A Short on the Argument from Desire (Goethe, Lewis, Kreeft)

Peter Kreeft, professor of philosophy at Boston College, has written that C.S. Lewis’s “argument from desire” is, apart from Anselm’s “ontological argument,” “the single most intriguing argument in the history of human thought” (p 249).  This is an argument for the existence of God (and heaven).  St. Augustine and Goethe also used this argument.

So what is this argument that so many have claimed is actually the best one for God’s existence?  Kreeft provides a concise description:  “The major premise of the argument is that every natural or innate desire in us bespeaks a corresponding real object that can satisfy the desire.  The minor premise is that there exists in us a desire which nothing in time, nothing on earth, no creature, can satisfy.  The conclusion is that there exists something outside of time, earth, and creatures which can satisfy this desire” (p 250).

You experience hunger and desire food, and the object of your desire is naturally attainable.  The same can be said of sleep, sex, and friendship.  But what of pangs from joy and beauty?  What of that inexplicable longing at the crashing of ocean waves, or from being immersed in certain music, or desiring a love that a sexual relationship does not fulfill?  We experience a thing or person, yet instead of fulfilling desire, they create another – one that is not attainable on earth.  In describing Goethe’s thoughts on it, Timothy Keller in The Reason for God wrote, “We not only feel the reality but also the absence of what we long for” (p 134).

The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing (Lewis, 29).

While Kreeft addressed the philosophical criticisms of the argument in his 1989 article (see sources below), Keller takes on the more recent science-oriented critiques in his 2008 book.  Evolutionary biologists believe all that we are is based on natural selection, and so belief in God and all religious feelings are the consequence of adaptation.  How our awe over a beautiful sunset could be explained in these terms is mysterious, but otherwise, there is a serious flaw in this line of evolutionary thinking that some have pointed out.

The flaw is that evolutionary theory says that we cannot trust our own senses or thoughts. Our brains are conditioned for survival (adaptive behavior), and not necessarily for reality or “truth.”  Richard Dawkins, Patricia Churchland, and Thomas Nagel have all said the same, as well as Charles Darwin himself.  So . . . by their own claims, there is then no reason to trust their thinking on the subject.  As Wieseltier wrote in the New York Times,

. . . if reason is a product of natural selection, then how much confidence can we have in a rational argument for natural selection?  The power of reason is owed to the independence of reason, and to nothing else . . . .  Evolutionary biology cannot invoke the power of reason even as it destroys it.

So what are you going to pay attention to?  Your own inner voice and experience, or the assertions of those who claim that our thoughts are guided only by our body’s need for survival – and that “truth” isn’t necessarily beneficial?  I’ll leave you with some of CS Lewis’ thoughts on this, from his “Weight of Glory” sermon (1941):

Almost our whole education has been directed to silencing this shy, persistent, inner voice; almost all our modem philosophies have been devised to convince us that the good of man is to be found on this earth. And yet it is a remarkable thing that such philosophies of Progress or Creative Evolution themselves bear reluctant witness to the truth that our real goal is elsewhere. When they want to convince you that earth is your home, notice how they set about it.

They begin by trying to persuade you that earth can be made into heaven, thus giving a sop to your sense of exile in earth as it is. Next, they tell you that this fortunate event is still a good way off in the future, thus giving a sop to your knowledge that the fatherland is not here and now. Finally, lest your longing for the transtemporal should awake and spoil the whole affair, they use any rhetoric that comes to hand to keep out of your mind the recollection that even if all the happiness they promised could come to man on earth, yet still each generation would lose it by death, including the last generation of all, and the whole story would be nothing, not even a story, for ever and ever.

If Lewis could say this in 1941, how much more could he say today, when Naturalism has had one or two more generations to influence the population?  So many today don’t even try and pretend that there is an inner voice, an inner knowledge or longing, of a future beyond death.  We are evolved,* purposeless, and mortal.

* For a treatment on the lack of evidence for human evolution, see Science & Human Origins (2012).

Sources:  Timothy Keller, The Reason for God (Dutton 2008); Peter Kreeft, “C.S. Lewis’s Argument from Desire,” in The Riddle of Joy: G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis (M. Macdonald and A. Tadie, editors; Eerdmans 1989), CS Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (Touchstone 1996).

[A version of this appeared previously in Examiner.com, by the author]

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