The Problem of Sleep

The Problem of Sleep September 18, 2020

This is another guest post, this time form Slograman, long-term reader of the blog here, and someone from central Ohio, just for a bit of context…


I’d like to think of myself as an amateur philosopher, which means I’m admittedly often out of my depth. I still enjoy a rousing discussion, however, and I like to think of philosophical conundrums. Even if I don’t have the language of a well-read, well-learned expert, I still like to talk to others about, let’s say, the Problem of Evil.

But what about the Problem of Sleep?

The necessity of sleep – and, sleep as a theological necessity

On average, humans need 6-8 hours of sleep every day. If you frequently get less than that, your health declines, and complete sleep deprivation kills lab animals. So needless to say, we need sleep – no argument can be brooked to the contrary.

In my mind, this begs the question of why an omnipotent god would require this of us. To break down what is meant by this, consider the following facts.

If sleep is necessary for survival, then humans can’t live without sleep.

If God is omnipotent, he must therefore impose sleep on his creation.

Therefore, sleep is a theological imperative of some sort. Sleep is not necessarily religious in nature, not in the same way that prayer inherently is. It might be. But whatever it is, it must be an intentional choice by an omnipotent god.

To put this in perspective, we sleep 25%-33% of our lives away. Sleep as a theological problem is too much of our lives to ignore. The average human, even a very religious one, spends much less time praying, or studying their religion, or considering other religions, or exercising what they might think is free will in order to make supposedly important moral decisions.

One might argue that sleep, despite taking up so much of our lives, is inconsequential. I would argue that its inconsequential nature is part of the problem, and I’ll try to convince y’all of this shortly.

Free will definitely doesn’t exist… not in sleep anyway

Many people argue all day and night about the nature of free will, whether it exists or not, and so on. Whatever free will is or might be, it’s certainly not an aspect of sleeping, unless you count lucid dreaming. Given the infrequency of lucid dreaming, however, we should set that aside as a fringe example. If anything, the difficult and rarity of controlling a dream proves my point: We spend a large portion of lives unable to exercise free will.

This is problematic for theists who believe in a personal god, which is a large enough chunk of theists that it should give theism a collective pause before they go back to their pews or their pulpits. Largely, they won’t, of course, but pesky problems rarely stop the recklessly determined.

Regardless, it’s fun to ruminate anyway. For the nonbeliever, it’s amusing to think that the idea of a personal god– one that is obsessed with the morality of our choices and the possible damnation of our souls – created us with the inability to exercise free will for such a large chunk of our lives. It’s so arbitrary that it makes one wonder whether there is a god at all.

Sleep should be a central theistic tenet in all religions, but it is not, and that’s weird

Sleep is so prevalent and important to us, and yet it is summarily ignored by the major world religions. In Christianity, there is no focus on the interpretation of dreams. There is prayer, and many Asian countries advocate for meditation, but religions don’t advocate to train to lucidly dream in order to exercise free will.

Sleep is instead ignored as an inconvenient anomaly. The Christian god, almost always envisioned as a personal god and often as an interventionist god at that, knocks us out for a quarter or a third of our lives, and there’s nothing we can do about it. Christianity doesn’t advocate for fighting the need for sleep, and there aren’t any well-funded Christian studies on getting rid of sleep so that god’s little Christian soldiers can do his will more often.

My possible (but implausible) solutions

I’ve thought about this problem quite a bit – clearly, more than Moses did when he wrote the Ten Commandments, or when all those Psalms were penned by bronze-age zealots by Gord O’Mighty Himself. It would be unfair for me to present a problem and not also present solutions. However, I don’t think theists are going to like them.

And that can be a lot of fun.

Solution #1: God is an uncaring a-hole. God made us for unknown reasons (God knows why)! But whatever those reasons are, they don’t include a whole lot of care. God recklessly, or carelessly, or with a telling lack of attention to detail or worry, created human beings with the need to not exist intellectually for 25%-33% of their lives. Of course, maybe it’s not a bug but a feature… yet all the modern gods, beliefs in gods, and their dogmatic believers can’t really explain what this “feature” is for. Biologists can – an uncaring universe produced sleep as a biological imperative – but the Church of Sleep Study doesn’t (yet) exist. (See solution #3 for more on this).

Solution #2: God is not all-powerful. Not only is God not omnipotent, he’s not even powerful enough to design humans without needing sleep. God is a slave to entropy, and humans are no exception. Or maybe the Devil causes sleep. Who knows! Not religion, that’s for sure.

Solution #3: Theists need to create a religious movement centered on the Problem of Sleep. Whether they’re scientific or theological studies, theists really need to look into sleep more instead of ignoring it. Some sects might argue that sleep needs to be overcome, and these theists will forward a portion of the faithful’s tithes to anti-sleep research. Others will suggest that sleep is God’s Will, and it’s up to humans to figure out what it all means. And still others will dedicate themselves to enacting their free will on dreams as much as possible. The best lucid dreamers are a heavenly shoo-in. Nightmares are God’s vengeance. Wet dreams are of the devil.

Solution #4: Ignore the problem or explain it away. AKA the default position. Theists are welcome to explain why the Problem of Sleep isn’t really a problem, but I’ve laid a lot on the line here, so they have their work cut out for them. I’m more interested in what explanations theists have for sleep. Comment below!



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