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The existence of God: the argument from desire

August 7, 2011

In a comment to my last post I encountered an argument for the existence of God that I hadn’t seen before. Without any further preamble, here is the argument as presented in a link supplied by the commenter:

  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.
  4. This something is what people call “God” and “life with God forever.”

This is the “argument from desire”. It is, in my opinion, philosophically weak.

Consider the first premise, that every natural desire has some “real object” that can satisfy it. If by “object” the argument refers to an actual thing, then this is trivially false. Consider tiredness, a natural, innate desire for sleep. There is no object “sleep” that comes along and satisfies this desire. Instead we find ourselves in a state in which the desire is satisfied. This kind of natural desire is therefore distinct from “natural desire that have objects that satisfy them” (think of hunger – this has an object that satisfies it, namely food), but the argument cannot make this distinction without begging the question.

So straight from the get-go a refinement is necessary to the argument, in that we have to specify instead that:

1a. Every natural, innate desire in us can be satisfied.

Even this requires justification. Is it really true that every natural desire can be satisfied? Who is to say that by pointing out the supposed natural desire in premise 2 we haven’t identified a natural desire that can’t be satisfied. We would have to be able to show that it would be impossible for there to be a natural desire that isn’t capable of being satisfied. I’m not sure how this could be done.

Premise 2  is basically referring to a desire for “something more”. It assumes that this desire is universale (innate) and also that it cannot be satisfied by a “real” object, a thing. But what if it was capable of being satisfied by finding ourselves in an appropriate state? I’m pretty sure the state that I find myself in every time I go sailing qualifies. Of course religious people would argue that I’m not really satisfied then, but then that would be to beg the question by saying that there exists this thing called God before we even get past the premises. I will skip questions of the universality of this desire – how you’d establish it I don’t know. It is enough to note that premises 1a and 2 cannot be used to prove the existence on a thing

Now, the conclusion at 3. If the desire in question was satisfied by finding ourselves in an appropriate state then there would be no need to reference God at all in the argument – I therefore take it to be the case that God must (in the argument at least…) correspond in some way to an object that can satisfy our desires. He is the bread that satisfies our hunger. So, how do we know that, in cases of natural desire that are satisfied by an object that the object in question exists? We go out and find it. I know hunger can be satisfied because I can hold bread in my hands, I know thirst can be satisfied because I just saw water falling from the sky. No such process is undergone at any point of this argument, and without firmly establishing premise 1a (or 1 I guess), no similar conclusion can be drawn.

Conclusion 4 is barely worth mentioning, with it’s echoes of Aquinas. Fine, people call this abstract thing “God”. But it’s not God. It’s the “thing” that satisfies our desire for “more”. You can call it God (of the Abrahamic variety) but that doesn’t make it so. I’m sure it’s argued that this argument is intended to make belief in the Christian God more reasonable, not to establish his existent, but then why include what is so obviously a bad last step?

There are a few more arguments that could be made that try to establish that the argument begs the question, but I don’t think they’re necessarily as solid as the points I’ve made above, so I think this is as good a place as any to stop. Conclusion: the argument is flawed.

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