July Discussion: “How St. Augustine Invented Sex”

Christianity as we know it, and as it has been for well over a millennium, is not what it used to be. The early church was underground, radical, communist in nature (“easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle . . . .”). It was groups of millenarians meeting in secret and sharing their worldly goods because the end was nigh.

Why instead do we now find a Christianity obsessed with sexuality, that claims we are lost without it, that says God made the world in six days? For that you can thank Augustine, a bishop was in the right place at the right time.

Augustine was smart. He wrote hundreds of thousands of words, argued Biblical interpretation for decades, and was one of the rhetoricians of his day. He also held that Genesis was word-for-word true, that moral goodness is impossible on our own, that the body is fundamentally evil. He was, in other words, a smart man with ridiculous views. And time is no excuse—they were considered ridiculous then, too. No one worth their salt, as this month’s article points out, took Biblical literalism seriously. (As seriously as Aristotle took the Zeus, maybe.) So why did Augustine, perhaps the smartest man of his time, spend fifteen years trying to prove Genesis could be literally true, a task even he found impossible to achieve?

If we think that Augustine was a dumb person sucked in by a delusional worldview, we are simply wrong. Augustine was far from dumb. If we think that he was some sort of cult leader, we ignore his life. Augustine didn’t just repeat claims ex cathedra; he argued.

What the article points out is that Augustine wasn’t idiotic or delusional. He was a human being trying to make sense of a real problem: Why are we not in control of our own bodies, something closer to us than literally anything else? Why do we feel urges to do things that we might not, in our rational minds, want to do? And why do we then do those things? Augustine lingers, in Confessions, on a time when, as a teenager, he pulled the pears off of a pear tree and let them rot. Most would think that trivial. But Augustine, reflecting, saw something more. He saw, in his life, something about himself he needed to understand, and passing it off as just being young was insufficient.

To start to understand why Augustine, and many of history’s smartest people, would think such things, we can’t just assume they were primitives or stupid. As with Augustine, we must ask what drove them, what mattered to them. If we start to ask why someone might feel the need to defend Biblical literalism, how a literal reading of Genesis might make the world make more sense to them, we will begin to better understand them a little more. Next month, we will start a book that tries to achieve this goal.



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June Discussion: Is Consciousness Physical?

The problem is straightforward:

  1. Consciousness is either physical or non-physical.
  2. If physical, we can’t explain the subjective quality of experience.
  3. If non-physical, we can’t explain how it interacts with the physical world.
  4. Therefore, ???

First: By “consciousness,” I mean the mind—in Descartes’ terms (page 10), “a thing which doubts, understands, [conceives], affirms, denies, wills, refuses, which also imagines and feels.” Whatever exactly that is.

The puzzle is: What is it, exactly? Specifically, is it composed of matter, like rocks and chairs, or is it something different, something ‘special’? Considering that much of modern religion depends on the idea of an immaterial soul, by which is usually meant (and which always includes) consciousness, it’s an important point.

The problem is simply that there seem to be irresolvable difficulties with both options.

Let’s say consciousness is physical. Perhaps it’s in the brain. In that case, questions come up: What composes it? Those string-like neurons in the brain? The electrical signals between them? Why, then, when I feel something, do I not feel the neurons, the synapses? Or to put it the other way around, how do these fibers and these electrical discharges feel like blue, softness, saltiness? In the philosophy of mind, this is called the qualia problem. I can say everything there is to know, know everything there is to know, about the color blue. I can talk about wavelengths, the eye, the relevant neurons, etc. But unless I’ve actually seen blue, I have no idea what it looks like. If I’m locked in a black and white room like Frank Jackson’s Mary example, I have no idea. If I’m colorblind, I never will. Since I know the physical facts, but not what blue really is, what makes blue what it really is is not, or not just, the physical facts. End of story, it seems.

Okay; let’s say that consciousness is non-physical. Whatever matter ultimate is, we can seem to say with Descartes that it is extended in space somehow, and subject to physical law. That’s what makes something physical. If consciousness is not physical, it is not that. Question: If we feel (consciousness, so non-physical) hungry because the body (physical) tells us, how does it do that? By what means? And when the mind ‘tells’ the body to reach for the cake, how does it do so? “Your notion of the soul entirely excludes extension, and it appears to me that an immaterial thing can’t possibly touch anything else,” Princess Elizabeth says to Descartes in their correspondence (page 1). How could something that doesn’t physically exist, and lacks physical force, move something physical? End of story, it seems.

The puzzle lingers still. It’s not much help to religion, but neither is there a free pass for the scientifically minded physicalist. Perhaps, somehow, one of these simple, straightforward arguments is wrong. Or perhaps the mind (as Maurice Merleau-Ponty held), or the physical world(as Hedda Morsch holds), or both, are more complicated than we suspect.

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May Discussion: “Existentialism is a Humanism”

(Possibly Part 1 of more than 1)

Is there hope?

The question is rarely asked. But at times the question becomes consuming, and in those times existentialism appears.

In late 1945 Jean-Paul Sartre gave a lecture. He aims, he said, to “offer a defence [sic] of existentialism.” What he really does is argue against idealism, both secular and religious, while simultaneously trying to ground hope amidst despair.

His first opponent is the church. Against it, Sartre poses the main tenet of existentialism: “existence comes before essence.” What does this mean? It is, in fact, a subtly aimed shot at the core of the religious worldview: That God made man “in his own image,” that therefore man has a purpose, an essence. Against this, Sartre says we have no essence; we are conscious beings, and as such exist before we can be defined. To explain: because consciousness can always turn back on itself, reflect on itself, choose to continue in its path or not, it is never something finalized and settled. “If I were a tree among trees, a cat among animals, this life would have a meaning or rather this problem would not arise, for I should belong to this world,” says Camus; objects and animals have no problem, since they just exist as they are. As consciousness, however, I am always not yet and already beyond something—I am, in a word, transcendence beyond my past and into an undecided future. I am, fundamentally, unsettled. God does not decide what I am. Further, since I am a consciousness always taking a stance, God couldn’t decide what I am. Existentialism “declares, rather, that even if God existed that would make no difference from its point of view.” So much for religion.

Sartre’s second opponent, as he sees it, is communism. The same argument is used here. If I am a consciousness always transcending any concrete essence, I am not a class, worker, party member. I am always more—an individual human being, transcending what I am. There is no God, but also no human nature from above or below, because any definition of the human essence is an attempt to solidify consciousness. And consciousness will have none of it: “I am not what I am,” he says elsewhere.

It’s clear why existentialism is considered depressing. But Sartre thinks it is not hopelessness: “no doctrine is more optimistic, the destiny of man is placed within himself.” Without an essence, being always a consciousness reaching out to the world, we are free. Not that we can fly if we choose to—we are free to decide how to take the world around us, whether to follow or leave the path, whether to accept or rebel–we choose, and so choosing establish a model for human existence. Thus freedom, responsibility, dignity are given their due by existentialism, and Sartre thinks only by existentialism. There is hope of a sort, but it’s on us to make something of it.

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Educational Attainment of U.S. Religious Groups

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April Discussion: What makes humans unique?

It seemed pretty obvious to Aristotle: plants grow, animals move, humans think. It’s also pretty obvious to anyone religious: “Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” (Gen. 1:26-27) Humans, on these views, are special, important, at least significantly different from anything before. It’s nice to know you’re special, and our species seems to have a lock on it.

The view that human beings are unique doesn’t hold water like it used to, though. Evolutionary theory holds that we resulted from the same processes that made everything else. In recent centuries, materialist and atheist thinkers have argued that we can’t even do anything that couldn’t be done by something else. Neither our origin or our nature is exceptional.  Our lives are of no special interest or unique direction; subject to the same pressures as everything else, we fancy ourselves unique. Rather depressing.

Are we unique? Primatologist Robert Sapolsky discusses ways in which human beings could be unique, which was the topic of this month’s discussion. For instance, only humans wage war, right? Only humans have moral rules. Only humans show empathy. Though he argues that we are unique in such respects, Sapolsky mostly just seems to shoot us down: chimps engage in wars; fish can understand equal treatment; and of course, Youtube shows us the most adorable of cross-species friendships. There are precedents, it seems, for many of our supposedly special characteristics; human beings just appear to be another link on the chain.

Sapolsky tries to draw a distinction, though; while chimps engage in wars, only humans engage in long distance wars across the world, and suffer psychologically from them after. Humans process diverse, cross-species notions of reward and fairness. Humans can feel suffering from art. Sapolsky doesn’t quite define the distinction he is getting at: that between degree and kind. If humans just do more of what other animals do (e.g., bigger wars), it’s a difference of degree and not that special. But if it’s a difference of kind, it’s a totally different sort of feature without true analogue elsewhere.

To elaborate: Apes can wage war over territory, but only humans do it over, say, religious differences. Animals grasp equality, but only humans can ask what constitutes fairness for others (e.g., a baboon will groom to show kindness, as that’s just the baboon idea of kindness). Animals are empathetic, but only humans grasp the idea of caring beyond all sentiment and purpose. What these differences share is the idea of purpose, of grasping ourselves in a sphere where we can act independently and for reasons. It’s hardly the only thing (language comes to mind), but it’s definitely a curious one, and as good a start as any for considering whether and how we stand out.

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March Discussion: Is the universe a simulation?

[I]n dwelling carefully on this reflection I see so manifestly that there are no certain indications by which we may clearly distinguish wakefulness from sleep that I am lost in astonishment. And my astonishment is such that it is almost capable of persuading me that I now dream. (Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, First Meditation)

Is the world something we know? Do we have contact with what we think of as reality? That was the subject of this month’s discussion. The occasion was the 2016 Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate; the question there was: Is the universe a simulation? A new version of a very old question.

First, the new: The recent growth of computing, AI, and virtual reality, has come to where increasingly believable VR is available on phones and game consoles. This will only grow in the future, and the possibility of quantum computing means the growth could be explosive. Given it seems at least possible to create VR so realistic it could be taken for reality, what are the odds that, in all of reality, we are the first to discover this, that some other species hasn’t? And what, then, are the odds that our universe is the real, unsimulated one? In the debate Neil deGrasse Tyson, the moderator, puts the odds at 50/50.

Why think so? One argument is that if some species decided to, say, simulate their descendents, and those descendents eventually did so as well, on and on, most consciousnesses would be in simulations as a result; by sheer math we should assume we are, too. Second: as we better understand the universe, it seems fundamentally mathematical; mathematics is the language of computer simulations, so the nature of our universe is positive evidence that it is simulated.

While these disputes appear to be scientific, the questions are philosophical, and should be considered there first. To the first argument: if we assume creators beyond our universe (since ours is simulated), what can we possibly claim about their intentions? That’s assuming their minds operate like ours, and we know not the mind of God. To the second, it is actually backwards—if computers are things within our universe, and our universe is mathematical, it is not surprising that computers work that way—they must. And who’s to say whether the universe of the creators is, or isn’t, mathematical?

The difficulty with a question like this is that any true answer would require a God’s eye view, one beyond our universe. Anything else is speculation; when we question reality itself, evidence both for and against is within our universe’s rules, thus illegitimate. This parallels Immanual Kant’s distinction between the object in itself (noumenon) and the object in our experience (phenomena); while the object in experience follows laws we can trust, “we have no insight into the possibility of such noumena . . . . The concept of a noumenon is therefore merely a boundary concept, in order to limit the pretension of sensibility.” (Critique of Pure Reason B310-311)

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February Discussion: Of Pandas and Plaintiffs

Kitzmiller v Dover is now famous as the first test case on the constitutionality of teaching “intelligent design” (ID) in public schools, involving a six-week trial in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, dozens of lawyers and witnesses, nine expert witnesses, 342 filed legal documents, 400 exhibits, national and international media, subpoenas, depositions, lies, videotape, bacterial flagella, the Constitution, civil rights, education, science, religion, history, evolution, the meaning of life, divine intervention, and one recently appointed federal judge. However, it began as just another “flare-up” for the NCSE staff.

This is how the Kitzmiller v Dover trial is described by Nick Matzke, who played an essential role for the plaintiffs’ legal team as a science consultant. He’s not wrong–this story has everything! There have been many legal battles over creationism in science classes, but Kitzmiller is unique. As February 12th is Darwin Day, I chose this as our discussion topic last Sunday.

This trial is noteworthy for so many reasons. It makes compelling reading because the case was so well prosecuted. Matzke writes,

Imagine an artistic masterpiece such as a famous painting or symphony, the culmination of a lifetime of training and practice. Then imagine getting twenty such masterpieces from lawyers, academics, and creationism nerds and somehow putting it together seamlessly into a court case. Melodramatic this may be, but it gives you some idea of how the Kitzmiller decision came about.

The trial is a stunning and comprehensive illustration of evolution, along many lines of evidence. Expert witnesses for the prosecution testified about biology, paleontology, fossils, philosophy of science, the flaws of ID and its roots in creationism. These experts were well prepared and gave excellent, thorough, and even cheerful testimony. They were not rattled by the defense lawyers in cross-examination. The defense, in contrast, was… not as cheerful. Michael Behe testified for the defense as an expert witness on ID. Under cross-examination, he stated that ID is testable, but admitted he had not done any tests, “because it would not be fruitful.” He was forced to admit that by his “expanded” definition of science, astrology would have to be included. The prosecution also revealed that Behe’s book, Darwin’s Black Box, had not passed the stringent peer review Behe claimed. One “reviewer” had been quoted saying he’d never read it. Finally, when pressed on the blood clotting system, Behe was boxed in to redefining his arguments on the fly, demonstrating how ID will always be able to avoid scrutiny and falsification through word games and rationalization.

What guarantees Kitzmiller’s place in history is the way it absolutely laid bare the connection between ID and creationism. In theory, if nobody involved with the case ever brought up religion, ID might have a shot at getting through a court. It would still be bad science, but not unconstitutional. However, there are two avenues by which religion always seeps in to ID.

First, the members of the school board or community who initiate the curriculum change usually give away their religious intentions before they know better. In Dover, the board’s religious motivation was never in dispute–at least, not until the defendants started lying about it months later. Two local newspapers covered the school board meetings, and continually documented what was said. At one meeting, Buckingham exclaimed, “Two thousand years ago, someone died on a cross! Can’t someone take a stand now?” His wife commented at the same meeting, preaching from the Bible to those assembled–well in excess of the time allowed for each public comment. After Buckingham spoke to the Discovery Institute, suddenly nobody on the board remembered having used the word “creationism,” and recordings of the earlier meetings went missing.

Second, Kitzmiller demonstrated that, at its core, ID cannot be separated from its creationist roots. In a stroke of genius and good luck, Matzke suggested the legal team subpoena early drafts of the book Of Pandas And People. (The school board was insisting on keeping these pro-ID books as supplemental materials in the classrooms.) Matzke writes:

This discovery shed light on a rather important historical fact that had somehow been omitted from all previous histories of the origin of the “intelligent design” movement. It has always been obvious that ID arguments derived from creationist sources, but never in the wildest dreams of creationism watchers had it occurred to anyone that the phrase “intelligent design” had quite literally originated as a switch in terminology in an actual physical draft of an explicitly creationist textbook.

To our amazement, five major drafts were uncovered, and we were able to trace the switch in terminology from creationism to “intelligent design” to just after the Supreme Court’s Edwards v Aguillard decision in 1987. … The drafts are nothing less than the smoking gun that proves exactly when and how “intelligent design” originated. … They prove that the cynical view of ID was exactly right: ID really is just creationism relabeled, and anyone who thought otherwise was either naively misinformed or engaging in wishful thinking.

To make the point even more starkly, one draft contained an error in the word replacement. This resulted in the hybrid “cdesign proponentsists,” and gave the world of pro-evolution bloggers a good laugh.

“Of Pandas and People,” 1987 creationist version

“Of Pandas and People,” 1987 ID version (red marks added by me)

In the end, the decision by Judge Jones left no loose ends. His decision was meant to reach beyond just the Dover school board. He had been treated to a comprehensive evolution lesson, as well as devastating testimony discrediting ID. According to Edward Humes, author of Monkey Girl, Jones lamented “that there was so much more to the case than was being discussed in the media, so much great material that no one would ever see, so much evidence showing that this had not been a close case at all.”



Further reading:
Monkey Girl by Edward Humes
The Devil In Dover by Lauri Lebo
Forty Days and Forty Nights: Darwin, Intelligent Design, God, OxyContin, and Other Oddities on Trial in Pennsylvania by Matthew Chapman

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December Discussion Group: The fact-value distinction

“Water is H2O.”
“Murder is wrong.”

Are these the same kind of fact?

December’s* discussion focused on the fact-value distinction. It goes back centuries; many have tried to solve it. This month we looked at Sam Harris’ attempt in his book, The Moral Landscape.

First, the problem. When we say water is H2O, that’s a fact. We can test it in various ways, examine water with powerful tools, and find the truth about its composition. We also say it’s a fact that murder is wrong. But where’s that ‘fact’? It doesn’t seem true the way water is H2O, or I am 5’11”, or 2+2=4. We can’t prove it the way we prove those other things. But is there a fact at all, if it seemingly can’t be shown? This led philosophers like A.J. Ayer to say there are no moral facts—just expressions of emotion.

Harris says the solution is quite simple: There is no fact-value distinction. Moral values are simply facts about human flourishing. If something promotes human flourishing, that’s an observable fact and good. If it promotes the opposite, that’s an observable fact and bad. Science, measuring these things, can thus ground morality. Harris isn’t alone: Steven Pinker, for instance, says virtually the same thing.

With a solution so simple, you’d think someone would have thought of it already. As pointed out in the discussion, someone has. It even has a name: utilitarianism. Happiness, utilitarians say, grounds morality; ‘happiness’ means pleasure and the absence of pain. Using words like ‘flourishing’ or ‘well-being’ goes back even further: to Aristotle’s eudaimonia, also translated ‘happiness.’ This view has a history.

Not that Harris notices. If he did he’d also notice the debates, discussions, and myriad problems involved. Perhaps the biggest problem comes before all that, though: what does that key word ‘flourishing’ mean? Or ‘well-being,’ or ‘happiness’? Harris asserts, for instance, that the Muslim veil cannot be a part of a flourishing life. Is that an empirically verifiable fact? What, scientifically, constitutes someone’s flourishing anyway? Harris doesn’t say, nor Pinker. The 19th-century utilitarian John Stuart Mill, whose view Harris is closest to, is more honest. He doesn’t claim to know what constitutes anyone’s happiness. Therefore, he says, promote freedom to pursue happiness except when it interferes with another’s pursuit. But Mill, notice, is denying that happiness is a measurable thing; this is the basis of Mill’s political theory. Not for Harris, who thinks science will tell us. (Harris’ book, it’s worth mentioning, was not well received.)

This needn’t imply facts are irrelevant to values, or that there are no values. Harris’ real target, I suspect, is moral relativism. That’s a target worth going after in a world with true moral evils; but ‘scientific’ moral absolutism, which Harris unabashedly supports, is not necessarily the way. He ironically points out in his TED talk that only religious fundamentalists seem to follow him here; that should give him pause. The history of colonialism, if nothing else, means that a little self-skepticism is fair.


*Which met a week later, so also kind of January

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November’s discussion group: Conversion

By Diogenes

How does one find God? Or rather, in the case of many BNFree members, lose God? These were the two questions for our November discussion group.

The main text was an interesting one, an account of Teresa MacBain. She was formerly a pastor and became a public atheist. There are many such cases. What’s interesting here, though, is that it went full circle: she recently announced that she has found God again. To quote the same words that the Friendly Atheist does:

“For several years she lived in the public eye as a prominent atheist, until she rediscovered God’s grace through music and the compassion of loved ones. This unique journey led to her life’s mission: helping people struggling with their own faith.”

Now how does that work?

Well, we can start with her own explanation, as our discussion group did. It was music, she said, that brought her back. And this is not coincidence. In her telling, music was central to her religious life the first time around. And music, the group noted, is a constant in religious history: from Bacchanalian orgies in ancient Greece to Gregorian chants to modern gospel rock (in Teresa’s case, the band Tenth Avenue North). Even when music was banned, it was in part as a recognition of the unique power of music. The three medieval ‘chords of evil’ are the chords that defined Black Sabbath.

Interestingly enough, one of our own members (‘Nandy’ on this blog) had a virtually identical experience with the exact same Tenth Avenue North song. Except that Nandy is an atheist, and will be for the next conceivable forever. So what to make of that? In Nandy’s own words, the song gave her a feeling of ‘connectedness,’ of ‘being understood,’ and of ‘something higher’ than mere emotion—something, to use the term in a non-religious sense, ‘spiritual.’ She didn’t connect that to any notion of God, faith, or anything else. But something more than a feeling (“more than a feeeeeliiiiiin”) was a common thread.

And is that unusual? I’ve heard many people, including atheists, describe Bach’s music as ‘transcendent.’ I, for my part, brought up my sad French music that I listen to when it rains. Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass gave a similar feeling to one of our members. These experiences, via not just music but also poetry, literature, and philosophy, seem to speak to us in special ways.

But that’s just the precipitating cause. What is it about these things that has this effect? We discussed William James, who talks about conversion (primarily to religion) as being a shift in one’s center, something that connects to our ‘hot zone.’ These experiences seem to reach into something that’s best described as deep within us, even if that’s just a metaphor. Conversion, then, doesn’t seem to be just about beliefs; it’s a shift in a more fundamental, gripping, visceral way. More than facts, it’s a way we experience the universe.

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Skepticon 9: The Mourning After

This post was written by Diogenes.

Skepticon (subtitle: The Ninth) was November 11th-13th. Thus it was pretty obvious that the election would be a subject of discussion and, one thought, of excitement, hope, maybe some cynicism, etc. After November eighth, however, it was clear that it would be more. With apologies to Karl Marx, there was a spectre haunting Skepticon: the spectre of Trump.

This was my first Skepticon, and first such conference in general, so I can’t say personally how it differs from others. I spoke to others who can, however. As one with much experience summarized it, the social justice is strong at Skepticon. This is apparent in the line-up: there were as many, maybe more, talks on issues in sexuality, gender, race, and similar topics (including panels on polyamory, sex change, racism, Black Lives Matter, and more) as on science or activism. It wasn’t that way in early Skepticons, I was told, but Skepticon has consciously moved to become an inclusive conference that represents groups not otherwise given a vocal hearing.

This has led Skepticon to the fore in, for example, harassment policies that protect women, and including diverse speakers that might not otherwise get a large audience. It also shapes the character of the conference, who goes and the atmosphere. The atmosphere was incredibly friendly, welcoming and thoughtful throughout, and that was perhaps the best feature of the conference. On the other hand, if one was expecting lots of hard-hitting skepticism, strong atheism, and heavy science, though they were present one might be left expecting more.

Another result is having, in one place three days after the election, many of those most devastated by the election. Greta Christina’s talk functionally served as the keynote—it was dark, impassioned, highly personal, and made no pretense of moderation. Christina read the election as a direct attack on those who were present. She received a standing ovation.

Christina’s talk was the darkest, but she was hardly alone in referencing the election. Rebecca Hensler discussed how students in her Diversity Club processed the results (apparently with gleefully foul language); Rebecca Watson, whose talk on skeptical advocacy in social media I found the best among presentations I saw, interspersed cat pictures into her slides–in this case, she said, to distract us from other things.

Darkness was an overtone, but there was also much good to be found. Casual drinks with new friends. Talks that were sometimes funny and frequently heartfelt. Skeptiprom, where geeks and nerds danced put on their best or worst and the bar had a drink called the red (or was it purple?) stegosaurus. The unique community that’s formed around Skepticon provides its strength, though perhaps that has come with less focus on standard pillars of the ‘movement’. How Skepticon will continue to develop this dual role, and what place it will have under the shadow of a Trump presidency, are questions yet to be answered.

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