Monday, September 18, 2006

Passage from The Weight of Glory related to the argument from desire

“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 man’s 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.”

[CS Lewis, The Weight of Glory (1949)]

What's interesting here is two things. One is that one of the argument's most dramatic presentations is given in a sermon, presumable addressed to believers. In another place in the sermon he writes:

"Do you think I am trying to weave a spell? Perhaps I am; but remember your fairy tales. Spells are used for breaking enchantments as well as for inducing them. And you and I have need for the strongest spell that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness which has been laid upon us for nearly a hundred years. 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. Hence all the nonsense that Mr. Shaw puts into the final speech of Lilith, and Bergson’s remark that the élan vital is capable of surmounting all obstacles, perhaps even death—as if we could believe that any social or biological development on this planet will delay the senility of the sun or reverse the second law of thermodynamics."

So Lewis thinks that not just philosophical naturalists, but Christians need to be persauded of their own desire for communion with God.

My second point is that the passage about falling in love arising in a sexless world, which is often left out of the quote, seems essential to his argument, since presumably even a naturalist, who think the watchmaker is blind, is still going to agree that this would be a very anomalous development.


Blue Devil Knight said...

I don't experience a deep desire for otherworldly satisfactions. I wonder if an atheist Buddhist monk does. It seems a lot of these 'desires' are culturally fixed, much like my desire for Santa to bring me a nice toy when I was younger. Hence, this argument from desire leaves me underwhelmed. The argument from reason is less uncompelling.

Anonymous said...

Comparing a wish or desire with a physical need is an poor analogy.

Eating and sexual reproduction are physical needs or drives. Does my desire for flight indicate that I will be able to achieve flight naturally? No.
Does my desire to leap tall buildings in a single bound indicate that I will be Superman in a future life? No.
Does my child's fear of monsters prove that monsters are real? I doubt it.
Do primitive men's fears of demons prove that Satan exists? We certainly have zero evidence of it.

A desire for paradise does not prove that perfect happiness (such as one would experience, presumably, in paradise) exists outside of fleeting moments in this world. It is our desire for happiness that drives us to seek it in this world.

Our fears and desires prove nothing except that we have fears and desires. Much, one suspects, like every other higher mammal on this planet.

Jason Pratt said...

Not that I'm a great proponent of the AfDsr myself; but BDK's reference to the atheist Buddhist monk (or any Buddhist monk) seems infelicitous; since much of the point of any variant of Buddhism is to eliminate suffering by disconnection from that which is provoking the desire. An atheistic Buddhist would not only be committed philosophically to denying that a desire for God indicates any real existence of God, but might also be disconnecting himself from an existant desire (apparently) for God by denying God's existence via atheism.

So, yeah, actually an atheistic Buddhist monk _is_ someone whom I would expect to be suffering from such a desire so acutely, that he has _become_ an atheistic Buddhist monk in order to escape from that desire. {ironic g} Though admittedly, to whatever extent he has succeeded in killing off the desire, he would no longer be experiencing it _now_. (And of course he would ultimately be denying the existence of the objects toward which the desire is ostensibly directed, as part of his escape from the desire for those objects.)

As to whether an _initial_ lack of such a deep desire means anything con to the AfDsr--I haven't been able to settle an opinion on that, yet. I can see (apparently) good arguments both ways.

"ES" writes that comparing a wish or desire with a physical need is a poor analogy. I'm inclined to agree, but that has never seemed to me to be the point to the AfDsr in the first place. Rather, the point seems to be, 'Here is a desire for something that cannot be (apparently) satisfied by anything in Nature. What are the implications of this?'

Also, Lewis' exposition as given in his "Weight of Glory" sermon, does address ES's distinction between desire and possible fulfillment of that desire. (Lewis specifically notes that his desire to enjoy Paradise does not necessarily entail that he _will_ enjoy Paradise, for instance.) He also quite clearly agrees that our desire for happiness (per se) drives us to seek that happiness in this world.

The point Lewis is attempting to make, is more along this line: a desire to leap tall buildings in a single bound, doesn't mean someone will be Superman in a future life. But it does tend to indicate there are such things as tall buildings and leaping. A desire for flight, tends to indicate that there is such a thing as flight. A child's (or adult's) fear of monsters, tends to match in _some_ way with real realities which may happen to occur, even if the monsters themselves turn out to be fictional.

The prime point to the AfDsr is about implications of existence; fulfillment of desire is at best only a secondary portion to the argument.

Also, technically speaking, it isn't true that we have zero evidence Satan exists--otherwise the question of his existence wouldn't even have occurred to ES to mention. ES may judge the evidence to be poor or even altogether worthless for drawing that conclusion, but this is different from having no evidence at all.

(I will, however, head off a potential criticism of ES, by noting that his denial that a desire for flight necessarily means he will achieve flight naturally, is _NOT_ necessarily a denial that we did and do in fact achieve flight naturally. He'd have to put the matter a little bit differently, before I could take advantage of it for an argument from artificiality. {g})

Victor Reppert said...

The argument, as Steve Lovell pointed out earlier, requires only that we have a natural desire for what turns out to be a transcendent happiness, and does not require that the desire be universal. And, the desire isn't a religious desire as such. The idea is that there is a desire built into human nature (however much it may be dulled in some individuals) which can only be fulfilled through communion with God, or at the very least with something transcendent. I have argued that this desire is what you should expect if theism is true, and it's up for grabs whether it's likely to arise if naturalism is true. There is no natural desire for Santa Claus, or to be Superman, and this demarcates the desire we are talking about from other desires.

Jason said that I had never admitted that the argument from evil provides some Bayesian confirmation for atheism. But I think it does (although the argument appeals to things that actually provide support for theism, such as our moral standards and our having subjective states like the state of being in pain). It's just that unlike theists, who have a big cumulative case involving lots of different things, atheists typically put a lot more weight on the argument from evil than we put on our arguments. And I will argue that the AFE doesn't come anywhere near bearing the weight that atheists place on it.

Steven Carr said...

Presumably being scared of evil powers could only arise if God had create an evil power to be scared of, otherwise why would he create humans with such a fear?

Jason Pratt said...

(There are several answers I can think of to Steven's question, but I'm not sure to what extent he himself deserves to have anyone take him seriously on his questions, even when the questions are nominally decent enough to ask in themselves. Long experience here. {lopsided grimace} I might attempt an answer if someone else cares to ask it; it depends on whether I think they're only trying to flamebait. If someone else cares to try to answer him, not knowing Steven from long experience, be a-warned...)

Victor: {{Jason said that I had never admitted that the argument from evil provides some Bayesian confirmation for atheism.}}

To be a bit more specific, and more to the point of my point back then {g}, I said that I didn't recall you ever putting the weight in terms of _confirmation_, when discussing what amounts to anti-theistic Bayesian results.

What I meant, is that I don't recall you ever saying something along the lines of: "So long as an atheist figures that evil and/or suffering is less likely than in an atheistic world, the presence of these things _confirms_ atheism." Or again, "Let's say that, if we don't know whether theism is true or not, the likelihood that these things should happen (anyway) is .7; and a person could easily think that the existence of these things rates a .9 in favor of atheism. So, plugging these values in Bayes' theorem, we go from .5 likelihood that atheism is true (assuming for ease of illustration that all other currently known evidence rates in summary a purely agnostic stance), to a .643 likelihood that atheism is true. Thus, if these figures are correct, the argument from evil/suffering _confirms_ atheism."

I have difficulty believing you'd be willing to put it that way; and not just because you yourself happen to think the Bayesian weight comes out to be something else on that topic.

But that's what you were doing back in your first (recent) post on "The Bayesian Argument from Desire". Except of course in our favor, instead of the atheist's.

_I_ know (and knew) you didn't mean the usual notion of 'confirm'; you were using a very specialized version of the meaning. My point, though, was that the presentation could only be misleading to people who didn't know to read it in a highly specialized sense (and didn't know they should look it up to find out); which I suspect you do in fact agree about, at some level, or else you'd be using the term just as freely, and without special warnings, when discussing how an atheist uses that Bayesian argument, or even when discussing how a theist could honestly recognize some _intuitive_ weight to the existence of suffering and evil.

(Plus, I think it's arguably too dangerous to use the term even in this highly specialized and limited sense, as it requires a strong level of discipline to resist the temptation to elide over into what can only be a more attractive level of meaning of the word in such an important disputation. But that's less important to me than the main point I was trying to make.)

That being said, on further contemplation, I think I was wrong to identify the AfDsr with Lewis' argument against Bulverism (i.e. against explaining beliefs away as reactions to desires). I do still think the Argument from Desire can cut both ways (and even gave Steven credit for having a good point along that line!--in case anyone thinks I was only being dismissive of him earlier), and I certainly agree with the contra-Bulverism argument; but I wasn't right to use Lewis' refutation of Bulverism as an example of refuting the AfDsr. The principles are subtly but crucially different. So, my category error there; and I retract the illustration.

Also, I admittedly have fewer actually technical crits (from which I distinguished my crit about using 'confirm' as a term in the way that you did) with your use of BT there, than against some uses of it I've seen. That's kind of a compliment. {g} And I should have said so earlier.

(Sometimes even _I_ think my comments are too long, for various reasons... {penitent g!})

Jason Pratt

Blue Devil Knight said...

"The argument, as Steve Lovell pointed out earlier, requires only that we have a natural desire for what turns out to be a transcendent happiness, and does not require that the desire be universal."

Even assuming the logic of the argument is correct, if transcendent happiness is the desideratum, you don't get theism, but a desire for happiness that transcends the particulars of our earthly existence. While I dislike evolutionary storytelling, there are lots of possible scenarios about how this could evolve in a godless world. For example, our cognitive power comes with a few curses, such as the ability to ruminate on really bad things (e.g., one's child dying). It could be that individuals who sought transcendent happiness were more successful evolutionarily because they didn't suffer from the paralyzing effects of such ruminations. These psychological coping mechanisms became codified in culturally idiosyncratic ways, some of which lead to theistic religions, some to nontheistic religions, others to secular psychology.

Jason Pratt said...

I tend to agree with BDK on incaution concerning jumps from a desire for satisfactions which transcend natural experience, to this being evidence for theism (per se) being true.

That being said, his evolutionary account ends up with a rather interesting result. {g} (But that should be discussed elsewhere, as it would be OT here.)