Monday, April 04, 2011

C. S. Lewis's Classic Reply to the Wish Fulfillment argument

A redated post. 

This is from Lewis's essay "On Obstinacy of Belief," to which I have linked. This is Lewis's classic response to the argument from wish fulfillment. It isn't a matter of riding Lewis's coattails here, it is simply pointing out that if you want to use a wish fulfillment argument against Christianity, this is the response you've got to answer. If you want to defend the argument from design, you've got to answer Hume. If you want to defend the evidentialist objection, you've got to answer Plantinga. If you want to defend psychological egoism, you've got to answer Butler. If you want to defend the wish fulfillment argument, you've got to answer Lewis.

Lewis's claim is that wish fulfillment arguments can be made on all sides, so they are pretty much useless to any side in particular.

There are of course people in our own day to whom the whole situation seems altered by the doctrine of the concealed wish. They will admit that men, otherwise apparently rational, have been deceived by the arguments for religion. But they will say that they have been deceived first by their own desires and produced the arguments afterwards as a rationalization: that these arguments have never been intrinsically even plausible, but have seemed so because they were secretly weighted by our wishes.



Now I do not doubt that this sort of thing happens in thinking about religion as in thinking about other things; but as a general explanation of religious assent it seems to me quite useless. On that issue our wishes may favour either side or both. The assumption that every man would be pleased, and nothing but pleased, if only he could conclude that Christianity is true, appears to me to be simply preposterous.


If Freud is right about the Oedipus complex, the universal pressure of the wish that God should not exist must be enormous, and atheism must be an admirable gratification to one of our strongest suppressed impulses. This argument, in fact, could be used on the theistic side. But I have no intention of so using it. It will not really help either party. It is fatally ambivalent. Men wish on both sides: and again, there is fear-fulfilment as well as wish-fulfilment, and hypochondriac temperaments will always tend to think true what they most wish to be false.


Thus instead of the one predicament on which our opponents sometimes concentrate there are in fact four. A man may be a Christian because he wants Christianity to be true. He may be an atheist because he wants atheism to be true. He may be an atheist be-cause he wants Christianity to be true. He may be a Christian because he Wants atheism to be true. Surely these possibilities cancel one another out? They may be of some use in analysing a particular instance of belief or disbelief, where we know the case history, but as a general explanation of either they will not help us. I do not think they overthrow the view that there is evidence both for and against the Christian propositions which fully rational minds, working honestly, can assess differently.



6 comments:

Crowhill said...

It's silly to think that we can discern the psychological motivations behind someone's belief. Certainly there are lots of hidden and complicated motivations, but anyone who presumes to say "you believe (or disbelieve) because ____" doesn't know what he's saying.

Anonymous said...

Bob Prokop writing:

Victor, no need to apologize for "riding on Lewis's coattails". After all, your website does explicity advertise itself as a place to discuss, among other topics, C.S. Lewis!

mattghg said...

If Freud is right about the Oedipus complex, the universal pressure of the wish that God should not exist must be enormous, and atheism must be an admirable gratification to one of our strongest suppressed impulses. This argument, in fact, could be used on the theistic side.

As Paul Vitz does - although really he's making the same as point as Lewis: the arguments from motivation on both sides cancel each other out.

Gregory said...

It could equally be said that Freud's analysis of religion as a "wish fulfillment" is, itself, a "wish fulfillment". In other words, Freud wishes that the Christian religion was nothing more than an empty "wish" to have a Heavenly Father.

I think that gives us a brief, but accurate, summary of the self-stultifying nature of Freud's claim.....for those of us who like to quickly "answer a fool according to his folly" (as the old Proverb goes).

And I'm glad that "mattghg" has noted Paul Vitz, in this regard :)

Tony Hoffman said...

Of all the reasons to suspend belief in the Christian God, I think Freud’s explanation of the origin of religion is among the oddest. I think Freud, and Lewis’s reply to it, both appear anachronistic in light of the current debate.

Steve Lovell said...

Vitz also has a book length treatment of the topic Faith of the Fatherless. I address this issue at some length in Chapter 5 of my thesis, entitled "C.S. Lewis and the Freudian Critique of Religious Belief".

I'm no longer entirely happy with that chapter, but more because I have things to add to it rather than anything to take away from it.

Steve