God’s Existence and Flying Elephants

“I want a candy so good that you can’t even eat it.”

“I want pigs to be able to fly.”

Two good examples brought up in class. 

Their point to me:  just because I really want a God to exist doesn’t mean that he actually exists.  Freud’s point: religion is just wish-fulfillment.

My point to them: we are the only creatures who can wish for things that we know we can never get.   The reading we had done was from Fr. Norris Clarke, SJ about the human yearning for an Infinite Being.  They wanted to know: who really yearns for an Infinite Being except philosophers in their studies?  This proof only works for really smart people. 

On the contrary, everyone wishes for what we can’t have.  We all wish for perfect happiness, but none of us will ever have it.  We all wish for world peace, but we will never have it.  Kids want the perfect toy, but they will never get it. 

So this demonstration has less to do with what is wished and more to do with the nature of the wishing.  Human beings are the only creature in nature who can wish for something they know they cannot ever have.  Isn’t that strange?   Suddenly in the evolutive process we get a huge anomaly in the nature of Desire.  The desires of all other animals are for things they can get.  That is the nature of desire: to want something for the sake of a fulfillment that is good for the creature. But we want things that we can never fulfill.  And so we also have despair and suicide.  Strange. 

Even the desire for a flying elephant is a “proof” for God in its own way.  It tells us something about humans that make us unique to every other creature in this world.  Does there have to be a fulfillment?  No.  The wish doesn’t prove anything.  But the fact that it is a wish doesn’t make it wish-fulfillment either.  God can still exist even if I wish him to exist.  And as Kung puts it well:

Why in fact should I note be permitted to wish?  Why should I not be allowed to wish that the sweat, blood, and tears, all the suffering of millennia, may not have been in vain, that definitive happiness may finally be possible for all men — especially the despised and downtrodden?  And why should I not on the other hand feel an aversion to being required to be satisfied with rare moments of happiness and — for the rest — to come to terms with “normal unhappiness?”  May I not too feel aversion to the idea that the life of the individual and of mankind is ruled only by pitiless laws of nature, by the play of chance and by the survival of the fittest, and that all dying is a dying into nothingness?

It does not follow from man’s profound desire for God and eternal life that God exists and eternal life and happiness are real.  But those atheists who think that what follows is the nonexistence of God and the un-reality of eternal life are mistaken too. 

I hope that pigs fly in heaven.

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18 Responses to God’s Existence and Flying Elephants

  1. crystal says:

    “Human beings are the only creature in nature who can wish for something they know they cannot ever have …. It tells us something about humans that make us unique to every other creature in this world. ”

    I think there’s actually no way of knowing if this is true. I saw this article recently …. Think Animals Don’t Think Like Us? Think Again at Discover magazine. Stanley Hauerwas and John Berkman write in The Chief End Of All Flesh ….

    “the only significant theological difference between humans and animals lies in God’s giving humans a unique purpose. Herein lies what it means for God to create humans in God’s image. A part of this unique purpose is God’s charge to humans to tell animals who they are, and humans continue to do this by the very way they relate to other animals.”

  2. “I think there’s actually no way of knowing if this is true.” I disagree. Language is a good indication. It is different than signal reaction. We have tried to communicate with all other creatures around us and eventually are able to with others who have language, even in the days when “savages” were not considered human. The desire to communicate with one another still made it possible. But we have not found that to be true of other animals. I think Hauerwas makes an important theological point but understates a philosophical one.

  3. Francisco says:

    How does the fact that humans communicate in a more sophisticated way than animals prove the claim that animals don’t wish for things they can’t have?

  4. Julia says:

    “Human beings are the only creature in nature who can wish for something they know they cannot ever have.”

    Can you explain your reasoning behind saying this? We wish for things we can have all the time. I wish for a car, I wish for a cellphone, I wish for food, knowing with enough work I can get it.

    If you mean wish as synonymous to hope, then we hope precisely because we believe at the end of our hoping there is possession.

    It seems you’ve made an assumption here, and I want to understand where its coming from.

    I understand what you are trying to point out though (I think) Desire for God (infinite being) doesn’t prove the existence of God (for your class), but it doesn’t disprove it either.

  5. Henry says:

    I agree that the fact that we find within ourselves desires that are, in many ways, “infinite” has a semiotic significance that’s rarely explored in its totality, however I am not sure I completely follow what happened in class. Perhaps that’s because we don’t have the context – for example, which Norris Clarke book were they reading?

  6. Codgitator says:

    I am cognizant of the historical influence of “transcendental Thomism” certain Jesuit circles, and I am cognizant of how controversial (or vapid) that influence if for other Christian thinkers, so I wonder if we can restate the point of this article in a way that does not entirely rest on that metaphysical apparatus. Take justice. It either is or isn’t a reality. Ultimate justice. Justice ‘in the end’. If the very idea is incoherent, a gross fiction––if we all just die and become worm feed––then why do we fight for justice now? It would be like fighting for absolute candy rights when there is no such thing as an absolutely desirably candy. But we are ethically obliged to fight for justice, which entails believing in justice per se. Hence, in the very act of fighting for “true justice,” we manifest the reality of true justice as a cosmic reality. Note, however, that what justice would really be like utterly transcends our grasp of it based on our concrete conditioning/experience. Yet we strive for it, and are ethical only by doing so. Hence, the just strive for something utterly beyond rational, sensible experience. So it is with God, as the actualization of all we long for in ‘authenticity,’ ‘presence,’ abiding, love, and so on.

  7. Codgitator says:

    I would also like to point out that the article linked about Alex the gray parrot does not suffice to debunk the uniqueness of human rationality. I have written at some length about this here: http://veniaminov.blogspot.com/2010/08/meaning-and-mammals.html

    If any real challenge will come to human rationality as a specifying mark––and if any resources for making sense of “humanness” in the wake of “pan-rationality” is to be found––it will come from works like those from Hurley and Nudds, or Lurz, and A. MacIntyre, D. Braine, and M. Adler, J. Ross––among other of which I am surely ignorant.

    Best,

  8. crystal says:

    Take justice. It either is or isn’t a reality. Ultimate justice. Justice ‘in the end’. If the very idea is incoherent, a gross fiction––if we all just die and become worm feed––then why do we fight for justice now? It would be like fighting for absolute candy rights when there is no such thing as an absolutely desirably candy. But we are ethically obliged to fight for justice, which entails believing in justice per se. Hence, in the very act of fighting for “true justice,” we manifest the reality of true justice as a cosmic reality.

    From what I’ve read, the desire for fairness is wired into us (and animals too). To desire justice in this life doesn’t necessarily prove there has to be a Form of Justice floating around out there – it may be an evolutionary survival mechanism.

    I guess I think there are better ways to prove God exists than the idea of human exceptionalism.

    Six ‘uniquely’ human traits now found in animals

    How Fairness Is Wired In The Brain

    • I wouldn’t call this at all an argument from human exceptionalism. If a dog wants to come up with its own proof for God’s existence using its interior longings then it can and I will listen.

      But I don’t think that looking at a unique facet of human experience and how it points to God is a problematic way to discuss the human longing for God.

      As far as justice goes. Two points.

      First, from the side of justice, “perfect justice” as an idea that can be cognized and recognized as such is different than the hardwiring that we can discover. Notice that we can only discover it in the brain because we have the idea of it already. That is what is often called a “universal” rather than a “particular.” Humans can perform the second act of recognition of the idea as an idea because of self-consciousness.

      Second, while fairness can to a degree and is I’m sure the product of evolutionary development, the idea of “perfect justice” cannot be fully understood that way. As a cognizable universal, like mathematical universals, it has an immateriality to it that is not reduced to matter. Thus, without violating cause and effect, material evolution cannot produce an immaterial capacity for cognition of immaterial effects like math and “perfect justice.” At least that makes sense to me.

  9. Julia

    Actually, I was using this as a proof for God’s existence. So the fact that we can desire what we can’t have points to a transcendent referent of our desires.

  10. Henry, “The One and the Many”

  11. Jumba Ming Jangus says:

    “But we want things that we can never fulfill. And so we also have despair and suicide. Strange.”

    I agree with this point you made. I believe that because of false senses of happiness, wellnesses, succeeding in life, etc. are the root of our society’s problems. If we can learn to forget what will happen, and focus on the present– enjoying the little things in life we won’t find need for things we can’t have. Other animals desire what they can get because they don’t have the things we worry about. All they worry about is survival.

    “Even the desire for a flying elephant is a “proof” for God in its own way. It tells us something about humans that make us unique to every other creature in this world.”

    With all due respect, I disagree with your reasoning here. If humans wish for something, it doesn’t prove that God exists; it only proves that he could exist—in our own mindset. I don’t think uniqueness can prove God’s existence either. Are all creatures on this Earth not completely unique from each other? The fact that our God looks like a human may disprove the fact that God created all creatures–we as humans place ourselves on a higher pedestal sometimes, even if we don’t mean it. In class, we learned about the virtue of humility which deals with having equal love for all creatures—therefore placing all creatures on an equal pedestal. I think there’s deeper meaning to God’s existence than what humans think.

  12. Yakov Dmitry says:

    “…everyone wishes for what we can’t have.”

    I am in complete agreement with this point of yours. Throughout life, everyone goes through that stage, wishing things were different, hoping for change, be those wishes on a large scale or rather small. We may not want to admit that we made ridiculous wishes we knew were beyond possible, but that does not detract from the fact we still wished for that. Going with that point, I believe children are practically exempt from what I previously stated, seeing as they are not fully aware, as no one really is, as to the workings of the world. They work more around a “live out that moment,” “give me instant gratification” type of mindset, which gives way to a wishful state of mind.

    “That is the nature of desire: to want something for the sake of a fulfillment that is good for the creature.”

    On the other hand, I disagree with your point that desire is purely good for the creature. Desire does not have to be based upon a “need to” agenda, rather it is equally based on what people merely want. For instance, I can desire a doughnut because I had nothing to eat right before a rigorous workout. There, the desire is out of necessity. Instead, if I want the doughnut because it tastes good and I no longer really needed any more food, the desire is no longer good for the creature. This logic goes for and can be applied to practically anything in the world, especially sex in today’s culture. No longer is sex largely based on a desire for children which would contribute to the “good of the creature,” rather sex is desire for pleasure and instant gratification that is not completely necessary. Overall, I think your definition of desire does not dive deep enough into the reality of society.

  13. KIDSHELBI says:

    “That is the nature of desire: to want something for the sake of a fulfillment that is good for the creature. But we want things that we can never fulfill.”

    As human beings, we are curious by nature, always wanting to know more and more. Over the course of history, we have gradually fulfilled our infinite curiosity. When it comes to God, though, we have been looking for an answer to satisfy our brains with, something to confirm that God is real, but we have not yet gotten a definite answer. So on a physical level, yes, our curiosity about God’s existence will never be fulfilled.

    However, on a spiritual level, this lack of knowledge actually fulfills our faith. Faith, to put it simply, is believing in something intangible. Yes, we will never truly know if God actually exists, but that is what our faith is all about. If God was confirmed as being “real,” then faith would no longer be believing in something intangible. This lack of confirmation is what keeps our faith strong. For example, in class, we learned that we should submit to the will of God. Even though we have no physical proof of God’s existence, we love and respect His will through our faith.

  14. Demosthenes says:

    “So this demonstration has less to do with what is wished and more to do with the nature of the wishing. Human beings are the only creature in nature who can wish for something they know they cannot ever have. Isn’t that strange? Suddenly in the evolutive process we get a huge anomaly in the nature of Desire. The desires of all other animals are for things they can get. That is the nature of desire: to want something for the sake of a fulfillment that is good for the creature. But we want things that we can never fulfill. And so we also have despair and suicide”

    I agree with some parts of your argument but I want to comment on one. As I think that you do is that humans are unique in their desire for things they cannot have. Where I disagree however, is that desire causes despair and suicide. I believe that what ultimately causes despair and suicide is desire for things that exist; wishing for things you may or may not be able to obtain but what you see others have. A simple analogy would be if I saw a person drive a really nice car while I was driving a junky. In most cases, whoever is driving the junky seeing the nice car pass would be jealous or envious. Jealousy and envy harbors other feelings of anger, and can lead self worthlessness. A nice car passing should not put someone into misery of course but other forms of this situation and repetition on people as a whole is greatly influential on a human being’s state of feelings towards oneself.

    • Demosthenes says:

      To add to this statment I left before, I want to say that desire, in its own nature, pushes us to become better, but the closeness desire has to envy and jealousy is dangerous. We must be able to discern these two within ourselves so then we can avoid atrocities such as suicide and despair.

      • Daniel Merritt says:

        I agree with much of your arguement, such as how envy can lead to “despair and suicide.” However, I believe that these are influenced not by “things that exist” but by the mind’s beliefs. It is psychologically proven that each person has a level, though a unique one, of need for goal achievement. If I may borrow your example, a person desiring another’s car may want to achieve the goal of obtaining that car; however, he could very well see that same care and desire a car that is the best. Though such a car may not exist, he still desires it.

        But reality does not always win in the mind. If someone believes something is possible, it will exist in his mind even if it contradicts reality. In this case he will believe he can make the supreme car of all time. On the other hand, if something is impossible, it cannot br obtained although it could be, in reality, very simple. A homeless man seeing a pickup truck would believe that nothing can compare to the speed of that truck. Despair results in one convincing himself that happiness is unacheivable. Physical existence of a goal only influences the desire, but one can desire the impossible.

  15. William Atkinson says:

    Nate: or Nathan:

    For your comprehensive question. Wow heavy though.

    1. Who is God???
    (use bibical definition – as directed by Jesus)

    2. What must yu do to be companion of Jesus?
    (same O’ use bibical definition as
    directed by Jesus.

    Answere both and you are a true Jesuit in/with Igno’ (Ignatian Spirit)

    Hmmm

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