The ontological argument from desire
April 16, 2010 — 9:47

Author: Alexander Pruss  Category: Existence of God Religion and Life  Comments: 13

Augustine says that our hearts are restless until they rest in God. This is a desire for God, but it is not at all explicit, which is why humans restlessly seek after other things, hoping to satisfy the desire, unaware that it is a desire for God. In this way, it is like hunger in a young child: hunger is a desire for food, but the child may only know that she is miserable, and not that what she desires is food. I shall call this kind of desire “deep theological desire”. The argument form now is this:

  1. (Premise) Every desire has an intentional object.
  2. (Premise) If there is no God, deep theological desire has no intentional object.
  3. (Premise) Deep theological desire exists.
  4. Therefore, God exists.

Premise (1) is a consequence of the standard view of desire which entails that a desire is a state that inclines one in the direction of the intentional object. Observe, that the object is only intentional, so one can have desires for non-existent things. (If presentism were true, such desires would be very common.) I am sceptical of aspects of the standard view of desire, but I say that (1) is still correct. Premise (3) is justified by the lived experience of attentive persons like Augustine.

The really controversial assumption is premise (2), and I haven’t said anything in favor of it yet. It would be mistaken to try to derive (2) from some premise like: “The intentional object of a desire has to exist”, since one can desire a golden mountain. In general, it is possible to have desires with non-existent objects. What is special in the theological case?

Here is one line of thought:

  1. (Premise) If there can be no God, deep theological desire has no intentional object.
  2. (Premise) If there is no God, there can be no God.
  3. Therefore, if there is no God, deep theological desire has no intentional object.

The justification of (6) uses S5, God’s necessity and the essentiality of divinity, as in the ontological argument.[note 1]

So now we’re down to having to argue for (5). The general schema for arguments for (5) is this:

  1. (Premise) All desires of type K are such that their intentional object can exist.
  2. (Premise) Deep theological desire has God as an intentional object.
  3. (Premise) Deep theological desire is a desire of type K.
  4. Therefore, if there can be no God, deep theological desire has no intentional object.

Here, “intentional object” is to be broadly understood–it could, for instance, be an event, like being rich, but it could also be a person. In this schema, the argument for (9) is based on the testimony of those persons like Augustine who have made a serious attempt to be attentive to deep theological desire, and who have tried various ways of satisfying the desire, including religious ways.[note 2]

What we now need to do is to identify types K that make both (8) and (10) plausible. Todd Buras and Michael Cantrell have explored (8) (in a slightly different context; they were working with the desire for happiness, and a subsidiary argument that happiness is only possible if there can be a God). They even considered making K include all desires. There is some plausibility to this. After all, a desire motivates one to do actions that promote it. But an impossible object, it seems, is not promoted by anything. An obvious kind of counterexample, though, is a mathematician who desires to prove p, but unbeknownst to her p is in fact false (and hence–we hope–incapable of proof). However, Buras and Cantrell have tried to handle this kind of counterexample by saying that this is more a wish than a desire. However, I think that then the difficulty shifts to (10) (or maybe to (3), if one takes deep theological desire to be a desire by definition): why isn’t deep theological desire a mere wish? I think there are resources for an answer here. A mere wish is conceptually articulated. A desire for food can be deep and unarticulated, but a mere wish seems to be more a creation of language or discursive thought. But deep theological desire is not conceptually articulated, or at least not always so–that is why it is sometimes not recognized as a desire for God. A different move that Buras and Cantrell have tried is to make K be “natural”: all natural desires have possible objects. I think (8) has plausibility then, but (10) has a theological problem for Christians: the desire for God may itself be a gift of grace, and hence not “natural”.

Let me try a different kind of move. Say that a desire is “visceral” provided it is in itself not formulated discursively so its intentional object is not constructed out of other ideas (here, think of how Hume thinks complex ideas are made up of simple ones). Hunger and thirst are visceral. Let K be “visceral”. (Observe that it is normal for people to talk of a hunger or thirst for God, which supports the idea that the desire for God is visceral.) A visceral desire can become the subject of reflection and experimentation, and then we can find out what its object actually is. Early in life we find out that the intentional object of hunger is food and of thirst is drink (or eating food and drinking drink–I shall not worry about the distinction here, and in the case of God). Augustine’s great existential discovery was that the intentional object of what I have called deep theological desire is God. So, (10) is plausible.

What about (8)? I think so. Here is a line of thought on this. What makes a visceral desire D be a desire for x? Roughly, it is that, necessarily, when an agent y who has D gets x, y‘s desire D is satisfied by x. But this condition is trivially satisfied if x is impossible. To make it non-trivial, we have to say:

  1. A visceral desire D is for x if and only if x is possible to get, and, necessarily, when an agent y who has D gets x, y‘s desire D is satisfied by x.

Note that the satisfaction of a desire is different from believing oneself satisfied (one may desire a friend to be loyal, and falsely believe the desire satisfied). But then (8) follows.

Here is the line of thought. A conceptually articulated desire gets its intentionality from the intentionality of the concepts in terms of which the desire is formulated. If I desire to prove that every even number greater than two is the sum of two primes, that desire gets its intentionality from the intentionality of my concepts of evenness, primeness, etc. Not so in the case of a visceral desire. There we need a different condition, like (12).

Another answer is that what makes hunger a desire for food is that hunger is a state with a certain teleology–a teleology directed at food. But how could there be a non-conceptually articulated teleology directed at something impossible? One account of teleology that we have is evolutionary. But there can be no evolutionary teleology directed at something impossible, since evolutionary teleology is based on the fact that the object of the teleology has in fact contributed to fitness. But that requires that the object be possible. Another account of teleology is agential. But that would require us to be designed, and our best design-based theory is theism, and hence even if we do not get an argument (12), we still get an argument for (4). Finally, there is Aristotelian teleology: things have natures, and their nature has a certain kind of fulfillment. The fulfillment is a kind of final cause of the development–they develop in order to get to the fulfillment. But it does not seem possible to have an Aristotelian teleology directed at something impossible–for in what direction would the organism be progressing if it were progressing towards something impossible? A square circle is also triangular (argument: a square circle has at least three sides, because it’s a square; it has at most three sides because it’s a circle; hence, it’s a triangle). So, to make a square circle, should I start by making a square, a circle or a triangle? (Or by doing nothing at all, since a square circle, if it existed, would also be nothing at all, since nothing is both square and circular?)

Here is one final suggestion: Maybe a desire can get an object from society. You desire A non-viscerally, and in imitation of you, I get a visceral desire for A. However, it is not clear that my desire is actually visceral. It may, instead, be a conceptually articulated desire for that which you desire. Moreover, I think the social account does not match the phenomenology Augustine describes. Augustine isn’t just imitating other people–the need is really there, deep in his heart, rather than inherited in the way we may inherit a “need” for TVs and telescopes from others.

  • Premise (3) is justified by the lived experience of attentive persons like Augustine.

    I think many arguments for the existence of God rise or fail on Premise (3). I’m sympathetic to a “[d]eep theological desire” but I’m a religious person. At a certain point, trying to prove God exists to an atheist becomes a lot like trying to explain why a joke is funny to someone without a sense of humor.

    April 16, 2010 — 11:15
  • ronmurp

    I’m puzzled by this. You appear to be concerned about some of your premises 1,2,3, which of course would have to be true for the conclusion 4 to be true, to make this valid argument a sound one. But hold on. It doesn’t look like a valid argument to me.
    First, premis 1 isn’t used anywhere in the argument, so that looks irrelevent.
    Next, the want the conclusion to follow from 2 and 3, but it doesn’t. Do you mean this:
    2(Premise) If deep theological desires exist, then God exists
    3(Premise) Deep theological desire exists.
    4 Therefore, God exists.
    This is now a valid argument (though I think both premises are false). But your original form of premis 3 is not the same as 3 above. In your original the conclusion does not follow.

    April 18, 2010 — 11:35
  • ronmurp

    David Fryman,
    It’s also like trying to explain to a sane person that you are Napoleon reincarnated in the body of Queen Elizabeth II, but currently incognito because you are being pursued by angry invisible elves.
    Complex theology is just thousands of speculative premises, heaped one on top of the other, wrapped in very dubious arguments. This whole main piece is more fitting to a convention of Trekkies trying to deduce the philosophy of the Klingons from an episode of Star Trek, all the while forgetting that it is fantasy.

    April 18, 2010 — 11:43
  • From (1) and (2), you get:
    4a. If there is no God, there is no such thing as deep theological desire.
    From (4a) and (3) you get:
    4. God exists.
    So, yes, it’s valid, though (2) is somewhat awkwardly phrased. A better way to phrase it would be:
    2a. If there is no God and deep theological desire exists, then deep theological desire has no intentional object.

    April 19, 2010 — 11:33
  • I’m unsure how deep theological desire is also a visceral desire?

    April 19, 2010 — 12:13
  • It’s not discursively formulated. The term “visceral” is stipulative only.

    April 19, 2010 — 12:47
  • Ignostic Morgan

    ronmurp,you sound like me1 My comment on theology is that theologians use mountains of trees to make the case for God but ever fail to do so,because they depend on farragoes of mysteries, surrounding the Ultimate Mystery, itself ostensible the Ultimate Explanation yet in the end is quite opaque as God did it means nothing whatsoever as we ignostics ever note, and as Gregory Dawes adumbrates in ” Theism and Explanation.”
    He by implication starts from the presumption of naturalism that all natural causes and explanations are not only necessary and efficient but also primary and sufficient: Leibniz notwithstanding, they are that sufficient reason1 as AG.N. Flew new before his dementia, this is akin to the presumption of innocence, and I add, neither begs the question nor sandbags theists: it demands evidence as Einstein adduced evidence against the Newtonian system.
    Aquinas himself, as Flew notes, implied this presumption, in effect, adducing it himself so as to overcome it with his five failed arguments.
    The presumption of empiricism enters the present argument in line with that demand in that no evidence exists for Augustine’s assertion applied to all humankind.
    As with all religious experience, this manifestation is ones own mental states at work. Jonathon Harrison in his magnificent ” God, Freedom and Immortality,” claims that one woud beg the question of Marian miracles in denying her efficaciousness, but no, that itself begs the question of supernatural input.
    We have thus a natural cause and explanation for this desire that requires no divine intent.
    Furthermore, as Lamberth’s argument from intent[ or the atelic or teleonomic argument] illuminates, that the scientific evidence illustrates no intent behind natural causes, and such intent would contradict them rather than be compatible with them!
    This teleonomy means no desired outcomes in line with noticing that theists beg that question of intent in all teleological arguments- fine-tuning, probability, from reason- the self-refutation of naturalism and design.
    Each argument itself has its attendant fallacies.
    This argument also calls itself the argument from angst, and the opposite argument from happiness-purpose pleads in vain as it too evinces no evidence.
    We empiricists/naturalists/ rationalists find this on par with the silly there are no atheists in fox holes!
    And Atheist’s empirical argument[ Evolve Blog] notes that there exists no empirical basis for Him, which this jejune argument evinces.
    This desire displays no more empirical backing than Descartes’s innate sense of God or Plantinga’s warrant for God as basic.
    To try to fulfill that desire is to self-brainwash!
    Ronmurp and John A., what other empirical matters migt we bear here, sirs?

    April 21, 2010 — 10:55
  • Ignostic Morgan

    Sorry for the typos.
    like me!
    itself ostensibly
    might we
    Goodwill and blessings to all!

    April 21, 2010 — 10:59
  • M.

    But how could there be a non-conceptually articulated teleology directed at something impossible? One account of teleology that we have is evolutionary. But there can be no evolutionary teleology directed at something impossible, since evolutionary teleology is based on the fact that the object of the teleology has in fact contributed to fitness.
    It could be that a visceral desire for an impossible God is some sort of reflection of a visceral desire for something else with evolutionary fitness. E.g., perhaps it’s some sort of reflection of the visceral desire for a nurturing mother figure to comfort, guide and take care of one.

    April 29, 2010 — 2:04
  • But what would make that be a desire for God? It would seem to be a desire for a nurturning mother figure to comfort, guide and take care of one, and that isn’t what the Augustinian desire is for (thought experiment: if Augustine had such a figure, would he be satisfied? Probably not. In fact, he may have had such a figure–namely, his mother.)

    April 29, 2010 — 8:02
  • M.

    Presumably one’s desire for comfort and guidance in times of trouble or deep philosophical reflection often outstrips that which any actual human could really provide. But the “mother figure” idea was just an example of the route I’d go if I were to try developing a fuller response: that a visceral desire for God could plausibly fall out of a bunch of evolutionarily advantageous desires. Others could include the desire to avoid death, make sense of the universe, ensure that moral codes get enforced, give meaning (whatever that is) to human existence, etc. It could be that any one of these desires by itself could be discharged/satisfied by something non-Godlike, but perhaps no single thing besides God could satisfy them all simultaneously. Then there are other psychological elements that could be brought into play. Anthropologists and psychologists sometimes speak of what they call “minimal counterintuitiveness;” basically, the idea is that humans find certain sorts of concepts and narratives just inherently more “attractive,” based on an optimum trade-off between being interesting and being plausible. Something like this could explain why it’s God which satisfies yearings much better than some more abstract or mundane thing.

    April 29, 2010 — 9:57
  • “Something like this could explain why it’s God which satisfies year[n]ings much better than some more abstract or mundane thing.”
    Suppose God is impossible. Then I don’t know in what sense God satisfies yearnings.

    April 30, 2010 — 8:59
  • M.

    Suppose God is impossible. Then I don’t know in what sense God satisfies yearnings.
    Hmm. It seems to me there are non-trivially true counterpossibles. Even if God is impossible, it seems it could be coherent and non-trivially true to say that if God existed, he would do X and Y. And if doing X and Y would satisfy some visceral desires (e.g., bringing about eternal life, punishing evildoers, etc.), then I feel comfortable asserting that God (non-trivially) counterpossibly satisfies some visceral desires. After all, it’s perfectly natural to say a being just like God except not impossible counterfactually satisfies them.

    April 30, 2010 — 9:25