Trademark argument

Last updated

The trademark argument is an a priori argument for the existence of God developed by French philosopher and mathematician, René Descartes.

The Latin phrases a priori and a posteriori are philosophical terms popularized by Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, one of the most influential works in the history of philosophy. However, in their Latin forms they appear in Latin translations of Euclid's Elements, of about 300 BC, a work widely considered during the early European modern period as the model for precise thinking.

In logic and philosophy, an argument is a series of statements, called the premises or premisses, intended to determine the degree of truth of another statement, the conclusion. The logical form of an argument in a natural language can be represented in a symbolic formal language, and independently of natural language formally defined "arguments" can be made in math and computer science.

The existence of God is a subject of debate in the philosophy of religion and popular culture.


In the Meditations Descartes provides two arguments for the existence of God. In Meditation V he presents a version of the ontological argument which attempts to deduce the existence of God from the nature of God; in Meditation III he presents an argument for the existence of God from one of the effects of God’s activity. Descartes cannot start with the existence of the world or with some feature of the world for, at this stage of his argument, he hasn’t established that the world exists. Instead, he starts with the fact that he has an idea of God and concludes “that the mere fact that I exist and have within me an idea of a most perfect being, that is, God, provides a very clear proof that God indeed exists.” He says, “it is no surprise that God, in creating me, should have placed this idea in me to be, as it were, the mark of the craftsman stamped on his work.”

<i>Meditations on First Philosophy</i> philosophy book by Descartes

Meditations on First Philosophy in which the existence of God and the immortality of the soul are demonstrated is a philosophical treatise by René Descartes first published in Latin in 1641. The French translation was published in 1647 as Méditations Métaphysiques. The title may contain a misreading by the printer, mistaking animae immortalitas for animae immaterialitas, as suspected by A. Baillet.

An ontological argument is a philosophical argument for the existence of God that uses ontology. Many arguments fall under the category of the ontological, and they tend to involve arguments about the state of being or existing. More specifically, ontological arguments tend to start with a priori theory about the organization of the universe. If that organizational structure is true, the argument will provide reasons why God must exist.

Underlying assumptions

To understand Descartes’ argument it is necessary to understand some of the metaphysical assumptions that Descartes is using.

Degrees of reality

Descartes says,

“Undoubtedly, the ideas which represent substances to me amount to something more and, so to speak, contain within themselves more objective reality than the ideas which merely represent modes or accidents. Again, the idea that gives me my understanding of a supreme God…certainly has in it more objective reality than the ideas that represent finite substances. Now it is manifest by the natural light that there must be at least as much reality in the efficient and total cause as in the effect of that cause. For where, I ask, could the effect get its reality from, if not from the cause? And how could the cause give it to the effect unless it possessed it? It follows from this both that something cannot arise from nothing, and also that what is more perfect—that is, contains in itself more reality—cannot arise from what is less perfect.”

Descartes goes on to describe this as ‘transparently true’. Commenting on this passage Williams says, “This is a piece of scholastic metaphysics, and it is one of the most striking indications of the historical gap that exists between Descartes’s thought and our own, despite the modern reality of much else that he writes, that he can unblinkingly accept this unintuitive and barely comprehensible principle as self-evident in the light of reason.” [1] :120

In his own time, it was challenged by Hobbes who in the Objections says, “Moreover, M. Descartes should consider afresh what 'more reality' means. Does reality admit of more and less? Or does he think one thing can be more of a thing than another? If so, he should consider how this can be explained to us with that degree of clarity that every demonstration calls for, and which he himself has employed elsewhere.” [2] :130

To this Descartes replies:

“I have … made it quite clear how reality admits of more and less. A substance is more of a thing than a mode; if there are real qualities or incomplete substances, they are things to a greater extent than modes, but to a lesser extent than complete substances; and, finally, if there is an infinite and independent substance, it is more of a thing than a finite and dependent substance. All this is completely self-evident." [2] :130

To understand Descartes’ Trademark Argument it is not necessary to fully understand the underlying Aristotelian metaphysics but it is necessary to know that

A substance is something that exists independently. [3] :158 The only thing that truly exists independently is an infinite substance for it doesn’t rely on anything else for its existence. In this context ‘infinite substance’ means ‘God’. A finite substance can exist independently other than its reliance on an infinite substance. ‘Substance’ does not imply ‘physical substance’ — for Descartes the body is one substance but the mind is also a substance.

A ‘mode’ is “a way or manner in which something occurs or is experienced, expressed, or done.” [4] In this scheme, a substance (e.g. a mind) will have an attribute (thought) and the mode might be willing or having an idea. [3] :158

The degree of reality is related to way in which something is dependent—“Modes are logically dependent on substance; they ‘inhere in it as subject.’… Created substances are not logically, but causally, dependent on God. They do not inhere in God as subject, but are effects of God as creator.” [5] :134

To avoid confusion, it is important to note that the degree of reality is not related to size—a bowling ball does not have more reality than a table tennis ball; a forest fire does not have more reality than a candle flame.

Formal reality and Objective reality

Descartes says,

“The nature of an idea is such that of itself it requires no formal reality except what it derives from my thought, of which it is a mode. But in order for a given idea to contain such and such objective reality, it must surely derive it from some cause which contains at least as much formal reality as there is objective reality in the idea.”

‘Formal reality’ is roughly what we mean by ‘actually existing.’ [3] :159 ‘Objective reality’ does not mean objective as opposed to subjective but is more like the object of one’s thoughts irrespective of whether or not it actually exists. [1] :123 Cottingham says that ‘objective reality’ is the ‘representational content of an idea’. [6] :49 Hatfield says “think of an “object” of desire – a championship for your favorite sports team, say. It may not now exist, and it need never have existed. In Descartes’ terminology, what has “objective reality” is something contained in the subject’s mental state and so may even be called “subjective” in present-day terms.” [3] :159

Crucial to Descartes argument is the way in which the levels of objective reality are determined. The level of objective reality is determined by the formal reality of what is being represented or thought about. So every idea I have has the lowest level of formal reality, for every idea is a mode, but the idea of an infinite substance has more objective reality than the idea of a finite substance. [1] :125 Kenny notes, “we sometimes use the word ‘reality’ to distinguish fact from fiction: on this view, the idea of a lion would have more objective reality than the idea of a unicorn since lions exist and unicorns do not. But this is not what Descartes means.” [5] :133 In this instance the idea of a lion and the idea of a unicorn would have the same objective reality because a lion and a unicorn (if it existed) would both be finite substances.

Applying The Causal Adequacy Principle

Using the above ideas Descartes can claim that it is obvious that there must be at least as much reality in the cause as in the effect for if there wasn’t you would be getting something from nothing. He says “the idea of heat, or of a stone, cannot exist in me unless it is put there by some cause which contains at least as much reality as I conceive to be in the heat or in the stone. For although this cause does not transfer any of its actual or formal reality to my idea, it should not on that account be supposed that it must be less real.”

Since the idea of God contains the level of (objective) reality appropriate to an infinite substance it is legitimate to ask where an idea with this level of reality came from. After considering various options Descartes concludes that it must come from a substance that has at least the same level of (formal) reality. Therefore, an infinite substance, i.e. God, must exist.

Outline of Descartes' argument

Further considerations:

Additional argument for the existence of God:

Criticisms of the trademark argument

Cunning notes that “Commentators have argued that there is not much hope for the argument from objective reality.” [7] :112 Wilson says that she will say little about Descartes arguments for the existence of God for “while these arguments are interesting enough, I don’t think Descartes is in a position to defend their soundness very forcefully.” [8] :100 Williams comments that “Descartes took these hopeless arguments for the existence of God to be self-evidently valid, conditioned in this by historical and perhaps also by temperamental factors.” [1] :196

Hobbes' complaint that Descartes hasn’t offered an adequate account of degrees of reality doesn’t seem to have been answered and Descartes’ response that it is ‘self-evident’ surely isn’t enough. There may be some superficial appeal in the claim that an actual flower has more reality than an idea of a flower but this needs to be unpacked. ‘Reality’ cannot be equated with ‘existence’ for, apart from the fact that ‘degrees of existence’ is hardly less problematic than ‘degrees of reality’, as Wilson comments, “reality must not be confused with existence: otherwise the existence of God would be overtly assumed in the premisses of the argument.” [8] :137

Even if the argument is judged on its own terms and we grant that there can be degrees of formal reality and degrees of objective reality there are still significant problems. Crucial to the argument as it is normally reconstructed is that the degree of objective reality is determined by the degree of formal reality that the thing being thought about would have if it existed. Descartes offers no reason why this should be so. Wilson says, “Descartes has simply made an arbitrary stipulation here.” [8] :137 There seems to be no good reason why we couldn’t maintain different degrees of objective reality but insist that the idea of an infinite substance still has less reality than the amount of reality conferred by the formal reality of a finite substance.

Descartes may be inconsistent on this point for in the Replies he says of objective existence, “this mode of being is of course much less perfect than that possessed by things which exist outside the intellect; but, as I did explain, it is not therefore simply nothing.” [2] :75 Despite what Descartes appears to say in the Meditations it may be necessary for the objective reality to be less than the formal reality of the thing represented. Williams points out, “God, as the argument insists, has more reality or perfection than anything else whatever. Hence if Descartes’s idea of God is not itself God (which would of course be absurd), it cannot, however regarded, possess as much reality as God, and hence cannot demand as much reality in its cause as God possesses. So the argument seems to fall short of positing God as cause of the idea.” [1] :128 He goes on to say that Descartes must, therefore be relying on something more than the general principle that there must be as much formal reality in the cause of an idea as there is objective reality in the idea itself. Instead, he suggests, Descartes is relying on special features of the idea of God: “the infinity and perfection of God, represented in his idea, are of such a special character, so far in excess of any other possible cause, that the only thing adequate to produce an idea of that would be the thing itself, God.” [1] :128

Then there is the problem of how it can be possible for a finite mind to have a clear and distinct idea of an infinite God. Descartes was challenged on this and in the first set of Replies says, “the infinite, qua infinite, can in no way be grasped. But it can still be understood, in so far as we can clearly and distinctly understand that something is such that no limitations can be found in it, and this amounts to understanding clearly that it is infinite.” [2] :81 Cottingham argues that making this distinction is “an unsatisfactory line of defence” [6] :129 He refers to Descartes own analogy of a man who had an idea of a very complex machine from which it could be inferred that he had either seen the machine, been told about the machine or was clever enough to invent it. [9] :198 He adds, “But clearly such inferences will hold only if the man has a quite determinate idea of the machine. If a man comes up and says that he has an idea of a marvellous machine which will feed the hungry by making proteins out of sand, I shall be impressed neither by his experience nor by his powers of invention if it turns out that that is all there is to the idea, and he has no conception, or only the haziest conception, of how such a machine might work.” [6] :129

Finally, it might be added, for this proof to do the work Descartes is asking of it the proof needs to be clear and distinct. Given the above considerations this is unconvincing. In the second set of replies Descartes says this is the fault of the reader:

“I do not see what I can add to make it any clearer that the idea in question could not be present to my mind unless a supreme being existed. I can only say that it depends on the reader: if he attends carefully to what I have written he should be able to free himself from the preconceived opinions which may be eclipsing his natural light, and to accustom himself to believing in the primary notions, which are as evident and true as anything can be, in preference to opinions which are obscure and false, albeit fixed in the mind by long habit… I cannot force this truth on my readers if they are lazy, since it depends solely on their exercising their own powers of thought.” [2] :97

See also

Related Research Articles

In natural theology and natural philosophy the cosmological argument is an argument in which the existence of a unique being, generally seen as some kind of god, is deduced or inferred from facts or alleged facts concerning causation, change, motion, contingency, or finitude in respect of the universe as a whole or processes within it. It is traditionally known as an argument from universal causation, an argument from first cause, or the causal argument, and is more precisely a cosmogonical argument. Whichever term is employed, there are three basic variants of the argument, each with subtle yet important distinctions: the arguments from in causa (causality), in esse (essentiality), and in fieri (becoming).

<i>Cogito, ergo sum</i> philosophical proposition by René Descartes

Cogito, ergo sum is a Latin philosophical proposition by René Descartes usually translated into English as "I think, therefore I am". The phrase originally appeared in French as je pense, donc je suis in his Discourse on the Method, so as to reach a wider audience than Latin would have allowed. It appeared in Latin in his later Principles of Philosophy. As Descartes explained, "we cannot doubt of our existence while we doubt...." A fuller version, articulated by Antoine Léonard Thomas, aptly captures Descartes's intent: dubito, ergo cogito, ergo sum. The concept is also sometimes known as the cogito.

Idealism philosophical view that reality is immaterial

In philosophy, idealism is the group of metaphysical philosophies which assert that reality, or reality as humans can know it, is fundamentally mental, mentally constructed, or otherwise immaterial. Epistemologically, idealism manifests as a skepticism about the possibility of knowing any mind-independent thing. In contrast to materialism, idealism asserts the primacy of consciousness as the origin and prerequisite of material phenomena. According to this view, consciousness exists before and is the pre-condition of material existence. Consciousness creates and determines the material and not vice versa. Idealism believes consciousness and mind to be the origin of the material world and aims to explain the existing world according to these principles.

Ontology study of the nature of being, becoming, existence or reality, as well as the basic categories of being and their relations

Ontology is the philosophical study of being. More broadly, it studies concepts that directly relate to being, in particular becoming, existence, reality, as well as the basic categories of being and their relations. Traditionally listed as a part of the major branch of philosophy known as metaphysics, ontology often deals with questions concerning what entities exist or may be said to exist and how such entities may be grouped, related within a hierarchy, and subdivided according to similarities and differences.

Solipsism is the philosophical idea that only one's mind is sure to exist. As an epistemological position, solipsism holds that knowledge of anything outside one's own mind is unsure; the external world and other minds cannot be known and might not exist outside the mind.

Mind–body dualism Philosophical theory that mental phenomena are non-physical and that matter exists independently of mind

Mind–body dualism, or mind–body duality, is a view in the philosophy of mind that mental phenomena are non-physical, or that the mind and body are distinct and separable. Thus, it encompasses a set of views about the relationship between mind and matter, and between subject and object, and is contrasted with other positions, such as physicalism and enactivism, in the mind–body problem.

<i>Critique of Pure Reason</i> 1781 book by Immanuel Kant

The Critique of Pure Reason is a book by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, in which the author seeks to determine the limits and scope of metaphysics. Also referred to as Kant's "First Critique", it was followed by the Critique of Practical Reason (1788) and the Critique of Judgment (1790). In the preface to the first edition, Kant explains that by a "critique of pure reason" he means a critique "of the faculty of reason in general, in respect of all knowledge after which it may strive independently of all experience" and that he aims to reach a decision about "the possibility or impossibility of metaphysics".

The Kalām cosmological argument is a modern formulation of the cosmological argument for the existence of God; named for the kalam, it was popularized by William Lane Craig in his The Kalām Cosmological Argument (1979).

Cartesian circle potential mistake in reasoning attributed to René Descartes

The Cartesian circle is a potential mistake in reasoning attributed to René Descartes.

Spinozism is the monist philosophical system of Benedict de Spinoza that defines "God" as a singular self-subsistent Substance, with both matter and thought being attributes of such.

<i>Ethics</i> (Spinoza) philosophical treatise written by Baruch Spinoza

Ethics, Demonstrated in Geometrical Order, usually known as the Ethics, is a philosophical treatise written in Latin by Benedict de Spinoza. It was written between 1664 and 1665 and was first published posthumously in 1677.

Five Ways (Aquinas) 5 logical arguments for the existence of God made by Thomas Aquinas in his book Summa Theologica: the argument from motion; the argument from causation; the argument from contingency; the argument from degree; the argument from final cause

The quinque viae are five logical arguments regarding the existence of God summarized by the 13th-century Catholic philosopher and theologian St. Thomas Aquinas in his book Summa Theologica. They are:

  1. the argument from metaphysical motion;
  2. the argument from efficient causation;
  3. the argument from contingency;
  4. the argument from degrees of being;
  5. the argument from final causality.
Causal adequacy principle

The causal adequacy principle (CAP) is a philosophical claim made by René Descartes that the cause of an object must contain at least as much reality as the object itself, whether formally or eminently.

Philosophy of Baruch Spinoza Philosophy Of Jewish-Dutch Philosopher Baruch Spinoza

Spinoza's philosophy encompasses nearly every area of philosophical discourse, including metaphysics, epistemology, political philosophy, ethics, philosophy of mind, and philosophy of science. It earned Spinoza an enduring reputation as one of the most important and original thinkers of the seventeenth century.

The question of the eternity of the world was a concern for both ancient philosophers and the medieval theologians and philosophers of the 13th century. The question is whether the world has a beginning in time, or whether it has existed from eternity. The problem became a focus of a dispute in the 13th century, when some of the works of Aristotle, who believed in the eternity of the world, were rediscovered in the Latin West. This view conflicted with the view of the Catholic church that the world had a beginning in time. The Aristotelian view was prohibited in the Condemnations of 1210–1277.

Seddiqin Argument or the argument of the righteous is an argument for the existence of God in Islamic philosophy. This argument was explained by Islamic philosophers such as Avicenna, Mulla Sadra and Muhammad Husayn Tabataba'i.

Proof of the Truthful Avicennas argument for Gods existence

The Proof of the Truthful is a formal argument for proving the existence of God introduced by the Islamic philosopher Avicenna. Avicenna argued that there must be a "necessary existent", an entity that cannot not exist. The argument says that the entire set of contingent things must have a cause that is not contingent because otherwise it would be included in the set. Furthermore, through a series of arguments, he derived that the necessary existent must have attributes that he identified with the God of Islam, including unity, simplicity, immateriality, intellect, power, generosity, and goodness.


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Williams, Bernard (1996). Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry (Routledge Classics. Cambridge: Routledge. ISBN   1-138-01918-6.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 Cottingham, John; Stoothoff, Robert; Murdoch, Dugald (1984). The philosophical writings of Descartes vol2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN   0-521-24595-8.
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 Hatfield, Gary (2003). Descartes and the Meditations. London: Routledge. ISBN   0-415-11193-5.
  4. "Oxford Living Dictionaries". Oxford University Press. 2017. Retrieved 16 July 2017.
  5. 1 2 Kenny, Anthony (1968). Descartes A Study of his Philosophy . New York: Random House. ISBN   0-394-30665-1.
  6. 1 2 3 Cottingham, John (1986). Descartes. Oxford: Blackwell. ISBN   0-631-15046-3.
  7. Cunning, David (2010). Argument and Persuasion in Descartes’ Meditations. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN   978-0-19-539960-8.
  8. 1 2 3 Wilson, Margaret (1960). Descartes. Bombay: Popular Prakashan Private Ltd.
  9. Cottingham, John; Stoothoff, Robert; Murdoch, Dugald (1985). The philosophical writings of Descartes vol1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN   0-521-63712-0.