Is Beckwith Right? Does MN entail PN?

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A response to Francis Beckwith's claim that "methodological naturalism (MN) entails philosophical naturalism (PN)" A central claim of the ID movement is that science's use of methodological naturalism means that for all practical purposes science accepts a commitment to philosophical naturalism. For instance, Discovery Institute fellow Francis Beckwith recently wrote, ID theorists maintain that contemporary science's repudiation of intelligent agency as a legitimate category of explanation is not the result of carefully assessing ID's arguments and finding them wanting, but rather, it is the result of an a priori philosophical commitment to methodological naturalism (MN),(n4) an epistemological point of view that entails ontological materialism (OM) [Beckwith's term for philosophical naturalism in this paragraph],(n5) but which ID proponents contend is not a necessary condition for the practice of science.(n6) (p. 457, "Science and Religion Twenty Years after McLean v. Arkansas: Evolution, Public Education, and the New Challenge of Intelligent Design." Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy 26.2 (Spring 2003: 455-499) In a discussion of this quote on the internet forum at the Access Research Networks (ARN), this proposition was shortened to "MN entails PN." It is really the central claim of the Wedge strategy as advanced by the ID movement.
There are two primary reasons that this proposition is wrong. The first is that science's commitment to "methodological naturalism" is not a dogmatic, a priori "rule" of science. Methodological naturalism, to the extent that the phrase is useful, is a shorthand phrase for a whole set of pragmatic considerations that guide the scientific enterprise. As the Kansas Science Standards state, Science is the human activity of seeking natural explanations for what we observe in the world around us. Science does so through the use of observation, experimentation, and logical argument while maintaining strict empirical standards and healthy skepticism. ... Scientific explanations must meet certain criteria. Scientific explanations are consistent with experimental and/or observational data and testable by scientists through additional experimentation and/or observation. Scientific explanation must meet criteria that govern the repeatability of observations and experiments. The argument that MN is a dogmatic, a priori rule is a red herring which deserves further discussion, but that is a topic for another essay. Similarly, this purported adherence to MN is not the reason that ID's arguments are excluded from scientific consideration. The scientific community has carefully assessed ID's arguments and found them wanting - but that, too, is a topic for another, different essay than this one. With the above disclaimers in mind, I want to focus on two other points here: the first being the important role the argument "MN entails PN" plays in the Wedge strategy, and the second being the way in which this purposely dichotomous argument excludes, and in fact insults, the vast "silent majority" of religious people who accept science as it is currently practiced. The critical role of the "MN entails PN" argument can be put in simple logical terms. Assume that MN entails PN is true, as Beckwith wants us to accept. Then the contrapositive not-PN entails not-MN is also true. That means that if you are not a materialist (and most people are not) then, according to the premise MN entails PN, you are logically obligated to not accept MN. This is exactly the conclusion the Wedge strategy wants people to accept - that the definition of science needs to be expanded to include "intelligent causes" in scientific explanations. This conclusion is central to the larger goal of the Wedge strategy to "reverse the stifling dominance of the materialist worldview, and to replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions." (See here for the complete Wedge strategy, and read "Creationism's Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design" by Barbara Forrest and Paul Gross for details.) As ID advocates have often and explicitly stated, the goal of the Wedge strategy is to establish scientifically that the Creator is real, not imaginary - once that is accomplished, the rest of their cultural renewal program can follow. The "MN entails PN" argument, then, is the heart of the Wedge strategy: its purpose is to force people into one of two mutually exclusive positions: accept science and therefore support materialism and atheism or reject mainstream science and support theism. A common rejoinder to the argument that MN entails PN is that there are millions of people who accept science as it is currently practiced and yet are not materialists. For instance, KSU geology professor and evangelical Christian Keith Miller has recently published "Perspectives on an Evolving Creation," a collection of essays by Christians supporting the theory of evolution and the scientific method that underlies it; and of course many mainstream churches have stated that the theory of evolution does not conflict with their Christian beliefs. And yet when the ID movement is asked about these millions of people, they disavow and dismiss them in ways which are, in my opinion, insulting and arrogant. For instance, in a speech in Lawrence, Kansas in April of 2000, Phillip Johnson said, in response to a question, that liberal Christians "are worse than atheists because they hide their naturalism behind a veneer of religion." Dembski, who has written that "theistic evolution is no friend of ID," recently said this at a series of Sunday School talks at the Fellowship Baptist Church in Waco, Texas: When you look at lot of the mainline denominations (... Presbyterians, Episcopalians, UCC - Catholicism also) there was largely an acceptance that yeah, Darwin got it right basically as far as the science goes. And then you have to do a little theological two-step to make this all work out together, so you might say that God is the primary cause, God works by secondary causes, evolution is a secondary cause. Yes, there is nothing about the evolutionary process that points us to God, but as a matter of faith we see that God has brought it all together in this process., and later he says, So I'm just trying to point out there's some tension in this evolutionary picture, and a lot of people who are exposed to evolutionary theory ...buy it and end up chucking their Christian belief... I feel much more commonality with the people at ICR [the Institute of Creation Research, a young-earth creationist group] than I do with the theistic evolutionists, or certainly the strict hardcore Darwinists. And last, how did Beckwith answer this question at ARN? He wrote, It doesn't surprise me that there are millions of people who believe that philosophical naturalism is false but at the same time know that science requires methodological naturalism. ... But that's not a solution to the problem of what counts as knowledge. You cannot know both accounts, because each is inconsistent with the other.... Of course I do not believe these people are lying or even deluded. What I am suggesting is that they have inherited a particular, and flawed, way to reconcile the apparent conflict between "materialist science" and their religious beliefs that removes theology as a legitimate knowledge tradition so that it remains untouched by the "real world" and tucked safely within one's heart.... This is why I say that MN entails PN, for in those cases in which PN comes out the other end--like in the above examples [morality, the mind, the soul]--it is not for want of a good argument against these positions. Rather, its that the good arguments don't even get a hearing since they offer an immaterialist account, and immaterialist accounts can't really be knowledge. Hence, MN entails PN, conceptually (not subjectively, since one can still believe in spite of the "evidence.") See here for Beckwith's entire statement. So what is Beckwith saying here? His answer to the question is basically that people who accept MN as part of science but aren't materialists are holding logically inconsistent views, but they have learned to live with this flawed solution by removing their religious beliefs from the realm of "real" knowledge - the implication being that if they just faced they logical implications of their beliefs, they too would abandon their acceptance of MN in science. Put more bluntly, Beckwith's answer is that they are wrong but just don't realize it. Because this argument that "MN entails PN" is so central to the Wedge strategy, and because it is so divisive, effectively marginalizing the beliefs of the large "silent majority" of theists who accept science, this argument deserves scrutiny. Are all the "theistic evolutionists" wrong, holding inconsistent views and essentially supporting materialism while holding their religious beliefs "tucked safely within [their] heart," "untouched by the ‘real world'?' I think not. Rather I think the ID movement is wrong, and purposely wrong in a sense. It is imperative to the Wedge strategy that they make this divisive claim - it's not called the Wedge for nothing - because their only chance to insert their own particular brand of metaphysical and religious beliefs into society is to first get science, which they themselves seem to accept as the only valid form of knowledge, to admit the existence of a Creator and thus to make theistic conclusions in science acceptable. This question of how science can be reconciled with religious beliefs is important, but it too is a topic for another time. However, all people who have such religious beliefs should be as concerned about the ID movement as scientists, or more so. Beliefs which fall outside the domain of science are critical to our lives - morals, values, aesthetic and emotional judgments, and so on. The ID movement wants to make this a "my way or the highway" issue: either you buy into their program or all your nonscientific beliefs fall into a single category of purely subjective products of your imagination. [Minor formatting edits 3-28-04]

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An important goal of the Intelligent Design movement is to get people to think that “methodological naturalism (MN) entails philosophical naturalism (PN)." In other words, they want people to believe that the naturalistic methodology that is standard i... Read More

Is Beckwith Right? Does MN entail PN? Jack Krebs posted Entry 49 on March 27, 2004 01:35 PM. Trackback URL:... Read More

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Jack wrote:

“This is exactly the conclusion the Wedge strategy wants people to accept - that the definition of science needs to be expanded to include “intelligent causes” in scientific explanations.”

I would have substituted “supernatural causes” for “intelligent causes” in the above statement. Scientific explanations can include intelligent causes, where the intelligence is something we have experience of - like Iron Age technology, or the ability of crows or non-human primates to use simple tools. What we can’t do reliably is identify evidence for an intelligence that we have no experience of. ID proponents have to use eliminative arguments when they attempt to detect this sort of intelligence.

Question for those still standing at the bar.…. Is it possible for an ID proponent to be a philosophical naturalist? And if so, are there any of them out there at the moment?

Best answer gets to drink a pint of Baramin Brown Ale. Second best answer gets to drink two pints.…

Andy

You write above: “Beliefs which fall outside the domain of science are critical to our lives - morals, values, aesthetic and emotional judgments, and so on”.

But this assumption, that morals, values, esthetic and emotional judgements, etc. cannot be described or explained, ie accounted for within the “domain of science” strikes me as invalid. Evolutionary Psychology studies just those areas of human belief and nature, and has produced quite a bit of evidence that they are all biologically based. (See: _The Blank Slate_ by Steven Pinker for a good overview) How, then, can they be described as “outside the domain of science”?

“And yet when the ID movement is asked about these millions of people, they disavow and dismiss them in ways which are, in my opinion, insulting and arrogant”.

From a cynical point of view, isn’t that rather a good thing? I don’t think religious believers who accept MN are likely to be persuaded to throw it overboard in order to conform to Beckwith’s notions of consistency, and thereby accept ID. I can’t think of a better way to ensure that one ends up restricting oneself to preaching to the choir.

Jason - the origins, biological purpose, etc. of “morals, values, esthetic and emotional judgements” can of course be subjected to scientific scrutiny. But that’s a different thing than saying that science can provide, say, moral standards and judgments. (Not to put words into Jack’s mouth here.)

Thanks to all for the comments so far. As I mentioned in my post, I am interested in writing more on this subject, so I appreciate all related comments. Here some response on my part:

Andy wrote, “I would have substituted “supernatural causes” for “intelligent causes.”

This is a point to be explored. Without a doubt, the major ID advocates are talking about God, so we are discussing not only a supernatural cause, but one which is usually considered to be omni-everything. On the other hand, the ID proponents correctly point to places where non-supernatural “intelligent causes” are legitimate, but those are always places where in fact the existence of a particular class of designers is known to exist, or could reasonably be expected to exist, such as extra-terresterials who are somewhat comparable to humans in their abilities.

Andy also asks, “Question for those still standing at the bar.…. Is it possible for an ID proponent to be a philosophical naturalist? And if so, are there any of them out there at the moment?”

Sure - Raelians come to mind. One could believe that life on earth had been designed by some other entirely natural creature that had evolved elsewhere. This certainly seems like a possible position, and is one which some IDists sometimes mention in order to deflect the discussion from the fact they are talking about God.

Jason writes, “But this assumption, that morals, values, esthetic and emotional judgments, etc. cannot be described or explained, ie accounted for within the “domain of science” strikes me as invalid. Evolutionary Psychology studies just those areas of human belief and nature, and has produced quite a bit of evidence that they are all biologically based.”

I think I agree with what Moira is saying here. Irrespective of the biological and evolutionary basis of my beliefs, values, etc. as actually or theoretically available to science, in my interior life as a living human being, I experience a life of emotion and value and choice, and no amount of scientific knowledge can substitute for the living of those things.

To be more concrete, today I attended a funeral for a young boy, and my wife and I shared many thoughts about the meaning of life, the difficulty of tragic loss, love of family, the value of community, and so on. I know that there is a biological substratum for all that, and there in fact may be nothing but a biological substratum for all that, but my living of all those thoughts and feelings, while it may subject to a scientific description, is still radically different than scientific knowledge.

Science may be able to explain how and why in general human nature is as it is, and it may be able to describe in great detail the biological complexities going on inside my body, but it cannot answer the specific existential questions of value and judgment that confront me as living human being.

You might want to check out Jonson’s definitions and use of the terms. I think he’s the originator of the subtypes of “naturalism”.

My paraphrase would be that the original sin here is “naturalism” – in Catholic terms “the materialist heresy”. It’s simply the proposition that matter is all there is, or alternatively that there are no supernatural phenomena or events. It threatens to destroy society, and the reason it’s gotten so strong is the practical success of science, which has led to an underserved prestige.

Attacking science is politically unwise. As JOhnson perceives, people don’t want to lose arms races or prevent cures for diseases. The solution is to distinguish evil versus tolerated variants of science. PN is the philosophical position. In normal science there are assumptions about physical land chemical laws that he calls “methodological naturalism”. (‘Pragmatic naturalism’ might be more accurate, but Johnson isn’t interested in accuracy.) As long as scientists recognize that they’re test-tube-washing peasants in comparison with custodians of values, e.g. law professors, it’s acceptable for them to use MN. The public can be reassured that no cure will be missed for little Jimmie’s meningitis.

According to the doctrine, most scientists haven’t thought through these distinctions. They use NM harmlessly enough, but because of its seductive success, there’s always that tendency to slip over into the sin of PN.

The Wedge Project involves taking over all science ultimately, including hard sciences like physics. Evolution is the place to put the tip of the wedge, for a nomber of political and strategic reasons. But it’s only the first stage of the project.

“There are two primary reasons that this proposition is wrong. The first is that science’s commitment to “methodological naturalism” is not a dogmatic, a priori “rule” of science. Methodological naturalism, to the extent that the phrase is useful, is a shorthand phrase for a whole set of pragmatic considerations that guide the scientific enterprise.”

These two statments really require in-depth explanation, because Phil Johnson’s argument in this regard is a bit more potent than you give it credit for. Mind you, I’d prefer not to give him credit for anything, but I think I could debate from his perspective and defeat these two objections, as they’re stated.

Feel free to email me. I’d love to get my ass kicked on this subject, as it has bothered me for a while.

Yes, I pointed out that both primary reasons the proposition was wrong (MN is not a dogmatic rule and ID has no evidence) are topics for another essay, and I understand that the “dogmatic rule” claim needs rebuttal.

So I invite you to either comment here on this issue, or, perhaps better yet, email me with your considered thoughts about how Johnson might defend his point. Then I’ll tackle this topic in one of my next essays.

Thanks for your contribution.

So but taking up the intelligent/supernatural schism a little more, think of conditions under which inteligent design causes might be considered scientific: namely, if for instance the creators were a race of aliens who put together DNA. But in this case, you’d expect there’d be evidence–fossilized aliens, wrecked spaceships in the rock strata, nearby civilizations signaling us, keeping an eye on.

It’s the assumed inability for supernatural causes to leave any observable traces that tends to disqualify them from scientific rigor, isn’t it? For any quantifiable, useful scientific theory concerning God, he would have to have at least some observable components, making him part of the natural system.

But then, we should still be able to “measure” him. A God Geiger counter, for instance, should conceivably be able to click off megadoves of Holy Spirit Field energy (HSF) eveywhere. But few people would advocate this is possible.

So doesn’t it seem–I may have overreached here, but anyway–doesn’t it seem like if Wedge succeeded, we’d be in a position to gather heretically large amounts of data about God?

eon writes:

These two statments really require in-depth explanation, because Phil Johnson’s argument in this regard is a bit more potent than you give it credit for. Mind you, I’d prefer not to give him credit for anything, but I think I could debate from his perspective and defeat these two objections, as they’re stated.

I don’t claim to be an expert on Johnson or anything, and since I find his claims so incredibly weak on the surface, I don’t usually bother probing down to the dungeonous depths. But my take on it is this: Johnson et al are simply wrong to say that MN (or whatever you call it) is an a priori rule of science, dogmatically adhered to despite its supposed flaws. Rather, MN was developed a posteriori because it was found through experience to be the least flawed way of learning about the natural world. That is, no one ever sat down and formulated MN and said that this would be the way that science would have to opperate regardless of the results. Instead, the meta-rules of science, insofar as they exist, evolved gradually from trial and error. MN has come to dominate science simply because it was found to be the most effective way of gaining useful knowledge about the outside world. Had supernaturalism or whatever Johnson prefers been found to be useful, then we would be using it. But we don’t use it because it has never worked. Note that this is quite different from saying that supernaturalism is false. It may be false, and some would argue that the success of MN is evidence that it’s false, but it is not logically necessary that supernaturalism be false in order for MN to be a good rule of thumb.

So when IDists claim that ID is science, and then we claim that it isn’t, and then they resort to attacking MN to claim that it is, the real point is that their own pretense to doing science not only lacks any practical usefulness, but lacks even a precedent showing us how it might be potentially useful. All they have to do is show us how ID, opperating outside the bounds of “naturalism” or whatever, leads to useful knowledge about the natural world. The fact that they can’t do this has always been and still remains the most potent criticism against them, the prima facie reason why ID is not science. Arguments over MN are thus a red herring, serving only to distract people from the real issue. The people with the a priori philosophical commitment are clearly the IDists.

Facinating how the ID promoters claim on one hand that ID is already part of science in subjects like archaeology which identify and study objects of human creation, and forensic science which studies processes and effects of human (and other) caused events like death.

But on the other hand they claim that science inherently excludes ID.

The ID promoters can’t even get their story straight!

I agree. On the one hand MN is accused of apriori excluding ID, on the other hand it is perfectly clear that MN can deal with teleology and intelligent design. Thus when ID proponents argue that MN excludes ID a priori, the only logical conclusion is that ID is about the supra-natural.

However, some of the methods of archeology and forensics are for the express purpose of distinguishing between the works of different designers. Handwriting identification, pottery-style identification, etc.

Strictly speaking, a super designer can imitate multiple lesser designers, but such designers are rare, and the hypothesis of them difficult to falsify.

Yet the intelligent-design movement seems unwilling to take seriously the multiple-designer hypothesis, even though that is a rather obvious (to me) consequence of applying the Design Inference.

Convergent evolution - Bird, bats, pterosaurs, and insects have very different-looking wings

Predators/parasites vs. prey/hosts - Lions are adapted for catching zebras Zebras are adapted for escaping lions

Co-option and kludginess - The panda’s thumb Land-vertebrate embryonic gill structures Endosymbiosis

The ID movement is also unwilling to take seriously the question of design flubs, especially ones that remain unfixed for hundreds of millions of years.

Vertebrate eyes - “Wired” the wrong way Mitochondria - Why aren’t all their genes residing in their hosts’ nuclei and not in a more error-prone spot?

All of the comments appear to come from the “new boys on the block” - the science people. Bear in mind that the creation of the universe pre-dates all of your discovery of science and your development of the philosophy of science. You are are coming in after the first innings and are attempting to define the rules of the game according to your best efforts to dicover the way in which the creation works. That is fine as long as you do not “wedge” out the truth yourselves.

There is no doubt that God exists. But this cannot be proven - there is no doubt about that. God’s existence and influence must be accepted by faith (refer to your dictionaries for the meaning of faith). They do not need to be accepted - you can choose not to accept these beliefs. But bear in mind that the other view that the contributors to this discussion are affirming is also accepted by faith.

Ask yourselves which view you want to be true. Of course you want your view that ID is not true, and not supported by the evidence, and not supportable philosophically or logically, to be true. Those who support ID want their view to be true.

So all sides work towards justifying their view. But do not lose sight of the faith that underlies your beliefs.

The ID proponents are striving to communicate that the evidence can be shown to support their beliefs. This is exactly what the “science folks” are doing. There is no wedge.

Remember too that many of the “science folks” do not want God to be part of the picture. So obviously this will influence the way they do and report their science.

Bob Garrard wrote

“Ask yourselves which view you want to be true. Of course you want your view that ID is not true, and not supported by the evidence, and not supportable philosophically or logically, to be true. Those who support ID want their view to be true.”

I know what I WANT to be true: I want it to be true that gravity doesn’t work and that the tree that fell and hit the rear seat of a minivan crushing the skull of 2 year-old little girl strapped in her car seat, on an emergency squad run I was on not too long ago, didn’t really fall, and that gravity didn’t really work as it did to bring the tree down. That’s what I WANT to be true. But my “wants” don’t determine reality. And the reality is that the little girl died.

Reality is what it is, no matter how much post-modernist crap the Intelligent Design Creationists wedge into politics and education.

RBH

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Jack,

Is this the essay you referred to as “A response to Beckwith?”

Anyway, I have a minor quibble with your philosophical point. You claim that MN does not entail PN, because many religious people accept science, but are obviously not philosophical naturalists. However, these people do not accept MN universally, only within science. If they were not willing to accept non-natural explanations for some things, then they really would be philosophical naturalists.

I think it is true that if MN is part of science (I agree that MN is not necessarily a priori, but I do think it is widely considered part of the implicit definition of science), then scientific explanations are guaranteed not to conflict with PN. So within the realm of science, MN does entail PN. Religious people who accept the MN of science think there are other forms of valid explanation besides science.

In other words, religious people think that if science entails MN, then science can’t have all the answers. And if science is to eventually provide all the answers (not many people, religious or not, think this), it must shed MN.

So I think Beckwith is wrong about the inconsistent views because he assumes an all-inclusive definition of science that does not line up with the one religious supporters of MN science use.

Consider this: IF intelligent design is detectable by science, IF the nature was designed by God, IF nature was designed in such a way that the design could be detected, and if IF that design was really, really obvious (I forget whose example it is, but if, after perfecting a technique to image a cell to the atom, we found a pattern that read in English “Made by Yahweh”), THEN science confined to MN could not explain that design, even though it could detect other kinds of design.

Obviously, even if the ID movement is right, the evidence of design in nature is nothing like that; IDers present the conclusion of design as an inference to the best explanation, so they realize that other naturalistic explanations will always be there, but think design is a better one. Thus, if MN in science precludes a design inference involving anything but known intelligent causes, then it would run into a problem if there is evidence for supernatural design.

I’m not sure how much of ID is considered bogus by this community: do you agree to the principle that design can be detectable and simply deny that there is evidence for it? Because if so, there are certainly conceivable instances (if not actual ones) where MN in science could exclude the correct conclusion.

Yes, this is the essay I referred to your in other comment, and I believe you have grasped my point well.

[Disclaimer and reminder: I am using MN here as very short abbreviation for the general set of criteria used in scientific inquiry- see the opening post for a more thorough description.]

First, you write, “Many religious people accept science, but are obviously not philosophical naturalists. However, these people do not accept MN universally, only within science. If they were not willing to accept non-natural explanations for some things, then they really would be philosophical naturalists.”

Yes, MN is about science, not about everything.

Then you write, “if MN is part of science …then scientific explanations are guaranteed not to conflict with PN. So within the realm of science, MN does entail PN. Religious people who accept the MN of science think there are other forms of valid explanation besides science.”

I basically agree with this, although I’m not sure “entail” is the right word here, and an obvious question is “what are those other forms of valid explanation.

I picture it this way: Think of a circle as representing the body of scientific knowledge (in its theoretical completeness), and think of another circle representing all types of knowledge. For the philosophical naturalist (or materialist - shorter to write), these circles are coincident. For the non-materialist, the circle of all knowledge is larger that the circle representing scientific knowledge.

If the non-materialist beliefs are entirely consistent with, but larger than, scientific knowledge, then the scientific circle is entirely within the larger circle. How if the larger beliefs contradict some part of science, such as young-earth creationism, then the circle overlaps, with part of each outside the other.

Then you write,

In other words, religious people think that if science entails MN, then science can’t have all the answers. And if science is to eventually provide all the answers (not many people, religious or not, think this), it must shed MN.

The first sentence is exactly true, in my opinion - science will never provide all the answers.

Your second sentence is the heart of the matter. The IDists of the Discovery Institute want science to provide one of the answers that science can’t really provide - that God exists. In order to do this, they must get science to abandon MN. That is exactly the point of my essay.

And you write, “So I think Beckwith is wrong about the inconsistent views because he assumes an all-inclusive definition of science that does not line up with the one religious supporters of MN science use.”

This is a good way of putting this.

And last, you write, “do you agree to the principle that design can be detectable and simply deny that there is evidence for it? Because if so, there are certainly conceivable instances (if not actual ones) where MN in science could exclude the correct conclusion.”

This is a good question. I hope to address in the next part of the series of posts I have planned.

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This page contains a single entry by Jack Krebs published on March 27, 2004 1:35 PM.

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