Argument from Desire and Abductive Reasoning
One way human beings clearly differ from the animals is in their inner existential longings. Many people describe experiencing an innermost yearning for a deeper meaning and purpose to life, and sometimes even a secret desire for God and eternal life. But why do people experience such longings? And do such existential yearnings reflect something more than mere human subjectivity?
C. S. Lewis is one in a long line of Christian thinkers who think that such longings point to an external reality beyond this world. Here is Lewis describing what has come to be known as the “argument from desire” for God’s existence and life eternal:
Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for these 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.1
Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft here restates Lewis’s argument in logical form (in an argument, the premises provide support and the conclusion is the point to be accepted or rejected):
- Premise 1: Every natural, innate desire in us corresponds to some real object that can satisfy that desire.
- Premise 2: But there exists in us a desire which nothing in time, nothing on earth, no creature can satisfy.
- Conclusion: Therefore there must exist something more than time, earth and creatures, which can satisfy this desire.2
The argument from desire as a whole is really an attempt to explain an aspect of the human condition. Virtually all human beings at one time or another experience a profound sense of wanting life to be deeply meaningful and satisfactory. Yet reflective people often recognize that meaning and purpose in life are often elusive and that finite reality doesn’t seem to offer the fulfillment that they are looking for.
So how is this common human existential condition best explained?
Three Worldview Explanations
Let’s briefly consider three possible worldview explanations:
Explanation 1: Christian theism posits that this existential longing is explained by the truth that human beings were made to have fellowship with God, but sin has alienated them and cut them off from God. Yet even sinners who reject God still experience an underlying need for ultimate meaning and purpose, and that is found in desiring God. Thus, the Christian explanation is that true existential meaning can only come through faith in Jesus Christ, and believers will only experience ultimate meaning and purpose in the eschatological future (final redemption in heaven). Therefore, this longing and desire is rooted in an eternal reality.
Explanation 2: Evolutionary naturalism posits that there is no ultimate meaning and purpose to life. Human beings are the product of blind, purely mechanistic natural processes. Thus, these apparent yearnings for ultimate meaning human beings experience are merely a form of psychological wish fulfillment. Therefore, there is no objective explanation for the human desire for meaning, and these longings are purely subjective.
Explanation 3: Mystical pantheism posits that humans are really God and life in this world is illusory. Yet this maya (illusion) gives humans the impression that they are distinct individual beings separated from God and meaningless. Thus, only through meditation and religious mysticism will people recognize their divine oneness and experience what Hinduism calls moksha (impersonal salvation). So this yearning and desire is rooted in illusion.
So these are three models of explanation. Which model is ultimately the best explanation? Can logic help?
Deduction, which requires certainty, and induction, which requires probability, aren’t adequate forms of reasoning to test such hypothetical explanatory theories. But abduction, which requires plausibility, can help determine which of the three is the most plausible explanation.
Three Types of Reasoning3
- Deductive reasoning: requires certainly true conclusions
- Inductive reasoning: requires probably true conclusions
- Abductive reasoning: requires plausibly true conclusions
So how would one go about testing such models? One must ask specific questions and compare the adequacy of the answers offered by the models.
Consider these questions:
- Which model seems more logically coherent?
- Which model is more fruitful and leads to greater insight about life?
- Which model solves practical problems in living life?
- Which model best explains our life experiences and the larger scope of those experiences?
It seems that this abductive (explanatory) approach to reasoning is the most natural way that humans think. For example, when we wake up in the morning and peek through the blinds and see that the street is wet, we immediately seek the most plausible explanation (e.g., rain, street sweeper, or possibly illusion). We seem to be explanation-seeking creatures. But maybe that is the way God made us.
Abductive reasoning is a powerful way of approaching other apologetics questions as well, like explaining Jesus’s true identity, accounting for the resurrection, and determining the viability of creation or evolution.
So many of Christianity’s greatest thinkers (Augustine, Pascal, and C. S. Lewis) have concluded that humankind’s inner existential longings are best explained as pointers to a transcendent God and to life eternal through faith in Jesus Christ.
What’s your explanation?
Reflections: Your Turn
Have you experienced existential longings? How do you explain the phenomenon? Visit Reflections on WordPress to comment with your response.
Gregory E. Ganssle, Our Deepest Desires: How the Christian Story Fulfills Human Aspirations (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2017).
- C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 1952), 136–37.
- See Peter Kreeft’s explanation and defense of the argument from desire here: https://www.peterkreeft.com/topics/desire.htm.
- For more on the three types of reasoning, see Kenneth Richard Samples, “Logic 101 and Christian Truth-Claims,” chap. 3 in A World of Difference: Putting Christian Truth-Claims to the Worldview Test (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007).