Topic 4 - The Existence of God I Once Descartes has 'proved' his existence by way of the Cogito argument, and has determined what it is that belongs to his essence of being a thinking thing, he must move to examining questions about the world around him. However, before doing this, he thinks it better to examine the question of the existence of God. If he can prove that he was created by a perfectly benevolent creator, then his innate ideas must carry some semblance of truth, as God is not a deceiver and has placed these ideas in Descartes. Knowledge of God will allow the possibility of achieving understanding of the fundamental principles of the universe.
1 Descartes offers two arguments for the existence of God. The first, considered in Meditation Three, is known as the 'Trademark Argument.' The second, proposed in Meditation Five, is called the 'Ontological Argument.' This essay will consider the former alone. The Trademark Argument arises out of the fact claimed by Descartes that there is within each of us an idea of a supreme being, which was placed within us by the thing that created us. The purpose of this idea was to act as the mark of a tradesman placed within us. From examination of this idea, it follows, says Descartes, that God exists. His argument firstly involves the acknowledgement of such an idea within ourselves.
This idea of God is one of a being who is 'eternal, infinite, omniscient, omnipotent, and the Creator of all things that exist apart from him.' This is the first premise of the argument (of course, this has not yet shown that anything corresponding to the idea exists). Secondly, there is the 'Causal Adequacy Principle.' This principle implies that any object must have as its cause something that contains at least all the attributes of the object if not more. Descartes offers the example of a stone, saying that it cannot be produced by anything that doesn't contain everything to be found in the stone. Similarly, heat cannot be produced by anything that does not contain the same order of perfection as the heat.
The purpose of this premise is to reinforce the axiom that nothing comes from nothing. Descartes then proceeds to apply the Causal Adequacy Principle to ideas. He claims that, just as the cause of objects must contain at least as much reality as the object itself, the cause of an idea must contain at least as much reality, whether 'formally' or 'eminently' as the idea itself ('formally' meaning actually as represented in the idea; 'eminently' meaning in some higher form). In the 'Principles of Philosophy,' Descartes puts forward the example of a person who has the idea of a highly sophisticated and intricate machine; all the intricacy that is contained in the idea that the person has must be reflected in the source of that idea, whether it be a skilled designer, or the imagination of the person themselves. Taking these three premises, Descartes arrives at the existence of God as follows: as I have an idea of a perfect being, it must contain in reality all the features that are contained merely objectively in my idea. Descartes himself cannot be the cause of the idea, as he has acknowledged that he is imperfect and ignorant of many things.
Neither can the idea have come from an amalgamation of various other ideas that he has, for there would have to be an infinite regress that would in any event trace back to an original cause of the idea, which will contain formally all the perfection present only objectively in Descartes' idea. Hence, the ultimate cause of Descartes' idea of God must possess all the attributes that Descartes perceives it to have, and therefore it can be concluded that God necessarily exists. The Causal Adequacy Feature is open to counterexamples. Its weakness is that it suggests that there can be no cases of objects being 'greater than the sum of their parts.' For example, the strength inherent in a bridge must, according to Descartes, be contained in the girders and rivets that make it up. If the bridge did not get its strength from these constituent parts, then it seems that they came from nowhere. We can also say that helium, which is caused by the fusion of hydrogen atoms, possesses properties that were not present in the helium atoms.
Finally, Cottingham offers us the example of a sponge cake; its property of 'sponginess' is not present in any of the ingredients - the flour, the eggs, etc. but is caused by the chemical reactions that take place when the cake is baked. Furthermore, in the case of non-material, or efficient, causation there are further counterexamples to the idea of Causal Adequacy. Mersenne questioned Descartes on this point, suggesting the example of the origins of life; if life can emerge from the actions of the sun and the rain, then living creatures can emerge from non-living causes, and thus there is some reality present in the effect that is not present in the cause. These examples pose problems for modern observers, but Descartes' contemporaries had more difficulty with the third premise of the argument outlined above, namely the application of the Causal Adequacy Principle to ideas. Johannes Caterus, author of the First Set of Objections, asked why ideas should have a cause.
However, Descartes appears to be on firmer ground with the principle when applied to ideas than real objects; his idea of a highly intricate machine is elaborated upon by Cottingham, who shows that there would have to be a cause if, for example, a child produced a design for a complex computer. If the child copied it from a book by the designer of the machine, then this merely pushes the argument for finding a cause for the idea back a stage; this example shows that there is as much need for an entity with as much reality as the idea as there is for objects that truly exist in reality. The suggestion that the child copied the drawing from a book is similar to another criticism by Mersenne that asks why our idea of God should have been placed in us by God, and not have arisen from us by way of the influence of our parents, etc. Again, Descartes answer is that this simply postpones the question of an ultimate cause; we must ask, where our parents got the idea from, which would eventually lead us to the ultimate cause, i. e.
God. Some of Descartes' critics even argued that we could have no idea of God; Hobbes wrote in the Third Set of Objections that 'We have no idea or image corresponding to the sacred name of God.' Descartes' response was that the idea we have need not be exactly the same as an image; the fact that we have an understanding of the infinite nature of God shows that we do have an idea of the nature of God. According to Descartes, we can have an idea of something without fully grasping it, just as we can touch a mountain, but cannot put our arms around it. Is it however possible to fully grasp the infinite nature of God by extrapolation, starting from our idea of the finite, or limited, and then considering the infinite as the opposite of this? Although Descartes says that it would be incorrect to speak of heat and light as the negation of cold and darkness respectively, he doesn't offer a clear definition of what is a positive attribute in this way and what is simply an opposite.
If understanding one of the pairs necessitates understanding of the other (by negation of the one initially understood), then Descartes claim of 'prior' knowledge of infinite that he uses to reply to this objection is faulty, and his argument fails. Descartes also offers a further version of the argument at the end of the Third Meditation, which suggests that it is not possible to exist without the existence of God, given that I have an idea of him. This follows from an examination of the alternatives; either it is the case that I am self-creating, in which case I would surely give myself all perfections, or it is the case that I am derived from my parents and grandparents, etc. i.
e. a series of imperfect causes. From the Causal Adequacy Principle, it follows that somewhere along the line will be the source of the idea I have of God, which will contain formally all the reality that exists objectively in my idea of God, and therefore God exists. However, this version relies on results that were achieved under the first version.
The same premises about the existence of the Causal Adequacy Principle and its ability to be applied to ideas must be accepted by the meditator. Some of Descartes' critics tried to prove that this second version of the Trademark Argument was an entirely new proof in itself; Caterus drew an analogy between it and St. Thomas Aquinas's second of Five ways of proving the existence of God by showing that a series of causes must lead to an uncaused cause (i. e. God).
Descartes rejected this, however, denying that there was a parallel between the two; the meditator in Descartes case does not rely on a series of causes as he is not yet sure that the world exists. Secondly, when inquiring about his causal origins, the emphasis is most certainly on finding the source of the idea of the perfect being that Descartes has within himself, rather than any other causal explanation for his existence. Despite this, the fact that the second version relies on the premises and presupposed conclusions of the first version means that it retains the same weaknesses of the first version. Descartes argument for the existence of God from an innate idea in each of us is simply not convincing. In my opinion, trying to prove the existence of God is contrary to the doctrine of faith that is inherent in being a Christian. As a Christian himself, it puzzles me that Descartes chose this route to proceed with his meditations, and even returned to the subject with the Ontological Argument later in his discussions.
Notes: 1) An immediate objection may be that Descartes has set himself a trap of circularity - if he can know nothing without prior knowledge of the existence of God, how can he form premises for proving that God exists?