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Economy of Meaning: Expanding Consciousness

Fri, Apr 8, 2011


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The expansion of consciousness is the highest “good” and the end-point of all economic activity. Indeed, the very success of any economy, when judged in terms of happiness, can and should be measured by the resulting expansion in consciousness.  This assertion follows if we assume that the development of economy is evolutionary and that this evolution has a trend or direction.

Human economic activity has evolved in the course of known history along a path that more or less matches Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  For the majority of humanity, economic activity has evolved from hunter-gatherer (prior to 10000 BC), to agricultural (circa 10000 BC), to industrial (circa 1300-1700), and to information (1945 and beyond).  Two things can be seen in this progression: first, with each advance we have solved more and more of those needs at the lower levels of the pyramid of human needs as defined by Maslow, and second, the complexity of organization in human society has increased.  It is also clear that this complexity has come about to solve particular economic problems and thus is correlated with Maslow’s hierarchy.  In other words, as we have met lower needs in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, we have devised more and more complex economic systems. Everywhere you look you see this: the legal system, the system of national and international government, the systems of trade and banking, the education system, science, medicine, and technology, to name a few.

Such growth in complexity correlates directly with evolution, which everywhere has progressed through higher and higher levels of organization and complexity1. At the apex of this complexity stands life on Earth, with its trillions of life forms, each a mini universe onto itself and of these life forms the most complex is the human being, with near ten billion individuals, each individual the product of the some of the most complex genes on the planet, equipped with a hundred billion neuron brain with a thousand trillion synapses2, and each individual connected by countless means into a social structure dwarfing in its complexity any other system on the planet.  Thus we can see that economic development is itself an evolutionary phenomenon.

To sum up, human economic development is evolutionary, a phenomenon that has moved humanity up a hierarchy of needs as defined by Maslow, and at the top of this hierarchy of needs is self-actualization, or the individual’s ability to fully express all of her or his potential.  Thus we can see that all other economic activity serves to expand consciousness, and that expansion of consciousness where our evolving economy is headed.

So what activity in our economy leads to the expansion of consciousness?

Clearly expanding consciousness is something to do with our minds, and when we talk about an expanded consciousness we envision an individual who can see beyond himself to understand people around him, and more than that, his community, and beyond that other cultures, and beyond that humanity as a whole.  In effect such an individual possesses a map by which he can navigate his way through life and its various challenges.  This map shows relationships between things, such as why people behave as they do, or why a community is the way it is, or why certain events are happening.  In effect it consists of a cluster of special knowledge.

But knowledge is not the right word, for this knowledge stands above knowledge: it is meta-knowledge, or to be more precise it is meaning.  What is meaning?  It is the thing that allows us to make sense of the world and our place in it.  So we can see that expanding consciousness consists of building a map of meanings in our minds.  In effect, meaning is the primary currency of our minds (see my review on the Maps of Meaning).  We do not see a cup as an object consisting of a cluster of molecules with specific properties; we see it as a something that we can use to drink from, and if the cup has a special shape it is for coffee or for some special drink for a special occasion.  We attach meaning to everything we come across and use this meaning to navigate life: starting from very basic evaluations such as: can I eat this, to much more complex evaluations such as what the purpose of my life.

This last point, that meaning can come at various levels points to the fact that meaning is hierarchical.  We build meaning on top of meaning, with lower-level meanings supporting higher-level meanings.  I call these structures towers of meaning.  You can think of them beacons that can guide our actions, with the highest level meanings setting the course for our life, and lower-level meanings guiding basic actions.

Another analogy for meaning is a range of mountains (see my article on the mountain archetype).  First, meaning is like a mountain because it towers above us, because the vast majority of meaning we hold is created by the culture in which we live, something that has developed over tens of thousands of years by a great many people.  Second, we construct meaning about many different things in our life, and where in some areas our consciousness (and therefore out map) reaches far, in other areas we might have a limited understanding.  Take for example the man who knows how to motivate employees and execute international business strategy, yet is clueless about how a two year old thinks.  This second idea fits well with Integral Theory and its AQAL system dealing with many dimensions of consciousness.

So economic activities that are concerned with the creation and exchange of meaning, are the primary elements of an economy focused on expanding consciousness, which in our analysis is where the majority of individuals will be working in the long term. While meaning making has always existed (see paper), we are entering a period of unprecedented meaning making, in which the majority of people will be occupied with building consciousness as a goal unto itself.

We often treat training, education, and self-improvement as a means to something, such as working better, or becoming wealthy, but in reality, all of these activities serve to expand consciousness and expanding consciousness is a goal onto itself, the evolutionary direction towards which our economy is developing; it is our primary drive as human beings, to grow, to individuate, as Jung put it, and to actualize whatever lies within us, and to express all of our potential.

  1. Greater degrees of organization correlate with greater measures of information, so we can say that the information content of the universe and life has increased with time. For living beings, this information is physically expressed in the gene, with the emergence of higher order more complex genes mapping the course of evolution.

  2. See second paragraph in Wikipedia article on the human brain.

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