What Is the Argument from Desire?

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

I don’t expect this argument will work with a science-worshiping atheist, but I do think it will work for people who are into the New Age or  Buddhism, or who otherwise are aware of the transcendent qualities of the world around them. I just finished the Steve Jobs biography, and I actually believe that Jobs may have resonated with this argument.

So what is the argument from desire? Nobody explains it better than philosopher Peter Kreeft. Here is Kreeft from his blog post on the argument from desire, first giving the two premises and conclusion of the argument:

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.

Kreeft then defends the first premise:

The first premise implies a distinction of desires into two kinds: innate and externally conditioned, or natural and artificial. We naturally desire things like food, drink, sex, sleep, knowledge, friendship and beauty; and we naturally shun things like starvation, loneliness, ignorance and ugliness. We also desire (but not innately or naturally) things like sports cars, political office, flying through the air like Superman, the land of Oz and a Red Sox world championship.

Now there are differences between these two kinds of desires. We do not, for example, for the most part, recognize corresponding states of deprivation for the second, the artificial, desires, as we do for the first. There is no word like “Ozlessness” parallel to “sleeplessness.” But more importantly, the natural desires come from within, from our nature, while the artificial ones come from without, from society, advertising or fiction. This second difference is the reason for a third difference: the natural desires are found in all of us, but the artificial ones vary from person to person.

The existence of the artificial desires does not necessarily mean that the desired objects exist. Some do; some don’t. Sports cars do; Oz does not. But the existence of natural desires does, in every discoverable case, mean that the objects desired exist. No one has ever found one case of an innate desire for a nonexistent object.

Kreeft defends the second premise:

The second premise requires only honest introspection. If someone defies it and says, “I am perfectly happy playing with mud pies, or sports cars, or money, or sex, or power,” we can only ask, “Are you, really?”

But we can only appeal, we cannot compel. And we can refer such a person to the nearly universal testimony of human history in all its great literature. Even the atheist Jean-Paul Sartre admitted that “there comes a time when one asks, even of Shakespeare, even of Beethoven, ‘Is that all there is?'”

Finally, the conclusion:

The conclusion of the argument is not that everything the Bible tells us about God and life with God is really so. What it proves is an unknown X, but an unknown whose direction, so to speak, is known. This X is more: more beauty, more desirability, more awesomeness, more joy. This X is to great beauty as, for example, great beauty is to small beauty or to a mixture of beauty and ugliness. And the same is true of other perfections.

But the “more” is infinitely more, for we are not satisfied with the finite and partial. Thus the analogy (X is to great beauty as great beauty is to small beauty) is not proportionate. Twenty is to ten as ten is to five, but infinity is not to twenty as twenty is to ten. The argument points down an infinite corridor in a definite direction. Its conclusion is not “God” as already conceived or defined, but a moving and mysterious X which pulls us to itself and pulls all our images and concepts out of themselves.

In other words, the only concept of God in this argument is the concept of that which transcends concepts, something “no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived” (1 Cor 2:9). In other words, this is the real God.

As usual, C. S Lewis summarizes in a way only he can:

Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for these desires exists. A baby feels hunger; well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim; well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire; well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. (Mere Christianity, Bk. III, chap. 10, “Hope”)

  • Andrew Ryan

    There’s no justification for the first premise. That’s problem one, and it’s a fatal one to the argument.

    Tangentially, not everyone has this desire – some non-theists are quite satisfied with what they have on earth.

    Finally, perhaps a sense of always wanting more is simply what drives us as a species – it’s an advantage to always want more as it pushes us to do better. Without it capitalism would falter. No different to dogs always wanting to eat.

  • Do you have an example of an innate/natural desire that does not correspond to a real object?

  • Andrew Ryan

    Do you? Wanting to keep living is just desiring to keep as you are. Wanting to live forever is just ‘not wanting to die’, which is a fairly essential desire! And I don’t see why I need to offer an example – lack of an example doesn’t prove the premise. The premise is simply unsupported.

  • Hmmm. The premise is supported by nearly universal human experience. We are hungry; there is food. We are tired; there is sleep. We want to have sex; there is sex.

    For every natural desire we have as humans, there is a real object of that desire. So when you say that the premise is wrong, then you need to come up with some natural desires that have no real object.

  • Alex

    Greetings, Bill. This argument seems to be a twist on the ontological argument:

    We can imagine X. Therefore, X exists.
    We innately desire X. Therefore, X exists.

    “No one has ever found one case of an innate desire for a nonexistent object.”

    Unless just such a universal innate desire was for communion with a higher power that does *not* in fact exist. In which case the argument begs the question. Seems to me that P1 is unsupported without first proving the existence of God, which is what the argument itself sets out to do.

    And this must be done to support P1, else the non-existence of God would be a defeater to P1, even if we accepted the dubious notion of a desire for communion with God to be a universally innate human desire. Even sex isn’t universal to human experience; asexual people have no interest in it.

  • Another way to state your point of view is that you think P1 is false because you do in fact think you know of a universal innate desire which has no real object – the desire for experience of the transcendent.

    You already “know” that the transcendent doesn’t exist, so you reject P1 for that reason.

    But that’s exactly why I said that this argument doesn’t work for the atheist, because the atheist has already concluded that God doesn’t exist. Because of that conclusion, any premise in any argument that gives evidence for God or leads logically to God will be rejected as false.

    It is only a person who is aware of the desire of the transcendent, and who has not made up their mind about the existence of the transcendent, that this argument will have an effect on.

  • Andrew Ryan

    Bill, you’ve not addressed the logic of Alex’s argument. It stands on it’s own regardless of Alex’s beliefs or anyone else’s. Therefore his refutation of the argument from desire can be accepted by anyone, regardless of whether they are aware of the desire for the descendant or not. His argument doesn’t rely on such a desire not existing anyway.

  • Alex

    Well, if you’re only looking for an arguments that will appeal to people that already agree with you, that seems odd but I’ll accept it. But that does raise the question in my mind of why one would create an argument only fit for an echo-chamber?

    I don’t think I need to say that I know (or even have an opinion) that God doesn’t exist for my critique to carry weight. It only need be *not yet proved* that God exists for my rebuttal to work. For if it *were* false, it would undermine the argument. But if it’s merely unproved (say, for an agnostic, or even a skeptical theist), it renders P1 (“EVERY natural, innate desire”) unsupported. However, watering down this premise to ‘most’ instead of ‘every’ would make the argument invalid, which doesn’t help at all.

    If an argument is incapable of convincing even an undecided person, I’m struggling to find a reason for why one would advance it at all.

  • Alex

    I could actually go further, and say that as it stands, this isn’t necessarily even an argument for the existence of God. It could just as easily be an argument for Plato’s Heaven.

    Abstracta are neither in time, nor on Earth, nor creaturely, yet many of us (philosophical intellectuals, chiefly) feel a powerful ‘draw’ towards ‘communion’ with these concepts like The Good and The Just. Nothing in the current wording of the argument requires that this communion be a personal one; merely a metaphorical one.

    Mathematical platonism seems to be ‘in’ among philosophers of mathematics (and many mathematicians, too). I don’t subscribe, but I can see how easy it would be to be sympathetic to it.

  • This actually isn’t complicated. You think you already know that transcendent desires don’t have a corresponding real object (because you don’t think the transcendent exists), before you ever came to this argument. Therefore you will simply reject premise 1 out of hand and this argument will never work with you.

    The argument will be persuasive to people who haven’t already decided that the transcendent doesn’t exist. Those who are simply agnostic about it or haven’t given it much thought will find the argument to be interesting.

    This is not to appeal to people that already agree with me. This is to appeal to people who haven’t closed off their mind to the existence of the transcendent.

    Again, that is why I specifically said that science-worshipping atheists (who generally reject outright the possible existence of anything transcendent) will not be persuaded.

    However, the argument does weaken your position, because your denial of premise 1, based on you claiming that there is one natural desire that doesn’t have a real object, seems very ad hoc! You admit that every other natural desire seems to have a real object. You conveniently exclude the one desire that leads to the transcendent. That doesn’t look good.

  • Andrew refused to give me an example of a natural desire that does not have a real object. Can you give me one?

  • Alex

    Hi Bill. (I didn’t really want to write a book in this comment but it couldn’t be helped).

    “You think you already know that transcendent desires don’t have a corresponding real object”

    This is not only false (as I mentioned in the Plato’s Heaven comment), but irrelevant. The criticism works so long as that ‘corresponding object’ is unproved, which it must be if it’s going to be included by the word ‘every’ in P1. This would be true *if I am an agnostic or even a theist*. This isn’t about convenience for me, but about rigour. There’s few things I dislike more than bad arguments for positions I agree with 🙂

    I’ll attempt to illustrate what I mean incase I’ve not been careful enough in previous comments:

    “P1: Every natural, innate desire in us corresponds to some real object that can satisfy that desire.” [emphasis mine]

    In order for this to be plausible, it must be justified (as Kreeft has attempted to do by defending it).

    Justifications for P1:
    J1 – Desire for food: food exists BRD (beyond reasonable doubt)
    J2 – Desire for sex: sex exists BRD
    J3 – Desire for sleep: sleep exists BRD
    J^n – Desire for God: God’s existence *not known BRD*.

    J^n does not need to be assumed nor proved false for P1 to be false, just remain merely unproved beyond a reasonable doubt. It renders P1 unjustified. The addition of J^n to J1-3 requires the proponent of P1 to prove too much – and beg the question to do it.

    Furthermore, as Andrew pointed out the desire to commune with the transcendent is not a universal innate desire. Humans exist who do not possess it, and don’t feel any the worse for it. This suggests it belongs in the category of cultural, rather than innate natural desires. Just because we have a word for godlessness and not Ozlessness doesn’t mean anything; we could invent one, as you just did. A lack of food, water, sex, sleep, friendship have very acute short and long-term detrimental effects on us. But the lack of spiritual commune has no comparable universal (or even near-universal) effect – at least in this life. If a desire for God is not innate, then J^n is removed and P1 is true. But then the argument doesn’t work anymore.

    From Kreeft’s argument above, little has been provided in way of evidence that this is innate as opposed to cultural, aside from an assertion to that effect. The addition of the words ‘honest introspection’ poisons the well by implying that anyone who disagrees with spiritual desire being innate is guilty of dishonesty, or self-delusion. That’s not only uncharitable, but a sneaky ad hominem. Intuition of the faithful is put forward as the only justification for P2, but the contrary intuitions of the unfaithful are discarded as dishonest. I’m willing to grant that this isn’t done maliciously, but it’s an inherent danger in building an argument upon an intuition that’s allegedly universally shared, when it is not.

    When Sarte asks “Is that all there is?”, a reasonable reply can be “Yes! That may be all there is”. Rhetorical questions can look so profound until one actually answers them. It’s not the most emotionally satisfying answer if we’re afraid of our eventual annihilation, but it’s not an absurd answer either. There’s also a sampling bias at work here when drawing upon historical literature to evidence the ‘honest introspection’ point, as it will be heavily skewed in the favour of theism since it’s been so dangerous to be a nonbeliever for most of history.

    I need not be a ‘science-worshipping atheist’ to make these points, not least of all since they are philosophical in nature. Nor am I incapable of changing my mind in response to a good argument. This just isn’t one of those arguments.

  • Alex

    I need not do so. I can assent that P1 is true, but deny that a desire for the transcendent is innate. It’s an empirical claim after all, and the existence of people who lack such a desire are numerous – and happy.

  • There are also people who have no desire for food or sex. Would you say, then, that there is not a universal desire for food and sex among human beings?

  • Alex

    As a logical point, yes. It’s not shared by all humans, and so is not universal in the strong sense of the word (relating to or done by all people or things in the world or in a particular group; applicable to all cases). But then, few things if any would be; 23 pairs of chromosomes isn’t even universal, and that defines us as a species if anything does!

    However, those without a hunger reflex are very specific medical outliers with a recognised congenital defect, hyperinsulinism. And asexuality can have either a medical basis (controversial, but sexuality is clearly realised in the brain *somehow*) or be one of many orientations on the spectrum of human sexuality (the prefered view by the asexual community). They too apparently feel no worse for their lack of desire.

    Seems to me that neither of these is in the same weight class as a desire for the transcendent. The above two cases represent fringe outliers, and possibly of a medical nature (definitely so for hyperinsulinism). Congenital hyperinsulinism effects one in 50,000 newborns. Asexual people make up roughly 1-2% of the population. Non-belief in the supernatural is as high as 18% of the world population. That’s hardly a fringe outlier; it’s a sizeable minority.

    Furthermore, to compare them might invite one to treat non-theism as a ‘disease’ to be ‘cured’, which is hardly flattering, and definitely insulting.

  • Andrew Ryan

    “Andrew refused to give me an example of a natural desire that does not have a real object.”

    As Alex points out, we don’t need to give one. You can’t say “Whales aren’t mammals because all mammals are smaller than a house”, and then say the only defeater of the argument is if I show you another mammal larger than a house.

    You have to show that the rule is a good one first. Even if we DO allow that the desire IS a natural one, it could well be the only desire that doesn’t have a real object. You can’t just assume that the rule is true.

  • 18% of the world population? I think not. More like 5% of the world population, if that. And, if we leave out the communist nations (China, in particular) that have actively sought to eradicate the belief in the supernatural in their populations in the 20th and 21st centuries, the number probably drops to 1-2%. If 100 billion have ever lived on the earth, maybe a couple billion of those didn’t believe in the supernatural.

    Therefore, desire for the transcendent is just as innate and universal to human beings as desire for food and sex. Surely you are aware of recent research that seems to show that religious beliefs seem to be built into the DNA of human beings. We are programmed to desire the transcendent.

    Therefore, for you to argue that desire for sex and food are universal, but desire for the transcendent is not, is simply false. Get outside of your closed community of atheist friends, and go travel around the rest of the world. You will find a desire for the transcendent everywhere.

    If you could travel back in time, you would also see that desire for the transcendent is universal to humans of all eras.

    Just read poetry, literature, philosophy. Watch movies and TV shows. Humans are obsessed with the transcendent. I just don’t see how this can be denied.

  • Alex

    Closed community? Trying to poison that well again I see! I’m happily married to a Christian. Her family are fervent Pentacostals. My family are lapsed Catholics. I count among my friends an observant Muslim and an agnostic convert to Judaism. I’ve travelled this world and seen its wonders. None of which is logically relevant to honest disbelief in the transcendent.

    I did not claim that it was 18%, only that it “is as high as 18%”, if we include those who profess no belief alongside those that actively disbelieve. It may very well be only 1-2%, which is just fine to make my point; even 1% of 7 billion is 70 million people. That’s not an insignificant number.

    Allow me to state this plainly: is it your contention that as many as 70 million people worldwide are self-deluded, or being intentionally dishonest – myself included?

  • Andrew Ryan

    “If 100 billion have ever lived on the earth, maybe a couple billion of those didn’t believe in the supernatural.”

    For thousands of years before the practice of rigorous science, the supernatural was the only explanation man had for all sorts of things.

    This doesn’t mean supernatural beliefs are innate, any more than belief in geocentrism was innate for millennia before Copernicus.

    Let’s leave aside China or North Korea. Plenty of European countries have non-supernatural belief well into the double figures, and some are as high as 30%+ not being believers. This is certainly significant. Further, these are not countries with a history of stamping down religion – in fact many have a state religion!

    If it’s innate, why is it so correlated with upbringing, education and other similar factors?

  • You said that a desire for the transcendent is not a universal human desire. I said that it is.

    You said the reason that it is not a universal desire is that up to 18% of people don’t believe in the supernatural (which I take to be equivalent to a desire for the transcendent).

    I said that your numbers are far too high and that all but 1-2% of all the people who ever lived have believed in the supernatural (and had a desire for the transcendent).

    In fact, many of the people who don’t believe in the supernatural still have a desire for the transcendent, as evidenced by numerous atheists who say that they wish God existed, but they simply can’t believe it for various reasons (Jean Paul Sartre being a prime example).

    So, getting back to the argument from desire, it seems that a desire for the transcendent is as close to a universal desire among human beings as you can find.

    So, what do I make of people who deny they have this desire? If I assume they are not purposefully deceiving me, it’s one of two things. They either really do have the desire, but they’re deceiving themselves about it, or they really don’t have the desire, and they’re like the person who doesn’t desire food or sex. There’s just something about their physical/psychological/mental makeup that leaves them without the desire.

    Without knowing you, I have no idea which camp you fall into, so I can’t make any judgments about you.

  • As I said to Alex, you have to remember that lack of belief in the supernatural does not mean that a person does not have a desire for the transcendent. There are many atheists who still desire the transcendent, but have decided it does not exist.

    Also, as we’ve discussed many times, there are plenty of people who say they don’t know if God exists, or claim not to be a part of an organized religion, but who still see themselves as spiritual in some way.

    Those people who flatly say that there is no God and no supernatural are still a tiny minority. Vocal, but tiny.

  • Andrew Ryan

    As I pointed out, in Europe it’s not a tiny minority at all. In some areas not even a minority, let alone a tiny one.

    I can desire all sorts of things that don’t exist. A winning lottery ticket in my back pocket. Peace in the Middle East. The ability to teleport…

  • Kreeft distinguishes between natural and artificial desires in the post.