In the Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes speaks through the mind of the meditator and explores the reality of the existence of God and all things. At the end of the Second Meditation, Descartes concludes that because he is doubting his existence, he is therefore thinking, meaning that he exists. This conclusion pushes Descartes to explore if all thoughts and realities perceived by the mind are true or false. Descartes’ divisions of the mind include the theory of a materially false idea, which proves that an idea can contain some falsity. Descartes uses this claim to discredit intellect and prove that we can recognize error. Although Descartes only scratches the surface of material falsity in the Third Meditation, he explains it further in his response to Arnauld’s objections Concerning God. His answer admits that the Third Meditation is inconsistent with the intended meaning. There are evident flaws in his argument including his use of examples and the unclear ideas his theory is based on. Descartes begins the Third Meditation by realizing that although he can think ideas, there has to be a source of power that gives him the ability to do so. The only possibility is a form of God because his unlimited power allows him to control what the meditator can perceive. In order to prove the idea of God, Descartes first chooses to classify his thoughts into definite kinds and asks which of them can bring truth and falsity (CSM II 25).
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The three types of ideas created are innate and adventitious, which are ideas that are foreign to the meditator, and ideas invented by the meditator himself. Descartes notices that in order for him to recognize or create an idea, he must ask how he knows what these things are. They are not produced by will nor do they only depend on the meditator. These ideas exist externally and are known for existing in formal reality. For an idea to contain formal reality, the mediator has to perceive the object through his senses and then pass judgment on what it may be. The representation of that judgment or idea in the mind is known as objective reality. Descartes uses the example of the Sun to demonstrate this notion. When the meditator looks at the Sun in formal reality, it is small. But in objective reality, the Sun is understood as being infinitely larger than the Earth. Neither representation is entirely accurate, but the mind has the knowledge to know this. Although the meditator is not using reliable judgment but a blind impulse to see the Sun, it is still represented in both objective and formal reality, making it exist. This conclusion leads Descartes to question the origin of ideas in objective reality. To begin finding his answer, he defines the relationship between formal and objective reality through the example of heat. Heat can be produced in space outside of the intellect of the meditator, however, one must have the idea of heat in order to know what he is experiencing at the moment is heat. Therefore, an idea must have some form of objective reality in order to have any formal reality. Heat can take multiple forms through fire or radiation in formal reality, but the primary idea of heat can only be present objectively.
The source of these original ideas can only come from a more perfect and all-powerful being known as God, but Descartes struggles with the falsity of ideas because he cannot differentiate between ideas that originate from him and from God. In order to find this answer, Descartes tries to discredit his own ideas by finding any falsity in them. Formal falsity is sourced from judgments, but Descartes discovers that there is also material falsity in ideas which mistakes non-things for things. To further his examination on material falsity, Descartes employs the example of heat again and compares it with cold. Tactile qualities such as light, color, sound, heat, and cold are all confused and obscure because they all contain very little clarity or distinctive qualities. It is difficult to tell whether cold is the absence of heat, heat is the absence of cold, both are real, or both are false. Descartes answers this question through the notion that there can be no ideas which are not as it were of things, and ideas being like images, must in each case appear to us to represent something”. (CSM II 30) Heat can appear to the meditator’s senses through fire, therefore making it more of a substance than cold. Cold is then only the absence of heat, however, to the mind, it is represented as something positive. This miscorrelation means that there is an inconsistency in the human mind. If a positive idea is sourced from nothing, this means the meditator cannot distinguish this idea from a non-thing, however, if the meditator realizes he is making this mistake, it means there is a more perfect being allowing him this vision. Descartes slightly contradicts himself in the development of this argument.
Just as darkness is sourced from negating light, so is the infinite by negating finite, however, as Descartes mentioned before, we cannot make the absence of something a positive idea. Descartes clarifies that the infinite has more reality than a finite substance, making his perception of God prior to the perception of himself. God is prior because Descartes is able to recognize that he is lacking something, meaning that he understands the existence of a more perfect being who has given him the ability to do so, similar to the ability to doubt or think. A finite substance, such as the meditator, only is able to recognize an infinite substance because God’s power can never be fully understood. This distinction between the finite and infinite proves that the meditator cannot apply material falsity to infinite objects because he will never know how the infinite is truly represented since it can only exist in objective reality, which is unlike his ability to see light and darkness in formal reality. Descartes now has absolute certainty that God is true to the highest degree because it passes the test of material falsity (CSM II 31). Arnauld is unsatisfied by this conclusion and believes that Descartes is inconsistent with materially false ideas and his own principles. To clarify his issue, Arnauld uses the example of heat and cold. As stated earlier, Descartes believes that since cold is represented as a positive thing, it must be materially false because it is actually the absence of heat. Arnauld refutes Descartes’ notion by claiming that it is not possible for there to be a positive idea of cold if it is an absence, therefore Descartes is confused between an idea and a judgment.
Cold as the absence of heat is only a judgment, but the idea of cold still exists objectively in the mind. Any idea that has an objective existence must be positive and therefore, cold cannot only be an absence. Arnauld’s argument is confirmed by Descartes’ proof of God because God is also something that the meditator cannot see but also something he cannot pretend doesn’t exist. Descartes can say that cold is materially false, but it is still impossible to pretend that it doesn’t exist because an idea is positive through the objective existence which it contains and which it represents to our mind”. (CSM II 145) To think that the idea of cold represents a positive entity would be materially false, however, to think that it represents an absence means that cold is objectively positive. I agree with Arnauld’s argument. It is not possible to say that cold is materially false because it is still an idea that contains objective reality, but I think that the main flaw of Descartes’ notion is not whether or not cold is materially false, but that cold is the absence of heat. Descartes’ evidence of this fact is invalid because cold may still exist, just not clearly to the naked eye. Just because cold cannot be seen does not mean that it doesn’t exist. If Descartes wanted to find an example to prove material falsity, he should’ve tried arguing that darkness is the absence of light, which is a more distinct contrast than cold and heat. Descartes admits that Arnauld’s argument against material falsity is right in his own sense, so instead of refuting the idea, Descartes clarifies what he means in the Third Meditation. Arnauld only dealt with the idea in a formal sense, however, Descartes meant for material falsity to be found in an idea whereas the falsity involved in a judgment can only be formal (CSM II 163).
There was an error in Descartes’ claim that cold is an absence and has less reality than heat, which he recognizes in his response. He is unable to tell which idea contains more reality, which is why Descartes categorizes them as a case of obscure and confused ideas. God is a clear and distinct idea, allowing this supreme being to exist. Confused ideas which are made up at will by the mind, such as the idea of false gods, do not provide as much scope for error as the confused ideas arriving from the senses such as color and cold. (CSM II 163). Because Descartes is unsure if he can still prove that cold has less reality than heat means that there is falsity in his idea of cold. A material falsity does not have to come from a positive entity because it comes solely from the obscurity of the idea. The purpose of this argument is only to show that the meditator’s nature is not perfect in all respects because he is unable to clarify what cold is. This development proves that the mind also has the capability, like doubt, to recognize its own faults and compare itself to a more perfect being. Although Descartes’ initial notion of a material falsity was unclear in the Third Meditation, he clarifies his reasoning in his response to Arnauld. Descartes should have distinctly stated in the Third Meditation that he was still unsure about the relationship between hot and cold instead of using cold as an absence of heat to prove material falsity. Admitting his confusion would have also proven that material falsity exists because that shows that there are flaws in the intellect’s idea of hot and cold. His response to Arnauld proves the purpose of the Third Meditation, which is the validation of God. Because there are errors in our nature we can recognize through material falsity, this means there is some all-powerful entity which has given us the ability to think this, furthering his clear and distinct ideas that we are thinking beings and God exists.
Descartes and exploration the reality of the exist. (2019, Nov 07).
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