The Dragons of Eden – Introduction

Mankind is poised midway between the gods and the beasts. – Plotinus

Plotinus’ quote is symbolic of a fundamental biological principle illustrating that man is descended from some lowly organized form, and which serves as the backdrop to the discussions Carl Sagan (Figure 1) presents in The Dragons of Eden. In order to provide a description of nature, and human growth, Sagan begins by discussing this principle, one that distinctly identifies the field from other physical sciences, evolution by natural selection.

Figure 1. Carl Sagan, noted astronomer, science communicator, and author of The Dragons of Eden.

Let’s digest that last bit, piece by piece. The word evolution is commonly used to describe the gradual development of something, from a simple to a more complex form. In scientific terms, evolution is the change evidenced in hereditary characteristics that are carried over successive generations in biological populations. It is the fundamental process that has led to biodiversity within species, and individual organisms.

Figure 2. Charles Darwin

Natural selection was the brilliant discovery of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace (Figures 2-3), detailed in the publication of their joint works in 1858. It is the theory that describes evolution, and is the preferential survival and reproduction of organisms that are by accident better adapted to the environment.

Figure 3. Alfred Russell Wallace

Natural selection is due to differences in the phenotypes of individual organisms. A phenotype is basically a composite description of an organism’s traits and characteristics including its physical and biochemical properties, as well as morphology, development, and behavior. An organism’s phenotype is a consequence of an organism’s genetic code, or genotype, along with environmental factors, and the collective influence and interaction of the two. It is important to differentiate natural selection from artificial selection, or selective breeding, where humans use animal and plant breeding to “select” for the development of particular characteristics by choosing which males and females of animal and plant species will sexually reproduce, and have offspring together.

In The Dragons of Eden, Sagan, much like Jacob Bronowski (Figure 4), best remembered as the presenter and writer of the 1973 BBC television documentary series, The Ascent of Man, wants to provide an account of how human beings and human brains “evolved” or grew up together. By understanding the evolution of human beings and human brains, Sagan intends to provide a platform from which he can speculate on the nature of human intelligence, its evolution, and its future.

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Figure 4. Jacob Bronowski was a British mathematician, historian of science, theatre author, poet and inventor.

For starters, he addresses the role of knowledge and learning in a species’ ability to survive, and adapt to its environment. In order for an organism to survive, it must have the basic ability to extract and manipulate information from the environment. Most organisms depend on their genetic information to survive, but in their lifetime, they can also collect extragenetic information. On the other hand, humans and mammals exclusively depend on extragenetic information.

Mammals are warm-blooded (maintaining a constant body temperature compared to the temperature of the environment), vertebrate (have a backbone or spinal column) animals distinguished from other animal classes by their possession of hair or fur, the birth of live young, and the secretion of milk by the females for the nourishment of the young.

While our genetic history does exert a significant influence in our behavior, our brains allow for us to interact at a higher level with what we learn from the environment. This has drastically enhanced the chances of survival of the human species. Human beings have also invented extrasomatic knowledge, or information that can be stored outside our bodies, writing being a notable example. As Sagan points out, our dependence on extragenetic, and extrasomatic information is crucial to the survival of our species. Since the timescales involving evolutionary or genetic change is far too long, we cannot depend on a process that may take place over hundred thousands to millions of years in order to keep up with the changes that we encounter in the world. In fact, we now live in a time where our world is changing at an unprecedented rate. To deal with an unknown and perilous future, Sagan insists it will be necessary for humans to actively consider the changes in our environment, and learn to adapt, control, and adjust our lifestyles accordingly. Our survival relies on the evolution, growth, and sensitivity of human intelligence, which has been a solution and a cause to the many problems and changes that afflict our species (Figure 5).

Figure 5. Our evolution is tied to the growth of our environment, and vice versa.

Sagan’s interests in addressing the evolution of human intelligence is also an extension of the work he accomplished at SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) as the insights we derive from an investigation of terrestrial intelligence will help in our search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

Both the existence of those other civilizations and the nature of the messages they may be sending depend on the universality of the process of evolution of intelligence that has occurred on Earth. – Carl Sagan, The Dragons of Eden

Ultimately, his treatment of the evolution of the brain will assume that its workings, or what can be called the mind, are a result of its physiology and anatomy. His primary goal in addressing the evolution of human intelligence  is to dissect the various aspects of a subject that touches base with various other scientific fields. By understanding the evolution of human intelligence, he stresses the insight that can be gained from the interactions between brain physiology, anatomy, and human introspection.

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Figure 6. René Descartes, addressed the mind-body problem in the 17th century. He believed that inputs from the environment were passed on by the sensory organs to the brain and from there to the immaterial spirit

With this approach, Sagan considers the “mind” to be the result of collective processes of the components of the brain, and chooses to not entertain the hypothesis of what is called the mind-body dualism (Figure 6). The mind-body problem deals with various arguments about how mental states, events, and processes can be related to physical states, and likewise, with the governing assumption that the human body is a physical entity, while the mind is non-physical. (The Stanford Enyclopedia of Philosophy is a wonderful primer’s read-through of this highly detailed topic.)

And that’s all there is to the introduction! While it may read as a book review, the introduction is a concise summary of what we will see later in the book. Now, to reiterate, Sagan’s work in The Dragons of Eden  is presented against the backdrop of the theory of evolution. Since its induction in science, evolution has garnered its share of controversy, and disagreement. To all my readers, by reviewing this book, I am in no way forcing these views, and arguments on you. Science is not dogmatic, neither should it be in its endeavor to discover the nature of our world, and our place in it. It is an open stage, and thus, I leave it to you, my readers,to decide on the views you wish to accept, and decline in my review of the book.

References

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What’s new for the coming month?

Hi everyone,

This update comes a little later than I had originally planned. I’ve been quite productive over the last two weeks. Having recently completed my second book, I have been content editing the story, while organizing my agenda for the upcoming year, involving everything from independent course studies in Robotics, setting up my next three writing projects, traveling back home to visit my family in India, and a lot more. Just like I had mentioned in my previous post, I’ve also followed up on the changes I proposed for the blog. You should now be able to see a menu at the top of the blog’s main page, where I’ve categorized the blog’s contents accordingly as follows:

(1) About – A short introduction to the author of the blog, me, as well as a description of the blog’s purpose.

(2) Contact – Here is where you, my readers, can contact me, by filling in the contact form.

(3) General – Blog updates, and promotions.

(4) A Slice of Life – Here is where my posts concerning my daily adventures will be archived.

(5) Book Reviews – Here is where I will post reviews of the books I have read. So far, I have done two including The Silmarillion, and Star Wars: The Old Republic: Revan.

(6) Read Along – Apart from book reviews, I will provide for summaries, and analyses on the contents of selective books I read.

(7) Let’s Get Thinking – Critical discussions with relevance to literature, science, philosophy, politics, and just about anything that can wrack my brain.

(8) Learner Space – I’m still yet to decide on how to go about this, but as of now, I feel the Learner Space will be an archive for posts where I intend to provide for detailed tutorials on various subjects. Unlike the prior category, these discussions will be a lot more involved, and will closely resemble one of my earlier posts on Electricity: Principles, and Applications!

All the blog posts will appear as usual, on the main page, but will automatically be archived among the above categories. This will provide a structure to the blog, as well as allow for easy access to specific posts you wish to read. Further changes I wish to implement in the coming days include:

-A link to my Goodreads account, which will keep you all well-informed on my current reading list.

-I’m trying to set up an autograph widget on WordPress for Our Last Summer: A Personal Memoir. I’m hoping e-book autograph sites like Authorgraph will help set this up, so that I can provide free autographs for anyone who has purchased  my e-books!

-Commentary spaces on my posts which will help you all to personally interact with the blog, and its content. A comment policy will be announced in the near future.

Altogether, I hope that by 2017 the blog will be a busy haven for discussion, learning, and fun! I will keep you all posted on everything! On the other hand, I will upload a new post this week, analyzing the introductory chapters of Carl Sagan’s The Dragons of Eden (the first of the many books that will be a read along with you, my audience).

The Silmarillion – Book Review

I was 12 years old when I first got my hands on The Hobbit, while absent-mindedly exploring my school library’s fantasy collection, and that was about it. In the years that followed, I watched  various animated and live-action film adaptations of Tolkien’s works, but ultimately didn’t commit to fully reading The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) trilogy. In retrospect, I could attribute this to my inability then, to fully appreciate the depth and grandeur of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth.

It wasn’t until the final year of my undergraduate studies, when I met my partner Leina, who was herself an avid fan of Tolkien, that my interests in the events and rich history of Middle-Earth were renewed. I ended up re-watching Peter Jackson’s adaptation of the LOTR trilogy, and later indulged heavily on the online forums and wikis dedicated to Tolkien’s mythology, digesting pretty much all that there was to learn about Middle-Earth. But reading wikis and online forums is a completely different matter from actually reading the books.

And so, I purchased The Silmarillion, eventually completing what was an adventurous ride through Eä over the course of the last three months.

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The Silmarillion is a collection of J.R.R. Tolkien’s mythopoeic works that were edited and published posthumously by his son Christopher Tolkien in 1977. It is a narrative describing the universe of Eä where exist the mythical lands of Valinor, Beleriand, Numénor, and lastly, Middle-Earth, which serves as the backdrop for the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. 

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The narrative is incomplete, ranging over prominent events and happenings in the Elder Days (the First Age in Tolkien’s world) comprising Eä’s creation to the downfall of Morgoth (the prime antagonist of the First Age), much of which would be forgotten in the coming of the Second and Third Ages detailing the rise and fall of Sauron, Morgoth’s lieutenant.

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Melkor, “He who arises in might”, later known as Morgoth, the Black Enemy.

While the tales of The Hobbit  and The Lord of the Rings chiefly concern the events surrounding Sauron’s One Ring of power, the foundation of The Silmarillion revolves about the Silmarils, three jewels that were created by Feänor, the most gifted among the Elves. Within those jewels were stored the light of the Two Trees of Valinor, the land of the Valar (higher spirits who are the guardians and governors of Arda, or the Earth) before they were destroyed by Morgoth.

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Feanor, the creator of the Silmarils.

Thereafter, the light of the trees of Valinor forever lived only in the Silmarils. Unfortunately, Morgoth would seize those jewels and flee to his fortress Angband in the North of Middle-Earth, where he would set them in his crown. Thus, the story of The Silmarillion is the long history of the rebellion that followed in the wake of Morgoth’s theft of the jewels, led by Feänor and his elven kindred against the Valar, their subsequent exile from Valinor, their return to Middle-Earth, and their war until the end of the First Age against their most bitter foe, the Black Enemy,  Morgoth.

The Silmarillion consists of several overlapping themes highlighted in the individual stories of the various characters who live through the First Age of Middle-Earth. Tolkien’s creation myth draws heavy similarities with the Biblical creation story, where Eru can be held analogous to Yahweh. One could also compare the Valar to various Greco/Roman/Hindu Gods, and the Maiar (the servants of the Valar) to Christian angelic figures.

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Fan art of the Valar, “Those with Power.” I suggest you read the book to discover their identities and their powers.

Several such open inferences and interpretations of the characters in the story make for an extremely enjoyable read. In my case, it certainly motivated me to explore and learn the details and history of other major religious pantheons that have held power in human history, several of which may also have duly served as inspiration for Tolkien in his writing.  

The penultimate theme of the story is the cosmic struggle between good and evil, order and chaos, mirrored in the actions of its characters. The passing of time and the inevitable hand of fate serve as recurring imagery of the circular nature of Tolkien’s world. Even the most subtle decisions made as a result of a character’s emotions, be it pride, vanity, confidence, or grief, result in far-reaching consequences, the ends of which we see resolved in later events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. While each character is subject to his emotions, those same primal instincts are often presented as the will of a higher being.

As such, an individual’s actions and the dire set of resulting circumstances often provoke the reader to question the morality of Tolkien’s world and its hierarchy. Questions on existentialism and freewill follow hand-in-hand when the reader is left to reflect on the motives and fate of several characters, many of whose lives are quite Sisyphean in nature.

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Rock beats Sisyphus.

At the same time, Tolkien also explicitly uses specific characters to fully symbolize prominent themes such as love and hope to  counteract the grave world we find in The Silmarillion.

Altogether, the book is a wonderful read, and is a must for LOTR fans. In this brief book review, I have specifically gone to great lengths to not divulge details on the individual characters and myriad stories we find in The Silmarillion. The discontinuous nature of these stories define a fundamental element of the First Age of Middle-Earth which resembles a broken world. I highly encourage both LOTR and non-LOTR fans to give the book a read. As for me, having read The Silmarillion, it is only proper that I now follow through and read the LOTR trilogy, for another collective three book reviews waiting in the future!

It is done!

Great news everyone! As of yesterday, I have successfully completed the first draft of my second book (Agent X, as we decided to call it on my last post).

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It took a few hours…Well, actually, an entire day of exhaustive writing, and by around 10 p.m., I was typing the last words of the epilogue. The rush of emotions that accompanied the completion of my second work was exhilarating, and in a way, bittersweet. I spent the rest of the night reminiscing about the two year journey over the course of which I had written the book.

Of course, there is still much that remains to be done. I will now proceed with the most arduous task of content editing my work. On the other hand, the end of this project brings up the excitement of various future prospects. Apart from the accompanying art work I intend to do for Agent X, I will now slowly make my transition into Manga school, while brainstorming my next three writing projects.

I will also be making a few changes to the content presentation on this blog. The purpose of this blog is to provide a free space where I can express my thoughts, as well as share my knowledge with all of you. To further help facilitate these discussions in an interesting manner, I intend to go about categorizing my daily posts. I’m hoping that a few months from now, I will have set up several categories of posts in subjects ranging from:

(1) Critical thinking

This will primarily involve weekly discussions on an interesting article of my choice in science, politics, philosophy, and just about anything that can wrack my brain.

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(2) Teaching & Problem-solving

This will be a two-fold approach that would help complement my current duties as a student tutor at the university, where I typically face the following scenarios:

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 and which I try to resolve in due fashion, with ample flair,

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Let’s get this over with.

 I have yet to decide on how to organize this part of the blog, but it may predominantly involve discussions or solutions to the most interesting questions I encounter with my students on a weekly basis, or any other cool puzzles that catch my eye!

(3) Book reviews/Read-along

This is something I have always wanted to do. So far, I have done one book review (Star Wars, The Old Republic: Revan), but I would also like to try something new where I would provide a summarized read-along discussion of sorts of the books I read. An immediate choice that I will provide posts about in the near future is Carl Sagan’s Dragons of Eden, which I’m currently parsing through.

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(4) My daily adventures & lots of writing!

This is fairly simple. It is what I’ve been doing so far, and will be the primary form of my communication with everyone. There is a lot to life, and everyday proves to be a grand adventure!

And that’s basically it for my update. The purpose of this post was to keep you all informed. The changes will be gradual, but I hope that you will all come to enjoy the myriad selection of posts this blog will host in the coming days!

Our Last Summer Free Promo Codes!

Hi everyone,

So here we go! The title makes it quite obvious, but I have a few promo codes to give out. As I mentioned in my earlier posts, I will be promoting Our Last Summer, my autobiographical work on an occasional basis on this blog. Here is to a good start.

It is quite simple. I will be providing 5 promo codes today (at the end of the post). The codes basically allow for a free download of my book in e-book format. It is pretty much a first come, first serve recipe. So the lucky 5 who get to enter those promo codes will get to have a free e-book copy of my work.

Now, here are the five promo codes:

10600000090354

10600000090348

10600000090338

10600000090341

10600000090350

I kindly request that you pick just one out of the five! And once you have made your choice, get your way to,

http://www.iuniverse.com/bookstub

(1) Enter your promo code

(2) Enter your details and submit the code

(3) Select your desired e-book type

(4) Download your free e-book

I will continue to provide such e-book promo codes every now and then, along with other promotional materials, so I suggest everyone be on the lookout, and for the lucky 5 who get today’s codes, I hope you enjoy reading the book.

I also kindly request of my readers to provide their reviews and criticism on my work through online review outlets, for example, at GoodReads, or at prominent sellers such as Amazon, Barnes & NobleiUniverse, as well as other bookstore chains.  I would really appreciate your comments, and it would be of great assistance in further improving and reinforcing my writing skills!

Happy Halloween Everyone!

Hi everyone! I apologize for my brief absence.

The last two weeks have been quite eventful, and I had a lot to contend with including (takes a deep breath):

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  1. Finishing an online certification course in programming
  2. Submitting an application for research funding (for my PhD in Robotics)
  3. Finishing the last chapter of my second book
  4. Starting my Research Assistantship in the Robotics lab at the U of A (very, very exciting)
  5. Finish reading the The Silmarillion, and starting on Carl Sagan’s Dragons of Eden.

All in all, it was just about a lot of work and having fun whenever possible. I’m especially happy about #3. It was an amazing ride of feelings to write up the last few pages of my second book. The epilogue remains to be completed (this week), though it will be a short piece of work, followed by the more arduous task of content editing. As of now, I’m looking at a page count of about 120 or so, though given my past experience in editing Our Last Summer: A Personal Memoir, this number is bound to change.

Now that I’m nearing the completion of my second book, I can’t wait to get started on brainstorming my next three to four writing projects which will span various genres from politics, science fiction, and fantasy. I also intend to write a short story in my native language of Tamil (haven’t written in it for years, so it will be one hell of a fantastic mess) and which will serve as the third and final act of a trilogy of books that have been inspired from my personal life, including Our Last Summer, and my second book (call it Agent X). The coming week I will also begin my courses in manga art/drawing (a crucial aspect my upcoming writing projects, some of which will be in the form of manga/comics).

Apart from this, I’m keeping busy as we near the end of the year. Working as a research assistant in a robotics lab is exciting as heck, and I have lots to learn from my peers. My plans for this coming week are to post some promotional material for Our Last Summer as well as also provide for some new topics of discussion involving science and a slice of life.

I will keep you all posted in the coming days! For now, I’m going to sit back, relax, and just creep myself out with this beauty as for All Hallows’ Eve:

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On the Nature of Knowledge

Introduction

So, after a week of thoughtful contemplation amid myriad deadlines, I’m excited to finally post my discussion “On the Nature of Knowledge.” I contested two methods of approach in presenting this topic: one that is grounded in philosophy, and the other that is inspired from my personal experience as a student. Ultimately, I’ve decided to stick with the latter as it would be consistent with how I’ve addressed most of the topics posted on this blog. For anyone wishing to tackle the same topic from a philosophical perspective, check out epistemology (the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy provides an awesome introduction on the subject).

Our discussion will be divided into three separate parts dealing with the following questions:

(1) What is knowledge?
(2) What is knowledge from a student’s perspective?
(3) What is the purpose of knowledge?

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Seems simple enough!

My objective today will be to share my personal experience and growth over the last seven years of my undergraduate and graduate studies, during which I actively and repeatedly engaged these questions. I’m well aware of the various generalizations that can be made in answering these questions, but my opinions will converge and revolve around the viewpoints I’ve accepted in my personal journey to discover those same answers as a student. Let’s begin!

What is knowledge?

I believe knowledge can be defined via three categories: personal, factual, and action-based knowledge.

Personal knowledge revolves about the knowledge gained by acquaintance with the objects, the events, and the people in one’s environment. Having just arrived in Canada for my undergraduate studies, the foundation of my life was built around the expectations and experiences I had with my family living in India, Egypt, and Sudan. Commencing my studies at the University of Alberta while living in student residence, working part-time and volunteering in various activities, my personal growth as an individual continued as I mingled and became familiar with an alien environment. My new-found freedom allowed me to fully experience and question my individuality, a process that would culminate in my identity crisis several years down the road (one that I have thankfully resolved). Knowledge, in this sense, is acquainted with my familiarity toward objects in my environment as well as the delegation of my recognition to said objects, and was highly influential in defining my identity and my decisions. Altogether, personal knowledge is very much a book in progress in our individual lives. Its measures and ends are dictated by our environments, personal motivations, and growth while actively influencing all three of those aspects.

Action-based knowledge is the knowledge of how to do something. This would involve one’s abilities to do something, like driving a car or starting a campfire.

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On the other hand, factual knowledge, as is obvious, is the knowledge of facts. Action-based knowledge is different from factual knowledge. One may know the theory behind driving a car, while not actually knowing how to drive a car. Factual knowledge is evident in both action-based, and personal knowledge. With personal knowledge, in order to speak with others, one must  know how to communicate. One doesn’t necessarily know a person just by meeting them, one must also know a few things about them. Similarly, with action-based knowledge, one must know certain facts about driving, like the motion of the car with respect to actions on the steering wheel, to assist and help them actually drive the car.

Despite this, factual knowledge is alone not enough. Personal knowledge involves the need for action-based knowledge that helps an individual acquire the necessary skills to interact with his/her environment, and action-based knowledge may require some factual knowledge, but that same factual knowledge cannot amount towards action-based knowledge. In fact, one could say that there is no definitive standard of connection between these three categories of knowledge, seeing how much they intermesh. For the philosophy lovers, epistemology deals largely with the views of factual knowledge.

What is knowledge from a student’s perspective? 

How does this all come together for a student? Well, one of the main reasons we go to school is to cultivate our knowledge and understanding of the world. At university, this may largely be oriented by our aspirations on a field that would preferably model our future careers. I say “may” as I believe the purpose of higher studies does not have to primarily revolve about one’s career or prospective choice of employment (this in itself, leads to the crucial discussion on the structures of education or educational systems).

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Have…To…Keep…Going….

As a student, much of our time at university involves absorbing the factual knowledge before actually implementing them in the real world. Our action-based knowledge is attested to our success with such implementations. It is pretty similar to the notion of the scientific method, where theory precedes experiment in a repetitive cycle. This is where we also learn the difference between the static process of remembering knowledge versus the dynamic process of applying said knowledge. This is at the core of our ability to learn and interact with our environment, and is a social behavior whose roots are sown in our evolution as a species.

Factoring on to this is the personal knowledge that every individual inhibits. Being a student, you’re part of a community, one that we may or may not socialize with (each with its own share of circumstances). Putting aside the knowledge we gain from our courses, the personal knowledge we exhibit provides for the competitive play of our social lives from networking, to the establishment of our status, while satiating our thirst and drive for recognition.

All of which now leads us to ask, what is the purpose of knowledge in general?

What is the purpose of knowledge? 

Personally, to this day, I believe an individual’s knowledge is characterized not only by their ideas, but also how they act upon them. The question on the purpose of knowledge derives greatly from the means of education an individual may seek, which by itself, is an even bigger discussion.

I’ve come to recognize how influential the methods utilized to propagate knowledge at an academic institution can be on its community (teachers and students alike). After my four years of undergraduate studies, I was spent, and in many ways had to rediscover my personal creativity and motivation. Following a gap year, I pursued graduate studies, which I just recently completed. Looking back at my experience, I must say that a large part of my journey also had its run of the mill circumstances surrounding my identity crisis, but I cannot deny that it came with its share of new and enlightening perspectives involving my personal opinions on the educational systems of modern-day academic institutions.

What is the purpose of knowledge? I believe it is what it is, for every one of us, however we wish to see it.

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 If there is one attribute to my personality that I have always been proud of, it would be my undying curiosity, and endless thirst for knowledge. In my life, this has changed from a wish to understand the world, to sharing said knowledge, and to contributing my own by enhancing the source of said knowledge. The Pensive Reverie is in fact a personification of my desire to share my knowledge, as an individual, to the world. Ultimately, as Francis Bacon put it, “Knowledge is power” but I also believe what we do with said power defines the object for each and every individual.