Argument from desire
The argument from desire is an argument for the existence of God. Though not strictly invented as a 'proof' by which the divine must exist, the argument points to human action in the context of yearning and wanting as reason to posit that God perhaps exists. It is most known in recent times through the writings of C. S. Lewis, who articulated the concept in works such as 1933's and The Pilgrim's Regress and 1949's The Weight of Glory, while it has also appeared in other Christian apologist publications. The concept has also been subject to various criticisms.
As a syllogism, the argument from desire can be expressed as follows:
- (Major premise) All innate human desires have real objects that exist in relation to those desires. By 'innate', the arguer(s) means those desires that are universal and exist across different socio-cultural contexts. The desire for food, the desire for companionship, the desire to enjoy beauty, and the like are innate desires in this sense. The desires to have a grand mansion in order to impress one's neighbors or a PhD in order to gain economic favor are not, for example, given that human situations exist in which neither wealth nor social status are that highly valued. The premise cannot be proved but is plausible, so the argument goes, due to human experience. Ones feel hunger; there is such a thing as eating. One feels sexual desire; there is such a thing as sex. It would be unlikely for a group of individuals to exist who reported feeling hungry yet possesses neither food, mouths, nor stomachs and took in nutrients some other way. For every such innate desire in human experience, save one, we can identify the object.
- (Minor premise) There is a desire for "we know not what" whose object cannot be identified. The arguer(s) state that human beings are never truly satisfied; even while one deals with matters such as thirst and hunger, the need for companionship and love beyond that available in mere fleeting human lifespans seems to exist. Individuals seek to connect with something tangible and lasting that transcends death. The second premise relates to the concept of 'longing', as expressed by the German language term Sehnsucht, as well as the notion of the hedonic treadmill.
- (Conclusion) If the object of this desire does not exist in this world, it must exist in another. While not necessarily endorsing any particular religion, maybe even avoiding the general subject of theism versus deism or some other doctrine altogether, the arguer(s) posit that spirituality of some form is likely to exist and have meaningful effects in peoples' lives.
The argument is not meant to be a 'proof' in strict terms. The conclusion may not necessarily be the only possibility satisfying the premises. As well, the argument specifies no form whatsoever for the kind of God or afterlife that exists in relation to its conclusion. Though often made by Christians, it has a broader scope than Christianity to the wider aspects of theism, and one coming from an Islamic or modern, neo-Pagan background, for example, can fit the argument to their own specific views. Yet the argument from desire can be seen as persuasive because the premises and conclusion can be not merely understood but experienced in a much more direct way than similar arguments, such as the ontological argument. It is more directly applicable to human behavior in a practical sense.
When framing the issue in a concise way, Lewis stated in The Weight of Glory that:
A man's physical hunger does not prove that man will get any bread; he may die of starvation on a raft in the Atlantic. But surely a mans hunger does prove that he comes of a race which repairs its body by eating and inhabits a world where eatable substances exist. In the same way, though I do not believe (I wish I did) that my desire for Paradise proves that I shall enjoy it, I think it a pretty good indication that such a thing exists and that some men will. A man may love a woman and not win her; but it would be very odd if the phenomenon called falling in love occurred in a sexless world.
Lewis believed that personal feelings could only be used within philosophical arguments in a limited sense, cautioning that he believed:
Unless you teach your moods where they get off, you can never be either a sound Christian or even a sound atheist, but just a creature dithering to and fro, with its beliefs really dependent on the weather and the state of its digestion.
The argument from desire has attracted criticisms from both religious and non-religious commentators. Many specific points have been brought up as a response. One is that the argument from desire if applied widely would lead to having to believe in a number of different things that Lewis himself wouldn't agree with. For example, belief in the existence of malicious ghosts that haunt people is inherently connected to the fear of the dark and widespread in history, even including modern recorded history as shown by the ongoing success of Spiritualism, yet that doesn't necessarily mean that ghosts therefore exist. Many individuals wish that they could do superhuman feats such as read minds and fly without using machines, yet that's something that they naturally cannot do, and in traditional Christian thought will never be able to do even when in heaven after death. Austin Cline of the Council for Secular Humanism has remarked that "it is neither logically nor empirically inconsistent to have a desire for which there is no object".
The fuzzy distinctions between merely wanting something versus desiring something, as well as between an innate need for something natural versus a desire that arises specifically due to the environment, is another point of criticism. The terms natural and innate are inherently ambiguous and general terms that must be clearly defined in a way that is not begging the question. Lewis describes eating food to survive and falling in romantic love both as compelling needs. However, the latter is not only not required for someone to stay alive, but many individuals may exist to which committed long-term relationships does not appeal to them at all.
Whilst using it as evidence for God's existence, Christian philosopher Thomas Aquinas did not consider the argument from desire a valid argument for the existence of God on its own. In examining the use of the argument from desire in Aquinas's philosophy, historian Robert Pasnau criticizes the argument as being "based on strong teleological assumptions few would accept today. It seems clear, contrary to his [Aquinas's] central assumption, that there are things in nature that have no point". Having desire for something impossible, such as seeing in complete darkness and reading minds, can be thought of as the mental and philosophical equivalent of an unimportant physical trait (such as the ability to wiggle one's ears) or a vestigial organ (such as the appendix).