by Jennings Riley
What is it then that this desire and this inability proclaim to us, but that there was once in man a true happiness of which there now remain to him only the mark and empty trace, which he in vain tries to fill from all his surroundings, seeking from things absent the help he does not obtain in things present? But these are all inadequate, because the infinite abyss can only be filled by an infinite and immutable object, that is to say, only by God Himself. – Blaise Pascal, Pensee 435
Natural desires testify to “God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature” (Romans 1:20). Unlike most other theistic proofs, however, the argument from desire does not have the clear conclusion, “therefore God exists.” The argument from desire attempts to show that reality is not limited to the physical world we experience. In other words, desire provides evidence for the immaterial, which is the transcendent. Although transcendence attests to God’s existence, God’s existence is not proved directly by the argument from desire.
The argument from desire begins with the observation that for every natural desire an object exists to satisfy the desire. A natural desire cannot make us hopelessly discontent. Accordingly, if we can identify a natural desire that is fulfilled only by the existence of a particular object, we can prove the existence of that object. As Christians, we believe that every human desires God and can provide evidence to support the belief. Non-theists, however, will probably not accept that they have a natural desire for God. Pascal wrote, “there is enough light for those who only desire to see, and enough obscurity for those who have a contrary disposition” (Pensee 430). For the sake of persuasion, therefore, we ought to use a less controversial desire. C.S. Lewis maintained that human beings experience a natural desire, which cannot be fulfilled by earthly experience. He called the objective of this desire joy. Our pursuits of happiness, purpose, and the good life are attempts to find joy. We always want more of these things and are not content with the amount we currently possess. Great experiences always fall short and are less than hope makes them. We have moments of almost indescribable joy, which we cannot recapture at will. If we accept that every natural desire is satisfiable, however, we must suppose something exists that fulfills the natural desire for joy. Since nothing in this world can satisfy our desire for joy, something must transcend this world.
Although Lewis was undoubtedly a brilliant man, his reasoning is not immune from critique. The notion that human beings naturally have a desire that cannot be fulfilled by the natural world seems far from obvious and needs justification. Similarly, the contention that every natural desire is fulfillable might be criticized, since we plainly possess desires that cannot be fulfilled. For example, I desire to meet Gandalf from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. This does not imply, however, that Gandalf is a real person. Both objections center around the notion of natural desire. Accordingly, we should consider the question, “what is a natural desire?”
Two sorts of desire can be identified, natural and artificial. Artificial desires are based on our environment and society, for example, craving Chick-Fil-A or the newest smartphone. Because people live in different environments, they have different artificial desires. By contrast, natural desires are not produced by any specific culture, class, or experience but from the human condition. Accordingly, natural desires do not change from person to person. They are common to all humanity and arise because of our identity as human beings. We desire food and water because we have bodies. We desire pleasure because we have senses. We desire love because we are relational. We desire knowledge because we are rational. Although the strength of the desire for water might vary from person to person, the desire itself does not. For this reason, we can still appreciate the psalmist’s words “as the deer pants for water, so my soul pants for thee, O God” (Psalm 42:1). The suppression of a desire does not make it less natural. An individual in a desert might suck on a pebble to suppress the desire for water, but the desire for water is indisputably natural. By analogy, although a jaded person might suppress desires for love or joy, those desires remain natural. The suppression of desires because of circumstances does not prove they are artificial.
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