Dissertation title: Hallucinating Facts: Psychedelic Science and the Epistemic Power of Data

Academic Abstract

This dissertation is a theoretical study of the relationship between digitality, knowledge, and power in the age of Big Data. My argument is that human medical research on psychedelic substances supports a critique of what I call “the data episteme.” I use “episteme” in the sense developed by philosopher Michel Foucault, where the term describes an apparatus for
determining the properties associated with the epistemic condition of scientificity. I write that the data episteme suppresses bodies of knowledge which do not bear the epistemic virtues associated with digital data. These include but are not limited to the capacities for positivistic representation
and translation into discrete digital media. Drawing from scientific reports, I demonstrate that certain forms of knowledge regarding the therapeutic mechanisms of psychedelics cannot withstand positivistic representation and digitization. Henceforth, psychedelic research demands frameworks for epistemic legitimation which differ from those predicated on the criteria associated with the data episteme. I additionally claim that psychedelic inebriation promotes a form of thinking which has been called, by various theorists, “negative,” “abstract,” or “idiosyncratic” thought. Whereas the data episteme denies the existence of negative thought, psychedelic research suggests that this mental function is essential to the successful deposition of psychedelic substances as adjuncts to psychotherapy. For the reasons listed above, psychedelic science provides a uniquely salient lens on the normative operations of the data episteme.

As it suppresses non-digitizable knowledge, the data episteme also implements what Foucault conceptualizes as “knowledge-power,” a term which affirms the fact that there is no meaningful difference between knowledge and power. Here, “power” may be defined as the power to promote but also to retract conditions on which phenomena may exist across all sites of social, intellectual, and political construction. I write that the data episteme seeks to both nullify the preconditions for negative thought and to naturalize the possibility of an infinite expansion of human mental activity, which in turn figures mentality as an inexhaustible resource for the commodity of digital data. The data episteme therefore reifies the logic of ceaseless economic proliferation, and as such, abets technologized capitalism. In the event that the data episteme fulfills its teleological goal to become total, virtually all that is thinkable would yield to economic subordination. I present psychedelic science as a site where knowledge which challenges the data episteme is empirically necessary, and which, by extension, attests to the existence of that which cannot be economically subsumed.

General Audience Abstract

In the age of Big Data, scientists draw upon the ever-expanding quantities of information which are produced, circulated, and analyzed by technological devices every day. As data grow in number, digital tools gain in their ability to yield precise and faithful information about the objects they represent. It appears that all forms of knowledge may one day be perfectly replicated in the form of digital data. This dissertation claims that certain forms of knowledge cannot be digitized, and that the existence of non-digitizable knowledge has important implications for both science and politics. I begin by considering the fact that digital tools can only produce knowledge about phenomena which permit digitization. I claim that this limitation necessarily restricts the sorts of information which digital devices may generate. I also observe that the digital turn has inaugurated a novel mode of capitalist economic production based on the commodity of digital information. The increasing dependence of scientific authority on digital methods is therefore also a concern for political economy. I argue that the reliance of scientific authority on digital data restricts the scope of scientific inquiry and makes ceaseless economic expansion appear both necessary and inevitable. It is thus critical to indicate sites of research and practice where non-digitizable knowledge plays an essential role in informing scientific processes. Such an indication is not only pertinent to scientific research, but also points up the ways in which data facilitate unregulated economic growth. 

Psychedelic drug research serves as my lens on digitality and political economy. Specifically, I explore the ways in which quantitative and computational methodologies have been used and critiqued by scientists who study the psychiatric benefit of psychedelics on human consciousness. Taking a historical approach, I demonstrate that psychedelic scientists have always faced the paradoxical task of translating the unusual and ineffable effects of psychedelics into discrete, measurable variables. This quandary has become more pronounced in the age of digital tool use, as such tools rest on the logic of metrical and discrete analysis. I suggest that the therapeutic mechanisms of psychedelics can only be fully revealed by methodological techniques which explicitly address the epistemic limitations of digital data. Noting that the ascendance of Big Data is contemporaneous with a rise of interest in psychedelics as adjuncts to psychotherapy, I assert that psychedelic science provides abundant materials for a critique of the ostensive epistemic authority of digital data, which operates as an alibi for technologized capitalism.