The Sleep of Reason


Goya, the famous Spanish painter was well known for dark art.  No one ever accused him of seeing only the sunny side of life. Goya inscribed one of his works with the following words: “The sleep of reason brings forth monsters.” I find that profoundly true.

Voltaire the child of the Enlightenment, one might say a Fundamentalist Enlightenment thinker, said, “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”

Our species has impressive powers of reasoning. It is what sets us apart from most species. Yet we give up our advantage all the time. Why do we do that? Why do we allow reason to go to sleep? More importantly, why do we do that when it is clearly against our own interests to do that? That is a very big question. One I would like to answer.

One of the worst things that we can do is to abdicate our power of reasoning. If ever—ever–we give up our rationale for beliefs we are doomed.  We must always insist that all beliefs are based on reason and evidence.

Our reasoning power may be weak. It is certainly far from perfect. For each and every one of us our power of reasoning is flawed, but we never have a better tool to justify belief. Any belief. Beliefs based on evidence and reasoning are not guaranteed to be true. They are not certainly true, but they are the best-grounded beliefs we can have.

Reason goes to sleep whenever we don’t base our beliefs on reason and evidence.  The bars to reason are many and varied and include the following among many others: faith substituted for reason, indoctrination, fear, prejudice or bias, laziness, ignorance, herd instinct or wish to conform, wishful thinking, ideological blinkers, and advertising or propaganda.


I am going far beyond religion now. Beliefs based on something other than reason, like faith, or feelings, or wishes, can have dangerous consequences. This can lead to crazy beliefs. No where is that more obvious than the United States. There is a good reason for this. America is in my opinion the most religious country in the west. At least by conventional definitions of religion. Kurt Anderson described this phenomenon this way in his book Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire(2017): “Unlike the Earth’s other moderns, we have rushed headlong back toward magic and miracles, crazifying some legacy churches, filling up the already crazy ones, inventing all kinds of crazy new ones.]Because the US has given itself over to beliefs without reason to such a fantastic extent for so long it has become vulnerable to believing all kinds of crazy things. Americans have become vulnerable to all kinds of crackpots from the ludicrous to the deranged.

For example it is astonishing how many Americans believed, without any evidence whatsoever, that Hillary Clinton ran a child sex ring out of the basement of a pizzeria that had no basement. Or that there is a government conspiracy to spread toxic vaccines. Or that Satanic child molesters are everywhere.  That Obama is the anti-Christ, a  Muslim and was born outside the United States. That the massacre of elementary school children in Sandy Hook by a lone gunman was a scam promulgated by paid actors. That climate change is a hoax. That the high school students at Parkland Florida who were terrorized by a gunman were also paid actors.

The gullibility of millions of Americans is truly astonishing. Where did this come from? I believe that it is the result of checking reason at the door for decades if not centuries.    When reason sleeps monsters are indeed brought forth.


2 thoughts on “The Sleep of Reason

  1. i think we have different views about the real potential for reason that the species possesses. religion of course uses whatever the ambiguities of reason are to deride it and make their calls for belief and faith.
    there are all kinds of theories about the ambiguity. paul mclean thought that the explosive growth of the brain during evolution produced a structural cleavage between the frontal lobes and midbrain, leaving the reptilian lower structures without effective control. uncle sigmund thought that the repression of desire and loss producing the unconscious which compromised reason.
    the amerikan experience of religious belief and reason has been colored, i think, by the extreme violence at the founding of the country. 10s of millions of the first nation peoples and african slaves were slaughtered. this then was followed by the barbaric civil war. then we have wwII, korea, vietnam, afghanistan, iraq and so forth. they have never dealt with it, have never really admitted it.
    if one compares this to europe, they appear to have been at least chastened by the two world wars and the holocaust. this is what the desperate effort to form the european union is really about. i think that merkel’s position on refugees was colored by the last century, including her experience of stalinism in east germany. they at least have recognized to some extent what their violence did.
    on the other hand they have been less than forthcoming about their colonial sins. france is still hesitant to face what happened in algeria. the english likewise with their stupidity in south asia, for instance.
    so redemption has not arrived, but there are some glimmers.
    overall the western enlightenment never reached its potential in the west. although the yankees are stunningly religious they have no monopoly on irrationality.
    when people, victims and perpetrators, are unable to come to terms with the scale of violence that has been visited on the planet over the last 500 years they act irrationally. both parties are deeply wounded.
    and clearly religions have been covertly and overtly covering that up with all manner of irrationality. they were indeed heavily involved as perpetrators.

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