the first definition combines (I would say conflates) the normative and non-normative senses, while the second definition separates them. Despite this difference, the two definitions together confirm what I’ve said above.

Why is it important to distinguish these two senses of normal? Simply because answers to the kinds of questions I posed at the beginning depend crucially on what sense of normality is in view.

Take the first question: “Is homosexuality normal?” If the question is asking about the statistical occurrence of homosexuality (either as a disposition or a practice) then that can be answered by way of empirical studies of human sexual preferences and practices. Perhaps if the incidence of homosexuality within the human population exceeded a certain threshold we might regard it as “within the bounds of normal human sexual expression.” But if that’s only a descriptive statistical claim, it implies nothing about whether homosexuality is normal in the normative sense of the term. It implies nothing about whether homosexuality is good or bad, whether it is proper or right for humans to have homosexual dispositions or to engage in homosexual practices.

Likewise, if we’re asking whether homosexuality is normal in the primary sense, that won’t be answered by any empirical data about the actual incidence of homosexuality among human beings (today, in the past, or whenever).

To see this point clearly, let’s switch topics to the example I used earlier. Is it normal for humans to have three ears? Clearly not. But suppose a scientist inadvertently created a toxin which, released into the earth’s atmosphere, brought about a widespread genetic alteration in the human gene pool such that every newborn developed a third ear on its forehead. Within a generation, a significant portion of the human race would have three ears. Having three ears would become common, but would it thereby become normal in the primary (normative) sense?

I think the answer is obviously no, although I imagine some hardcore naturalists might be inclined to argue otherwise. (If so, they would be consistent only insofar as they redefine normal in non-normative terms, which I think is what a thoroughgoing naturalist has to do.)

Let me put it this way: if in principle anything about human beings could become normal, then nothing about human beings is truly normal (in the normative sense). There is only normality in the purely descriptive, statistical sense.

I mention all this because I think many debates over important ethical issues are quickly derailed because of a failure to distinguish these two senses of normal. Someone claims that such-and-such a practice “isn’t normal” (meaning that it’s abnormal; it deviates from some standard of proper form or conduct). Someone else retorts that the practice is “entirely normal” on the basis that many people do in fact engage in it. If it’s commonplace, how could it fail to be normal? (Perhaps an analogy will be trotted out to cement the point: while only 15% of the population are left-handed, it’s still a relatively common trait, and who would argue that being left-handed “isn’t normal”?)

But now it should be clear that these folk are talking past each other and thus no useful progress is going to be made in the conversation. There needs to be a recognition of the difference between normative statements and merely descriptive statements. If we’re asking whether such-and-such is normal in the normative sense, that can’t be answered simply by citing statistical data. It requires us to wrestle with deeper questions about whether there are any norms that govern human behavior, and, if there are, what grounds those norms (divine design? natural law? platonic forms? evolutionary fitness? societal convention?) and how we identify them.

The same confusion arises with respect to the term natural, which can also carry normative and non-normative senses. In the non-normative sense it means something like “occurring naturally” (as opposed to being the product of human invention or intervention) or “found in the natural world” (rather than the world of human artifacts, culture, etc.). As such it’s a merely descriptive term; its antonym would be non-natural or artificial. In the normative sense, however, it carries implications about how things ought to function or ought to proceed. There’s an evaluative dimension to it, or perhaps in some cases a teleological dimension (thus it’s natural for an acorn to grow into an oak tree rather than to become a tooth for a snowman).

Consider an example to make the distinction clear: Is bestiality natural? I’m pretty confident that most people would say no (despite efforts in some quarters to — note the phrase — normalize it). If so, what they have in mind isn’t some descriptive claim about whether bestiality occurs in the natural world, but rather a normative claim about whether bestiality is proper or fitting for humans to engage in. It’s about whether bestiality is the sort of thing that humans ought or ought not to engage in. In this example the two senses are fairly easily distinguished, but I’ve observed that in other cases (“Is homosexuality natural?” “Is polyamory natural?” “Is promiscuity natural?”) they can very quickly become confused.

Consequently, when Christians engage in discussions with non-Christians (especially non-theists) about matters of ethics, lifestyles, public policy, etc., it’s extremely important to be alert to ambiguities in the terms normal and natural, and not to allow such discussions to veer into a ditch by failing to distinguish the normative and non-normative senses of such terms.

One final, brief observation. In my opening list I included the question, “Is belief in God normal?” If we’re asking whether belief in God is usual or common for humans — a matter of empirical psychology — the answer is unquestionably yes. But that isn’t the really interesting or important question, at least not in the context of contemporary Christian apologetics. The more pressing question is a normative, epistemological one: Is belief in God normal in the sense that it’s proper or fitting for humans to believe in God? And what about non-belief in God? Is that normal?

Alvin Plantinga has argued (in various places, include here) that the answer to such questions hangs crucially on whether God actually exists. If a personal creator God exists then most likely belief in God would be normal (in the epistemological sense) and non-belief in God would be abnormal, a kind of cognitive dysfunction. If God doesn’t exist, however, it’s much harder to say that either theism or atheism would be normal, because the idea of cognitive normativity turns out to be difficult, if not impossible, to ground without appealing to something like divine design.

So here are the take-away lessons:

  • If you’re going to claim that something is (or isn’t) normal or natural, be prepared to explain what you mean by ‘normal’ or ‘natural’, distinguishing your meaning from other meanings that would only confuse the issue.
  • If someone else claims that something is (or isn’t) normal or natural, press them for clarity about what they mean by ‘normal’ or ‘natural’.
    • If they’re using the terms in a normative sense, be prepared to talk about what norms they’re presupposing and what they think grounds those norms.
    • If they’re using the terms in a non-normative sense, ask why they think their claims are relevant to the issue under discussion (particularly if it’s an ethical or epistemological issue).

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