C.S. Lewis and the argument from joy. Is it a solid argument and one we should use?
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. (1)
C. S. Lewis’s argument from joy for the existence of God is an excellent example of an inductive argument. While objections have been raised against the argument, careful consideration finds that the objections are far from insurmountable. Furthermore, Lewis touches upon a universal existential reality that philosophers and psychologists have grappled with for centuries. The way Lewis handles this universal experience of humanity’s desire demonstrates marvelous clarity and personal insight. Thus, it can be argued that the argument from joy for the existence of God sets Lewis apart from other apologists as Kreeft states, “Many virtues grace Lewis’s work but the one that lifts him above any other apologetic writer, I believe, is how powerfully he writes about joy…” (2) Finally, the argument itself is used quite effectively for evangelism, even if the majority of its most effective users are unaware of Lewis or his contribution the topic.
Prior to evaluating the argument itself, an important clarification is in order. What Lewis calls Joy would be completely misunderstood by the contemporary reader. Lewis uses the terms ‘joy’ and ‘desire’ as synonymous which can also be quite confusing. Thus it is important to clarify what Lewis means when he speaks of joy. In Lewis’s own words, “…an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. I call it Joy, which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and from Pleasure.” (3) Therefore, when Lewis uses the expression ‘experiencing joy’ he is referring to the insatiable desire for something that transcends the natural world. He reaches this conclusion after pursing satisfaction by natural means and failing to find the fulfillment of his strongest desire.
The inductive form of Lewis’s argument has been presented in various formats. This results from having no single treatise of the subject in Lewis’s writings. While he considered it pivotal and central in his journey, he never wrote a specific work on the issue. Yet upon reading numerous works we find that he returns to it repeatedly. For the sake of this discussion we will look at a revised form of his argument as follows:
Major Premise: All natural desires have existing objects that they are desires for
Minor Premise: Joy is a natural desire for an infinite object.
Conclusion: An infinite object exists.
Lewis himself considered this an inductive argument. In Mere Christianity he states it in no uncertain terms, “I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation [emphasis added] is that I was made for another world.” (4) I agree with Holyer that perhaps Lewis did not present this argument in a deductive form because it contained propositions that were of an experiential nature more than of an argumentative nature. Holyer affirms, “…perhaps one of the reasons Lewis never presented the argument from desire as a philosophical proof was that he recognized that a crucial part of it could not be established argumentatively.” (5) I believe the most valid objections center around the subjectivity of feelings and desires. A desire falls outside of the realm of provable. Some can argue that they have no such desire for the supernatural and it would be impossible to refute. Others may argue they are completely satisfied and once again a refutation is not possible. However, these objections are by no means fatal to the argument from desire. Kreeft’s observation is clear,
“The argument then depends on a personal appeal to introspective experience. Just as we cannot argue effectively about color with a blind man because he has no data, so we cannot argue about this desire with someone who cannot find the desire in question within, or who refuses to look for it, or who refuses to admit its presence once it is found.” (6)
Furthermore, in light of the testimony of the ages such objections seem quite dishonest. The major premise is very difficult, if not impossible to refute. I have not read of a single counterexample that would show a natural desire for which a corresponding object did not exist. The minor premise can only be dismissed on very weak subjective terms as mentioned above. The conclusion is the most probable to follow the two premises. Therefore, I believe the argument stands as a strong inductive argument.
Most effective evangelists, unbeknown to them, use the argument from desire to persuade sinners to come to Christ. It is commonly phrased as “you have an emptiness inside that nothing seems to fill,” or “you have a void inside,” or “you have been searching for fulfillment and cannot find it no matter what you try.” All of these expressions are synonymous with what Lewis meant when he said that nothing in this world can satisfy the desire for joy. The experiential reality of human history points to the quest for satisfaction. Augustine phrased it with incredible simplicity, “Thou hast made us for Thyself, our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.”
C. S. Lewis’s argument from joy for the existence of God is an effective and highly probable inductive argument. While it is not objective enough to be considered a deductive argument, it is far more than just an existential experience argument. His mastery of logic and language are no where displayed more clearly than in his dealings with this topic. Lewis manages to tackle a problem of universal human experience and unravel it with marvelous clarity, leaving us with a solution he himself experienced and a strong argument for God’s existence at the same time.
1 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco Publishers, 2001), 136-137. 2 Peter J. Kreeft, “C. S. Lewis’s Argument from Desire” (Class Notes as presented by Gary Habermas, Southern Evangelical Seminary, 2009), 256. 3 C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (New York: Harcourt, Inc., 1955), 17-18. 4 Lewis, Mere Christianity, 136-137. 5 Robert Holyer, “The Argument from Desire” Faith and Philosophy Vol. 5 No. 1 (January 1998): 67. 6 Kreeft, “C. S. Lewis’s Argument from Desire,” 250-51.