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Mankind’s insatiable thirst for knowledge

Updated on August 6, 2015
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There are plenty of them: people, who have gathered enough knowledge to finish their school, get a job and make ends meet. Yet, many of them feel they will never be done learning. A philosophical contemplation on mankind and its eternal thirst for knowledge.

Introduction: what is knowledge?
That’s a hard question to start with right away. How on Earth should we define a term such as ‘knowledge’? In case we go by what the Oxford Dictionary tells us, we can choose from several definitions: 1) facts, information, and skills acquired by a person through experience or education; the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject; 2) what is known in a particular field or in total; facts and information; and 3) true, justified belief; certain understanding, as opposed to opinion.

All that someone knows
Contrary to the impression society gives us; knowledge isn’t just available at schools, universities and other educational institutions. Diplomas, doctorates and certifications only indicate to a degree all that someone knows and can therefore not be used to measure the total amount of knowledge one possesses. In this day and age, mankind tends to forget that knowledge can be gathered outside of educational institutions as well. After all, regardless of whether you’re at home, at work, on vacation or wherever, opportunities to learn something new may present themselves anywhere. That being said, it’s impossible for us to conclude that higher educated people know more by definition than people who have had a lower education.

Learning actively and passively
Just to zoom in on opportunities to learn something new: there are two different ways in which you can do so, namely actively and passively. Whoever learns actively looks for knowledge on purpose. Not only can this be done at a library, but at home in front of the computer as well. After all, thanks to the internet, we now have sort of our own (digital) library at home or on our phones. Nevertheless, not all active ways to learn have to necessarily consist of just reading information. One can also look for people who know a lot about a specific subject and copy the information they possess to their own brain.

Learning passively is something that practically everybody does. Contrary to learning actively, you don’t take initiative to look for knowledge. Instead, you gather information from certain things you experience in daily life. The most simple of examples I can give you consists of a child who grabs a pan that’s searing hot. Needless to say, this hurts a lot, but right at that moment, the child learns that it’s a bad plan to just grab a pan on the stove like that.

People who have elevated gathering knowledge to a goal in life typically obtain more knowledge than people who learn in a passive way only. Seekers of knowledge do learn passively as well, but rather than leaving it at that, they actively look for things to learn on top of that. As a result, the total amount of knowledge they possess tends to grow faster than that of people who passively learn only.

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Reasons to gather knowledge
It is certain that not everyone aims to gather as much knowledge as possible. Those who do however may have a wide variety of reasons for their pursuit. Among them are the need to perform better on the working floor, the desire to be able to carry on a conversation, the wish to be able to teach others, the aim to make life more convenient for oneself (think of wanting the ability to carry out repairs at home rather than having to hire somebody to carry them out for instance) and – last but not least – self-fulfillment. Most motives speak for themselves, except for self-fulfillment. What is it that drives us to grow as a person? And how is gathering knowledge related to that?

Before I deal with those questions, I’d like to highlight that there are many good answers possible. Personally, I’m convinced the answers can be found in nature. The biggest instinct of every creature who has ever roamed our planet is to survive. On a primitive level, this manifests itself in looking for and the consumption of food, procreating and defending against or fleeing for animals higher up the food chain. In due time however, an evolution process starts, causing every species to change in the long run. Think of bigger bodies, longer teeth, et cetera. These changing processes enable animals to adjust themselves better to certain living conditions.

I think that the urge to gather knowledge is a descendant of the original survival instinct. Although physical and mental evolution processes have (so far) only been able to take place on a passive level when it comes to animals, mankind has come to the point that it has the ability to actively promote mental evolution. The fact that we humans have the ability to look for information ourselves proves this. The reason that many of us have a tendency to seize this opportunity with both hands is caused by our need to improve our living conditions and we recognize that in order to do so, it’s essential that we try to understand the world we live in as much as possible.

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Schools
Schools (elementary and middle schools in particular) have a key role in promoting active learning so that mankind will be able to keep developing itself in the long run. In a way, the same goes for higher education, although active thinking in that case is focused on one or a few areas in particular rather than promoted across the board. Simple example: someone who studies history typically won’t be encouraged to gather knowledge about mathematics.

Unfortunately, there is – among politicians worldwide in particular – not enough awareness of the vital importance to stimulate children to actively look for knowledge. Quantity appears to be more important than quality and the way classes are taught in schools is comparable to the way in which a dog gets his food served: in ready-to-eat meals which hardly encourage children to think about things for themselves. The result of this way of teaching is disastrous, since it causes nothing but disinterest in gathering knowledge. People should ask themselves what would happen on the day that mankind stops looking for information. In other words, no interest in researching better medicines and treatments for curing cancer, cleaner forms of transportation or ways to improve the economy and so on.

Peroration
It speaks for itself that we cannot expect the same dedication from every fellow man of woman to gathering knowledge. However, it may be clear that those who choose to actively learn typically have far better odds to influence and contribute to mankind’s development. Think of it. Where would we have been without people like Thomas Edison, Leonardo da Vinci, Marie Curie and Albert Einstein? All of them had one thing in common: they actively looked for knowledge as a result of which their names are now carved in the history of mankind forever.

All reasons to obtain knowledge are derived from the intuitive survival instinct which is still deeply rooted in mankind’s genes. Compared to other animals, our survival instinct has reached a higher level, since it no longer consists of hunting, consumption and procreation only. We try to create living conditions we understand and in which it is pleasant to stay. It is that very pursuit that causes us humans to look for knowledge in the present like we hunted for food in the past.

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© 2015 Victor Brenntice

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