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  • Andrew Aulner

The Argument from Desire



The argument for God's existence from desire is one that often resonates with people who find the values and ends of modern secular societies to be unsatisfactory. This article will analyze the soundness of this argument, consider common objections, and provide responses to those objections.


The Argument

As outlined by Nathan Greeley, every helpful theistic proof possesses at least three characteristics: true premises, logically sound organization, and simplicity that makes the argument understandable to most reasonable people without being reductionistic.[i] After discussing the major formulations of the argument for desire, I will evaluate the proof’s legitimacy against these criteria.


The argument from desire is popularly associated with Christian apologist C. S. Lewis, who most famously articulated it in Mere Christianity:

The Christian says, ‘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.’[ii]

Interestingly, Lewis’ most original theistic argument appears not in the apologetic section of his work but rather in a section on the Christian virtue of hope.

           

Going back several centuries, Aquinas presents a more explicitly apologetic version of this argument as a supporting proof for his larger claim about the nature of man’s ultimate happiness:

The natural desire cannot be void, since nature does nothing in vain. But nature’s desire would be void if it could never be fulfilled. Therefore, man’s natural desire can be fulfilled; but it cannot be fulfilled in this life, as we have shown. Therefore, it must be fulfilled after this life. Therefore, man’s ultimate happiness is after this life.[iii]


Roman Catholic apologist Peter J. Kreeft has formulated an updated formulation of the argument, which moves from major premise (“Every natural, innate desire in us corresponds to some real object that can satisfy that desire”) to minor premise (“But there exists in us a desire which nothing in time, nothing on earth, no creature can satisfy”) to conclusion (“Therefore there must exist something more than time, earth and creatures, which can satisfy this desire”).[iv]


Kreeft’s formulation clarifies that the desires referred to must be both “natural” and “innate” in order for his premises to be sound.[v] “Natural” rules out artificial desires, while “innate” rules out desires that come from outside of us. In either case, desires conjured up by human imagination or environmental influences (such as advertisements, societal expectations, or fantastical daydreams) are decidedly not relevant to the argument’s employment of “desire.”


The argument’s major premise observes that virtually all human beings share certain natural desires that “have means by which they can be satisfied.”[vi] For instance, we observe that the untaught, natural desire for things like food and drink have real means by which they can be satisfied, namely, by eating and drinking.[vii] As Kreeft puts it, “the existence of natural desires does, in every discoverable case, mean that the objects desired exist. No one has ever found one case of an innate desire for a nonexistent object.”[viii] The universality of these desires and their fulfillments will be discussed below.


The argument’s minor premise is similarly rooted in an observation of human nature. All people appear to share a natural desire for “everlasting happiness” that cannot be met “by anything we experience in this world.”[ix] This constant yearning for happiness beyond our finite experience is testified to by the likes of King Solomon,[x] Shakespeare,[xi] and even Bertrand Russell.[xii]


Barring an exception to the major premise, it follows that the existence of this innate, natural desire for unending happiness implies the existence of something or someone to meet such desire. However, to adequately meet the desire established in the minor premise, the source of fulfillment must be eternal (to provide everlasting happiness) while manifesting whatever is required for genuine human flourishing, such as the good, true, and beautiful (to provide everlasting happiness).[xiii]


In addition, those happiness-creating attributes must be infinitely great if they are to satisfy the human desire for a level of happiness unable to be satisfied by the finitely good, true, and beautiful. The common understanding of a being who possess eternal existence and infinite goodness, truth, and beauty is what we call “God.”[xiv]


With intuitive premises, logical reasoning, and an understandable organization, the argument from desire meets the criteria that determine a useful theistic proof.


Objections

Objection 1: “I don’t have a natural, innate desire for everlasting happiness.”


Greeley lists two common objections a nontheist could make to this argument. The first is that an individual may claim not to possess the natural, innate desire for everlasting happiness assumed in the minor premise.[xv]


Objection 2: “You can’t argue from subjective desire to objective reality.”


Greeley’s second potential objection is that it is invalid to reason from a subjective human characteristic (i.e. the internal desire for everlasting happiness) to an objective reality (i.e. the real existence of a thing or being that can provide everlasting happiness).[xvi]


Objection 3: “You’re begging the question.”


Kreeft raises a third objection. Kreeft’s hypothetical interlocutor asks, “How can you know the major premise—that every natural desire has a real object—is universally true, without first knowing that this natural desire also has a real object?”[xvii] This objection essentially claims that the theist makes an illegitimate move by assuming that all natural, innate desires have objects which can satisfy them.


Responses to Objections

Response to Objection 1: “I don’t have a natural, innate desire for everlasting happiness.”


Greeley suggests that the first objection can be answered by asking the objector if he or she is being fully honest about their proclaimed lack of desire for everlasting happiness.[xviii] Given the widespread discontent of humanity throughout history (including the present day), lacking a desire for something beyond the vicissitudes and limitations of this life seems implausible at best. Kreeft is even more blunt, stating that such a claim “verges on idiocy or, worse, dishonesty” comparable to the inhuman detachment of Camus’ killer Meursault in The Stranger.[xix]


Here, as elsewhere, a Christian should call attention to moments when a nontheist rejects truths that he or she seems to take for granted outside of discussions of God's reality or the truth of Christianity.[xx] This need for self-examination of one’s intellectual consistency and honesty certainly applies to the seemingly universal longing for eternal happiness.


Response to Objection 2: “You can’t argue from subjective desire to objective reality.”


In answer to the second objection, Greeley notes that while the desire for everlasting happiness is subjectively experienced by individuals, it nevertheless seems to be “not merely a subjective feeling but a general feature of human psychology.”[xxi]


Just as hunger pangs and a sense of thirst are subjectively experienced by individuals yet reflect objective needs for food and water, the subjectively experienced desire for everlasting happiness seems to be “as objective as human nature itself, and as real as the conclusion to which it leads.”[xxii] The argument from desire is rooted not in subjective particulars but in objective universals.


Response to Objection 3: “You’re begging the question.”


Kreeft points out that this final objection, which views the appeal to the major premise’s universality as question-begging, is “not an objection to the argument from desire only, but to every deductive argument whatsoever. . . . It excludes deduction because it excludes the knowledge of any universal truths (like our major premise).”[xxiii] One can always claim that universal truths remain uncertain, since no human being is omniscient or infallible. For example, all men certainly appear to be mortal, but isn't it conceivable that someone living right now actually is immortal and we simply don't know it? Entertaining these kinds of doubts, however, would invite a far-reaching skepticism that would undermine a great deal of what is commonly taken to be knowledge. If one is unwilling to entertain such doubts in other cases, one should be unwilling to do so here.


Conclusion

While less prominent than other theistic proofs, the argument from desire nevertheless bears several strengths. Perhaps its greatest asset is the ease with which someone can grasp the premises and conclusion of the argument, yet the proof remains sound enough to answer common nontheistic objections. Consequently, the argument from desire belongs in the toolkit of every Christian apologist.



[i] Nathan Greeley, Christian Apologetics: A Lutheran Introduction (Just and Sinner Publishing, 2021), 27.

[ii] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2001), 136-137.

[iii] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles 3.48.11.

[iv] Peter J. Kreeft, “The Argument from Desire,” PeterKreeft.com, accessed October 25, 2023, https://www.peterkreeft.com/topics/desire.htm.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Greeley, Christian Apologetics, 41.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Kreeft, “Argument from Desire.”

[ix] Greeley, Christian Apologetics, 41-42.

[x] Cf. Eccl. 1:14.

[xi] Cf. Hamlet’s “What a piece of work is man” monologue in William Shakespeare, Hamlet, act 2, scene 2, lines 294-295, 297-299.

[xii] Cf. Bertrand Russell to Lady Constance Malleson, quoted in Ben-Ami Scharfstein, The Philosophers: Their Lives and Natures of Their Thoughts (1980; repr., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 312: “The centre [sic] of me is always and eternally a terrible pain . . . a searching for something beyond what the world contains, something transfigured and infinite.”

[xiii] Greeley, Christian Apologetics, 42.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Greeley, Christian Apologetics, 42.

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] Kreeft, “Argument from Desire.”

[xviii] Greeley, Christian Apologetics, 42.

[xix] Kreeft, “Argument from Desire.”

[xx] Greeley, Christian Apologetics, 34.

[xxi] Ibid., 42.

[xxii] Ibid.

[xxiii] Kreeft, “Argument from Desire.”

2 ความคิดเห็น


csklingerman96
11 มิ.ย.

As soon as I read the words "desires conjured up by human imagination" and "fantastical daydreams", I expected one of the objections to be that the desire for God is just such a fantasy. It seems an obvious argument to make, that this desire is not natural, but rather is propped up by millennia of mythology and religion, superstitions and fairy tales. How do you think we should respond to such an objection?

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Nathan Greeley
12 มิ.ย.
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I think modern culture actually conditions people to think that temporal, finite, and earthly things are good enough and should be satisfactory. But people are more dissatisfied than ever. This is evidence that this desire is not something learned or acquired.

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