A Presentation at the University of Essex Psychoanalytic Society
Reflections On “The Difference Between Neuroscience and Psychoanalysis” by Cadell Last
Neuropsychoanalysis, Tension, and the Global Singularity
Congratulations to Dr. Last on the publications of his paper, “The difference between neuroscience and psychoanalysis: Irreducibility of absence to brain states” (24 May 2021)! Here is a recording to his lecture on the article, which inspired this reflection.
Dr. Cadell Last gave an incredible presentation on February 22, 2021, hosted by the University of Essex Psychoanalytic Society, that helps illuminate the importance of psychoanalysis in the world today. Cadell argued that there is a bias in neuroscience to assume psychoanalysis can be addressed with material explanation (mainly neuroscience), when really we need to understand that the brain and the mind “have nothing in common.” The use of the word “nothing” here is a play on words, for Cadell proceeded to claim that the mind is a “lost cause,” something that is essentially “an absence” more than a “presence.” The implications of this are wide, profound, and critical to grasp.
To use Cadell’s own words from an email (2/24/2021):
“I think the current tension in the neuropsychoanalysis literature (an emerging field, not invented by or identified with by me, but rather one I am seeking to engage dialectically), was framed and articulated very well by Greta Kaluzevicuite in the first question after the presentation. She noted that there are neuropsychoanalysts who see the unconscious as simply a biological reality that eliminates the need for Freud’s discoveries (i.e. the unconscious psyche of hidden meanings of the subject’s origin and so forth); whereas there are other psychoanalysts who see neuroscience as a dangerous intrusion that will prevent us and deflect attention away from the real of patient’s difficulties (i.e. perceiving that neuroscience is not worth engagement, or has no relevance to psychoanalysis). I see both perspectives as flawed, since the neuroscientists against psychoanalysis, I claim, are still subject’s of the unconscious (they cannot escape the loop of their own self); and the psychoanalyst’s against neuroscience, I claim, will still be effected by the consequences of neuroscience.
“My solution, articulated towards the end of the presentation, is that neuroscience (like all sciences of the psyche), must accept the discovery of the Freudian unconscious if they are to make any serious progress (otherwise they simply regress to a naive pre-Freudian view of the psyche, where there is implicitly only egoic perception and nature, etc.). But also, psychoanalysis must accept that science is not just “another discourse,” but rather a discourse that will have “universal effects and consequences” on subjectivity.
“ […] In short: how will future interventions in the neuroscience change the way humanity expresses libidinal attachments, and dramatizes its existential condition?
“Also, I am not identified with this field in an ideological way, and I do not seek to propose a “framework” or “worldview” that is “covering everything” […] This particular work is merely a (quite pragmatic and cold) dialectical intervention, and it is demonstrating the power of using dialectical logical to approach problems that usually get obscured and ignored due to the ideological operations of the identities of professors themselves […]”
Cadell’s overview provided, please note that the following is a result of notes, personal thoughts, questions, etc. on the presentation and a reflection of my own understanding of Cadell’s work. Please do not assume I am representing his line of thought perfectly, and I highly suggest you listen to the presentation yourself.
There is a quest in neuroscience for materiality that correlates and causes subjectivity, but Cadell warns that if subjectivity is somehow essentially an absence, then this quest must either fail or mistake a false destination as the goal. Though Cadell cannot say what the future holds, Cadell is concerned that the possibility of “us being an absence” isn’t even concerned by modern neuroscientists, which could cause unnecessary suffering if subjectivity isn’t adequately addressed or appreciated (as an absence).
What the brain and mind have in common is something that isn’t there, which means that even if the mind is a product of the brain, it cannot be explained by the brain. Moving forward, I will associate “the mind” with “us,” for we are a combination of the physical and metaphysical — perhaps we are “(un)physical” — but the brain would be meaningless and in a sense “not there” without the mind, so I think associating us with “the mind” makes more sense than with “the brain.”
We are “something (missing),” what Cadell refers to as a “lost cause.” This wonderful phrase brings to mind Aristotle’s “first cause” and “final cause,” and Cadell’s phrase suggests that the first and final cause of ourselves is “lost.” As I personally believe is shown in great literature like Faulkner or Dostoevsky, we are living as something that is no longer present. This sounds esoteric and difficult, but the metaphor of a mother and child might help.
Like a mother birthing a child, the brain has created something that perhaps couldn’t exist without it, and yet cannot be said to be equivalent to it. I cannot explain a mother by explaining her child, and if I show you pictures of the mother, you will not see the child; if I operate on the mother and observe her insides, I will not see the young man she raised who is now attending college: the child is gone. The brain and mind are similar; it’s just that the mother and the child might both be connected to a life support system that only works if they are both connected.¹ ²
The child is absent from the mother and yet requires the mother (to exist), and certainly similarities can be found between them due to genes (same eye color, similar sense of humor, etc.): so it goes with the mind and brain. It would be absurd to expect no similarities between a child and mother, as it would be absurd to think the mind and brain should share no resemblance, and yet similarities are not proof of equivalence. To say because a mother and child have 28% the same genes (or even 99.9999%) they are therefore the same person would be misguided, and yet that is what we do with the mind and the brain.
Cadell questions explanations that dissolve tension, an orientation with which I personally resonate. To use Aristotelian language, Cadell is concerned about “A = A” explanations (unifications, singularities, etc.) and “A ≠ A” (negations, nothingness, etc.); what Cadell wants is something closer to A/B, where A and B are always trying to contradict one another, though that contradiction never reaches negation. A/B is a tension, while both “A = A” and “A ≠ A” (which I’ll use the term “A/A” for short) resolve tension. In this way, Cadell follows the thought of Žižek on Hegel.
Cadell is concerned that our scientists, engineers, workers in Big Tech — those generally designing our future — are giving into the temptation of assuming an “A = A” vision of reality, and so we are heading toward a future that embodies an ontological framework in which we are not included. If we are A/B, and the future is A/A, we are not in our future (which means there must be some kind of violence against us and our subjectivities, though nobody can say for sure what that violence will look like). In one way, this sounds good, because “we are an absence,” but the problem is that the absence of us is absent in an A/A future. We paradoxically want “absence present” in where we are going, but we are designing a future in which absence is absent. Missing ourselves, we could suffer mental and existential pain, led to a future in which we must be something we cannot be. In the name of making us present, we are being made irrelevant.
Unfortunately, everything in us dislikes A/B and so our “true selves” (as absences). Our brains naturally gravitate toward A/A versus A/B, and so we want to be an A/A and do everything in our power to believe we are stable as such (another reason designing an A/B future versus A/A is so hard). Tension makes survival difficult; we naturally prefer simplicity, so to design a future in which we are “there” (as mind/brain(s) not just mind/mind(s) or brain/brain(s)), we must resist the temptations of our very biology (which has gotten us this far, mind you). But, admittedly, it’s always risky to bet against nature — the challenge is great.
We are paradoxical subjectivities (A/B) which desire object-ivity (A/A) and thus self-negation. For if we are A/B, to try to be A/A is to make ourselves not exist. Unless that is we can ontologically evolve into A/A, which, to speak generally, seems to be efforts of some transhumanists (into mind/mind) and neuroscientists (into brain/brain). It seems that some might be assuming that we will “ontologically evolve” as we “technologically evolve” (even people who don’t fall into some version of A/A thinking), but this could prove to be a dangerous assumption. More intention might be required, but it’s perhaps not easy to say how that intention should manifest. Perhaps “emergence” is our only hope, as will be expanded on.
We are not a something and we are not a nothing: we are a “something (missing)”; we are (nothing).³ The “missing part” of us must always be “missing” in something with which the missing part cannot be equalized. Everything in us is toward singularization (A/A), yet the “us” which makes mental orientation possible is A/B (for more, please see “A is A” by O.G. Rose, a topic Cadell has also worked on). It is not surprising then that neuroscientists are oriented toward a “pure materialistic” explanation of (mind/)brain, while psychoanalysts can disregard neuroscientists toward a “purely mental” explanation of mind(/brain). As Cadell warns, both approaches are temptations of A/A we must resist so that we can learn to dwell (dialectically) in A/B.
We are “toward” singularity, and we cannot stop technology from pushing us in that direction (and considering all the benefits of technology, who would want to stop it?). The question is only if we are heading toward a singularity that negates difference (between the physical and nonphysical, brain and mind, etc.) or maintains difference, and if we are absences, then negations of differences might efface us as well. However, if engineers, programmers, and the like — the makers of the future (us) — realize we need singularity to be A/B (brain/mind) versus A/A (brain/brain or mind/mind), we can work to assure the unavoidable “technological singularity” is accompanied by a “subjective singularity” that doesn’t try to negate us. But for that to happen, we need to change the “ontological assumptions” according to which we are designing the future, as Cadell is so guiding us to do.⁴ ⁵
We today are assuming a “theory of everything” is possible that entails no essential tension, perhaps hypnotized by Platonic mathematics (perhaps the dreams of neuroscientists). But the dream of a “complete map” seems impossible (an A/A that includes “everything that is the case”), for if subjectivity is an absence, it must be absent from any and every possible map. If a child is born — if a mind is reading this — no matter what part of the mother an operator opens up, the child will not be found.⁶
How do we program a “lost cause?”⁷ How do we design around an absence without making it present (which seems impossible)? All A/A thinking must “bracket out” A/B, but conversely, how do we “bracket out” A/A? How can a singularity not ignore absence? Alluding to Zeno, how can everything be one and nothing exist versus possible because nothing doesn’t exist?
Singularities seem to negate division and tension almost by definition via synthesis: how is a synthesis possible that maintains tension? Even if all absences could unify into a “single absence” and all things unify into a “single thing,” how can nothing and something merge? It frankly seems impossible, so the “omega point” seems to be where there is the “total absence” and “total presence” existing together without negating each other but naturally wanting to negate each other. How can we keep one from prevailing over the other and negating both?
Well, the variable we might have control over is our “will”: if theoretically we could stop “total absence” and “total presence” from wanting to negate each other, we could “manage” the tension (and “managing” is the best we can do in this circumstance: there is no “solution,” per se, that isn’t reductionistic and negative). Our natural, instinctual, scientific, and evolutionary will (against tension) shall orientate us toward “negation,” so the question is this: how do we overcome and “ontologically evolve” our wills? Especially if democracy is prevalent, if the majority of people can’t so “ontologically evolve,” we might be in dire trouble (as discussed in “Belonging Again” by O.G. Rose). Does that mean education is the answer? Hard to say, but Cadell’s work to teach “dialectical thinking” seems like an important step in the right direction.
For Cadell, “the hard problem of consciousness” is “the hard problem of absence.” A technological evolution that doesn’t “design around” a “lost cause” could be a nightmare, but A/A thinking doesn’t allow for that possibility. And maybe somehow “the technological evolution” will take care of itself (that possibility can’t be denied), but blinding ourselves with A/A seems foolish. Sure, we could get lucky, but relying on luck seems naïve. Still, perhaps the technological evolution will cause a subjective emergence that addresses a “lost cause,” and so though we can’t “design” “something (missing)” in our future, we can “emerge” into it successfully, as our technology will make possible.⁸
To clarify the point: it could be argued that we don’t have to worry about designing around “something (missing),” because movement toward “technological singularity” will inherently cause emergence that adequately accounts for “something (missing).” This strikes me as a key point of debate: technology and subjectivity must shape one another, so the question is if intentionality is needed or if intentionality could actually hinder emergence (perhaps similar to the debate between “central planning” and “free markets”). I personally don’t know and hope to dive into the literature to hear all sides of this critical debate.
In closing, if we are an absence, then we must make ourselves something we aren’t to be part of what’s coming, unless that is we change our view that psychoanalysis can be “folded into” neuroscience.⁹ The role of absence is fundamental in physics, logic, and mathematics, but our modern and even evolutionary bias is to deny absence.¹⁰ ¹¹This needs to change; after it does, we can debate if we can intentionally design a future around absence or trust in emergence. Our challenge is to head toward a future in which we as an absence are not forced to become a presence: that is impossible, will existentially overwhelm us, and could cause an unimaginable mental health crisis. To accomplish this, either intentionally or emergently, we must ontologically evolve ourselves and our wills. The debate now is how.
¹The mother is the brain, the child the mind, and perhaps the father the body (because the brain would die without a body and needs the body to produce a mind).
²It’s almost as if we are a mother and her child, almost a mother who birthed herself.
³Forgive me for not always including the parentheses, but I think there is legitimacy to leaving them off sometimes, because there can be no parentheticals in perception (only surface), as we cannot perceive potentials, only know about them.
⁴Keep in mind that the nature of subjectivity always follows technology — we have always been made by our tools. Additionally, if technology improves via “trial and error,” then it’s unstoppable if time is passing, for it will improve just by virtue of there being more time for mistakes. Considering this, we cannot stop ourselves from heading toward a “technological singularity” of some kind: the question is only if it will entail a “negative subjective singularity” (A/A) or “positive subjective singularity’ (A/B). That said, for this to happen, we need to solve the difficult practical question of “How do we design around an absence?” (assuming design is needed here versus space for emergence). Perhaps an A/B singularity is a “unity of models” we move and/or “stay” between? Perhaps an A/B system injects levels of randomness and incompleteness? Perhaps a true singularity must end up A/B even if we try to make it A/A because of Gödel’s “incompleteness theorem” and quantum uncertainty? That last “emergent” possibility is appealing to me, for it makes an A/B singularity inevitably, but that makes me wonder if increased intentionality for an A/B would still be useful to increase efficiency and avoid unnecessary suffering. I am hesitant to believe “things will just work out,” though I don’t deny the effectiveness of time and emergence. At this moment, I am genuinely not sure.
⁵One of the reasons it can be hard to grasp Cadell’s thinking is that the A/A brain naturally conflates “tension” and/or “contradiction” with “negation.” Negation is not tension, but an opposite of it just like pure presence. Kant proves “pure reason” makes possible “pure presence” is impossible (which might be why people dislike Kant); similarly, “pure negation” is also impossible (we have never actually thought about nothing).
⁶Please note if a “theory of everything” (TE) that “works” entails essential tension, but we believe a true TE doesn’t, then we could discover the true TE and walk on by. It is this possibility of “looking at reality and not seeing it” which is concerning. Furthermore, if tension motivates us to “search” for a resolution to tension, it could be the very discovery of TE that motivates us to look elsewhere for a TE. The A/B of ourselves is “toward” A/A, which if we reach, we could only understand as A/B, and so be motivated to push through it — on and on. Keep in mind that fundamentalism is A/A, but nihilism is also A/A (nihilism is fundamentalist), and so nihilism won’t solve our problem either.
⁷The fact Big Tech can better “grasp” the brain via data, etc. might make them “want” to believe subjectivity can be reduced to the brain, for then we are more controllable, easier to determine what we want as consumers, etc. This would back Cadell’s point that “desire” plays a role in science, tech, etc.
⁸We can’t design a world without a “lost cause” because we can’t design such a world if we’re around designing it, and as this is done, the intensify of the undeniability of the “lost cause” will grow, causing existential anxiety and, in response, a possible disaster.
⁹Please note that neuroscience is not another mere object in phenomenology, for it can change the meaning of “the ground” on which objects reside. Also, do note that A focus on absence can translate into a focus on particularity, for if absence is possible, so division much exist, which means “everything cannot be one” generally. If everything must be one because nothing cannot exist, then that whatever that oneness is cannot be found in the general: if anything, everything must be one in its particularity.
¹⁰We naturally “bracket out” the possibility of the “omega point” requiring us to accept “multiple groundworks in tension” (versus “a single ground”): we are ignoring the possibility of “tense theories of presence/absence” and assuming “a synthesizing theory of everything” is possible. Psychoanalysis provides evidence this is a mistake, and so there is incentive for neuroscientists to deny its relevance. Nobody likes their desires denied.
¹¹Try asking people what constitutes the most important events in history — how do you think average people answer? Pearl Harbor? 9/11? The invention of the printing press? Numerous answers are imaginable, but what I want to note is that I doubt most people will answer “the Big Bang,” “the splitting of the continents,” etc. What I mean by this is that we naturally answer questions on “important events in history” with answers that are only possible thanks to subjectivity, and yet science today “brackets out” subjectivity from its studies. We seem to subconsciously recognize the incredible role of consciousness in the formation of the world, and yet seek “a theory of everything” that leaves consciousness out.