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C.S. Lewis and the Argument from Desire

Arguing that our Desire for God Proves that God Exists

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One of the earliest arguments offered by C.S. Lewis for believing in the existence of God can be labeled the “Argument from Desire.” According to Lewis and other apologists, every desire is necessarily a desire for something, and every natural desire must have some object that will satisfy it. Since humans desire the joy and experience of God, therefore there must be a God that will satisfy our desires.

Various forms of this argument appear as early as The Pilgrim's Regress (1933), but perhaps the most concise explanation of his position appears in The Weight of Glory (1949):

    “A man’s physical hunger does not prove that man will get any bread; he may die of starvation on a raft in the Atlantic. But surely a man’s hunger does prove that he comes of a race which repairs its body by eating and inhabits a world where eatable substances exist. In the same way, though I do not believe (I wish I did) that my desire for Paradise proves that I shall enjoy it, I think it a pretty good indication that such a thing exists and that some men will. A man may love a woman and not win her; but it would be very odd if the phenomenon called “falling in love” occurred in a sexless world.”

It is true that every desire is a desire for something, but it does not automatically follow that every desire is a desire for something that actually exists. Lewis does not explain why it’s not possible that some desires may in fact be desires that are in vain. People may desire any number of imaginary and impossible things — how many people desire the ability to fly or the ability to read minds?

The quoted passage above attempts to side-step some objections by restricting itself to “natural” desires, but it doesn’t accomplish what Lewis has in mind. First, it’s not clear what a “natural” desire really is. We might distinguish natural from unnatural desires by saying natural ones are those which are fulfilled in nature (like hunger), but that would simply beg the question.

Furthermore, Lewis is simply wrong that our desire for something can prove that it exists. We can’t prove the existence of food by the fact that we are hungry; instead, we prove it by finding edible things. Fear of the dark doesn’t prove the existence of malevolent ghosts; finding ghosts would. Desire for paradise and God doesn’t prove that they exist; actually finding them would. Thus, Lewis’ analogy between hunger and paradise fails because the logical connection doesn’t exist.

We cannot legitimately conclude that desire (or “Joy”) has an object merely because we experience desire or Joy. The object we seek might or might not exist, but it is neither logically nor empirically inconsistent to have a desire for which there is no object. Therefore, it’s possible that the desire which some people experience for God or paradise is just as much in vain as the desire which some people have to read minds.

Even C.S. Lewis himself argues against trusting too much in desire and Joy because the sane, rational person must be very suspicious of where moods and emotions might lead:

    “Unless you teach your moods “where they get off,” you can never be either a sound Christian or even a sound atheist, but just a creature dithering to and fro, with its beliefs really dependent on the weather and the state of its digestion.”

The C.S. Lewis of this passage would insist that we regard our inner states, including desires and Joy, with suspicion — if not discount them entirely. The C.S. Lewis who argues for a rational acceptance of Christianity cannot also argue for accepting Christianity because our emotions incline us to do so. This is just one of many instances where Lewis adopts contradictory positions based upon whatever will serve his goal best. He doesn’t have a coherent and consistent apologetic.

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