A Critique of ‘The Argument from Desire’

Introduction
The Argument from Desire is an often overlooked argument that is both logically and emotionally appealing to theists. As Christian apologist Norman Geisler puts it, “it has a certain existential force.” 1 The Argument from Desire interprets seemingly universal desires and experiences of human beings, including those who may passionately declare themselves to be atheists, agnostics, or something else entirely, as evidence that points to the existence of Heaven specifically, but which is entailed by the existence of the Christian God more generally.

Though originally championed by C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity, Pilgrim’s Regress, and The Problem of Pain 2, there have been numerous forms of the argument advanced in contemporary times. Some scholars, such as Norman Geisler and Art Lindsley 3, argue that the desire is one for immortality. Others state that it is a desire for everlasting joy, as Lewis himself did. Still others, such as Peter Kreeft, argue that this universal yearning is a desire for an intimate and lasting relationship with God, which likely entails the other two desires. This paper will focus mostly on the version of the Argument from Desire put forth by Christian apologist Peter Kreeft. 4 In the remainder of this paper, I will explore Kreeft’s argument in detail, providing criticisms and clarifications where appropriate applicable. 

The Argument from Desire:

The Argument from Desire, as advanced by Kreeft, laid out in its deductive form, is as follows:

Premise 1: Every natural, innate desire in us corresponds to some real object that can satisfy that desire.

Premise 2: Yet there exists in us a desire which nothing in time, nothing on Earth, and no creature can satisfy.

Conclusion: Therefore, there must exist something more than time, Earth, and creatures which can satisfy this desire. (This something is what many people call “God” and “life with God forever.”)

Regarding Premise 1, there is a distinction to be drawn between two types of human desires. Kreeft labels these as natural or artificial and innate or externally conditioned desires. Natural desires include hunger, sexual arousal, thirst, rest, knowledge, beauty, companionship and the like. Artificial desires, in contrast, include wielding absolute political authority over a particular country, being able to read the minds of others, owning the best DVD collection of all time, and living freely and nakedly in the land of Narnia. 

To further differentiate between these types of desires, Kreeft advances three criteria. The first criterion is based on the availability and recognition of terms that describe states or conditions of deprivation for natural, as opposed to artificial, desires. Kreeft notes that there are terms for states of deprivation for natural desires. For example, if a person is hungry but cannot satisfy that desire for an extended period of time, he or she can be said to be in a state of starvation. Yet there are no parallel terms identified for states of deprivation that result from the lack of an object that satisfies an artificial desire. Put another way, there is no state of “Narnialessness” that results from one’s inability to live freely in Narnia. The latter does not invoke subjective feelings or thoughts of a similar quality or quantity that the former does. 

The next criterion focuses on the origin of the desire itself. Kreeft notes that the origin of natural desires is within a person and is inherent to human nature. Hunger, thirst, sexual arousal, and the like all seem to be internal phenomena, physiological reactions to the changing conditions of a person’s body in relation to an external environment or entity. These desires can be influenced by external factors such as climate, weather, and population, but they are ultimately determined within a person’s physical body. 

Finally, the last criterion utilized to discern between natural and artificial desires is the content of the desire. Natural desires, Kreeft contends, are universal because they do not seem to vary from human being to human being. Artificial desires, in comparison, are the products of cultural and social pressures and influences. They can be cultivated through numerous mediums such as books, public figures, video games, celebrities, music, TV shows, movies, subliminal advertisements on the radio, and more. As a result, these artificial desires can be and often are widely divergent from one individual to the next. 

Regarding Premise 2, one must analyze the phrase “nothing in time, nothing on Earth, and no creature can satisfy.” We can reasonably conclude that this phrase signifies an object which does not have spatial-temporal dimensions, that, if it is found in the universe, it is not found on Earth, and that it cannot be satisfied by interactions with or relations to any living organism (human, animal, alien, etc.). Thus, it is more favorable and sympathetic to read “nothing on Earth” as meaning “nothing in the universe” so as to form a coherent whole with the other two expressions within Kreeft’s syllogism.

Finally, the second part of the Conclusion is in parentheses because Kreeft does not actually state it as a definite conclusion. This is merely the direction in which he plans to advance the argument. Though this argument on its own does not firmly establish the existence of God or Heaven, he claims that it can be combined with other theistic arguments, such as the Kalam Cosmological Argument or the Argument from Morality, to strengthen Kreeft’s overall case.

Objections to the Argument from Desire: 

While I acknowledge that the Argument from Desire does seem intuitively plausible, as well as inductively strong (at least initially), there are still several objections which can be raised against it, objections that I believe to be fatal for the argument on the whole. As a result, I assert two key criticisms against the Argument from Desire: (1) Kreeft’s argument involves the use of equivocal language and terms that, in addition to smuggling in extra content, violates Ockham’s Razor warranting its dubitability and (2) Kreeft’s label of the desire for immortality as “innate” and “natural” is empirically false. 

With regard to (1), Kreeft’s particularly selective terminology disguises the equivocation of the argument’s conclusion. In the first premise of his syllogism, Kreeft employs terms such as “natural” and “innate” rather than “physical” to avoid being trapped in a strictly naturalistic paradigm, though the terms “natural” and “innate” smack heavily of biological and physiological connotations. Moreover, one must note that Kreeft uses the term “real” when describing the object that satisfies this desire rather than “tangible” or “concrete.” The use of “real” allows much metaphysical content to be smuggled in by permitting the possibility of the immaterial and otherworldly objects or processes to satisfy the desire in question (the human soul, Heaven, Hell, God, demons, angels, etc.). Clearly, “real” does not denote the same types of objects or processes that words like “tangible” and “concrete” do. 

Yet the inference, at its most basic level, is that all so-defined natural desires have an object or process by which those desires are sufficiently satisfied. This is why the argument seems so intuitively plausible. We are able to briefly reflect on certain natural desires and quickly visualize the objects or processes that satisfy them sufficiently. The same cannot be said about the desire for immortality. But when we break this inductive reasoning down further, it no longer seems as plausible. 

To better understand why this inference is misleading, one must return to the language of type-token distinctions. To illustrate the type-token distinction, an example is in order. A car is a type of vehicle. A truck is another type of vehicle. A boat is a further type of vehicle. Specific models of cars, trucks, and boats, serve as tokens of those types. A Nissan, a Ford, and a Skeeter are all tokens of their respective types.

Note that these previously listed natural desires are of a certain type; this type consists of desires which are satisfied by objects or processes that are physical in nature, can/do involve other creatures, and that can be/are attainable on Earth. The satisfaction for things such as hunger, thirst, sexual arousal, and friendship is derived from physical objects or processes such as food, water, sexual activity, and social interaction. But this desire for immortality is not of the same type as those previously listed. It constitutes a new type of desire, a desire which is not satisfied by objects or processes that are physical in nature, can involve other creatures, and that are attainable on Earth, per Kreeft’s second premise. 

Here is where the argument falters. In keeping with an inference to the best explanation, it would be more appropriate to say that even this mysterious and elusive desire can be satisfied by a physical object or process, even if that physical object or process has not yet been discovered or created, rather than to posit an entirely new type of object or process of satisfaction. For example, if the desire is one for immortality, groundbreaking research in biotechnological and nanotechnological fields may one day discover the processes and/or create the materials necessary for human life to be sustained indefinitely. While such research is still in its infancy and facing a variety of theoretical and practical constraints, 5 there is great potential for the development of technological devices that can be utilized by human beings to, perhaps, escape death and achieve immortality. 

Nanotechnology could provide minuscule nanobots, quantum-sized robots, that live within a person’s body and are intelligent enough to destroy harmful viruses and bacteria that cause a slew of medical conditions ranging from the common cold to AIDS to COVID-19 and beyond. They can also help with dangerous or complicated surgeries as well as help to repair damaged cells that inevitably occur as a product of the aging process. As a result, many common causes of, or contributions to, death become impotent and minimalized.

Biotechnology could provide human beings with artificial organs that work harder, more efficiently, and much longer than their organic counterparts. Life spans could be extended infinitely also through the possibility of cloning, something similar to the plot line of The Island in which clones are harvested for their organs, allowing their original counterparts to continue living for an extremely long time. Thus, if biotechnology and/or nanotechnology are able to successfully combat human mortality, it seems that Kreeft’s second premise is only a finite period of time away from being proven false.

Moreover, the Argument from Desire violates Ockham’s Razor. Ockham’s Razor, in one of its more modern reformulations, states that when given two equally sufficient explanations for a certain phenomenon, the simpler explanation is to be preferred.6 But as we noted above, the desire for immortality introduces an entirely new type of natural desire, one which is not satiable by any physical objects or processes. As a result, this is where the metaphysical content that Kreeft bootlegged into the argument harms his argument. In comparison, a naturalistic conclusion would be more appropriate in this situation. There is no need to posit entirely new entities such as God and Heaven when abstractions such as chance and time suffice.

Next, according to Kreeft, this desire for immortality is “natural” and “innate” because it arises from within a person and does not diverge from one individual to another. To the contrary, I assert that the desire for immortality is neither natural nor innate. It is my view that the desire for immortality occurs in a person’s life only after he or she come to understand the consequences of death, that the desire is entirely dependent upon the knowledge of death. Yet if this desire depends upon certain concrete interactions or experiences such as understanding death, then it cannot be considered a natural desire since it did not arise from within a person in the same way that hunger or sexual arousal or thirst does. And if it is possible that a single person does not experience this desire for immortality, then Kreeft’s assertion that it is an innate desire is incorrect. Instead, the desire for immortality is an artificial or externally conditioned desire. 

Common experience tells us that after a human being encounters death, whether directly or indirectly, he or she inevitably reflects upon the experience. It does not matter if a person witnesses the death of another living organism concretely, say through an instance of murder or the natural death of an elderly relative, or merely discusses the idea more abstractly as in a philosophical classroom setting; knowledge of death as a concept leads to several psychological changes in a person. One such psychological change involves a shocking and likely horrifying realization: death is ultimately inevitable for all living organisms. There will come a time when a person completely ceases to exist in a broad sense of the term. There will be no more conversations with friends, no more family gatherings, no more laughter, no more summer vacations, nothing. A person will no longer be able to influence and be influenced by his or her surroundings and this state or condition of non-existence will last much longer than the time for which he or she was alive. The striking reality that no one can avoid or escape death, but only postpone it for varying amounts of time, can be difficult to accept. We find similar testimonies for this kind of unease and dread in philosophical literature throughout human history, especially in the nihilism of Nietzsche and the existentialism of Sartre and Camus. 

To put everything into a causal chain, or at least into chronological order, after a person gains an understanding of death, the accompanying period of self-reflection leads to the realization that death is inevitable and indiscriminate, that no human being is ultimately in control of his or her biological/temporal fate. This perception of a lack of control combined with the uncertainty of what actually occurs after death leads to feelings of helplessness and hopelessness which constitute the fear and anxiety experienced after the event. This fear of death, in turn, manifests itself in a person as a desire to be immortal, to avoid or escape death and its unknown, or at least largely misunderstood, consequences. Yet those who had never witnessed the death of another creature or had never been introduced to the concept of death through some other manner would likely not have this desire for immortality.

Conclusion:

As previously stated, the Argument from Desire is by no means the strongest of theistic arguments. There are others which make a much more forceful case for the existence of God. However, as Christian apologist Dr. William Lane Craig notes, each argument and piece of evidence for God’s existence builds upon the last so that it forms a kind of chain mail defense for theism. 7 So while no single argument may be absolutely effective, when taken together, these arguments can provide powerful justification for theistic belief. Conversely, dismantling each piece of chain mail in that armor can provide powerful support for atheistic or agnostic or even deistic belief. Thus, via negativa, the benefit of this objection to the Argument from Desire is further justification for non-religious belief systems.

Footnotes:

1 Norman Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1999), 282.
2 Wise, http://www.lastseminary.com/argument-from-desire/
3 http://artlindsleyministries.org/arguments/argument-from-desire/
4 http://www.peterkreeft.com/topics/desire.html
5 http://www.fbae.org/2009/FBAE/website/
6 http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ockham/#4.1
7 William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, (Crossway, 2008), chap. 1.

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3 thoughts on “A Critique of ‘The Argument from Desire’

  1. Liam March 17, 2020 at 9:48 pm Reply

    Nice rebuttal.

    Would you say tokens continue to exist over time?

    • N'B'T. March 20, 2020 at 6:10 pm Reply

      Hey, Liam. Could you expand a bit on your question and maybe give me a particular example?

  2. Liam March 20, 2020 at 7:20 pm Reply

    Suppose an election that exists at time t=0 has spatio-temporal continuity with an election that exists at time t=1. Are these electron tokens the same electron token?

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