Sunday, May 31, 2015

Clash of Worldviews: Free Will Edition

MODERATOR: Welcome to another edition of Clash of Worldviews, the show in which our guests cry out philosophical ideas in the wilderness. We’re joined this evening by biologist and determinist, Professor Sam Harrison Coyney, who believes free will is an illusion. Arguing against his position is Adam Garnett, noted liberal secular humanist and believer in the existence of human freedom. Professor Coyney, shall we begin with you? Tell us why you don’t think people are free.

COYNEY: Well, it’s obvious to those who understand the science. We think we’re free because we’re ignorant of all the causes of our actions that precede our apparent choices. Our so-called choices are forced on us by the prior physical state of the universe, and if you rewound the cosmic tape, as it were, we’d repeat exactly what nature forces us to do the first time. We’d have no choice in the matter. So the freedom to do other than what the laws of physics and the physical initial conditions compel us to do is the impossible miracle of one natural being’s act of negating all of physical reality. No one’s that powerful or transcendent. We’re stuck in nature, with no immaterial spirit inside us, so we’re forced to do what the universe causes us to do.

MODERATOR: Seems clear enough, Adam, no?

ADAM: No, I’m not free to destroy the universe, but I’m free to control myself a little. That’s because I have a brain. A rock does whatever the universe tells it to, because it can’t think about it and mull the options. Its weight will force it down a hill because it can’t do anything about gravity. But I can think about jumping even though gravity’s telling me to stay put. Also, people thought hard about how to fly and they built airplanes, so now we can go even further against that force of nature. Freedom comes from the brain, because the brain controls the rest of the body. A rock has no brain, so it’s not free.

COYNEY: No, no, no, Adam, you’re missing the point. You may think you’re free when you learn how nature works and exploit that knowledge in your behaviour, but your ability to learn is likewise the result of evolutionary processes which derive ultimately from chemical and physical regularities. The brain is blind to all of those prior causes, so it thinks the only relevant causes of its actions are those it seems to control, namely the mental ones such as its conscious thoughts and feelings. But mental states are themselves forced upon us by our past and by the environment which is governed by natural laws.

ADAM: I thought you said the lack of free will is obvious to those who understand the science.

COYNEY: Yes, that’s exactly what I said.

ADAM: So why are you talking about natural laws?

COYNEY: When you were younger, Adam, didn’t you sit in a science classroom and hear about how scientists discovered the laws that govern the universe?

ADAM: I did, but didn’t you once find yourself in an English class where you might have learned how a metaphor can become outdated? 

COYNEY: I’m not following you.

ADAM: If scientists find laws of nature, they also find God. Is that what you want to say?

COYNEY: Hardly! But there can be natural laws without God.

ADAM: Really? I thought a law is a rule that people come up with to govern society. Do natural laws come from God who decides how the universe should work?

COYNEY: No, they don’t.

ADAM: So do they come from the scientists who make them up?

COYNEY: Certainly not! Scientists discover the laws that govern the world and those laws would operate even if humans never evolved.

ADAM: Then how can the universe be governed if it has no governor?

COYNEY: You see, Adam…it’s just…well, really, if you think about it—

ADAM: I already have thought about it. You don’t know what a metaphor is because you’re a Philistine.

COYNEY: I don’t appreciate the personal attack.

ADAM: Who cares about that! If we’re robots like you say, your hurt feelings would be as silly as someone yelling on a street corner that God’s about to bring the world to an end. If you’re allowed to make fun of the religious delusion, we should be allowed to mock yours about what should or shouldn’t be done, since if we’re robots, morality is bunk.

COYNEY: Yes, well, you’re right about that. But the illusion of free will is itself forced on us as a survival mechanism, so it’s not easy for anyone to live in strict accordance with the deterministic worldview.

ADAM: You’ve mistaken the reality of self-control for the so-called illusion of free will. What may look unimportant from the grand physicist’s viewpoint that covers everything from atoms to galaxies is still real enough in our experience. Physical processes really did come together to produce the brain’s ability to control its body with the mind. That’s no illusion, but part of the very history of causes and effects that you say makes us unfree. Instead, it made us free by making us people rather than animals or stones.

COYNEY: The emergence of those biological and psychological phenomena is likewise an illusion. Natural reality is entirely physical, and physical events are necessitated by laws, forces, initial conditions, and the like.

ADAM: But we’ve already shown that you don’t know what you’re talking about when you talk about natural laws, right? So we can scratch those off the list.

COYNEY: Sorry, Adam, but Newton’s second law of motion, that force is equal to mass times acceleration, works regardless of whether you call it a metaphor.  

ADAM: Does it work like the average Joe who goes to work every morning and gets paid for it?

COYNEY: Excuse me?

ADAM: You said the law works. Who pays it to come to work?

COYNEY: It doesn’t work in that literal sense. It works in that physical things exert effort to obey the law.

ADAM: You mean stones and planets try hard to make the law true so they don’t get punished by God or Newton?

COYNEY: No, physical things perform work when they act effectively. There are causes and effects all around us.

ADAM: But the effects don’t have to follow, right? It’s not like physical things will be thrown in jail for breaking natural laws.

COYNEY: But they don’t break natural laws! That’s the point. They’re compelled to unfold as they do because there are forces that enter into relationships, as mapped out by the laws.

ADAM: No, they do break the laws all the time, because the universe is complicated. The laws don’t tell the whole story, but only what would happen if conditions were simple enough to let the stated process unfold. Things are rarely so simple in the real world, outside the laboratory.

COYNEY: What’s your point, Adam? What has this to do with free will?

ADAM: Oh, it’s just that you rely on the outdated metaphorical meanings of scientific words to make it seem as if free will were impossible. You say things must unfold as they do because they’re “governed by laws,” but there’s no such necessity because there’s no governor or purposeful efforts in the nonliving parts of nature. Also, scientists now talk about how the subatomic events are just statistical and so not forced at all, so there’s no guarantee that the world would unfold the same way if the tape of the universe were rewound.

COYNEY: Rolling a die is also statistical, but even though we can’t predict which side will be face up, we know that however the roll turns out, it has to be that way because of the angles and the velocities involved in the act of rolling the object. It’s the same with the brain and with every interaction of particles. It’s all just causality, which leaves no room for human freedom.

ADAM: Yeah, it leaves room for self-control.

COYNEY: No, I’m afraid it doesn’t.

ADAM: Yeah, it does, because the physical explanation is incomplete, so to explain what people do we have to turn to less exact concepts such as those of the brain and the mind. And that’s where freedom as limited self-control comes in. Again, particles and stones don’t have brains so they have no selves and therefore no self-control. They have no defense against how the rest of the world impacts them. We do have a defense, because we can think before we act. That’s our freedom.

COYNEY: Again, natural reality is purely physical; all else is illusion. Moreover, whether we can explain how our thoughts are determined by physical processes is neither here or there, since they can be so determined all the same.

ADAM: You mean you can know that we’re robots, without knowing how the programming works? Sounds like a leap of faith to me, in which case again it would be misleading to say your case is based on science. Your faith in all-embracing causality could be countered by religious faith in the power of immaterial spirits, and that would be a stalemate.

Also, when you talk of illusions, do you mean things like tigers and bears don’t really exist, but we’re just tricked into thinking they do, like how a magician tricks the audience into thinking he’s sawing a lady in half?

COYNEY: Sort of. Our ability to understand the world is very limited, so we resort to incomplete, misleading models to make sense of it all.

ADAM: And physics isn’t just one more such model?

COYNEY: No, physicists are approaching the Theory of Everything, which will be not merely useful but ultimately, finally true.

ADAM: And how will you make sense of that notion of Truth without talking about the meaning of what scientists say? Once you have meaning, you have something more than the physics, so you leave room for the mind and thus for self-control.

COYNEY: I’m not sure I follow you.

ADAM: Then I’ll lay it out for you: the ideal of ultimate scientific truth comes from Plato’s religious vision of the world as being made of mathematical and other rational relations, which is convenient since scientists speak the languages of math and logic. In that case the world can agree with our symbols, since the latter literally mirror the former. How, though, could the cosmos be mathematical without being rational? How could there be a rational order to events without an intelligent designer of nature? You like to laugh off the idea that scientists find God at the center of being. But once you avoid those problems by humbly admitting that science is pragmatic, you’re left with incomplete models or maps of the world, and so again you’ve no right to speak of necessary connections between natural events. I think David Hume showed that, like, centuries ago. 

Moreover, these incomplete maps would allow for our autonomy, because deterministic physics and the ordinary talk of people as being different from animals by virtue of the former's greater self-control would both count as models that have the mere practical merit of fulfilling certain purposes, as opposed to getting at The Truth. Pragmatists about knowledge are going to have a more liberal, inclusive ontology: if a model or a limited map works by helping us predict behaviour, organize our beliefs, and maintain a way of life, we'll defer to it until some better model comes along, one that may eliminate conflicts between models that are bound to crop up because of the patchwork nature of knowledge on this non-Platonic account.

COYNEY: All of that muddleheaded philosophy is merely wasting our time. Even if Hume were right, it wouldn’t make us free.

ADAM: Well, if causality isn’t a matter of necessary connections, there’s flexibility built into the world that could be exploited by intelligent creatures like us, a cosmic openness to possibilities that a mind could map with its thoughts and could creatively fulfill.

And it’s because you haven’t spent that time puzzling over things at the philosophical level that you’ve fallen for the sophomoric drivel of determinism—even after Newton’s clockwork physics has been superseded by relativity and quantum mechanics.

COYNEY: Listen, you’re still missing the point about causality. When you imagine you’re deciding whether to jump, that decision is an event in your brain. All events have causes and those causes are likewise events that have causes and so on until we can finally trace the causal chain to a point outside your head, whereupon we’ve shown that that choice is an illusion, since it’s caused ultimately by an external event over which you’ve no control.

ADAM: Yeah, so our self-control is limited, that’s all. We don’t get to choose the world in which we choose. So you’ve shown we’re not all-powerful, not that we have no self-control. We obviously do have some control over our mind and our mind has some control over our body, which in turn has some tiny control over the world. If I jump just because physical processes made possible the act of jumping, then my act wouldn’t be free. But what sort of explanation of the event would that be? I jump when I do because I was just then thinking of whether to jump and I decided that jumping as high as I could would be fun. You could leave out those details if you like, but then you’d be stuck with a weak explanation and so you couldn’t boast any longer that you’d have science on your side. You’d be pretending that physics can explain everything, but you couldn’t predict when or how people would jump, because you’d be talking about particles and gravity and other irrelevant things, and you wouldn’t even be entitled to the concept of jumping. Meanwhile, the rest of us would see the usefulness of the ordinary model of the self, and so we’d understand the difference between an action of a self-controlled person and the forced outcome of an objective system.

COYNEY: What you call self-control is just a series of events in your brain, but that series doesn’t begin there. Like I said, it traces back to the genes and the environment, so instead of being self-controlled, you’re a puppet that can’t see its strings.

ADAM: There are trillions of connections in the human brain. If you can trace them all across the billions of different brains that have each rewired themselves to suit their different experiences, to lawful events in the environment—which, by the way, is largely chaotic—or to physical events—which, by the way, are weirdly non-causal at the quantum level, then good luck to you. Show us the laws of cognitive science that allow you to predict what anyone would do under any circumstances, and your case against free will would indeed be scientific. Instead, everyone appears to behave differently, even under exactly the same conditions, depending on their character, experience, and culture, so it’s not likely a law of psychology would look anything like a much-less-flexible law of physics.

You might think it’s easy to come up with a psychological law: hand a starving person some food and she’ll eat it. But that law would apply to our animal body, not to our mind. We do eat and breathe and sleep along with the other animals, but we also turn our food into art or go on a hunger strike to kill ourselves for religious or political reasons. Where’s the law that fits that bizarre behaviour into the universe of physically trapped objects?

You say the environment controls what we do, just as forces like gravity control physical things. But there are zones in nature where the laws break down, like in a black hole or at the quantum level where Einstein’s theories don’t apply. Black holes and subatomic particles behave strangely, and in case you haven’t noticed, so do people. The brain is made of physical stuff, but that doesn’t mean its activities are natural in the sense of being normal for the universe we observe. Black holes literally gobble up nature and quantum events make a mockery of scientists’ mechanistic theories, the ones that are very good at explaining what larger clumps of matter can do. Why can’t the same be true for people? How are we not just as anomalous? We’re free because our brain isolates us from the rest of the world. Conscious awareness removes us from nature in that we’re the outcomes of those trillions of connections in the brain. You want to explain the mind as a puppet pulled by physical strings, thus ignoring the brain’s mysteries. That’s like explaining the heart of a black hole as just more clockwork, thus ignoring the event horizon that divides that heart from space and time.

COYNEY: You’re positing an immaterial spirit, but there’s no such thing. We’re natural beings, and everything in nature obeys laws.

ADAM: You’re still confused about natural laws. You think things “follow” laws because they’re “forced” to, but in that case they don’t willfully obey a governor. You need the forces to make the laws natural, but you need the obedient will and the governor to make them laws. That’s a hopeless mess.

COYNEY: Whatever! The brain doesn’t remove you from nature.

ADAM: So you don’t think the human experience is anomalous? That what we do isn’t just rare but downright strange, compared to the more commonplace effects of physical, chemical, or stellar processes?

COYNEY: We don’t yet entirely understand how we fit into the rest of nature. But it’s a safe bet the evolution of life isn’t any kind of tunneling to a point outside the universe, making us antithetical to natural being or giving us any supernatural power of choice.

ADAM: You can point to all the natural regularities as evidence against anything’s freedom, but I can point to the unnaturalness of everything we do that makes us people rather than animals. A black hole does oppose the universe, by devouring it, but it doesn’t do so freely. And subatomic particles oppose the scientific kind of explanation, by being nonlocal or non-mechanical, but again they have no freedom to do anything else. We’re both animals and people. We can choose to follow our instincts or our reason or conscience. We can choose to be one with nature or to oppose it, by learning how things happen and replacing the wild places with our machines and cities. The self-divided brain has the power to choose between those paths; it’s in those trillions of internal connections that divide us from the world.

COYNEY: That’s not what most people mean by “free will.” You’re redefining the word and moving the goalposts. Free will is supposed to consist in our sole responsibility for choosing between A and B, so that if we choose A but were faced with the same choice again, nothing outside us could stop us from changing our mind and choosing B. That’s the ability to be unforced by anything, and it’s a miracle so it’s impossible.

ADAM: Black hole singularities are miraculous, meaning unnatural, and they’re real. Quantum nonlocality is miraculous, but it’s real. Your old-fashioned prejudice for clockwork counts for nothing. Can you hear it? That’s the universe laughing at your presumptions.

Anyway, we have just that ordinary kind of freedom. We choose between A or B, to act like animals or like people. We make that basic choice all the time in many different contexts. If we choose A, our behaviour is biologically pretty straightforward. But if we choose B, we oppose nature with our rational planning, with our science and technology and religion and art and everything else. And nothing forces us to go one way rather than the other. We often believe there are gods that prefer that we choose B, but even if they exist they evidently don’t force us. There’s nothing natural or supernatural that compels us to regress or to progress, no natural laws that prevent us from transcending our wingless bodies and flying in airplanes or from bypassing natural selection through genetic engineering. You’re missing the wealth of evidence for free will because it’s hiding in plain sight: it’s not the inner feeling of being free when we choose, which could be an illusion, but the strangeness of our activities, the unnaturalness of the option to transcend our animal bodies and the rest of nature.

We don’t transcend them by being ghosts that literally fly to heaven when we die. Again, that’s a metaphor. We happen to be ghostlike in that we’re alienated as we stand between worlds, between the natural one that came before us and the artificial one we create. We’re ghostlike in that the mind that makes the fundamental choice to act like an animal or like a person is invisible and lost in limbo like the core of a black hole. We’re patterns in the trillions of connections in our brain, patterns of thoughts and feelings that can direct our bodies to steal, rape, or kill, or to investigate as scientists, build as engineers, withdraw as monks, or imagine as artists.

COYNEY: Face it, Adam: you’re a robot.

ADAM: No, you are!

MODERATOR: Ah, well, that’s all the time we have this evening. I’d like to thank our guests for their stimulating exchange. Stay tuned for advertisements produced by big businesses that bank on your behaving like robots. 

11 comments:

  1. ADAM: Then how can the universe be governed if it has no governor?

    Well, there's another victory for obtuse literalism! Don't forget, if someone mentions throwing out the baby with the bathwater, be shocked at how they are talking about domestic harm to infants and shun them! For the win!

    If there's something confusing Coyney here, it's how Adam can't handle his metaphors (used in the sense of can't handle his drink). Adam's dismissals come from himself treating a metaphor as if he instead knows something - and then he drunkenly goes on to 'dismantle' Coyney's terms. The pot has called you black, Coyney - how stupid do you feel!?

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    1. But the objection isn't really that Coyney doesn't know he's using a metaphor. The point is that once you dispense with the intentionality implied by the theistic metaphor, you have Hume's deflation of causality so that the determinist can no longer say we're puppets in the sense of being forced to act due to necessary connections between lawful natural events.

      As Adam says 'it’s just that you rely on the outdated metaphorical meanings of scientific words to make it seem as if free will were impossible. You say things must unfold as they do because they’re “governed by laws,” but there’s no such necessity because there’s no governor or purposeful efforts in the nonliving parts of nature.'

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    2. Please, this is like shooting down scientists if they say a creatures body part is 'designed' to do X.

      Being a grammar nazi about it does not make any kind of point here - in fact, like the grammar nazi's who have trouble realising their world is a entirely made up one but they are drunk on it like the rules of grammar are somehow concrete rules of the universe, so does Adam act as if he can catch out the other guys terms, then it means something rather than just the other guy was lazy in how he spoke.

      If I think Thor brings lightning down and I say Thor hath brought his fury upon your house, getting on my case about Thor doesn't mean your house isn't on fire! Arguing the pedantics of the phrasing doesn't change the physical ramification!

      And the word 'govern', like 'designed' isn't even being used with the belief in term someone would use if they actually believed in Thor. Making it even more egregious to argue the phrasing!

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    3. Callan, I'm saying that the determinist relies on the metaphors because without them science doesn't entail the kind of natural necessity he needs to make freewill impossible. So following your Thor analogy, the question would be whether there really is a fire there regardless of how we're talking.

      The test is simple: tell me how we're puppets like any other natural object, in that our actions follow necessarily from environmental causes, but do so without resorting to any of the metaphorical language such as an appeal to "laws" or to how natural events are "governed." If you can do that, your point stands and Adam's argument would be flawed.

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  2. And that's the drunkness I refer to Adam having - that there is some kind of 'non metaphorical language' out there (unless you want a chemical description of each molecule from fraction of a second to fraction of a second).

    If our language was entirely made up of references to dragons, telling someone they have to speak without dragons in their words or your point is made is just spurious. As if a ficitional creatures referential presence proves something.

    You just said the question is whether there is a fire or not - so why do you think whether someones description in metaphorical (or 'non metaphorical') wording makes any difference to the flames?

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    1. Language may ultimately be metaphorical, as you say, but you're still missing the point. Some of the metaphors we use may contradict our deepest beliefs, so that we're not entitled to that kind of language. And some of those banned metaphors may be instrumental in a debate we're having, giving us an illegitimate advantage.

      In your analogy the fire would be equivalent to the causality that makes freewill impossible. We beg the question one way or the other if we just assume there's such a "fire." That's why I presented you with the test: explain how causality makes freewill impossible without resorting to the supernatural and thus banned metaphors. Feel free to use any naturalistic metaphor in passing the test.

      In the dialogue I don't beg the question, because I frame the point as a dilemma between Platonism and pragmatism. As Adam puts it, "the ideal of ultimate scientific truth comes from Plato’s religious vision of the world as being made of mathematical and other rational relations, which is convenient since scientists speak the languages of math and logic. In that case the world can agree with our symbols, since the latter literally mirror the former. But you like to laugh off the idea that scientists find God at the center of being. How, though, could the cosmos be mathematical without being rational? How could there be a rational order to events without an intelligent designer of nature? Once you avoid those problems by humbly admitting that science is pragmatic, you’re left with incomplete models or maps of the world, and so again you’ve no right to speak of necessary connections between natural events."

      By the way, I've since added a paragraph to that part of the dialogue that may help explain what I mean: "Moreover, these incomplete maps would allow for our autonomy, because deterministic physics and the ordinary talk of people as being different from animals by virtue of the former's greater self-control would both count as models that have the mere practical merit of fulfilling certain purposes, as opposed to getting at The Truth. Pragmatists about knowledge are going to have a more liberal, inclusive ontology: if a model or a limited map works by helping us predict behaviour, organize our beliefs, and maintain a way of life, we'll defer to it until some better model comes along, one that may eliminate conflicts between models that are bound to crop up because of the patchwork nature of knowledge on this non-Platonic account."

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    2. In your analogy the fire would be equivalent to the causality that makes freewill impossible. We beg the question one way or the other if we just assume there's such a "fire." That's why I presented you with the test: explain how causality makes freewill impossible without resorting to the supernatural and thus banned metaphors. Feel free to use any naturalistic metaphor in passing the test.

      What - how do I get rid of your poltergeist without resorting to the supernatural myself? You've brought up 'free will', but when I, the kettle, go black, you point that out? I was saying this in the first post!

      All you're doing is allowing yourself supernatural terms then denying me/Coyney the use of such terms to spar with you over it.

      Now THAT is an illegitimate advantage!

      When did YOU have to use naturalistic metaphors instead of 'free will'? No? You got a 'get out of jail' card somehow?

      Come speak in naturalistic metaphors and you will recieve naturalistic metaphors. Come speak of a supernatural and...resent anyone who speaks to you on your own terms. Adam - you don't like what you're seeing over there in Coyney? Heh, that's kinda ironic, Adam.

      Once you avoid those problems by humbly admitting that science is pragmatic, you’re left with incomplete models or maps of the world, and so again you’ve no right to speak of necessary connections between natural events.

      Whilst writing yourself a cheque to keep using the term 'free will' in the meantime, because that's what you've always done and old is more truer than new (Everybody totes knows that!)

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    3. Not sure I follow you here, Callan. You're going meta and speaking in riddles. The point made in the dialogue is that the determinist resorts to certain supernatural metaphors to which she's not entitled, to gain an illegitimate advantage over the free will proponent. That's straightforward. To dispute that point, you need to show she's entitled to those metaphors, after all, or she's not using mere metaphors in the first place, or something else along those lines. You haven't done that unless I've missed something, so as far as I can see, Adam's point stands.

      So whenever a determinist says that we have no free will, because effects necessarily follow from causes (e.g. external causes force mental events) and forces dictate these processes according to natural "laws" that govern" the world, I cry foul. That's a bogus argument against free will that needs to be restated before it's even in the running.

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    4. The point made in the dialogue is that the determinist resorts to certain supernatural metaphors to which she's not entitled, to gain an illegitimate advantage over the free will proponent. That's straightforward. To dispute that point, you need to show she's entitled to those metaphors, after all, or she's not using mere metaphors in the first place, or something else along those lines. You haven't done that unless I've missed something, so as far as I can see, Adam's point stands.

      The point is exactly the same as yours, simply following the pointing finger in the opposite direction.

      When did Adam prove he is entitled to his metaphors?

      From here, the entitlement seems all Adam's. We are questioning his notion of free will - but his idea of questioning is that he is entitled to his words - the very thing we are supposedly questioning with him - during that process. Ie, his idea of questioning is that he turns up and is immune to questioning. That's what it seems like from over here.

      So, since when did Adam prove, in a very discussion that questions his metaphors, he is allowed to use those metaphors any more than the other guy?

      Or is it just the sciency guys who can't use it, while Adam can, because...of his specialness or something?

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  3. Is it just me or does ADAM sound foolish?

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    1. Can you tell me what foolishness is, without contradicting determinism? As Adam says, "And how will you make sense of that notion of Truth without talking about the meaning of what scientists say? Once you have meaning, you have something more than the physics, so you leave room for the mind and thus for self-control."

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