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[This is the 13th in the series Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship.]

When religion has committed itself to a particular science model, it has often been left behind as the public embraced a new model. That’s the position in which the Catholic Church found itself in defending Ptolemy’s geocentric model of the solar system against the simpler heliocentric model of Copernicus. It’s the situation in which supporters of “creationism”—and its offspring, “intelligent design”—find themselves today.

Many contemporary religious leaders do not make this mistake, although those who do get a disproportionate amount of attention. Religious leaders who cheerfully cede the business of modeling nature to science are no longer rare. Neither they nor the scientists who study these matters, many of whom are themselves people of faith, see any contradiction between the perennial wisdom embodied in the world’s religions and, say, Darwin’s theory of evolution, the geological theory of plate tectonics, or the Big Bang theory of the cosmos.

It may surprise some that the father of modern cosmology, George Lemaitre, was a priest. When asked how he reconciled his faith and his science, he wrote:

The writers of the Bible were…as wise or as ignorant as their generation. Hence it is utterly unimportant that errors of historic or scientific fact should be found in the Bible….

Father Lemaitre showed that Einstein’s general relativity predicted an expanding universe. Einstein, convinced that the universe was static, modified his theory to avoid this implication. Later, when the universe was found to be expanding as Lemaitre had predicted, Einstein withdrew the modification, declaring it the biggest blunder of his life.

Tenzin Gyatso, the Dalai Lama, put it unequivocally in an op-ed in The New York Times, “If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change.”

That any of the currently accepted scientific theories could, in principle, be incorrect or incomplete is taken for granted by the scientific world. To insist, for example, that the theory of evolution is “just a theory” is only to state what every scientist knows and accepts. Of course, it’s a theory. What else could it be? But it’s an extremely well-tested theory and it makes sense to use it unless and until we have something manifestly superior. A society that rejects the theory of natural selection, Newton’s laws, or the standard model of elementary particle physics because they make no claim to being absolute truths, shoots itself in the foot.

Just as religion finds itself challenging contemporary science when it identifies with discarded nature models, so it must expect to compete for hearts and minds with evolving social and political models when it clings to antiquated moral codes. Here the case is not as clear-cut as with most nature models because it is typically much harder to demonstrate the superiority of a new social, political, or moral model than it is of a new nature model. The evidence is often ambiguous, even contradictory, partly because shifting personal preferences play a much larger, often hidden, role. As everyone who has argued politics is aware, the “facts” cited by partisans in support of their policy choices are often as debatable as the policies themselves.

Like nature models, political, social, and moral models originate in human experience, and, as experience accumulates, they evolve. Typically, the models we’ve inherited from the past were formulated over centuries, if not millennia. One reason that religious models generally lag behind the emerging social consensus is that the morals espoused by religion have usually proven useful over long periods of time and have become deeply entrenched. Hence, the first impulse is a conservative one, and often takes the form of shaming or coercing non-conformists into toeing the line.

The predilections of rebellious youth notwithstanding, tradition is not always wrong. What are now seen as traditional values earned their stripes in competition with alternative precepts that lost out. But, in basing morality on scripture, instead of evidence, people of faith belie a lack of faith in the findings of their own sages and prophets. Instead, why not see these prophets as futurists and judge their prophecies against the evidence? The question then becomes: Are their predictions confirmed or contradicted by experience? The answer may not be immediately apparent, but looking for an answer in a context that respects evidence is a lot more productive than invoking ambiguous scripture on one side or the other.

In this view, the term “moral” does not gain its legitimacy by virtue of its status as “received wisdom,” engraved in holy writ. Rather, the body of moral law is a prescriptive model of morality based on close observation, intuition, and extrapolation. Prophets like Moses, Buddha, Lao Tzu, Mo Tzu, Jesus, Mohammed, Sankara, and others are seen as perceptive moral philosophers with an uncanny knack for the long view.

As in science, virtually simultaneous, independent discovery of the same moral truths is not uncommon. Then and now, moral precepts can be understood as intuitive extrapolations based on empirical observations of cause and effect.

Take, for example, the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” It’s not hard to imagine that witnesses to tit-for-tat cycles of revenge killings concluded that “not killing” was the way to avoid deadly multi-generational feuds, and that someone—tradition credits Moses—packaged this discovery (along with other similar moral precepts) for his contemporaries and, unwittingly, for posterity.

From a modeling perspective, it’s plausible that all ten commandments were assembled from the combined wisdom of people who, drawing on the oral and written history of past and current generations, and bearing close witness to their own psychological and emotional dynamics, realized that certain individual behaviors ran counter to personal stability and undermined group solidarity, thereby making the community vulnerable to exploitation and domination by more cohesive groups. They labeled these practices “immoral,” anticipating that over time economic, psychological, social, and political forces would bring about either the elimination or relative decline of groups that countenanced them.

The Ten Commandments and other moral precepts are recorded in the world’s holy books. Distilled and refined through the ages, they constitute the moral foundation of human societies. If somehow they were to disappear from consciousness and we had to start over (think of William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies), we would, by trial and error and with much bloodshed, gradually rediscover some of them from scratch and discard those that, in the meantime, circumstances had rendered obsolete.

Although some attribute moral principles to divine revelation, that’s just one explanation and it’s unverifiable. We may instead think of them as having been discovered in the same way that we discover everything else—through careful observation and verification. Having demonstrated their value in reducing suffering and/or in maintaining social stability, they were then elevated to special status, not unlike the process that results in the formulation and promulgation of successful science models, theories, rules, and laws.

A given rule of thumb can stand as shorthand for the whole body of observations and reasoning that undergirds it, in the same way that Newton’s laws encapsulate classical dynamics. The moral principles of religion represent an accumulation of proverbial injunctions that function as reminders and ethical guides.

As with all models, so with models of morality: close follow-up scrutiny may bring exceptions to light. Exceptions have long been sanctioned to the commandment “Thou shalt not kill”—to wit, capital punishment and warfare. But Moses may yet have the last word. As we move into the twenty-first century, the global trend to abolish capital punishment is unmistakable. Likewise, the inefficacy of war as an instrument of foreign policy is becoming clearer, and, as it does, the frequency of wars is diminishing (as documented by Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined).

In the next post, I’ll explain why I think ending the stand-off between science and religion is worthwhile, and suggest some of the elements of a deal that would enable them to cooperate going forward.

Religion and Science[All 20 posts of this series have now been collected in a free ebook: Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship. If you enjoyed this series please let me know at breakingranks.net. My most recent book, The Rowan Tree: A Novel,  explores  the personal and political ramifications of my ideas as part of the coming of age of America in an era of global partnerships. The Rowan Tree is available as an ebook or in print format.]

Originally posted to Robert Fuller on Wed Jul 18, 2012 at 05:15 PM PDT.

Also republished by Street Prophets .

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Comment Preferences

  •  aha! Oughts from Isses! (how do you spell... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Robert Fuller

    ... the plural of "is"?).

    Agreed, we can discern moral principles from observables.  This was a big philosophical no-no for the longest time, but advances in relevant fields (cognitive science, ecology, others) seem to be reversing the taboo.  

    For example "thou shalt not kill" interacts with our ideas of personhood, and brings up the question, "what constitutes moral standing as a person?"

    Every time we have tried to delimit personhood to humanity by specifying some characteristic that was supposed to be unique to ourselves, we have failed.

    And the latest example is that it would appear that toolmaking, once thought to be the sole province of humans, has been observed in crows.  Unequivocally.

    Not only that, but a coworker just informed me of research demonstrating that crows have an inherent grasp of if/then logic exceeding that of 4-year-old humans!

    So now we may find ourselves morally bound to treat crows as persons.  And if one species of bird, what about others?  

    There's an old joke about the legendary stupidity of chickens, "I'm a vegetarian and I eat chicken, because a chicken is a flying vegetable!"  But if crows are so darn smart, what of chickens?  If any particular bird is so darn smart, then up the phylogenetic tree we go to the mammals we regularly eat: what about them?

    One might have been tempted to laugh at the particular religious denomination that practices "no-harm" even to the extent of wearing face masks to avoid inhaling gnats.  But not so fast: per Maye et. al., the finding that fruit flies exhibit "voluntary behavior," for which the most parsimonious explanation is free will.  

    http://www.plosone.org/...

    http://brembs.net/...  (ignore the goofy cartoon at the top of the page:-)

    Ultimately everything we eat requires us to kill it.  This if anything, could be considered "original sin," that we survive by killing and eating other life, and as conscious animals we are fully aware of the implications of that.

    And so it goes for the rest of our moral precepts: the more we know about how nature works, the more we are forced to face some very highly inconvenient truths, and some very difficult choices.

    ---

    (BTW, I've missed the last two installments in your series because I was involved in dealing with the recent major troll problem on the site here.  That war appears to have paused for the moment.)

    "Minus two votes for the Democrat" equals "plus one vote for the Republican." Arithmetic doesn't care about your feelings.

    by G2geek on Wed Jul 18, 2012 at 08:29:06 PM PDT

  •  the other part of the story about Lemaitre.... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Robert Fuller

    ... is that when he published his theory of an expanding universe, established science at the time regarded it with extreme skepticism specifically because Lemaitre was a priest.  

    The science establishment said, in just about these words, "Lemaitre is attempting to find a way to rationalize his religious belief in God, so this can't be true."

    And the phrase "Big Bang" originated as a way of mocking his theory.  

    Today we look back on this and wonder why it could have been such a big deal, since the theory is so well supported by observations.

    But what else happened?

    The science establishment effectively said: IF Lemaitre is acting on religious beliefs, THEN IF he is correct, THEN there is evidence to support those religious beliefs.  

    Guess what?

    Perhaps we should fess up and concede the point.  If the doubt about the Big Bang was based in theology (specifically, atheism), and the Big Bang turned out to be correct, then perhaps we should concede:  this is evidence for the existence of God.

    And from there, perhaps we should also take the findings about psilocybin and mystical experiences, and about the right temporal lobe in the brain, the so-called "God detector", as further instances of evidence for the existence of God.  Perhaps we should accept that near-death experiences with objective correlates, that so far cannot be completely replicated under an other conditions but death, are evidence for some kind of hereafter.

    But one thing we should stop doing, is moving the goalposts to prop up the assumption that there is neither deity nor soul.

    I realize that I'm engaged in something here that is to some extent an exercise in "devil's advocate" (or at least, "deity's advocate").   But intellectual consistency requires at least asking the question and not accepting that the goalposts can be so frequently moved.  

    If we place a bet that a theory is a-priori wrong because it implies the existence of a deity, then we should be good sports about it and willingly concede our bet, when the observations instead support the theory.  

    "Minus two votes for the Democrat" equals "plus one vote for the Republican." Arithmetic doesn't care about your feelings.

    by G2geek on Wed Jul 18, 2012 at 08:52:29 PM PDT

    •  That's a mighty big "if" there: (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      G2geek
      Perhaps we should fess up and concede the point.  If the doubt about the Big Bang was based in theology (specifically, atheism), and the Big Bang turned out to be correct, then perhaps we should concede:  this is evidence for the existence of God.
       

      Doubts about the Big Bang come all over the map in cosmology and theology. Einstein's initial rejection of the theory can be largely attributed to personal bias, although perhaps Einstein's perspective following Spinoza that a creator God is something of an oxymoron may have been a factor.

      The Big Bang is neutral theologically, because it's compatible with multiple theological views. On top of that, pointing to the Big Bang as validation of God depends on a deeply ethnocentric definition of God.

      And from there, perhaps we should also take the findings about psilocybin and mystical experiences, and about the right temporal lobe in the brain, the so-called "God detector", as further instances of evidence for the existence of God.
      Some people see god(s). I see a monism based in interbeing (borrow a concept from Thich Nhat Hanh.) I'm not entirely comfortable having my mystical experiences appropriated as proof of monotheism.  
      But intellectual consistency requires at least asking the question and not accepting that the goalposts can be so frequently moved.
      I think that religious liberals need put some cement under their own goalposts. I get a bit tired of "spirituality for we, but not for thee."
      •  deities and definitions.... (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Robert Fuller

        I'm interested in how you come to the idea that "...pointing to the Big Bang as validation of God depends on a deeply ethnocentric definition of God."

        One thing I definitely do not subscribe to is the idea that any conceivable deity would necessarily harbor the usual Abrahamic preoccupations with the micromanagement of humans: such as pertaining to sex, the formalisms of worship or other modes of religious observance, etc.  

        ("God as micromanager" may have been essential to the Jews, early Christians, and Muslims, for the pragmatic necessities of their own tribal survival in scriptural times.  But to assert that a deity does not observe and respond to the changes that occur in humanity over the course of time, is IMHO a form of disrespect for the deity itself.)

        However I don't think it's necessarily ethnocentric to postulate a deity as a creator or co-creator of a universe.  

        "A monism based on interbeing."  By all means say more.  Thich Nhat Hanh, as with many highly-regarded Buddhist teachers, doesn't seem to say a whole lot about doctrines and dogmas etc., but seems mainly concerned with practice: as it were, "don't pester about with doctrinal speculations, just meditate thusly and observe for yourself!"  

        Agreed, I'm not comfortable having my mystical experiences appropriated by others for their own ideological purposes of whatever sort, religious or political or other.

        Where do you see liberals indulging in "spirituality for we, but not for thee"?

        Did you catch the strongly-implied flip side of my arguement in the preceding post?   Very often liberals assert that where science disproves a fundamentalist interpretation of religion, that religion is "obligated," in a manner of speaking, to acknowledge the findings and adjust accordingly.  My entire arguement above was essentially the same arguement in reverse: where the findings of science appear to support the precepts of religion, science is reciprocally "obligated."

        Really, all of this polarization between science and religion is nothing so much as an artifact of the flow of history.  There are periods during which neither is antagonistic toward the other, and they get along peacefully, and in those periods each readily and painlessly acknowledges the other, to their mutual enrichment.  Then there are periods in history, such as during the Inquisitions and at present, when the level of animosity, unilateral or mutual, is high, and in those periods each stridently denies the other.  

        What I think Robert is getting at, and something that he and I are convergent on, is the idea that it's time to move out of the current "antagonistic" phase of history and into a "peaceful coexistence" phase, or better yet a "mutually creative synergy" phase..  

        "Minus two votes for the Democrat" equals "plus one vote for the Republican." Arithmetic doesn't care about your feelings.

        by G2geek on Thu Jul 19, 2012 at 01:41:20 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Deity as creator (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          G2geek, Robert Fuller
          However I don't think it's necessarily ethnocentric to postulate a deity as a creator or co-creator of a universe.  
          Deity as creator of the universe via a "let there be light" moment ala the Big Bang only applies to a subset of religious thought, most popularly Abrahamic religions.
          Where do you see liberals indulging in "spirituality for we, but not for thee"?
          In a fair bit of the rhetoric surrounding subjective spiritual experience as evidence of (monotheistic) God, often coupled with a patronizing insistence that us non-theists are "God-blind," or are not addressing questions of "meaning."
          What I think Robert is getting at, and something that he and I are convergent on, is the idea that it's time to move out of the current "antagonistic" phase of history and into a "peaceful coexistence" phase, or better yet a "mutually creative synergy" phase..  
          I don't know that antagonism is all that widespread myself.  
          •  deity as creator of universe is the topic that.... (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            Robert Fuller

            .... Robert introduced in this diary by way of reference to Lemaitre and the expanding universe (Big Bang) theory.

            Clearly we could go far into comparative religion including to the various forms of paganism that co-locate their creative intelligence with nature, either pantheistically or polytheistically, but that wasn't the topic at hand.  

            It's not quite cricket to raise charges of ethnocentrism when the subject matter concerns the beliefs of a specific subset of the human population, e.g. "what about Italian literature?!" in a college course on German literature.  

            Where did I say that any given sort of subjective spiritual experience was evidence for a particular type of theism, as distinct from theism-in-general, the belief in any kind of superordinate "nonphysical" intelligence?   Use of the term "God" as shorthand, rather than "God/Vishnu/Great Spirit/etc." which would be awkward enough to interrupt the flow of sentences, doesn't imply exclusion of other forms of theism.

            If you're familiar with my ongoing commentary on philosophy of religion, you've seen me use the phrase "deeply-felt sense of meaning in relation to something larger than self."   This also specifically includes "natural mysticism" along the lines of Einstein et. al., and other cases of the intersection of scientific rationalist beliefs about the nature of things, with the mystical sense of awe, wonder, and curiosity about the meaning of one's relationship to the nature of things.   But again, that was not the topic that Robert was writing about.

            Re. antagonisms:  holy cow!, it's topic #1 any time religion comes up in these pages.  On one hand we have constant news of the extreme religious right and its impact on our culture and politics.  On the other hand we have atheists as a persecuted minority whose rights are routinely denied by the conflation of religion with government and with private employment.   And on the third hand we have scientific rationalists fighting a heroic holding action against the encroachment of obscurantism, and at the same time reacting all the more strongly against any concept having even the faintest association with religion.   All of which I've been paying close attention to for years.

            The issues even go so far afield as rationalists asserting a kind of cosmic superdeterminism against the concept of free will, on the underlying and usually implicit assumption that the latter is a crack in the wall through which souls and thereby deities may enter.  And as well, asserting that human consciousness can be replicated in silicon platforms running the correct type of software, this a kind of holding action against what might be called a "rationalist pagan" position that there is something unique about organic brains, with its faint hint of reverence for nature.  

            And on the other side, we now see right-wing fundamentalists going so far as to assert that the Sun is not using nuclear fusion (!) because fusion implies an "old universe" as compared to Genesis.

            If you study the original writing of the dominionists, starting with Rousas Rushdoony and Gary North and C. Peter Wagner, what you find is that these people are deadly serious about imposing a theocracy right up to the point of a death penalty (by stoning, of course!) for apostasy (leaving the church of one's birth).  Any working scientist who is aware of that stuff could well be excused for going on the counterattack to the point of overreacting against anything related to religion.  

            Now it happens that Robert believes that the present excesses of religious extremism are merely the early signs of its death.  And of course I hope he's right about that, though I'm somewhat skeptical.  

            If the extreme religious right could either be soundly defeated or just crawl back into its cave for another century or so, this wouldn't be a problem: we could move into another "peaceful coexistence phase" in history as we had during roughly the period from 1950 to 1990 (counterexamples notwithstanding).  

            Meanwhile I'm still interested in hearing more about "the monism of interbeing."

            "Minus two votes for the Democrat" equals "plus one vote for the Republican." Arithmetic doesn't care about your feelings.

            by G2geek on Thu Jul 19, 2012 at 06:35:28 AM PDT

            [ Parent ]

            •  If the discussion is of a subset... (1+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              Robert Fuller

              ... then it's limited and can't be called inclusive, and the use of "God" as an inclusive shorthand doesn't work. In fact, there's a lot of work out there about how treating a culture-specific concept as a generic leads to certain forms of bias.

              If you're familiar with my ongoing commentary on philosophy of religion, you've seen me use the phrase "deeply-felt sense of meaning in relation to something larger than self."   This also specifically includes "natural mysticism" along the lines of Einstein et. al., and other cases of the intersection of scientific rationalist beliefs about the nature of things, with the mystical sense of awe, wonder, and curiosity about the meaning of one's relationship to the nature of things.
              From my perspective, I wouldn't call that meaning or "larger than self" (a problematic phrase if you unpack it) "God" because that's potentially misleading and not how I experience it. If we're going to have broader conversations about mystical experience, we need to treat them as more than just evidence in a hypothesis test for monotheism, and  consider things like emptiness and negative theology as well.
              Re. antagonisms:  holy cow!, it's topic #1 any time religion comes up in these pages.
              Well, it's a consistent finding of research regarding Internet communities that their discourse is not representative of anything other than Internet communities. While the religious right is certainly one of the most vocal, I find that quiet accommodation is more common.
              •  two NOTs don't make a AND (0+ / 0-)

                I'm not interested in debating whether or not one should use a particular noun to stand for a class of related nouns.  

                "That's not how I experience it."  OK, then tell us: how do you experience it?   And:  What do you define or describe as sense of meaning?   And what do you find problematic about the phrase "something larger than self"?

                I'm not fond of guessing games: tell us what you do mean, not what you don't mean.

                "Internet communities."  Uh, not even wrong.  Rushdoony, Wagner, and others are published in books of the printed variety, as are some of the most capable critics of the religious right such as Frederick Clarkson, Jeff Sharlet, and others.  And all the anti-marriage laws & amendments weren't passed on the Internet either.  Sorry but your attempt to brush off issues related to the religious right by attributing them to Internet wankery comes across as so much concern.  

                And I'm still waiting to hear more about what you meant by "the monism of interbeing."  

                "Minus two votes for the Democrat" equals "plus one vote for the Republican." Arithmetic doesn't care about your feelings.

                by G2geek on Thu Jul 19, 2012 at 12:28:23 PM PDT

                [ Parent ]

                •  Hrmm, tough job. (0+ / 0-)
                  I'm not interested in debating whether or not one should use a particular noun to stand for a class of related nouns.  
                   

                  I don't know how you can have a philosophical or theological discussion and avoid the question of exactly what those terms mean in any given statement.

                  "That's not how I experience it."  OK, then tell us: how do you experience it?   And:  What do you define or describe as sense of meaning?   And what do you find problematic about the phrase "something larger than self"?
                  The problem with mysticism is that it's difficult to express tacit experience in a verbal form. What I experience is radical, deep, and multidimensional awareness of interbeing for lack of a better term. Reality is a set of changing relations.

                  What's not problematic about that phrase? Both thing-ness and self-ness are revealed in those experiences to be arbitrary boundaries across relations. "Larger than" implies a hierarchal and comparative relationship rather than an inclusive one.  

                  "Larger than," is a frustratingly vague relationship. The house, culture, family, the carbon cycle, the Higgs Field, and the Milky Way galaxy are all larger than "self" but we don't make a habit of calling them "God," except as a joke for the Higgs Field. To borrow a concept from hermeticism, As Above, so Below, (with Important Capitalization) but even the duality of micro/macrocosm is likely just a crutch.  IT is simultaneously Singularity and Legion.

                  "Internet communities."  Uh, not even wrong.
                  You're the one that mentioned "these pages." It's my experience that fundamentalists don't dominate either the conservative electorate or academia where most of these battles take place. Ignoring the roles of non-fundamentalist mainstream congregations such as the RCC, Mormons, and United Methodists in anti-marriage efforts strikes me as a strategic and tactical mistake.
        •  wraming & cooling periods in S & R's relationship (0+ / 0-)

          Yes, indeed, a finer-grained reading of history shows warming and cooling periods, and in this series of posts I'm trying to make a case for a warming period to follow upon the current ice-age. Religion is in the dog house now, church attendance plummeting. Yet, it played a leadership role in the civil rights movement. Couldn't it do the same, now, to help implant an idea -- one it can even take some credit for originating -- the idea of universal dignity. Dignity for all our fellow creatures and for the Earth itself? If ever there were a revitalizing mission, close at hand and close to the heart, dignity for all is it.

          The revolutionary slogan "Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité" overlooks Dignité, yet Dignity trumps the first three and requires them if it is to be operationalized. Four nations make guarantees of dignity central to their constitutions, two of them in the aftermath of extreme violations of dignity that they themselves perpetrated (Germany and South Africa), one in the wake of a war of liberation (Bangladesh, from Pakistan), and our enlightened neighbor to the north, Canada.

          Dignitarian politics incorporates the touchstones of progressive politics, yet sheds the self-righteous condescension and overreach that unnecessarily repels conservatives and independents. Moreover, dignity is not something any party wants to run against.

          For the rich, freedom is the supreme value; for others, it's dignity. In the context of religion's self-imolation, a warming period is in sight between Science and Religion. After a centuries-long struggle, Science has emerged with the upper hand, and accordingly it should reach out to Religion, acknowledge its positive contributions down through history, and enlist it as a partner in facing imminent challenges, unprecedented in scale: poverty, famine, pandemic, drought, and our recently-acquired capacity for omnicide (via WMDs and climate change).

          I have difficulty envisaging a successful handling of these threats unless Religion and Science (and the adherents of both camps) make peace and team up. But if they do, the 21st century could mark a permanent transition between our predatory past and a dignitarian future.

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