Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Reply to Beversluis on the Argument from Desire

There are three central arguments for the existence of God that Beversluis considers: the argument from desire, the argument from morality, and the argument from reason. The argument from desire has been formulated by Peter Kreeft as follows:
1) Every natural, innate desire in us corresponds to some real object that can satisfy that desire.

2) But there exists in us a desire which nothing in time, nothing on earth, no creature can satisfy.

3) Therefore there must exist something more than time, earth and creatures, which can satisfy this desire.

4) This something is what people call "God" and "life with God forever."

Beversluis makes four points in response to this line of argument. First, are we really talking about a well-defined desire? When it comes to our ordinary desires, we know what they are desires for. According to an analysis of “X desires that Y” X must desire Y under a description. That is, X must have some description of Y in mind. So can it be described as a desire for God at all, indeed can it be described as a desire at all? Second, even if there is such a desire, do we have good reason to suppose, apart from the bald assertions of argument defenders, that this desire is widespread or even close to universal? Third, if there is such a desire, is the desire a natural desire? Beversluis says that the desire is ethnocentric, not shared cross-culturally, but rather confined to Western culture. Finally, he maintains that we have no reason to suppose, even if the desire were widespread or even universal, that it has an object that satisfies it.

In response, it seems to me that the defender of the argument from desire does have some things to say. First, the argument’s defender can begin by hypothesizing about what we should expect to find if humans were created for fellowship with God, but that fellowship was broken. If that were the case, then we might expect to find that we are often not satisfied even when our earthly desires are satisfied. We would expect not to feel at home in the material world in which we find ourselves. As Lewis once asked,

If you are really a product of a material universe, how is it that you don’t feel at home there? Do fish complain of the sea for being wet? Or if they did, would that fact itself not strongly suggest that they had not always been, or would not always be, purely aquatic creatures?”

We could have the sorts of desires that only God could satisfy if God exists, and be designed to have those desires, even if we often fail to recognize our desires as desires that can be satisfied only by God. Is the desire universal? As Beversluis indicates, this would be very difficult to prove. Is it widespread? Well, it is certainly pervasive in literature. Corbin Scott Carnell says that it “may be said to represent just as much a basic theme in literature as love.” Is it ethnocentric? Hindus tell people who are concerned with sex, wealth, power, and even family relations that these are acceptable goals, but that they are not ultimately satisfying. They seem convinced that sooner or later people will turn from these pursuits to the pursuit of moksha, or release. Are their powers of psychological observation faulty?

In 1992 the Forbes magazine commemorated its seventy-fifth anniversary by inviting eleven distinguished writers and scholars to contribute articles addressing the question “Why are we so unhappy?” But why ask that question if ordinary human satisfactions did not leave us with a dissatisfaction, or if it were clear just what material satisfactions would make us all happy?

Yet I am inclined to suppose that Beversluis may be right in supposing that what Lewis is talking about when he talks about Heavenly Desire is not something that would emerge from an analysis of “X desires that Y.” That is, I don’t think, at least from the perspective, let’s say, the teenage atheist Lewis, it makes sense to say “C. S. Lewis desires fellowship with God.” But we can look at the young Lewis’s desires another way. If we think that there is a design plan for C. S. Lewis, it may be that he has been designed in such a way that his desires can only be satisfied through communion with God and that God has created him so that he can be satisfied only in this way. Someone, it seems to me, can have a desire for God from the standpoint of their design plan, even if they do not themselves recognize the desire as a desire for God.

Pascal once wrote:

All men seek happiness. There are no exceptions … Yet for very many years no one without faith has ever reached the goal at which everyone is continually aiming. All men complain: princes, subjects, nobles, commoners, old, young, strong, weak, learned, ignorant, healthy, sick, in every country, at every time, of all ages, and all conditions. A test which has gone on so long, without pause or change, really ought to convince us that we are incapable of attaining the good by ourselves. … This [craving, man] tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since the infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.

Now in order to meet Beversluis’s challenge we have to have a fairly broad conception how this desire might be manifested in persons. Adam Barkman points out that Lewis uses several concepts to talk about the desire in question: Platonic Eros, Romanticism, the numinous, Sehnsucht, Joy, and hope. If we assume from the beginning that something like the Christian God exists, then we can explain a range of human phenomena in terms of the fact that we are made for fellowship with God, and are bound to have a sense that something is missing unless we are in fellowship with God.
But if we are talking about an argument for God, then, of course, we can’t assume that God exists. A naturalistic atheist would no doubt explain these facts of human experience in terms of Darwinian psychology. Is it possible that we have desires that could only be satisfied by God, but there is no God? Lewis once used the statement that “nature does nothing in vain” to support his claim that these desires must be satisfiable. But isn’t that, as Beversluis suggests, a question-begging assumption? Doesn’t it presume that nature is under the control of a conscious agent who makes sure nothing is done in vain? After all, nature has given us appendixes, which these days serve no purpose but to give doctors something to remove (and charge us for).
Yet even on Darwinian assumptions there is usually some reason why we have certain characteristics. Our heart is in the right place, because it wouldn’t help up to survive if it were in the wrong place. Human beings with desires that don’t seem in any way to promote survival, as these “heavenly” desires do, does seem a little surprising in a naturalistic universe. I have suggested, following Thomas V. Morris, that the argument be developed as a confirmation-theoretic argument. If you have two hypotheses, A, and B, and you have a phenomenon C which is experienced, A is confirmed relative to B if C is more likely to exist if A that it is to exist if B. If A is theism and B is atheism, it seems to me that these desires are very likely given theism, but not especially likely given atheism. They could arise in an atheist universe, but we wouldn’t expect it. So, on the face of things, it looks as if the argument from desire confirms theism.

There is a great deal more to be said on this issue, both pro and con, as the linked discussion indicates. But I think I have said enough to have shown that Beversluis’s criticisms do not constitute a final refutation of the Argument from Desire.

No comments: