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Meaning Updated

Thu, Dec 8, 2011


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It has almost been a year since I started blogging on the Economy of Meaning and in this article I will revisit questions that started this blog, summarizing and updating what I have written to this point.

First, over the previous year, I have grappled with the definition of meaning.  In my approach, I have defined meaning through its effects rather than its essence, much in the same way that in Physics, for example, we examine what an electron does rather than what it is. For meaning, these effects are first, mediation of physical existence which, is beliefs and mental constructs that enable us to interpret life and create a mental space that makes life worth living, and second, expansion of consciousness which, is mental growth and ordering that unlocks our potential capacities–this is similar to the process of individuation as described by Jung.

Why is meaning not simply knowledge? Meaning can be thought of as special subset of knowledge.  Consider first, that when we talk about knowledge, we generally refer to stuff that happens in our minds.  This is not the same as what exists on the Internet or computers since the Internet as of yet does not possess a conscious force independent of human beings that can create and use knowledge.  So then knowledge is the domain of our minds.

Much of this knowledge, however, is concerned with things that are external to our minds.  Doctors look at the body, engineers at objects, architects at buildings, financial analysts at money, Lawyers at the law, and so on.  Such knowledge is almost exclusively concerned with making life possible for our bodies.

Meaning however is the mind working on the mind: as the mind acts on meaning (learns, transforms, applies, etc.) it acts on itself, and changes itself.  Meaning is not knowledge that concerns someone else’s mind, as in the work that perhaps a psychologist or psychiatrist undertakes, but knowledge held by a person that effects that very same person’s mind.  Shared meaning can and will transform other individuals, but such influence cannot, in general, be exerted by an individual who has not him or herself been transformed by the communicated meaning.

It is useful, at this point, to distinguish between the mind and the brain.  I am a software engineer so I will stick to a computing analogy where the analog for the brain is hardware and that for the mind software.  Hardware makes computation possible; software is the computation.  I believe that many studies consider the mind to be an outcome of how the brain is structured, in other words, the mind is some emergent property of the brain.  However, in pure computing terms, while knowledge of the brain is very important and valuable to understanding the mind, there is no inherent reason why the brain and the mind must be tied together so tightly.  Let’s use our analogy.  Consider operating systems, which basically can be considered the lower minds of computers.  On the same hardware we can install several different operating systems.  Better yet, we can install the same or look-a-like operating systems on entirely different hardware.  As long as hardware is capable of supporting certain essential functions, it can support entirely different software processes.  If we now consider the belief that at some time in the future, a sufficiently powerful computer will emulate a human being, we have to accept that the human mind can exist without specifically a human brain.  What is the point of all this?  Simply that when I am talking about the mind I am talking about processes that define a human and that such processes are independent of knowledge of the brain.

Meaning then is the essential language of the mind.  Why?  Because meaning acts to structure and guide our mental actions.  It is the navigational element of the mind that directs our attention, thought processes, motivation, how we interpret things, and how we act.  So out of this we arrive at a third quality of meaning: things that are meaningful grab our attention.  Why?  Following Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, our topmost need for individuation or self-actualization can only be achieved if our mind is so ordered that we can navigate the challenges of life to achieve our full potential, and such ordering comes from assimilating, perfecting, and fine tuning our navigational abilities, in other words the meaning constructs.  This ordering, fine-tuning and growth of meaning then results in an expanded consciousness.  We are primed to seek out meaning to feed growth and self-actualization, something that is inherent in our makeup.  Hence, things that are meaningful command our attention.

In another article, I explained how meaning is organized into towers, consisting of large interconnected networks of meaning that stack on top of one another until finally at the apex is held an archetypal meaning.  These towers of meaning, in concert with other towers of meaning, allow us to navigate through everyday problems, while archetypal meanings at the top of such towers become the guiding principles of our lives affecting all of our choices.  Such towers can also be thought of as mountain ranges as they are never simply constructed by one person in isolation, but through millennial processes of cultural development and transmitted to the individual through myriad avenues of communication and indoctrination.  This concept is closely connected to the idea of the meme and genetic transmission of cultural meanings.

So this brings up another question: how do we know what meaning is best?  Does anyone have the authority or even the right to choose meanings that are transmitted?  These questions resolve if we posit that towers of meaning are constructed through an evolutionary process.  Millions of individuals participate in the creation and transmission of meaning and towers of meaning survive or collapse depending on how they enhance the success and hence survival of individuals and communities.  Towers of meaning can be eroded and repaired, or they can collapse entirely freeing up old meanings that are assimilated in future towers of meaning.

Meaning analysis then is the application of the above theories to everyday problems.  Let’s take conflict, for example.  Much of the conflict we see in the world today is driven by the evolutionary pressures on towers of meaning: i.e. it is the conflict between competing towers of meaning in different cultural groups, much of it either subconscious or poorly understood, with neither side aware that they are fighting for a constructed system of meanings, instead viewing such meanings as self-evident or universal truths.  Such conflicts can be intense due the the massive millennial-long effort invested into their construction.  A culture will often consider their very survival dependent on the maintenance of such towers.  Yet conflicts do happen, both within and between cultures, towers of meaning do collapse, and new towers of meaning are constructed in a continuing process of evolution.

Meaning analysis can also be applied to business situations, leadership, work, the economy, culture and education.  Some important avenues of research will be to find formalized methods for meaning analysis, to explore how towers of meaning are constructed, and to study how meaning forms visionary leaderships.  Each of these areas of research can enable us to systematically transform and unlock individual potential, something that up till now is still a mystery, often seen as a haphazard and unpredictable chance driven process.  Study of meaning, its creation and its dissemination can revolutionize the realization of human potential.

As more and more sophisticated automation through robotics and advanced computing enhances the productivity of individuals engaged in industrial and information work, more and more individuals will have to reinvent what they do.  An economy based on creation and dissemination of meaning is the obvious avenue for work then, something that I believe will claim an ever increasing share of the workforce, with more and more individuals engaged in meaning creation and communication, including activities such as writing, creating music, expanding the arts, performance and theater, and therapy and coaching.  This economy then I call the Economy of Meaning.


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