"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The argument from desire

As I waded this morning through my overwhelming social-network streams—all of which now integrate into my single Google+ stream—I managed to notice somebody quoting C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity: "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." Both in context and in general, that is the nucleus of an argument for the existence of God. Seeing a token of it revived my memory of having found the argument persuasive when I read the book in my teens. I still believe the argument has potential: more than even theists generally acknowledge.

Of course modern and post-modern Western minds scoff.  The only difference between the modern and post-modern minds is that the latter is more consistently cynical, and even that difference does not obtain here. And for good reason: If only for maturation's sake, we are taught not to assume that desiring X is evidence that X exists to satisfy the desire. I desire freedom from death, or failing that, freedom from the natural consequences of sexual license; yet as they're fond of saying in the South, that ain't gonna happen. (The South has some wonderful sayings, such as "Y'cain't win fer losin'...") I desire that the tree in my yard grow money, but that ain't gonna happen either—and if it did, the government and my ex would find a way to get most of it anyhow. We all know that we can and why we should outgrow desires we know cannot be satisfied.

But can we or should we outgrow what the Germans call sehnsucht?  I mean what Lewis meant:
That unnameable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of The Well at the World's End, the opening lines of "Kubla Khan", the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves.
We've all experienced that. But most of us can't name the desire itself, still less its object; and as we age, most of us tend to forget it. We assume it's the fantasy of children and poets, and fear that dwelling on it would inhibit the "real" business of life. Indeed, as Lewis taught us, even the experience of it cannot be summoned up by wishing or seeking. And so it would seem that sehnsucht tells us nothing about any "beyond." For many of those capable of even discussing the matter, sehnsucht is just part of our makeup, full stop. Perhaps it's our brain chemistry. As such, it may have "adaptive" value, by virtue of causing some people to believe that all the pain and suffering of life is worthwhile in terms of a beautiful Reality beyond what the world has to offer. Such a belief motivates many to carry on and stay relatively sane. But sehnsucht is not, really, evidence of any such Reality. Or is it?

Like Lewis, I think it is. I have always thought so. In general, natural, inescapable desires for good things can and should be satisfied. We have natural, inescapable desires for food, sleep, sex, play, knowledge, beauty, and many other generic goods. It is natural for us to love—even to love specific people, such as our children. Under certain conditions, all the aforementioned goods are available; under certain conditions, we should seek and attain them; when we do, we enjoy them. Why should that natural, inescapable desire called sehnsucht be any different? Is there any reason to believe that "reality" ultimately frustrates that longing, that what's longed for cannot be named because it does not exist? Of course it's logically possible that sehnsucht is futile at the end of the day, or of life; but what's actually the case is only a small subset of what's logically possible, and much more interesting.

One can rule out such an "argument from desire" by stipulating that only what can be known scientifically can be known at all, and thus can be safely said to exist at all. But scientism would have us believe, like Bertrand Russell, that we are evolutionary experiments doomed to frustration and oblivion. To my mind, and that of most of the human race, nihilism is unreasonable as well as boring. Trust your sehnsucht instead. It's the reasonable thing to do.

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