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Epilogue. Together again, and business as usual.

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Discussion (49)¬

  1. Al West says:

    I’ve heard this defense. In person. From a Muslim medical student at Cambridge.

    Well, alright. Not the Bruce Lee part.

  2. Ron Murphy says:

    Author, you could wrap this cartoon strip business up right now with this one sample. Biblical and Quranic lunacy in a nutshell. Job done!

    Of course I hope you continue.

  3. Nassar Ben Houdja says:

    The ongoing saga of goof
    Always demanding proof
    Which they reject and hate
    Because it does not validate
    And makes there preconceived opinions go “poof”.

  4. Dan says:

    FreeFox, In the comments for the previous strip, You asked for a truly universal non-divisive basis for ethics. No chance on all counts (true, universal and non-divisive).
    The problem is that critical thinking applied to empirical facts will never provide a basis for morality without some discriminator that takes us (starting an alignment with Hume) from what (observably) Is to what Ought to be.
    I believe that moral judgment (setting aside of any metaphysical theory you might subscribe to) is the answering of the question “For any intentional action or known outcome X for myself or others: Do I want to live in a society where X happens/doesn’t happen and further what I’m I prepared to do/not do/have happen/accept and (keenly) what compromises and balances am I prepared to tolerate in order to promote/pursue/achieve what I want regarding X?”
    There seems every reason to believe that morality is an invention of human society and has no existence or truth outside it. However even if some absolute (i.e. external to the traditions and conventions of human society) morality exists we have no reliable way of knowing what that is and always circle back to what seems right anyway adding nothing except division and distraction.
    However the position is hugely controversial because a vast majority of people desperately want to believe in some objective truth to rightness or wrongness of people’s actions. So the view (despite the obvious give aways) that society is making morality up in its own image as it goes along is always going to divisive.

  5. Al West says:

    Morality only makes sense given the assumption of certain desires – like the desire of certain people to avoid pain or death. But those things can be absent; it is possible for people to desire death, and maybe even pain. The desires we generally have are a result of our phylogenetic inheritance and experiences, encoded somehow in our nervous systems. Because they are in part phylogenetic in origin, they are almost, but not quite, universal; it is fair to assume that other humans do not want to die, for instance. On the basis of these near-universals, we can construct reasonable principles of moral behaviour, while accepting that – instead of society constructing morality, which I don’t think it does, else we’d never seen innovations in moral philosophy except under socio-economic pressure – these moral principles result purely from the wishes of sentient beings as produced by natural selection, and not from any “external” origin, whatever that might mean.

    You know, you never see these discussions on religious forums. My girlfriend lives with several Muslim women, all of whom believe in the strangest things, things I didn’t even know educated people could believe. They believe quite sincerely that there’s a jinn living under the sink. Instead of discussing the intricacies of moral philosophy or something like that, they ponder the question of whether to pour boiling water down the sink, because that might harm the sink-jinn.

    Oh, did I mention? They all studied at Oxford and Cambridge.

  6. Janis says:

    *Glad* to see Mo is unchanged by his experience of missing Jesus last week.

  7. They have conversational material to last them a lifetime. (But eternity? Er, maybe not. Problem!)

  8. Dan says:

    a) On strip – Interesting that Jesus’s doubts about Mo’s existence are not catastrophic for Mo. I’m even more strongly leaning to towards J being Mo’s fantasy.
    b) AI West, I think you have a narrower interpretation of what I mean by society constructing morality than I perhaps mean. Moral philosophers are members of society and make their contribution to the social standards by engaging in social discourses. Their ideas are, in communication, social pressures for change. I don’t necessarily mean mass movements of opinion.

    I certainly agree that aversion to pain contributes to the construction of morality. But an aversion to pain (however widespread) is separate from deeming that the unnecessary causing of pain is something called “wrong”.
    That deeming is precisely the moment that society starts to operate and exactly the moment that the aversion is bound during the invention of morality.

  9. Al West says:

    “I certainly agree that aversion to pain contributes to the construction of morality. But an aversion to pain (however widespread) is separate from deeming that the unnecessary causing of pain is something called “wrong” That deeming is precisely the moment that society starts to operate and exactly the moment that the aversion is bound during the invention of morality..”

    It doesn’t take ‘society’ to do this. Society is not a thing; it consists of people, their beliefs, their desires, and their beliefs about each other’s beliefs and desires. Society doesn’t act – or, society acting just is people acting (on the basis of their beliefs and desires).

    And people generally act to avoid pain death; people treat pain and death as ‘bad’ simply by dint of avoiding them. If they avoid them, they think they are ‘bad’, and if they don’t, they don’t. Noting this tendency in other people and believing other people to experience the same pains and pleasures is a next step towards generalising the idea of pain as ‘bad’, no matter who experiences it, something which isn’t inevitable. But the desire to avoid pain – in fact, the desire to do anything – automatically bridges the gap between is and ought. There’s no need for an external force, whether society or anything else, to bridge it, and thus the notion of seeing pain and pain-causers in general as abstractly ‘bad’ is at least in part, maybe even primarily, the result of human phylogenetic inheritance.

    “I don’t necessarily mean mass movements of opinion.”

    Then what you mean isn’t that ‘society’ constructs morality/moral philosophy, but that people do. Seen in that way, it is easy for *both* a) innate desires and b) interactions with other people such that one’s desires are changed to contribute to its creation. My qualm with your earlier post was that ‘society’ somehow constructs morality, which is at the very least a poor way of phrasing it.

  10. Gord says:

    Chuck. Norris.

  11. Dan says:

    I think we agree on morality.
    We don’t agree on terminology.
    I agree people and people alone construct moral philosophy.
    I call the process in which the discourses that construction takes place society.
    Society doesn’t exist other than as the interaction of its members.
    But tables and chairs don’t exist other than as the interaction of their atoms.
    I believe my use of society is compatible with the normal and widely recognised understandings of what society is.
    In that definition your view of how morality is constructed is identical to mine.
    Sorry if you misread me. I make the mistake of not thinking any believes society is a separate entity.
    I have great contempt for the woman but happen to think when Margaret Thatcher said “there’s no such thing as a society” she actually meant what you’re saying and I agree with. She said it because she felt people were externalising society in exactly the way you thought I was and I assure you didn’t mean to.

    But what I’m not prepared to do is say society isn’t a thing anymore than tables and chairs aren’t things or someone’s love isn’t a thing.

  12. Ola says:

    Jesus, be careful, now that Mo knows that he can disappear you!

  13. Al West says:

    “But what I’m not prepared to do is say society isn’t a thing anymore than tables and chairs aren’t things or someone’s love isn’t a thing.”

    Oh, yes. Quite. I spend a lot of time with anthropologists, however, and many of them believe that society is a thing independent of the things that constitute it. This is actually quite a common position, absurdly, and in the context of discussions of where morality comes from, it crops up frequently. After all, if society determines morality rather than individual human beings doing so, it makes sense if society is something separate. But yes, it does seem that we disagree on terminology primarily. I suppose I just have an overactive anti-holism immune system. I’m a reductionist lupus.

  14. cinnamon424 says:

    Just thank you. I’m following this just quite a while, and it’s great, but this one is really over the top.

  15. sweetpityfulmercy says:

    Its quite a pleasant evening. I did it a few years back. I googled up Islamic scholarly thoughts on moon splitting and had a few hours fruitless circling with an Iman on the matter. Now when I google Moon Splits, I just get sites dedicated to the Rev Moon dying and fucking off the earth.

  16. Okay, I don’t get it. I’m missing something with this strip, some reference that eludes me. Help me out, folks. I get the first three panels, but not the punch line. Is there some reference somewhere to chopping the moon in half?

  17. WalterWalcarpit says:

    @DH I kinda presumed that was something that occurs in the Koran. I can’t profess to having read the thing. Pertinent question, that.

  18. Sam Huff says:

    OK, if chairs don’t exist except as interactions of their atoms, and societies don’t exist except of the people composing them, the next question is in what sense do people exist except as interaction of their atoms?

    I who am non existent, demonstrate the non existence of any other human being.

    “Life is not a Bodhi tree, there is no mind to be set free.”

  19. jerry w says:

    In a museum in Istanbul I saw sandals that were said to have belonged to the prophet. If they weren’t really his, why would someone have gone to all the effort to make up signs and then put those sandals in a plexiglas box?
    By the way, he must have had small feet and you know what that means.
    I’m just sayin….

  20. Al West says:

    “OK, if chairs don’t exist except as interactions of their atoms, and societies don’t exist except of the people composing them, the next question is in what sense do people exist except as interaction of their atoms?”

    Well, precisely. There are few defences of this idea by philosophers, but it seems inevitable to me. The first part – chairs, etc, not existing as anything more than elementary particles – has plenty of defenders, including especially Trenton Merricks (“Objects and Persons” is his book on that, although the latter half of it is an attempt to demonstrate that the same logic does *not* apply to human beings). The idea of society resulting from the interactions of people is reasonably obvious, and also has lots of subscribers – including, for instance, John Searle. But the last bit, humans = particles, seems to be taboo. I’m fine with it. Absent free will, absent a human essence, absent a single continuous consciousness or self, there doesn’t seem much left to salvage by saying that humans don’t reduce to the atoms that compose them.

  21. bitter lemon says:

    @ Dan:
    gnothi seauton, ethics can only be personal. To use religion or critical thinking for that matter is to let the multitude choose your answers, or at least to limit the possible answers you can arrive at. That is a cop out. Introspection is the way to know oneself and consequently, the way to guide one’s actions in the world.

    To achieve a personal ethics it no longer matters whether our ethical choices are divisive or not. Of course a trivial objection can be made to this. “I know I’m an asshole. Therefore must I behave like one?” Short answer: you already are. But obviously it would be, or perhaps even ought to be, to communicate one’s self knowledge to the rest of the world.

    Looking for answers externally can only mean contorting ourselves to fit into other people’s morals.

  22. Dan says:

    @Sam Huff,

    I agree with AI West and don’t see a necessary need for people to be more than the interaction of their atoms.
    In the cases of consciousness and free-will it’s not an easy argument to win.

  23. Al West says:

    “Introspection is the way to know oneself and consequently, the way to guide one’s actions in the world.”

    On the contrary, true introspection is an impossibility. In order to look inside, there has to be something to see, and that implies the existence of a single true self – an idea psychologists have repeatedly debunked. And in order to think about thinking, you have to be thinking about thinking about *something*, meaning that your thoughts are externally directed rather than being little items you can look at using your will. ‘Gnosthi seauton’ has turned out to be quite a useless principle.

    You’ve got to look externally for your ethics, because ethics is about acting, and acting isn’t a process internal to your brain. The roots of your actions, and the process directly leading up to them, happens entirely in the nervous system. But actions affect other people – if they didn’t, we wouldn’t need morality – and your beliefs about what constitutes ‘good’ action must come from observation combined with a set of inferences about the beliefs and desires of others, instead of resulting from an introspective process (dubious in itself).

  24. Al West says:

    Oops – *gnothi.

  25. Dan says:

    bitter lemon,

    “ethics can only be personal”. On some level I agree. That’s why I phrased Ethical judgment “Do I want to live in a society where…”. Rather than “Does my society…”.
    However the very idea that some actions are right/good or wrong/bad is co-constructed between the self and others. It isn’t just “Do I want”. That’s desire and I don’t think anyone thinks morality is so closely identifiable with/as desire.
    An individuals interactions with others affect what that individual desires and their morality.
    We know for example that many more people (particularly in parts of The West) have liberal attitudes to homosexuality than 50 years ago. It would be unbalanced to say that were solely the product of introspection rather than discourse and some form of self-evaluation (to avoid over-reading introspection).

    I’m not wedded to my words but they’re trying to get down this complex in which morality is partly desire but particularly those desires projected into what we think the rules of our society are (or should be) in order to promote the satisfaction of those desires. In addition I’ve tried to infuse an element of political expediency. If I personally don’t mind homosexuality but realise that permitting it will result in consequences to me that is “Do I want to live in a society where these people are allowed to have a sexual relationship (maybe yes). But do I want to live in a society that will inflict consequences to me of my allowing? (maybe no).”
    A deconstruction that argues that, in that homosexuality example, morality says ‘yes’ and the other part is cowardice or ‘political expediency’ and something not part of morality attempts (under my non-cognitivist analysis) to pick out distinct agrees of desire as artificial (or less valid/authentic/worthy/real/etc.) and leads inescapably back towards that fallacious notion of an unique ‘true’ (inner) self.

  26. Dan says:

    typo: “areas of desire” not “agrees of desire” :(

  27. hotrats says:

    Congratulations on your first constructive post, and welcome.

  28. Suido says:

    The cognitive dissonance is strong in Mo.

  29. xxxFred says:

    @DH adn anyone else not getting the final panel and the chopping the moon in half reference: try Googling “shaqq-al-Qamar”

  30. Acolyte of Sagan says:

    DH, Islamic tradition credits Mo with the ‘miracle’ of the moon being cleft in two. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Splitting_of_the_moon .

  31. Acolyte of Sagan says:

    What with Jesus coming back and getting all ‘lecture-y’ on Mo, and a reference to Bruce Lee to boot, shouldn’t this edition be named ‘Return of the Drags-on’?

    I’ll get me coat!

  32. Criticus says:

    It is quite frightening to learn how much of the currently used history curriculum about Muhammed and the era between 600 and 1200 in the Middle East is based on religious dogma and pure story telling. Unlike in the scholarship about the history of Judaism and Christianity (and respective the Greek and Roman antiquity as well as the European Middle Ages) there has shockingly until now not been much of a critical usage of the sources in that time, instead the Koran narrative itself (!) and other legends are viewed as a historical source, without questioning or putting them into the context of coins and other sources of that time. Critical research of that time and place only happens in very small niches due to the obvious danger this puts the scientists in as could be witnessed over the Islamic uproar over Christoph Luxembergs “The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran”. Just imagine you’d only know the history of Christianity out of the view of the guys who look for the evidence of Noahs arc and all other research (sensibly or not) would be viewed “blasphemous” or “islamophobic” etc.




  33. xxxFred and AofS, thanks guys. That clears things up and now the joke brilliant, which is what I’ve come to expect from Author. I do hate it when my ignorance ruins a good punchline.

  34. bitter lemon says:

    The discussion has gotten very interesting. What I meant about introspection was not about discovering the true self. But about discovering the ethics from within. I think this is important to avoid getting herded into either a religious or other forms of popular morality. That is also why I used the term introspection, desires are on the surface, but to discover ethics perhaps one must dive deeper. The fact that one’s actions leave ripples in the universe is no reason to lover the value of introspection. In fact as you reflect on what action would be the right one, you obviously take into account the fact that a) your actions will have an effect b) it’s not a multiple choice question. I would love to go on but I must first address the idea of the mechanistic universe that has crept in here.

    @Dan and Sam Huff: the idea that being a collection of atoms, we lack free will is an old one. Essentially it originates in Newtonian physics. Once you have summed up the state of every atom in the system (which is say your body) you can predict (given enough computational power) the next state of the system. This would imply that there’s no difference whether the collection of atoms are a chair or a human being, as the next action of this bunch of atoms is already predictable. Therefore constantly interacting billiards balls instead of free will.

    But we’ve known for some time that this is wrong. This is no billiards balls universe.

    The theory that best describes the universe as we know it at present is quantum mechanics. The Copenhagen interpretation, the most conservative and widely accepted version of it, emphasizes the role of the observer in the creation of reality. Any particular system might have 5 different states, each equally probable. But the observer plays a role in deciding a method of measurement, and then a point at which to make it. This collapses the probability wave into one of the five possibilities. So the observer ( even a human observer) plays a fundamental role in our present day understanding of the universe, and this does create a basis for free will. Stapp has written an excellent introduction to this idea for non-scientists, I think it’s call “Mindful Universe”. He’s quite passionate about his idea of the role of conscious observers in the creation of reality, and although he’s a bit off in some of the neurological bits, it’s a very well argued piece overall.

    I think somebody else mentioned time as being continuous. It’s not. On day to day actions it does not register, but time has a minimum length of a Planck unit. So it’s something like a strobe light, at each flash there’s a universe, and nothing in between.

  35. Al West says:

    Bitter Lemon,

    Conscious agents, so-called, do not create reality. They have no role in it. The observer effect is not about conscious agents observing and thereby causing events. This is a fundamental misconception.

    In any case, the idea that morality should be introspective presupposes an inner self. You are right: you shouldn’t simply follow convention or religion. But that isn’t what I’m saying, nor is it what Dan is saying. I’m not saying that you need to look for external sources for morality, ergo follow a religion. I’m saying that morality is only a concern because your actions affect others; if your actions operated in a vacuum, then we wouldn’t need the concept at all. Moral issues are not decided by your intuitions or your (necessarily futile) attempts at introspection. They are decided by whether the action under discussion has an undesirable outcome or not, and this is not decided by an impossible process of looking at your own thoughts.

  36. hotrats says:

    @Al West:
    It’s not impossible to look at your own thoughts, but it doesn’t simplify anything. Jiddu Krishnamurti, clearly opposed to all religion but rarely clear enough to be understood, got one thing crystal clear; your mind can be the observer, or the observed, but to try to be both at the same time creates only fragmentation of awareness, with one fragment of your mind trying to beat the truth out of another fragment; and the identity that inquires, the thing you are most interested in, cannot itself be a subject of inquiry, in the same way that you can’t smell your nose or bite your teeth.

    (I am always reminded of this principle when I hear anyone saying that you must learn to trust yourself, or believe in yourself, or whatever the current jargon for unwarranted confidence is. As Mr. Natural put it to a persistent follower, you might just as well try to go fuck yourself.)

    JK also pointed out that when introspection inevitably fails (objectivity is impossible, and the analysis will always be incomplete), religion sweeps in to do your introspection for you, with predictable results.

  37. Nibien says:

    Is Bitter Lemon a poe?

  38. Nibien says:

    I honestly can’t tell if he’s Deepak Chopra with a head wound, or someone who took an intro into philosophy class and thought he wasn’t a joke. Man, I wish people were required to, at the very least, have a BA in philosophy before trying to share their broken, broken, minds.

  39. Dan says:

    I think Bitter Lemon is genuine. These are at least opinions I have encountered before IRL and across the internet.
    I do think it’s an utter fallacy that Quantum Mechanics by closing the door on hard determinisim somehow automatically opens the door on free-will.

    If the experimentally observed randomness of quantum events is truly random then by definition it isn’t an agent making a intentional decision.
    The idea that observation affecting the system lets free-will in really just removes the problem to the decision to make the observation. It just causes either infinite regress or a boundary problem (possibly at birth, during gestation or conception!).

    However, we know, of course, that systems can be best most usefully (or only usefully) as random even when they aren’t.
    Even in a Newtonian Ball bearing universe Brownian Motion would be the best way to describe the behaviour of gases.
    In fact whenever we make incomplete observations of a large population of entities we inevitably model them as random.

    To believe that QM opens the door on free-will you need to somehow believe that the QM events observed as random (a) aren’t quite as random as they appear and (b) further that non-randomness is some kind of influence arising from an entity that is an origin of sentient intentional decision (c) and even further rules of propagation (with or without random elements) can never exist. for *that* intentional entity.

    I really don’t believe The Copenhagen Convention is widely accepted as revealing underlying process. In fact it’s frequently criticised as “Shut Up And Calculate” because it is seen as having effective predictive power as a model without laying claim to any deeper/real understanding of the mechanism. So I would say you’re on extremely shaky ground if you appeal to a consensus of authority regarding its interpretation.

    Please note, I’m not saying the universe is ‘really’ deterministic. I’m also not saying that I have proven the non-existence of free-will.
    What I am saying is that if you’re going to use QM to prove the existence of free-will you have some pretty difficult challenges and The Copenhagen Convention does almost nothing to address them.

  40. Dan says:

    Well Spotted FreeFox.

    Religious people using double standards!
    My confidence in the J&M strip to portray a fair reflection of the religious method has been shaken to the foundations.

  41. FreeFox says:

    @hotrats: What’s wrong with fucking yourself? With a little patience and imagination it can be very pleasurable. ^_^

    Free Will… er… ‘scuse me for butting in, but free of what exactly? We are still talking about actual choices by however-atomically-constiuted people, right? A choice entirely free, i.e. not in a direct relation to reality around it, and not detemined at all by the cause-and-effect system, which any completely undetermined will would be, would simply by psychotic. Arbitrary. It wouldn’t be “will” at all. There has to be a connection to the real world and the way it works on us (even if through our genes), and how our choices work back, i.e. have consequences, whether desired or accepted by morality or not.
    Even if you subscribe to the most pervasive theory of psychology or neurology (“my genes made me do it”, “society made me do it”) and see the brain as a completely genetically or memetically programmed stimulus-response machine, knowing the legal, emotional, and ethical ramifications of any action would be part of that stimulus. Only an ignorant mind would be unfree under that theory.
    Isn’t the whole concept of “free” will just the pointless remains of a theological debate – whether our will is free in relation to God? That is not the same as a mechanistic determination theory, since God in this is a conscious agent and the question of freedom isn’t on the level of natural laws [is something outside of me capable or even bound to determine my choices] but ethical constraints [would God force me into "chosing" something]. Which should make this debate simply meaningless for Atheists, and somewhat fatuous for Theists, because no matter what causes my decisions, whether it’s some outside agent or just myself in absolute vacuum, I still have to live with the consequences, be they in this or any other world.

  42. FreeFox says:

    To put it differently: Since our “will”, i.e. the sum of our unconscious and conscious intentions, the endpoint of all our predispositions, leanings, experiences, memories and cognitive understanding focused at the verge of action, essentially defines our personality, our self, the one thing it by definition cannot be free of is “ourselves”. The idea of a free will is the idea of a completely self-invented personality. Maybe you can neurolinguistically program yourself. Maybe you can meditate and achieve complete freedom from your memories, your body, and society. I’d say that would make you a complete sociopath, but hey, what do I know. In the end, it simply doesn’t matter. As Rachel Dawes puts it in Nolan’s ‘Batman Begins’: “It’s not who you are underneath, it’s what you do that defines you.”

  43. bitter lemon says:

    @Dan, I’m certainly not going to “prove” the existence of free will just by dropping a mention of QM, in the comments section of a webcomic. I just pointed out that the idea that free will was ruled out due to humans being a collection of atoms, was flawed because it was based on Newtonian physics that has been overtaken by QM.

    I offered the recommendation of Stapp as an interesting take on the consequences the Copenhagen interpretation has for an understanding of free will and the role of the observer. However, Stapp is not the final word for me any more than the Bible is. A mention equates neither an endorsement nor the claim that finally the Truth is known and you should believe my sales pitch. Make up your own mind, and knowing the flawed basis of your original argument will possibly aid you in this.

    (not to quibble but the Copenhagen convention was indeed marked by total lack of consensus and was utterly inconsequential, unlike the interpretation)

    I thing some people mistook what is meant by “reality” in terms of Quantum Mechanics. In the Descartes world there is a pre-existing reality that we have access to through our senses, that we come to “know”. In the QM understanding the universe is an entanglement of possibilities, and the possibilities crystallize into “reality” or specific instances that we come to “know” when we intervene through a choice of firstly an instant, and secondly a method of observation. An imperfect example would be of a roulette wheel in spin, and we can take a picture at a particular instant to see what number the ball is at. Till then it is a jumble of possibilities. We could also chose to stop the wheel to see where the ball is at, which would then effectively, based on the moment we stopped it, make one of the possible numbers “real”, and preclude all other possibilities. This view of reality is fundamentally different from an always existing, waiting to be known reality.

    Free will doesn’t mean that we actually can do what we want to. In the QM version it just means that we affect what happens in our universe, though seldom as we intend it to.

  44. FreeFox says:

    @BL: “Free will doesn’t mean that we actually can do what we want to. In the QM version it just means that we affect what happens in our universe, though seldom as we intend it to.”
    Can you define “we”, “want”, “intend”, and “affect”?

  45. bitter lemon says:

    @FF: Guess?

  46. Acolyte of Sagan says:

    My doctor has told me (repeatedly) to stop smoking and cut down on fatty or sweet foods, because they’re bad for my blah blah blah blah blah blah. I know this is good advice that I really should heed, yet here I am, cigarette in hand, mug of hot chocolate – full-fat milk of course – to my left, large fruit and nut chocolate bar to my right.
    Conclusion: There is no ‘free’ will, just a never-ending battle between temptation and self-control.

  47. HaggisForBrains says:

    Thank you, AoS,for bringing this free will debate back down to a level I can understand and relate to.

  48. Acolyte of Sagan says:

    HFB, my pleasure. There’s nowt like chocolate to explain the problem with free will in a (choccy)nut-shell.


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