I'm cross-posting this piece in the Rational Integrity group forum as well.

In atheist forum discussions about free will, determinists overwhelmingly outnumber compatibilists (those who say free will is compatible with determinism).

As I'll explain below, what always strikes me as curious is how dogma, denial and simplistic faith seem to be shared by both religious folks and atheist determinists. I mean, give me a break . . . to claim absolute determinism is to claim that the Apollo or Voyager missions (or any other great human achievement) -- and all the man-hours, brain power, resources and ingenuity involved -- was scripted since the beginning of time. With a script so specific and precise, you might as well say God wrote it. Yeah right . . . may the force be with you.

Free will is actually a doctrine that didn't fully develop until about 70 years after the Roman Catholic Church was established by Emperor Constantine. St. Augustine fleshed out the ramifications of free will (circa 400 A.D.) in order to overcome the pitfalls of the deterministic Bible with more socially redeeming benefits like: good works, repentance, and responsibility for our own actions.

Determinism is intimately tied to ancient belief in God(s). The whole world (East and West), with rare exception, was deterministic, believing that God(s) controlled every facet of every event; past, present and future. Even their prevailing "science" (astrology), took determinism for granted.

Today, most Christians accept free will, despite the Bible. This represents the success of secondary authority (doctrine) over primary authority (the Bible). After the Reformation, even the majority of Protestants accepted the doctrine of free will.

Free will, accordingly, gets a bad rap from atheists . . . after all, it was developed and advocated by the Roman Catholic Church. However, they weren't the ones who "invented" the idea. We have the pagan, Epicurus, to thank for that. He departed from the Atomists of his day by claiming the motion of atoms is random -- breaking the cascading causal chain reaction kick-started by the Prime Mover -- and that this break was enough to allow for free will. His contrarian assertion of randomness at the atomic level foreshadowed Quantum Theory by thousands of years.

Today, free will is a well-known, established, concept. Whether or not you believe in free will, you know (roughly) what it is. More importantly, you live your life as if you have free will. You work, play and plan as if you have free will. Free will is taken for granted. Do you take credit for your own actions? Do your officemates recognize your work and ideas? Do you weigh consequences before instructing your children? Of course you do. Because you have free will . . . or at least, because you think you have free will. What you don't do is trip through life aghast to find that you keep performing actions you don't intend; like a hapless puppet dancing on strings of causality.

So which is true? Free will or determinism? Every conscious moment, every action of your life is empirical evidence for free will. The determinist's claim that your entire experience is an illusion is an extraordinary claim. It requires extraordinary evidence. What evidence is there? None. Zero. Zilch.

So why is it that the majority of atheists appear to be determinists? The biggest reason is causality. Cause and effect. It's a binary concept: it doesn't get much simpler. By and large, determinists deny the reality of their experience in favor of simple causality. They insist causality applies to absolutely everything.

But I say they're mistaken. More precisely, I say they're dogmatic. Dogma is usually behind fundamental denials and opinions asserted as facts. What's more fundamental than experience? When the validity of just about anything might be challenged, we find bedrock in the reality of experience. As with religion, the denial of experience really needs dogma.

So what's the dogma? It’s "Causality is absolute." or "Everything is predetermined." I disagree. I say there's an obvious difference between inanimate matter and animate beings. Inanimate matter reacts to causality with mathematical precision and predictability. It has no choice. Animate beings, on the other hand, react to causality in unpredictable ways.

Consider this . . .

. . . A worm finds itself exposed to too much sunlight. What does it do? Does it continue forward or retreat back where it came from? Maybe it makes a lateral move, left or right. Who knows? Unlike a comet or meteor, it might do ANY of these things. Life introduces an entirely different mode of response to causality. Living things react differently than the rest of the universe. It seems too obvious to state but for the sake of determinists I'll state it: animate beings are radically different from inanimate matter and should not be treated the same.

This brings up my main point: causality is 100% predictable (outside the quantum realm) with inanimate matter but not with animate beings. Assuming Earth is the only place with life, then after 10 billion years of cosmic clockwork, life introduced an entirely new kind of object to the universe. After 3.5 billion more years, the most unpredictable objects of all -- humans -- are solving the mysteries of the universe.

You can claim that our experience of free will is an illusion or you can explain how the free will of our experience might exist. The former is without evidence: the latter is backed up by the empirical evidence of every (sane) person on this planet.

One last thing. Free will doesn't mean immunity from causality. It means that causality is not absolute with us humans. It need not take much independence to empower free agency. One theory (Johnjoe McFadden's CEMI theory) postulates mental feedback as the source of free will. Anyway, if a meteor crashes through my roof and obliterates me, that's causality. If we send a spacecraft to intercept the meteor and deflect it from Earth, that's free will.

We are subjects to -- and masters of -- causality. How do I know? Because we can understand, anticipate and use causality to do our bidding in every facet of our lives. Isn't that what free will is?

Seems pretty clear to me. If you want to deny it, give me some evidence. I mean, we ARE atheists, right?

Views: 37

Tags: Augustine, Descartes, McFadden, determinism, dogma, free will, surrogate

Comment by John Nguyen on February 1, 2010 at 9:17pm
You don't seem to really be representing determinism as it's argued, at all. It's a simple chain of logic, really.

Since you are an atheist, I feel reasonably sure in assuming that you do not believe in any sort of "soul" or "spirit." If you in fact do posit such things, then it's a different can of worms entirely.

So what is it that makes our decisions and choices for us, then, if it's not the soul as dualists or idealists argue? The simple, materialistic answer is, our brain.

The next question to ask is, what allows our brain to decide things? It is empirically supported that the thoughts and decisions that we make are all because of the state of our brain, namely its chemical and electrical interactions between the neurons and synapses and all those other fun anatomical things (note, however, that if you're going to debate philosophy, by no means is empiricism assumed. There have been many in the lineage of Locke and Hume that deny empirical standards of knowledge).

What we are left with, then, is the following proposition:

"Decisions are made based upon the state of the brain, which are based upon its chemical and physical makeup."

Reasonable enough? Let's go further.

Since it has been established that the physical activity in the brain is what makes our choices, it can be said that our will is based upon these phenomenon. However, when we reduce our notion of "will" to the logical conclusions philosophical materialism leads us to, we find that our thoughts are nothing more than purely physical phenomenon.

Physical phenomenon follow physical laws. And physical laws are deterministic.

Why do we feel happy? Because certain chemicals in our brain interact with each other in certain ways, described by physical, deterministic laws.

Why is it that when someone says "firetruck," I immediately think "red?" Because a certain pulse of electricity of a certain intensity jumped between two certain neurons, as described by physical, deterministic laws.

If one eliminates the immaterial, the "soul" from the human being, and accepts that matter is all that exists, determinism is the only logical conclusion that exists.
Comment by John Nguyen on February 1, 2010 at 9:26pm
"...animate beings are radically different from inanimate matter and should not be treated the same."

This statement here is precisely the mindset that leads to belief in an immaterial and immortal soul in so many. Exactly why is it that animate beings are so different from inanimate matter?

Is it because we have souls? In which case, you will need to prove that the soul exists.

Is it because we can think? But is not our thought, if we eliminate the soul, merely the resultant chemical activity of our brain, nothing more than a lump of matter which reacts to electricity and chemicals in a certain way? We are really, if we accept that matter is all that exists, nothing more than incredibly sophisticated, organic robots. Machines made of meat, if you will.

The language in your post doesn't really present any of the evidence you claim to desire. It just shows your misunderstanding of philosophical determinism, which likely stems from your unjustified a priori assertion that "animate beings are radically different from inanimate matter and should not be treated the same."

It seems too obvious to state but for the sake of those who believe in free will and (as atheists) philosophical materialism I'll state it: If philosophical materialism is true, then its logical conclusion is that animate beings are nothing more than inanimate matter that is capable of doing some pretty cool things.
Comment by Atheist Exile on February 2, 2010 at 4:52am
Actually, John, that statement reflects the mindset that recognizes the difference between animate beings and inanimate things. In other words that statement represents EXACTLY what it says it does . . . NOT what you say it does.

Understanding, anticipating and using causality to do our bidding is proof of a mode of response entirely different from the physical reactions of inanimate matter. It's an observable fact, not a matter of opinion. It's NOT, however, proof of free will. But it should be noted that science often considers indirect evidence as conclusive. For instance, black holes and the presence of planets orbiting distant stars are all considered conclusively established by indirect evidence. In the same way, our understanding, anticipation and use of causality for our own purposes is indirect evidence of self-directed purpose: also known as free agency.

Toss in the empirical evidence of our experience and there is ample evidence for free will. It's the determinist's argument that free will is an illusion which is an extraordinary claim. Extraordinary claim or not, what evidence is there for this illusion? Yeah, yeah, you can describe illusion-like scenarios to support your illusion argument but that's not evidence; it's begging the question. There’s a reason you won't give evidence of this alleged illusion: because there is none.

I am not a dualist. I don't believe in ANYTHING supernatural. I do NOT claim that we obey different laws than the rest of nature. A lot of universal causality is inertia: things proceed without change until an external force is encountered. Humans experience inertia also: there are times when there are no causal forces influencing us. We're animate beings who don't need external force to "change course". The emergent properties of consciousness, intelligence and (I assert) free will are influenced by heredity, perception, experience and other causal factors -- but NOT absolutely influenced at all times and in all ways. There is plenty of latitude for independent decision-making.

Think of what we know about the brain . . . sensory input is processed in disparate "modules" of the brain. There's a delay of up to half a second between module activity and corresponding actions. One explanation for the delay is that the processing of the disparate modules need to be integrated into a cohesive whole and brought to consciousness before we can decide how to respond. It's so natural to us that we're inured to it and take it for granted. But that mental process might well be the feedback loop that empowers free agency by presenting us the executive onus of choice. Certain "choices" are really automatic, such as when we drive down the freeway without concentrating on driving. Other choices can be conundrums that require focus and careful evaluation of all factors. These self-aware, self-directed, actions are not knee-jerk reactions; they're carefully considered decisions. Even the language we use to describe this process acknowledges mental feedback, even if we're not aware of it. Think about it: "self-aware" and "self-directed" are paraphrases for "mental feedback". Just because you don't recognize it, doesn't mean it doesn't exist.

Materialism and physical reductionism go hand in hand. Their deductive reasoning is ill suited for complex systems like the mind/brain. Inductive or "systems thinking" is much more productive for explaining consciousness. Reductionists have reduced the brain down to its neurons. They've learned a lot about the brain but virtually nothing about consciousness. It's the inductive, systems thinkers who are zeroing in on viable theories of consciousness.

I do NOT accept materialism as a be-all approach to science or philosophy. I throw my support behind the increasing number of scientists or recognize the limits of materialism and physical reductionism. We're already familiar, from complexity theory, with state shifts and emergent properties: either one, or both, can explain whatever modest independence from causality (free agency) we may possess.

For instance, what separates us from tigers or lizards? Intelligence. Why can't free will be a product of intelligence? Yes, yes, I understand that the brain is an electrochemical data processing organ, thus fully subject to causality. But something as simple as a mental feedback mechanism, for instance, could endow us with self-aware decision-making capabilities that allow us to rise, modestly, above causality -- by enabling us to understand, anticipate and use causality for our own purposes.

Alternatively, look at state shifts. Matter/energy shifts from chaotic to stable as we leave the quantum realm. With abiogenesis, matter shifts from inanimate to animate. With rising temperatures, some solids shift to liquid and then to gas. I think that a mental feedback mechanism could represent a state shift that endows us with free will.

Google "Johnjoe McFadden CEMI Theory" or "quantum theory of consciousness" for scientific theories of consciousness: some of which support free will.
Comment by John Nguyen on February 2, 2010 at 5:38pm
"But that mental process might well be the feedback loop that empowers free agency by presenting us the executive onus of choice."

The question still stands: What makes the choice? Your answer;

"I understand that the brain is an electrochemical data processing organ, thus fully subject to causality. But something as simple as a mental feedback mechanism, for instance, could endow us with self-aware decision-making capabilities that allow us to rise, modestly, above causality -- by enabling us to understand, anticipate and use causality for our own purposes."

Again, what is it that makes the decisions? Every time one of these propositions is made, the questions is begged: What it "us?" What is "we?" What is "I?"

"Certain "choices" are really automatic, such as when we drive down the freeway without concentrating on driving. Other choices can be conundrums that require focus and careful evaluation of all factors. These self-aware, self-directed, actions are not knee-jerk reactions; they're carefully considered decisions."

You're correct. They are carefully considered decisions, which we spend time considering and thinking about.

What I'm saying is that we cannot BUT do these things, or indeed help whatever it is that we end up doing.

"It's the determinist's argument that free will is an illusion which is an extraordinary claim. Extraordinary claim or not, what evidence is there for this illusion?"

It's not all that ridiculous. Let's take an example.

I'm driving down the road, and hit a fork. I can either go left, or I can go right. I decide to go right.

I can certainly imagine a world in which I went left, but the fact of the matter is, that I went right. When I did so, and possibility of that decision having been taken elsewise is gone.

You make the claim that the assertion that free will is an illusion is ridiculous, but I fail to see why it is so outrageous. When we are faced with a decision, we are presented with any number of possible choices. The fact of the matter is, however, we can only do one. Once we have done so, the universe has changed irrevocably. A universe in which we had made some other choice is impossible. The plurality of the things which we could have done is what makes it appear that we could have done any of them.

The question is, did we ever really have any choice at all? The assertion is not ridiculous, nor does it conflict with empirical evidence. The empirical evidence says that we make decisions. It does not tell us whether we could have done otherwise. It tells us that it seems like we could have done otherwise.

As regards the cemi theory, I found nothing useful there. It, and the rest of the large-scale systems theories run into the same objections, not to mention that it makes no real claim to free will, except as a potential possibility. If you could explain why the rules change when things interfere with things on a larger scale, perhaps we could get somewhere.

Refering to quantum theory, I also don't see the connection to free will from it. As I understand it, quantum randomness does nothing to aid the free-will position. After all, how can random, unpredictable phenomenon be a case for volition?
Comment by Atheist Exile on February 3, 2010 at 6:46am

Hey John,


What makes the choice? You want me to say, “The brain makes the choice”. That’s somewhat correct but not precise enough for this discussion. When it comes to most choices, it’s not as if the brain automatically fires off decisions without conscious feedback. Before I continue, I’ll have to backfill my explanation by defining what I believe consciousness is . . .

. . . My view is that consciousness is the emergent property of a complex system comprised of 4 components: the environment (ambient stimuli); sensory organs; sensory nervous system; and the brain. Consciousness is more than just the brain.

To illustrate, imagine that, as a fetus, your sensory nervous system never "hooked up" with the brain (but the other nervous system subsystems were okay). You would never be able to feel, smell, taste, hear or see. In other words, you would never have the possibility of receiving and processing sensory information (stimuli) from the external (or internal) world. I assert that, under these conditions, you would never develop consciousness because the brain would have nothing to develop it from.

But as you'll recall, I described consciousness as an emergent property of a complex system comprised of 4 basic components: the environment, sensory organs, sensory nervous system and the brain. Cutting off the sensory nervous system is not the only way to prevent consciousness -- permanently cutting off (in utero) ANY of the 4 components would prevent consciousness. By the way, it's important to note that this scenario does not apply to those who have already developed consciousness but later lost one of the above 4 components.

My purpose in raising this prospect was to drive home the point that consciousness stems from a complex system and is more than just the brain. Consciousness relies on the sensory nervous system, sensory organs and environment as much as it does on the brain.

  1. Without stimuli from the environment, there would be nothing for our sense organs to detect.
  2. If there were stimuli but no sense organs, there would be no way to detect the stimuli.
  3. If there were both stimuli and sense organs but no sensory nervous system, there would be no way for stimuli to reach our brains.
  4. If there were no brain, there would be no way to process the stimuli from the environment that was detected by our sense organs and passed along by our sensory nervous system.

This example of a complex system shows why materialism and physical reductionism aren't the only valid approaches to scientific investigation; and why they’ve failed miserably to explain consciousness.

Anyway, don’t confuse consciousness as the complex system; it’s not. Consciousness is an emergent property of the complex system.

Consciousness, in this scenario, includes our memories and relative intelligence. It is, essentially, our unique identity, formed by our past experience and expressed in the present. The key to free will, however, is the future. In proportion to our experience and relative intelligence, we are able to project causality into the future and thereby make decisions to guide or alter the course of our lives. THAT is free will.

In order to project causality into the future, we need to make and remember intelligent observations of our world (environment). This requires the 4 components of the complex system and the consciousness that arises from them as an emergent property.

So, to get back to your first question, it’s more precise to say that consciousness (rather than just the brain) makes our choices – and its ability to extrapolate causality into the future is the source of free will.

By the way, no laws are violated; no rules changed, despite your assertions to the contrary. Consciousness and free will are natural phenomena no more spooky than life itself.

Your insistence on absolute materialism is dogmatic and interferes with your ability to understand anything you can’t reduce to simplest components. Materialism is great for "hard" science but fails miserably with more abstract phenomena. Consciousness stems from concrete physical objects and forces but is itself immaterial. You can't see, touch or weigh it but it is, nonetheless, entirely natural. You need to face the fact that animate beings introduce new phenomena to our inanimate universe. You have no problem admitting life, consciousness and intelligence -- but not free will. That is a materialistic bias that denies any alternative scientific approach to inquiry.

The question is NOT, "Did we ever really have any choice at all?", as you claim. There is abundant evidence for free will but NONE for the deterministic dogma that “free will is an illusion”. When you insist something is a fact, despite a total lack of evidence, then you’re spouting dogma. Therefore the question is, "Why deny free will instead of explain it?".

As for quantum theory and randomness . . . who said anything about it supporting free will? Certainly not me. The only way you could construe support would be indirectly -- by noting how it undermines determinism.

Comment by John Nguyen on February 3, 2010 at 10:00pm
"Your insistence on absolute materialism is dogmatic and interferes with your ability to understand anything you can’t reduce to simplest components."

You misunderstand my position in making this statement. When I say that the universe, including animate entities (animate, by the way, still having yet to be defined), is deterministic, what I am saying is that what occurs in the present is a result of the combined, myriad factors that guide what occurs, in other words, the past. What happens in the present determines what occurs in the future. By extension, what occured in the past determines what occurs in the present.

I'm still a bit fuzzy on exactly what you are arguing here. If you could make a formal definition of what you hold to be the principle of free will, that would advance things.

"My view is that consciousness is the emergent property of a complex system comprised of 4 components: the environment (ambient stimuli); sensory organs; sensory nervous system; and the brain. Consciousness is more than just the brain."

I accept this view, and the following statements made about their interconnectedness.

I accept that consciousness is resultant of a complex system of factors.

I now ask this: Why is it that consciousness is held to be above principles of causality? Because it occurs from a complex system? This is a non sequitur, and has no real relevance to the question at hand.

"This example of a complex system shows why materialism and physical reductionism aren't the only valid approaches to scientific investigation; and why they’ve failed miserably to explain consciousness."

You speak as if physical reductionism is absolutely intergral to my position, which it is not. My position is that current phenomenon are the combined resultant of past phenomenon. The fact that consciousness is a complex resultant of a complex system is not at all contrary to my arguments.

"Consciousness, in this scenario, includes our memories and relative intelligence. It is, essentially, our unique identity, formed by our past experience and expressed in the present. The key to free will, however, is the future. In proportion to our experience and relative intelligence, we are able to project causality into the future and thereby make decisions to guide or alter the course of our lives. THAT is free will."

Your arguments are still begging the question. Our "memories and relative intelligence," combined with all of the other factors which shape our decisions, such as our current mood, the physiological state of our brain (which you have admitted contributes to consciousness), and any other environmental factors which are relevant (in essence; all of them), are what determine what choices we make.

If this is your definition of free will, then your position is self-refuting. In order to defend your position, it is necessary to prove that our conscious decision-making process is subject to things OTHER than environmental and internal factors, which are deterministic.

By the way, the things which you have defined as giving rise to consciousness, "the environment (ambient stimuli); sensory organs; sensory nervous system; and the brain," are ALL things which are outside of our conscious control.

Our environmental stimuli are not subject to our control. Nor can we determine what our eyes and ears tell us. Our nervous system functions deterministically in relaying information by electro-chemical reactions. The brain functions likewise. I see no room for self-determining forces in yoru definition of consciousness.

"So, to get back to your first question, it’s more precise to say that consciousness (rather than just the brain) makes our choices – and its ability to extrapolate causality into the future is the source of free will."

But you have yet to combat my arguments that consciousness is just as subject to deterministic principles as the brain alone, and the other three of your components as well.

I agree that our consciousness makes our choices. However, the disagreement comes down to how and why it makes the decisions that it does. I argue that the consciousness makes the choices it does because it is directed and influenced by prior, uncontrolled factors. I support this by arguing that all of the things which comprise the consciousness, including the four components you named and defined, are deterministic, and guide its decisions.

You argue that... well, since I don't have a formal definition of what your idea of free will is, I'm not too sure. I infer it to be something along the lines of "Animate beings make decisions and choices independently of outside influences." If this is incorrect, please state your thesis.

"Consciousness stems from concrete physical objects and forces but is itself immaterial. You can't see, touch or weigh it but it is, nonetheless, entirely natural. You need to face the fact that animate beings introduce new phenomena to our inanimate universe."

This also does not follow. Just because an entity is immaterial does not mean that it does not follow from causality. You still need to prove that it is an exception, even if it is immaterial (and by immaterial, I mean that it is a mental concept. Mental concepts, by the way, are thought to have corresponding reactions in the brain's structure and state to accompany them).

Furthermore, I fail to see how your establishment of consciousness also establishes free will. A being can be completely conscious of its actions without being able to break the chain of causality which guides its decisions.

Moving on,

"The question is NOT, 'Did we ever really have any choice at all?', as you claim. There is abundant evidence for free will but NONE for the deterministic dogma that 'free will is an illusion'. When you insist something is a fact, despite a total lack of evidence, then you’re spouting dogma. Therefore the question is, 'Why deny free will instead of explain it?'"

At this point, you're simply ignoring my objections without disproving them. You mention that there is abundany evidence for free will, but none for determinism. Where is it, and how can you claim that there is no evidence for mine?

The "evidence" which you refer to, I infer to mean a sentient being's consciousness of its choices. I defer back to my previous arguments, that our consciousness of the fact that we are making choices lends no credence to either view. Your dismissal of my position is unjust.

The evidence which we possess is evidence that we are currently making choices.

Let's say that I am on a diet. However, at the moment, I am extremely hungry, and very tempted to break it in order to indulge in a Triple Baconator with extra mayonaise. I could either stick to my diet, and abstain, or I could indulge in the artery-clogging, 1330 calorie monstrosity before me.

The decision that I make, whether to eat it or not eat it, is based on several things. On the one hand, I care about my figure, and I desire to have the health attainable by not slowly killing myself by fat saturation. However, on the other, I'm at the moment ravenous, and the Triple Baconator looks extremely delicious.

In the end, whether I choose to indulge or not is decided by several factors, both environmental, genetic, and internal, none of which are under my control. Because the POSSIBILITY of making either choice is before me, it seems like I could have made either. But in reality, which one of them I choose is the net sum of the factors which form my consciousness, which you have not proven to be free from deterministic principles.

The question "Did we ever really have any choice at all?" can be rephrased as, "Why do we make the decisions we make?" which I had stated earlier in this post. You ignore my arguments and examples, and simply conclude free will to be a proven tenet when you move on to state the question as "Did we ever really have any choice at all?"
Comment by Atheist Exile on February 4, 2010 at 11:47pm
Hi John,

I've firmed up some key concepts behind my view of compatibilism and will post it, separately, later. At that time, I'll link to it here.

For now, I'd like to acknowledge your earnest inquiry into this topic and let you know that you've driven me to clarify my thinking further.

Until my next post, let me respond to a few things . . .

First of all, I have the definite impression that you're a materialist. In almost all applied cases, this includes physical reductionism. Are you saying that you're NOT a materialist or that you do NOT hold that physical reductionism is the best approach to ALL inquiry?

You misunderstand me if you think I've asserted anything that puts consciousness outside the scope of causality. I think you really mean free will instead of consciousness. Either way, I assert that consciousness OR free will are compatible with causality and determinism. This will be further elucidated in my next post.

As for "begging the question" and "self-refuting" arguments about the choices we make (i.e. free will), this will also be clarified in my next post.

The evidence for free will is richly abundant. It's you who have not provided any evidence . . . that free will is an illusion. This will also be addressed further in my next post.

You deny stating, "Did we ever really have any choice at all?"?!? I copied and pasted it from your post. I'm not sure what that's all about.
Comment by Atheist Exile on February 6, 2010 at 10:01am
Hey John,

I've made a new blog post, named "Free Will is Self-Determinism"

It simplifies and clarifies my position. Let's pick up from there.

http://www.thinkatheist.com/profiles/blogs/free-will-is-selfdetermi...

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