This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 41, number 02 (2018). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
Though C. S. Lewis is better known for the Trilemma, the Moral Argument, and the Argument from Reason, his most characteristic argument may actually be the Argument from Desire. It was, after all, the experience of “joy,” the intense longing aroused by inexplicable beauty, that drove Lewis to his conversion in such a way that he calls it “the central story of my life.”1 He called “joy” an unsatisfied desire better than any other having.2 He did not so much conclude directly from the experience of having this desire that God exists; rather, it was what kept him from being comfortable in atheism until other arguments (such as Tolkien’s argument that Christ is the fulfillment of human mythology) led to his conversion. His atheism was never able successfully to explain the fullness of his aesthetic and emotional life.
Joy, or “sweet desire,” kept Lewis from being comfortable as an atheist, but it did not in itself lead him to Christ. He tells us his conversion was not the direct result of his unfulfilled desires: for all he knew, “the total rejection” of “joy” might have been “one of the demands” of his new faith.3 Once he had come to faith, he went back and reconsidered past experiences to articulate more clearly how they function as one of the “signposts” he now understood.4
The fruit of that articulation is the Argument from Desire. It is given in its simplest form in Mere Christianity: “Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those 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.”5
Though Peter S. Williams and Gregory Bassham discuss several versions of the argument — deductive, inductive, and so on6 — it is clear that Lewis’s argument is not a deductive proof but an argument to the best (most probable) explanation, that is, abductive. What needs explanation is this apparently unsatisfiable desire. It needs explanation because all other natural desires we encounter do seem to have appropriate objects. Why would this one craving be an exception? Lewis asks, in effect, what if it is not?
The argument assumes two states of affairs that could themselves be questioned. First, is the existence of a desire in fact evidence for the existence of its object? Lewis answers that being hungry doesn’t prove you will be fed, but it does prove that you have a body that needs nourishment and that presumably some kind of food exists. Therefore, the desire for paradise does not prove you are going to go there, but it does seem to indicate that such a thing exists.7 I think Lewis’s answer so far is good, if in fact people have a desire for paradise. And that leads to the other question.
Do people actually experience a real desire that no finite temporal thing can satisfy? Lewis thinks they do. Suppose your desire is awakened by the beauty of the hillside you see in the distance. What will happen if you go there? “An easy experiment will show that by going to the far hillside you will get either nothing, or else a recurrence of the same desire which sent you thither.”8 Enough repetitions of this experiment might convince us that either the desire is an illusion, or its fulfillment must be found elsewhere than in the finite world.
Many people deny that they experience any unsatisfiable desire. Either they have found satisfactions that seem good enough, or they are confident that if they just keep looking, they will. They may have repressed the desire, or they may still be trying to satisfy it with available objects. What is over the next hill, the proverbial green grass on the other side of the fence, they tell themselves, will satisfy. They think the satisfaction simply is deferred for now. How do we know they are wrong? We cannot prove that the next experience will not satisfy this seeker, but at a certain point, we are right to question whether one more attempt will yield a different result. Which is the better explanation?
Only when a person who has experienced this misplaced desire reckons in honesty with the fact that this final finding is just not going to happen in this world is this person ready to consider the conclusion Lewis reached:
If a man followed this desire, pursuing all the false objects until their falsity appeared and then resolutely abandoning them, he must come out at last into the clear knowledge that the human soul was made to enjoy some object that is never fully given — nay, cannot even be imagined as given — in our present mode of subjective and spatio-temporal experience.…And if nature makes nothing in vain, the One who can sit in this chair must exist.9
There are a few weaknesses contained in the Argument from Desire. First, for people who deny having had the relevant experience, it is simply beside the point. Many of them may have had that experience and do not recognize it, or they may be in denial about the impossibility of satisfying their deepest desires with temporal objects, but it would not be possible to prove that this is true of all of them — that would involve proving a negative. And even for those really in denial, the argument will have neither interest nor force. Even if it is valid, it will compel people who have not only had but also recognize themselves as having had the relevant experience.
Second, as Bassham notes, from the mere existence of unsatisfied desire, it does not strictly follow that the object that supposedly exists for it is a god of any kind, much less the Christian God. One could spin the same facts equally to support the Buddhist notion that desire is the source of suffering, and that therefore the wise course is to follow the Eightfold Path to eliminate desire. Bassham is correct to point out that connecting the argument specifically to God “requires a further and perhaps more difficult argument…that Lewis does not provide.”10 At least, he does not provide it as part of the Argument from Desire itself.
I would argue that the Argument from Desire does have value in spite of these weaknesses, especially if we view it in the context of Lewis’s other arguments. Lewis was too wise to claim that in itself it proves the existence of the Christian God. Recall his language: “most probable explanation”…“pretty good indication.” But it does do what an abductive argument is supposed to do: it makes sense of a common human experience and points to the likely existence of something that is compatible with Christian theism and Christian fulfillment. Such desire is, in other words, one more aspect of human experience that makes perfectly good sense if Christianity is true, and presents a very difficult problem if it is not.
For those who recognize in themselves the experience Lewis is describing, then, the Argument from Desire can help to turn that experience into a signpost, into one more reason to follow the arrow toward the destination to which it points. The Argument from Desire does not prove the existence of God by itself, nor does it claim to. But for some, it can help to confirm the many other arguments to the best explanation that point to the same conclusion.
One conclusion might be that the Argument from Desire just doesn’t work with a certain type of person. Can a person be too emotionally undeveloped, or perhaps jaded, to be susceptible? Solomon tells us that “God has set eternity in their hearts” (Eccl. 3:11 NASB). Either Scripture is wrong, or the denial of transcendent desire is a smokescreen — a defense mechanism designed to protect dwarfish atheists from reality.11 They are, like the Narnian dwarfs of The Last Battle who insist that Aslan’s country is a dirty stable and that violets are stable litter, too afraid of being taken in to be taken out of the prisons of their own limited thinking.
People who are still authentically human are not in fact fully satisfied by the temporal and physical, however hard they try to convince themselves that they are. But you probably can’t argue them out of their position. You can only try to arouse the desire, to fan it to the point where they cannot ignore it anymore. And the best way to do that might be just to live a life of transcendent openness to joy before them. If you can get them to read Thomas Traherne’s Five Centuries of Meditation, it wouldn’t hurt.
Things unknown have a secret influence on the soul, and like the center of the earth unseen violently attract it. We love we know not what, and therefore everything allures us.…Do you not feel yourself drawn by the expectation of some Great Thing?…Infinite wants satisfied produce infinite joys.…You must want like a God that you may be satisfied like God. Were you not made in his image?12
Lewis learned the argument from desire from Augustine’s Trinity-shaped vacuum and his heart that was “restless until it rests in Thee,” as developed by Traherne, George Herbert, and George MacDonald. The argument will have a certain logical cogency for those in whose hearts desire has been aroused sufficiently. The best service those earlier writers — and Lewis himself — can do us is perhaps just to fan that flame.
Donald T. Williams, PhD, is R. A. Forrest Scholar at Toccoa Falls College and past president of the International Society of Christian Apologetics. His most recent books are Deeper Magic: The Theology behind the Writings of C. S. Lewis (Square Halo Books, 2016), and “An Encouraging Thought”: The Christian Worldview in the Writings of J. R. R. Tolkien (Christian Publishing House, 2018).
- C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1955), 17.
- Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 17–18.
- Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 230.
- Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 238.
- C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: MacMillan, 1960), 120.
- In C. S. Lewis’s Christian Apologetics: Pro and Con, ed. Gregory Bassham (Leiden, Netherlands: Rodopi, 2015), 27–74.
- C. S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory,” The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, ed. Walter Hooper (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1980), 32–33.
- C. S. Lewis, The Pilgrim’s Regress: An Allegorical Apology for Christianity, Reason, and Romanticism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1960), 9.
- C. S. Lewis, The Pilgrim’s Regress, 10.
- Bassham, C. S. Lewis’s Christian Apologetics, 51.
- C. S. Lewis, The Last Battle (New York: HarperTrophy, 1986), 185–86.
- Quoted in Alexander M. Witherspoon and Frank J. Warnke, Seventeenth-Century Prose and Poetry, 2nd ed. (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982), 694, 696, 698.