Trademark argument

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The trademark argument is an a priori argument for the existence of God developed by French philosopher and mathematician, René Descartes. The argument, though similar to the ontological argument, differs in some respects, since it seeks to prove the existence of God through the causal adequacy principle (CAP) as opposed to analysing the definition of the word God.

[S]ince I am a thinking thing, and have in me an idea of God, whatever finally the cause may be to which my nature is attributed, it must necessarily be admitted that the cause must equally be a thinking thing, and possess within it the idea of all the perfections that I attribute to the divine nature.

— René Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy


The trademark argument can be analyzed (or rationally reconstructed) as follows:
1. I have an idea of God.
2. Everything which exists has a cause.
3. Therefore, there is a cause of my idea of God.

3. There is a cause of my idea of God.
4. The cause of an effect must contain at least as much reality as the effect.
5. Therefore, the cause of my idea of God must contain at least as much reality as my idea of God.

5. The cause of my idea of God must contain at least as much reality as my idea of God.
6. The idea of God contains perfection.
7. Therefore, the cause of my idea of God must contain perfection.

7. The cause of my idea of God must contain perfection.
8. No being which is not God contains perfection.
9. God is the cause of my idea.

9. The cause of my idea of God is God.
10. If something is the cause of something else, that something exists.
11. Therefore, God exists.

The trademark argument could also be constructed as such

P1. We have ideas of many things

P2. These ideas must arise either from ourselves or from things outside of us.

P3. One of these ideas is the idea of God (a necessary, perfect being)

P4. This idea could not have been caused by ourselves, because we know ourselves to be limited and imperfect, and no effect is greater than its cause.

P5. Therefore the idea must have been caused by something outside of us that has nothing less than the qualities contained in the idea of God.

P6. But only God has these properties.

P7. Therefore God must be the cause of the idea we have of him.

C. Therefore God exists

This version of the argument evades much of the criticisms one normally sees against the first version of trademark argument, because to reject premise 2 is to reject a priori justification altogether. It is stating that we can know a priori truths even though we are imperfect, which is fine, because we can understand many things about reality through conceptual analysis.

Criticisms of the trademark argument

  • The CAP compares the cause of ideas to the cause of objects, but, whereas objects often have straightforward causes, ideas do not.
  • The idea of God contains only the idea of perfection, not perfection itself.
  • Gaunilo - I may have the concept of a perfect island. The perfection of this island would imply that it would exist; however, this is not the case. A concept of something does not make it exist by adding the attribute of perfection.
  • David Hume – The idea of God could be arrived at by considering qualities within oneself (wisdom, strength, goodness) and magnifying them.
  • Descartes states that for the idea of the trademark argument to work, we must have a clear and distinct idea of God, i.e. a personal, infinite, monotheistic God. Descartes states that everyone is born with some kind of concept of God, no matter how broad it is. If we reach another idea of god, other than the traditional monotheistic one, Descartes would argue that the idea of God we have reached is not the idea of the clear and distinct God that we are looking for - however, he says that by looking closer we can show people that the idea of the god that they have been thinking of is actually, underneath, really the idea of God. However, if it is necessary to show people where they have reasoned wrongly, then the idea of God is not innate, as they have not reached it of their own accord.
  • The idea a man has of perfection is itself imperfect. If one were to ask a man to describe perfection, it is impossible that his description could be accurate. If man's idea of perfection came from a perfect God, it would follow that his idea of perfection itself be perfect. Since the idea of perfection is imperfect, it is more reasonable to assume that it might have come from other imperfect sources.

Responses to the criticisms against the trademark argument

  • Ideas can have straightforward causes, if they didn't then we can never justify whether or not our brains were the cause of our ideas. To say that ideas don't have straightforward causes is to accept absurdities such as conceding the possibility that our ideas just pop into existence uncaused. Keep in mind that the CAP can also be used as a modified version of the principle of proportionate causality.
  • To say that there is a problem with the idea of God just amounting to an idea of perfection and not perfection itself begs the question. How could one justify this if they didn't know what perfection entailed? There has to be some way to make a distinction to the point where someone can justify the fact that Descartes' idea of perfection is not actual perfection, because actual perfection consists of such and such.
  • Guanilo makes a category error as an island does not imply whether or not the act of being an island (having the property of islandness) entails necessity. Necessity is an essential property of God which ultimately leads to being a perfection that is better to have than to lack. An essential property of a being is a property that that being cannot possibly lack; a property without which it could not exist. A being is necessary if it is impossible for it not to exist. An island is also something is of material nature, and any material nature must take up space in order to exist, so how could an island be necessary if it relies on matter for its existence? This criticism misses the mark.
  • David Hume forgets that the property of necessity cannot be applied to oneself, so his argument is incomplete. Humans are contingent beings and therefore Hume leaves out one of the most important essential properties to God. Hume also begs the question and assumes nominalism with respect to wisdom, strength and goodness as being human traits. The trademark argument speaks of ideas which exist independently of human thinking, so to say that (wisdom, strength and goodness) are human traits is to assume that these traits only exist within humans.
  • If the justification of being clear and distinct relies on getting to a point where we don't show people where they reasoned wrongly then we might as well throw out the idea of truth as well since there is a such a division on what truth is. There are many different theories of truth (pragmatism, correspondence theory, coherence theory) so should we come to the conclusion that knowing what truth entails is not innate? Someone can have a clear and distinct idea of the truth and be right, and someone can think that they have a clear and distinct idea of the truth and be wrong, however both ideas have to assume that truth in some way exists. Descartes knows that people have a difference of opinion on what God is, this is why he disagreed with Theists before his time. What is he saying is that we can understand the essential properties of what God is, and he is correct. God consists of a consciousness, and is a necessary being, these traits are easily understandable. To leave out these two traits is to end up speaking of something that is not a God.
  • It makes no sense to say that man can't describe what the idea of perfection is, but yet at the same time assume that man’s idea of perfection is imperfect in itself. This is a self-refuting argument.

See also