Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The problem of sleep

Consider this natural law argument:

  1. Rational functioning is a basic good.
  2. One may never intentionally act against a basic good.
  3. In intending to fall asleep, one intends to stop rational function (i.e., thought).
  4. Therefore, it is wrong to intend to fall asleep.
One could, I suppose, embrace the conclusion and say something like this: At night, we foresee but do not intend sleep. At night we lie down in bed, accepting but not intending the evil of sleep, much like a person who foresees death might lie down to face death in comfort. But this just won't explain all our practices. First of all, we often lie down and close our eyes to sleep hours before we would expect sleep to overtake us were we to stay up. It seems clear that we lie down and close our eyes in order to accelerate the sleep process. And sometimes, with good reason, we may take medication to help us fall asleep. To condemn such practices would be highly counterintuitive. In fact, one might take the anti-sleep argument as a reductio ad absurdum of natural law reasoning, which appears to be committed to premises (1) and (2).

It is tempting to dismiss the argument by saying that we need sleep to be rational. But that doesn't touch the argument. There are circumstances where the only way to survive is by killing an innocent person--but the end does not justify such a means. Likewise, if (1)-(3) are true, even if the only way we can maintain rational functioning is by sleeping, such a means is impermissible.

Aquinas discusses the question whether sex can be permissible in light of the fact that sex involves such an "excess of pleasure" that "it is incompatible with the act of understanding" (he attributes the latter claim to Aristotle). His answer is that sex can be done in accordance with reason, and what is done in accordance with reason is not sinful. He then says: "For it is not contrary to virtue, if the act of reason be sometimes interrupted for something that is done in accordance with reason, else it would be against virtue for a person to set himself to sleep." Unfortunately, Aquinas doesn't tell us which premise of the anti-sleep argument is false. It is not even clear that he has the same argument clearly in mind. In the case of sex, after all, the hampering of rational function looks like a side-effect (it's interesting that Aquinas doesn't just use Double Effect here) which need not be intended, while in sleep the lack of thought seems central.

For years I've struggled with the anti-sleep argument (but lost no sleep over it). I have two responses. Both of them leave (1) and (2) intact, but query (3). The first response is that in intending to fall asleep one intends to put off one's rational functioning rather than to stop it. A philosopher who leaves his office to walk around the beautiful campus intends that his rational functioning occur outdoors rather than in his office. Likewise, one might intend that one's rational functioning occur in the morning rather than late at night. And the reasons can be similar. The rational functioning outdoors or in the morning is likely to be fresher than in the office or late at night. The analogy here is strongest if one accepts a B-theory of time (and in fact, it may be an argument for a B-theory of time that it makes it easier to justify sleep).

The second answer is that sleep is not actually a cessation of rational function. It is very plausible that unconscious mental processes occur during asleep (it is clear that brain processes do!)--and an important part of sleep involves consciousness anyway. Sleep seems to be an important part of our rational functioning rather than an interruption. Clearly it is not an action against a basic good to switch from one kind of rational functioning to another, say turning one's mind from practical to abstract matters.

A difficulty with the second answer is that some people may not know that rational function continues in sleep. Yet surely such ignorance doesn't make it wrong to fall sleep. I agree. But we can also say that such a person may not intend the cessation of rational functioning. She may simply intend sleep, a particular natural human organic process. And if I am right that sleep is not constituted by a cessation of rational function, then we cannot even say that she "implicitly" acts against rationality or anything like that.

So, the anti-sleep argument fails, and natural lawyers can sleep with a sound conscience.


Michael Gonzalez said...

I question (1). Surely the careful plotting of a mass genocide involves rational functioning.

Michael Gonzalez said...

Or... maybe that counts as a rebuttal of 2. I'm not really sure. But it doesn't seem to me that rational thinking is always a good.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Plotting genocide, like every wrongful act, constitutes a failure of rational functioning. An act is wrong only if it going against what one has on balance reason to do. And to act against what one has on balance reason to do is to fail in rational functioning.

Michael Gonzalez said...

I don't see why one has to be irrational in order to be immoral. Irrationality has to do with whether one is using one's cognitive apparatus properly and in line with reasons. One could do that and just be morally incorrect because of having bad axioms.

Even considering Plantingean concerns about "proper function", which would include moral sense, it still seems wrong, since a blind man can surely make rational decisions despite lacking certain cognitive functions.... Why would that be different for someone who lacks particular moral values?

Anyway, even if I granted that, I've never seen an account of why rational function is good that wasn't predicated on something else. I don't think it is a "basic" good. Plantinga and co. would say it conforms to how God designed us, but then behaving as God designed us to is actually the basic good and sleep is part of that design. Other accounts might have to do with perpetuating human wellbeing/flourishing, utilitarian concerns of some other sort, deontological primitives... and I don't see how any of those is likely to rule out sleep.

StMichael said...

I find new natural law theory (which emphasizes lists of basic goods) to overly separate the various basic natural goods from their context in a natural "form of life" to which we a conforming. So I would see an equivocation happening in the first premise.

If we amend the premise, we get an argument like the following:

1*. The rational functioning (proper to human life) is a basic good (for human beings).
2*. One may never intentionally act against a basic good (insofar as so acting would be contrary to the proper functioning of human beings).
3. In intending to fall asleep, one intends to stop rational function (i.e., thought).

But there is no conflict between these three, as stopping rational activity for sleep serves other basic goods and is not in conflict with the human form of life. Further, the original argument sees the very act of rational activity as a basic good for humans, but I am not so confident that is the case. Acting to cease rational thinking at any one point in time is not in conflict with the basic capacities that we consider worth actualizing and developing; in fact, it seems positively necessary precisely to exercise them well. It would be like thinking that one "sins" against being a good piano player if one is not constantly playing piano concertos.

Alexander R Pruss said...

This sort of line of thought might be used to justify drunkenness on the grounds that stopping rational activity in favor of drunkenness serves other basic goods and is not in conflict with the human form of life (which is a rather vague criterion). But surely that's an unacceptable conclusion.

StMichael said...

I am thinking of "human form of life" as the order among basic goods, by which we prefer some to others and understand the proper function of each natural capacity. In that case, habitual drunkenness is problematic because it prefers one good (pleasure in intoxication) in a way that is prejudicial to the proper pursuit of the higher good of the proper development/function of our rational capacities and possibly even to the detriment of our normal bodily functions (as serial drunkenness leads to health problems and can be even in a single instance unhealthy if the amount consumed is too high). Would you think that would still pose an issue?

Alexander R Pruss said...

I was thinking of single-case intoxication. And presumably the wrongness of that isn't dependent on empirical questions about the effects on health, but only on the loss of rationality.

Interestingly, though, Aquinas may agree with you. Aquinas' argument that single-case voluntary intoxication is a mortal sin isn't just based on the fact that deprives one of reason in the way sleep does. Rather, it is based on the fact that it deprives one of reason while maintaining one's agency, thereby risking mortal sin. "On this way drunkenness is a mortal sin, because then a man willingly and knowingly deprives himself of the use of reason, whereby he performs virtuous deeds and avoids sin, and thus he sins mortally by running the risk of falling into sin." http://www.newadvent.org/summa/3150.htm

Unknown said...

I think that (2) is actually inapplicable to sleep, even though (3) is true. For sleep appears to be necessary for humans; in fact, being sleep-deprived often makes reasoning more difficult, and certainly with enough sleep deprivation, reasoning is impossible, i.e. one falls asleep. In this way, sleep is not contrary to reason but is actually ordered to reason. In other words, sleep is necessary for human flourishing, therefore sleep is morally permissible.

Alexander R Pruss said...

The thought about (2) was that by sleeping I render myself non-reasonable during the night. It is true that this is a means to making myself more reasonable in the morning. But an end doesn't justify an intrinsically bad means.

Unknown said...

What I'm trying to say is that the necessity of sleep prohibits it from being intrinsically bad. For instance, there is nothing wrong with cutting off a person's leg if this is necessary for their survival (and rationality). But cutting off someone's leg is morally prohibited in normal circumstances. Generally, perhaps it could be said that all means "necessary" to a good end are morally licit, even if the means are normally prohibited. Of course, one would have to determine what "necessary" exactly means.

William said...

Agreeing with John Mason, could we reframe sleep as a kind of sabbath for reasoning?

Alexander R Pruss said...

There are circumstances where adultery or murder is necessary for survival. But neither adultery nor murder is permissible in those circumstances. Necessity does not allow doing what is intrinsically wrong. And the argument, if it succeeds (which it does not), would show that sleep is intrinsically wrong.

Unknown said...

I think I'm setting up the issue differently from you. I meant that because sleep is necessary for rationality per se (at least for humans), it cannot be intrinsically evil. Adultery or murder are never necessary per se, only per accidens. That is, a moral object changes according to its per se ordering.

As an example of what I mean, if the sexual act were not necessary per se for reproduction, a basic human good, the sexual act would likely be morally impermissible, just as other non-productive forms of penetration are impermissible.

As another way to explain myself, I think that going to sleep and depriving oneself of rationality are different moral objects. One is ordered to rationality as such, but the other is not ordered to rationality.

Matthew Kennel said...

I have a problem with the way you formulate (1). By "rational function" in (1) you seem to mean "uninterrupted and perpetual rational function," at least if one looks at the way you combine (1) with (3) to get (4). But, put that way, it is not at all clear that natural law reasoning is committed to "uninterrupted and perpetual rational function" as a basic good. After all, natural law reasoning looks to man's NATURE to speak of what is a basic good for him. But man is not, like God, ipsum esse subsistens, nor, like the angels, a pure spirit. Man is a rational animal, and his use of reason is melded to his animality. But "uninterrupted and perpetual rational function" would tend to destroy man's animality, both by depriving him of sleep and by depriving him of needful relaxation during the day. In other words, even if natural law says that "rational function is a basic good" it is not committed to the idea that "uninterrupted and perpetual rational function" is a basic good. This seems to be Aquinas' point in the comments on sex that you quote. But, let's suppose that you want to say that you don't mean "uninterrupted and perpetual rational function" in (1), then it's not at all clear how (1), (2), and (3) lead to (4), since one who intends to sleep doesn't intend to stop rational function, but to temporarily cease rational function.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Mr Mason:

Oh, I see. I agree that it is a good principle of the epistemology of ethics that what is necessary in general for human beings does not require the violation of moral norms. This comes pretty close to showing the conclusion of the argument is false. (The "pretty close" is due to this worry. Maybe sleep is necessary, but *intending* sleep is not necessary.) But we still need to figure out what is wrong with the argument.

Mr Kennel:

That's roughly my first response to the argument. But I continue to be worried. Being rational at 3 am is an instance of being rational. If I were awake and rational at 3 am, I would be living out a basic good. So by intending not to be rational at 3 am, is it not the case that I am choosing directly against a basic good?

Or is it perhaps that being rational at 3 am is not an instance of a basic good?

Here's one worry I have about both my first response and your response. Couldn't it justify murder? Suppose the murderer doesn't intend to *stop* the life of the victim, but only to *interrupt* it until the resurrection of the dead? Maybe we can argue that uninterrupted life is a basic good but uninterrupted rationality is not?

Unknown said...

Ok. I think I get what you're saying. Perhaps we could say that the proper thing to intend when going to sleep is rest, and the loss of rationality is a foreseen consequence of this. So in going to sleep, one doesn't intend to lose rationality, but to rest. It actually seems like most people intend the rest and not the loss of rationality. Then (3) isn't true, or at least it shouldn't be how someone chooses to go to sleep.

BTW, I've wondered about this question myself and am currently trying to figure it out, hence my follow-ups and my somewhat unfocused responses to your original argument. Sorry if it was a bother.

Alexander R Pruss said...

But isn't the cessation of thought a means to the rest?

Unknown said...

I don't think a person ought to cease rationality before falling asleep. Otherwise, one would often do irrational things right before falling asleep. The cessation of reason ought to occur as one falls asleep, as a consequence of being asleep.

Alexander R Pruss said...

It's a constitutive, not causal, means. Sleep is partly constituted by loss of rationality. Or at least that's what I was worrying about.

Sean said...

It seems to me that sleep is a natural phenomenon necessary for the continued life and health of human beings. This makes it rational for us to pursue sleep. Your argument may work with pure disembodied minds, but not human beings. In fact I think a person who tried to argue against sleep is guilty of acting contrary to the ends of human nature.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Which premise of the argument does that deny?

Sean said...

It would be disputing what counts as acting against the basic good of rational functioning, so I don't think the conclusion follows because premise (1) is too vague as to what counts as acting against rational functioning. Since sleep is necessary for me to maintain my life and health as a human being it is a rational decision for me as a human being to get a good nights sleep. This decision is an example of proper rational functioning, not an action against it.