Sunday, April 26, 2009

Beware of Richard Dawkins

Greetings.

Jewish date:  2 ’Iyyar 5769.

Today’s holiday:  Day 17 of the ‘Omer.

Today’s quasi-holidays:  Shuffleboard Day, National Pretzel Day, Landscape Architecture Day, World Intellectual Property Day, Hug an Australian Day.

Relevant to Divine Misconceptions:
  1. Thank YHWH, I now have a review of Richard Dawkins’s atheistic opus The God Delusion, presented below in lieu of a weird thing.  I only wish I had read this book before I participated in the panel for Darwin Week.  Now, somebody bug me to watch the latest two episodes of Kings and review them, too.
  2. “Zimbabwe: Four 'Prophets' Arrested Over Drowning”:  General rule:  whatever you do in the name of religion, do not do it stupidly.  If someone drowns, baptism is being done wrong.
  3. “Institute sues Texas college board over master's degree”:  The Institute for Creation Research Graduate School is suing the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, claiming they should be allowed to grant Master of Science degrees.  This is just the latest in a long series of lawsuits aimed to allow dishonest people to pass off creationism as legitimate science.
Today’s news and commentary:
And now, without further delay, I present my review of The God Delusion. Enjoy (or be scared or something) and share the weirdness.

Aaron



Delusional victory:  a review of Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion
by Aaron Solomon Adelman
The Babel fish,” said The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy quietly, “is small, yellow and leech-like, and probably the oddest thing in the Universe. It feeds on brainwave energy not from its carrier but from those around it. It absorbs all unconscious mental frequencies from this brainwave energy to nourish itself with. It then excretes into the mind of its carrier a telepathic matrix formed by combining the conscious thought frequencies with nerve signals picked up from the speech centres of the brain which has supplied them. The practical upshot of all this is that if you stick a Babel fish in your ear you can instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language. The speech patterns you actually hear decode the brainwave matrix which has been fed into your mind by your Babel fish.

Now it is such a bizarrely improbable coincidence that anything so mindboggingly useful could have evolved purely by chance that some thinkers have chosen to see it as the final and clinching proof of the non-existence of God.

The argument goes something like this: ‘I refuse to prove that I exist,’ says God, ‘for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.’

‘But,’ says Man, ‘The Babel fish is a dead giveaway, isn’t it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don’t. QED.’

‘Oh dear,’ says God, ‘I hadn’t thought of that,’ and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic.

‘Oh, that was easy,’ says Man, and for an encore goes on to prove that black is white and gets himself killed on the next zebra crossing.

Most leading theologians claim that this argument is a load of dingo’s kidneys, but that didn’t stop Oolon Colluphid making a small fortune when he used it as the central theme of his best-selling book Well That About Wraps It Up For God.

Meanwhile, the poor Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (Adams 1989, p. 42)

Dr. Richard Dawkins is a militant atheist, and The God Delusion, as he claimed in Expelled:  No Intelligence Allowed (Frankowski 2008), is supposed to be his great attack against religion in general and especially belief in the existence of gods (theism).  He is opposed to every god worshipped by every religious person, and so he purportedly takes it upon himself to try to prove to the reader that atheism is correct (at least within the tolerances of what is knowable).  In addition to being an atheist, Richard Dawkins is an eminent, respected evolutionary biologist.  As a scientist, one would think he would stick strictly to evidence and the uncompromising rule of logic, perfect deductions and well-justified inductions and abductions.  Anyone who can create scientific writing is capable of this.

And yet Dawkins takes a radically different route.  What he produces instead is in the spirit of Ann Coulter’s Godless:  The Church of Liberalism (Coulter 2006), Ben Stein’s Expelled:  No Intelligence Allowed, and Anton Szandor LaVey’s The Satanic Bible (LaVey 1969).  Rather than arguing with his opponents, Dawkins argues at them, and by this your humble reviewer means something analogous to the difference between “laughing with” versus “laughing at”.  If Dawkins were arguing with his opponents, he would have kept his emotions under strict control, carefully researched theism, tried to throughly understand what the best of his opponents actually believe, analyzed their beliefs, and tried to show conclusively why they are wrong.  Instead Dawkins argues at his opponents.  Dawkins has done little research on what his opponents actually believe, especially those of theists who are intelligent, knowledgeable, and have carefully thought out their belief systems; what Dawkins argues against is actually a shallow, stereotyped version of Abrahamic theism in general and Christianity in particular.  His arguing against the alleged views of his opponents is paradoxically short on relevant points and sloppy yet long on verbiage.  And rather than do a good job on arguments, Dawkins instead resorts to ridicule and insults, going on and on proclaiming a false dichotomy of how wonderful and intelligent atheists are and what a bunch of immoral idiots theists are.  This is not a book meant to convince theists to become atheists, but rather a book for uncritical atheists to rally around.  And the problems that show through because of this are serious.

Problem 1:  Dawkins confounds creationism and theism.

Richard Dawkins is an eminent, respected evolutionary biologist.  If there is one sort of person which evolutionary biologists hate, it is creationists.  It is not merely that creationism/“intelligent design” is in contradiction to evolution.  Creationists rarely demonstrate any understanding of evolution or what is wrong with creationism.  Even worse, they fail to learn that they are wrong.  Despite the repeated debunking of creationist claims, they do not modify their positions, but rather shift their tactics to make the same, exact biological claims.  As this reviewer has noted previously, some creationists are even slanderously dishonest in the promotion of creationism.  As such, evolutionary biologists have every cause to be justifiably disgusted at and frustrated with creationists.  But rather than honestly tackle creationism specifically, Dawkins instead claims he is attacking theism in general.

If Dawkins truly were trying to disprove theism, he would need to carefully specify an hypothesis to examine which covers every single god.  This is a tall order.  Gods can be anything from a delusional mortal to ultimate reality.  An hypothesis taking on all gods needs to cover monotheism, dualism, trinitarianism, polytheism, deism, pantheism, panentheism, transcendent theism, ancestor worship, animal worship, deified humans, suitheism, and probably a number of other distinct isms as well.  Such an hypothesis needs to cover YHWH, the Christian Trinity, Allah, the corporate God of Mormonism, the hidden god and demiurge of Gnosticism, the millions of gods of Hinduism, the gods of Jainism, the Horned God and Triple Goddess of Wicca, the Pantheon of ancient Greek religion, the gods of the ancient Romans, the gods of the ancient Egyptians, the gods of the Mayans, the gods of the Aztecs, and the gods of every other religion.  Dawkins claims he is against all these (Dawkins 2006, p. 36), yet instead he specifies this hypothesis:  “there exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us” (Dawkins 2006, p. 31).  This definition does not cover all gods, but only the existence of a single God defined according to creationist conceptions.  The alternative is not even defined as a simple negation of this (alleged) “God hypothesis”, but rather as “any creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything, comes into existence only as the end product of an extended process of gradual evolution” (Dawkins 2006, p. 31).  In other words, Dawkins is claiming that either the creationists are right or he—a militant atheist—is right.  Since there are many other obvious possibilities—such as there could be a god who created the universe but did not deliberately design everything in it—this is a false dichotomy.  Such a fundamental error alone should be a warning sign that something is horribly wrong with this book.  And indeed there is.

One obvious problem is that the redefinition of what constitutes a god screws up the definition of agnosticism.  Dawkins distinguishes between two sorts of agnosticism:  permanent agnosticism in principle (PAP), which science cannot adequately address, and temporary agnosticism in practice (TAP), which there is hope that science may address at some point (Dawkins 2006, pp. 47-48).  Since creationism is disprovable (and has been disproved) and thus any sufficiently intelligent, knowledgeable, and intellectually honest person must eventually come to realize it is wrong, anyone who is agnostic about creationism must be classified as a TAP creationist.  Yes, every good scientist is aware that anything and everything he/she believes in principle could be should shown to be wrong, but the evidence against creationism is so strong that this doubt is more pro forma than something to be seriously taken into account.  The problem arises in that since Dawkins wrongly equates theism with creationism, he also wrongly equates agnosticism of religion with agnosticism of creationism.  This puts Dawkins in the awkward position of trying to explain the existence of agnostic scientists—very respectable agnostic scientists—without revealing that they are agnostic with regard to theism and not agnostic with regard to creationism.  Rather than honestly admit he is using different definitions, Dawkins weasels his way out of the problem.  He lies that agnosticism is TAP because God could prove his existence by an open miracle (Dawkins 2006, p. 50), completely ignoring that there is nothing one can do to force a being who is not of our universe—and therefore exempt from our physical laws—to do anything, thus making agnosticism of theism effectively PAP.  Even worse, Dawkins uses two loaded words rather than acknowledge the truth:  “I suspect”.  For example, he explains how Bertrand Russell once fell for the ontological argument by saying “I suspect that he was an exaggeratedly fair-minded atheist” (Dawkins 2006, p. 82).  To explain the agnosticism of T. H. Huxley (the man who invented the term “agnosticism”), Dawkins says “I suspect that when he appeared to do so he was bending over backwards to concede a point, in the interests of securing another one” (Dawkins 2006, p. 50).  Stephen J. Gould receives the same treatment with “I simply do not believe that Gould could possibly have meant much of what he wrote in Rocks of Ages” (Dawkins 2006, p. 59), in reference to Gould’s doctrine of nonoverlapping magisteria, which posits that religion and science do not ever truly step on each other’s toes.  Keep in mind that suspecting and disbelief is not proof of anything, as one can suspect or disbelieve anything.  And the fact that he has to suspect this much to keep up the illusion of his false dichotomy is very suspicious indeed.

Confusing theism and agnosticism also screws up Pascal’s wager (Dawkins 2006, pp. 103-105).  Since it is unacceptable to realistically take creationism into account, Dawkins cannot possibly accept that it is worth betting on the possibility that there might be a god.

Also bad is the problem of scientists, such as Eugenie C. Scott (Dawkins 2006, p. 66), who work together with theists, the very people Dawkins considers the enemy.  Even worse are religious scientists, especially religious biologists, even more especially his own colleagues.  He acknowledges the problem, but he never truly discusses their reasons for believing in a religion.  To explain why Francis Collins (Dawkins 2006, p. 99) or Kenneth Miller (Dawkins 2006, p. 131) believe in God would be tantamount to admitting that creationism and theism are not equivalent and that neither implies the other.  And so Dawkins ignores anything they might have to say on the subject and hopes no one notices.  He also tries to play the “I suspect” card to deny they are really religious (Dawkins 2006, p. 99).  The best Dawkins tries to do is portray atheism and science as going hand-in-hand.  E.g., he notes that only 40% of American scientists and 7% of scientists in the National Academy of Sciences are religious (Dawkins 2006, p. 100), as if popularity among the “right” crowd were the same thing as truth.  Alternative explanations, such as that many religious people who might make excellent scientists end up in the clergy instead, are not considered.  Dawkins also resorts to suggesting that religious scientists may actually be paid or hope to get money from the Templeton Foundation, effectively a “conspiracy theory” (Dawkins 2006, pp. 19, 62-63, 65, 151-153, 285).

The fact that Dawkins is really attacking creationism also influences how and what he attacks.  One might think that a scientist trying to disprove the existence of any god would categorize the different sorts of gods worshipped in different religions, deduce the sorts of evidence each category of god might leave behind in our universe, and look for the expected evidence in order to test the hypothesis.  But creationism is not based on evidence; the basic philosophic assumptions it uses about how we know what we know are radically different from those of science.  Whereas science assumes that physical evidence is correct, no matter what any person or any book says, creationists assume their interpretation of Scripture is correct, no matter what the physical evidence says.  Given that creationists are notorious for ignoring physical evidence, Dawkins tries an unconventional strategy:  attack philosophical ideas rather than on the basis of physical evidence.  He therefore covers a number of philosophical proofs for the existence of God over the span of chapters 3 and 4 (Dawkins 2006, pp. 75-159) and soundly defeats them all to his own satisfaction, after which he declares victory.  Do note that the defeat of the philosophic proofs is to his own satisfaction and not necessarily that of the reader, who may find Dawkins too hasty to trivialize arguments and dismiss them without sufficient consideration.

A good example of Dawkins’s trivialization of others’ arguments is his assault on Thomas Aquinas’s first three proofs of the existence of God, the “unmoved mover” argument, the “uncaused cause” argument, and the “cosmological argument” (Dawkins 2006, pp. 77-78).  All of these arguments are based on the notion that everything that happens has a cause, so causes must either regress infinitely or terminate at some point in the past.  As such, the idea that there was a First Cause/Prime Mover to cause the existence of our universe is plausible.  Dawkins’s objection is that even if one accepts that there is a First Cause, one cannot deduce from this argument all the properties normally associated with God.  But who would be foolish enough to make such a claim?  A priori would anyone assume this is what Aquinas intended?  This is akin to the untenable claim sometimes encountered that paleontologists can reconstruct a whole animal from just a single fossilized bone.  And while Dawkins is correct that the argument from design does not work with respect to life (Dawkins 2006, p. 79)—creationism is dead scientifically—dismissing the anthropic principle  (i.e., we exist because the conditions existed previously that allowed us to come into existence) as an argument for the existence of God is done on a shoddy basis.  Dawkins creates a “planetary version” limiting it to the Earth alone to defeat first (Dawkins 2006, pp. 135-141), but since he fails to cite anyone who actually holds by the “planetary” anthropic principle, there is the suspicion that he is merely creating a straw man.  The “cosmological” version (Dawkins 2006, pp. 141-151), which some religious scientists do hold by (Dawkins 2006, p. 147), is not treated much better.  There are six physical constants which if much different would result in a universe unable to give rise to life of the Terran variety, and there is an unsettled question of why these constants have the values they have.  Some see this as a suggestion of Divine design of our universe, an idea Dawkins cannot tolerate.  Dawkins cites hypotheses that there are multiple universes which may bud off new universes which undergo processes analogous to mutation, and natural selection operating on these six constants.  The ideas Dawkins relates are fascinating, and they are conceivably correct, but they are still speculation unsupported by evidence and conceivably wrong.  Even if they are correct, they are not even inconsistent with the existence of God.  Just as biological evolution may be a deity’s way of making new creatures, “cosmic evolution” may be a deity’s way of making new universes.  This is not an refutation of the argument for the existence of God based on the anthropic principle, as much as Dawkins pretends it to be.  In short, the best that Dawkins manages to do is eliminate the possibility of creationism, while theism remains a possibility.  But Dawkins never tells the reader this, and he goes on to gloat anyway.

Problem 2:  Dawkins has no clear moral system.

A major component of Dawkins’s gloating (not to mention his overall ungentlemanly behavior) is to give a negative evaluation of the morality of theism.  This itself suffers from an issue which Dawkins never adequately discusses:  how to define morality.  What Dawkins never tells the reader is that morality is purely a matter of opinion.  To illustrate, most people would probably agree that Hitler was evil.  But ask people why Hitler was evil, and people would be likely to give many different answers.  Those who believe in a traditional religion would likely cite the opinion of a god or a great sage, e.g., that murder is forbidden in the Bible.  Others would cite a philosophical system, e.g., that murder is against Kant’s categorical imperative.  Others would say they feel that murder is wrong or that most people believe murder is wrong or that it “just is” wrong.  In other words, everyone gives a different opinion.  And while few would not consider Hitler evil, there are many issue on which people have very different opinions or whether something is moral or not and why, e.g., abortion, stem cell research, eating meat, animal sacrifice, caste systems, homosexuality, bestiality, and child marriage.  For Dawkins to legitimately tell us that theism is immoral, he needs to either 1) convince the reader in terms of the reader’s own moral system or 2) convince the reader that his moral system is correct and make his argument in terms of it.  The former choice is suicidal when addressing a theist; no religion defines morality in such a way that it finds itself immoral.  Dawkins does not even make a real case for the latter.

Dawkins, hating theism, rejects “absolute morality”, but his ideas for defining morality never go beyond a vague reliance on consensus and zeitgeist (Dawkins 2006, pp. 262-272), i.e., “let’s go along with the majority and the direction they’re heading in”—another appeal to popularity.  (This is probably a bad idea on Dawkins’s part, since atheists are a minority (Hunter).)  Dawkins, however, never gives a solid basis for moral criticism and bashes away, assuming that the reader’s moral system is close enough that his criticism will still be valid.

Dawkins prefers to ponder morality without defining it.  He claims some biological basis for common moral reasoning (Dawkins 2006, pp. 214-222), but this proves nothing since popularity is not the same thing as truth.  He also denies that religion has any effect on moral behavior (Dawkins 2006, pp. 222-226), which is blatantly inconsistent with the notion that theists are a bunch of horrible people; unless he wishes to claim that morality is purely genetic, this is equivalent to claiming that theists are exactly as moral as atheists.  This notion is also wrong.  Firstly, the evidence comes from asking people hypothetical questions, not from observing actual behavior.  Secondly, moral behavior varies wildly among religions.  Violence, sexuality, vigilantism, consumption of meat, environmentalism, asceticism, monasticism, charity, abortion—there are no universally accepted moral attitudes to these.  While religion may not be the only factor in moral behavior, it certainly is not irrelevant.

Problem 3:  Dawkins makes basic errors in logic and statistics.

Like many topics, the true structure of what is wrong with The God Delusion is not conveniently ordered in a linear fashion, but is rather a tangled network of worms.  Therefore many of Dawkins’s grievous logic and statistics errors, such as the false dichotomy, the straw man, and the appeal to popularity have already been noted.  These are not the end of his rhetorical sins.

Biased sampling, AKA cherry-picking, and hasty generalization:  Dawkins makes no consideration of whether his claims are representative of those he is discussing or not.  For almost any group of people with enough members and extended over enough time, it is practically inevitable that a few members will do all manner of unusual actions.  But Dawkins considers the actions of one religious person to be representative of all religious people.  As a result, his citations are noticeably lopsided.  Jews, Muslims and Christians—especially Christians—are cited, with few mentions of Hindus and barely any members of other theistic religions.  It gets even worse:  for him, the alleged sins of the few must be the sins of the many.  If a few people get to use hallucinogens for religious ceremonies but the federal government is insane when it comes to medical use of marijuana, then somehow all religion is tainted (Dawkins 2006, p. 22).  If Muslims go insane over a few cartoons, then somehow all religion is tainted (Dawkins 2006, pp. 24-26).  If a few Christians support a faith-healing quack, then somehow all religion is tainted (Dawkins 2006, p. 44).  If Muslims are violent, then somehow all religion is tainted (Dawkins 2006, pp. 286-288).  Dawkins cannot even keep different religions straight.  He attributes the death penalty for blasphemy to the Hebrew Bible, but then switches immediately to attacking Islam (Dawkins 2006, p. 286).  He also refers to American/Christian Taliban (Dawkins 2006, p. 288), completely oblivious that Christian supremacist terrorists are extremely rare, even among Christian supremacists with huge mouths, while Islamic terrorism is a serious problem.  To Dawkins, all religions are more or less the same and interchangeable, regardless of what the reality really is.

The ecologic fallacy:  Dawkins cites a claim that cities in the United States with higher Republican affiliation (interpreted as correlated with religiosity) also had higher rates of violent crime (Dawkins 2006, p. 229).  But correlation on the group level does not necessarily hold true on the individual level.  Yes, it could be the people who are more religious are committing more violent crimes in those counties; on the other hand, for all we know, militant atheists are more likely to commit violent crimes in places with lots of religious people.  It could even be militant atheist Republicans who are the most likely to commit violent crimes.  Only not enough information is provided to know who is responsible.

Wrong perspective:  It is completely irrelevant how atheists interpret anyone’s religion.  Rather, it is necessary to examine how its adherents interpret it.  For example, Dawkins cites a paper which insists that the injunction from the Hebrew Bible “you will love your neighbor as yourself” has to refer only Jewish neighbors, not non-Jewish neighbors (Dawkins 2006, p. 254).  But no matter what was originally intended, if one is judging Jews and Judaism, it is only how Jews interpret this verse and apply it to their lives that matters.  Otherwise one is attacking them for something which they neither believe or practice.  Such logic applies to every facet of religion.  Shockingly, Dawkins may really have not considered at all what adherents believe about their own religions at all when he wrote The God Delusion.  While being interviewed for Expelled by Ben Stein, Dawkins read a passage from his book expressing a superlatively negative view of the God of the Hebrew Bible as malevolent and misanthropic (Dawkins 2006, p. 31).  Stein, in a moment of unusual rationality, caught Dawkins off guard by asking what if people believe in a benevolent god.  Dawkins had no clue that people might not share his negative evaluation of their deities.

Blatant errors:  Dawkins clearly failed to do much research on what theists actually believe, and this results in strange, stereotyped notions.  E.g., Dawkins thinks that theists believe that all God wants is for people to believe in Him (Dawkins 2006, p. 104).  Even a cursory reading of the Hebrew Bible, New Testament, and Qur’an should give the opposite impression, as all three have the idea that God wants more than mere belief.  Indeed, there have been few, if any religions which have truly embraced the ultimate antinomian idea that belief is all that matters, that anything really goes (murder, cannibalism, rape, torture, incest, bestiality, theft...).  Because if they did, the results could easily be disastrous for everyone’s welfare and the fabric of society.  Few sentient beings, whether human or divine, could be that crazy.

The double standard:  As far as Dawkins is concerned, religion is to blame for religious people’s failings, while atheism is not to blame for atheists’ failings.  For example, Stalin is a figure that most would agree was a horrible person.  Stalin was an atheist, but Dawkins absolves atheism of his crimes (Dawkins 2006, p. 278).  Dawkins is otherwise completely silent about the crimes of atheistic communism, which started with the Russian Revolution in 1917.  Ever since communists have killed millions and oppressed millions more.  If Dawkins can go into depth about the (alleged) crimes of religion, why must the crimes of atheism be ignored?  Why should the atheists not have to face the failings of their history?

Unreasonable expectations:  As part of showing off for fellow theist-hating atheists, Dawkins makes proposals designed to help make society more atheistic.  For one thing, he would like people to stop attributing religion to small children, e.g., that we should say “children of Christian parents” instead of “Christian children” (Dawkins 2006, p. 339).  It is correct that small children normally have poor or no understanding of basic religious concepts and cannot truly be said to be believers.  On the other hand, membership in religions is frequently defined in terms other than mere belief.  E.g., because a child is baptized in the name of Jesus, he may be considered Christian, whether or not he/she truly understands Christianity.  One may even a rabid unbeliever and still be considered a member, e.g., “self-hating Jews”.  Dawkins would also like people to stop indoctrinating their children (Dawkins 2006, pp. 325-340).  The idea that this may be against certain religions has either not crossed Dawkins’s mind or he does not care.  It is also difficult to imagine how this would be done without teaching about religion at all (which he does not seem to favor (Dawkins 2006, p. 340)) or that anyone intelligent and seriously religious would voluntarily comply.

Conclusion:  If one wants to read something to give him/her good reasons to believe in atheism, The God Delusion is not it.  The God Delusion is nothing more than grandstanding for theism-hating atheists who are not smart enough to see through Dawkins’s bad rhetoric or do not care.  Even those who honestly hate theistic religion should be disgusted with this book.  The arguments Dawkins gives therein are like the humorous one given at the start of this review:  transparently bad to anyone sufficiently intelligent who actually understands religion.  Only Dawkins’s rhetoric drips with so much venom that he does not come off anywhere near as funny as Adams.  Dawkins, as an excellent scientist, is capable of doing much better than this.  He is fully capable of doing the research and analysis he needs to do if he really wants to make a case for atheism.  He should hold himself to a higher standard, and so should the entire atheist community.

Overall classification:  Rallying cry for theism-hating atheism masquerading as science.

Theological rating:  F, with a recommendation that Dawkins be banned from theology until he repents and reads a decent translation of the Hebrew Bible instead of the King James Version.


Bibliography: 
Adams, Douglas. 1989. The more than complete hitchhikers guide:  complete & unabridged. New York: Bonanza Books.
Coulter, Ann. 2006. Godless:  the church of liberalism. New York: Crown Forum.
Dawkins, Richard. 2006. The God delusion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.
Frankowski, Nathan. 2008. Expelled:  No Intelligence Allowed. USA: Premise Media Corporation.
Hunter, Preston. Adherents.com [cited 2009-04-20. Available from http://adherents.com/.
LaVey, Anton Szandor. 1969. The Satanic bible. New York: Avon Books.

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