Monthly Archives: July 2011

Suing over the 9/11 Cross

From The New York Times, Elissa Gootman, July 28, 2011 (H/T newadvent.org)

Excerpt:

In the days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, some workers and mourners at the World Trade Center site seized upon a cross-shaped steel beam found amid the rubble as a symbol of faith and hope.

For the past five years, the 17-foot-tall cross was displayed outside a nearby Catholic church. On Saturday it was moved again, to the site of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, where it is to be in the permanent collection.

But the move quickly provoked a lawsuit from American Atheists, a nonprofit group based in New Jersey. It argued that because the cross is a religious symbol of Christianity and the museum is partly government financed and is on government property, the cross’s inclusion in the museum violates the United States Constitution and state civil rights law. The lawsuit, in turn, provoked the ire of the American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative public interest law firm, as well as others. . .

Marc D. Stern, who is the associate general counsel of the American Jewish Committee and has long studied church-state issues, said the lawsuit presented “an extra-difficult case.”

“It’s a significant part of the story of the reaction to the attack, and that is a secular piece of history,” he said. “It’s also very clear from the repeated blessing of the cross, and the way believers speak about the cross, that it has intense present religious meaning to many people. And both of those narratives about this cross are correct.”

Ira C. Lupu, a professor at the George Washington University Law School and an authority on faith and the law, described the lawsuit as “plausible.” The outcome, he said, could depend on how the beam was displayed when the museum opened.

“If the cross is presented in a way that ties it to the history of its discovery and the religious perception of it by some firefighters or neighbors, then the museum would be framing it as a historical artifact, rather than as a symbol deserving religious reverence,” Professor Lupu said. “I think if it were framed in that way, it could be effectively defended on the merits.”

The atheists’ lawsuit, filed on Wednesday in State Supreme Court in Manhattan, lists multiple defendants, including the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.

“The challenged cross constitutes an unlawful attempt to promote a specific religion on governmental land,” the lawsuit charged.

David Silverman, the president of American Atheists, said the suit’s goal was either the removal of the cross or what he called “equal representation.”

“They can allow every religious position to put in a symbol of equal size and stature, or they can take it all out, but they don’t get to pick and choose,” Mr. Silverman said. . .

Would installing this cross in the museum promote Christianity, or is it a matter of historic record that this cross became a symbol of hope for many Christians following the attacks on 9/11?   If the lawsuit is successful, a part of history may be forgotten.  Professor Lupu offers, to my mind, a most reasonable response.  There are ways to display the cross which would clearly promote Christianity.  There are also ways to display the cross as set within a historic context which respects the first amendment.  Since this is absolutely possible, why is a lawsuit necessary?  I suspect it is an attempt not merely to separate church and state, but to whitewash from American history any religious symbolism.  It is to re-write history and pretend that we were as secular as secularists would like us to be today.

The Tragedy in Norway and Fallacious Thinking

Anders Behring Breivik is a terrorist and a very bad man.  The question many within the media want to ask is whether he’s a “Christian terrorist” of some sort or another.

Breivik seems to have been inspired by the Templars, a 12th to early 14th century Christian order of knights who defended pilgrims traveling to the Holy Land.  Further, he confesses his Christianity within his manifesto, though he also says that he is not a religious man.  He has expressed his hatred for Islam, Communism, and secular society, but we shouldn’t think his hatred as what defines Christianity.  So, what can we infer from all of this?  At the very least, I think we can say Breivik is a cultural or nominal Christian who may have been inspired by his perverse understanding history and Christianity.  We can infer this from his own words and actions, but we cannot know his heart.

Biologist, and atheist blogger, PZ Myers found some sections of this deranged killer’s 1,500 page manifesto pertaining his views on Christianity.  Those sections confirm his lackadaisical acceptance of the Christian creed–whatever that might mean.  At the same time, other articles now suggest that Breivik was obsessed with freemasonary, neo-paganism, and esoteric philosophies.

The ACLJ lawyer, Jordan Sekulow, wrote to the Washington Post a flat-out denial of Breivik’s Christian affliation:

Simply put, Breivik is not a “Christian terrorist” because, according to his own description of what the word ‘Christian’ means to him, and his actions, he is not a Christian.

We might wonder if Sekulow is guilty of Anthony Flew’s “No True Scotsman Fallacy“.  This would be the fallacious claim that Breivik cannot be a true Christian, because “No True Christian” would ever be a terrorist.  Christians can do bad things; they can do very bad things.  And one does not cease to be a Christian when one commits sins.  If Breivik is a Christian, and that is an open question, then his terrorist activities do not negate this fact.

The question of whether Breivik is a “Christian terrorist” is not a question of whether it is possible for a Christian to commit such horrible evils and still be a Christian.  To assume the impossibility for a true Christian to do this is to blatantly commit Flew’s fallacy.  I think the question people are asking is whether he is a Christian terrorist, or a terrorist who happens to be Christian.  If Breivik’s Christianity was a motivating factor in his homicides, his Christianity is not accidental to his terrorism.

Sadly, I think the case could be made that Breivik’s understanding of Christianity was a contributing factor in his violence–so much can be gleaned from his insane manifesto.  But this is not to say that Christianity itself is responsible for motivating his violence.  Let me be clear.  I think it is Breivik’s understanding of Christianity which may have contributed to his terrorism.  His understanding of Christianity is completely perverse.

So isn’t saying Breivik is a “perverted Christian” the same as saying he is “no true Christian”?  It is possible that Breivik accepts the core of Christianity as true.  Again, we do not know his heart.  I am not passing judgment on whether he sincerely believes that Christ is the savior of the world. I am passing judgment on his understanding of Christianity as a religion that permits violence against innocent people.  A person can self-identify as a Christian and it is not my place to contradict such professions, but it is also true that Scriptures say that it is not enough to simply claim to be a companion of Christ to be saved.  For instance, there is Luke 13:22-27:

And he went through the cities and villages, teaching, and journeying toward Jerusalem. Then said one unto him, Lord, are there few that be saved? And he said unto them, Strive to enter in at the strait gate: for many, I say unto you, will seek to enter in, and shall not be able. When once the master of the house is risen up, and hath shut to the door, and ye begin to stand without, and to knock at the door, saying, Lord, Lord, open unto us; and he shall answer and say unto you, I know you not whence ye are: Then shall ye begin to say, We have eaten and drunk in thy presence, and thou hast taught in our streets. But he shall say, I tell you, I know you not whence ye are; depart from me, all ye workers of iniquity.

Acknowledging Christ is not enough.  As James 2:19-20 says, “Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble. But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?”  So even if Breivik professes the Christian faith, his works clearly do not reflect this.  What kind of works represent the fruit of living Christian faith?  Christ says:

For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me (Mt 25:35-40).

We can only take Breivik’s word that he professes a Christian faith.  So perhaps he truly has the faith of Christian.  One can have such a faith and that faith could still be dead.  But it is ultimately Christ who passes judgment on who is a true Christian and who is not.  Perhaps Breivik will come to repent of his sins before he dies.  I pray he does.  I pray I do.  I pray we all do.

So let us take Breivik at his word.  He is a Christian of some sort.  At the same time, in avoiding the “No True Scotsman” fallacy, we should not stumble into the fallacy of stereotyping.  We cannot take Breivik’s Christianity as paradigmatic of Christianity generally.  To do this is to hastily generalize from the evil and perversion of one individual to the conclusion that all Christians are evil and perverse.  We must find the mean between the extremes of the “No True Scotsman” fallacy on the one hand, and stereotyping on the other.  We should find the  golden mean that is rational and fair-minded.  But if we walk this mean for the Christian, we should be consistent in its application.

PZ Myers noted early on:

If it turned out to be an action by Al Qaeda or angry immigrants, we’d be in for many denunciations of Islam. If it turned out to be an action angry conservative Christians, do you think we’d get similar denunciations of right-wing extremism? I don’t think so. Expect Fox News to lose interest very quickly if the culprit turns out to be a white guy.

Many within our society are guilty of stereotyping Muslims as violent terrorists.  So Myers observes that if we are to be consistent, we will denounce conservatives Christians as violent and subversive too.

Consistent we would be, but also irrational!  Our stereotyping of Muslims is not right and we should not return the favor to any other group just to be “fair” in our injustice.  Rather, a tragedy like this should bring us to reconsider how Muslims are unfairly treated within our society.   We cannot continue to appeal to the “No True Scotsman” fallacy as a cloak to hide our prejudice.  Sure, we can admit that bad people self-identify with various religions and ideologies.  But, we shouldn’t assume that any other member who affiliates with such groups is bad for the reason of a guilt by association.  If Breivik is not representative of Christianity, Osama bin Laden was not representative of Islam.

Rather than using this tragedy as an opportunity to grind a personal axe against Christianity, or conservatives, or freemasons, or any other group with which this killer affiliated, I hope we can come together to stand in unity with the people of Norway.  We the non-terrorists should stand united against terrorism.  We should not let them win by sowing discord, mistrust, and hatred within our societies.

Seeing that the shoe can be on the other foot, I pray that Christians become more compassionate towards their Muslim brothers and sisters, recognizing that they have faced prejudice over this past decade (and beyond) because of stereotyping.  The evils of 9/11 as the evils committed by individuals who do not represent Islam as a whole.

Again, we must walk a mean.  It is wrong to say Breivik is not a Christian just as it is also wrong to say the Osama bin Laden was not Muslim.  We should not try to whitewash religious or political organizations to pretend that none of its members ever do anything seriously wrong.  We should acknowledge these facts so as to remind us that our affiliations do not protect us from being evil.  But for the grace of God go I.

I pray that God help the people of Norway and that terrorists do not succeed in their aims of tearing apart our social fabric.

Secularism, Nihilism, and the God Shaped Hole

Sean Dorrance Kelly and Hubert Dreyfus have diagnosed today’s secular world with a problem: nihilism.  In a new book, All Things Shining they hope to remedy this problem.

The world has been stripped of meaning, according to the philosophers, through Cartesian rationalism and modern science.

From the Australian Paul Monk (7/30/2011).  Excerpt from “Re-enchanting the world in a secular age”:

Most of the book retraces what the authors see as the development of the malaise of disenchantment. Chapter three, Homer’s Polytheism, centres on the idea that “the Greeks . . . held the world in constant wonder”. This was the world before disenchantment and a version of this the authors want to argue we can recapture. Not through metaphysical belief, but through the phenomenology of experience…

The authors do not, however, offer the dubious prescriptions recklessly propagated by Nietzsche in the 1880s and are suitably wary of the gnomic work of Heidegger that too easily enabled the philosopher to embrace Nazism as a way out of this modern condition.

Instead, they suggest an approach they derive from the Homeric world, to which they give the Greek name poiesis: the crafting of meaning into objects and experiences. This is not, they emphasise, a mere throwback to Homer. Rather, it is a reframing of the experiences we have in terms of the phenomenology of perception, instead of the stark, depersonalised objectivity of natural science.

There is a good deal to be said for this approach and Dreyfus and Kelly are far less reckless than Nietzsche, far less gnomic than Heidegger and far less nihilistic than Sartre. “Living well in our secular, nihilistic age”, they conclude, requires a kind of meta-poiesis: an understanding of when to be immersed in flow and meaning and when to rise above it into autonomy. There is a good deal to be said for this.

The problem is that the book ends well short of articulating how exactly, on an everyday basis, the common citizen of the secular world – as distinct from the exemplary craftsman, philosopher or aesthete – can live the meta-poietic life.

I have my doubts that the book will succeed at all.  If the problem arose from viewing the world as a “mechanistic clock”, can we get back to meaning through a phenomenological perspective?  Can this even approximate the kind of wonder those Homeric Greeks once experienced, i.e. their awe before crashing thunder and dread before the vast sea?  Or would we just be obscuring and ignoring the hole that lies at the center of our culture?

In contrast, there is G.K. Chesterton’s philosophy: fairy tales.

…[W]e all like love tales because there is an instinct of sex, we all like astonishing tales because they touch the nerve of the ancient instinct of astonishment.  This is proved by the fact that when we are very young children we do not need fairy tales: we only need tales.  Mere life is interesting enough.  A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon.  But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door.  Boys like romantic tales; but babies like realistic tales–because they find them romantic.  In fact, a baby is about the only person, I should think, to whom a modern realistic novel could be read without boring him.  This proves that even nursery tales only echo an almost prenatal leap of interest and amazement.  These tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found out that they were green.  They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water (Orthodoxy).1

I think I might be a “fairy-talist” rather than a phenomenologist.  Re-enchanting is remembering how weird it is that there should be anything at all.  Then, that it should be this way and not that way.

Ultimately meaning is not just found in wonder or enchantment, though I think this is a necessary first step.  It  is the recognition that there is a deep desire for meaning and purpose  naturally within each of us, something Kelly and Dreyfus recognize.  This is the desire reflected in Augustine’s prayer to God,

You arouse us so that praising you may bring us joy, because you have made us and drawn us to yourself, and our heart is unquiet until it rests in you (Conf. 1,I).2

The question, then, is whether we are condemned never to find rest, or whether our desire for rest corresponds to something real.  I don’t think Kelly and Dreyfus can offer us anything real.  They can only offer us a delusion within which one can, from time to time, be immerse.  But hasn’t the rug been pulled out from under us?  Can we make-believe in meaning?  Can we boot-strap meaning into existence within a world without ultimate purpose–a world headed towards a heat-death, or cosmic crunch?  Can we make-believe meaning while believing that all of our projects will turn to dust and memories of our existence will be forgotten within four or five generations?

At the same time, I don’t think the scientist can be completely blamed for our modern secular nihilism.  After all, science can inspire in us wonder about the natural world.  Yet science can also  lead us to forget the deeper questions of existence and to suppose that there is no ultimate meaning–that everything just is.  But if Chesterton is right, we can occasionally remember– and shudder.  And if Augustine is right, then our desire for meaning and enchantment will be satisfied.

Now to be fair, I have not read Kelly and Dreyfus’ book yet.  But when I do, I will let you know whether it is a tenable plan to reinsert meaning into this nihilistic age.

1 Chesterton, G.K. (2001) Orthodoxy. New York: Doubleday. 51.

2 Augustine. (1998) The Confessions. Trans. M. Boulding, O.S.B. New York: Vintage Spiritual Classics. 3.

Question 2: Abstract objects: Platonism or nominalism?

The PhilPapers Survey was a survey of professional philosophers and others on their philosophical views, carried out in November 2009. The Survey was taken by 3226 respondents, including 1803 philosophy faculty members and/or PhDs and 829 philosophy graduate students.

The PhilPapers Metasurvey was a concurrent survey of professional philosophers and others concerning their predictions of the results of the Survey. The Metasurvey was taken by 727 respondents including 438 professional philosophers and PhDs and 210 philosophy graduate students. (PhilPapers.org)

The PhilPapers Survey never asked me for my philosophical views, but that’s not stopping me. So here is my stab at the survey, one post at a time.

Question Two

The Question:

Abstract objects: Platonism or nominalism?

Accept or lean toward: Platonism 366 / 931 (39.3%)
Accept or lean toward: nominalism 351 / 931 (37.7%)
Other 214 / 931 (22.9%)

How I’d answer: Other.

I take Platonism to be the position that abstract objects are not only real, but the most real things that exist.  Particular things are less real than the forms.

I take nominalism to be the position that abstract objects are names that we give to identify similarities amongst particulars.  The abstraction doesn’t really exist in the object and it is only a useful fiction that we use in order to speak of individual things as if they belong to sets of things.

This was a hard question to answer for me.  I do think too many abstractions are reified without good reason (The Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness).  At the same time, I don’t want to say that ALL abstractions are mere names that we use as linguistic shorthand to refer to particulars.

In truth, I think I lean towards Aristotelianism, as a middle road between Plato and Ockham.  As Peter Kreeft puts it:

Forms exist in the world only in individual things, by they exist in our minds as universal concepts when out minds abstract them from things.1

It seems to me that if nominalism is true, then our way of speaking is almost always false–and that just doesn’t seem right to me.  Or, to put this a bit differently, if language is able to express truth at all, nominalism must be false.  But, we cannot swing out to the other extreme of Platonism!  I am satisfied with the idea that forms really are in particular objects and that they are abstracted into universals that are real mental objects.

How would you answer this question?

1 Kreeft, P. (2005) Socratic logic: a logic text using Socratic method, platonic questions, and Aristotelian Principles. 2nd ed. Ed. T. Dougherty. South Bend, IN: St. Augustine Press. 43.

Am I My Body?

Aside from the fact that Dr. Plantinga isn’t quite sure how many legs a beetle has–come on, eight, really?!?–I think he presents a really good argument against physicalism.

The argument runs something like this:

1.  If I am my Body, then anything possible with regard to me is also possible with regard to my body.

2.  It is possible that I exist when my body does not exist.

3.  It is not possible that my body exists when my body does not exist.

4.  Thus, “I exist without my body” is something possible with regard to me that is not possible with regard to my body.

5.  Therefore, I am not my body.

The argument demonstrates a discernible difference between the body and the self.  But does it matter that we are talking about mere possibilities here?  Plantinga’s point is that there is no possible world where a body exists without itself.  Yet, it does not seem logically impossible to imagine a possible world where the self exists without its body.  We take such stories to be supernatural, fantastical, or fictional, but not logically incoherent.  So, it seems reasonable to suppose the logical possibility of a disembodied self.

This means that proving an identity relationship between the self and the body requires a lot more than empirically proving a causal relationship between physical states and mental states.  One must also prove that it is logically incoherent to suppose that there are any possible worlds where the self is disembodied.  So it seems that while this burden is heavily placed upon the physicalist, the supernaturalist can merrily go along believing that she is her soul.  Right?

Not so fast, my friend Shaun Miller has pointed out to me that this argument, if anything, proves too much (Shaun was inspired by Shelly Kagan, ff about 43 min in for the appropriate part).  Kagan points out that we could imagine that the same body is possessed by different souls. His point is not that we are not our soul, but that our soul doesn’t seem sufficient to establish personal identity.  As far as I can tell, Shaun’s response to Plantinga is original, and quite difficult to overcome.  He points out that we could substitute just about anything in the argument, including the soul, and prove it to be non-identical with the self.  Does this mean that I am not my soul?!? My initial reaction to this was, “Well, it’s just not possible that I exist without my soul, since I am my soul.”  But now I’m guilty of special pleading.  This fallacious soul-ution is to stipulate that “soul” is simply defined as “self”.  But then we have just stipulated our way to victory, which is not very satisfying.  What would prevent the physicalist from stipulating “body” as “self”?  We’re back to square one.

Upon further reflection, I think the argument achieves something.  It proves that unless we have good reason to think that it’s not possible for X to exist when Y doesn’t exist, then we don’t have good reason to think X and Y are identical.   I have no good reason to think I am my body, because I think it is at least logically possible to be disembodied and survive.  But then I should be willing to bite the bullet and concede that I have no good reason to think I am my soul.  So be it.  I have no good reason to think I am my soul either.  As I said before, we could substitute just about anything for body–just about.  However, I cannot substitute “self”.  Whatever “self” is, it cannot both exist and not exist, at the same time, and in the same possible world!  So I do have good reason to think at least this…  I am myself.

But is this an adequate response?  Are there other problems with the argument that I am not mentioning here?

A Smullyan Puzzle from Jim Henson’s Labyrinth


While trying to navigate her way through the Labyrinth, Sarah finds two doors protected by two different guards.  The guards inform Sarah that one door leads to the castle at the center of the labyrinth while the other leads to… dah-dah-doom… certain death!  The guards explain that she can only ask one guard one yes-or-no question.  Furthermore, one of the guards always tells the truth and the other always lies.  What should she ask the guard in order to know which door to choose?

Be the first to answer correctly and win the prize of selecting the next philosoraptor theme!

[UPDATE] Congrats to Andy V, who quickly dispatched of the riddle.  If you were lost in a labryrinth haunted by David Bowie, you’d want Andy to be your guide!  I am awaiting a theme from him.

Here is the clip from the movie.

Thomas Aquinoraptor




For Michael. Cheers.

A Short Reflection on Conditionals

Material implication is a very odd thing. At the very least, it reveals to me the awkward fact that what we mean when we make a conditional statement is not quite what is stated when the logician represents it with something like “p q”. It seems that something is lost in translation.

So what is the big deal? According to the logician, a conditional statement is true when both the antecedent and consequent are true or whenever the antecedent is false. This leads to there being seemingly contrary statements both being true at the same time. For instance:

A: If Mars were more massive than Earth, Mars would have a stronger gravitational pull than Earth.

This seems to be a rather uncontroversial claim, though counter-factual. So we say it is true. But what about this:

B: If Mars were more massive than Earth, Mars would not have a stronger gravitational pull than Earth.

As in A, B has a false antecedent. Accordingly, we might conclude that B is true. But how could that be? It seems that A is faithful to a certain physical understanding of the laws of the universe whereas B is just pure fantasy. B seems to presuppose not only a more massive Mars, but also an entire universe with a different set of physical laws — one where mass and gravity exhibit an inverse relationship from the one we observe every day in this universe. But that’s the paradox of material implication for you. A and B are both true since Mars is not more massive than Earth!

So there does seem to be a sense in which A is more true than B. We might even suggest that B is false, or at least extremely less likely to be true given the set of cosmological constants and physical laws we currently observe. So, how should we understand such conditionals? One way around this problem is to talk about such conditionals in terms of probabilities. A becomes something like:

C: Pr( If Mars were more massive than Earth, Mars would have a stronger gravitational pull than Earth).

or more simply,

C: Pr(M|G)

This might be helpful because we can then contrast C, with B’s probabilistic equivalent:

D: Pr(M|~G)

We can then assess the probabilities of the two statements so as to determine the likelihood that one is more probably true than the other. Of course this might give us certainty. We could imagine that in some possible world where Mars is more massive than Earth, it is also the case that greater mass diminishes the gravitational field. Such a world would be somewhat odd though. For it would not be clear how planets might naturally form. But, let us suppose that planet formation occurs by some other force, say electromagnetism. Thus we cannot conclude, with any degree of certainty that D is in some way false, just extremely implausible.

But now a more difficult matter. How can we assess conditionals where the antecedent is not logically possible. That is, there is no possible world in which the antecedent obtains. Consider, for instance:

E: If a married bachelor were to run a complete marathon, he would run at least 26.2 miles.

Is E true, false, probably true, probably false? How would we assess it? If we just depend upon material implication, then it seems the statement is true, for it is false that any married bachelors have ever run a marathon. That seems like a silly interpretation of the statement though. Here I think we must turn to modalities like possibly “” and necessarily ““. E seems to suggest some sort of relationship between running a complete marathon and the distance in miles that one would have run were one to run it. At the same time, married bachelors cannot exist. So, how do we assess this odd statement? How would we know, for instance, that in possible worlds where married bachelors exist, complete marathons are not 12.1 miles, or that such universes have dimensions where miles are intelligible? But that kind of question doesn’t really seem to help since there are no possible worlds were married bachelors exist. We cannot appeal to probabilities at all. We are left then considering whether E means:

F: ◊ (Mb⊃ R)

or

G: □ (Mb⊃ R)

Now it seems that both F and G are false, since it is neither possible, nor necessary that a married bachelor should occupy any world where running a complete marathon would imply that one has run 26.2 miles. Even though such is the case in this world, could we say that were married bachelors to exist and run a marathon, they would have run 26.2 miles? One would be forced to suppose that married bachelors possibly cohere with such a world. But how would we know that they do?

I would suggest that this has some radical philosophical implications, namely, that if a conditional is going to rise to the possibility of being true, it must contain terms that are logically coherent. Why is that radical? I will have more to say about this in posts to come. In the meantime, I would love to know if anyone disagrees with my assessment. In other words, could a probabilistic, possible, or necessary conditional be true if the antecedent and/or the consequent are logically impossible?

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