Lewis' Argument From Desire Against Materialism


(SeanO) #1

Hey guys - just wanted to get your thoughts and reflections on C. S. Lewis’ argument against materialism that is rooted in our desires. He says if we desire something beyond this world, then it must exist. If we desire more than this world offers, this material world must not be all that exists. This argument is posited in its logical form in ‘Mere Christianity’ and in story form in ‘The Silver Chair’ through the voice of Puddle Glum.

Both arguments are presented here below. What are your thoughts? What does Lewis’ point inspire in your mind / heart? Have you ever desired a home beyond this world?

“The Christian says, 'Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those 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. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or to be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that country and to help others to do the same.” - C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity


Jordan Peterson - Maps of Meaning Part 2 - How Myth and Science are Both True
Reaching People Through Online Evangelism
What if God were evil?
(Biju Varghese) #3

I would agree with the statements from C S Lewis …the yearning for beyond the current world and that is a the dominant view across the world cultures. The word of God in Ecc. 3:11 say …Lord put that desire there …"He has also set eternity in the human heart… NIV " and no wonder there seems to be an absolute conviction in all cultures for its pursuit (except atheist). Further Isaiah 57:15 says the Lord inhabitants eternity …adding them together he dwells in eternity and put the thoughts of eternity into man so that … Man can be where He is (John 14:3) in eternity…so as much as we are sure He exists so does the eternity and so is the eternity with Him for the redeemed. For the second part … while we grow in the fullness of Christ in this world …the emptyness dimnishes as He indwells more and more …as we are complete only in Him …Col 2: 9-10 .


Does everyone know deep down that there is a God?
(SeanO) #4

@biju777 Thank you for those thoughts. I have always liked Ecclesiastes 3:11 - that eternity is in the heart of man. It explains the human thirst for what is beyond the world. The desire for more than this world can give can truly only be satisfied in Christ - who is eternal life.

How do you think this truth can help us reach others with the Gospel? For me, it is always important to remember that all people have that craving for the eternal, if only it can be directed to the water of life rather than the empty wells of this world.


(Andy Bannister) #5

I’ve increasingly found that the argument from desire and the argument from beauty (also important to Lewis) can be very compelling to a certain type of person, especially those more drawn to the arts and the humanities. (The Narnia clip above also reminds us of something so often missed — the importance of engaging the imagination, as well as the head and the heart. Lewis did this so well).


(Carson Weitnauer) #6

Hi @SeanO,

I wanted to follow back up on this conversation. You posted this at a perfect time for me! I was on vacation but preparing for Sunday, when I was scheduled to speak on “Do Our Desires Lead To God?” at the Ask Your Question (AYQ) class that I’m involved in at my church home. (AYQ is a class designed for seekers to come and investigate Christianity in a respectful environment).

Thanks to your post, it was far easier to work on the talk! FWIW, here are the notes from the class. I think using the whiteboard helped make the difference between the “Overland” and the “Underland” theories much more concrete, and less abstract, to everyone as we engaged in the discussion together.

Whiteboard:
Overland

Underland

Hi friends. Intro points.

Today we are going to look at the question, Do Our Desires Lead to God?

We’ve become quite fond of quoting CS Lewis in our class. There’s a reason for that. If you’re unfamiliar with him, I would recommend you read some of his books. They have some of the most remarkable and memorable illustrations of Christian truth, some very concise, sharp, clear thinking about reality, and a generous, warm, conversational tone.

Lewis wrote what has become a classic children’s story, the seven volume Chronicles of Narnia. One of the books is called The Silver Chair. I’d like to start today by sharing with you, at some length, an incredible excerpt from this book.

First, some context… In the Silver Chair, Prince Rilian, the son and only heir of the aging King of Narnia, has gone missing. If you aren’t familiar with the series, Narnia is a fictional world with kings and queens, talking animals, medieval pageantry, magic, and so on. In particular, Aslan the Lion is an important character in the stories. Aslan is a kind of Christ-figure, whose wisdom, strength, and love plays a significant role in overcoming evil powers and restoring Narnia so that things are “as they ought to be.” The Narnia series involves children from England who, through various portals, find their way into Narnia. Once there, they find themselves caught up in the drama of what is happening in the lands of Narnia.

In the Silver Chair, given that Prince Rilian is missing, Aslan sends Eustace Scrubb and Jill Pole, two English children, into Narnia to figure the mystery out. In their adventure, they are joined by a friend named Puddleglum. Together, they journey until they meet the Lady of the Green Kirtle, who we learn has captured Prince Rilian with her magic. (A kirtle is a coat). The Lady of the Green Kirtle – or the Green Lady – or the Green Witch - rules over a country called the Underland, that is, as you might have guessed, entirely underneath the earth.

The Green Lady introduces them to Rilian, but he appears insane. However, once Eustace, Jill, and Puddleglum free him from his silver chair, where he is locked each night, Prince Rillian destroys the chair. Then, in a dramatic scene, the Green Lady returns and confronts them. Her goal is to enchant them and use her magic to keep them as her prisoners.

As Lewis describes it, the Green Lady arrives in the room where Rilian has been held captive. Seeing the chair destroyed, she realizes she will need some new magic to keep him captive. So, she burns some green powder in a fire and beings to play a song to enchant them. The aroma of the powder and the lulling rhythm of the music slowly works its power over Rilian, Jill, Eustace, and Puddlglum. Over the course of the conversation between the Green Witch and our brave adventurers, they increasingly fall under her spell, and what she says starts to make more and more sense to them.

In the conversation, the Green Witch first denies that Narnia exists. Now remember, Jill, Eustace, Puddleglum, and Rillian are underground. So they struggle to prove that Narnia – the land above the ground — is real. What evidence or reason can you use, being under the ground, to prove that there really is a place above the ground?

Then Jill tries another approach. She boldly claims that she is from another world. But this is an even harder claim to maintain, and she struggles to prove its existence to the witch. How can she demonstrate that her testimony of being from another world is true to a skeptic like the Witch?

Despite the witch’s spell, the quartet continues to argue for the reality of Narnia. Puddleglum brings up the sun. Everyone agrees that they can remember seeing the sun before. But the Witch asks for an explanation. The friends say it is like a lamp, but brighter.

The Witch retorts, "“What is this sun that you all speak of? Do you mean anything by the word?””… “Your sun is a dream; and there is nothing in that dream that was not copied from the lamp. The lamp is the real thing; the sun is but a tale, a children’s story.””

Then Jill thinks of Aslan the Lion. The Witch asks what a lion is. Scrubb explains, it is like a cat, but stronger.

The witch replies: "You have seen lamps, and so you imagined a bigger and better lamp and called it the sun. You’ve seen cats, and now you want a bigger and better cat, and it’s to be called a lion. Well, ‘tis a pretty make-believe, though, to say truth, it would suit you all better if you were younger. And look how you can put nothing into your make-believe without copying it from the real world, this world of mine, which is the only world. But even you children are too old for such play. As for you, my lord Prince, that art a man full grown, fie upon you! Are you not ashamed of such toys?”

For a moment, it seems that the four of them will buy into her lies and enchantment.

Then Puddleglum goes and puts the fire out with his foot. This reduces the scent of the green powder - but it also fills the air with the smell of his burnt foot. After all, he is a marsh-wiggle. And the smell of his burning foot is not very enchanting! The pain clears Puddleglum’s head and he says,

"But there’s one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things—trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it.

We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that’s small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say.”

With this, the Witch turns into a kind of serpent or snake, and the Prince and Puddleglum hack it to death with their swords. Then Rilian is crowned the King of Narnia, Eustace and Jill go back to their world - our world - with his father Caspian and together they drive out the bullies from their school, and all the storylines end happily ever after.

Overall, it is a very nice story!

For our purposes this morning, the exchange with the witch raises some interesting questions.

For instance, when the Christian says, do you see the sun? It points to a far greater light - the light that comes from God, the Creator of the Sun. And the Christian goes on to say, as Genesis says, "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth…And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.” And Jesus said… “I am the light of the world.”

When that happens, is it a childish tale to believe that God created light? Or is it a legitimate inference to believe in God, considering the majesty and glory of the sun we can see with our own eyes?

Or should we trust the counter-response: to say: look, you see a lamp. But a lamp is no evidence that a sun exists! Similarly, to see a sun is no evidence that The Great Light exists.

Let’s consider another part of Puddleglum’s speech. When the Christian says, Do you enjoy the stories of heroes that save the world? Have you seen Black Panther? When you saw T’Challa defeat Killmonger, did you celebrate the triumph of good over evil? Do you use the #WakandaForever salute to celebrate black excellence, to celebrate human excellence? These superhero stories are pointers to a greater superhero story, when Jesus defeated Satan on the Cross.

Is it fair to reply: just because you see a cat doesn’t mean there is a lion? Just because we love superhero stories doesn’t mean that there is an even Greater Superhero who will bring the final triumph of good over evil. That’s naive. That’s a childish myth.

In John 8 we read, “Jesus said to them, “You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world. 24I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins.”25So they said to him, “Who are you?” Jesus said to them, “Just what I have been telling you from the beginning. 26I have much to say about you and much to judge, but he who sent me is true, and I declare to the world what I have heard from him.” 27They did not understand that he had been speaking to them about the Father.

What are we to make of this narrative? If Jesus is telling the truth, and he is ‘from above’ and we are from the underworld, how could we make sense of the testimony of someone who claimed to be from the world above? What would it sound like to people who live underneath the earth to hear someone come and tell them about the sun and the stars? Perhaps it would be as confusing for us to hear what heaven is like as it would be for people who lived under the earth to hear about the sun.

You can imagine the exchange.
"The sun is like a big lamp?”
“Well, yes, but quite a bit more than a big lamp… its hard to explain, exactly…”

Then Puddleglum’s bold speech comes into view. Notice that, first, he gets the courage to say his part only after he steps on the fire. First he takes a decisive action - an action that involves sacrifice and pain. An action that rejects comfort and lies.

Then he is able to speak of what is true.

Puddleglum says, in short, I can’t prove to you that Narnia is real. "Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things—trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have.”

What if we can’t make an airtight argument for these great realities? What is the next logical step?

Puddleglum puts it this way: "Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it….we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that’s small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say.”

If all the good news of Christianity is a delusion and a lie, then is it true that all we’re left with is a dull world - a black pit of a kingdom?

Isn’t it interesting, if there is no God, no great story to human history, no hope of a perfect world to come, to eternal judge who will make all things morally right one day, no savior who can rescue us from our badness, no God who loves us unconditionally, and we cannot legitimate the claim that all humans are equal because all are made in the image of God… that though the world lacks purpose and hope, we have fancied that it is so?

Lewis reflected on these themes outside of his fictional writing as well. Here’s how he stated what has become known as ‘the argument from desire’ in Mere Christianity:

The Christian says, 'Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those 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. 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. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing.

If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or to be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage.

I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that country and to help others to do the same.”

That’s a very interesting argument, isn’t it?

I don’t think it is an air-tight argument. But I think it is the kind of argument that awakens us to consider what life is all about. It isn’t an air-tight argument, but it is one that awakens us to consider the point of our lives.

How can we evaluate it properly? I think what we need to do is ask which theory - the Overland theory or the Underland theory - can help us best make sense of the data, make the most sense of our desires for the eventual triumph of good over evil, to see the sheer beauty and goodness of Creation as the work of a Master Artist, to believe that we were made for adventure and purpose, that we have a role to play in a story of cosmic importance, that we are sacred creatures worthy of dignity and respect, that there is an objective, real difference between what is right and what is wrong - how do we make sense of these profound desires?

Let’s look at the Overland theory.

In the Overland theory, these desires for our ‘true country’ are given to us by God. These longings for more are echoes of the world we were made to live in. Our hearts try food, and sex, and music, and work, and rest - we are trying to find something to satisfy us. But many of us feel that something was missing. Or even if it was a perfect moment, that it was fleeting. The satisfaction of desire is regularly either incomplete or transitory.

The Overland theory says, these earthly pleasures are meant to arouse our desire for more - more than anything this world can offer. If we will follow our desires with enough passion, we will find ourselves in love with Jesus. Jesus is able to love us infinitely, constantly, joyfully, in perfect goodness, forever. Stir up that desire for MORE, MORE, MORE - and you will eventually find yourself a Christian.

In his sermon today, Crawford Loritts, our senior pastor, said, “Everything in you longs for Jesus.” That’s the kind of connection we’re talking about.

Whiteboard: (under desires)
EARTLHY - echoes of the spiritual
SPIRITUAL - pursue MORE and you find Jesus

On the Underland theory, which I take to be a materialistic naturalism, our desires are neuro-chemical stimuli. Some of these desires aid us in survival. Some of them do not.

NEURO-CHEMICAL STIMULI
AID TO SURVIVAL
HINDRANCE TO SURVIVAL

All of our conscious experiences, that is, will one day be matched to brain regions and brain activity. We will be able to link together how our various desires, in various physical and social situations, either aid or hinder human organisms in the quest for survival and reproductive advantage.

The desire for superhero stories to be true might be a clever tool the weak use to enlist the strong to aid them. As an article at Stanford’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy puts it, in summarizing the famous atheist Nietzsche’s thought, he "claims that the “chief means” by which the “weak and mediocre…weaken and pull down the stronger” is “the moral judgment””.

Do you see? If the weak can convince the strong that they have a moral duty to be charitable and generous with their resources, then this is a very clever way to get resources they could not get by their own relatively lesser power. But of course, morality claims are fictional. There is no god! There is no right and wrong! There is biology, sociology, and ultimately, death for all of us. There is the strong and the weak and that is that.

Whiteboard:
Overworld: Narrative of FULFILLMENT
Underworld: Narrative of DEMYTHOLOGIZE

If the Overworld exists, then our desire for MORE can find fulfillment.
But if the Underworld is all that is real, then we will be EXPLAINING AWAY our desire for more as being childish myths.

Discussion:
Which world do you think we live in - and why?


(SeanO) #7

@CarsonWeitnauer Thanks for posting this! That is a thorough outworking of the argument in a conversational setting that I could definitely see being useful for discipleship. I actually just listened to the audiobook of the ‘The Silver Chair’ again and I am always freshly captured by the way that Lewis’ illustrations cut to the heart of the issue.

Did anyone ask particularly challenging questions in your class?


(Carson Weitnauer) #8

Hi Sean,

The clarity and insight of Lewis’ illustrations is remarkable. They are memorable and help people understand his points. I plan to keep borrowing his illustrations (with full credit given!) and work to develop my own.

We had a very lively discussion in the class. I thought the best question was along these lines:

I simply disagree with Lewis on this point. I might want the ‘narrative of fulfillment’ to be true, but that doesn’t mean that it is. Playing into what we want is no basis for finding truth.

I think this approach reinforces the ideas that skeptics are more willing to follow the facts to the truth; religious people will buy in if it sounds good.

I responded by revisiting Puddleglum’s speech:

Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it…

I think Puddleglum is offering a very interesting argument here. If it were the case that the Underland was the only world, then how is it that Puddleglum and the children have these longings for the sun, trees, grass, and even for Aslan? None of them exist!

The Christian is attempting to think coherently. We believe that everyone having the discussion is an image bearer of God, living in the good world he made. So we have the rational capacity to discuss whether or not we live in Overland or Underland.

However, were it the case that there was no God, I’m not sure I believe that there would even be a universe in which humans could exist to debate the question! Nor does it seem to me that there would be consciousness, spiritual longings, and so on. These kinds of things are ‘at home’ in the Christian worldview; they need to be ‘explained away’ in the naturalistic approach. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it…

I’d be curious what you and others think about the question and my response!


(SeanO) #9

@CarsonWeitnauer That is so interesting. When Lewis was young, which was obviously a long time ago, there was a movement among his contemporaries against wish fulfillment, the very objection you encountered. It is interesting how there truly is ‘nothing new under the sun’ and I do imagine Lewis was keenly aware of the wish fulfillment objection as he penned The Silver Chair.

I think your response was spot on. I would be curious to ask the questioner, “Why do you think we have those desires?” I expect they may say something along the lines of evolutionary programming or because they are essential to survival. Or they may simply not know.

I also think he misunderstood Lewis’ epistemology. Lewis is not saying that we find truth only by following our desires - that is a non-Christian notion entirely. Rather, Lewis is saying that desires do not exist unless they can be fulfilled in some fashion. To figure out the ‘truth’ of how they ought to be fulfilled in reality requires reason and evidence - which is exactly what we have in the person of Jesus Christ - the ultimate signal of transcendence.


(Carson Weitnauer) #10

Yes, and once the questioner says:

We have this desire for God because of our evolutionary programming, so we can reject our desire for God as not being based on a rational basis…

then it is fair to explore:

We have this desire for truth because of our evolutionary programming, so we can reject our desire for truth as not being based on a rational basis…

As I see it, the whole project undermines itself at that point.

Alternatively, we can also look at this from another angle: Ok, so our evolutionary programming gave us the desire for food, and food is still there. Even if our desire for God is explained by our evolutionary past, that doesn’t mean that God does not exist. In fact, perhaps God oversaw the evolutionary process (or special creation) so that our biological systems do point us towards him.

One way or another, the argument implicitly needs to assume that naturalism is true to end up with naturalism as the conclusion.


(SeanO) #11

touché :slight_smile: