Reasons beyond reason

There’s a thought-provoking podcast on Randal Rauser’s blog, featuring philosopher Michael Rea on naturalism. He starts by carefully defining “naturalism” in accordance with those who most espouse it in the academic literature (because it’s one of those words that has ended up meaning almost anything and everything). His main conclusion is hardly new – that naturalism, understood as the decision to accept as authoritative only scientific epistemology, cannot be justified by naturalism.

In other words, science presents no compelling grounds for taking up such an epistemological framework in the first place. One interesting thing is that he does not couch this conclusion in terms of self-referentialism, as others have, but more irenically in terms of a “research program” (to use philosophy of science jargon). What that means is that it is, in the end, a choice to pursue such a frame of reference where it might lead, which might well include all kinds of useful stuff like mobile phones and landing spacecraft on Mars, yet still be false.

Implicit in the need for such an analysis is the fact that so many naturalists have no concept that they have made a choice of “research program”, but then the same is in many cases true for non-naturalists. And, as Rea says, that explains the tendency for people to argue past each other:

“There is no evidence for anything beyond the material.”
“Yes there is.”
“But it’s not scientific evidence, so is not valid.”
“Why should only scientific evidence be valid?”
“Because science describes all that is material, and there is no evidence of anything beyond the material…”

The bottom line is that the decision to embrace naturalism is, in the end, non-rational (as opposed to irrational). Rather than argue the toss about that conclusion, for which I’ve yet to see any good attempt at refutation, I want to see whether we can learn anything from what lies behind such decisions – as also the, perhaps, similarly non-rational decisions made for our “research programs” by the rest of us non-naturalists. We can only take that so far for, as Blaise Pascal, a supremely rational man, said, “Le cœur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point.”

In the podcast, Rauser suggests one such reason from the writing of atheist Thomas Nagel, who has honestly admitted that he does not want there to be a God because he dislikes the idea of that kind of universe. As Rauser suggests, that is because he does not want to contemplate an unknowable mind that nevertheless knows him. Rea replies that that is undoubtedly one reason, if only for Nagel, but that he’s met others who seem to have been brought up as believers and have come to think it’s all nonsense, or have never seen any sense in it anything beyond the material. One can think of other testimonies too – of coming to believe that certain scientific theories, or their philosophical baggage, make a creator God implausible (leading to the non sequitur that only the material exists); of experiencing evil personally or at second-hand and rejecting, along with a moral Deity, everything beyond the physical realm. Such reasons constitute those of the bulk of those elite scientists who claim to be naturalists in surveys.

In other words, there are likely to be as many non-rational and personal reasons for embracing naturalism as there are for any other belief, the point being that they are personal. I have no problem with that, believing (for my own set of personal reasons) that subjects are more fundamental than objects. But since such reasons involve choices, they may in the final analysis be inadequate, or even culpable.

Now exactly the same is true for non-naturalist beliefs. The reasons for opting for any of the variety of non-naturalist “research programs” may be more or less conscious, but will certainly be just as personal and, in that sense, non-rational – though no more intrinsically likely to be irrational. Thus, to reformulate the reasons already suggested for choosing naturalism, someone might feel it absolutely fitting that the Universe has a universal, omniscient Father; being raised in materialism they might suddenly be persuaded by historical or other evidence for faith; they might never have doubted the existence of the numinous; they might come to believe that certain scientific theories make a creator God inevitable; or they might directly encounter the love of God so overwhelmingly that naturalist conceptions are swept away.

Now it’s not my aim to evaluate here whose particular personal journeys carry most weight, but just to note that there is little or no weight to be granted to the naturalistic research program per se, for it cannot be self-sufficient. We could even all grant that some personal reasons are inadequate foundations for epistemology, whichever way they fall. For example, being brought up unquestioningly in one worldview does not say much about whether it is true or false. So, in the worst case, it might even be that there are insufficient grounds available to any of us as human beings to take up any particular position with unassailable confidence.

But there does seem to me to be an asymmetry between the two broad categories of “naturalist” and “non-naturalist”, as defined by Rea. For if a non-naturalist reaches his or her view of the world by means that are not purely empirical and rational, there is no necessary contradiction involved: if you allow the reality of intuition, or divine grace, or an inborn sensus divinitatis, in addition to the powers of logic and investigation, it is no embarrassment if such factors are included in the grounds of your beliefs.

But conversly, if you hold only reason and empirical investigation to be valid, it’s intensely problematic if your epistemological system cannot be shown to be soundly rationally or empirically grounded. One cannot, in other words, go beyond Rea’s claim that one has simply made a personal choice to deal with the world in a naturalistic fashion.

It’s considerably worse, though, if the particular version of naturalism one pursues believes that free will is an illusion, because ones beliefs then cannot be even non-rational choices, but only an arbitrary outcome of forces beyond yourself. Even more is that the case if you believe that human reason evolved to ensure survival, rather than truth, a conclusion that damages naturalism far more than it damages religion, for in the latter God might still stand sovereign over the outcomes of evolution, whereas in naturalism blind forces are the entirety of truth.

Against that, I suppose, might be offset a naturalistic belief that chance always leads to order, in thought as well as in anything else. Naturalism would then be accidentally correct. That just leaves the anomaly of non-naturalism to be accounted for.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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22 Responses to Reasons beyond reason

  1. Lou Jost 2 says:

    Oh no, not this again. Rea (and Jon too) seem to be treating naturalism as a presupposition rather than an empirical conclusion. As has been pointed out countless times, this is not right. We are led to naturalism by evidence, we do not presuppose it or close off avenues of inquiry if they might lead to non-naturalistic conclusions. Many of the claims of non-naturalism have empirical consequences and could have been confirmed by ordinary scientific methods. The lack of such confirmations is a strong reason to provisionally accept naturalism as a working hypothesis, but nothing says that science cannot investigate and perhaps confirm non-naturalist claims.

    Likewise we do not presuppose that logic and reason work, and we do not presuppose that intuition does not necessarily reveal truth. One arrives at this by seeing what works. Intuition, and Plantiga’s ridiculous “sensus divinitatus”, need testing, as we can see by comparing different peoples’ intuitions and senses of gods. Many of these different intuitions have empirical consequences, which turn out to be falsifiable, and indeed falsified. So intuitions can only be starting points, not conclusions.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Well, Lou, though you seem to have replaced the naturalist’s “scientific evidence” in this post with personal anecdote couched in the royal “we”, I prefer as a non-naturalist to provide a little evidence. Without quibbling too much about the exact numbers, a substantial minority of US scientists, who have access to the same body of evidence, still identify with a specific faith tradition – she gives 48% as the number. And 64% of natural scientists describe themselves as “spiritual” (it’s 66% for social scientists).

      By either measure, a substantial number, if not a significant majority, of scientists do not fully embrace naturalism as a result of their reasoning from the evidence.

      So my question to you is, what is it about this large number that distinguishes them from the minority (30%+ being “agnostic”) who manage to demonstrate the metaphysics of naturalism to be true from empirical scientific evidence?

      • Lou Jost 2 says:

        …you seem to have replaced the naturalist’s “scientific evidence” in this post with personal anecdote couched in the royal “we”

        In my fields (physics and biology) the published percentages of believers for both the US and UK are much smaller than the 48% you quote. But much more important to the point I was making, non-naturalistic theories are not generally confirmed in the scientific literature. Scientists are people, and plenty of people do still compartmentalize their lives and personally accept non-natural explanations for certain things. But even they do not generally propose non-natural explanations or theories in the scientific literature. Why? Because such theories, when they make detailed-enough predictions, turn out to be false (so far) when confronted with evidence.

        So my answer to your question is that even the people who believe in non-natural explanations can’t come up with good theories based on that belief.

        If, as you think, lots of scientists believe in non-naturalistic explanations for certain things, that actually strengthens my case; it makes the dominance of naturalistic explanations in the literature even more striking. Naturalistic explanations are the ones that work; non-naturalistic explanations don’t.

        If, as you say, 48% of scientists believe in non-naturalistic explanations, isn’t it odd that they never manage to come up with even a single confirmed example of such an explanation for anything in the world today?

      • Lou Jost 2 says:

        By the way: Ecklund, your source for those numbers, is famously misleading in her analysis. The numbers I have for American scientists are 41% atheist, 33% believe in god.

        • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

          “So my answer to your question is that even the people who believe in non-natural explanations can’t come up with good theories based on that belief.”

          Not an answer to the same question, Lou. It concerns me when scientists don’t notice what questions are being asked – suggests they have a non-scientific agenda. The issue was why people become naturalists in their belief-systems, not what scientific theories happen to arise from those already holding naturalism or non-naturalism.

          But you do suggest part of the answer in your last post: since my data don’t support you, you label it “famously misleading”. By that, I don’t suppose you mean that a number of famous scientistic naturalists don’t want to agree with it, so discount it in blogs? Because to carry any weight they’d have to reproduce the work on a comparable sample, and have it published in the peer-reviewed literature. Perhaps you have references to that being done you could share?

          So my previous question still stands unanswered: “What distinguishes the percentage of those in the sciences who end up as naturalists from those who don’t?”

          Hint: pointing to differential results over different sciences is completely irrelevant unless you have explanations for the non-naturalists involved in physics and biology specifically. Otherwise the obvious answer is a sociological one: espousing naturalism is a necessary requirement to getting on in certain disciplines, and so is self-perpetuating.

  2. Lou Jost 2 says:

    For reasons known only to WordPress, I cannot log into the ‘Dark Arts’ post to answer GD, so I will do it here. He basically says that I am quote-mining (something I often accuse him of doing). He’s partly right in this case; I agree with him completely that atrocities and killing are contrary to the main message of the NT. However, they are the bread and butter of the OT. (One could argue that the whole religion, including the NT, is built on threatened atrocities AFTER a person dies, but that is beside my point.)

    I bring them up to make two fundamental points. One is that they prove the Bible cannot be the directly inspired word of a loving god. Either your god is a vengeful maniac or the supposed orders are the results of badly distorted transmission. Let’s suppose the latter. Then the respect you show for scripture is misplaced, and the detailed phrase-by-phrase analyses that you so often apply to it are not justified. At best, there is some vague truth hidden in there, but it is so hidden by human transmission errors that you might as well start from scratch and think for yourself.

    The other fundamental point to be learned from these atrocities, and from some people’s (laudable) efforts to distance themselves from the OT mentality, is that the central belief that morals are unchanging, and come directly from god, cannot be true.

    • Avatar photo GD says:

      It is difficult for me to read Lou’s comments without smiling – I provided two quotes from the OT which he could easily examine, analyse, and perhaps show how these may form the ‘bread and butter’ of the OT – yet Lou simply ignores such fundamental teachings. Why is that?

      It is nonetheless astonishing to note that Lou does not provide a single comment on the actions of human beings, be these written in the OT or the NT, or other books – yet he will provide vacuous comments on morals. The Ten Commandments were given directly by God to Moses – Lou can simply read how Israel received them – and perhaps think on the turmoil that is associated with building a nation. The US constantly looks back at the war with Britain and the creation of their Constitution. Is the latter an act of atrocity because it was preceded by a war?

      Until atheists squarely face aspects of human nature and realise the fundamental point is for humanity to change from wars, destruction and turmoil, to peace and prosperity for all, we will never see an end to these somewhat banal discussions about an imagined god of atheists. These matters are the very bedrock of what is true and false.

  3. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Incidentally, for those interested there’s another take on the non-scientific (and in this case sociological rather than individual) causes of naturalism on Colossian Forum here.

    The relevant question arising from this would be, “Do we reason from evidence independently of our socio-political environment, or does our local or global environment affect the rational alternatives available to us, including naturalism?” If the former, we’d expect any conclusion of naturalism from science, as well as from political expedience, to be a merely coincidental congruence of empirical evidence with centuries-old political self-interest.

    And therefore we’d expect scientists’ other conclusions, such as those in moral, economic or social matters, to be usually at variance with the norms available in society, which doesn’t have the ability or training to follow evidence scientifically.

    For example, we’d be surprised if naturalists embraced the transient phenomenon of humanistic western liberalism, with its various unique moral perspectives, and suspect that if that if they did, their claims to be following only evidence were highly suspect. For example, we might expect racial equality, rather than eugenics, to have been mainstream science in the Victorian days of Empire, demonstrating science’s independence. Conversely we might expect to see eugenics being espoused now, on rational grounds, against the consensus against it based largely on society’s emotional response to history.

    • Avatar photo GD says:


      “Do we reason from evidence independently of our socio-political environment, or ……”

      I must confess that until I participated in exchanges and discussions in BioLogos and this site, I did not use the word “evidence” for any scientific paper that I published. I make this point for a specific purpose, and that is, to try and point out the “mind set” that I have always associated with a scientific outlook. I did not previously consider this as a “mind set” because I guess, I unconsciously (or whatever term we wish to use) always considered a specific scientific research project as stemming from a concept created by the scientist, that encompassed some theoretical framework, and his/her curiosity. It may conform to your view Jon, in that these things are a product of our education and upbringing (sociological) and also our own subjective views that we inevitably form as we become adults. But I want to point out one aspect that seems to have been ignored, and that is, a concept is as much a creative process in science, as a musical idea/score is to a musician, or a thought that becomes a painting to an artist.

      This insistence for “evidence’ strikes at the heart of a combative outlook – we seek evidence to defend, or condemn, someone accused of a crime. I understand why Lou may prefer such language, since he is obsessed with the notion that religion (to use a quote) is the root of evil – but for the rest of us, naturalism becomes other than nature if it becomes a belief system. Studying nature requires enormous discipline (note how the sciences are categorized, because nature will not present herself as an easy subject).

      Once again I want to point out the discipline required by scientific research should (and often does) enable scientist to put side a combative outlook, and when the pressure for day-to-day activities permits, to “do” science for its own sake (and to understand nature). I have found this outlook leads to harmony amongst scientist of any persuasion, and yet we can indulge in many (and at times vigorous) debates without feeling we are waging a war.

      I end this comment with my favourite statement – it is the character of the people (including scientist) that is the root cause of conflicts, and rarely the scientific activity as such – and few of us who enjoy science, use science to obtain evidence against others. Science is really, really, cool – and most of the conflict I can remember related to science, has been derived when I understood the shortcomings of my own thinking, as has been the joy when I realised I got things right. That is all the evidence I need.

      • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

        Good reasoning GD. Your description also shows why science, most of the time, is not conflict-ridden: the questions that tend to interest most people in any given field are pretty similar, and produced in sympathy with shared societal values.

        Everybody wants oil: I create a hypothesis about how to find it/extract it/ use it better. That’s the nuts and bolts that most researchers within a paradigm are involved with.

        More conflict arises when deeper explanations are being contested – Newton v Hooke, or the controversy over adaptationism.

        But most disruptively conflict arises when world-views come into conflict: “theist” Newton v “deist” Leibniz, Bolshevik Lysenko v “capitalist” Mendelianism, etc – the same world-view conflicts that cause disruption in other, or between other, areas of life.

  4. Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

    My older son who is still completing his undergraduate anthropology degree has mentioned how the modern field of anthropology freely takes stock of its own embarrassing past with a rather sober appraisal. Physical anthropologists of a mere century ago were in the midst of what is now regarded as “scientific racism” with their studies of phrenology, craniology, etc. I don’t know if this is a good example of science being driven by cultural presuppositions (apart from cultural religion –there’s the rub). But I looked up a few of the names involved and was interested to find that of those in that time period who believed in God (I don’t know if they were specifically Christian in any orthodox sense) or who in any case took stock of the Bible: among those there were significant leanings towards “polygenesis” as opposed to the supposed Biblical tradition of monogenesis. Of those (I only looked up four or so) who took stock of the Bible at all, they took pains to insist that the Bible doesn’t teach monogenesis at all but teaches polygenesis instead (which, interestingly enough, matches up with their scientific conclusions, and beyond that perhaps yet more interestingly: matches with European colonialist thought of the day.)

    In any case, it sounds like modern anthropologists (at least their educators at my son’s particular university) are now prudently gun-shy over thinking that science can ever work itself completely free of cultural presumptions. And yes, I can anticipate your objection here, Lou: you will say that scientists know of these inherent weaknesses which is why their competitive cross-checking each other is so essential. But I see this challenge going deeper than just over methodologies for developing empirical theories about physical phenomena. What I hear Jon challenging is the notion that the whole program itself (the presumption that the eventual effectiveness of scientific methodologies is itself legitimate evidence for philosophical naturalism) is warranted as an aggressive apologetic. And I have not to this point heard any compelling argument to suggest that it is.

    • Lou Jost 2 says:

      Merv, I have always AGREED with you that scientists are people and are never completely free of cultural biases. I’ve pointed this out to you often, so I am always disappointed when you call up that straw man again.

      That point aside…. if I understood your story correctly, it argues strongly for the importance of evidence. If one believes in imaginary beings and other things without paying attention to evidence, then yes, polygenesis and monogenesis will be indistinguishable hypotheses and people will believe what they want to believe. But there is only one right answer, and evidence is needed to settle it. (Darwin of course was a strong opponent of polygenesis.)

      I don’t see naturalism as particularly relevant to apologetics, since if naturalism is really true, there is nothing to “apologize”. The notion of apologetics only makes sense if naturalism is not true.

  5. Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

    Didn’t you notice, Lou, that I didn’t disagree with you over that? But true to script you continue to ignore or exhibit total blindness toward the point I tried to make and that I think Jon has been laboring on as well.

    Naturalism or science should not have to involve apologetics — very true. Which makes it unfortunate that you attempt to turn it into exactly that: a strong apologetic *for itself*, no less!

    On a related note: atheists can be, I suppose, merely atheists by intention or by accident (as in they have just never heard of God and never were given any occasion to think about it). And in that case atheism is “no more a religion than ‘not collecting stamps’ is a hobby”; as I heard one atheist eloquently put it. But my response to that is that when people start reacting against those who collect stamps, and begin their intellectual chest-thumping demonstrations of how “against any form of stamp-collecting” they are, and marshaling themselves into “anti-stamp-collecting” organizations, meetings, and blog venues; then yes … “not collecting stamps” has been made into a full-fledged hobby and much more: a Religion in its own right.

    In the same way, Lou, you go well beyond mere atheism into the fully religious dogmas of anti-theism, and in doing so you leave far behind the domain of anything remotely resembling science. That means that what you have, Lou, is an Apologetic, and one that needs quite a bit of work at that! Given that you haven’t even reached the step of knowing you have one, much less developing it to any point of coherence, it doesn’t seem likely you’ll be producing compelling arguments any time soon.

    But on the positive side, you do Christians a service by pointing out flaws of some of the faulty Apologetics we have too often promoted. In that regard we do well to listen and grow in understanding as the church indeed has done (at least haltingly) for many centuries. And for that we thank you.

    • Lou Jost 2 says:

      “In the same way, Lou, you go well beyond mere atheism into the fully religious dogmas of anti-theism, and in doing so you leave far behind the domain of anything remotely resembling science.”

      Merv, I have no problem with private, peaceful religions. Jainism, for instance. I have news for you–Christianity, Islam, and many others are not like that. They have big impacts on society and try to impose their beliefs on others, and in many parts of the world they also try to gut efforts to teach and learn about reality and insist on brainwashing even kids of non-believers when given the chance. So it should come as no surprise that many of us will try to point out reasons why your religion is not likely to be true, and show that it contains deep contradictions which its followers minimize and ignore (see GD’s and your responses to my comments on the previous post). My hope is that some day something might click inside a reader and he or she will for a moment see things from outside the bubble. I can always hope, can’t I?

  6. Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

    To address your points in somewhat reverse order…

    I too am hoping to help you see from outside your bubble as well.

    I (and many other Christians too) welcome having our contradictions, inconsistencies, or worse yet, hypocrisies pointed out to us. Maybe “welcome” is a strong word as we rarely like it when it happens, but we realize it does make for a growth process.

    I’m sorry that you can only see the bad impacts of Christianity (and so many other religions as well). They certainly are there –no one’s denying that. It’s good to know you see at least some peaceful religions and have no problem with them. Speaking for myself I have no problem accepting that many major religions hold a lot of good pursuits and truths in common. I suspect that more Christians than you are willing to grant are also more than tolerant of much else in that sense as well.

    Regarding imposition of beliefs, I have to ask you here, Lou, who among us right here and now is imposing on whom? You have been mainly attacking, and the theists interacting with you here have been mainly defending. I.e. you keep coming to us with attempted arguments insisting that our theism is irrational. We keep responding with … no, it isn’t. Our only “aggression” towards you has been to try to get you to soften your militant insistence that science is uniquely giving you a higher ground of objectivity from which you are trying to move us away from theism. Were you to desist and simply say, “well, I still disagree; but I can accept how a rational person can still maintain and cultivate religious faith” or even just “I can’t accept that they are rational in their faith, but I’ll just let the matter rest as I see they are firm in their convictions” –even this latter one would still be a softer aggression than what you are engaging in now. I doubt any of us here is planning on “chasing” you to change you into a Christian as if that was even our task to take on (which it isn’t –the Spirit has to do that; we can pray for it, but since you are sure Spirit or prayer don’t even exist in any functional way, you have nothing to worry about, right?).

    I rather think the new atheists are still in the process of learning lessons about aggressive apologetics that most Christians learned (yes, some are learning still) even over this last century.

    But …
    Where there’s life, there’s hope, as my gaffer used to say. (I think that was quote from Tolkien’s Samwise talking to Frodo)

    • Lou Jost 2 says:

      I’ll try to address your points in order.

      “I’m sorry that you can only see the bad impacts of Christianity…”

      No. My main argument against Christianity is that the evidence for it is so poor, that it contradicts many things we know, and that it is internally inconsistent. I don’t think the perceived effects of a religion have any relevance to its truth. Even an evil religion could be true; maybe the god has very different ethics than me.

      But I do discuss the evils of religion in two circumstances. The first is to point out the inconsistency between your own belief that your god is good versus the testimony of the Bible, which often portrays a god that orders atrocities which you would regard as evil.

      The second circumstance is when someone like GD or you questions why I care about the truth or falsity of Christianity or Islam or many other religions. That’s when I have to explain my perception of its bad effects; those bad effects make it worth caring whether it is true or false (I assume if people see it is false, they’ll stop pushing it on us). I know it also has good effects. Like I said about the Jains, if the effects were all good, I wouldn’t waste time arguing about its truth.

      “Regarding imposition of beliefs, I have to ask you here, Lou, who among us right here and now is imposing on whom?”

      Jon’s posts often have an anti-scientific tone and often criticize my fields in ways that I think are mistaken. I am commenting on those things. Sure, I am telling you why I think your beliefs are wrong. You just said you welcome that. But I am not trying to shut down your churches. I hope they wither away as more and more people see the beliefs have no evidence to back them up.

      To end, I’ll just say that it would be much more interesting to stop debating tone and motivation (GD’s favorite subject with me), and start answering the substance of my comments. That’s how you could show that your brand of theism is rational.

  7. Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

    It’s interesting that you see a need for Christianity / Islam, etc. to “stop pushing it on us” in light of everything else you’ve written in that very same post of your own hopes that some of these religions will wither away (and yes, you are laboring toward that very end as your very discourse here demonstrates).

    You’ve made it apparent that you won’t be dissuaded from your narrow view of evidence, so I won’t keep harping on that.

    And finally, in order for you to demonstrate serious inconsistency of those you oppose you would first have to have some modicum of understanding of what is taught by the Bible and the resulting developed theology built on Christ. This you have not demonstrated, and apparently refuse to acquire; which is unfortunate for your ambitions to spread your apologetic among those who do know these things. But to the extent that anti-theists succeed, it is tragic (for others and probably even for the very sciences you all claim to love) that you promote your religious agenda and warfare thesis on those more gullible or vulnerable to fallacious argument.

    • Lou Jost 2 says:

      I never have disputed your right to believe what you want. On the other hand, Christians and Muslims both try hard to force others to follow their rules. This is something that affects everyone. So of course I hope that false religions wither away. That’s why I speak my mind. That’s how a democracy is supposed to work– free debate about everything.

      And once again you are here criticizing my motivations and tone without addressing any of the substance of my comments. If your god is omnipotent and (according to you) able to arrange complex physical events, why could he not find a way for history to unfold without the need for him to order genocide and sex slavery? Do you claim that morals are absolute?

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