Category Archives: religion

Response

In the last issue of The Record (22nd October 2008) there were two rebuttals to my article “Religion the World’s Biggest Argument” (29th of October 2008) while I was happy to see that my article provoked a response I was disappointed with the quality of the argument.

First, I am going to deal with Matthew Berkeley’s letter in which he says “Robert Donohue’s article smacks of a vomitworthy sadistic glee… (sic)”. Leaving behind for a moment the substantive points of his argument, I will say that while my article was tongue-in-cheek it was neither vomitworthy nor sadistic it was however, a satire on the theists’ concept of life after death. If your beliefs cannot cope with a very gentle criticism without being offended then they aren’t very strong beliefs at all. I do not take the view that religious beliefs are beyond critical discourse simply because they are religious beliefs; they are open to attack like any other opinion.

Mr. Berkeley says that I showed an “utter ignorance of [my] subject matter” he makes this claim but, doesn’t attack specifically any of the arguments that I put forward. He moves on then to claim that I don’t have any formal training in the subject and therefore can’t form an opinion on the subject; which seems strange because Mr. Berkeley applies a double standard insofar as he goes on to give his opinion on the matter.

Mr. Berkeley claims that science and religion are separate entities but, a lot of the claims that religion makes are scientifically testable. The virgin birth is a biological claim and water to wine is a physical claim; it is the belief in things like these—miracles and magic— that confuses me the most—even if you were to personally witness water turning into wine in front of your eyes you would have to ask yourself which was more likely, that water turned into wine or that you were mistaken? As for saying that you believe it because you read it in a book that was written over two thousand years ago, translated and transcribed hundreds of times within inconsistencies between all the versions and without any original copy then I am afraid that you advertise your willingness to believe in anything.

In case people think that I am avoiding the existential issue and focusing on some of the weird claims made by religion I am not, I propose to deal with them in the following paragraphs.

The second response to my article came from Darren Mac Ceallaig in his article “Atheism the true fanaticism” (22nd October 2008) he tries to make a case for god’s existence.

In his response Mr. Mac Ceallaig tries to undermine what he calls the ‘”unicorn” view” i.e. that god is like a unicorn or Loch Ness monster—we have no evidence to prove that they exist or not but, we live our lives as if they don’t because there is no reason to think that they do exist. Bertrand Russell makes a very good point on this topic—he asks us to imagine that there is a teapot orbiting mars—it is so small that we can’t see it therefore we can’t prove it doesn’t exist but, we live our lives on the assumption that it doesn’t. Some will try to argue that this is not the same as belief in god because they say that god exists outside of our realm and is therefore not the same as a unicorn or teapot. This is missing the point of the argument; the unicorn argument demonstrates that we all need some kind of evidence to accept something as true— we are not prone to accepting no evidence for our belief in anything else in our lives so why does religion get a free pass? I was not suggesting that this argument can prove that god doesn’t exist.

On the argument that god exists outside of this realm and is therefore not subject to the rules of our universe I am willing to accept that may be true. This is the sort of claim made by a deist—that is someone who believes that there may be something outside of our universe—Einstein, Jefferson and Paine were deists— whereas theists believe in a god that intervenes in human affairs, answers prayers and so on. I accept that there may be a super being or other cause to the universe (that is not to say that there definitely is) that exists outside of our universe but, it cannot be proven conclusively. However, shouldn’t the onus of proof be on the person making the claim to provide the evidence? I can admit that I cannot be 100% certain that god does not exist but, in the absence of proof I live my life as if he doesn’t whereas Mr. Mac Ceallaig et al not only say that they know god exists but, they know what he wants and who his son is!

In Mr. Mac Ceallaig’s second point he says that faith in god is like saying “I love you” or “democracy is better than tyranny” he says that these things cannot be scientifically proven yet we still hold them to be true. Helen Fisher has made some very interesting studies into the nature of love and how it is a product of our biology and how she can identify people in love by looking at parts of their brain. The brain is at a rudimentary level conducting experiments and determining if you love someone and your certainty that your love exists is based upon the kinds of feedback created in your brain—you can be as certain of a feeling of love as you can be about any other feeling. They are manifestations of interactions in your brain. However, even if we were to accept that you are just certain that god exists based on the fact that you just know it I would have to say that this really isn’t convincing.

There are people that are convinced of an infinite number of things just because they ‘know’ them—there are people that know that Elvis is still alive despite the fact that he died within a lifetime, there are photos of him dead and there are people that knew him that have said that they are sure he is dead yet there are still those that ‘know’ he is alive. What this goes to show is that the human mind is capable of convincing itself of all sorts of things regardless of evidence. If we are to accept your reasoning of personal revelation we have to admit that we open ourselves to believing in absolutely anything.

Finally, dealing with point that religion is not necessarily irrational I would argue that a lot of the arguments that claim to be rational proofs of god are in fact sophistry. They may be clever or interesting but, they are not rational. How rational is it to say that you know god exists and provide no evidence then spend an entire article trying to argue why you don’t need to give any evidence.

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Is it Time to Teach Creation in Schools?

sciI got to thinking about the argument for teaching creationism in schools and how perhaps it might be useful. First, I should make clear that I am completely convinced that there is no scientific merit in creation ‘science’ or so called intelligent design and consequently there is no room for it to be thought as if it were a science. There maybe room for teaching the argument that people want it in schools and telling students what creationist believe and explaining to them that there is no scientific method behind it. Notwithstanding the fact that I have just said that it is not science is there any room for teaching it in science class. I think there might be.

The scientific method is the most fundamental tool in a scientist’s arsenal it helps to ensure that he makes objective arguments rooted in reason and reality. Teaching this is an important part of any science curriculum and perhaps using creation as a case study for teaching the scientific method could be useful. Maybe we could provide the students with the rules for making scientific inquiry and ask them to apply it to creation and make an assessment of the veracity of creation within the context of the parameters of science then ask them to do the same to evolution.

Students can learn a lot about how science works by doing this they will learn what is considered science and how scientific conclusions are reached. Also hopefully it will shoe equip them with the skill to say that creation is not science.

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I Wish There Was an Afterlife So Theists Would Know They’re Wrong.

shockedI was thinking about how some people are so convinced that there is a god that the are unwilling to even entertain the idea that there probably isn’t a god. For them there is no question in their mind. You are unable to reason with them; you can try to talk to them and explain clearly how all of their arguments for the existence of god are flawed, you ask them why they believe in the god that they believe in rather than any other god–if Jesus why not Zeus? They may try to tell you that their holy book says that their god is the true god and god wrote their holy book. You can then try to explain to them what a false syllogism is then listen to them respond saying strange things like “you have to invite the lord into you life” and “god has a son that died for you”–I never asked him to! Most, you will never be able to convince because religion has some advantages, among them are: it has inculcated people from a very young age it has been part of their life since they were very young for a lot of people religion is all they know; it exploits gaps in the knowledge of mankind–where a question is unknown religion has no problem ascribing it to god whereas at least reasoned people have the decency to admit when they don’t know something, also there is the great carrot and stick approach i.e. lots of theists will no entertain disbelief in god because they want to spend eternity in paradise or want to avoid the rest of time in fire being burned and tortured by demons and the one that concerns me most here the existence of god cannot be disproved because a negative cannot be proved. Prove to me that Unicorns don’t exist. 

All of these kinds of things can make it hard to argue with a believer because they become incapable of reason they will maintain, despite the all evidence to the contrary, that their god exists and nothing will change their minds. They’ll sit smugly knowing full well that you will not be able to change their mind. Then what makes it worse is that when they die that’s it, there is nothing; they’ll never know that they were wrong because their minds are turned off. So on thinking about this I thought wouldn’t it be great if there was a post-death de-briefing where people would realise that they had wasted huge parts of their lives on a god that wasn’t there. There could be no more arguments they were dead and if they were promised heaven there would be none or if it was reincarnation they wouldn’t get reincarnated. This was it they last straw no way to argue-there was no god. Then once they realised there was no god waiting for them and a photo of their faces was taken to amuse us atheists as we arrived they would be sent off into nothingness.

 

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Funniest Bible Verse

The stupidest verse of the bible is a hard competition to win considering all the very capable contenders but, I think I may have a winner. In the book of numbers the author says “Now Moses was very humble—more humble than any other person on earth.” Numbers 12:3. Fine, this Moses chap may have been humble however, when you find out who wrote the book of numbers it makes a startling difference. The book of numbers is traditionally believed to have been written by–you guessed it the humblest man on Earth, Moses.

This really compliments the theists when the say first, that they are humble then follow it with things like; they know that god exists, they not only know that he exists but, they know who he is, what he wants and how he created the Universe. Humble? I don’t think so.

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god doesn’t give us morals

ChurchMorals How do we know what is moral and what is not? It is the view of religious advocates that religion defines morality and virtue. They say that without religion society would breakdown and immorality would become systemic. But if religion contains so much stuff that we regard as immoral—how can it define our morality? The fact is that religion does not provide our morals what really happens is our internal sense of right and wrong goes though the text of the bible, koran or whatever and tells us what is good and what is bad. Churches have been editing the religion’s morals by picking and choosing what they regard as moral and disregarding the rest or explaining it away with some fancy ecclesiastic double-talk.

Think about it for a second—would you suddenly become feral if one day you were walking home from a night out and were run over by a car and suffered amnesia. Imagine waking up in hospital not knowing where you are or what has happened all your long term memory is gone—you don’t know what the bible is never mind what is in it. Would you no longer feel love for your family? Would you become cruel and violent? This reminds of what Sam Harris had to say in The End of Faith[1]he suggests that if suddenly all man’s knowledge was lost due to some event that cleared our minds of everything that we have learned— at what point would it be necessary to know that the source of morality was born of a virgin?

This all begs the question—where do our morals come from? We know the story of Huckleberry Finn[2] by Mark Twain where a young Huck is confronted with a dilemma—helping his friend Jim escape slavery is stealing—Huck knows that stealing is wrong and he could be damned to hell for it—he is so afraid of it and so indoctrinated by religion he even contemplates handing over his friend by writing a note to Miss Watson however, in the end Huck’s own moral code rules and he tears up the note and helps Jim escape. We all know that Huck did the right thing but what is it that made him do it? It surly was not religion because Huck thought he was going to hell—Huck’s sense of moral duty came from a primordial code of ethical actions built into him that was able to overrule his religious indoctrination.

It might be hard to imagine how we got this moral code. For some they see morality coming from society and being instilled into a child from birth. All children are born a blank slate to be written upon is their morals and ethics. This is the argument made by the philosopher Thomas Hobbes in seminal work—Leviathan where he looks at the nature of man and he concludes that man’s natural state is of war—every man against every man—and in this state there is no justice or injustice because as he sees it there is no government to give us justice. One place he regarded as living in this state was America[3] however, things have come along since he wrote this in 1651—he regards the Native Americans as ‘brutish’ and without a system of government no sense of good or bad. Now clearly we know this not to be the case the aboriginal Americans have a sense of moral decency and are not embroiled in a war all against all.

Consider then if our biology has any place in giving us a sense of right and wrong. In Moral Minds[4] Marc Hauser gives us a look at a biological explanation of our morality. He looks at our morals as being very similar to any other organ or our body. He draws on the work of Noam Chomsky and his revolutionising theory of linguistics that showed that human beings have a built-in set of principles that are used to learn a language no matter what it is. To give an example of these rules consider the sentence “Frank is foolish” and the same sentence but with the ‘is’ shortened so “Frank’s foolish”—ok so they both make sense but what is I said “Frank is more foolish the Joe’s” now you know that there is something wrong with that sentence but nobody has ever told you that you cannot shorten the ‘is’ at the end of a sentence and yet you still know not to do it that is because you have a rule in your head that tells you that the ‘s sound is too short and it need to be followed by something.[5] This rule would be the same no matter what language you learnt. The fact that you know this rule but, you do not know how exactly how you know it is what Hauser suggests is is happening with your morality.

The same—what is termed ‘grammar’ of morality—can be found inside us. Hauser takes this argument from outside the realm of philosophical thought and does experiments using the old philosophical fact scenarios like—a train is driving along the track and it is unstoppable it can either keep going and kill five people or take a off-shoot track and kill just one—most people choose instinctively to take the off-shoot track. This is not to suggest that every society has the same morals because this is obviously not correct but, it sets up a basic rule system like killing babies is immoral and has room for variances from person-to-person—society-to-society.

How does this square up to the Darwinian survival of the fittest? How can one be the fittest and therefore spread your genes if you are helping other? Richard Dawkins—one of the world’s most outspoken atheists and leading evolutionary biologists—has written extensively on the subject of the evolution of altruism and morality. In Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene[6] the author explains the process of natural selection and puts into a context the development of altruistic behaviour and how that the genes responsible for that behaviour can be favoured by evolution and thus populate the gene pool. It may be difficult to imagine how some behaviour is beneficial to a gene’s promulgation when on the outside it seems counterintuitive to that ends.

You are made of genes—each one of these genes programmes how you are—what you look like; how tall you are; how you behave virtually every aspect of you is controlled by your genes. Genes make copies of themselves and are spread and mixed with other genes i.e. we have children. But, in this process mistakes are made—small mutations. Long ago imagine there was a single type of gene making copies of itself then one time it made a copy that let it get together with another gene that mutated and by being together they were better off—say for arguments sake the two of them together were able to take the sun’s rays and turn it into their own food like plants do during photosynthesis—this means that these two cells are not better able to make copies of themselves and their ‘children’ can do the same thing they are doing so over time they become stronger and the weaker ones die off. I do not want to give the impression that these genes are alive—they are not making the decision to do anything it is just that they happen to be the best at making sure that they are spread. Over time more complex genes start to mutate and for example form legs to move around and a mind to help think and get away from danger—they are changing and mutating all the time—but building on past successes—creating the best ‘survival machines’[7] for them to be in—if they do not make a good body to live in then they do not get passed on so are wiped out the genes that make the best body get passed on so there are more of them. Eventually these genes formed a survival machine that is us.

So you see that the gene is not trying to keep us alive per se it is just that we do the gene the most good because we are alive long enough to spread it around. So you can imagine a gene that says ‘You are to sacrifice yourself to save ten people with the same gene as me in them.’ This gene would do well because by losing you it has saved 10 other copies of itself and thus made itself fitter—that is the survival of the fittest. But how do we know if them ten people have the same gene in them? Well we don’t—we can guess—our children have half our genes in them so there is a 50%[8] chance that they have that gene in them—this is a why we are so protective of our children—our brother and sisters have the same chance ½—there is a breakdown of all these relationships and why perhaps we feel more protective of our children than our brother and sisters even though the chances are the same in Richard Dawkins’ book The Selfish Gene.[9] Some of us would sacrifice ourselves to save 100 strangers is that because the chance that they have the same gene is higher than if it was just two?

Now imagine again Thomas Hobbes’ state of nature—war all against all—imagine now a gene that said ‘help people that help me’ could spread. If we lived in Hobbes’ state of nature we would be under treat all the time so if perhaps we had this gene to help each other out if they help us we would do much better than the people that did not have this gene so this gene would start to spread. Now perhaps imagine one of us in this society had a gene that mutated to say do not help other but take their help then that gene would start to flourish. But then it would just go right back to the start again however, there is a point where an optimal number of both is reached and it would begin to steady out.[10] “’The ants and termites,’ wrote Prince Kropotkin, ‘have renounced the “Hobbesian War”, and they are better for it’”[11]

Let’s take a look now at some of the principles that are genes have given us. So it is one thing to care for your kin because there is a high probability that they share the same genes as you but, the trouble comes when you look at non-family altruism. Where is the Darwinian advantage in that? Well again Prof. Dawkins’ books try to give us an understanding into this process. The first theory of altruism that Prof. Dawkins discusses is the old saying ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’—indeed a very utilitarian adage that has huge merits for a gene that is trying to get passed on. You can see how a society could grow on this concept—if I have the ability to make pots but don’t know how to cook and you need pots and can cook by working together we ensure both of our survival. This concept can be seen to work throughout nature—flowers can’t fly so the pay honey bees to spread their pollen around[12] and we have all seen on wildlife documentaries small birds that are cleaning the parasites from hippopotamuses that cannot do it themselves. In human society the division of labour[13] has allowed us as a species to flourish and has thus caused the spread of the gene that causes this through our generations. It is really quite clear how this system of helping others fits in with our theory of natural selection.

Reputation plays a part in altruism if I build up a reputation for not buying a round of drinks in a pub nobody’s going to include my when they buy a round. It is observable behaviour in the animal kingdom for reputation precede you—in the stickleback fish population there is evidence that shows that the fish will tolerate defection of fish that have stuck by them in the past over fish that have been wimps when they are going to inspect a dangerous predator—they even choose fish to join their expedition parties that have shown high standing in previous situations.[14] Human beings have a much greater ability to remember who was good to them in the past even to the most to people that you only met briefly—we can all run a list down in our heads of people that have ripped us off and we will be very wary of helping them in the future.

Now this brings us to how our genes influence our morals in a general way. Our genes are too slow to make the decisions all by themselves and there are too many situations—infinite numbers—to all be coded for in our genes. So our genes make more general rules i.e. principles. A good analogy here is communicating over great distances—it takes four minutes for messages to get from Earth to Mars travelling at the speed of light—there is no way to make that faster the speed of light is the maximum speed anything can travel—so imagine now we have sent a robot to mars that is remotely controlled from Earth—as it goes about its business of exploring the Martian landscape[15] it takes four minutes for us to get its information and four minutes for it to get our instructions which is clearly too long a time if the robot encounters cliffs for example—so what do we do? Well we build in rules into the robot e.g. if you come to cliffs avoid them. This is sort of like what are genes do for us. However, what are genes are able to do also is allow for parameter input—that is to say the general principles are set out but they allow for more data to be used in order to make the best decisions. So take for example the principle of ‘be fair to people’—this is a general principle that is set by our genes say—now the parameter can then vary from society to society depending on how it works best—there is no universal definition of fairness but it uses the details of the particular society to set its standard.[16]

For a further demonstration our inbuilt moral judgements—consider two scenarios

1) You are driving along in your new sports car and you see a little girl at the side of the road bleeding. He can take her to the hospital but it will cost you time and money to clean the bloody seat—€200.

2) You see video on TV of children in some poor country that need €50 to save 25 of their lives.[17]

Now most of you will say that in case 1 you are obliged to help the little girl and in case 2 most of you will not believe that you are obliged to send the money—although most of you will sympathise you won’t be under huge moral pressure to help. What this indicates is that our genes have not adapted with our psychology to the ever increasing distances that we can communicate in the modern world. Our genes are no used to dealing with great distances and our psychology is having trouble with it too.


[1] Harris, S., “The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason” (Free Press, 2006)

[2] Twain, M., “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” (Adamant Media Corporation, 1999)

[3] Hobbes, T., “Leviathan” MacPherson, C. B. Ed. (Penguin Classics, 1985) p 187 Part I Chap XIII

[4] Hauser, M. D., “Moral Minds” (Harper Collins, 2006)

[5] Ibid. ( pg 40

[6] Dawkins, R., “The Selfish Gene” (3rd ed Oxford University Press, 2006)

[7] Ibid. ( at chapter 3

[8] For a look at the statistical relationship of family look at Ibid. chapter 6

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid. ( chapter 5

[11] Quoted in Ridley, M., “The Origins of Virtue” (Penguin, 1996)

[12] Dawkins, R., “The God Delusion” (Transworld Publishers, 2006) at p216

[13] Smith, A., “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations” (Regnery Gateway, 1999)

[14] Ridley, M., “The Origins of Virtue” (Penguin, 1996) at p82

[15] This analogy is loosely based on Prof. Dawkins’ analogy in his book: Dawkins, R., “The Selfish Gene” (3rd ed Oxford University Press, 2006) at p55

[16] Hauser, M. D., “Moral Minds” (Harper Collins, 2006) at p71

[17] Ibid. (

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Pascal’s Wager


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ch871223 The mathematician, Blaise Pascal, had a theory on belief in god—he supposed that one was far better to wager on god’s existence than not. His theory is not a wager as to if god exists or not but rather he had a cost benefit analysis whereby he said that if you believe in god you will get more benefit than if you don’t if god actually exists as opposed to if he doesn’t exist than you are in the same place as someone who has spent their whole life as an atheist. So in basic terms if god exists and you believe in him then you get more than you would get than if you were in any other position.

  Theist Atheist
God Exits Paradise Hell
No God Nothing Nothing

 

As you can see Pascal had worked it all out in terms of the best bet to gain the most. Most of you will of course have seen the problems with this kind of argument already. First, one cannot force oneself to believe in god—if you don’t believe in god and pretend to worship by attending services and adapting your morals to suit your religion’s and you end up at the pearly gates where you are greeted by an al-knowing god that knew that you had just been paying lip services to him all your life. You see this just won’t do—if you are unable to believe then you cannot just fain it—to borrow a phrase from a famous theist Martin Luther—‘Here I stand, I can do no other’.

Or suppose that you die and you are confronted by Zeus and he demands to know why you didn’t believe in him? Surely if he is anything like the old testament god that hates false idols you would be better not believing in any gods rather than the wrong one! Then there’s the anti-Pascal wager[1] idea that is if you could bet on god not existing and live a better life now like by not wasting time by worshiping you could bet on him not being there and get more out of the here-and-now.


[1] Dawkins, R., “The God Delusion” (Transworld Publishers, 2006) at p105

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Flying Teapot v. God: The Negative Proof


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800pxTouched_by_His_Noodly_AppendageThe worst argument that‘a believer in god can use is the negative proof i.e. when she says “can you prove god doesn’t exist?”- the answer to this is that the onus is on the one asserting a belief to positively prove that to which they assert. We are familiar with this concept in other areas of our society. If we are unfortunate enough to be charged with a crime how unjust would it be if you were told that the prosecutor was not going to adduce any evidence that you committed the crime but you have to prove that you did not break the law?

If this argument is brought to its natural conclusion it can enter into the realm of absolute absurdity. The mere fact that a proposition cannot be disproved does not render it true. This is known as an argument form ignorance which is a logical fallacy- X cannot be proved false therefore it is true. There are innumerable things that you do not believe in that cannot be shown do not exist. Bertrand Russell deals with this question delightfully in his essay “Is There a God?

If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is an intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.[1]

There are infinite things that are things that cannot be disproved but we do not therefore accept that they are true. In fact taking this position belies all methodology that has advanced our understanding of our Universe. Russell’s teapot is the foundation for numerous incarnations of gods which have arisen to highlight the lunacy of this logic: Invisible Pink Unicorn, flying spaghetti monster. Religious people also try to use this logical fallacy when they say that “You are assuming god is false because we cannot prove he exists” I am not 100% sure that god doesn’t exist–no one is this is an epistemological problem; can we ever be 100% sure about anything?

By using evidence I can explain with greater quality the nature of our universe. The 14th centaury logician William Ockham provides a method of logical reasoning known as ‘Ockham’s Razor’ in which he states that the explanation of any phenomenon should make as few assumptions as possible. Therefore where evidence explains our universe this implies that where there is no evidence to the contrary this solution is valid.


[1] Russell, B., “The Collected Papers of Bertrand Russell” Slater, J. G. and P. Köllner Eds. (McMaster University ed G. Allen & Unwin, 1983)

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