Desire Reveals

From Derek Leman:

In Weight of Glory, Lewis calls this a “desire for our own far off country.” That may sound like a leap of logic, but it is a supposition. We “remain conscious of a desire which no natural happiness will satisfy.” And if we admit that this is true, suppose it is because we were made for another world. If we started with that supposition, we would expect to find longings for our true world in this one.

The longing for bread, says Lewis, does not prove a particular man will be able to get bread. He may starve. But it does indicate that there exists somewhere a fulfillment for that need. We yearn for bread because we are made to need it. Our very yearning is evidence that something like bread exists. Whether we get any or not, bread is real.

Our desire for food and longing for romance would be strange if we lived in a world without food or sex, sustenance or family bonds. Our nature is a clue to reality. So why not believe the occasional flashes of intense longing for pure happiness, for uncontaminated beauty, for love uncorrupted are also clues that such a thing does exist?

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  • Dorfl

    I’ve heard this argument a few times. I’ve always wondered if there is some part of it that I’m not getting, since it seems like such a complete non sequitur to me:

    We have a capacity for abstract thought, which allows us to imagine things that do not exist. Those things can be anywhere from concrete and highly detailed to abstract and fussy. Since there is no particular reason why our capacity for longing would suddenly switch off when the things we imagine don’t actually exist, we can long for non-existent things as well.

    For example, mathematicians spent enormous time and effort looking for a finite system of axioms from which the entire rest of mathematics could be derived. That turned out to be logically impossible: such a system cannot exist. That didn’t stop them from longing for one, not even after they found out there isn’t one.

  • Dorfi, there is a difference between an imaginative supposal by a small number of mathematicians and the essentially universal human desire for beauty that is unspoiled, life than is good and unmixed with death, and for goodness that goes on forever. Even those descriptions do not fully capture it. Myth and faerie are all about it. Music sometimes elevates us there. Poetry can elevate us there as can story. Abraham Joshua Heschel says it is really those without radical amazement who are unwise.

  • Wendy McCaig

    Your post reminds me of a conversation I was having with a friend recently. I shared that I often felt like I did not belong in my suburban neighborhood given that I spend my time in the inner city but that I also will never fully fit in in the inner city.

    She responded with something like this, “Maybe the reason so many of us feel like we do not belong or fit in is because we were designed for heaven and will never feel fully at home in this lifetime.”

    I had never thought of that and it echo’s the sentiments of this post. Our dreams and desires are not really what they seem. We do not dream or desire worldly things, those are simply phantoms of our deeper longing for things not of this world. Thus we are never fully satisfied.

    In my work I often think of myself as an urban “dream releaser” helping those our society often over looked by society live out their call in this world. I will have to pray more deeply about the implications of these insights above on my ministry.

    Thanks for sharing this. It will make for a wonderful topic to ponder at the beach this week.

  • NateW

    But… doesnt the fact that they are longing for something that does not exist speak to the idea that what they really long for is not simply a mathematical fact, but something that can help them make sense of the world at a fundamental level? the idea of lewis’ quote here is that we pursue all sorts of things believing that they will provide what we need to make sense of the world and to be happy/content, but always end up unfulfilled in the end. These mathematicians pursued something they imagined to exist and were unsatisfied because it doesnt exist. To me that sirt of demonstrates what keeis is saying rather than refuting it, no?

    I can see though how one could simply argue that this phenomenon is simply a chemical trait, like brain receptors (bear with me as I try to talk science, haha) that have mutated such that no known molecule can fit? Perhaps you could even say that it is evolutionarily beneficial for individuals to keep striving after happiness rather than to find it and sit back.

    So, in that light I dont think it’s wise to propose this as a “proof” for God, but, personally, I don’t see a problem with both of these (evolutionary theory and “meant for another world” theory) being seen as descriptions of truth on different levels of reality. Personally, I find Lewis’s ideas to resonate deeply with my experience and how I see the world.

  • Dorfl

    Well… if Lewis is just making the observation that things tend not to make us as happy* as we imagine they will, then he’s definitely right, and backed up by a lot of psychological research. We seem to have some personal baseline of happiness that we tend to drift back to over time, after some change in our circumstances has pushed us in either direction.

    But he doesn’t seem to stop there: he goes on to argue that his longing for lasting happiness is evidence that this is something that exists. I don’t really know what to make of this, since it’s pretty much explicitly an argument from pure wishful thinking.

    * On the upside, things tend not to make us as unhappy as we expect either. A question research psychologists like to ask is “What do you think would make you happiest: winning a million dollars or breaking your lower back?”, since they know that on average, neither of those things have any effect on long-term happiness.

  • Dorfl

    I see a quantitative but not a qualitative difference. Anyone can be happy and say “I wish I could feel like this forever” or look at something beautiful and say “I wish this would last forever” or look at our loved ones and say “I wish they would live forever”. It takes some knowledge of mathematics to be capable of saying “I wish I had a small set of axioms from which all mathematical truth could be derived”. That stops it from ever being a universal human desire.

    They are still similar in the strength of the longing people have felt for them – it’s not mere ‘imaginitive supposal’ that drives a mathematician to spend day after day, year after year, locked in their office trying to prove some particular theorem. They are still similar in that our longing for something doesn’t actually make it real.

  • Dorfi, I am no expert in scientific method, but as I understand it, the way it works for a complex question is that answers do not come beating the theoretician over the head. You observe the phenomenon (in this case the universal human longing for a satisfaction in the world) and make a supposal. That supposal is then evaluated for evidence supporting or not supporting it. The hypothesis is only that, a hypothesis. Lewis’s argument from desire is a hypothesis, nothing more. Stated simply the hypothesis is something like this: our fundamental human nature has within it a mystery, a sense of longing, which we might suppose has to do with our origin as God’s creations. To evaluate this hypothesis we would need to look at evidence. I expect that the evidence will be slight and far from overwhelming. So far what I have seen in your comments is that you prefer to have no hypothesis of meaning and that for you the standard of evidence would have to be quite high. Something perhaps is worthy of being called true only if it can be falsified (logical positivism)? I choose to accept the limited evidence we have and look for possibilities. If you call my possibilities meaningless, I can only say, you may be right. But they are not zero evidence, they are just hypotheses.

  • NateW

    Hi dorfl. Very much appreciate your thoughts. I understand it not so much as an argument from wishful thinking that is meant to prove that God is there and is real as a hint that one can justify choosing to have faith that he is in spite of the fact that it doesn’t seem like it.

    What I choose to believe, on faith, is that lasting happiness (ie contentment, peace, joy, freedom from anxiety, fulfillment, etc.) is impossible to attain, but spontaneously happens when one is continually choosing to give up ones own need for it in order to help others have it. Counter to everything our culture teaches, happiness isn’t something that can ever be grasped (whether in our endeavors or our religion) but is something that mysteriously rises in the heart after the right to be happy is put to death in us. To me that seems to be the basic level of truth in the world that everything else works on. The minute we say, “wow, I’m really happy”, and fail to express that by giving it away we find we are no longer happy, contentment slips through the fingers that grasp it tightly, but wells up in the one who does not treasure it for him/herself.

    This simultaneous despair (“I cannot be happy”) and joy (in giving what seems like our own chance to be happy away) is something that seems real to me, that I see at work in the world around me all the time, on every level, from the ways of nature to human society at large. Common happiness and Life rise from the ashes of self-giving. If there is any evidence that Christ is true, this, for me, is it. Until someone can show me that happiness can be gained by anything other than self-emptying love, I will put my faith in the fact that it will rise in the hearts of many by it.

    The trick of course is living this way in every moment, fighting off the selfish desires that we crave and focusing on the much greater pleasures of giving those things away.

  • Dorfl

    I definitely agree that actively pursuing happiness is unlikely to work, and often ends up being counterproductive. One of my favourite Calvin&Hobbes strips is the one that just consists of Calvin standing in a field, going

    Panel #1: “Here I am. Happy and content.”

    Panel #2: “But not euphoric.”

    Panel #3: “Now I’m not content. I’m unhappy. My day is ruined.”

    Panel #4: “I really need to stop thinking while I’m ahead.”

    If I remember correctly, there is even some research supporting this, and indicating that being of use to the people around you is a lot more important for happiness. But I can’t give a direct source for that, so don’t take my word for it.

    I actually find this a bit liberating: the struggle between the
    altruistic desire to serve humanity and the selfish desire to seek happiness partly goes away when you realise that the second is contingent on the first anyway.

    Since I’m an atheist, I interpret this in terms of humans being social animals, more than seeing it as evidence for any particular religion. I’m not sure how much that matters, though.

  • Dorfl

    I don’t really read Lewis as just putting forward a hypothesis, but maybe I’m misreading him. If he is doing that, then yes: I would need quite a bit of evidence before discarding the null hypothesis that our longing for pure happiness, uncontaminated beauty and love uncorrupted is simply a side effect of our ability to imagine all sorts of things, whether they exist or are even logically consistent.

    I wouldn’t say that I subscribe to anything like strict logical positivism, but I do think that it’s a very useful rule of thumb that if you find yourself unable to think of any way you could even in principle falsify or verify a hypothesis, then it’s time to start wondering whether the hypothesis actually forms any kind of meaningful claim, or if it’s just a collection of words.

  • LOL, Dorfi, well it will turn out to be quite a useful hypothesis if it proves true. Consult Pascal. Peace to you and enjoyed the tête-à-tête.