Fr. Robert Barron’s article about C.S. Lewis and the “argument from desire” sports the title “C. S. Lewis’s Achy Breaky Soul”. I have absolutely no idea why, nor am I about to look up the lyrics of “Achy Breaky Heart” in order to figure it out. Some mysteries are better left unexplored.
That aside, Fr. Barron, writing1 at RealClearReligion, wishes to convince us that Mr. Lewis had it right when he made the “argument from desire” “the cornerstone of his religious philosophy and the still-point around which much of his fiction turned.”
What, precisely, is this argument from desire? It is the contention that “Every innate or natural desire corresponds to some objective state of affairs that fulfills it. Now we all have an innate or natural desire for ultimate fulfillment, ultimate joy, which nothing in this world can possibly satisfy.2 Therefore, there must exist objectively a supernatural condition that grounds perfect fulfillment and happiness, which people generally refer to as ‘God.’”
Both Fr. Barron and C.S. Lewis attempt to conjure a divine reality (God) by claiming an “innate or natural” human desire for something (“ultimate joy”) only God can provide.3 They then compare that desire to our innate natural desires for food, for something to drink, or for sex: every one of those desires has, in this world, some objective correlative that satisfies it; even though, at any given moment, satisfaction may not be at hand, the fact remains that life is so structured that those innate desires can at least in theory find fulfillment. We are not so made, the argument runs, as to have desires that cannot be satisfied.
Now, Fr. Barron properly notes that this argument is not disposed of by pointing out that my desire to have a million dollars doesn’t mean that I will therefore get a million dollars; in that case, my real desire would be for “wealth” and “wealth” in fact exists, whether I manage to obtain it or not, QED. The point isn’t that all our specific desires will be satisfied, but that proper satisfactions for our basic desires do exist and can, at least in theory, be attained.
Fr. Barron differentiates between “natural” and “internal” desires, on the one hand, and “external” and “psychologically contrived” on the other hand ("socially conditioned" would be another way to put it); we can also speak of “first-order” and “second-order” desires, of which only the first-order (say, a desire for food or drink) ones are innate, whereas second-order ones (say, a desire for bacon or beer) are provisional and contingent.
Fr. Barron explains:
Desires of the first type do indeed correspond to, and infallibly indicate, the existence of the states of affairs that will fulfill them: hunger points to the objective existence of food, thirst to the objective existence of drink, sexual longing to the objective existence of the sexual act, etc. And this is much more than a set of correspondences that simply happen to be the case; the correlation is born of the real participation of the desire in its object. The phenomenon of hunger is unthinkable apart from food, since the stomach is "built" for food; the phenomenon of sexual desire is unthinkable apart from the reality of sex, since the dynamics of that desire are ordered toward the sexual act. By its very structure, the mind already participates in truth.
So it is, claims Fr. Barron, with our (alleged) desire for perfect fulfillment and happiness; there must be some “proper object” which can satisfy it, and that object is God:
So what kind of desire is the desire for perfect fulfillment? Since it cannot be met by any value within the world, it must be a longing for truth, goodness, beauty, and being in their properly unconditioned form. But the unconditioned, by definition, must transcend any limit that we might set to it. It cannot, therefore, be merely subjective, for such a characterization would render it not truly unconditioned...In a word, the longing for God participates in God, much as hunger participates in food. And thus, precisely in the measure that the desire under consideration is an innate and natural desire, it does indeed prove the existence of its proper object.
The problem with the argument from desire is that the premise is unproven at best: there is no evidence at all that human beings “have an innate or natural desire” for “ultimate fulfillment”. I’m certainly not aware of having any such desire, nor do has anyone ever expressed such a desire to me. What do phrases like “ultimate fulfillment” or “perfect fulfillment” or “ultimate joy” even mean? And how could finite, limited creatures have any desires for eternity or for perfection, things (if they even exist) we can’t truly comprehend?
There are indeed innate, natural human desires: from the moment of birth, for instance, babies have an innate natural desire for food and for drink. They may have other innate natural desires as well: desires for warmth, touch, comfort, etc. But I know of no studies showing that a desire for “ultimate joy” exists in human beings who have not been taught the concept—or, more precisely, taught the words.
Because, like the “ontological proof of God’s existence,” the “argument from desire” amounts to nothing more than words: both arguments are a form of magical thinking. Fr. Barron and C.S. Lewis have fallen prey to what Wittgenstein called “the bewitchment of language” and to what is more prosaically known as the fallacy of reification: they have mistaken language for reality.4 In using words like “ultimate,” “infinite,” and “perfect” to fancifully describe the objects of our desires, they have persuaded themselves that the vague concepts to which such words refer (perfect fulfillment, ultimate joy, perfect happiness, etc.) must actually exist. In this case, Fr. Barron and Mr. Lewis not only reify the words, they go on to claim that the concepts are instantiated by something they call “God”: “God,” of course, being just one more word we use to denote what we can neither truly conceive nor articulate.5
Words are a means of communication, not a guarantee of reality; human beings are perfectly capable of using words for things that don’t exist (or so I was told by my spirit guide, a three-eyed unicorn from the planet Confusia). We speak of “perfection” but we don’t really know what (or if) perfection is; we speak of “eternal life” but we don’t really know what (or if) eternal life is. Putting words like “perfect” and “ultimate” next to the word “desires” doesn’t lift those desires into the realm of the supernatural; they remain, like everything else about us, utterly natural. We have no “unconditioned” desires and no desires for “unconditioned” truth, beauty, or anything else—because as conditioned and conditional creatures, we’re not capable of such desires. “Perfect” and “ultimate” are words and nothing more—perfectly normal words, in fact, which ultimately prove nothing at all about the fabric of reality.
2 No, we do not; as I go on to argue.
3 “Eternal life” is often cited as one of those natural and innate desires for which satisfaction cannot be met in this world. I should note too that this “argument from desire” is a favorite of Missoula’s own Apologetic Professor, Dr. Luke Conway. He has written about it, and I was no more convinced than I am now by Fr. Barron.
4 The full quote from Wittgenstein is “Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of our language.”
5 Which doesn’t stop clever theologians and metaphysicians from going on at great length about His attributes.