Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Argument from Desire by C.S. Lewis

In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis sought to reason his way to God’s existence by offering Christians his Argument from Desire. As he put it: 

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")
Christian apologist Peter Kreeft explains that this argument can only be understood by first noting the difference between natural desires (for things like food, sex, and beauty) and artificial desires (for things like cars, political office, and the Land of Oz).[i] Kreeft also explains that “the natural desires come from within, from our nature, while the artificial ones come from without, from society, advertising or fiction.” He further points out that “the 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.”[ii] 

 Yet both Lewis and Kreeft overlook a number of fundamental problems with this argument. For example, they both fail to clarify whether our desire for “infinitely more” is a natural or artificial desire, and more importantly, whether such a desire is proof of a soul longing for Heaven or simply the stain of original sin that leads us to continually seek “infinitely more.” It was the latter, after all, that led to both the fall of Satan from Heaven and the banishment of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. Indeed, even old King David was a victim of his desires of always wanting more. 

Second, they overlook how Christianity often uses artificial desires to promise its customers an everlasting fulfillment of their natural desires. It does this by first creating its own version of the Land of Oz (i.e., Heaven) and then promising those who are fortunate enough to reach it (i.e. God’s “elect”), that all of their desires, “which no experience in this world can satisfy,” will be satisfied. There is no evidence to prove that such desires will be satisfied in Heaven, however, and plenty of evidence to suspect that they won’t.  Just look at the story of Satan and his minions, or the story of Adam and Eve. 

Satan was God’s original angelic all-star. In Isaiah 14:12-15 and Ezekiel 28:12-15, for example, he is described as “an exceedingly beautiful angel,” and “likely the highest of all angels.” Yet despite being “the most beautiful of all of God's creations,” Satan was still “not content in his position” in Heaven.  So, like anyone who ever spent too much time in a middle management position, he tried to climb the corporate ladder.  He was rewarded for his efforts, so the story goes, by being summarily fired from the business of building a lesser world. And he wasn’t the only one. 

The ranks of Satan’s minions soon swelled with the mass exodus of angels who all seemed to regard Heaven as a kind of Egypt of Everlasting Servitude. And the fact that all of them choose to be roasted alive for all of eternity in a “lake of fire,” as it says in Revelation 20:10, rather than be forced to go back, may only demonstrate not how stubborn they were, but just how truly unsatisfying a place Heaven can sometimes be. And if so many angels, including “the highest of all angels,” failed to find satisfaction in Heaven, why is Lewis so sure that we lowly human beings would be able to find it there?  Indeed, Adam and Eve never did.

According to one interpretation of Genesis, Adam and Eve were both immortal and living in the equivalent of Heaven already, in the Garden of Eden. Yet despite the fact that their “immortal longings” were already satisfied[iii], they still had a “longing” to “experience” what it would be like to “be like God.” For if they were truly satisfied with their eternal paradise to begin with, then why did they eat the apple? Some people claim it was because they had “free will,” and with that free will, they impermissibly wanted to “become like God.” But the very act of wanting to become like God is itself an example of the desire for “infinitely more.” Although the choice may have been “free,” in other words, it was the desire for “infinitely more” that prompted it.

The third problem with this argument is that it provides a cure for the very desire it relies on. That is, it provides at least some satisfaction - through the ‘worldly experience’ of religious faith - to the very thing Lewis claims “no experience in this world can satisfy.” It does this by curing the longing for “infinitely more” with the religious belief that we will one day have “infinitely more,” once we get to Heaven and, as both Lewis and the Serpent in Eden put it, we “become like God.” 

Lastly, both Lewis and Kreeft fail to notice how the “natural desires” that we experience as mortals would all become “artificial desires” if we were immortals, because such desires would no longer be “natural” to an eternal soul. They similarly fail to notice how the “artificial desires,” for things like money and power, are actually the “natural desires” of entities like corporations, governments, and religions. Hence, a desire that is “artificial” to a single person is one that is often “natural” to a collection of people. As food is to the individual, in other words, so money is to a religion, political party, or even an empire.  That such entities can only acquire the one by first exploiting our desire for the other is probably why the existentialist philosopher and theologian Paul Tillich said that institutionalized religion is demonic. 

Contrary to what Lewis and Kreeft argue, however, our desire for “more” is not necessarily proof that we were made for an eternal afterlife. Instead, it may simply be the means by which nature compels the human species to propagate itself to a higher level of evolution. But whatever the case, the desire for “infinitely more” is certainly not proof that every single person on the planet wants to join the Cullen’s family and live forever on the blood of Christ. It only proves how a religious belief can profit from the ethos of Wall Street bankers by turning the dreams of avarice into the promises of Heaven. 

[ii] Id.
[iii] C.S. Lewis, “Heaven.” In The Problem of Pain, 148-159. 1940. (Reprint, New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2001) 151

Religion is a disease masquerading as it’s own cure.