Thoughts on the Evidential Argument from Desire


I’m in the middle of a unit on Christian Apologetics with my juniors. We are currently going through the existential argument, which claims that Christian faith is justified because it satisfies our deepest emotional and spiritual needs. I’ve written on this subject before, and I’d recommend that readers take a look at my previous post before continuing on with this one. I would also encourage readers to take a look Existential Reasons for Belief in God by Clifford Williams, which was the inspiration for this post.

Williams distinguishes between the existential argument for God and the evidential argument from desire, although the two are related and mutually reinforcing. The existential argument simply says that I am justified in believing in God because I feel a desire for God (that may strike you as an irrational claim, but please read Williams before dismissing it). On the other hand, the evidential argument seeks to build a rational case based on the very existence of such a desire. That is, the evidential argument reasons from the question, “Why do I have this religious desire in the first place?”

Broadly speaking, there are two ways one might conceivably answer that question. The first option would be to go the theistic route and argue that God put a desire for him in our hearts, so that we would seek him out (see Acts 17:27). The second option would be to go the skeptic’s route and claim that such a religious desire can be explained in purely natural, evolutionary terms. Perhaps, for example, our religious desire is just the byproduct of some adaptation that helped our ancestors survive in the African savannah. In such a case, the skeptic could just bite the bullet and say that the universe isn’t a fair place, and there’s no reason to think that all our desires can or should be satisfied, thus neutralizing the existential argument.

Now without taking into account any of the empirical evidence for or against evolution, one may have a hard time weighing the relative strength of either answer. Who’s to say whether the theist is correct in claiming that our desire for God comes from God himself and all our deepest longings are met in him, or whether the skeptic is correct in claiming that such a desire is just an evolutionary misfire and we’re all just victims of a cosmic tragedy?

But here’s where I think the theist has an explanatory edge over the skeptic: we aren’t talking about just one desire, but many. Williams lists several basic human desires, all of which converge on God as their object: the desire for meaning, for hope, for forgiveness, for justice, for unconditional love, and many others. Now if the skeptic’s account is true, then the convergence of all of these desires on the same fictional object is nothing more than a fantastic, unexpected coincidence. On the other hand, if God does indeed exist, then such a convergence is precisely what we would expect. It would be no surprise to find that the God who is the source of all our deepest longings is also the answer to all our deepest longings. One could therefore say that the skeptic faces a “combinatorial inflation” problem (a term I am borrowing from Stephen Meyer’s book Darwin’s Doubt [review here]): with each desire that is satisfied in God, chalking it up to coincidence becomes exponentially less probable—just like adding digits to a combination lock.

So that’s my take on Williams’ evidential argument from desire. It seems quite persuasive to me, but the real challenge for the apologist is getting the comfortable skeptic to admit that they feel such desires in the first place.

About Kyle Dillon

A teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), assistant pastor of theological instruction at Riveroaks Reformed Presbyterian Church, and theology/languages teacher at Westminster Academy in Memphis, Tennessee.

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