Category Archives: theism

‘Cause You’re Doin’ it Wrong

Regarding thoughts and discussion of deity, the question must eventually arise, ” Why?”. Once one has decided not to take such notions too seriously, why engage on the matter with those who do?

Morbid curiosity is part of the answer. Or to paraphrase a famous psychologist’s response to the same question about his interest in UFO’s: I am more interested in the motives for holding the belief, than I am in the belief itself.

But beyond morbid curiosity, there is an ethical impetus. For within the mish-mash of desperate apology and cognitive dissonance, lies a kernel of consistency. It begins with the question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

It is a ridiculous question, but the reason why it is ridiculous is interesting. We are in the world and can never step outside to see whether the world must be as it is, what other way it might be, or whether it must be at all. In light of our blindness on the matter, an assertion of existential necessity appears to need no further justification. And that’s good, because nothing explains (existential necessity) God, though (existential necessity) God explains everything  – if you believe it. And that’s as far as it goes, for those few who are ethically sound.

For the rest, they go on to endow existential necessity with intentionality, motive and any number of other, inconsistent properties, all as a way of swinging their dicks around  (to allay their own anxieties, most often). That is doing it wrong, and I just hate to see folks doing it wrong.


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Why Have Children?


Everyone who has had children has asked themselves the question. The answers leave one feeling a bit squeamish, because the answers are all tautologies. The simplest is some version of: Because people have children. The more complicated responses – to make little caretakers for ourselves, for example – beg the question off to another, underlying tautology (We want to live because we live, in this case). There is no immediately obvious rationale.

The question in question is just the sort of question which religion purports to answer. But answers from divine purpose fare no better than circumstantial answers. The simplest answer from religion is: Because God commands it, which does not differ functionally from the first statement above, ‘Because people have children’. More nuanced responses again beg off to deeper tautologies, like the famed divine mission statement from the Christians: Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. The statement is lovely, but it is devoid of functional content. After thorough contemplation, we are still left standing around, awaiting the Lord’s instructions before we can get on with the glorifying and enjoying.

These tautologies lurk at the bottom of all teleology. No attempts to divine purpose from conditions avoid the fate of Leibniz’s theodicy. When applied, teleological excursions all discover the type of gem unearthed by Dr. Pangloss.  Study of a language’s syntax alone, will never reveal the language’s semantics. What is cannot tell us why it is, any more than it can tell us what ought to be. Attempts to divine purpose from structure, while operating strictly within the structure, are futile.

So, why have children? Why not? Or more precisely, why ask why? It is not a fit question.

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Can Spacetime Be Created?

More precisely, can we make sense of created identity?

The answer seems obvious. Of course, we draw, build, write and sculpt all the time. A sketch, for example, takes shape in the mind, gets transferred to paper, and a new thing is born.

But the identity of the sketch is dependent upon the intention, and therefore the relative identity of, the artist. The making of the sketch is transformative, and so inherently temporal, and derivative of phenomena which can be mapped in relation to each other already. Identity itself is not created in the sketching process, only an identity.

To speak of the schema itself being created, is meaningless. A claim of creation for identities is not a claim of creation at all, but something entirely different. It is not even remotely analogous. It is the quintessential miraculous proclamation.

Guess What?

If you believe that your thoughts, feelings, and motives have – or are – explanatory causes, then you are a determinist.

You are also a physicalist.

If you think that God is a person with thoughts, feelings and motives similar to your own, nothing changes. You remain a determinist and a physicalist. God just joins the club.


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Things and Things

No thing can come from nothing. And so, the argument goes, things must have come from something, hence the Lord our God, who neatly avoids the initial difficulty by not being a thing.

But then the argument trips over that initial statement. Because the initial statement is one about the nature of things and how we know things.

Being a thing means existing in the context of other things. Even those poor, deluded Platonists cannot avoid that fate for their Ideals. The metaphysical ‘light (or is it shadow?) cone’ of the ideal circle is distinguishable from the realm of the square, and that is part of being a circle from our viewpoint.

So, when we begin to speak of things coming from God, we have already begun to speak of God as a thing. We can back up at this point, and say that we don’t really mean to say things ‘come from’ God in the way that things ‘come from’ – in other words, are known by their association with – other things.

It is only a loose analogy. The way in which things come from God is not, in itself, explicable. There is no possible mechanism of divine emanation.

But that position is just a special kind of Nihilism. It is a claim of revelation, which stands opposed to explanation, and marks the end of argumentation. If one ‘just knows’, then one ‘just knows’ and that’s the end of it.


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The All in One

‘Cause some things bear repeating…there is no Guy in the Sky, or if there is, he is just a guy:

Discussing the existence of a deity is fraught. Everyone on either side of the issue has profound emotional commitments to their position – profound enough, for some people, to merit a violent defense. Setting aside fanaticism, even the reasonable disputant’s motivation to understand the basic issues is weak. But I don’t think that shaky motivation is the primary source of acrimony. Some basic conceptual differences drive the dispute, and the emotional consequences of everyone’s intellectual positions make the dispute nasty. The classical arguments for the existence, or at least the possibility, of a god in the traditional, Western conception illustrate the schisms best. These arguments – the Cosmological, Contingency, and Ontological Arguments – share a basic set of notions, though I think that the Contingency Argument is by far the most important and interesting. Here is a mash-up of the three, courtesy of Jon Duns (and subsequent admirers) :

(1′) Whatever is possible is contingent or necessary.

(2′) A first cause is possible.

(3′) Therefore, a first cause is contingent or necessary

(4′) Any contingent substance is possibly actualized by another substance.

(5′) A first cause is not possibly actualized by another substance.

(6′) Therefore a first cause is not contingent.

(7′) Therefore a first cause is necessary.

I like this. It at once demonstrates the interesting part of the three arguments, especially the Contingency Argument, and the difficulties with their claims and with opposing claims. Stated in this form, the combo-argument gets right to the chewy bits.

Whatever is possible is either contingent or necessary.  This statement says so much. What does it mean to speak of a possible contingent thing? It means one of two things. First, it may be a thing to be considered in logical statements. This means it is a defined entity, a term of art. Our range of defined entities is extremely broad. It ranges from the non-controversial (the color black) to the fantastic (ghosts).  However, logic doesn’t mind. As long as there are rules to tell us where an object of our intention stands among its fellows, logic will apply, and our definitions provide us with those rules in each specific case. Give us the definition and we may say what is logically possible. Second, a contingent thing may be something which we may describe as well as define, in other words, rather than just sketching the rules of its identity we may  speak of it in terms of its composition and its relationship to other things.

When considered in light of the latter, contingent things form a set of entities defined by their dependence. They are dependent on and inseparable from, the conditions which preceded them. They are describable in a positive sense.  They have a composition. But do they also have a nature? Consider that most contingent of objects: the dog. The concept of  “dog” would seem to be a solid citizen of our conceptual society. But if called upon to produce the archetypical dog, can we? Mustn’t we instead depend on a pedigree, physically and metaphysically?

The dog-concept is instead entirely dependent on all the dogs, extant and historical, and in a very particular way. It is, in fact, an epiphenomenon, something which stands in for causally related entities, their appearance rather than their structure. The dog-concept is still real as much as the appearance of someone’s face is real. The dog-concept just doesn’t do anything in and of itself, any more than the appearance of someone’s face itself  “does” anything other than act as an intermediary between the mind of its possessor and the minds of those who perceive it.

At least that is one way to look at things. Another would be to say that there is some magnetic kernel of efficacy at the heart of the dog-concept – that dogness is a foregone conclusion, not just an implication of the circumstances of the universe, and if dogness wasn’t realized by wolf and man, it would have been realized by fox and man, or Tasmanian tiger and man.

These two ways of looking at things hold on a deeper level too, in regards to contingency itself. On the first view, the fact that the things we see derived from other things through time are interdependent must be taken as basic. The adherent to this perspective must say, “I cannot see into that interdependency itself to say whether it is itself the ‘really real’, efficacious thing about the world, whether it is a useful, “close enough” representation of what is ‘really real’ or whether it is an appearance with nothing more certain about its reality than self-consistency. I’m stuck with it. I can’t look at it without referring to it. I believe I’ll live with the uncertainty and move on.”

On the second viewpoint, the appearance of interdependency is due to something – a foregone conclusion which is not possibly an end-product dependent on our seeing it for its identity. This kernel of kernels remains a property; it is inert without associated objects to manifest it. However, the objects do manifest it rather than participating in its active creation. From this perspective, for example, each Chihuahua could be said to manifest “dogness” (sad though their efforts may be) rather than adding to the concept of  “dogness”. Here, by further analogy, the genetics are set and are the real cause of the dog, with metabolic processes and environmental inputs acting as accessories only.

The Contingency Argument could be seen as an explanation of the second viewpoint, but it goes beyond what is necessary for that viewpoint as the argument is used in apologetics. The plain, white rice version argues for a knowable thing. The identity of the non-contingent base relies, at least in part, on its relationship with the contingent things which exemplify it, just as genes are genes only in a biological context. But when the argument is used in support of theism, a hierarchy of dependency is claimed, with the non-contingent thing having the real causal efficacy, and so existential necessity,  in the end. The contingent things don’t dance to a tune or express genetic information, they move to the pull of their strings.  Interdependency is no longer possibly the epistemic basement, a thing-in-itself lurks below. This is a bold claim; bolder, I think, than stopping with a shrug at the top basement. It is even bolder than something like asserting the causal efficacy of dogness. It is bold because a thing with existential necessity must be opaque.

How, in principle might we come to know a necessary thing? How could we induce changes in it to divine its nature? How could it have discernible “parts”?  How could we hope to describe it? Any knowledge of it, even knowledge of its existence, must be as complete and undetermined as it is – given knowledge. This is not to say that such an assertion is necessarily irrational. Given the claim, we can use it in logical statements. In fact, given the claim, we can establish the definition of contingency as the sort of dependency relationship which the second viewpoint above requires, since the first cause, as a thing-in-itself, may not be a billiard ball, or cipher or any other causal entity as we know causal entities. All things we may know as such can be analyzed in some way.

So, if the necessary thing must remain something we propose based on our intuition, are we to believe that whatever is possible is either contingent or necessary? If the necessary thing in question is a logical necessity of a sort after all, rather than an existential necessity alone, would that allow it to be more than a postulate?  On the view of contingency which takes the interdependency of things as basic, logic is descriptive and so doesn’t have anything in particular to say about existential necessity. The situation in which logical necessity and existential necessity are equivalent is the situation in which the description of how we perceive cause and effect relationships is also a precise representation of those relationships. Only in that case can we be reassured that none of the definitions guiding our logical expositions are squirrelly. This leaves us with a particular kind of contingency –   a condition of dependence rather than interdependence, an open system rather than a closed one. But even granting such a viewpoint does not save us from the implications of the thing-in-itself.

Our perception of cause and effect is one of discrete objects interacting at objectively definable points in time. If our perception is the whole truth and nothing but the truth, then we are left with the caricature of determinism laid on naturalist philosophy. History is a network of falling dominoes, each with a discrete, fixed identity and falling across a fixed temporal landscape. “Where did it all start?”, becomes a vital question and the path to a first cause and a thing-in-itself opens up. But by the Cosmological path or the Contingent path the seeker ends up back at the monolith. Examination of the dominoes or the course of their falling can tell us nothing about what started their toppling cascade, whether it was an earthquake, a child’s finger, a gust of wind or a wayward beetle. By empirical inquiry and logical examination, the necessary entity must remain an enigma.

We are left with a mandatory agnosticism regarding the thing-in itself. However, the uncertainty leaves room for one more bold assertion, one about mind. The assertion involved should not be mistaken for the concept of mind in pan-psychism. Mind in the pan-psychist formulation is seen as a basic property, a sort of receptivity which explains the interdependency among objects which we observe, but it remains a property. Mind and consciousness are still “about” something, rather than standing alone as things-in-themselves.

A mind which has an independent identity is something else entirely. It is the object of its own intention independent of any comparators – a condition representing intention itself, which is a condition which can be defined, but cannot be described, except in terms of other indescribable (maximal qualities, self-causation, unmoved movement, etc.) Such a mind isn’t necessarily about anything, which, despite our occasional suspicions about some of our fellow travellers, is not a quality we observe in any mind around us, even our own. One could maintain that we suffer from known limitations on our perspective. Fair enough, but it still leaves us standing back at the monolith, facing an object which defies meaningful examination, though we arrive with an additional postulate.

So, the only reasonable claim to be made about the thing-in-itself is, “I feel it must be thus.” This is the proper jumping-off point for atheism, for an assertion has no more inherent validity than its opposite. A claim to intuitive knowledge is not unreasonable (we can make a logical argument based upon it), but it is an audacious claim. Sound explanations can be made without it, if one is prepared to accept a degree of necessary ignorance. The latter would seem the more cautious view, though it might have the appearance of denial to those convinced of the theist claim.

Either way, the advocate is left with an uncertainty beneath them, which is not a tolerable situation for most. So, people work at feeling  justified in their beliefs. The easiest way of achieving a feeling of justification is by expounding on the obvious lunacy of opposing positions. But that tactic is merely a distraction, and one that isn’t good for anyone’s better understanding; it is just good for relieving psychological discomfort. I’m not saying there isn’t anything worth fighting about in the realm of basic religious and philosophical inquiry, just that the things worth fighting about – dogmatism, self-indulgence, tribalism, coercion – are the things most people end up fighting for when they think or talk about basic beliefs.

I Know What You Mean

There are two divine categories: the philosopher’s God and the popular God. The former is an organizing or rationalizing principle. The latter is a Guy in the Sky. There is a defensible position within the set of concepts which make up the philosopher’s God. It is a pretty narrow strip of intellectual territory to hold, and I don’t see that it matters much to claim it, but it is there.

As for the Guy in the Sky, the point of believing in the Guy is not even believing in the Guy. The point is social cohesion, and thus proselytization. It is very hard to ask others to rally around a set of vague principles, but it is easy to ask others to rally around a flag, or a God.

To the same end, various pundits try to reconcile the philosopher’s God with the popular God. Lectures and debates ad nauseum from learned believers like Zacharias, Lennox, Craig, etc. attempt the trick.  As a strategy (both offensive and defensive), the maneuver is completely consistent and coherent.

The actual arguments constituting the maneuver, however, are neither. Because, the Guy in the Sky is above all, a Guy, and the rationalizing principle is a rationalizing principle with a whole raft of properties which are inconsistent with our concept of a person. So, what comes out of these arguments, once all the threads are swept into a pile and sorted out, is just a jumble.

To the preachers and apologists out there: I know what you mean when you toss these arguments out into the ether. I know that you feel obligated to push your flag forward. But please understand why it is never going to work like you want it to (there are lots of flags, at the very least), and please understand why I might occasionally ask you to give it a rest and shut the fuck up.

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Buddy the Blastocyst’s Ensoulment Adventure

It’s the wildest yarn of them all. Be warned: you may not like the ending, but the thrill is worth it.

Let’s set the scene.

In the lead role, we have Buddy. He consists of a few hundred cells arranged in a hollow sphere. There is nothing too special about Buddy. He is not that far removed from the fused gametes which preceded him in that he is full of promise, yet without much substance or even a distinguishing feature. To be honest, he is a pretty passive character in his own tale.

As such, he is a perfect foil for the soul. The soul is no simpleton, and unlike Buddy, the soul is very difficult  to describe. Here we can turn to words from the wise philosophers and theologians who have previously contemplated the mystery of the soul. The wise have described the soul as the “I”-ness of experience or the proper subject of mental properties. The key point to take from such descriptions is: Don’t ask the wise for directions to the nearest coffee shop. Those directions are likely to lack substance.

Substance is exactly what we need in the case of the soul, to characterize it. Lucky for us, we need no more than substance, or at least the agreement that the soul is a substance distinct from the sphere of cells which is Buddy. Not everybody will agree. Some may contend that Buddy is simply the dawning realization of something which has always been, kind of like a Chrysler LeBaron. Let me try to clarify.

In a certain sense, one could contend that the specific turbulence pattern in the early universe, doomed us to the Chrysler LeBaron, because one could ostensibly track a chain of distinct events back from the structure of the LeBaron to the details of the turbulence pattern of the early universe. And by the same token, one could track the turbulence pattern back to a purported state of affairs before the early universe started doing anything. A claim of pre-existing potential opens up, of which the early turbulence pattern and the Lebaron are mere manifestations.

There are loads of problems with this account of history, but only a couple concern Buddy and his soul. First, we cannot do anything with this account. An auto designer in 1896 could not foresee the Lebaron in all it’s hideous detail. We can see the inevitable  manifestation of LeBaron essence in retrospect only. Think vitalism (and its discontents).

Second, the pre-existing potentials do not do anything for themselves. They are manifested, without occupying space or expending energy or participating in the manifestation process, other than as an additional explanation. Like solipsism, the tale of essences suffers from terminal irrelevance.

Therefore, Buddy shall receive soul-stuff rather than a post-hoc rationalization.

Now, what is the nature of Buddy’s relationship to his soul, and how does the soul adhere to that little, hollow sphere of cells? Maybe the second question is too ambitious. Yet at least there has to be a singular moment in which some sort of threshold for ensoulment is surpassed and the membranes which a moment ago contained only chemical elements now serve as vesicles for spirit.

Some spirit-permeable membrane channel opens or an angel-beacon gene gets transcribed, and the soul binds to Buddy irrevocably. This must be the case. We want an active soul for Buddy, so he cannot merely slip into it. In that case – where Buddy is the realization of some soul formula written into the cosmos – we are right back to the maximally inefficient essences.

Once he has his soul, Buddy begins to exist in two worlds at once. He takes in nutrients, builds membranes, and generally engages with events in the world. At the same time, he is moved by the spirit to do Good or Evil, and his soul bears the weight of his activities in the world.

At the end of it all for Buddy, he can stand in the court of the Lord and the Lord can say to his angel, “Bring me Buddy and I shall judge him, for he lusted after a Unicorn Frappe and was moved by the wickedness in his soul to purchase a Unicorn Frappe, and his soul was soiled by the act. ”

“Wait, who is this you bring before me? No, no, that’s Benny, who turned aside from his evil impulses and purchased a tall coffee. Now let Benny go and bring me Buddy, who smells of shame and sugar, not wholesome ground roast.”

How else does the Lord know who is Benny and who is Buddy?

And so we have arrived at the shocking dénouement: the story of Buddy’s spiritual existence and his physical existence are one and the same. His soul, however convoluted the mechanism, moves electrons, as much as a magnet moves electrons. His soul, as much as any magnet, is moved by electrons. In being so engaged, Buddy’s soul becomes part of the reductive explanations which constitute physicality.

Is this the end for Buddy’s soul?

For his soul as a supernatural substance, maybe it is. But the point of the story is: those supernatural substances can’t get going in the first place.

They just don’t hold together at all.

For Buddy’s soul as a strange appendage, who knows?

The world is a weird place.



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I Ought to Be Climbing

Today was a climbing day, and I woke up tired. This happens with some regularity, and I have learned not to put too much stock in feelings of early morning fatigue. Like delayed-onset muscle soreness, tiredness is part of life’s Muzak.

I have learned to just get up, move around a bit, and turn off the thought process until the first 8 oz. of coffee get into the moving parts. Then, I can take a breath and figure out what I ought to do. Sometimes, I figure I ought to go climbing, less frequently, I figure I ought not.

I did not go today. There were traffic issues, household chores, homework for the kids, and an empty fridge, all weighing on me. But I could ignore those trivialities if the day looked promising from a climbing standpoint. If I had a good day out, I would return with motivation to spare for shopping, vacuuming, and glaring at a teenager while he did everything in his power to avoid completing an English research project on time.

However, today did not look promising. When I thought about the plan, I could not get my motivation to gel around the climbing which lay in store. Of course, a sort of meta-motivation was there, driving the self-assessment process.

Meta-motivation is part of the Muzak too, and is the explanation for why I actually get up when the alarm goes off, instead of following my tiredness back to sleep.

I can climb on the meta-motivation. I have climbed on the meta-motivation. It depletes itself, though. It relies on ambitions and creates them – getting to the next level of difficulty, getting payback on the route that thwarted me, keeping up or catching up with partners. Leaning on the meta-motives fails to reconcile the day’s motives with their sources in one’s emotional state, severity of muscle fatigue, metabolic state, etc. It works for a while, but the sources will not be ignored forever, and come back around to bite in the form of injuries and burn-out, neither of which can be overcome by ambition.

The day’s motive is the real thing, not the desire to realize plans and ambitions. Too bad it is so slippery. It can be reconciled with its sources in principle, but understanding the depth and relevance of the various sources is tricky.

The climbing-day ritual, in which motives get explored and reconciled with current affairs, is a moral endeavor, of sorts. Through it, I learn what I ought to do, and in a way which cannot be attributed to a calculation of debits and credits, or simple puzzle-solving, in which I just match up pieces of motive and facts at hand.

I think maybe that’s the way it is with all moral endeavors. They aren’t problem-solving with moral facts. All moral evaluations seem to suffer from the troubles of theodicy, if they are factual. The explanation for the existence of evil in a world ruled absolutely by a good God eventually defaults to the relevance of evil in light of God’s (infinite) magnitude. But all things go to zero along that asymptote. So it is with the determination of moral facts. One moral fact may always supersede the next, looking forward, and the qualifications proliferate endlessly in retrospect.

If that’s the case with the pursuit of moral fact, then pursuing moral fact is much like climbing on meta-motivation. The chase will lead to diminishing returns and, finally, to contradictions.




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Curse You Peter Higgs

“Mass was so simple before you. Mass was just a property. Actually it was just a property of having another property: inertia. Inertia was so simple, though. It was just the property of resisting changes in motion.

Of course, we all know what ‘resisting’ means. And, we all know what motion is: d/t. If anyone must ask what distance and time are…well, there is little hope for someone so dim. At least, there is little hope for such a dimwit in physics. Hah! It looks like someone needs a metaphysician!”

The line of thought is a big hit with dualists. Actually, it is the best thing about mind/body dualism, and is why it’s good to have mind/body dualists around. Without them, physicalism grows too complacent.

The physicalist can be forgiven. It seems so obvious what we mean when we say that something is physical. But what does that mean? Is it simply anything that’s the proper business of physics? Is physics itself the proper business of physics?

The question of what makes something physical is actually difficult, even within physics. Take the Higgs field. It is not a ‘thing’; it is not even a ‘property’ of a ‘thing’. It is a property of space. It is a phenomenon which physics considers, but it is really weird, from the perspective of the old extended/unextended divide which Descartes proposed.

Yet we are prepared to accept the Higgs field as something physical, along with apples and atoms. That’s because we have been prepared to accept the physicality of the Higgs field by accepting  the physicality of things like d and t in the Newtonian scheme, as physical. Time and distance are not any less weird – they are strangely malleable, for instance – but they are more easily recognizable as our own phenomena. We experience time and distance, and we are comfortable with the idea that physics is a phenomenology of time and distance.

If we have drilled down to the notion of physics as phenomenology, and understand phenomena as our experience, then the remaining question is: What is our experience? I am not sure there is an all-encompassing answer to that question. Yet I think we can say a few things around the question which are instructive as to the notion of physicality.

At base, our experience is identity, and identity is interdependence. If I am watching an egg roll off the counter and hit the floor, I am the one watching that egg. The rolling egg, among other things, is making me, me. The memories of eggs, dependent upon the shape, color, texture and historical context of my current experience, shape my thoughts and expectations regarding the egg, just as the color, shape and texture of the egg depend upon the impression that the kitchen light delivers to my eyes after it bounces off the rolling egg. That is what the notion of supervenience is getting at: identity is fixed by spatial and temporal history.

And such a thing cannot be ‘transcendent’. It comes with the here and now; (physical) existence has a tense. ‘Tenseless’ existence is a product of reflection and not what we directly experience. Transcendence, in other words, occurs in the storybook, not in the story (else we would never read a story twice).

The trouble with this whole picture is that it looks like a truism. If physicality consists of an interdependent identity which avoids transcendence, then what is left? Ghosts are live possibilities; so are Higgs fields. Of course, that is the point of physicalism. When we look at our experience in total, physicality seems to exhaust all the explanatory possibilities, or at least the ones we could hope to know.



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