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Ask a Theologian II

Discussion in 'Off-Topic' started by Plotinus, May 9, 2008.

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  1. Plotinus

    Plotinus Philosopher Administrator

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    See, this is what happens when I think "I'll answer that later" and then completely forget. Sorry!

    Believe me, nothing is too strange for me to discuss!

    I like your reasoning but I wouldn't agree with it:

    Theists disagree with each other over whether God is atemporal or not. Some think that God is eternal in the sense of everlasting: he never had a beginning and he will never have an end. So he fills time, as it were. Other theists say that God is eternal in the sense of not being in time at all. He exists in an atemporal sort of world of his own. This has odd consequences - for example, if this is the case then it is true now that God exists, but it is not true that God exists now.

    I think that most theists who take the former of these options and think that God is temporal believe that time as we know it began with the creation of the universe, which happened a finite amount of time in the past, but that there was time before this event. However, because nothing happened during that (infinite) period of time, it wasn't really time as we know it. It was unmeasured and unmeasurable. So it was rather like eternity. This is Richard Swinburne's view, at least. So he would agree with you that the creation was change of a kind, but he would disagree that this means there must be some kind of super-temporal time which contains both God and time as we know it. Rather, there was a weird sort of time which preceded time as we know it, and God persisted through the change from the one to the other.

    Theists who believe God to be atemporal (I think they are in the majority) would say that there was no change when the universe was created. There was no time before that; time per se (not simply time "as we know it") began at that point. Wondering what God was doing before the beginning of the universe is rather like wondering what J.K. Rowling was doing before the birth of Harry Potter. She doesn't exist within the world of Harry Potter - the timeline of the story is her creation, and it does not even roughly correspond to her own timeline. She might have written the last part of the story first, and the first part last, but from Harry's point of view they occur in the opposite order. Similarly, God does not exist within our timeline.

    The idea that God's infinity means that nothing can contain him is very ancient (Gregory of Nyssa used this insight as the basis for his argument that God is infinite, something that most Christians did not believe before the fourth century AD). But for this argument to work you'd need to suppose that time is a sort of container that temporal beings exist within, like a fishtank. Some people have had that sort of view of time (notably Newton), but others have rejected it for a relational view (notably Leibniz). I don't know enough about physics to know which one is currently in vogue, although naturally I support Leibniz out of a leaden sort of sense of duty.

    Your interpretation of Descartes reminds me of Alvin Plantinga, who devised a version of the ontological argument which apparently proves that God necessarily exists simply from a definition of "God", but who at the same time insisted that he didn't mean it to be a proof, only an illustration of the rationality of belief. That doesn't seem to me to be a very useful position. In Spinoza's case, I do think that he intended his proof of God's existence and nature, as well as his proofs of everything else, to be taken quite straightforwardly as proofs. Otherwise I don't really see what the point of them would be. I think that he did mean his initial definitions and axioms to be taken as intuitively true. Spinoza wasn't just using the Cartesian method as a sort of rhetorical display; remember that he was quite a devoted disciple of Descartes before striking out on his own, and wrote expositions of Descartes' philosophy using the geometrical method. Although he obviously came to disagree with Descartes over many matters, I don't think he abandoned that basic approach to philosophy.

    Of course. But I don't think that his proofs fail simply because his definitions are contentious - I think that they are formally invalid as well, which is an additional problem. A valid proof with false (or dubious) premises is of some logical interest even though one may not accept its conclusions, but an invalid proof that also has false (or dubious) premises is as weak as an argument can get!

    Ah, now why do you say that? Personally I don't see anything intrinsically absurd about the notion of proving God - at least, no more so than the notion of proving anything else.

    I'm not sure I can really think of any examples of that. Perhaps Plato, sometimes. But I don't think I've ever found philosophy especially moving.

    Ah well, picking holes in the ontological argument is something all philosophy undergraduates like to do at some point! I think what's of more historical (and philosophical) interest is trying to understand why anyone might have been convinced by it in the first place. That goes for all arguments or ideas which seem daft to us today.

    That seems a somewhat simplistic analysis to me - while it's always tempting to draw strong parallels between different traditions, one shouldn't allow the similarities to blind one to the differences, or indeed see links where they don't exist. In this case, there is, as far as I know, no evidence whatsoever that Akhenaten's version of sun-worship had any influence upon Judaism, or indeed upon Greek philosophy, another tradition where one can see the emergence of monotheism from a polytheistic backdrop. It's also begging the question, somewhat, to call the doctrine of the Trinity just a paganist residue. That's for two reasons: first, I don't think that one can plausibly trace the historical origins of this doctrine to pagan polytheism; and second, most Christians have considered it to be one of the central and defining features of their faith, not a sort of slightly embarrassing add-on.

    Spinoza is normally classified not as monotheist but as a monist. That is, he doesn't believe in one God so much as in just one thing. His God is not really very similar to God as understood by any of the religions you mention, all of which would consider it absolutely central to their faith that God be distinct from the created world. This is why Spinoza was regarded as an atheist, because he denied that there exists any God distinct from the universe. The fact that he chose to call the universe (or the substance in which it inheres) "God" did not make much of an impression upon his detractors.

    That seems rather harsh... surely you can at least see why the image of Christ on the cross has been so powerful and so important to so many people. It represents the faith that God is not a distant demiurge, regulator of the cosmos, or unseen hand in history, but a personal being who cares about his creation to such an extent that he chooses to become part of it and suffers terribly in solidarity with it. You may think that this isn't true but I don't see how that is an abomination.

    Erm, probably, but I'm not sure I can think of any other than the obvious, Aristotle-inspired ones (John of Damascus, Thomas Aquinas, etc). I think you'd have to define phronesis before I can answer that.

    A bit, but not much, because I don't really know all that much about Stoicism. Stoic ethics influenced early Christian moralists such as Clement of Alexandria. And Stoic metaphysics also influenced some - such as Tertullian, who shared the Stoic belief that only material things exist - but not so much, because most early Christians thought that non-physical things exist and were more influenced by Platonism. Stoic epistemology was rather more influential, I think; Augustine recycled Stoic arguments against scepticism in his Against the Academics and these were endlessly repeated in later centuries as a result (it didn't make them decent arguments though). And of course the term logos, referring to the immanence of God in the world, is Stoic, and that idea had rather a long afterlife in Christianity.

    I don't know!
     
  2. Agent327

    Agent327 Observer

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    Actually, I'm not interpreting Decartes, but I appreciate your elaborate response. I understand my view of Spinoza may be somewhat unorthodox, but what I appreciate most is originality. (Now the originality may not be Spinoza's, but just my confrontation with his ideas...) If Spinoza just intended his divine description merely as a God-proof, I'd be disappointed - because I thought him to be more intelligent than that. (And I can understand his delight - even fascination - with Descartes' novel méthode.)

    I won't contend, but I'd appreciate some falsification examples.

    From a philosophical (rather, scientific) point of view it's an impossibilty to prove or disprove the existence of God. If I may make a comparison: it's like letting a colourblind person prove the existence of colours. (On a more basic level, it's irrelevant in the extreme: either you believe in God or you don't.)

    I am sorry to hear that. As concerns Plato, the Atlantis story and the Socrates-related dialogues were rather moving. Besides Spinoza I found Nietzsche moving (but he was a good writer.)

    I intended to point out that monotheism didn't appear out of nowhere (and leave it at that).

    I personally do not appreciate the use of categories for classifying philosophers (which constitutes a form of generalization), but I appreciate the explanations, as usual.;)

    Well, no offense, but you're a theologian (Christian, I presume). I assume you're used to the image; I've never grown used to it and I have seen it innumerous times. I simply do not appreciate the depiction of cruelty; I find it abhorrent. (Which is very personal, I know.) And you're quoting canonic responses, previously contained in the catechism. (I personally believe God is comparable to an Unseen Hand and I find the Holy Trinity closer to sophistic trickery than to spirituality.)

    Hm. How about:

    "And it was, is and will be fire eternally aflame."
     
  3. Eran of Arcadia

    Eran of Arcadia Stormin' Mormon Retired Moderator

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    If you mean he studies primarily Christian doctrine, that is true, but he is not himself Christian.
     
  4. Plotinus

    Plotinus Philosopher Administrator

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    I didn't mean to write "Descartes" - that must have been a slip of my pineal gland - but my point is simply that Spinoza presents his argument for the nature and existence of God as precisely that, an argument, or series of arguments. If you think that he didn't mean what he appeared to be saying then the burden of proof is upon you to provide evidence for this view (eg, some letter of his in which he says "Those proofs I gave for my views weren't really proofs, because...").

    If you mean examples of where Spinoza's arguments are invalid, I gave some examples of that before - such as his ambiguity on "distinguished". The fact that he trades on that ambiguity makes that argument invalid, quite apart from the question of whether it has true premises. An invalid argument, as I'm sure you know, is one where it is possible that the premises be true and the conclusion false.

    I don't see what's scientific about that view - at any rate I don't see how it's more scientific than the opposing view. I don't see exactly why your analogy of the colour-blind person is relevant; how do you know that the person attempting the proof of God has never experienced him? In fact, if it comes to that I don't see why a colour-blind person couldn't prove the existence of colours. She just wouldn't be able to experience them or know what it is like to experience them (probably). After all, Mr Spock can know that emotions exist even if he never experiences them himself and indeed finds them rather baffling. And I should think that most colour-blind people believe that colours exist, and what's more, believe this on very good evidence, even though they cannot experience them themselves. So it seems that one can prove the existence of something - or at least have very good evidence for its existence - even if one never experiences it. If you think that God is somehow immune to this possibility then, once again, the burden of proof is upon you to explain why!

    As Eran said, I'm not a Christian, and I wasn't quoting anything, at least not consciously. But the point about the image of the cross is that it expresses the view that God suffers from the cruelty in the world too. Personally I don't see what's abhorrent about the depiction of cruelty; the depiction of something is not the same as its commission. Some might even say that a religion that insulates itself from such depictions is not really engaging with the real world, at least not properly. The real world is cruel and horrible; and whatever else one may say about Christianity, at least its central image and doctrine is at heart a fundamental recognition of this fact in a way which is arguably lacking in other religions.

    That still doesn't ring any bells.
     
  5. philippe

    philippe FYI, I chase trains.

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    is the theological basis of Arianism strogn enough then just to be played out for identity purposes? Could you explain more on Arianism?
     
  6. Agent327

    Agent327 Observer

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    Alright, I'll leave it at that. (I just consider Spinoza's 'God-proof' as irelevant as all other such attempts; which is why I don't see anything novel or philosophically innovating in it.)

    Well, it seems my analogy was well chosen then. Either one has experienced God (which, scientifically would be very hard either to verify or to falsify) or one hasn't -which would make it impossible to prove the existence of God. Why? Believing in God is an act of faith. One may be able to prove the belief, but not the God. Let's consider dark matter. Does one believe in it or not? Irrelevant. One can hypothesize about it, and, perhaps, one day prove its existence. The existence or non-existence of God however is neither verifiable nor falsifiable. Ergo its irrelevance.

    I'm sorry for presuming you were Christian. The real world is cruel and horrible. I'm sorry you feel that way. Personally, I believe in God, but that has no relevance on the supposed cruelty or horridness of the world.

    And you'll find it very hard to prove to me that the world is cruel and horrible. People can be cruel and horrible, certainly, but that doesn't make the world so; perhaps it's just their nature to be acting like children.

    "Human conceptions are childrens' toys."

    And with that note I turn from Spinoza to another philosopher who has no school, one who in ancient times was known as the obscure one. (I fail to see why, for he has delivered us some wonderfully lucid - if fragmented - texts.)

    You know ofcourse that the Greek originals at some time were searching for the prime substance - which, from another source, gave us the atom; to Herakleitos (or Heraclitus) this was fire:

    "For it was, is and shall be fire, eternally aflame."
     
  7. Plotinus

    Plotinus Philosopher Administrator

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    I don't understand what you mean - what exactly do you want to know?

    But that's not an argument or even a reason - it's just the same assertion in different words. Why is believing in God an "act of faith" and believing in dark matter not an "act of faith"? What is it about dark matter that makes us able to hypothesise about it or hope to prove its existence which is not the case with God? You say that God's existence or non-existence is neither verifiable nor falsifiable. But why? You can't just assert such a thing and leave it at that; at the very least, most theists have thought otherwise. For example, the Catholic Church teaches that God's existence can be proven through reason alone without any need for faith. Perhaps they're wrong and you're right but you need to explain why.

    All right then: there is cruelty and horribleness in the world. I'm sure you won't deny that. Moreover, in human society and history these are not exactly minor, obscure, or occasional features, but recurrent themes which for many people are the defining ones of their lives.

    Ah, I didn't recognise the quotes. I like Heraclitus but I have never really studied the presocratics, so I don't know much about him.
     
  8. philippe

    philippe FYI, I chase trains.

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    Well, Arianism was mostly taken over by Germanic tribes to have their "own" version of christianity, but how found was the theological basis of it, if you compare it to the orthodox version? (with christ only being human)
     
  9. Cutlass

    Cutlass The Man Who Wasn't There.

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    What's the significance of the word "Calvary" in many Christian denominations? Is it related to John Calvin?
     
  10. Eran of Arcadia

    Eran of Arcadia Stormin' Mormon Retired Moderator

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  11. philippe

    philippe FYI, I chase trains.

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    isn't that Golgotha?
     
  12. Eran of Arcadia

    Eran of Arcadia Stormin' Mormon Retired Moderator

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  13. MagisterCultuum

    MagisterCultuum Great Sage

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    Golgotha comes from the Aramaic Gûlgaltâ while Calvary comes from the Latin Calvariae Locus, both meaning "place of the skull."
     
  14. Plotinus

    Plotinus Philosopher Administrator

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    The Germanic tribes didn't consciously convert to Arianism in order to have their "own" kind of Christianity. The processes by which they converted to Christianity are very obscure and little understood, but it seems that they were primarily converted by missionaries who happened to be Arian, above all Ulfilas, who was a Homoian. In fact we don't hear of any non-Arian Christian missionaries to the Goths at all in the fourth century. So it was really just a historical accident.

    Arianism was a complex phenomenon and there were many different varieties of it. In fact "Arianism" was a term applied by their opponents, and many people who were called Arians rejected it, saying that their views did not derive from Arius. The disagreements between different groups within Arianism were sometimes greater than those between Arians and non-Arians. However, none of them believed that Christ was only human. They believed that the Son or Logos - the divine person who was incarnate as Christ - was not fully divine at all, but merely the greatest of all creatures. To that extent they had roughly the same view as modern Jehovah's Witnesses.

    The Arians had various different motives for this view. This again is a subject of considerable debate among scholars. An influential recent (ish) proposal is that the early Arians, including Arius himself, believed that the Son is not fully divine because they wanted to make the Son similar in status to human beings. The idea is that if even Christ is a Son only by adoption (rather than by nature) then Christians, who are also sons of God by adoption (rather than nature), are as exalted as Christ. This is a soteriologically attractive doctrine. The alternative view - that the sonship of Christians is inferior to that of Christ - creates a fundamental division between Christ and his church that seems contrary to the Pauline belief that Christians are "in" Christ and part of his body.

    Some later Arians, however, seem to have had more philosophical motives for the belief that Christ was not fully divine. One, which seems to have been held by many "mainstream" Arians or Homoians (from the word for "like", because they believed that the Son is "like" the Father in all respects except nature), was that if the Son was fully incarnate and suffered then he couldn't have been God, because God cannot suffer. Another was held by the Anomoians (from the word for "unlike", because they held that the Son is unlike the Father - a more radical view than that of the Homoians). They believed that it is essential to divinity that a divine person not be caused by anything else. But the Son is generated by the Father, which is a form of causation. Therefore, the Son cannot be divine. The Anomoians were not very popular and were attacked by the Homoians just as much as by the Nicenes.

    I think that Arianism was ultimately doomed because the alternative Nicene view, that the Son is genuinely divine, better reflected the traditional Christian belief that salvation requires God himself to sort it out. Arianism survived in the Roman empire for as long as it did more because of the attempts of various emperors to promote it than because it enjoyed widespread support among Christians in general; it was never successful in the Latin-speaking part of the empire except among the Germanic Christians. And it seems to have had no success whatsoever in the Persian church. The Germanic Arians took some time to convert to Nicene Christianity, but when they did it seems to have been a remarkably easy and strife-free affair.

    Golgotha and Calvary are different names for the same place.
     
  15. Agent327

    Agent327 Observer

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    I'll make it real simple then (and yes, the "Catholic Church" is wrong, because): one is science (hence can be studied), the other is religion (can be studied, but never verified or falsified).

    I'll clarify as follows: since there isn't any unanymously acepted scientific definition of God, it's impossible to prove either existence or non-existence. (Dark matter can be proven or disproven, precisely because of such a definition. That's science. And that's why all "God-proofs" are absurd by definition.)

    Then they're in dire need of salvation!

    I'll skip the Herakleitos elaboration for a bit, as I wanted to clarify both this last response and my view on Spinoza, as follows, with two poems by a blind poet, preceded by this quote from Konstantin Kavafis' Correspondences according to Baudelaire:

    Do not believe only what you see.

    The vision of poets is sharper still.

    To them, Nature is a familiar garden.

    In a shadowed paradise, those other
    people grope along the cruel road...1
    ____________________________

    Here in the twilight the translucent hands
    of the Jew polishing the crystal glass.
    The dying afternoon is cold with bands
    of fear. Each day the afternoons shall pass
    the same. The hands and space of hyacinth
    paling in the confines of the ghetto walls
    barely exists for the quiet man who stalls
    there, dreaming up a brilliant labyrinth.
    Fame doesn't trouble him (that reflection of
    dreams in the dream of another mirror), nor love,
    the timid love of women. Gone the bars,
    he's free, from metaphor and myth, to sit
    polishing a stubborn lens: the infinite
    map of the One who now is all His stars.2

    _____________________

    A haze of gold, the Occident lights up
    the window. Now, the assiduous manuscript
    is waiting, weighed down with the infinite.
    Someone is building God. He is a Jew
    with saddened eyes and lemon-coloured skin;
    time carries him the way a leaf, dropped in
    a river, is borne off by waters to
    its end. No matter. The magician moved
    carves out his God with fine geometry;
    from his disease, from nothing, he's begun
    to construct God, using the word. No one
    is granted such prodigious love as he:
    the love that does not expect to be loved.3

    _________________________
    1. Translation by Daniel Mendelsohn.
    2. Jorge Luis Borges, Spinoza. Note: the ghetto walls are meant metaphorically.
    3. Jorge Luis Borges, Baruch Spinoza
    Translation by Willis Barnstone (corrected by me).
     
  16. Plotinus

    Plotinus Philosopher Administrator

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    That is still just an assertion. There may be a distinction between "science" and "religion" (considered as human activities), but neither dark matter nor God are identical with these activities; they are their objects. God is the object of religion and dark matter is the object of science. But it does not follow from that that they cannot be the objects of both. If someone were to worship dark matter, would that mean that dark matter was now to be considered the province of "religion" and suddenly inaccessible to science? People worship Prince Philip but he's still accessible to science. Similarly, the mere fact that God is the object of religion does not, in itself, mean he cannot be the object of science. The claim that the objects of religion and the objects of science are necessarily distinct is therefore not only a mere assertion, but a demonstrably false one.

    But suppose that we ignore that and accept the claim that God is not, and cannot be, the object of science. Why does that mean that his existence cannot be proven or disproven? That would be the case if science were the only method we had of proving or disproving things, but it is obviously not. Mathematical truths are not proved using the scientific method. Neither are logical ones. Philosophers prove and disprove things all the time that are not within the domain of science. It has, for example, been pretty much proven that emotivism is false, and that verificationism is false too. These things were proven not by scientific methods but by philosophical ones, because they are not scientific claims but philosophical ones. If the claim "God exists" is a philosophical claim - which it is - then there is no a priori reason why it cannot be proven or disproven as well. There may indeed be some
    reason why it cannot be proven or disproven, but once again, I say that it is down to the person who thinks this to be the case to show why it is the case. The fact that there are very many people who think that God's existence can be proven - including Spinoza - and many other people who think that it can be disproven indicates that there is nothing absurd about the mere attempt to prove such a thing.

    Why must there be a unanimously accepted definition of something in order to prove or disprove its existence? Anyone can define anything they like and seek to prove or disprove its existence. There are plenty of definitions of God available. Anyone can pick one and seek to prove that it is or is not actually instantiated. Now someone else may say, "That is not what I mean by God" and regard the proof as missing the point. But so what? That doesn't mean that nothing has been proven. You can say exactly the same thing about dark matter. If I understand the term to mean one thing and you understand it to mean another, that doesn't prevent one of us from proving the existence or non-existence of what we understand by the term. It just means that we might misunderstand each other when we talk about it.

    The reason why dark matter can be proven or disproven has got nothing to do with its definability - it's because, if it exists, it makes some difference to the observable universe which can be studied and analysed. There are perfectly good reasons for thinking that, if God exists, he too should make some difference to the observable universe, which can also be studied and analysed. In which case one can look for the evidence for God's existence just as one can look for the evidence for the existence of dark matter, and one can draw conclusions on the basis of what one finds. Both endeavours will obviously require that one begin by defining what it is one is looking for evidence of. But what's so problematic about that?

    In fact, as far as I know, most attempts to prove or disprove the existence of God begin with some kind of definition of God. If you're going to say that none of those definitions matches your definition of God, and therefore God as you understand him has been neither proven or disproven, then that doesn't show anything at all about the possibility of such a proof. It shows only that no such proof has, as yet, been attempted. And there is nothing stopping you from stating what you think the word "God" means and letting people seek to prove that such a thing exists or does not exist. To call such an attempt "absurd by definition" seems to me to be itself absurd.
     
  17. RedRalph

    RedRalph Chieftain

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    Do you think the dad in Footloose had a point? Dancing is bollix
     
  18. frog3

    frog3 Chieftain

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    Does it ever bother you that being a theologian has no practical real world benefits?

    Also I can't imagine your job satisfaction is very high.
    As much fun as postulating on the existance of a being which exists outside the constraints of logic may be it is ultimatley a fruitless endeavor.
    Also anyone can do it, which takes away some of the prestiege of being a theologian.
     
  19. Eran of Arcadia

    Eran of Arcadia Stormin' Mormon Retired Moderator

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  20. Plotinus

    Plotinus Philosopher Administrator

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    What he said. Perhaps you should read the OP and see what theologians actually do.

    Although quite apart from that I'm really a philosopher rather than a theologian now, although my current research is very much in the overlap between the two.

    Also, it's worth bearing in mind that most jobs don't have real-world benefits. That's one of the side-effects of civilisation - when enough people pool the resources brought about by those who do practical work, there's sufficient surplus for lots of people to do stuff that isn't practical at all. Such as entertainment, education, art, and history. So don't single out the theologians on that score.
     
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