Friday, June 23, 2017

Argument From Desire - Wishful Thinking

Ed Feser has made an interesting post on what he calls the "argument from desire", in which he rightly notes that there are different forms of the argument, and they aren't all successful.  Basically, the argument from desire, as commonly expressed by unsophisticated theists is not so much an argument for the existence of God as it is a reason for believing.  It is the acknowledgment that the idea of life coming to an end without any eternal reward or compensation for the pain endured while living in the physical world is depressing.  But according to Feser, if a more sophisticated form of the argument (ie, Thomistic) is considered, it may well be worthwhile.

Right off the bat, Feser recognizes that the basic argument is delusional.  God doesn't exist simply because we want him to exist.  So this unsophisticated form of the argument can easily be dismissed as wishful thinking.  But there is another thing that should also be pointed out about it that Feser fails to recognize.  It is the notion that there should be a reward of some kind in the afterlife.  This is something that Feser never questions, and I'll have more to say about that.  If you want to strip the argument down to its most fundamental form, you could say simply that people want to go on living.  People want to believe there is an afterlife because the idea of a final end to life is depressing.  There is no theism inherent in this basic desire to live, but an afterlife does imply some kind of spiritual existence.  And anthropologists generally agree that the idea of God was not part of the most primitive religious beliefs of mankind.  The notion of a God who metes out punishment and reward is a follow-on development in the evolution of religious beliefs.  Nevertheless, I find it interesting that Feser and other theists manage to sneak in their theistic presumptions at every level of their arguments, even if the argument is seen as being flawed..

So what is Feser's more sophisticated form of the argument?  Basically it is centered on the idea, taken from Thomas Aquinas, that "a natural desire cannot be in vain".  By "natural desire" he means as motivated by the final cause.  In other words, these desires are part of the essence of the creature.  As a tree extends its roots to seek water, it is because that is part of the essential make-up of the tree, and this desire need not be conscious.  This is distinguished from other kinds  of desires (such as salacious desires) that are not driven by final causes.  The other key part of Aquinas' calculus is that these natural desires are not "in vain".  And by that, he means that they are real and attainable, at least in principle.  The desire would not exist if the object of that desire did not also exist.  In the example of the tree seeking water, it wouldn't be part of the tree's essence to seek water if there were no water to seek.  The claim here is that natural desires exist for things that are real.

So to make a short story of it, the natural essence of man is to seek God's reward in the afterlife, and this would not be the case if there was no God and no afterlife for us to seek.  This is the crux of the argument.  Now, I must give Feser credit acknowledging that the success of this argument depends on whether one accepts his metaphysical views.  Of course, he thinks there is an iron-clad case that his Thomistic metaphysics are valid, and he has written much about that elsewhere.  And it is not my intention in this article to try to rebut the metaphysical basis of Thomism.  This is something I have addressed before.  (Look under the label "Thomism", if you are interested.)

But what I think is worth pointing out here is that even if you accept the metaphysics of Thomism, there are still unjustified presumptions being made in this argument.  Not the least of those is presuming to know what constitutes the "natural desires" or the essence of mankind.  As I noted earlier, there is a difference between the fundamental will to live, shared by all living creatures in the natural world, and the desire to seek God in the afterlife, which didn't exist in our human ancestors until the notions of afterlife and of God were invented.  If you're an essentialist, it would be easy to make the case that we all have a will to live as part of our essential make-up.  But it's not so easy to make the blanket claim that our essence includes seeking God's reward.  It is certainly not part of an animal's essence, because these notions are strictly human.  And though we do have some natural tendency to see the world through a spiritual lens, it is not true that our modern evolved concepts of theism and the beatific vision have always been the objects of our "natural desire", or even that they are shared by all modern humans. 

But this is just the presumption that Aquinas makes his argument.  He justifies it by making an artificial distinction between the desire always to live, and the desire to live always, the former being an animal's natural will to live, and the latter being man's will to live eternally.  And being humans, our intellect gives us the a priori knowledge of the goal of our desire.  First. I'm not sure that there is a genuine distinction.  We always want to live.  We don't place a time limit on that desire.  I don't see anything essentially human about the desire to live always.  But having made that distinction, he can then claim that the object of our human desire is something entirely different from an animal's desire to simply live.  It has morphed into a whole new realm of existence, simply because we can conceive of eternity.  The only real difference between an animal's will to live and our own is that we logically understand what it means to keep living.

Besides that, the idea that "natural desires are not in vain" simply ignores science, which gives us better explanations for those "natural desires".  The tree has evolved a root system that seeks water because that is what has allowed the species to survive.  The root system does precisely what has worked best in the past, and final causes have nothing to do with it.  Many species have gone extinct because they weren't adapted to the environment in which they found themselves, or some other competing species adapted better.  And if you understand evolution, you also know that essentialism is a bogus notion to begin with.  There may be general characteristics, but there is no sharp dividing line and no unique essence that separates any kind of creature from its relatives in the evolutionary tree.  We are all leaves on the same tree of life.  Our natural desires, including the will to live, stem directly from our place on that tree, not from some uniquely human capacity. 

And the whole notion of desiring eternal life is nothing more than an offshoot of the basic will to live.  We don't want to die.  It's as simple as that.  Being humans with a big brain, our intellect can embellish that fundamental truth with all kinds of rationalizations, and invent religious concepts in the hopes that it will come true, but none of that changes the reality.  There is no magic a priori knowledge, but we do have the ability to test the things we believe through science, and reject those beliefs that don't stand up to objective testing.  That is, if we desire to do so.  Or we can just keep our head in the sand, and just hope our desires will come true.  No matter how sophisticated Feser tries to make it sound, his whole religious philosophy is still just untested and unscientific wishful thinking.


  1. Insightful commentary Skep. Thomism went into decline in contemporary philosophy circles because it had failed to provide any sufficient cogent response to the most pressing of questions that challenge us today. Despite Feser's manic determination to resurrect the Thomist corpse, the effort is ultimately a forlorn attempt, a squandered moment in time as the community moves on to affirming an explanatory model not motivated or driven by mythos and superstition and ignorance of the natural world in which we most definitely and unambiguously live. Philosopher, Prof Kai Neilson provides an erudite contemporary critique on the unfounded assumptions that underpin Thomism and why they are largely founded on wishful thinking.

    1. "Knowledge through inclination" is the way he describes it. One might forgive Aquinas for his scientific ignorance, given that under the thumb of Christianity for over a millennium, the curiosity to investigate how the world works was largely suppressed, and he had no better source of knowledge to turn to than Aristotle. But Feser has no such excuse. We are so much better able to understand where those "inclinations" come from without resorting to the old canard "God did it".

  2. It was Maritain who championed the notion, "knowledge through inclination". And Nielson rightly challenges the concept and aligns it properly as nothing more than a product of, and a punt to, 'intuition' rather than an exercise in intellection through the use of reason. What Thomists take as 'reason' is simply theological codswallop.