Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Cybernetic theology


How does God know the future–or does he? Some Christians might consider the question presumptuous. That's a mystery!

However, Isa 46:10-11 indicates that God knows the future by willing the future.

Conversely, freewill theism posits a condition (man's libertarian freedom) that poses an impediment to divine foreknowledge. And philosophical theologians of all stripes concede the dilemma. Some freewill theists labor to reconcile divine foreknowledge with libertarian freedom. But that shows they are acutely aware of the tension. 

1. To take an illustration, suppose we compare God to a cyberneticist. Suppose a cyberneticist creates 100 robots. Each one has different programming. The cyberneticist knows what each one will do if he activates it.

Likewise, he knows how they will interact with each other. Depending on which robots he activates, the results will be different. 

The unactivated robots are like possible worlds. And the cyberneticist is the source of all these alternate scenarios. 

That's analogous to Reformed theism. 

i) This has significant upsides. It clearly grounds divine foreknowledge and counterfactual knowledge. 

ii) It preserves the sovereignty of God, as the absolute Creator. 

iii) A potential downside is the complaint that determinism implicates God in evil while robbing man of moral responsibility. Of course, that's an ancient, perennial debate. If we stick with the robotic metaphor, that raises to the question of whether androids are personal moral agents. That's a popular topic in science fiction literature, going back to Asimov's  I, Robot. To insist that a robot can't be a person or moral agent simply begs the question. 

2. Contrast that with freewill theism. The cyberneticist dies. Years later, an investigator discovers his secret laboratory.

In Molinism and Arminianism, the investigator knows, by consulting the notes of the cyberneticist, what the robots will do, individually or in combination, if activated. 

However, he doesn't know it because he made them. He doesn't know it because he programmed the robots. He is not the source of what they will do, if activated. Rather, what they will do is the source of his foreknowledge or counterfactual knowledge.

i) A potential upside is that it seems to diminish the tension between divine agency and sin. However, it has many downsides:

ii) With respect to (i), there are roughly two aspects to the problem of evil: (a) How can God be blameless? (b) How can man be blameworthy? Even if this model explains how man can be blameworthy, it fails to exonerate God from complicity in evil. The outcome is still dependent on something God did. In that respect it's no improvement over the perceived problem of (1). 

iii) It fails to explain how God can know the future. Indeed, it seems to remove a necessary condition for divine foreknowledge. 

iv) In fact, it fails to explain how God can know all possibilities. He's not the source of these possibilities. On this view, what humans would do is a given. Autonomous possibilities. God must adapt to that framework.  

v) If human choices are ultimately uncaused, then how are we responsible for them? In what respect are they our choices if they are ultimately uncaused? If, on the other hand, they are ultimately caused, then isn't that deterministic?

vi) It reduces God to a Demiurge. There's a realm of abstract possibilities independent of God. Equally ultimate. God simply chooses which ones to switch on. 

3. In open theism, he doesn't even know for sure what they will do. Their programming is adaptive and stochastic. Once activated, it takes on a life of its own. The end-game is unpredictable from a distance. 

i) One upside is that denial of divine foreknowledge is more consistent with man's libertarian freedom–assuming man has libertarian freedom.

ii) A downside is that it makes God a mad scientist who activates robots to find out what they will do. 

A freewill theist might exclaim that by comparing God to a cyberneticist, I've just conceded that Calvinism reduces men to robots! But aside from the fact that that my illustration is metaphorical, I'm using variations on the same robotic metaphor for Calvinism and freewill theism alike. 

29 comments:

  1. God knows exactly what unactivated robots will do. Nothing. Unactivated robots will do nothing because unactivated robots don't do anything, they just sit there.

    God also knows what activated robots will do. It is part of his nature to know everything and that includes all the events in the activated robots' future.

    That should account for everything. God knows both what unactivated and activated robots will do. But you press the question further. What would unactivated robots do if they were activated? That is really a hypothetical question with no foundation in reality. Nothing exists outside the will of God, and, in the situation as we have it, we have a set of unactivated and activated robots. It has not pleased God to will the unactivated robots into the activation stage, so "what they would do if they were activated" has no concrete existence in reality. Thus God doesn't know about it, but that doesn't matter since we shouldn't take it upon ourselves to insist God knows about things that have no foundation in reality.

    I believe God always knows everything, but when God exercises his will things get interesting. God's knowledge of reality would change if and when he switches on an unactivated robot because God is exercising his will to change reality.

    3) ii) I do not believe God created robots to find out what they will do. I believe God created man to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over fish, birds, and everything that moves on the earth. Then God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.

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    1. So you deny that God has counterfactual knowledge.

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    2. I deny God has exhaustive, omniscient counterfactual knowledge. I have no doubt you can cite biblical examples of God having particular counterfactual knowledge, which I would not deny.

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    3. Jeff D

      "God knows exactly what unactivated robots will do. Nothing. Unactivated robots will do nothing because unactivated robots don't do anything, they just sit there."

      Misses the point. The question at issue is knowing what currently unactivated robots would do *if activated*. Not what they would do if left unactivated.

      "It is part of his nature to know everything and that includes all the events in the activated robots' future."

      Freewill theists are not entitled to stimulate that omniscience is part of God's nature when they further stipulate a condition (man's libertarian freewill) that constrains divine knowledge. The question is whether these two posits are mutually consistent.

      "That should account for everything."

      At best, that only accounts for foreknowledge, not counterfactual knowledge.

      "That is really a hypothetical question with no foundation in reality. Nothing exists outside the will of God, and, in the situation as we have it, we have a set of unactivated and activated robots. It has not pleased God to will the unactivated robots into the activation stage, so 'what they would do if they were activated' has no concrete existence in reality. Thus God doesn't know about it, but that doesn't matter since we shouldn't take it upon ourselves to insist God knows about things that have no foundation in reality."

      You're deeply confused. Hypotheticals have reference to God's ability to reify what God can imagine. They are grounded in the reality of God's power to concretize what God can conceive.

      "God's knowledge of reality would change if and when he switches on an unactivated robot because God is exercising his will to change reality."

      You're making God's knowledge of reality dependent on reality rather than making reality dependent on God's creative fiat.

      "I have no doubt you can cite biblical examples of God having particular counterfactual knowledge, which I would not deny."

      You might as well say I can cite biblical examples of God having particular future knowledge. Does that mean you deny God has exhaustive foreknowledge?

      The Bible is chock-full of conditional statements: If you do A, then B will happen–but if you do C, then D will happen. That presumes God's counterfactual knowledge.

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    4. "At best, that only accounts for foreknowledge, not counterfactual knowledge."

      I am not accepting you premise that "counterfactual knowledge" is a thing. It is very nearly an oxymoron. What does it even mean to have knowledge of things that are counter to the facts? What does it mean to have knowledge of things that are not, in fact, facts? Counterfactuals do not properly fall within the realm of "knowledge."

      At best, assumptions can be made about counterfactuals. Perhaps very well-founded assumptions. Perhaps, for God, it is possible to have perfectly well-founded assumptions about certain counterfactuals. For example, it is a very good assumption that if my brother is given the choice between vanilla flavored ice cream and sweaty gymsock- flavored ice cream he would choose vanilla. But it still seems somewhat inappropriate to describe that as knowledge, strictly speaking.

      But I do not believe such assumptions can be made about every counterfactual. I believe some conterfactuals do not have one answer. If my brother is given a choice between brand "A" vanilla ice cream and brand "B" vanilla ice cream, which would he choose? If it is possible to have counterfactual knowledge, then, for one thing, my brother would have to make the same choice every time. Offer him brand "A" or brand "B" a million times and a million times he would choose brand "A." If one time out of a million he would choose brand "B" then it is not possible to have counterfactual knowledge.

      "Freewill theists are not entitled to stimulate that omniscience is part of God's nature when they further stipulate a condition (man's libertarian freewill) that constrains divine knowledge."

      I do not stipulate any conditions that constrain divine knowledge. I just don't count counterfactual knowledge as a legitimate category of knowledge.

      "You're making God's knowledge of reality dependent on reality rather than making reality dependent on God's creative fiat."

      Well, yes, because I'm not Calvinist. But, in one sense, reality is dependent on God's creative fiat by virtue of the fact that freewill creatures exist by God's creative fiat. But, as a Lutheran, I believe there are things in creation that do not exist by God's fiat directly. Acts of evil owe their existence to the will of men and demons.

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    5. "It is very nearly an oxymoron. What does it even mean to have knowledge of things that are counter to the facts? What does it mean to have knowledge of things that are not, in fact, facts?"

      From what I can tell, you haven't bothered to study the issue. You're just trying to wing it based on the dictionary definition of words like "fact" and "reality."

      A counterfactual scenario is an unexemplified possibility. An unrealized potentiality. Something that might have been, a different outcome, if one or more variables were changed.


      Possibilities are "real" because God is omnipotent. The actual world doesn't exhaust what God is capable of doing. Therefore, it doesn't exhaust what God is capable of knowing, for God knows what God is capable of doing.

      If you deny counterfactuals, then that makes you a necessitarian. That means you think the actual world is the only possible world. Ironically, that's more deterministic than Calvinism.

      "But I do not believe such assumptions can be made about every counterfactual. I believe some conterfactuals do not have one answer. If my brother is given a choice between brand 'A' vanilla ice cream and brand 'B' vanilla ice cream, which would he choose? If it is possible to have counterfactual knowledge, then, for one thing, my brother would have to make the same choice every time. Offer him brand 'A' or brand 'B' a million times and a million times he would choose brand 'A.' If one time out of a million he would choose brand "B" then it is not possible to have counterfactual knowledge."

      No, it doesn't mean he makes the same choice every time. To the contrary, it means there's a possible world in which he chooses A, and a different possible world in which he chooses B.

      And to cash that out in theological/Calvinistic terms, that means God can imagine alternates courses of action.

      "I do not stipulate any conditions that constrain divine knowledge."

      The postulate of human libertarian freedom poses a constraint on the scope of divine knowledge. That's been discussed for centuries.

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    6. Look, either you do or you do not think humans have the freedom to do otherwise in the same situation. If you do, then that commits you to taking alternate possibilities seriously. If you think humans have that freedom, then it's meaningful to say you might have done other than what you did. That was just as available to you as the choice you actually made. It could have gone either way, until you made your selection from the various options before you.

      If, however, you don't think humans have that kind of freedom, then it's unclear what your beef against Calvinism amounts to.

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    7. "Possibilities are "real" because God is omnipotent. The actual world doesn't exhaust what God is capable of doing. Therefore, it doesn't exhaust what God is capable of knowing, for God knows what God is capable of doing."

      That concept of real is not very useful. If "real" is thought of as the things an omnipotent God is capable of doing, what is unreal? Alice in Wonderland would be real. The land of Oz would be real.

      "No, it doesn't mean he makes the same choice every time. To the contrary, it means there's a possible world in which he chooses A, and a different possible world in which he chooses B."

      You are kind of cheating. A person could chose "B" if he lived in an alternate universe. Like evil Captain Kirk in the Star Trek mirror universe. What I am saying is that if counterfactuals were real, and God were to recreate the same world a million times over, my brother would choose the same brand of vanilla ice cream a million times. He would never, not once, choose the other brand of vanilla ice cream. I do not think counterfactuals are real, and if my brother were created a million times over in the same world, it is within the realm of possibility that the number of times he chooses the other brand of ice cream is greater than zero.

      "Look, either you do or you do not think humans have the freedom to do otherwise in the same situation. If you do, then that commits you to taking alternate possibilities seriously. If you think humans have that freedom, then it's meaningful to say you might have done other than what you did. That was just as available to you as the choice you actually made. It could have gone either way, until you made your selection from the various options before you."

      I am slightly confused because I do believe those things, and surprised you would think I don't. One correction I would make is that, while I believe I might have done other than what I did, I don't think there is anything particularly "meaningful" in saying that. What is meaningful is what I did do, not the multitude of things I didn't do.

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    8. "That concept of real is not very useful."

      That's because the issue is more complex than you can capture with a one-word descriptor.

      "What I am saying is that if counterfactuals were real, and God were to recreate the same world a million times over, my brother would choose the same brand of vanilla ice cream a million times."

      You fail to grasp the concept. If you believe in libertarian freedom, then there's a possible world or world-segment for each alternate choice.

      It's not a case of doing the same thing in the same world a million times over. It's a case of taking one course of action once in one possible world and another course of action once in another possible world.

      "and if my brother were created a million times over in the same world, it is within the realm of possibility that the number of times he chooses the other brand of ice cream is greater than zero."

      Which commits you to counterfactuals and possible worlds.

      "while I believe I might have done other than what I did, I don't think there is anything particularly "meaningful" in saying that. "

      Your statement is self-contradictory.

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    9. I, for one, am rapidly loosing sight of how this conversation relates to cybernetic theology. Suppose a cyberneticist creates an unactivated robot that, once activated, can do either "A" or "B" according to its own will. You are insisting on describing this as "the robot will do "A" in one possible world and "B" in another possible world."

      That is kind of an odd thing to insist upon. I do not understand the significance. How does it help or hurt the cyberneticist if the robot choosing "A" is one possible world and "B" another?

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    10. Because that's the only way to ground the theory of libertarian freedom. In the nature of the case, alternate timelines can't both play out in the same spacetime continuum.

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    11. The purpose of the robotic analogy was to illustrate different models of divine knowledge in relation to human agency.

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    12. "In the nature of the case, alternate timelines can't both play out in the same spacetime continuum."

      Perhaps not, in a wholly naturalistic universe devoid of miracles?*

      *I don't really know what you are talking about, but tried to say something that sounded intelligent anyway. How did I do? ☕

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  2. Note WLC's most recent Reasonable Faith podcast: Science, Philosophy, and the Sean Carroll Debate. As I listened to this today, I realized that this is a serious flaw in his philosophy. It's relevant to this discussion. He mixes the Kalam Cosmological Argument, which he says here presupposes the A-theory, with his brand of Molinism that presupposes a multiverse where God actualizes the universe based on what he knows of the future. The definition he gives of the A-theory is essentially that future events do not cause past events. It seems that's in direct conflict with his Molinism. God's counterfactual knowledge would be caused by future events.

    I think he would presume that Reformed theology is necessarily B-theory. I think neither A nor B-theory is entirely an accurate representation of reality; nor are they mutually exclusive. Of course the challenge comes when considering that we A) don't want that what we might recognize as God's counterfactual knowledge would be caused by anything outside of himself, while B) he has created very real causes and effects in time sufficient to give us moral agency.

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    1. Interesting. I have some misgivings about the B theory as well. I think freewill theism requires the A theory in a way that Calvinism doesn't require the B theory.

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    2. "The definition he gives of the A-theory is essentially that future events do not cause past events. It seems that's in direct conflict with his Molinism."

      That's more of an implication rather than his definition of A theory. And that's not in conflict with his Molinism insofar as your statement confuses what he would distinguish, namely, middle knowledge and free knowledge. His middle knowledge is not grounded in an actual future. His middle knowledge consists of counterfactuals of creaturely freedom (CCF). Maybe these CCFs are grounded in "counterfacts" or are ungrounded or who knows. That's besides the point here.

      "God's counterfactual knowledge would be caused by future events."

      Again, WLC doesn't believe that. God knows CCFs about creatures he never creates, and WLC would obviously not say that these are caused by future events.

      "with his brand of Molinism that presupposes a multiverse where God actualizes the universe based on what he knows of the future."

      I've never heard him say that his brand of Molinism presupposes a multiverse. And God's actualizing a universe based on what he knows of the future sounds strange. Even on WLC's view, that would not be possible. God selects a feasible world based on his middle knowledge, not his free knowledge/foreknowledge.

      Also, I listened to that podcast on my way to work and I don't remember him mixing the Kalam cosmological argument with his brand of Molinism. Maybe I wasn't listening well - it was a long drive. At any rate, on the face of it, it seems to be an uncharitable interpretation based on WLC's other written work which would obviously be more carefully articulated.

      I don't believe Molinism is true, but I do believe that your summary was not exactly fair.

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    3. Perhaps I misunderstood him, but he seems to give that definition in the podcast. There's a section that starts about 11:30, and he generalizes the basis for his argument at 13:05. Either I misunderstand him or he is conflating the unidirectional nature of causation from God to creation (which he states) and a unidirectional nature of causation from past to future. He's aiming at whether God or the universe is the ultimate brute fact. Craig has famously stated that God has to play the cards he was dealt. So something is obviously inconsistent in his thinking here.

      His position on the multiverse is well-known and oft-stated.

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    4. I don't see what that article has to do with his brand of Molinism "[presupposing] a multiverse where God actualizes the universe based on what he knows of the future."

      WLC's Molinism simply doesn't presuppose a multiverse. Of course, he has, on several occasions, said that a multiverse is not inconsistent with Christian theism, but that hardly constitutes a presupposition of his brand of Molinism.

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  3. "I deny God has exhaustive, omniscient counterfactual knowledge. I have no doubt you can cite biblical examples of God having particular counterfactual knowledge, which I would not deny."

    Jeff, is the reason God doesn't have knowledge of some counterfactuals because they involve pure contingencies that defy truth and consequently defy knowledge? If so, can we really call such non-realities counterfactuals?

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    1. In what sense do pure contingencies deny truth? Because they didn't come true, or because they couldn't come true? Take the counterfactual that if Hitler had died as a baby, 20C history would turn out differently. That claim doesn't defy truth.

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    2. By pure contingency I'm referring to the metaphysical surd of pure contingency.

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    3. Given a purely contingent choice, which I obviously deny exist - it's not true that Jones would choose x. In fact, I'd say it's actually false that he would choose x, because what's actually true (according to pure contingency) is that he might or might not choose x. So, because Jeff denies exhaustive counterfactual knowledge, what I tried to tease out is whether he operates according to an openness mindset on just some of these free will contingencies. And if so, I'd be curious how he distinguishes the knowable counterfactuals from the alleged unknowable ones.

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    4. "Jeff, is the reason God doesn't have knowledge of some counterfactuals because they involve pure contingencies that defy truth and consequently defy knowledge?"

      Thinking about it more, in the very strict usage we are sharpening our language down to here, God doesn't have "knowledge" of all counterfactuals because they involve pure contingencies that defy truth and consequently defy knowledge.

      I think we are sharpening our language down to precise extent that I very much doubt the Bible does. I know Bob standing at the bus stop would rather someone give him a hundred dollars than a kick to the head, but I do not consider "if given a choice between a hundred dollars and a kick to the head, Bob would choose a hundred dollars" to be a knowable fact, in the razor sharp world of pure contingencies.

      "If so, can we really call such non-realities counterfactuals?"

      Sure! Counterfactual is as good a word as any. And it fits. Counterfactual. Contrary to fact. Contrary to reality. Non-reality.

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    5. "God doesn't have "knowledge" of all counterfactuals because they involve pure contingencies that defy truth and consequently defy knowledge."

      Some effects are without cause?

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    6. "Sure! Counterfactual is as good a word as any. And it fits. Counterfactual. Contrary to fact. Contrary to reality. Non-reality."

      If there are pure contingencies, is the reality of which you speak a would counterfactual or a might counterfactual? Are you a Molinist, Open Theist or other? IOW, if Jones ends up choosing x purely contingently, was it true that he would choose x, or was it false he he would choose x because it was true he might and mightn't choose x.

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    7. "If there are pure contingencies, is the reality of which you speak a would counterfactual or a might counterfactual?"

      If I understand your question correctly my answer is that the reality of which I speak is not a counterfactual at all. It is a factual.

      If Jones ends up choosing x it is a true statement. It was true in the past that Jones will someday choose x and it will be true in the future that Jones once chose x. It isn't a counterfacual at all.

      If you are speaking of the "time" before God created Jones, then you tell me. Is it a true statement to say "Jones will choose x"? How could it be? "Jones" isn't even a true statement. Nothing exists outside the will of God and God did not yet will that Jones should exist.

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  4. Let's say I had a son who was pre-programmed to be damned. He is not elect. It is the will of God for him to be
    damned to hell. Now, if I pray for him to be saved, am I not praying against the will of God?

    Secondly, can anyone point to one place in scripture where a specific individual was elect to salvation? "Chosenness" or election is always for service.

    Finally, all throughout Scripture, God pleads with man to choose life, turn from sin, repent, choose whom you're
    going to serve, etc. This rings hollow and becomes a charade if God has programmed/predestined those whom he pleads with to damnation. Choose life... but you can't? I don't think so. Let the Scripture speak for itself:

    Ezekiel 33:11 [NET] "Say to them, ‘As surely as I live, declares the sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but prefer that the wicked change his behavior and live. Turn back, turn back from your evil deeds! Why should you die, O house of Israel?’"

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    1. "Now, if I pray for him to be saved, am I not praying against the will of God?"

      No. If you pray for him, then you were predestined to pray for him. Your prayer was just as predestined as his damnation.

      "Secondly, can anyone point to one place in scripture where a specific individual was elect to salvation? 'Chosenness' or election is always for service."

      I'm not going to rehearse the exegetical case for Calvinism. Here's a place to start:

      http://triablogue.blogspot.com/2014/07/annotated-prooftexts.html

      "Finally, all throughout Scripture, God pleads with man to choose life, turn from sin, repent, choose whom you're going to serve, etc. This rings hollow and becomes a charade if God has programmed/predestined those whom he pleads with to damnation. Choose life... but you can't? I don't think so. Let the Scripture speak for itself."

      i) You assume that God is pleading with the reprobate.

      ii) Ezk 33:11 is addressed to Israel. Israel had spiritual advantages that the Gentiles did not. So even that passages is implicitly discriminatory.

      iii) Since you bring up Ezekiel, keep in mind that when God commissioned the prophet, he foreword him that his message would fall on deaf ears: " But the house of Israel will not be willing to listen to you, for they are not willing to listen to me: because all the house of Israel have a hard forehead and a stubborn heart" (Ezk 3:7).

      There was no expectation that Israel would repent. To the contrary, it was a foregone conclusion that Israel would spurn the message.

      Hence, God never intended that his message would dissuade Israel from self-destruction.

      iv) The message has more than one purpose and more than one intended audience. For instance: "For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind" (Jn 9:39).

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