C.S. Lewis' argument from desire

What do you guys think about Lewis’ argument from desire? Is it reasonable, satisfactory, interesting, or worth it? Can it help explain the enigma people present known as “divine hiddenness”? Should it be taken seriously? I personally think it is a very interesting argument definitely worth thinking about.

For those who don’t know what it is, it goes like this: “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. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find until after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that other country and to help others do the same.”

― C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity


No. It seems to fall apart in the first premise.

Why can’t creatures be born with desires that can’t be satisfied?

The most probable explanation is that you were born with desires that can’t be satisfied.


I think that’s why God doesn’t respond positively to my requests for all my little trees each year to survive through the summer. It does get a bit old, though, with an overall survival rate under thirty-five percent.

Though I’m always fascinated by the ones that just vanish – no hoof or shovel marks, no disturbance of the ground like they got ripped out, there’s just a little hole where the stem was and no other sign they were ever there.

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I’m a little more positive (than maybe @T_aquaticus is) about seeing these pairings as having at least interesting insights - and perhaps T’s objection is that (as an apologetic) these things are usually advanced as evidence - if not proof - in favor of theism of some kind. And understandably so - as Lewis himself was using them that way. But if we can back away from the culture wars (or in this case the ‘theism wars’) and just look at the insight itself for what it is, I think there is interesting discussion to be had there. And nor does one have to be a theist to appreciate it I don’t think.

Yeah - perhaps there are some desires that cannot possibly be met, as T suggests - or at least asks how we could know otherwise. But I don’t think that robs Lewis’ observation of its general insight. It does seem that most things we desire have some sort of way it can be met, at least a way that exists even if it may not be accessible to me in particular. I may not have just any sort of food or drink or sex as I might prefer to have in any given moment - or maybe even ever - but all those things do exist. And yet - maybe I can want things that are just …forever impossible! (I have nothing to offer T about that either.) So while I recognize this doesn’t carry the logical punch or compulsion that some apologists want it to carry, I still don’t dismiss it either. Yeah - It isn’t proof that all our desires are satiable by something or other; but on the other hand, how strange would it be for me to want something that had no correspondence in reality? Where would my desire have even come from?

I think there could be evolutionary insight behind this (which makes it not one whit less theistic to me as a believer) - and that is that desires generally propel us towards things that are good and necessary for the proliferation of our race. If we waste a lot of energy and devotion on fanciful desires that have absolutely no way of being met - ever, or even in principle, then one would think this should be evolutionarily selected against in favor of those who conentrate all their energies on actual productive desires. So it makes sense to me - even just in naturalistic terms - why every desire should have a corresponding means of fulfillment within at least our communal reality even if not in reach of one person’s particular grasp. Wanting to have kids, for example, is generally a productive and good desire for society to have - even if not every particular member of that society is able to do that. But we can all understand the desire (and see its fulfillment for enough people to know its reality).

Wanting spiritual things and relationships (which is where Lewis takes it) remains interesting to me too since we can argue all day long (as indeed we do!) about whether those longings actually enjoy any measurable fulfillment or something that so many labor to turn into a empirical apologetic. Setting those efforts aside here for the moment, it still interests me how evolutionary mechanisms might work with the “grander” and more abstract human desires that defy completely objective characterization or measurement. I can want peace on earth (along with every other Ms. America apparently) and one can easily see I won’t be getting my wish. But peace (Shalom) does exist. Enough of it for most of us to know we’d like to have it. So is it an evolutionarily wasted desire? I don’t think the evolutionary biologist would have to work too hard to imagine how that is something that could be selected for in communities over lots of time. And as a theist, I certainly am already there in thinking that might even be a divinely fueled imagination - turned imperative even!

Here is where I would take issue with Lewis, though. I think God made us for this world, and we are meant to be citizens of his kingdom here - and to pray for God’s will to be done here as it is in heaven. In fact, Lewis’ own apologetic would get turned on its head, I think, if he tried to push the “other-worldliness” too hard. All the desires he enlists and brings out for exhibit are born in and come from this world. The whole reason that our public imagination about heaven is so woefully ignorant (think of cartoons of bored looking people with halos standing on a cloud - one saying to another ‘I wish I’d brought a magazine’!) There is a reason why we just can’t wrap our minds around some ‘hybrid’ of earth and heaven that our imaginations attempt to craft for ourselves. We are shaped by the created reality we’re given. We want very real and necessary things for continued and fluorishing life here. Which does not include disembodied experience. Or “forever time scales” (as imagined by linear and mathematically-minded moderns). We try to fuel that imagination (even the scriptures try it for us … streets of gold!) … by taking stuff that some people really like and want more of here, and then saying we’ll be walking on entire streets of that same stuff up there! (As if my actual happiness could long be excited by how shiny or smooth - or transparent! - the stuff was that I was walking on).

We try to hybridize it - but I suggest that deeper spiritual thinkers recognize that trying out our analysis on such things is a fool’s errand. Language fails everybody - and even Divinely inspired authors must content themselves with the best narrative that the encultured imaginations of their audience can reach - based on the only reality that God has ever given us. It’s a bit like Girard’s mimetic desire. They’re trying to show us how to want something higher, by starting with stuff that seems pretty obvious to want. Those who taste of deep and wonderful relationship can begin to taste of such heavenly realities that would make any gold or jewels look like dirt road and gravel in comparison. But hey - how can you inspire the enthusiasms of those who still mess around chasing after gold? I’m not suggesting a spiritual dimension doesn’t exist. But I am suggesting that any spiritual dimension we have is tied to our reality here and now. There is a reason why resurrection is so important to us. God doesn’t create throw-away realities. And we are meant to learn from these realities - and to do so in a much more significant and deeper way than the “oh - this is just a training ground for my next life” sense.

I’ll shut my ramble off here since this is already too long and I’m not sure where I’m headed here yet or how much farther the destination might be!


I remember one summer reading Lewis while camping and thinking no, I think what I long for isn’t another world entirely, it’s this world but the way it’s supposed to be.

I expect to have a most excellent mountain bike in heaven, so I have an interests in how smooth those streets will be!


Oh yeah! Ne’er a flat tire to be had, and the only headwinds would be there to cool the face when you want’em! :biking_man: (And would all the golden streets be downhill no matter which way you go?)

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I completely agree with your sentiments, and also appreciate the friendly criticism.

As far as a logical A, B, therefore C, I don’t think this argument works. However, these concepts are very interesting and would be perfect for a good conversation over a pint or cup of coffee.

This leads to an interesting conversations about biology and evolution. SJ Gould often warned biologists not to let the tail wag the dog where natural selection is concerned. Just because something exists does not mean it was selected for, or at least selected for by one of the functions we see it serving. His classic example was the spandrel, a piece of fortification in arches. Artists would often put carvings or paintings on these spandrels, but that wasn’t their function. Another example is in thinking that our noses evolved to hold up our eyeglasses. Some desires may fall into this category, outgrowths of some other human adaptation that isn’t specifically about that desire.

So yes, while Lewis’ insights may not be logically sound, they do lead to interesting conversations and investigations into the human condition.



Sounds more like skateboard heaven, though with the little motors they have now it hardly matters.

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Who says they can’t? Maybe the argument is that most or all of our other observed desires have real world actualizations. So why would we think our religious desires don’t? Atheism of the gaps?


Cool! So - if I understand correctly - the ‘spandrel’ serves no structural function to the arch whatsoever, but is just there to fill an available space with something artistic?

Or as the nose for the eyeglasses example - of course. The nose isn’t there for the eyeglasses, nor the arch there for the sake of the spandrel. But can’t we observe the opposite? Eyeglasses were crafted (I know - can’t use the term ‘evolved’ in this case) to make use of noses. And spandrels do exist because of the nature of arches - and exist for a reason of their own - to give artistic pleasure to observers. It would be like evolution filling an available niche, right?

But that does spawn another bit of discussion: is artistic pleasure itself an ‘evolutionarily useful’ thing? Again, I don’t think it takes too much imagination to think that it could be. Not that evolution works on any human time scale that we could ever take note of in a human life span.

Yep. But we can’t quite shake the habit of wondering - “so what’s that for?” (and the entire ID industry poofs into existence!) We’re just so used to thinking that _____ (be it God, or be it evolutionary mechanisms, or both) surely wouldn’t have wasted this particular thing, (yes - despite a wealth of vestigial this and that which can be rehearsed here to soundly counter the sentiment) - but all that notwithstanding, we’re so used to thinking everything has a reason, that we put all our desires into that category too. It would be fun to try to think of an example of a truly ‘vestigial’ desire. Because most (all?) of the ones Lewis bandied around (food, sex, etc.) were pretty major things that are easily recognized as necessary.

Within the confines of a logical argument . . .

Not atheism of the gaps. It’s a matter of burden of proof. If the premise states that humans can’t be born with desires that can not be met, then there needs to be proof for that assertion. Pointing to some cases where this is true is not proof that it is true in all cases. The other problem is the lack of falsifiability. The conclusion is in essence an escape clause for any desire that appears to be impossible to satisfy. Since the premise fails, you can’t get to the logical conclusion. That’s not to say that the conclusion is false, only that you can’t get there from that premise.

But, this is only in terms of a strictly logical argument. As stated elsewhere, it is still interesting to discuss and philosophize over. I think they would be consider fair questions outside of pure logic.

It is not that humans can’t be born with desires that cannot be met, it is that DESIRES cannot exist without the possibility of them being fulfilled. He gives the example that it would be strange to find ourselves in a world where we are hungry and there is no food.

The spandrel strengthens the arch, so it is a necessary part of the arch. However, it would be wrong to conclude the function of the spandrel was to supply more space for artwork.

My general speculation is that intelligence is strongly selected for in humans, and artistry is an outgrowth of that selectable trait. There may even be some influence from sexual selection where artistic talent is our version of the peacock tailfeathers.

We do tend to think things have a reason for existing even in cases where there isn’t strong evidence for a reason. I tend to consider this a human bias, but that might be a bias in itself. We excel at empathy which is a vital part of human society, but I wonder if that talent is not projected into areas where it isn’t valid. We seem to reflexively see something human in things that are demonstrably not human, even to the point of seeing faces in things as varied as clouds and potato chips.


In logic, that would be an argument from incredulity, a logical fallacy. Something can be true even if we find it to be strange. Most people from antiquity would find it strange that we live on a globe that spins and orbits around the Sun, but it was still true.

It might be strange that I desire the ability to fly faster than the speed of light and visit distant planets without the ability to do so, but that doesn’t mean faster than light speed travel is possible. It just means that I desire something that can’t exist.

But I would argue that your desire is based on something that is quite reasonable, though! You want to explore. And maybe you also enjoy the thrill of traveling extremely fast! Both of those could probably have been extremely useful things. Faster people can escape danger better. Explorers tend to be the ones who find new lands and new resources. Just because your imagination can take your desire to an impossible extreme doesn’t make it an alien desire to things that are and have been possible (that I might go even faster somewhere.) I may wish to be as strong as Superman. Just because it won’t happen, doesn’t mean that being stronger isn’t a useful or achievable thing.


That is a false analogy fallacy. Of course things we find strange can be true. Of course we can wish for things that are not possible (in this universe). They exist though, in a metaphysical sense. A sense in which physical form and physics do not matter (part of the mathematical multiverse). Theory, sure, that does not make it invalid. If you want to say that desire is metaphysical also, that is fine and also true. However, desires inherently suppose there is a purpose for those desires. There is no example by my light of a desire that has absolutely no purpose. If there is a desire for the divine, there should be a divine then.

[my own emphasis added into your quote above.]
Okay - but (to the agnostic’s perspective), that last clause you added is a weasel word then. What does it mean for something to exist in a metaphysical sense?! That whole word ‘metaphysical’ is what some would be disputing in the first place. So I have to agree with T that this just isn’t the load-bearing apologetic you may be trying to make it.

Don’t get me wrong - I’m a believer. So I do agree with you that God-given desires (all of them I can think of anyway) have a corresponding means of fulfillment. But I just came to that conclusion from the other side. I.e. That Isn’t an argument that could (with logical reliability) bring me to the theism that I already have.

My response was going against pure logic and just using common sense and pure empirical observations. I mean we follow patterns and assune uniformitarianism and regularity in the world don’t we? If all our other observed desires have tangible actualizations in the world, it seems like atheism of the gaps to say this one alone doesn’t.

Yes, that is where my response went. It had nothing to do with logical necessity. I understand the topic started off with what is usually a “philosophical argument” but I was taking it in another direction. I would say it seems reasonable our religious desires correspond to something actual like all our other ones do.


I never want to claim that any one argument should be able to convert someone. That is absurd. I am only trying to make the argument sound reasonable, to a degree, and compatible with other theories. Also I process things when in conflict with the thought patterns of other people so forgive me if some things sound weird.

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That is a fair point. Metaphysical though, just means outside of the physical world (i.e. math). That is the definition I am using at least.