Thursday, November 19, 2009

A critique of the Argument from Desire

Which includes an analysis of a Bayesian version of the argument that I tried to develop.


Mark Frank said...

I am suspicious of Bayesian arguments for the existence of God. He is the ultimate Gremlin the attic. Given that he/it is omnipotent and he moves in mysterious ways then for any X it is almost always possible to argue that Pr(X/God) is very high or even 1.

Jesse said...

Victor, I responded to Mike (in the slight chance you might be interested):

Hello Mike. You write:

::However, I still think there are quite a lot of problems with the argument from desire. First, I have a small issue with the distinction between natural and unnatural desires. Defining natural desires as those that everyone has would be too strict. Under that definition, even sex would be unnatural, for there are people who are asexual and have no sexual desire at all. I can’t think of any desires that are completely universal, but if there are some, this set would surely be way too small to generalize from. So we should instead say natural desires are those that the large majority of people possess and which were not conditioned by society.

This assumes that natural desires are always conscious desires. This is not so. For instance, the fact that a person may not consciously desire properly to nourish himself does not mean that his nature does not desire proper nourishment; it means he has a disorder. I think Natural desires, scholastically understood, would be those desires without which humanity not only could not exist, which is a means, but could not exist for an end-in-itself (for which a means is a means).

Furthermore, though our general desire for nourishment is innate, our particular desires for nourishment are acquired by particular objects: a ham sub at subway has determined my desire for more ham subs. Acquired desires, therefore, can belong to innate desires, that is, needs, but they can also not belong, in which case they are wants, which, to further distinguish, can be innocuous or positively contrary to legitimate needs, i.e., unnatural. It is at the point of acquired desires where it all gets interesting.

Innate desires can be inferred to exist as part of our nature, but acquired desires, whether needs or wants, are always the result of something -- acquired. Kreeft, for example, can infer the innate desire for God by the negative fact that nothing else serves as an end-in-itself; but Lewis sometimes goes beyond that, to the positive experience of an acquired desire which is the experience of Joy (as understood in specifically Lewisian terms); it is here that an inadequate epistemology, ultimately solipsistic, will fail to convince the hearer.

For it’s not only “if nature makes nothing in vain” then our desire for God is real, but the fact that people have the positive experience of longing for an object, which requires “attending to” that object. In other words, Lewis’ argument really makes the most impact, at least to me, when understood in light of his exposition of the threefold division of mental activity. “Instead of the twofold division of Conscious and Unconscious”, he says, “we need a threefold division: the Unconscious, the Enjoyed, and the Contemplated.” This division is really nothing other than the epistemology of St. Thomas Aquinas, which is the only one that leaves us free to say we actually know objects outside our own minds, not merely the ideas of our own minds. Lewis called it an “indispensable tool of thought”, and it is, indeed, what allows him to conclude, about the conscious desire he called Joy, that “there is… a commerce with something which, by refusing to identify itself with any object of the senses, or anything whereof we have biological or social need, or anything imagined, or any state of our own minds, proclaims itself sheerly objective. Far more objective than bodies, for it is not, like them, clothed in our senses; the naked Other, imageless (though our imagination salutes it with a hundred images), unknown, undefined, desired.”

Without resorting to an untenable solipsism, I believe his point is unassailable.


Inquiring Infidel said...


Thanks for your post, and sorry for my delayed response (I was away for the past couple days and didn't have the chance to get online).

I responded to your comment on my blog, but I'm also reprinting my response here:

It seems to me like you’re trying to redefine the word desire. Merriam-Webster defines ‘desire’ as:
1: to long or hope for: exhibit or feel desire for
2a: to express a wish for
2b: to express a wish to
So based on how ‘desire’ is normally defined, I don’t think it makes sense to say that someone still desires food if they do not want it and even have an aversion to it. I still think it’s fair to say that humans naturally desire food, but there are individuals who do not. You say that natural desires are those without which humanity could not exist. I’m okay with this definition, but this seems like it would make the argument from desire question begging. By assuming that the desire for the transcendent/God is a natural desire, you would be assuming that humans could not exist without God. If you start by simply assuming that humans cannot exist without God, then you don’t even need to consider desires. You could instead say that since humans cannot exist without God and humans exist, God must exist. But of course atheists would dispute your assumption.

I agree with your point that a desire for a ham sandwich is not a natural desire even though our desire for food is. But I think that the desire that some people feel for the Christian God is similarly conditioned. If there is a natural desire for something beyond this world, people who grow up in different environments see the object of their desire differently. While some may seek fulfillment through a relationship with the Hindu gods, others may seek a relationship with the Christian god. And still others may seek fulfillment in the natural wonders of the universe. In order to establish that there is a natural desire for something like the traditional monotheistic God, you would have to show that not only do we have a vague desire to connect with something greater than ourselves, but that this desire is naturally targeted at that type of God. If instead, it is society that causes us to desire that kind of God, then even if the rest of the argument worked, this would only show that there is some sort of thing beyond ourselves and we wouldn’t even whether this thing is supernatural.

I was a little unclear on why you say that the desire for God is an end-in-itself and why you think this gives evidence that he exists. I am also unclear on how you think Aquinas’ threefold division supports the argument from desire. Would you mind expanding upon those points? Before I respond to them I want to make sure I have a good understanding of the argument you’re making.


Jesse said...

Mike, I suggest to make it easier we take the rest of this conversation to your blog... see you there. Jesse