3
May

Do Our Innate Desires Help Prove God Is There?

imagesIn previous posts, I dialogued with a skeptic regarding what to make of the existence of innate desires? I took the position that such desires are reflective of the existence of God, as the only sufficient explanation. But the skeptic tried to turn this on its head, saying:

And yes, it’s natural to want to go on enjoying life forever. But how is that proof for God’s existence? I would say that it’s almost the opposite: it demonstrates that people will want to believe in Heaven, and also in justice, after we die. Have you ever stopped to think that perhaps your belief in God is not entirely unbiased, but is driven by a desire to not die forever? If you ask me, the desire to live forever should make one suspicious of belief in God, because it shows how powerful a motivation it provides to believe.

This challenge misses the point of my post: If innate desires correspond to real things, such as food or drink for our basic desires to nourish ourselves, then the innate desire for perfection must also correspond to a real “thing.” But this “thing,” in order to qualify as perfect, must look, well, pretty much like God does.  The challenge to this view has some surface appeal, but the thinking behind it is a bit sloppy: the “opposite” the skeptic refers to would be proof, using the argument from innate desires, that God actually does not exist. But the argument provides no such proof at all. It is, indeed, an example of the genetic fallacy at work, as it tries to “explain” why theists are wrong – they are looking for comfort – before actually proving that they are mistaken (about the existence of an eternal, personal being). The fact that we may be engaging in “wishful thinking” is not proof of anything in the universe; it simply says something about, well, the way we are thinking. It may indeed be correct – we may simply be imagining all this – but it doesn’t add anything to our knowledge about whether God is out there somewhere or not.  

But let’s take an even closer look at what is being said. In short, the challenge is that because life is finite and brief, people “naturally” wish for it to be eternal. Being unable, or at least unwilling, to countenance the idea of oblivion, we latch onto whatever theory will give us comfort. But why, exactly, should this be so? If it fact the “natural order” of things was to live briefly and die, why not just resign ourselves to it? After all, we’ve had countless millennia of “evolution” to get used to it.  Moreover, there is plenty of evidence that we in fact do this (accept the inevitability of change) in many other arenas of our lives. For example, while my teen years were fun and exciting (at least at times), I never harbored the desire to have them last forever. So too my preschool or grammar school years, or the years in which my children were young. I savored those times, and the memories, precisely because I knew that they were fleeting. As we grow older, and face the twilight years with their inevitable mental and physical decline, we don’t seek to “hold on” at all costs. 

Indeed, as we reflect on this, it seems built in to us to want to experience that next stage, but to also value the continuity of identity that is part of the movement of time. We still want to be “us,” but we want that experience to actually improve as time moves on, in ways that we often could not envision or imagine while younger. And we want to be able to put to use in that next stage all the knowledge and wisdom we have already accumulated. In short, we want things to keep getting better and better, despite knowing that what awaits us in this physical world is more like a cliff or a brick wall, while we play the role of a train hurtling towards it.

No, the reality is that most of us – whether Christian or not – have this sense that our lives, and our choices, have actual meaning.  We memorialize so much in photos and videos because we think it matters in some lasting way, and even through this we seek to cement for the future just how precious the continued – and continuing – present is to us.  We have within us a desire we just can’t seem to shake that is calling us “home” to something that is lasting and wonderful and good.

Standing alone, this isn’t one of the most powerful “proofs” that God is there. But as part of an overall worldview, it makes up part of the cumulative case for which “God is” provides the most explanatory power. It is a beacon within us, beckoning us to examine more closely what is tugging at us from inside.

Posted by Al Serrato

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8 Comments

  1. zilch says:

    Al- you say:

    “If innate desires correspond to real things, such as food or drink for our basic desires to nourish ourselves, then the innate desire for perfection must also correspond to a real “thing.” But this “thing,” in order to qualify as perfect, must look, well, pretty much like God does.”

    Why? I don’t see how that follows. A desire for perfection is simply a desire to maximize some perceived good. Is there such a thing as a perfect meal, or a perfect high? Our desires do not create things or entities.

    “The challenge to this view has some surface appeal, but the thinking behind it is a bit sloppy: the “opposite” the skeptic refers to would be proof, using the argument from innate desires, that God actually does not exist. But the argument provides no such proof at all. It is, indeed, an example of the genetic fallacy at work, as it tries to “explain” why theists are wrong – they are looking for comfort – before actually proving that they are mistaken (about the existence of an eternal, personal being). The fact that we may be engaging in “wishful thinking” is not proof of anything in the universe; it simply says something about, well, the way we are thinking. It may indeed be correct – we may simply be imagining all this – but it doesn’t add anything to our knowledge about whether God is out there somewhere or not.”

    I didn’t say that wishful thinking is proof that God does not exist, just that we should be skeptical of claims for the existence of things which are very attractive in one way or another. And as I believe I’ve said already, I don’t see any way of proving that God does not exist, any more than I can prove the Invisible Pink Unicorn does not exist. Proofs are the domain of circumscribed systems of formal logic, such as math. I would rather say that the evidence so far seems to indicate to me that God does not exist.

    ” In short, the challenge is that because life is finite and brief, people “naturally” wish for it to be eternal. Being unable, or at least unwilling, to countenance the idea of oblivion, we latch onto whatever theory will give us comfort. But why, exactly, should this be so?”

    Don’t people often believe comforting things that are not true, al? It seems to me to be a very general human tendency, and it’s no mystery why: it’s more fun to believe comforting than non-comforting things. And if the comforting beliefs aren’t dangerous (I can fly) and are held by many others (God will give us Heaven when we die), then people will find them easy to believe.

    ” If it fact the “natural order” of things was to live briefly and die, why not just resign ourselves to it? After all, we’ve had countless millennia of “evolution” to get used to it.”

    Because believing we will go to Heaven is more fun than resigning ourselves to dying, and it probably has no drastic disadvantages- except perhaps in understanding evolution, which is not life-threatening.

    “Indeed, as we reflect on this, it seems built in to us to want to experience that next stage, but to also value the continuity of identity that is part of the movement of time. We still want to be “us,” but we want that experience to actually improve as time moves on, in ways that we often could not envision or imagine while younger. And we want to be able to put to use in that next stage all the knowledge and wisdom we have already accumulated. In short, we want things to keep getting better and better, despite knowing that what awaits us in this physical world is more like a cliff or a brick wall, while we play the role of a train hurtling towards it.”

    Absolutely: you’re stating my case for me. Of course we want to go on. As Hazlitt said, “The long habit of living indisposeth us to dying”. But because going on is devoutly to be desired does not, unfortunately, mean that it is possible.

    cheers from changeable Vienna, zilch

    • Al says:

      Zilch, I’m not sure why you don’t see that “it follows.” It may be incorrect, but logically it appears sound. Perhaps what you’re not considering is that human beings come “preloaded” with operating software, including these innate desires. Using reason, we ask questions about these desires and what they can tell us about the programmer. Now, for you, the “programmer” is evolution, whereas for me it is an intelligent source. Either way, asking the questions we ask is a legitimate avenue of inquiry. So, when you say that our desires don’t create things, you are of course correct. The point of the inquiry is to ponder why things are the way they are. My worldview has more explanatory value than yours, and this is simply another example. A designer matches us to an environment, and creates in us basic needs that can be filled. One such need is to reunite with him. Naturalism, by contrast, can’t really make sense of our ability to imagine or to think, and certainly can’t help us with the types of questions we are asking.

      You ask whether people believe comforting things that aren’t true. I’m not sure that I agree. You may be defining words differently than me. I can’t “believe” in something while at the same time knowing its not true. People can of course be mistaken about their beliefs, and can also engage in willful self deception. The former is correctable while the latter is more difficult. You, for instance, seem to be committed to rejecting God, despite the evidence that mounts in his favor. I suspect deep down that you really do “believe” that he is there, but that you struggle with the fallen nature of creation and the human condition. Does your atheism give you comfort? If so, is that why you hold so tenaciously to it?

  2. zilch says:

    Again, al, thanks for the thoughtful reply. I suspect that we have such utterly different ways of perceiving the world that there is probably no way for either of us to really understand the other. But it’s fun trying. You say:

    “My worldview has more explanatory value than yours, and this is simply another example. A designer matches us to an environment, and creates in us basic needs that can be filled. One such need is to reunite with him. Naturalism, by contrast, can’t really make sense of our ability to imagine or to think, and certainly can’t help us with the types of questions we are asking.”

    I don’t see how your worldview has more explanatory value than mine here, al. We are matched to our environment for the same reason bacteria are matched to their environment: because being matched to your environment is what natural selection does: those organisms that are better matched to their environment are more likely to survive and reproduce than those who aren’t so well matched. Thus, organisms evolve to become better and better at fitting in their environment.

    Same goes for our ability to think and to imagine. The differential reproductive success (another way of putting what natural selection is about) of organisms that can think and imagine is pretty obvious: if we see three bears go into an empty cave, and then see two bears leaving the cave, it’s of obvious survival value for us to be able to think, is it not? Thus, the evolution of thinking and imagination is not really mysterious.

    Of course there are many remaining mysteries, and we might never understand all of them perfectly. We are just at the beginning of understanding how the brain works, but fully understanding how thinking and imagination work might really be beyond human capability. But that doesn’t mean that thinking and imagination must be creations of a god. As Leslie Orgel says, Evolution is smarter than you or me. Not really surprising- evolution has been doing its thing for an incomprehensibly long period of time, in an incomprehensibly huge number of lineages. Of course, we do have some smarts that evolution doesn’t have: we have foresight, which evolution simply does not have.

    “You, for instance, seem to be committed to rejecting God, despite the evidence that mounts in his favor. I suspect deep down that you really do “believe” that he is there, but that you struggle with the fallen nature of creation and the human condition. Does your atheism give you comfort? If so, is that why you hold so tenaciously to it?”

    I only “reject” God in the same sense that I reject dragons or even aliens: I’m waiting for evidence. Thing is, there’s lots of evidence that people make up stuff, like dragons, and gods, all the time, for fairly obvious reasons: comfort as I mentioned, but also profit and a desire to do good and many other reasons besides. I’m open to evidence, but I don’t see any so far.

    I only “struggle” with the fallen nature of creation in that it doesn’t paint a rosy picture of God’s nature, if He exists. But it certainly doesn’t disprove His existence. He’s the Potter, after all. If He gets it in His Head that He wants to kill a bunch of Amalekite kids, and all their animals too, then who’s going to argue with Him? Or if He thinks slavery is okay, what can we mere humans say?

    But no, that’s not why I’m an atheist. A lot of Christians manage to believe in a pretty nasty God, and that would fit some parts of the Bible better. And being an atheist doesn’t give me any comfort, other than the comfort of believing that I am closer to seeing the world the way it really is. Of course, you have that comfort too, so as far as comfort goes, the theists are probably ahead.

    But as I said, just because something is comforting doesn’t mean it’s true. And as far as I can see, there are no gods or supernatural forces or realms in the world. That’s why I’m an atheist.

    cheers from cloudy Vienna, zilch

  3. zilch says:

    Oh, and ps- just because I happen to not believe in God doesn’t mean that I don’t think there are good reasons to believe in God. After all, many lives are transformed for the better, and many good works are accomplished, by belief in some sort of god. But people can also transform their lives and accomplish good works without believing in God, but simply by believing in ideals that don’t require a God: love, fairness, peace, freedom from want and fear- all that good stuff everyone wants.

    Thus, while I enjoy arguing about the existence of God, I don’t really care that much what people believe, as long as it helps them behave nicely. Lots of my Christian, and Jewish, and Muslim, friends, manage to behave at least as nicely as I do, so that’s fine with me.

    cheers from cloudy Vienna, zilch

  4. Al says:

    Zilch,
    I think you’re giving evolution a little more credit than you should. In fact, I think your response simply begs the question. Consider: my car is amazingly fine tuned for modern cities. The rubber tires work great on asphalt and those corner service stations are amazing at providing that liquid substance that seems to power it. My particular model is much better suited to my comfort and needs than its evolutionary ancestor, the Model A. I’m so thankful that evolution is at work…. I hope you see the point. DNA makes the modern automobile seem by comparison, well, primitive would be an understatement. Yet, you provide a “just so” explanation that this mindless “force” is at work, eliminating the need for an intelligent designer. I think you need to be a bit more skeptical of the naturalistic position. We’re not living in Darwin’s day, after all, where some amorphous “life force” might explain things. DNA is a highly advanced code directing an amazing machinery to reliably produce living beings.

    The idea that people make stuff, so God must also be made up, is really just the genetic fallacy at play. Yes, Christians may be wrong about God, but the fact that people make stuff up about such things as aliens and dragons doesn’t really address the underlying issue. You’re seeking to explain why Christians are wrong, without first showing that they are wrong. (Yes, I agree, you have no burden of proof on this, but its better to make the argument than to engage in a fallacious response).

    I think your comment about the Amalekites is reflective of what’s bothering you. It is hard to get past episodes like the one to which you allude. Even putting them in their historical context, we struggle with making sense of them. My beliefs, in this regard anyway, don’t bring much comfort. But I don’t think I could worship a God whose ways I could fully understand….

  5. zilch says:

    Al- I agree, it’s hard to believe that organisms as seemingly perfectly designed as flowers, bacteria, ants, and humans, are the result of mindless evolution. But the evidence is that life did evolve. Not only on the basis of the fossil record, comparative anatomy and genetics, biochemistry, and results from lab and field: but also from a look at the differences between our kind of designing, say cars as in your example, and Mother Nature’s kind of designing. We humans have the advantage over evolution that we’ve got perception that operates in the here and now: we can imagine scenarios in our brains and let our “hypotheses die in our stead”, as Karl Popper said. Evolution doesn’t have that luxury: what doesn’t work dies, and it takes generations for what works to be sorted out from what doesn’t.

    But then again, Nature has a lot more time on her hands than we humans do. A human lifetime seems long to us, but even if we live to be a hundred, life has been around for an incomprehensibly longer time, by a factor of about thirty-five million. That, along with the fact that there have been an incomprehensibly large number of living lineages evolving in parallel, exceeds our ability to reckon odds. It’s been shown that an improvement in survival odds of merely one part in a thousand, that means that a beneficial mutation, even reckoning in that very few mutations are beneficial, must only have a 0.01% better chance of survival than its rivals, to account for the speed of evolutions shown in the fossil record. Hard to fathom, but true.

    You say:

    “The idea that people make stuff, so God must also be made up, is really just the genetic fallacy at play. Yes, Christians may be wrong about God, but the fact that people make stuff up about such things as aliens and dragons doesn’t really address the underlying issue. You’re seeking to explain why Christians are wrong, without first showing that they are wrong. (Yes, I agree, you have no burden of proof on this, but its better to make the argument than to engage in a fallacious response). ”

    Al, you misunderstand me: I’ve never claimed that people demonstrably making up stuff is proof that your God (or anyone else’s God) doesn’t exist. All it does is show why we shouldn’t accept claims for God without being skeptical. And as I said, I can’t prove that Christians are wrong. All I can do is say that the evidence so far leads me to believe in no gods.

    “I think your comment about the Amalekites is reflective of what’s bothering you. It is hard to get past episodes like the one to which you allude. Even putting them in their historical context, we struggle with making sense of them. My beliefs, in this regard anyway, don’t bring much comfort. But I don’t think I could worship a God whose ways I could fully understand….”

    My comment about the Amalekites, like my comments about slavery in the Bible, are examples of what would bother me if I were a Christian. But as I said, they are not the reason I don’t believe in God. If I were inclined to believe in some God, I probably would choose a more congenial, loving God- perhaps the God of the Baha’is, who at least preached universal education and equality of men and women. But so far, the real world hasn’t shown me any evidence for gods (or dragons, or leprechauns, or seers).

    cheers from sunny Vienna, zilch

    • Al says:

      Zilch,
      The evidence for “evolution” does not prove that it operates mindlessly. Things change over time because their DNA allows for such change to occur. What naturalism tries to show from evolution – that God is no longer necessary because random mutations with natural selection provides an adequate explanation – is what science has not yet proven. And, at least in my view, never will.

      • zilch says:

        Al- if your worldview tells you what science will never prove, then you are way ahead of me and any scientist.

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