The World Knot

Welcome to the World Knot. The main topic here is metaphysics. Metaphysics is a muddle in western academia. Over the centuries the problems of philosophy have been tangled into a knot of such complexity that they may seem intractable. The essays here are an attempt to show that they are not, and that all that would be necessary for their solution is a rigorous simplification of the issues and a rough understanding of the perennial philosophy.

There are very few topics that are not relevant to metaphysics, however, and vice versa, and so there will also be discussions of mathematics, psychology, physics, biology, music and other things.

The writings on the blog should be systematic regardless of the topic. This may not be the case but it is the intention.

The pages are more like essays than posts and are usually longer, and the topics covered are not linked to the tag cloud.

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The Simplicity of Metaphysics

I took up my investigation of metaphysics quite late in life, and right from the start my intention was to simplify it. A background in management had taught me that a good decision depends entirely on having a clear understanding of the problem at hand, and that the only sure sign that one has a clear understanding of a problem at hand is that it appears to be quite simple. Exactly what ‘quite simple’ would mean here will vary from person to person, but I think most people would agree that when we examine a problem that seems to us to be quite simple then we feel we have a clear understanding of it, while if we find a problem complicated we do not feel this.

To my surprise, I quickly discovered that it is not the complexity of metaphysics that makes it difficult. As a system of calculation, a method of thinking logically about the world, its result can be encapsulated into a single sentence. It is the enormity, profundity and downright weirdness of the concepts and ideas with which we have to deal as we perform our calculations that make for the difficulty. As the mathematician Robert Kaplan speculates, and as some would say is an empirical fact, it is perfectly possible that the world as a whole, the Cosmos seen as a singular phenomenon, is more simple than we can think. On this view the principle difficulty of metaphysics would be that it is far too simple.

The reason why simplification seemed important to me from the start was that it is clear that metaphysicians do not usually get anywhere with the problems they study. When I set out this was about all I knew for sure, that academic metaphysicians were still arguing about which of the ancient Greek philosophers were right or wrong and showing no sign of ever reaching an agreement. Three years spent investigating the complexities of the problem of consciousness had led me to believe that things just had to be more simple than this. Either that I would never understand them.

It was my view, and still is, that it would be no use having an explanation of consciousness that hardly anybody would be clever enough to understand. Then hardly anybody would be able to know whether it is plausible or not. This is what allows many complicated and mutually inconsistent books on the topic to be published. For an understandable explanation we would need to ignore the details and get down to basics, and metaphysics is the only way to do this.

Metaphysics, as it is done in our universities, consists of a long list of metaphysical conjectures each of which has a counter-conjecture that is more or less equally plausible, such that they together they form a long list of ancient dilemmas something like a double-helix. All other theories are rejected, in particular anything that might be considered ‘Eastern’. In order to identify and understand all these endless dilemmas we would have to study many philosophers and do a great deal of thinking, but an overview can be quite simple. Wherever a metaphysical conjecture has a counter-conjecture such that each of the two conjectures is assumed to have an unambiguous truth-value, we find ourselves unable to decide which of them true because both conjectures are logically indefensible. Kant made this clear long ago, and he was far from the first or last to do it.

In this case, if ordinary logic is to be trusted, the world must be such that by reduction it is a unity. This would explain why we cannot prove in metaphysics that it is not. This approach to metaphysics could not be more straightforward.

What would not be at all straightforward is the task of making sense of the unified phenomenon that metaphysics implies. This would have to defined as lying being beyond the categories of thought since this would be what metaphysics proves, that an unthinkable phenomenon would be required for a fundamental theory. So, although it might be argued that metaphysics can be simplified to a few basic facts, it could never be argued that it would be easy for anybody to interpret those facts.

What facts? The result of a few millennia of careful analysis is that all partial metaphysical theories give rise to contradictions and can be refuted. They can be abandoned. Metaphysics becomes the study of the only coherent theory that remains. This could never be an easy study, but it is the profundity of the necessary ideas that make it so and not their complexity.

Plotinus calls ultimate reality a ‘Simplex’. This is the idea we would have to grapple with in order to conquer metaphysics. A Simplex has the property of not being at all complicated. It would be too simple to think since the categories of thought would have to be transcended and thought cannot transcend itself.  Still, we can define a phenomenon that is too simple to think and use it in a theory. The Tao cannot be spoken, says Lao Tsu, but he also says that it must be spoken. It can be defined negatively and spoken of by referring to its definition. Only empiricism could give us any real understanding of what we are talking about, but as theoretical term Tao is perfectly useable. If Tao is a reality then all partial metaphysical views must be false. We already know that they are logically absurd, just ask a logical positivist or dialethist, or just about anyone who thinks metaphysics is a waste of time, so really metaphysics could be seen as a ‘no-brainer’.

We could make things a lot more complicated, but why bother?

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Exploring Mysticism and Physics

I have been wondering about the properties of a ‘Bose-Einstein condensate’ in relation to a certain form of Idealism. It was a thought put into my head by Schrodinger, who speaks of the mystics as ‘particles in an ideal gas’.

It seems that the Pauli-exclusion principle usually limits the number of bosons that can occupy the same energy level. But if the bosons form an ideal condensate then they can all occupy exactly the same energy level. They would no longer interact with each other. That is, they would no longer behave as a multitude of discrete entities causally linked. They would now be in a state of quantum entanglement such that they might as well all be the same boson, a choir in perfect harmony. Or something like this. I wish I had a better grasp of the science.

There is some talk of the early universe being a condensate of such a kind. There is also a Gnostic creation story that tells of a choir of angels singing in perfect and timeless harmony, until one voice wavers, and this disturbs its neighbors, and soon there is a disharmony out of which arises the world of Maya. This sort of symmetry-breaking appears to be just the right sort of idea.

What I am wondering is whether it would be accurate to say, in some sense at least, that a truly perfect Bose-Einstein condensate could be said to be a multitude of things and a singular phenomenon at the same time. If so, then it seems very likely that an ideal condensate would be a useful idea in discussions of global consciousness. This would be a turn up.

I’m way out my depths here and wouldn’t dare discuss this on a physics forum. Still, I have a feeling this is the right way to go for a physical description of an Idealist universe. Any physicists around for a comment?

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Common Philosophical Mistakes I – Abusing the Laws of Dialectic Logic

This post has been deleted as it has been submitted for publication. I’ve left it up with this note so that the discussion in the comments section can continue. I will reinstate it if it is not published.

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Sri Krishna Prem and the Language of the Seers

The following is a passage from Sri Krishna Prem’s book, Initiation Into Yoga, from an essay entitled ‘Symbolism and Knowledge’.  Thanks to Don Salmon for posting it elsewhere so that I could borrow it. The point about language here, and the variability in the language of mysticism, would be of crucial importance, since this variation in language might be seen as a variation in the message, while any such variation would render the message implausible. If the knowledge of the seers is empirical, as is claimed, then it should not vary from case to case except in extent and depth of insight.

 

“Many who study mystical literature from outside think that because the descriptions of the Path vary, they therefore refer to different paths, and some even make the further inference that they are ‘purely subjective’.  But no conclusion could be further from the truth.  The teachings of all genuine seers are in reality in complete agreement; it is only the verbal descriptions which vary. All descriptions, whether those of ordinary common-sense or those of so-called exact science, are symbolic.  The words refer to something beyond themselves, something whose nature they can only suggest.

There is a story of a small boy who was being given a lesson in elementary astronomy by his teacher.  Having been told that such and such a star was Sirius, and such another Aldebaran, the boy became thoughtful and said, “how do we know that those are their names?’ It is doubtless a truism, but it is one which we too often forget in practice, namely, that words mean only what we have agreed that they shall mean. 

The work of scientists is seen to refer to a common body of experience because we have hammered out a common terminology.  If, instead of being in very general touch with one another, scientists had to work in little, independent groups, scattered in time and space, each group evolving its own terminology, it would by no means be easy to correlate their researches, though it would always be possible for one who had both sufficient first-hand experience of science and sufficient patience.

The writings of seers are in a somewhat similar case to such hypothetical scientific studies.  They are the products of isolated individuals or groups of individuals, often quite out of touch with similar groups elsewhere, and each of them has used such terms to describe his experience as were suggested by the tradition with which he was most familiar.  The results often appears chaotic; but anyone who cars to follow the Path for himself will soon find that the chaos is only apparent, and that the various terms used in any one system are easily translatable into those of another. There will not always be a one to one correspondence, for the groupings of experiences under one head is also largely a personal matter. Whether a given complex of experience is to be taken as a whole or divided into aspects which are given various names is a matter which will vary with the point of view of each individual experiencer.

In the ancient world such ability to translate from one symbolism into another seems to have been more common than it is at present.  We read how Greek priests could visit Egypt or Chaldea and at once recognize a given ‘foreign’ God as a correspondence of such and such a Greek one. The equation of Thoth with Hermes is a well-known example, but its by no means unique.  It was possible for any initiated priest of the ancient religions to wander, like Apollonius, over the whole world and recognize his own Gods wherever he went.

The decay of this ability seems to have been connected with the development, somewhere in the first millennium B.C., of the power of abstract thought.  Such thought is itself a symbolism, as philosophers are now once more beginning to realize. It is a symbolism, and a very powerful one for certain purposes, but it seems to carry with it a fatal tendency to take itself too seriously and to pose as being more than symbolism.  To say that the world is  a product of the union of consciousness with content-form is no less symbolic and no more true than to say that it is the marriage of the sun and moon, the union of the Sky God with the Earth Mother; and to say that the universe is an interrelatedness of atoms is as definitely symbolic a statement as that it is the morning stars singing together.”

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Sticking Up For Philosophy

Yesterday I again bumped up against the claim that philosophy does not produce answers. This issue is a constant source of irritation. It would not be rigorous to say that philosophy does not produce answers. It is something that is said all the time at all levels of philosophy, and it goes without saying in physics. Nevertheless, it would not be a rigorous statement. The truth is that not everyone agrees about this. In reality, it is more the case that some philosophers say they have found the answers, and all the rest don’t believe them.

Of course, they may not have found the answers. They may be deluded. This is irrelevant. What matters is whether we can actually prove that they are deluded. If we cannot do this, then we cannot prove that philosophy does not produce answers and should not be simply stating it as a fact.

So, can we prove that they are deluded. No, we cannot. Not all of them. The answers given to philosophical questions by the mystics of all recorded ages, cultures and lands are unfalsifiable in philosophy. This is how we can know that we have found the correct interpretation of their answers, that they are unfalsifiable. It is considered good practice in mysticism never to say anything that is falsifiable.

This immunity from prosecution would be both possible and necessary. It would be an ineluctable consequence of the nature of Reality that words that are strictly true will seem to be paradoxical, and it is very difficult to falsify a statement that seems to be paradoxical.

Heraclitus says we are and are not. So do Nagarjuna, Plotinus and Al-Halaj. This would be an answer to a number of philosophical questions, perhaps even all of them by extrapolation. Can we prove it is not a correct answer? If not, then we have no choice but to qualify any claim that philosophy does not produce answers with the phrase, ‘in my opinion’, or ‘so it seems to me’, or ‘according to the Western tradition of philosophical thought and most people working in the natural sciences at this time’.

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Reductionism and the Limits of Science

I first began to participate on internet forums and chat groups as part of a research project. I had worked out in logic that Buddhist doctrine was almost certainly true, but still knew very little about it. Perhaps there were objections I had not yet spotted, problems it could not address. Accordingly, for some years I travelled around the internet making bold statements in hostile environments in order to encourage objections and learn whether they could be dealt with and how best to do it.

I had many surprising adventures. Quite early on I found myself on the private chat group for a well-known astrophysicist. My background is not academic, and I was extremely nervous. It was my first opportunity to talk to a group of professional scientists about the ideas I was exploring, or, come to that, about anything. It was also the first time I realised that scientists are not immune from being utterly confused about religion and philosophy and tend to assume that everyone else, since they are not scientists, must be equally or even more confused, and therefore feel free to pluck their views out of a hat with almost no thought let alone any honest research. It was the beginning of what quickly became a complete mistrust of professional academics when it comes to matters of religion and philosophy. Over time I have come to see the professors as no better than the priests, keeping the truth from us because they themselves are fearful of discovering what it is, or want to protect their commitment to some pet conjecture or dogma. I remember mentioning Erwin Schrodinger, who preached the truth of the Hindu Upanishads for forty years, in order to give my comments a vaguely respectable background, and was informed authoritatively that Schrodinger chose the religious view that best suited him, just like everyone else, as if he was a brilliant physicist and philosopher and a blithering idiot all at the same time.

I gave up the research project in the end. There is no fault in Buddhist doctrine that I can find. It is perfect. It sheds light on physics, solves metaphysics and is an ideal science of the mind. It is strictly empirical and makes no claims that cannot, according to its metaphysical scheme, be verified in practice. It is easy to defend from telling objections once one has seen why there cannot be any. The logic is unbreakable. Even if it is not true it would be best explanation of everything on grounds of consistency, simplicity, elegance, usefulness, happiness, hopefulness and universal justice. Its explanatory reach is total in respect of what can be explained. Physics looks like a lost infant alongside it. Western metaphysics looks like chaos.

Since then I have been learning, or trying to learn, how to understand and talk about the relationship between the perennial philosophy, of which Buddhism would be one of many examples, and metaphysics, physics, psychology, mathematics, biology and so forth. It is a completely fascinating area of research and although sparsely populated is full of interesting characters and amazing texts. In an earlier post I likened this to playing Hesse’s Glass Bead Game, and although this was only a casual connection at the time it has grown on me as an apt metaphor.

The idea would be to construct an intricate model of the universe from first principles. This is a much easier game than trying to construct the model from the roof down, as it were, in the way that physicists try to do. There is no way to line up the roof with the foundations unless the foundations are already in place, so much better to start where the universe starts, with basic principles. If the principles are correct then the truths of physics, mathematics, psychology and so forth will emerge naturally and fit neatly into place.

To take this approach is not difficult in principle. There is plenty of literature, even if it is often found well off the beaten track of the academic curriculum. The problem would be only that this approach requires that we see metaphysics as coming before and after physics, and although this is how we define metaphysics, and have always defined it, this is not how we treat it these days. Just this week I saw a classic example of the way we ignore metaphysics.

It was a discussion of reductionism, and whether it is plausible that all the detail of the world could be contained, in potential, in the fundamental particles of the standard model and emerge ineluctably. This, so it seems, is what physicists call reductionism. It is as if we have built the whole house except for the foundations, and then tried to sell it to an unsuspecting young couple with a lot of estate-agent hype. Given a moment to think through this matter it becomes obvious that a myriad of particles whizzing about in space-time is not reductionism, not a solid foundation for fundamental theory. The best example of reductionism that I know of, the only successful example of which I am aware, is Middle Way Buddhism and its equivalents. Nothing would really exist and nothing would ever really happen. This is proper reductionism. It is a view that would be too strong for most physicists, however, since for a complete reductionism we would have to concede that physics is non-reductive not just at present, but for all time.

Why can we not simply concede that physics is non-reductive? Do physicists fear for the stature of their discipline? If physics is reductive, fundamental, then what is the point of metaphysics? Why does it exist? It exists because a reduction of the universe that speaks only of physically observable phenomenon cannot reach all the way down. It is certain to fail. There is no hope of success. Until this is widely understood in physics we can have only profoundly naïve conversations about religion and philosophy on internet physics forums.

Thinking that physics is reductive is an elementary error. It would be a more plausible idea if it could be tested, or if it helped explain anything, but as things are it is an idea that clearly does not work. If reductionism (or holism) is ever to work, or be achieved, then it must begin and end in metaphysics. Otherwise it is not reductionism.

In a religious context, reductionism is the idea that religion can be reduced to superstition, misunderstandings, ignorance and so on. Those who endorse the idea that physics is, or ever can be, reductive will naturally gravitate towards this secondary form of it. After all, if we don’t need to reduce physics for a fundamental theory then religious reductionism becomes unavoidable. How a scientist can hold either of these positions is, even after all these years of trying to understand the ways in which people think, quite beyond my comprehension, and I have come to see it as no more than a matter of temperament and prejudice.

Time will tell, but I see no way forward for science, philosophy and religion except a complete reconciliation. I am very sure that this can be achieved by anyone on an individual basis, but it will not be achievable in the academic community until scientists stop refusing to concede the limits of their method of study and grant to metaphysics a reason for existing.

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The Paradoxical Size of the Universe

In metaphysics it is important to keep in mind that our object of study is a totally unique phenomenon. If we forget this then we may fall into confusion on many issues. One such issue would be the problem of the size of the universe. If by ‘universe’ we mean ‘the world as a whole’, all possible mental and corporeal phenomena as well as the container that contains them, or the ‘multiverse’ and whatever contains that, then this question may seem to present us with an intractable paradox.

The universe appears to be extended in space and time. In this case, it must be finitely or infinitely extended. To say that it is finitely extended, like a football, is to say that it is not, after all, the world as whole. This idea must be rejected. To say that it is infinitely extended is possible, mainly because the idea is so confusing, but it would directly contradict the scientific evidence and explain exactly nothing.

The root of this topological problem is our idea of extension. This seems a harmless enough concept in our everyday classical or Newtonian universe, but it unravels in quantum mechanics and metaphysics. If the ‘world as a whole’ means what it says, then the idea that it is extended in space and time is incoherent. Then space would be extended in space and time would extended in time. It would be unsurprising if this idea caused paradoxes and contradictions. If we remember that in metaphysics we are dealing with a unique phenomenon, a phenomenon that encompasses all other phenomena, and thus adopting an ultimate perspective on the world, we can avoid this paradox. To think of the universe as a giant football or as infinitely extended is to make it incomprehensible. For an ultimate level of analysis our everyday Newtonian idea of extension would have to be abandoned.

The mathematician Hermann Weyl wrote much that is relevant to this topic. I discuss his thoughts in a previous post. He concludes that the idea of an extended continuum is paradoxical and has no empirical support. http://theworldknot.wordpress.com/tag/weyl/

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Taming the Tiger

From Taming the Tiger: Tibetan Teachings for Improving Daily Life, by Akong Tilku Rinpoche.

Unfortunately, our background as members of a modern civilised country does little to equip us for accepting things as they are. Our kind of society has an altogether different approach to situations which are held to be disagreeable or imperfect in some way. For example, we invent complicated machinery to take the boredom out of certain kinds of work. Then we have to make lots of people redundant, leaving them more bored than they were before. Moreover, we bulldoze whole communities and build high-rise flats to improve living standards, only to find that no-one wants to live in them; while the people who must live in them feel isolated and miserable. We are always trying to increase and improve things without realising the consequences or knowing where to stop.

Rather than directing all our energy into futile attempts to make life perfect, we could be using some of this effort to develop our tolerance and appreciation of the way things are. Such inner peace brings deep and lasting happiness…

It seems highly unlikely that there are many of us who could not benefit from this advice, regardless of our religious views. Buddhist practice is such a simple thing, and it is quite easy to verify its efficacy. It is only by way of a lot of sophistry that we can justify rejecting its underlying cosmology as untestable, and testing its daily practices for their effect on our inner peace and happiness is a simple project. Not even a telescope would be required. This book is brilliant and completely practical. It is about how to get the job done in the least difficult way. The ‘tiger’ in the title would be our ego, so it might as well be called Taming the Human Race.

This is only one of countless excellent books saying the same things but to me it seems a particularly useful one. If only it was as easy to do the work as recommend the books.

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The Turing Test

Here is an inexpensive set-up for a Turing Test that anybody can try.

Talk to someone in an online forum until you are completely certain that he or she is conscious. You can use a volunteer or just pick someone at random and not let them know that they are a test subject.

If you are able to reach complete certainty that they are conscious and not an insentient computer programme, then you must have reached complete certainty that a computer programme could never pass the Turing Test. You ruled out this possibility when you became certain you were not speaking to one.

If you cannot reach complete certainty, and have not yet found a way of settling the matter, then you must believe that an insentient computer programme could pass the Turing Test, just as long as you are running the test.

It is questionable whether it matters to anything whether a machine could ever pass the Turing Test. All the same, it is an interesting game to play, reading other people’s posts as if they were part of such a test and then seeing whether it would be possible to be completely certain that they are conscious, and, if it is possible, what it is about their messages that makes it so.

The same experimental procedure can be used to examine the plausibility of philosophical zombies, creatures that behave exactly like human beings on internet forums but who have no idea that they are doing it.

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The Hindu Swami Initiation Ceremony and its Implications for Metaphysics and Physics

 

The biddidisa or elaborate initiation into swamiship includes a fire ceremony, during which symbolical funeral rites are performed. The physical body of the disciple is represented as dead, cremated in the flame of wisdom. The newly-made swami is then given a chant, such as : “This atma is Brahma” or “Thou art That” or “I am He.

This description is taken from Paramhansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi. A footnote explains, “This atma is Brahma” means literally “This soul is spirit.” It continues,

The Supreme Spirit, the Uncreated, is wholly unconditioned (neti, neti, not this, not that) but is often referred to in Vedanta as Sat-Chit-Ananda, that is, Being-Intelligence-Bliss.

Many people would read of this ceremony and immediately dismiss it as superstition and fantasy, as having no bearing whatsoever on science, perhaps even as having no bearing on rational philosophy.

In fact, this short passage explains the founding principle of a systematic philosophical doctrine that solves all metaphysical problems and which would, if physicists would only award it some study as a community, allow the construction of a fundamental theory that would serve as a workable interpretation of quantum mechanics.

The case can be put quite briefly. The four phrases; “This atma is Brahma”; “Thou art That”; “I am He”; and “neti, neti” have the same meaning. The Universe, Cosmos or Reality would be reducible to a phenomenon that cannot be spoken of as being ‘this’ or ‘that’, because ‘it’ would be undifferentiated. All metaphysical theories asserting otherwise would be false. This claim is made plausible by the well-established conclusion of philosophers the world over that all counter-theories are logically absurd.

It is the logical absurdity of partial positions that renders metaphysics in Western academia a muddle, so there is no doubting it. Philosophers here, on average, simply cannot make sense of their result, but they almost always reach it. For the swami it would be inevitable that all such positions are absurd. This would follow inevitably from the fact that they are false. This is precisely what the chants of the swami’s initiation ceremony are asserting. By reduction the world would never be ‘this’ or ‘that’. This is the perennial philosophy. It is stated simply and clearly by every sage from the Buddha and Lao-tsu to Rumi and Nicolas de Cusa.

So, this deals with metaphysics. If the world is neti, neti then there can be no such thing as a metaphysical dilemma. As for physics, the implication is immediate. If the Ultimate is undifferentiated, or if for an ultimate view the world is undifferentiated, then physics will never find the Real. This God of the Gaps, by being absent from physics, renders physics nonreductive. Its absence means that physics cannot explain what anything is or where it came from, and many phenomenon – nonlocal effects would be a clear example – become utterly incomprehensible. This is not a criticism of physics, but a recognition that it stops where metaphysics properly begins.

The phrase neti, neti gives us a solution for metaphysics and for all philosophical problems. The world would be a unity. It would be extended in space-time and not extended in space-time. It would have these two aspects. It would be as if there two worlds. Non-local effects would be local after all. Ulrich Mohrhoff and the Sri Aurobindo school has shown that a philosophically sound interpretation of quantum mechanics is made possible by this axiom of unity.

For this reason and many more, the idea that religion has nothing to offer science and philosophy is ridiculous. It is only that they do not take what is offered. The constant refusal to concede that the world’s oldest and most well-developed philosophical doctrine might be true, after all, accompanied by an almost complete lack of effort to show that it would not work, begins to look more and more like a fear of being found out in a mistake, or a blatant instance of ‘not invented here’ syndrome.

The primary aim of religion, metaphysics and physics is to discover what is true. It would not be surprising if discovering the truth required some joined-up thinking. To divide these three methods and areas of knowledge up and then to study one or two of them in isolation or exclusively would be a recipe for confusion and failure, and the evidence is all around us.

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