Joel Pinheiro

The Argument from Desire

In Essay on February 23, 2010 at 1:17 am

Can a desire, a feature of one’s inner life, tell us anything about the external world? The usual response is that it can’t. Someone having a certain desire doesn’t mean that the desired object actually exists. I would love to see into other people’s minds, to fly by sheer will-power and to have a juicy unicorn filet for lunch; alas, no tasty unicorns around.

That being so, what to make of the argument that seeks to prove the existence of God from our desire for God to exist? Is it valid? In its usual formulation, it certainly is not. Not all particular desires are capable of being fulfilled; and the desire for God is one particular wish among many. But what if we move from particular desires to broader categories of want? On a very basic level, most would agree that categories of desire tell us something about external reality. Man is an animal, and as such has various needs. Hunger, thirst, sleep, sexual urges exist because he needs food, water, sleep and sex in order to survive and reproduce. The particular food I want may not exist, but there certainly is food. It would be very odd indeed (even from an evolutionary perspective) if there were a category of desire which admitted of no possible satisfaction. It would elicit the question “why is it there?” in both of its meanings: “how did it come about?” and “what for?”.

That said, does desire for God belong to a distinct category from other desires present in human nature? If it is the wish for an invisible friend who loves us and who will make us live forever, then it seems to be just one possible instantiation of our desires for sociability and survival, which can be fulfilled in many other ways. It wouldn’t, therefore, prove anything. Furthermore, some do and others don’t have this desire, which makes it seem particular, and not a category of desire (like hunger, thirst, etc.) rooted in human nature, something we would expect to find in all humans, or at least in the great majority (afterall, even hunger may be absent in some individuals).

I believe, however, that a certain desire for God does point to His existence, and it is something present in every human being; not the usual “wish for a big powerful friend”, but our well-known “desire for more”. Let me explain: we have many goals in life, which provide us with reasons for acting. I want to have a nice meal, a fun night out, to get married, to have kids, to write a book, to become the president of my country, etc. In each of these, we seek that which we consider best; in the words of Aristotle, we seek happiness (that state in which, from the agent’s point of view, nothing can be improved).

There is, however, a paradox in our relentless quest for happiness: we can never quite achieve it. Our expectations systematically surpass the actual enjoyment of our goals. A beer or a coke in a hot day is rarely as refreshing as my desire promised. And more generally, nothing we achieve, no matter how great in itself, gives us that sense of ultimate enjoyment we expected. We always want more, and always chase after glimpses of a happiness which, once reached, vanishes.

Not that we lack worthy candidates for this complete fulfillment. I can think of at least three: pursuit of truth through studying, thinking and conversing; love for a spouse and children; the contemplation of beauty in nature and art. And yet, as far as my own meager personal experience and what I know from the testimony of the past show, even these goods leave us with a longing for still more. Man’s desire is just boundless, and it sometimes feels as if the whole universe wouldn’t be enough. That is the desire for God.

There is in man a profound incompleteness that does not allow him to be at home in the world in the same way a dog is when lying peacefully under the sun. To judge from our nature’s longings, this world is not our final destination. If it is, then human nature is in disaccord with the rest of the universe.

Would that be logically impossible? No. It is perfectly possible for man’s nature to be in disaccord with the rest of the universe; for man’s highest aspirations to be chance by-products of our complex tool-making skills. Still, that would be a puzzling state of affairs, and the human condition would then be utterly tragic or comical, depending on your attitude. Man would be a profoundly inadequate being, a riddle who dawned upon earth and whose deeper longings remain, by necessity, unfulfilled until he vanishes for good.

The “argument from desire”, then, is not so much a proof of God as an indication that belief in Him – that is, in an infinite transcendent reality capable of meeting man’s longings – is reasonable because it makes sense of the human condition and accords with human nature. It paints man as an imperfect mirror of God, naturally disposed to seek that which it reflects.

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