Saturday, June 26, 2010

You keep using that word…

…but I don't think it means what you think it means.

Msgr. Charles Pope recently proposed a reflection on God and human desire, called "Demonstrating God’s Existence Through Desire". I got wind of it from a friend's Facebook page, a committed Catholic and a Ph.D. in philosophy. He likes the argument but is not sure it works. I quote Msgr. Pope:

Consider for a moment that your desire is infinite. Honestly, it is. When was the last time you were perfectly satisfied and needed nothing? Never happened, did it? We are a vast and limitless sea of desire. Yes, if we are honest, our desires are quite limitless, clearly infinite.

But does this not show forth God’s existence and that he wrote his name in your heart? Does it not give clear evidence that you were made for God?

How does this demonstrate the existence of God? Well, consider the following:

1. Nothing can give what it does not have (Nihil dat quod non habet). For me to give you $20, I must first have at least $20.

2. Hence that which is finite cannot give what is infinite. That which is limited cannot give something that is unlimited.

3. Our desire is demonstrably infinite, unlimited.

4. But the Material world is finite. It is limited.

5. Thus the Material world did not confer this infinite desire upon us.

6. Hence someone or something infinite must have conferred this infinite desire upon us.

7. That Someone we call, God.

At present there are about two dozen comments on the article at his Facebook and about 30 comments on the original post at Msgr. Pope's blog. My friend's main objection to the argument as one commenter tried to defend it, is that it is circular. The defender wrote: "When you get to the heart of the problem, then you realize that there is only one infinite source. If you don't realize that, then you are not at the heart of the problem yet." My friend replied, "If one can't say what the problem is without citing the solution, then one can't say what the question is without citing the answer. There is no more perfect instance of begging the question."

My own initial thoughts are the following.

Doesn't the order and magnitude of "desiring the good" play a crucial role in St. Thomas's account of free will? As in, isn't his point that, while the will is naturally drawn to will the Good in each case, yet because no one thing is the Summum Bonum, therefore the will is transcendentally underdetermined apart from an intellective 'taste' of God Himself? Even then, after that 'taste', the will is not utterly predetermined from without, since in God there is an infinitude of goods over which the will can 'rove', as it were.

I think an interesting line of analysis would be to consider just what 'desire' entails. Is desire as such inherently insatiable, and therefore inherently ordered to an infinite (inexhaustible) good? In willing a ham sandwich, I will to quell my hunger, but why do I do that? Because, at the same time, I will the good of continuing to live. Why do I do that? Because at the same time I will the fellowship of my family and friends? Why that? Etc. Is it possible to remove a singular mode or case of desire from an entire nexus of desirable reality? If not, then a single act of willing something desirable is actually an act of willing an unbounded amount of unfathomably rich Good Itself.

It's like language: no word is intelligible on its own apart from its connection to the whole of linguistic capacity. And insofar as God may well be the ultimate signifier which keeps language games infinite and vital, then perhaps He is also the infinite object of all willing whatsoever, which keeps desire games infinite and vital. If for St. Thomas in every act of knowing the thinker knows God implicitly (cf. De Lubac's Discovering God), then I think, given the close link between the intellect and the will, that it is a worthwhile extrapolation to explore that in every act of desire the agent wills God implicitly. This line of reasoning is not circular since it begins with an analysis of desire itself that concludes to the infinite as being phenomenologically essential to 'desire' per se.


Tsunami said...

Hey, thanks for telling me about your blog! My own is

As far as the desire argument goes, I'll say what I think is right, which might agree with your assessment a good bit.

In the first place, desire here cannot mean desire "simpliciter" but only in a qualified (defined, in this case, as being not for any lesser good but for the purpose of all lesser goods) manner. The reason I say this is that even though we may desire lesser goods infinitely, this does not mean that such desire is probative. My neverending desire for chocolate is not proof of God's existence (although as experiential knowledge goes, the existence of chocolate might be... :-D ) but only proof of chocolate and of my existence. And indeed, we can desire inordinately and deficiently. "What would you do for a klondike bar? KILL EVERYONE." So if we can desire that klondike bar more than is prudent, is the klondike bar itself worth that desire in being? No. By definition it isn't.

So it has to be a desire for something beyond the finite...but then you have to prove, first, that no material thing OR SET OF MATERIAL THINGS is infinite. This is easy to do, but only if the terms are made clear. It's pretty straightforward to say that our happiness cannot consist in one material thing; pasta is my favorite food, but not every day of my life. This isn't how people think of happiness. How they do, though, can be as a set of material things. "Once I buy that house on Kawaii, plant my herb garden, marry my supermodel and buy my Ferrari...earthly happiness!" Convincing folks that that is worng is FAR more difficult, which is why we go at it through groups of goods, like Aristotle.

Once one has zapped all the different groups of finite goods, one realizes that they are all for the sake of the development of virtue, which itself is in act happiness. "Virtue is its own reward." Our desire for the desired thing of desired things, activity in accordance with virtue, indicates that we are made to be a certain way, because our desire is for a non-material thing, and our material principles cannot give birth to such a desire. Rather, it is what is immaterial in us that enables us to do so.

That immateriality requires a principle, and its principle requires a principle, and so on, so that we have the argument from desire reducing to a special application of the first three Ways of St. Thomas. Ora pro nobis!

I do have difficulty with what you are saying when you start going all Wittgenstein on me. Can you explain your last paragraph in layman's terms?

Brandon said...

I think (3) ends up being something of a problem, since it is ambiguous between "our desire is itself something infinite" and "our desire is for something infinite". Were the former true, the argument would be valid up to (6) (and all that would be needed to get to (7) would be reason to think that, in fact, what you get in (6) is reasonably called God). But it seems clear enough that (3) has to be the latter, and then the argument has to become much more complicated.

The argument given by Msgr. Pope is actually closely parallel to the Cartesian argument for the existence of God from our idea of infinite perfect being, and a similar problem arises with this argument. Descartes and the other Cartesians answer it by proposing an account of how the 'formal reality' of idea is related to its 'objective reality'; you'd need something similar here.