The Argument From Desire
In Mere Christianity, C.S Lewis gave an argument which sought to show the existence of God, meaning, purpose, value, and immortality all in one argument. The argument has been crafted with more precision by Peter Kreeft as follows:
Premise 1: Every natural, innate desire in us corresponds to some real object that can satisfy that desire.
Premise 2: But there exists in us a desire which nothing in time, nothing on earth, no creature can satisfy.
Conclusion: Therefore there must exist something more than time, earth and creatures, which can satisfy this desire.
This something is what people call “God” and “life with God forever”.
DEFENSE OF PREMISE 1
What shall we say then about premise 1? C.S Lewis wrote briefly about the argument from desire in his famous work "Mere Christianity". He wrote “Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world." - C.S Lewis
C.S Lewis’ defense of premise 1 seems very intuitive and valid. It does seem that we human beings are not born with desires unless something to satisfy those desires exists. As he said, we feel hungry and food exists to satisfy that hunger. We feel thirsty and there’s water to satisfy that thirst. We feel the desire for sex and there is such a thing as sex. These kinds of desires are ingrained in us. We have a deep rooted desire for these things. Likewise, we have a desire for immortality, for life to have purpose, meaning and value.
So it seems plausible to think that premise 1 is true.
WHAT ABOUT PREMISE 2?
Sarah Ankenman, author of “The Vally Girl Apologist” blog and president of “The International Society of Women in Apologetics” gave a lecture entirely on the argument from desire. Her defense of premise 2 consisted of pointing out to various pieces of fiction in pop culture as well as various mythological figures throughout history which each shared a common theme. The world is in chaos, evil is reigning over people, and we are in desperate need of a hero. A hero comes along and fights the good fight. The hero at some point appears to be defeated but manages to rise up again in order to save the day.
Some of her examples included many comic book super heroes like Superman. What is Superman’s story? He came from another world, he was raised by Earthly parents, he has powers that no one else has and he uses those powers to help many people. He appears dead after fighting Doomsday but some time later appears to people alive once more.
Captain America had a similar occurrence. While he didn’t come from another world, he did have abilities no one else had, he fought the forces of evil, people thought he was gone forever when he crashed the Red Skull’s ship into the arctic but 70 years later, he appeared to the public alive.
Both of these examples sound like Jesus’ story. He came from another world, had powers no one else had, he was raised by Earthly parents, he has powers that no one else has and he uses those powers to help many people. He was dead after being crucified by the Romans but some time later appears to people alive once more.
Many figures in ancient mythology also resemble this desire for a savior, for a hero to save us from our predicament. Ankenman’s point was that the various savior figures in fiction points to an innate desire for such a savior figure. Not only do we have a deep rooted desire for eternal life, and for life to have meaning, value and purpose, but we also seem to crave a hero. This figure is subconsciously reflected in the works of fiction we create.
Perhaps something else noteworthy is all the different gods in many different religions. Could it be that the many different religions in the world represent the truth of the second premise in the argument from desire? Is the fact that so many people and throughout history felt compelled to worship something evidence that maybe there is exists a being or beings out there worthy of worship? Maybe humans feel compelled to worship because there exists something or someone to be worshiped.
Even some atheists have admitted such a desire. For example, Bertrand Russel, a famous atheist philosopher once said “The center of me is always and eternally a terrible pain-a curious wild pain – a searching of something beyond what the world contains.”
Now, sometimes skeptics have ridiculed this premise by coming up with all sorts things that they “desire” and then taking the logic of Lewis’ argument to its logical conclusion that they must have been made for another world since the fulfillment of those “desires” don’t exist in this world. For example, I came across a comment from an atheist on a Facebook Page and it said “I desire to be a wizard, think Gandalf. I truly desire real magic, shoot flames out of my hands, manipulate objects by thought, etc. How life would be so much easier... I must be made for another world...”
This, to me, seems like a child's straw man. Lewis spoke of deep needs. The need for air. The need for water. Those, if not satisfied, destroy a man. As the absence of God left Russell in utter and complete sorrow. We have a deep pining for purpose, value, and meaning in life. We also have a deep pining for food, water, sex, and friendship. Your “desire” to be a wizard or a rock star or a super hero is really just a fantasy. You don’t go through life being in utter despair because you realize that these things are unobtainable. You don’t spend much of your waking hours thinking “Why can’t I become a Wizard? If only I could become a wizard, then my life might have some meaning to it”.
But in addition to this logical argumentation that human beings generally have a desire for these things, just ask yourself if you do? Do you have an empty feeling deep inside? Is there a void in your heart that you’ve tried to fill with various worldly things? Have you tried to fill this void with money, sex, power, relationships, friends, hobbies, your work, all to have it fall short of ultimately satisfying you? Are you constantly moving from one thing to another thinking “If only I could obtain this, then I’d be happy!” and then you get whatever it was you were seeking and you were like “Hmm…this doesn’t satisfy me after all” and then you find something else appealing and thing “If only I could obtain this, then I’d be happy!” and then you get whatever it was you were seeking and you were like “Hmm…this doesn’t satisfy me after all” and you just keep repeating this process, never finding ultimate satisfaction? If you said yes to this question then it might be that the thing which will ultimately satisfy you does not exist in this world. Perhaps you concede premise 2 from your daily walk of yearning for something more.
I found that this argument really resonated with me. Before I came to Christ I was constantly trying to fill that "God Shaped Hole" in my heart with all sorts of earthly things. I thought "If I could just have this, or this, or this, or this" then my life will be complete. I didn’t know that Christ was the fulfillment of my longing until after I became a Christian. All I knew was that something was missing in my life. Something was lacking in my life and I could not figure out what it was. I only noticed that this desire for *something more* disappeared when I was born again. I now feel whole. Christ made me complete. Christ did for me what nothing in this world could do. I now have contentment. I no longer feel that emptiness within me.
As the psalmist wrote “The LORD is my shepherd, I lack nothing.” – Psalm 23:1
Given the truth of the 2 premises, the conclusion follows. Meaning, value and purpose in life exists. Immortality exists. I've included this blog post in the "Arguments For God's Existence" category because only God can be a source of immorality, meaning and purpose. If atheism is true, these things can't exist. If a skeptic wishes to deny the conclusion, he must refute one of the 2 premises.
Alister McGrath and others have dismissed the argument as poor. It is easy for a skeptic to dismiss. An atheist can waive this off with a statement like, “I don’t have such a desire! My desires are perfectly fulfilled by [family, money, fame, power, sex, romance, art...]!”
Well, there you go! The conversation is over! But is it really?
I don’t think this objection from the atheist is true. I know this may sound audacious for me to claim, but I think the person who makes this claim is either being (A) disingenuous or (B) is self-deluded. Of course, perhaps premise 2 really is false. Perhaps this is one argument for God’s existence, immortality, meaning and purpose, that is not a good argument. I don’t think it is though. If not (A) or (B), perhaps (C) people are so entrenched in their electronic devices that they've forgotten to ask the big questions of life. Whatever the case, the biggest problem is with this objection is that I can’t refute such a response. There’s no way to refute the statement "I don't have such a desire" as that would require reading the skeptic’s mind! Only the objector knows if they’re actually being truthful about it. A Pastor whose blog posts I often see posted in an apologetics Facebook group I'm in wrote an article titled "Does The Argument From Desire Have Any Bite?" and he said in the article "While the argument from desire can be dismissed in debate and conversation easily, I believe it is an argument that can haunt many skeptics."
I agree. This argument is probably a cruddy one for a debate since it's impossible to refute this objection without having some knowledge of what's in their hearts. I need to be able to read the mind of the person I'm talking to in order to know whether they really are lying or self deluded. It's impossible for me to know whether they are one of those two things even though I may have a suspicion that they are. Nevertheless I think the argument from desire is one that can, in the words of Greg Koukl, "put a stone in the shoe" of the honest skeptic. Only you can know whether you have such yearnings. But I suspect that many people do.