On "Systems & Subjects: Thinking the Foundations of Science and Philosophy" by Cadell Last
Considering a New Strange Form of Us
It is difficult to think systems, a radical challenge to consider subjects, and Cadell Last has decided to think both. Systems shape subjects though, as subjects change systems, and that means the topic is active and changing. To make matters more complex, Cadell Last considers the possibility that the very act of considering “systems and subjects” actively participates in the formation of both, and so thinking about that meta-thought shapes the meta-thought, which shapes the meta-thought — like a fractal open to infinite recursion. How do we even begin thinking something so alive, dynamic, and fractural? This is the challenge Cadell Last has put himself up to facing in Systems & Subjects, where he attempts to elaborate on why subjective experience is so problematic, why we must think systems and subjects together versus apart, and even goes so far as asking us to imagine ‘the self-certain cogito [realizing] itself to be nothing but the pure thought of the unknown where there is only pure possibility.’¹ We cannot be so sure that ‘Absolute space and time [won’t] reveal itself to be nothing but the Absolute concept,’ capable of creating radically different constraints than what we are habituated to, which would mean that the Absolute concept could also beget a reality in which subjectivity is effaced — as seems to be what we are Moderns are bent on accomplishing.² In this, we can see why there are real and high stakes in the work of Cadell Last, for our very assumption that subjectivity is divisible from “systems thinking” could be precisely why we end up dividing subjectivity from our systems, which would be for us to erase our very personal involvement. For all practical purposes, this would be the end of “humanity,” but Cadell Last argues that this does not have to be the case, writing:
‘The cumulative embodiment of the beautiful, good and true as it relates to the history of conceptualization forces us to understand both practically and theoretically that abstractions are not just in our head, or simply words, but the way in which the subject possesses the remarkable capacity to bring forth something out of nothing (creation ex nihilo), to transform the still void into material movement.’³
To think is to create, and if we own this truth versus externalize it into “impersonal systems” (an impossibility), we might create a reality in which we love residing. Cadell Last further writes:
‘[I]f we see the cumulative increase of saint and sage-like subjects, who have integrated their partial truths in the multiplicity of drives that structure a conceptual becoming, we have the location of higher organizational capacity. This is the precise location where subjectivity gains the capacity to conceptualize beautifully, ethically and truly into the unknown. From this emergence we should expect a reality that is unimaginable from our present point of view. What will become possible for such a higher order community of subjects? What freedoms will structure their existence? What love will be embodied right here and now?’⁴
These are the beautiful and moving considerations which Cadell Last leaves us with in his book, but can they be justified? Are these notions which we can actually find reason to deeply consider and encounter?
‘[W]e all know when we refer to ‘the subject’ or ‘subjectivity’ we are referring to an inner place, or an inner experience, or a basic feeling of an inside,’ and we have been trained to view this experience as best “bracketed out” of our considerations of external systems and phenomena.⁵ Generally, ‘modern society has built knowledge structures designed in relation to this feeling of an inside, or this sense-perception of an outside’ (“the objective”), and though Cadell Last acknowledges this notion was necessary for the development of thought, he also suggests a need to “sublate it” into a new notion in which “subject and object” are more like “subject/object.”⁶ There is still division and distinction — it is not the case that “all is one” — but the distinct entities shape one another in(to) their very distinctiveness.
To stress, Cadell Last is not suggesting a ‘ ‘new age’ spiritual obfuscation [in which we] vapidly claim that ‘we are all one’ or ‘we are connected with the whole universe,’ ’ nor is Cadell Last suggesting a ‘panpsychist presupposition that fundament base-level reality ‘is consciousness.’ ’⁷ ⁸ Instead, inspired by the work of Ludwig von Bertalanffy, Cadell Last suggests a ‘revolution require[ing] us to go deeper into our own metaphysical systems, to include the processes of becoming that constitute history itself.’⁹ A tall order, and perhaps even impossible — why should we bother to try? Well, because we are heading toward a future and even “Technological Singularity” that assumes a certain vision of humanity in which subjectivity is merely a viewer of the world, not an active element in its development and unfolding. If this is wrong, then we could develop out of ourselves without ever realizing it — the stakes couldn’t be higher (a point I think aligns with Žižek in his Hegel and the Wired Brain). Thus, we must attempt to think what seems impossible to think or alternatively forgo the effort in an act that might cast aside our future.
It is impossible to avoid technology without avoiding our historic moment, so Cadell Last is not supporting such an abolishment. In fact, thanks to ‘technological complexification, historical subjectivity gains the tools required to experientially probe deeper and deeper levels of reality directly, [but notably] as we create them and find ourselves in the process.’¹⁰ If I were to say what constitutes a main thrust of the book, it is this notion of including subjectivity in our systems and development, which is difficult, for the presence of subjectivity means the system is actively aware of itself and developing itself around that development, which changes the awareness, which changes the development — on and on. This brings to mind “The Absolute” in light of Hegel (as I like to discuss), which I discuss as distinct from “The Truth.” Whereas “The Truth” is “everything that is the case” (to allude to Wittgenstein), “The Absolute” is “everything that is the case plus us,” which changes what constitutes the case, which changes us, on and on. To put it very generally, Cadell Last warns that we mostly assume “The Truth” in the background of our research, technological development, and the like, when it’s very possible that “The Absolute” is more aligned with how the universe actually operates. But part of “The Absolute” is the reality that the way we think about “the background” of the universe could transform how the universe unfolds, making it seem like “The Truth” is the case (and that we were thus right to think according to “The Truth”). In this situation, a feedback loop could arise in which human subjectivity gradually worked itself away.
The book elaborately and eloquently explores this possibility, and I couldn’t begin to describe all the ways Cadell Last accomplishes this task. But we know now that ‘Newton’s space and time is less fundamental than the wave function where bodies exist in probabilistic superposition as opposed to deterministic locations in space and time. [This being the case,] we must think not only determinate reality, but how determinate reality emerges from indeterminate reality.’¹¹
‘[F]or Hegel, abstract representations of reality are constantly undergoing a spiritual and social negotiation via mechanics of recognition in the phenomenal becoming of the understanding itself,’ which means that the very standard according to which we understand ourselves changes in the act of us understanding ourselves.¹² This is difficult to think, and it might be the case that trying to think it changes how we and our world unfold(s). Cadell Last offers a useful metaphor later in the work to help get at the strange ontological paradox that subjects might “be,” and he asks us to think of ourselves “like a quantum computer” (‘[t]he weird mirror with human subjectivity in-itself [where] the subject is in some sense an entity that possesses […] strange quantum computational properties’).¹³ Though it is common to consider the brain “like a computer” (which primes us to erroneously fall into subconsciously ascribing to ‘eternal idea[s] which exist independent of subjectivity’), it is not common to consider the brain “like a quantum computer.”¹⁴ Now, this isn’t to say the brain “is a quantum computer,” but instead is meant as a historical metaphor (like Newton’s metaphor of the universe as a clock): Moderns tend to think of the brain as using “1s and 0s,” but what if we tried to understand ourselves according to quantum logic, as paradoxically and simultaneously thinking in 1/0s — how might we think our nature then? How might we consider “now” differently?
It was necessary for us to develop historically through a period where we considered the brain “like a computer,” as ‘Descartes and Newtown can […] be explained as historical figures of consciously, socially selected as necessary truths for their time,’ but we must now move into a phrase in which the brain is strange.¹⁵ This is for us to ‘think subjectivity as an active participate in reality,’ which suggests the possibility of negentropy and entropy relating in novel and unexpected ways.¹⁶ We cannot be quick to rule this out, for though we often say “the map isn’t the territory,” it’s possible (if “The Absolute” is the case) that “the map is the territory,” the very consideration of which would be for us moderns to ‘confront with something alien […] [something] disturb[ing] rational identity.’¹⁷ This would force us ‘to affirm the true as the non-rational constitutive of rationality,’ which is a rather large and difficult step — suggesting perhaps why we have not thought it (or wanted to think it).¹⁸
For Cadell Last, what we must face is a ‘scientific thought of how any concept we have of ‘out there’ emerges from and is entangled with the inside, by processes of self-making.’¹⁹ If our thoughts of “out there” shape what we encounter “out there,” then we cannot consider the thought of “what is out there” as independent of the process by which we realize what is “out there,” for our concepts direct what we encounter. Indeed, if our “minds were computers,” perhaps “the inside” and “the outside” could be divided, but if our minds are really more “like quantum computers,” then we exist in a reality of “inside/outside” (1/0), and thus we must be aware of what we are thinking about in the act of investigating what things are “about.” This might sound mystical, but Cadell Last strongly resists such a consideration, and he warns that ‘[t]he inability of serious philosophers and scientists to take this challenge as of essential importance leads to regressive obscurantist spiritualist interpretations to take over mainstream discourse.’²⁰ Indeed, books like The Secret seem to multiply by the year…
Cadell Last uses the metaphor of “a white box,” and he writes that ‘when we think positively about our own interior experience, our own subjectivity, what we are, is a white box (the opposite of a black box). A white box is the real but unobservable internal organization of an informational process.’²¹ “White box” can be associated with a “white hole,” which is the opposite of a “black hole,” and instead of sucking all matter and light in, a “white hole” is infinitely and profoundly generative. Subjectivity doesn’t merely “take in” the world around it but is a feature of reality that “releases (more) reality into reality,” per se: subjectivity is “a point of creation.” Subjects participate in the universe, but that means ‘emotional trauma of self-organization is going to be a systemic feature of the process’ in which being becomes itself.²² This point begins to cut to the heart of the problem: if subjectivity contributes to the development of systems, then unaddressed traumas, projections, fantasies, and the like will be essentially structured into our systems, reality, and world. These are the stakes, but rather than consider them we assume there is no “Absolute” only a “Truth” — a risky bet.
Infants face numerous traumas in their development to become children, and children face traumas in becoming adults. Similarly, humans will face traumas in developing from moderns into those who accept “The Absolute,” but if we don’t face those traumas, they will become traumatic, and those “traumatic experiences” will be integrated into the systems we design (and feed-back into ourselves). Cadell Last writes:
‘The ultimate lesson for performing in tension is that tension is itself a type of absolute condition for being a form of subjectivity. In other words, there is really no choice when it comes to experiencing and moving through tension in the sense that the end of existence (death) is the only state when tension will be, presumably, removed from internal experience.’²³
This is arguably an “axiomatic belief,” which is to say we must “start off” either believing tension will always be with us or that tension isn’t an “essential feature” of existence, but rather a bug we can correct. Cadell Last suggests that tension is precisely the necessary prerequisite and experience needed for subjectivity to be creative, and if it is the case we require a creative subjectivity to exist and experience an unfolding reality, then removing tension would be to remove reality. Considering this, the choice to interpret tension as “essential” for being or “nonessential” is possibly a choice between life and death, and yet ironically it is “tension” which should be associated with “life,” when it seems natural for us to conclude the exact opposite. A search for unbreakable laws, for an “oceanic one,” for a final place of rest — all of these are ironically goals of which threaten the unfolding of the universe and us in it.
Unfortunately, adding to the likelihood we make this “effacing mistake,” the conditions which arise to tension in us have ‘no easily identifiable physical cause,’ only adding to the impressive that “tension shouldn’t exist.”²⁴ To grasp why tension is fundamentally part of being, we likewise have to accept that things which lack apparent physical cause are also part of fundamental being, which is a “metaphysical shift” in thinking that will not be easy or natural at all for us moderns. It’s more natural to believe that we should simply ignore or erase ‘the symbolic order’ which causes this tension, but Cadell Last stresses that we should rather ‘work-through it.’²⁵ He writes:
‘[A]bsolute closures are doomed to equilibrium, because no matter what field they exist within, eventually the environment will change so much that their knowledge structures will no longer be fit for action. Thus, eventually, they will hit a state of equilibrium, but the self-organizing symbolic drive in-itself will continue to participate in the strange loop between chaotic information fields and ordered knowledge practices that are best suited to explore these fields.’²⁶
In addition to this point, Cadell Last asks us to imagine that we might only exist because “something doesn’t work,” which is to say something fails to achieve equilibrium and “a stable state.” Because of this failure, infinite creation and development becomes possible, but it comes at the price of us having to live with a difficult and heavy tension. Are we so sure this isn’t the case? Regardless, we need to face this question directly, for we moderns are currently thinking and designing our systems assuming a “Truth” versus an “Absolute.”
For Cadell Last, science has brought us to a place where we are forced to confront our own interiority and decide if we will continue to “bracket it out” from our thinking or incorporate it more deeply to a place where subjectivity essentially shapes and transforms our world. Science today suggests problems in which we are entangled, and how those problems are tangled is determined by us. Cadell Last also notes that it is impossible for us to think without thinking according to assumptions, a certain paradigm, and the like, and so we must decide before we think if we believe subjectivity actively shapes reality or is only an observer of it. This decision will organize how our thinking develops, but Cadell Last outlines in his book reasons for why we should take subjectivity as more essential to reality than we have traditionally believed.
If awareness changes how reality unfolds, learning such risks causing us existential misery if not insanity, but not learning this is also risky, for we might continue to design subjects out of being (we might be dealing here with something as difficult as “lucid dreaming,” of realizing we are in a dream without waking up). As Cadell Last puts it:
‘The essence of the mental paradox, in relation to the ideology of scientific materialism and fundamental laws can be formulated simply: subjective mind or consciousness has internal to its own nature the capacity for real time computations that are not reducible to past programming. In other words, subjective mind is not absolutely determined from past causes.’²⁷
How do we live with this knowledge and possibility? Well, it won’t be natural for moderns, but we fail to incorporate the work of Bertalanffy into our thinking at great risk. ‘Bertalanffy saw the emergence of a true symbolic drive as something that did not conform to the utilitarian closed loop derived from biological metaphor,’ but we can still choose to treat “symbolic drive” as utilitarian, causing a mismatch which breeds pathology.²⁸
‘The self-organization of the symbolic order is likely in-itself impossible to stop,’ the question is only how will we try to organize it?²⁹ Will we deny the active role of the subject? That will be natural for us, for knowing the subject requires a processing of negativity that will prove painful and possibly traumatic. We will have to accept that a “perfect future” isn’t possible, only a future we create, which burdens us with possibility. If the human is the product of a mistake, the future can only be perfect without us, and thus we are tempted to think of a future that is post-human. In line with this point, Cadell Last notes:
‘Could it be that theoretical physics, in the mathematical abstraction of a higher other eternal world qua multiverse, is unconsciously expressing deep desires of the biological organisms and cultural creatures engaged in this activity?’³⁰
This is an important consideration, especially when considered alongside the notion that science seems to have a subconscious dislike of the subject, precisely because science cannot “solve it,” per se. Thus, it is possible that cybernetic and transhumanist talk of a future in which AI replaces humanity might reflect a subconscious desire to “solve the problem of the subject” by removing subjectivity from the universe. Are not scientists human beings with minds just like the rest of us? Why can’t they be susceptible to “the death drive” too? Have we even considered this possibility, that current widespread notions about the future might simply be scientific “wish-fulfillment” to overcome the subject once and for all? Might we just be desiring a utopia where there is nowhere for us and claiming it is inevitable so that we can deny the role of desire and subjectivity in its construction? Might we be tempted by “The Bystander Effect?” Hard to say.
I have hardly scratched the surface of Cadell Last’s critical book, leaving unaddressed the topics like “abductive reasoning,” the dialectic between coherence and correspondence, the “positive limits” of Hegel, quantum gravity, Hegelian reconciliation — nothing I wrote here could articulate the ideas better than Cadell Last does himself (the sections on “Neapolitan ice cream” are notably delightful). Again, please purchase and read the book for yourself.
Cadell Last articulates well why our fate is tied to how we relate systems and subjects, and he wonders if we moderns might still be thinking in terms of a necessary historic phase that will prove effacing if we fail to sublate it into the next phrase, which for Cadell Last entails thinking “subject/system,” not just “subject and system.” If we cannot think the future with us in it, the future cannot be ours, and if systems and subjects are indivisible, that ironically means the future is for nothing human or human-made at all unless we can think the future with subjects and systems together. With Cadell’s guidance though, not only can we rise to this challenge, but we can also prove all the better for it. A future which overcomes challenge is greater than a future which only lingers on.
¹Last, Cadell. Systems and & Subjects. Philosophy Portal, 2022–2023 (early .pdf version): 432.
²Last, Cadell. Systems and & Subjects. Philosophy Portal, 2022–2023 (early .pdf version): 432.
³Last, Cadell. Systems and & Subjects. Philosophy Portal, 2022–2023 (early .pdf version): 431.
⁴Last, Cadell. Systems and & Subjects. Philosophy Portal, 2022–2023 (early .pdf version): 431–432.
⁵Last, Cadell. Systems and & Subjects. Philosophy Portal, 2022–2023 (early .pdf version): 14.
⁶Last, Cadell. Systems and & Subjects. Philosophy Portal, 2022–2023 (early .pdf version): 14.
⁷Last, Cadell. Systems and & Subjects. Philosophy Portal, 2022–2023 (early .pdf version): 127.
⁸Last, Cadell. Systems and & Subjects. Philosophy Portal, 2022–2023 (early .pdf version): 357.
⁹Last, Cadell. Systems and & Subjects. Philosophy Portal, 2022–2023 (early .pdf version): 361.
¹⁰Last, Cadell. Systems and & Subjects. Philosophy Portal, 2022–2023 (early .pdf version): 358.
¹¹Last, Cadell. Systems and & Subjects. Philosophy Portal, 2022–2023 (early .pdf version): 16.
¹²Last, Cadell. Systems and & Subjects. Philosophy Portal, 2022–2023 (early .pdf version): 20.
¹³Last, Cadell. Systems and & Subjects. Philosophy Portal, 2022–2023 (early .pdf version): 375
¹⁴Last, Cadell. Systems and & Subjects. Philosophy Portal, 2022–2023 (early .pdf version): 24
¹⁵Last, Cadell. Systems and & Subjects. Philosophy Portal, 2022–2023 (early .pdf version): 22
¹⁶Last, Cadell. Systems and & Subjects. Philosophy Portal, 2022–2023 (early .pdf version): 24
¹⁷Last, Cadell. Systems and & Subjects. Philosophy Portal, 2022–2023 (early .pdf version): 34
¹⁸Last, Cadell. Systems and & Subjects. Philosophy Portal, 2022–2023 (early .pdf version): 37
¹⁹Last, Cadell. Systems and & Subjects. Philosophy Portal, 2022–2023 (early .pdf version): 46
²⁰Last, Cadell. Systems and & Subjects. Philosophy Portal, 2022–2023 (early .pdf version): 49
²¹Last, Cadell. Systems and & Subjects. Philosophy Portal, 2022–2023 (early .pdf version): 53
²²Last, Cadell. Systems and & Subjects. Philosophy Portal, 2022–2023 (early .pdf version): 76
²³Last, Cadell. Systems and & Subjects. Philosophy Portal, 2022–2023 (early .pdf version): 81
²⁴Last, Cadell. Systems and & Subjects. Philosophy Portal, 2022–2023 (early .pdf version): 99
²⁵Last, Cadell. Systems and & Subjects. Philosophy Portal, 2022–2023 (early .pdf version): 108
²⁶Last, Cadell. Systems and & Subjects. Philosophy Portal, 2022–2023 (early .pdf version): 119
²⁷Last, Cadell. Systems and & Subjects. Philosophy Portal, 2022–2023 (early .pdf version): 183
²⁸Last, Cadell. Systems and & Subjects. Philosophy Portal, 2022–2023 (early .pdf version): 200
²⁹Last, Cadell. Systems and & Subjects. Philosophy Portal, 2022–2023 (early .pdf version): 210
³⁰Last, Cadell. Systems and & Subjects. Philosophy Portal, 2022–2023 (early .pdf version): 331
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