The Problem with Desire

Been havin’ a great week so far, friends. Tons of videogames, plenty of great food, and general relaxation mark the submission of my third dissertation draft. A respite like this makes a fitting reward for the progress I made, wouldn’t you say? Even so, perhaps the process of working on that big ol’ project has left a mark on me. I find myself with a keen desire for some more intellectual stimulation–perhaps just to keep myself sharp–so I’ve endeavored to write an extra entry this week, on a subject more serious and abstruse than my typical fare of games, anime, and food.

I’ll not be talking much about history–I think I really do need a little break from all that. Instead, I’ll be heading back to philosophy and metaphysics. I’m sure you guys remember my long posts criticizing the Catholic philosophical tradition of Thomism. My approach was to critically review a couple of books written by one of that tradition’s staunchest proponents, Edward Feser. Thankfully, today’s post won’t be another huge book review like the ones I did for Feser’s Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide or his polemical The Last Superstition. If I wrote one of those, I wouldn’t have any time for relaxation at all this week!

Today’s entry will be a much more modest examination of a single blog post Feser wrote recently. Pasadena’s finest took a look at an old argument for the existence of an everlasting soul, the “Argument from Desire.” Feser thinks the argument has some merit, at least with the proper “metaphysical groundwork,” but I’m not so sure. Of course, I don’t expect you to just take my word for it. Let’s see what Feser himself says, and then I’ll point out the problems I’ve observed.

Feser starts off by describing something a conservative intellectual, Dennis Prager, said a little while ago. Prager mentioned he believed in God because he wanted to. “The thought that there is no compensation in the hereafter for suffering endured in this life, nor any reunion with departed loved ones, is one he [Prager] finds just too depressing.” Feser subsequently notes that this is a motivation, not an actual philosophical argument. As it turns out, however, Thomas Aquinas actually did make a real argument out of this. Feser is courteous enough to provide one version of it:

[E]verything naturally aspires to existence after its own manner.  Now, in things that have knowledge, desire ensues upon knowledge.  The senses indeed do not know existence, except under the conditions of “here” and “now,” whereas the intellect apprehends existence absolutely, and for all time; so that everything that has an intellect naturally desires always to exist.  But a natural desire cannot be in vain.  Therefore every intellectual substance is incorruptible.

It’s fairly hard to understand because Aquinas is using terms like “existence,” “natural” and “substance” in ways different than how we use the terms now. You need to have a lot of training in philosophy to make proper sense of it. Thankfully, once again Feser is nice enough to break things down for us:

“By a “natural” desire, Aquinas means a tendency toward some end that a thing has just by virtue of being the kind of thing it is – that is to say, by virtue of its essence.  (To put the point in more technical terms, he is talking about immanent final causes grounded in substantial forms.)  So, consider a tree’s tendency to sink roots into the ground so as to take in water.  That would be an example of the sort of thing Aquinas has in mind, and as that example indicates, a “desire” of the sort he is talking about needn’t be conscious.  For a tree is not conscious, but it still “desires” water in the sense that by virtue of its nature it will send out roots so as to acquire it…What does Aquinas mean when he says [such natural desires] cannot be “in vain”?  He can’t mean that such desires are always in fact satisfied, because he is as aware as his readers are that they are very often not satisfied.  For example, trees, people, and other plants and animals die of thirst all the time.  What he means is that a thing couldn’t naturally be directed toward some end unless that end were real.  Such desires can be fulfilled at least in principle even if they are not always fulfilled in fact.  Hence if trees, human beings, and other plants and animals are naturally directed toward seeking out water, there must really be water out there for them to seek (even if they don’t always find it).  If there were not, the desire for water would be in vain.

Now, Feser does address some objections to this argument, such as the ones raised by another thinker, Duns Scotus. But my objections are different from those of Scotus (who was another churchman like Aquinas), so I won’t address the other guy’s. Here’s where I’m coming from.

I think I see the problem when we wonder what a thing’s nature is. To understand why requires a little bit of background, and this stuff I have to explain because anything less would result in total confusion. Nature, in the sense Feser and Aquinas are using it here, doesn’t mean something that “comes about naturally” or is “part of the natural world.” Feser always complains whenever people try to refute Thomistic metaphysics based on the fact that “what’s natural is not always good,” which is often called the naturalistic fallacy, and related to the classic is-ought fallacy. The Thomistic sense of the word is rather different, and (it seems to me) strongly related to the terms Form, Essence, and Final Cause.

I (and of course, Feser by extension) go into much more detail about this in my review of The Last Superstition, but a quick recap: A form, essence, or nature is kind of like a thing’s definition. It’s the “organizing principle” that makes a thing what it is, and distinguishes it from other things. For instance, the essence of a triangle is to be a closed polygon with three straight sides and interior angles adding up to 180. This is what defines a triangle and distinguishes it from other things, like, say, squares (which have four rather than three sides, interior angles adding up to 360, and so on). Thomists think this is very significant because it allows us to say things are “objectively” good or bad based on whether or not they adhere to their essences. A good triangle would be one that has exactly three sides that are perfectly straight, while a bad one would have curved corners or squiggly sides. I think this is BS, but I’ve explained as much elsewhere and will do so again later. For the purposes of argument, let’s agree with Feser and Aquinas and accept this scheme.

Now, according to Thomists, living things can be classified in sort of the same way. The essence of a tree, for instance, is a “tall plant with leaves on its branches that grows by photosynthesizing sunlight and extending its roots deep into the soil to extract water and nutrients.” This is what defines and distinguishes the tree from rocks or different kinds of plants or animals or whatever. You’ll notice that unlike the essence of a triangle, this definition includes behavior as well (growth and nutrition). This is why we might call it the nature of a tree rather than the essence, but the two terms are very closely related. In any case, the Thomist will say that what applies to triangles also applies to trees; there is an objective standard by which we can call trees good or bad. Good ones grow tall and have long roots, bad ones have stunted roots and die for lack of water.

Once again, the truth of these metaphysics can be debated later. The point here is that we can understand what Feser’s talking about. Yes, he knows that trees are plants and can’t consciously want anything, but in a certain sense, they “desire” to take in water. Since that desire stems from their essence, one can conclude that water must actually exist somewhere (why else would they have evolved the “desire” to take in water). This doesn’t mean every tree will get the water it “desires;” Feser notes that trees die of thirst all the time. But it does mean there must be water somewhere.

The same reasoning applies to humans. According to Thomists, just like trees have the nature of being “plants that grow roots to absorb water,” human beings have the nature of being rational animals, or “animals that use reason.” Again, I don’t agree with this at all, but for the purpose of argument I’m going with it. Thus, at long last, we can begin to grasp what Aquinas and Feser are getting at: The “desire” for eternal life is entailed by our nature, much like the desire for water is entailed by the aforementioned nature of trees, so just like water exists (else trees would not “desire” it), eternal life, or more specifically the eternal subsistence of the soul, exists because otherwise, human beings would not desire it, regardless of whether you believe we evolved to search for eternal life the way we seek out food or water, or if God made us that way, or whatever.

Now, I’m sure even this extended argument seems silly to most of my readers, but to be fair, it would require significantly more extension to really be intelligible, if not convincing. I’ve just outlined the theory of Forms above, but you also need to know how Aquinas, Aristotle, and Feser defined “rational,” why they thought rational beings must in some sense be immaterial, and stuff like that. Feser’s books explore the subject in much more depth, as I do in my reviews of those books. But that would require ten thousand words, and I’m tryin’ to keep this entry below 5,000. So let’s get started on criticizing this argument even while conceding its metaphysical underpinnings–taking it on its own turf, so to speak.

We can agree with the Thomist that the nature (a.k.a essence, a.k.a definition, organizing principle, and necessary+common behavior)  of intelligent human beings entails that we have an immaterial immortal soul. But does that necessarily entail we “naturally desire” eternal life?

It doesn’t seem so to me. Feser himself admits that we have many desires which are not “natural” in the sense of flowing from our natures/essences, but which aren’t positively unnatural or contrary to our natures either. He gives the example of desiring a comic book, which is harmless, of course, but not a “natural” desire in the sense of desiring food or water. After all, there’s nothing in the definition of human being that requires us to read comic books, but since human beings are, well, living things, we *need* to desire food and water or else we’ll die. Someone who lacked this desire would soon die of hunger and thirst, and Feser, and Aquinas, and Aristotle would say his lack of desire would make him a “defective” human being.

Thus, it seems to me that for this argument to work, human beings would “need to desire” eternal life in the same way we need to desire food and water. But this is obviously untrue. Plenty of people and groups throughout history have utterly lacked any desire for eternal life, and have faced the prospect of non-existence after death fairly evenly, though they of course do not go out of their way to seek death.

Perhaps Feser, and Aquinas, and Aristotle would say that such people are “defective” in the same way someone with no desire to eat and drink would be “defective.” Unfortunately, this is fairly difficult to prove. It’s easily demonstrated that a desire for food and water is natural in the sense these guys wanted and needed it to be because of the concrete, easily observable negative consequences which result from a lack of that desire. But how, exactly, would you show that an atheist, agnostic, Stoic, Buddhist, or whoever was “defective” because he or she didn’t desire eternal life? Most of those folks get along fine and live long, happy lives without such a desire. They also “reason” just fine, which means they’re good “rational animals” in the sense of exhibiting the behaviors entailed by that nature, just like a tree whose big roots get lots of water is a “good tree” in the sense of exhibiting the proper behavior entailed by the nature of a tree.

Therefore, it is reasonable to believe that a crucial disanalogy exists between a desire for eternal life, which seems unimportant, and a desire for sustenance, which is a very important component of living. Or, in other words, a desire for eternal life is not actually a “natural” desire, since people who perfectly instantiate the nature of a rational animal do not always have this particular desire. And we can further conclude that there is no necessary reason to believe eternal life exists.

Perhaps Feser would like us to look more closely at the “nature,” the distinguishing characteristics and behavior, of rationality. As I mentioned above, Aristotelians take rationality to indicate the existence of an immaterial part of human function irreducible to our physical body parts, and according to them, as Feser says.

[Rational] knowledge – intellectual knowledge, which involves the grasp of universal concepts and universal truths – is directed beyond the here and now, indeed toward “all time.”  But whatever is like this, Aquinas says, “naturally desires always to exist.”  In the Summa Contra Gentiles passage, he says that creatures with intellects “know and apprehend *perpetual* being [and] desire it with natural desire” (Feser’s emphasis added).  Hence we must have perpetual being, or our desire for it would be in vain.

But again, plenty of people can grasp “universal truths,” and also grasp “eternal truths,” including the concept of eternal life (or “perpetual being”) and still find it unattractive. Aquinas, it seems here, is simply and flatly wrong. At least if Feser’s account of him is accurate. Feser would probably argue that anyone who doesn’t want eternal life, as opposed to simply a long and happy one, must be either “defective” or hasn’t truly grasped what it is to live eternally. We dealt with the “defective” claim above. To make the latter argument we’d have to explain how perpetual existence is really infinite goodness and desirability, which involves “the doctrine of transcendentals,” and which would take a long time to explain and a longer time to refute. Whatever. The point here is that at the very least, it is not obviously self-evident, and would take a respectable degree of effort, to prove that people who don’t desire eternal life have gotten things wrong in some way. Even if we accept Aristotelian metaphysics, Feser would need to do much more work to make the argument from desire convincing.

Even worse is Feser’s example of the paleontologist, which, I’m sorry to say, strikes me as…unsatisfying. Here it is:

The existence of carnivorous teeth presupposes, in a metaphysical sense, the existence of prey who might be eaten.  The former would not exist unless the latter did, whereas the latter could exist whether or not the former did.  But it doesn’t follow that our paleontologist would first have independently to establish the existence of the relevant sort of prey in the environmental niche in question before judging that the teeth serve a carnivorous end.  His general knowledge of the kinds of teeth there are suffices for that.  Hence, if all he knows at first is that a certain environmental niche was populated by a kind of animal having carnivorous teeth, he can go on to conclude that there must also have been prey of the relevant sort living in that niche.  He does not have to remain agnostic on that question pending direct evidence.  The presupposition in question is not an epistemological one. 

The problem is, he does. There are several species of animals with sharp, “carnivorous” teeth but a vegetarian diet. Here are two examples:

I could probably find more if I wanted. The thing with these critters was that they used their sharp teeth to defend themselves or compete for mates, not catch prey. So, contra Feser, a good paleontologist would have to “remain agnostic” on the diet of a creature that seemed to have carnivorous teeth. The paleontologist would have to see if there were fossils of other creatures from the same place and time, if traces of animal proteins were found in the remains of the meat-eater’s stomach, and so on. He would also have to acknowledge the possibility that the bones had been mixed up somehow–maybe a mistake in excavation, or the teeth had been damaged in such a way as to make them appear sharp rather than flat. He would *not* be able to say, with 100% certainty, that a creature with “carnivorous” teeth was necessarily carnivorous. Absent additional evidence, he would have to remain agnostic, though he could say it was “more likely than not” the hypothetical creature was carnivorous.

The same applies to the eternal soul. The fact that many humans seem to desire eternal life does not, by itself, prove eternal life exists. Perhaps, as I described above, that desire is not actually “natural” in the sense Aquinas, Aristotle, and Feser meant. Perhaps that desire is actually “naturally” directed to something else (I dunno, reincarnation or something) rather than the existence of an independent soul per se. Or perhaps that desire is misdirected or defective, to turn Feser’s favored brand of argument against him, and it’s the atheists or Buddhists who are truly in accordance with their “natural desires.” Or perhaps a dozen other objections, I’m not saying any one of them is right, I’m just pointing put they’re viable possibilities. Even if we accept the Aristotelian propositions that everything has a certain nature, and the nature of the human soul is to be immaterial, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the nature of the human mind is what Feser and Aquinas say it is.

In the end, then–when all is said and done– I think one can safely say that, even when we accept some parts of Aristotelian metaphysics, the Argument from Desire…leaves a lot to be desired.


Anyways, I hope you guys found this entry to at least be amusing, and if any of you learned anything I’ll be a happy man indeed 🙂 If you liked what you read, consider taking part in my newest venture: An online tip jar! I’ve started a Patreon where I’m accepting donations for longer essays like this one, things a bit more serious and substantive than just my weekly updates on how great my life is. If you think I’ve earned it, and if you think you might want to vote on what the subject of my next longer essay will be, drop me a few cents at 😀







  1. mcc1789 · · Reply

    Yes, this has always struck me as among the worst arguments for God (or eternal life). As you say, it could easily be the opposite-this desire is “unnatural” in their sense, either defective or excessive. Plus the desire differs greatly. Some people desire a heaven as Catholics describe-many don’t, but favor some other kind, reincarnation etc. That desire simply tells us next to nothing even if there is some eternal life.

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