Descartes’ Trademark Argument

In the meditations Descartes puts forward two different and sometimes confused (for each other) arguments for the existence of God. In his fifth meditation he offers an interesting version of the Ontological argument, which will later be revised by Leibniz who will say that the argument isn’t valid until we add the premise “it is possible for God to exist”. Later, this version of the argument will be criticized by Kant (though his criticism doesn’t properly touch the medieval Ontological argument such as articulated by Bonaventure, but Aquinas’ critique of all Ontological arguments has always been more impressive than Kant’s dismissal anyway). This argument is so popularly the subject of satire and mockery, if not perhaps some sober academic (almost scholastic) entertainment, that I think it overshadows another and more interesting argument for the existence of God found in the meditations. This argument is called Descartes’ Trademark argument; so named not only because it represents a synthesis of ontological and cosmological arguments into one which is unique in the history of philosophy to Descartes himself, and also because the argument is meant to establish God’s existence from the self-evident ‘trademark’ which God has left as an imprint on man (man being made in the image of God).

There are a few reasons I decided to write a post about this argument. First, two semester’s ago, in a class of a considerable size (for a philosophy class on ‘Rationalism’), I was the only student to demonstrate sympathy for Descartes’ argument. This argument, one of the few genuinely original contributions Descartes has given us, deserves to be recognized as a ‘good’ argument. However, the reputation this argument has received is nothing short of an object of scorn and ridicule. Recently I was listening to a self proclaimed atheistic and ‘free thinking’ podcast where the argument was treated with mockery again. However, since I think the argument is good and useful, it made me want to write in defence of this argument. There are two principle reasons why I think the argument should be taken seriously: First because it does prove the existence of God to the satisfaction of rationalist standards, second because once presented it can act as a dialectically useful tool. In the second case, what I mean by a dialectically useful tool is that, since it is an ontological, cosmological, and epistemological (and plausibly a pragmatic) argument all rolled into one, although it admits of more avenues for somebody to pursue objections, the objections of this or that critic reveal that persons philosophical intuitions in a way which makes the apologist better able to anticipate what additional arguments that person might find impressive. For example, if they argue that one cannot reason from abstraction to existence in reality then perhaps ontological arguments are ‘not their thing’, whereas if they argue that ideas can exist without any causes then cosmological arguments are not their thing. The first reason, however, is the principle reason for my wanting to write in defence of it; I am not impressed by any of the objections to this argument which I have heard or thought of. Certainly this argument can at least be polished and cleaned up for an audience of analytic philosophers, instead of the audience of the meditations. It is worth taking note of the fact that Descartes himself said he was uninterested in anyone responding to his work who was not willing to read his six meditations in the spirit they were written in: meditative and contemplative. The fact that they were written to mirror the six days of creation is itself evidence that he was following an Ignatian model of spiritual life – one which was also deeply consonant with the Seraphic Doctor’s ‘on the mind’s journey to God‘, a medieval Franciscan meditation of the same sort in which the Ontological argument plays a central and foundational role as well.

The Trademark Argument

This argument is found in the Third Meditation, and its proper understanding hinges on an understanding of Descartes subtle distinction between formal reality and objective reality – a seminal distinction for ontological arguments. Contrary to what we might naturally assume, formal reality has to do with the reality of things in a ‘mind external’ sense, while what Descartes means by ‘objective reality’ has to do with ideas. Apart from this distinction, one has to understand that the basic supposition of the argument is that one thing may be more ‘real‘ than another, for instance by being less contingent. This may be harder to understand from a modern perspective than it would have been from a Medieval perspective (in fact, where moderns might scratch their heads at this suggestion, Medieval thinkers often took this to be self-evident). So, what does it mean to say that something has more or less ‘reality’? For Descartes, this simply means that the thing is, let us say, ‘less-contingent’; or, to couch it in possible world semantics, it exists in more logically possible worlds (though this expression is restricted to ‘formal’ reality, I think).

The argument begins, after the prolegomena work of establishing the Cogito ergo sum, with the observation that ideas exist. For instance, if I experience being next to a fire in a reclining chair, and I wonder whether the fire, the chair, or even my hands, are real – for I might be caught in a perpetual dream-state which presents these objects to me while those objects do not exist – then, Descartes suggests, I can at least know that the basic ideas exist. For instance, if I have the idea of a chair, then the ideas of which it is composed (being solid, extended in space, having a certain shape/size, texture, colour, et al) themselves exist. While I may be able to imagine something like a Griffin existing, even while no Griffin exists, I cannot imagine a Griffin without putting together ideas which I already have.

Once we identify that an idea exists (thus, we can say that ‘I am appeared to redly’ only because ‘red’ exists), then Descartes presents us with three possibilities: either the idea is innate, or it is fictitious, or it is adventitious. To be innate means that the idea is simply a necessary feature of our own existence, and thus doesn’t help one to avoid the conclusion of solipsism – the idea exists along with the ‘I’. To be adventitious, on the other hand, just means it is an idea which is produced in us by experience – the idea, which has objective reality, is caused in us by the object of the idea, which has formal reality. Finally, an idea being fictitious is simply an idea which we may have come up with on our own somehow.

The argument proceeds from the observation that we have ideas, to the thought that for each idea there must be some cause. Here, the principle distinction between formal and objective reality comes to play: if the idea has a certain amount of objective reality, then its cause must have at least the same amount of formal reality. The intuition here goes hand in hand with ex nihilo nihil fit (something cannot come from nothing) – and says that no effect can be greater than its cause. In both cases the intuition being expressed is that which lies behind the principle of sufficient reason (PSR). From here, Descartes decides to take an inventory of all those ideas which are found in the mind, and among them he finds one idea in particular, the idea of God, to present an interesting avenue out of solipsism. The idea of God is the idea of a being than which nothing greater could be conceived. A being, in other words, which has maximal reality, or ‘infinite’ reality. However, since an infinite being has infinite objective reality, and since no idea can be more real than its cause, it follows that the cause of the idea must have at least as much formal reality as the idea has objective reality – i.e. the cause of the idea of God must have infinite formal reality. However, a being with infinite formal reality just is what we, when we conceive of it as an idea, call ‘God’. This idea, moreover, is innate. Descartes makes an argument that the idea of God is actually clear and distinct, and is just as clear and distinct as the ‘Cogito’.

Since nothing other than that which has infinite (or unlimited) formal reality can cause the idea of an infinite being, if we find the idea of such a being to exist in the mind clearly and distinctly then we can know that it was caused by a being with infinite formal reality. This must be so because no effect can be greater than its cause, and the cause must have at least as much formal reality as the effect has objective reality. This is sometimes called the causal adequacy principle (CAP).

The argument looks like this when one writes it out:

  1. No idea can exist without a cause
  2. The cause of the idea must itself have at least as much formal reality as the idea has objective reality (since the effect cannot be greater than the cause).
  3. There exists in my mind a clear and distinct idea of a being with infinite objective reality.
  4. Therefore, the cause of the idea must be a being with infinite formal reality.

The argument later moves on to state that this insight will help Descartes get out of his epistemological quandary. It does so by arguing that this idea of God is an idea of a being with maximal perfection, which includes goodness or benevolence. Descartes reasons from there to the conclusion that “God would not deceive me, and would not permit me to err without giving me a way to correct my errors.” This provides a good epistemological argument for God’s existence being established by some such reasoning, since, as Descartes says; “without God, I can never be certain of anything.” I think Descartes is right, in the absence of God as an epistemological foundation, one cannot build any epistemology with confidence. Notice, then, that even in the absence of any such good arguments for the existence of God, we have pragmatic-epistemological reasons for accepting the existence of God, since without God the whole project of first philosophy is dead in the water.


This argument is fascinating for a number of reasons. First, the argument combines an Ontological argument with a Cosmological argument into a masterful synthesis, creating a remarkably unique argument for the existence of God which presumes nothing more than what is already clear and distinct to every thinking person’s mind: namely their own existence, and the presence of one other clear and distinct idea of a being with infinite reality.

This argument, thus, can act as three arguments in one: it is a cosmological argument from efficient cause, it is an ontological argument (insofar as conceptual analysis of the idea of God is concerned), and it is also a pragmatic-epistemological argument, since without God being established in some such way, we can never escape the charge of the sceptic. Even if we aren’t sure that Descartes’ formulation is beyond reproach, we can be more sure that something relevantly similar to his articulation of this intuitive argument works to establish God’s existence than we can be that no such argument works. Certainly the conclusion is self-evident to anyone for whom the idea of God is clear and distinct.

Some objectors have said that the sufficient cause for some idea with infinite objective reality might just be something or set of things with finite formal reality. Their reasoning is as follows: the idea of the infinite is not primary in the mind, but is an extrapolation of finitude. In other words, somebody experiences something small, then something large, then something larger, and eventually gains the idea of something ‘than which nothing larger could be’. Descartes argues that the idea of the infinite is simple (not comprised of parts) and is in the mind before the mind can have any clear idea of a finite thing. In a similar way the idea of a line is prior in the mind to the idea of a line segment – when imagining a line we have the idea of a straight thing, and yet we don’t imagine it to have any limits or take up any space. When we think of the idea of a line segment, we are thinking about a line between points. Richard Swinburne has argued in our day that the idea of the infinite is like this as well – that it is a simple idea, rather than a complex idea (as is the idea of any finite number of things). I intuitively agree with Descartes and Swinburne on this one. One can perhaps demonstrate this by arguing that the infinite is a simple idea, and is always more simple than any finite idea (which always involves parts). Moreover, one can say that no addition of composites can result in a simple sum – this is the very principle which makes certain infinities problematic.

Somebody could argue that thoughts may be thought to be contingent while being actually necessary. Here, one appeals to a kind of radical necessity such as applied in Spinoza (where modal language becomes incomprehensible). However, it seems to me that some thoughts are self-evidently contingent, and besides the idea being ‘necessarily’ cause in our mind doesn’t allow us to say that the effect in us of the idea can be greater than its cause. So long as one accepts the CAP any arguments for fatalism are simply inconsequential to the argument. Thus even Spinoza could be a Theist (and, it is no coincidence, was).

One of the common criticisms of typical ontological arguments is precisely that critics claim that the leap from objective reality to formal reality is illegitimate. The brilliance of Descartes trademark argument is precisely that it avoids those criticisms by appealing to the insight of the cosmological arguments. I suspect that it was placed in the third meditation, making its appearance before the ontological argument, precisely so that the ontological argument could act as an addition to the first argument – a conceptual analysis of what the third meditation had already established existed.

All things considered, I think this argument is a good argument. The only ways in which one can call it into question are ways which betray the objector’s particular modal intuitions (or lack thereof). Thus, one useful apologetic or ‘ecumenical’ feature of this argument is that the objector’s preferred objections grant tremendous insight into their modal intuitions, and allow one to predict with precision what kinds of arguments in Natural Theology are likely to appeal to them, and which kinds are not. If they question the PSR and the CAP then it seems they aren’t going to be very impressed by the typical cosmological argument. If they have trouble with the conceptual analysis of the idea of ‘God’, finding in themselves no clear and distinct idea which corresponds to Descartes’, then they are not likely to take to ontological arguments. This argument, in short, is good insofar as it is valid, it’s premises and conclusion are true, it works itself out into three arguments in one, and it has practical usefulness when in dialogue with somebody who identifies themselves as an Atheist.

Find any equally good argument for things like the existence of the external world or the existence of other minds, and it will quickly be seen by contrast how good this argument really is.


About tylerjourneaux

I am an aspiring Catholic theologian and philosopher, and I have a keen interest in apologetics. I am creating this blog both in order to practice and improve my writing and memory retention as I publish my thoughts, and in order to give evidence of my ability to understand and communicate thoughts on topics pertinent to Theology, Philosophy, philosophical theology, Catholic (Christian) Apologetics, philosophy of religion and textual criticism.
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