The Yearning Animal

Greta Christina takes down the argument that the desire for God proves there is a God to fulfill it out there to be discovered:

Someone (I can’t remember who now) recently pointed out that the “no atheists in foxholes” argument, even if it were true (which it’s not), isn’t an argument for God’s existence. It’s actually a strong argument against it. It’s an argument for God as wishful thinking; for God as a sign of desperation in desperate times. If what it takes for atheists to convert is being faced with imminent death and the profound wish for that death to not be real… how is that an argument for God being anything other than a figment of our imagination?

There is a far better, far more obvious answer to the question, “Why do people yearn for something more, something larger, something outside our everyday experience”?

That answer: People are restless.

We’re wired that way by evolution.

Human beings are curious and restless. We’re not barnacles, content to find one place and cling to it for the rest of our lives. Our evolutionary strategy is based on seeking, exploring, discovering, inventing. Our brains are wired by evolution to wonder if there’s better food behind that tree, better land over that mountain, a better way to gather roots and hunt gazelles.

I can’t remember now where I read this, but I’ve seen studies showing that, despite our tendency to think otherwise, what makes us most happy is not relaxing on a beach with a cocktail in our hand and nothing to do. What makes people most happy is working at a task that engages us: a task that’s challenging, but within our reach. Our brains are not wired to sit still and be content. Moments of perfect, ecstatic bliss happen: but they’re fleeting, quickly replaced by the chatter of the mind and its constant urge to chew over what just happened and what’s happening next. And unlike many advocates of Zen and such, I don’t see this as a big problem. It’s what makes us special. We are wired to seek, to explore, to discover, to invent.

Yearning is our evolutionary niche.

Augustine was mistaken. Our hearts are not restless until we find our rest in God. Our hearts are restless, period. We don’t have a God-shaped hole in our hearts. We have a hole-shaped hole in our hearts.

As I interpret Nietzsche, following Bernard Reginster, he would call precisely this the “will to power.”  It is the desire not for satisfaction itself but for ever new challenges through which to experience the high of self-overcoming.  The goal is not the permanent cessation of struggle but perpetually to overcome through struggle and then to actively seek the next struggle through which to exercise one’s power and grow in power against a worthy resistance that requires an increase in strength to overcome.  Happiness is the feeling that resistance is being overcome.  And our yearning is for the next resistance to overcome or, as Greta Christina just exquisitely put it, we have a hole-shaped hole.  And in our struggles for our goals our delight is always in the dialectical tension between intermediary successes and remaining challenges.

Anytime we are finally victorious over something and ready to move on to qualitatively new challenges or to a higher order of challenges within a given sphere, we can savor the joy of accomplishment and overcoming.  And then we should desire that next hole to fill and the next struggle to overcome ourselves yet again.  We are, more than anything else the yearning animal and without the yearning and the overcoming it is hard to imagine the happiness—which is why heaven (at least as popularly conceived) is, for so many, such a bland, boring tedium in the imagination.

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.