Thursday, February 5, 2009

Standing in the Shower, Thinking

As I stood in the YMCA shower this morning, I got to thinking. First, I should point out that the water at the YMCA is not piping hot.

Crab-Mama and I have had many (too many) conversations about people at gyms in locker rooms who walk around buck-naked. To us, it is bizarre. Why would you walk around naked in front of 10-20 other people? Baffling.

This morning, I was once again struck by this thought and it got me thinking about distribution functions and Gaussians (Bell-Curves). The general idea is that most people have similar beliefs or morals or height or weight, etc, but there is a nice (normal) distribution of people that can be described with a standard deviation. For example, the average height of an adult white male is 70 inches. 90% of the adult white males are below 74 inches, and 95% are above 66 inches. The standard deviation is something like 2 or 3 inches in this case. Thanks Google!

The exact same thing is true for our thought processes and morals. For example, most people believe that you should go something like 75 MPH on the expressway. There are a few people who go over 85 and a few people who go under 65, but most people stick to something around 75. If you surveyed enough people, you could figure out the mean and standard deviation, etc, and the distribution function would like a Gaussian. The 75 MPH speed that people go is obviously a function of the speed limit. I would imagine, if you looked at this in terms of morals, you could state that most people believe that it is morally acceptable to go 5 MPH over the speed limit, while 10 is pushing it. 5 under is pushing it also.

For a long time, I never thought of things like this, especially when it came to morals. For example, on the expressway, again. I like to leave a fair bit of space between myself and the person in front of me. Not as much as the government recommends, but more than the average person. I am a statistical outlier in this regard. It actually makes me angry when people follow me too close. I know that this is relatively dangerous and shouldn't be done, but it is the "morally acceptable" thing to do. Look at the distribution functions. If you get TOO close, then you get out of the distribution on the other side, and my outrage would be felt by almost anyone.

This concept can be applied to almost any moral issue. Let's take the biggest moral issue out there - Abortion. While I don't know for a fact that people's feelings on abortion fall onto a Bell Curve, I am pretty confident that they do. I would imagine that most people are centralists in that they think that abortion is basically a thing that you don't really want to encourage, but can see that in some circumstances it is justified. People fall with a distribution around this central idea - some people have an easier time justifying it, while others have a harder time. As you go more out on the fringes, you have people who believe that anyone should be allowed to have an abortion no matter what no matter when. On the other side is the opposite - no abortions for anyone.

I got to thinking about this specific issue because of a line in a book that I am reading. The main character was counting all of the people he knew who had died. He discounted a still born baby because it had never been alive. There are many people who believe that life begins at conception, while others believe that life begins when the baby emerges from it's mother. I would imagine that the vast majority of the people believe that it is somewhere in between these two events - somewhere around the end of the first trimester or when you can hear a heart beat or when the baby could be born and survive (on it's own or doctor assisted?)

It is interesting to me that we can describe the start of "life" by taking a poll of people and putting it at the point at which the majority of people believe it to occur. There is no science in that at all.

For religious people, when does a baby get it's soul? What is a soul? I would have to think that if we believe that people have souls and other creatures do not, then you would gain your soul when your brain is developed beyond the point of animals that do not have souls. Does your soul exist in the cerebellum? If a person is born whose brain is not developed adequately, do they still have a soul? If it has nothing to do with the brain, why do humans have souls and other animals do not have souls? If other animals have souls, do they go to Heaven or Hell? How do you differentiate good and bad in animals that act with instinct? For that matter, how can we judge or even know what is good and bad as human beings? People who act 3 standard deviations away from a mean behavior are considered bad? In many ways, this is how we do judge people. Drinking alcohol is acceptable because a vast majority of people do it. Smoking marijuana is bad because significantly less people do it, and it is not socially acceptable (because less people do it!). Each have severe issues if done in excess and very few consequences if done in moderation, but one is punishable by years in prison and if you don't do the other, you are considered a social outcast.

With many legal issues, we let the people on the extreme edges of the bell curves set our laws. They are the ones that are so morally outraged that they go to their congress-person and fight to have it turned into a law. Most of us are unaffected by the law, so we don't give a crap. We only fight when we are put into a situation in which the law directly affects us or people around us, or ends up being so far out the distribution function that we can't stand for it. It would be nice if people (journalists, congress, pastors, me, etc.) realized that there is not much that separates the vast majority of people in the US. We are all under a bunch of bell curves.

That, to me is interesting. As interesting as why I wear a towel when I walk to back to my locker and why the guy next to me brushes his hair in front of a mirror wearing nothing but back hair.


Rico Detroit said...

I loved this post!

Dinosaur Mom said...

True about the bell curves, but how much walking around nude in the locker room constitutes parading around nude? Dino Spouse also complains about this in men's locker rooms. On the other hand, I want to slap people who go to ridiculous lengths to hide their shame in the locker room. Maybe this is just a phenomenon in the women's locker rooms? I mean, for heaven's sake, it's a changing area. How do you change without, at some point, being buck nekkid?

madscientist said...

Never Nudes Unite!