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Barbara O'Brien

The Limits of Scientism

By July 11, 2013

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Following up the last two posts -- I want to focus on Lama Jampa's essay "We Are Not Kind Machines: A Radical Rejection of Scientific Buddhism." Please understand that the lama is not knocking science as much as scientism.

What is scientism? I found this definition of "scientism" on a PBS website:

"Unlike the use of the scientific method as only one mode of reaching knowledge, scientism claims that science alone can render truth about the world and reality. Scientism's single-minded adherence to only the empirical, or testable, makes it a strictly scientifc worldview, in much the same way that a Protestant fundamentalism that rejects science can be seen as a strictly religious worldview. Scientism sees it necessary to do away with most, if not all, metaphysical, philosophical, and religious claims, as the truths they proclaim cannot be apprehended by the scientific method. In essence, scientism sees science as the absolute and only justifiable access to the truth."

The link in the paragraph above goes to a discussion of metaphysics that I found helpful, also. See also "Buddhism and Metaphysics." I realize now that the weird claim that the Buddha wasn't interested in the nature of reality -- a bit like saying chefs aren't interested in cooking --† probably is connected to the scientistic streak infecting Buddhism in the West.

Like many of you, I'm sure, one of the things that drew me to Buddhism in the first place is that it didn't ask me to believe anything that contradicts scientific knowledge. But I've also long believed that scientific knowledge has its limits. I see no logical reason to believe that just because a thing isn't subject to empirical observation or testing doesn't mean that thing cannot possibly be valid. As Lama Jampa says,

"This modern materialism adds nothing to the old Charvaka theories except the illusion that, if complex physical processes are described in minute enough detail, we the audience will not notice the sleight of hand involved when sentience is magically conjured out of non-sentient matter and Pinocchio becomes a real boy. In fact, materialism cannot explain how life arose out of non-life, how consciousness arose from the non-conscious, with any more compelling seriousness than the theist who declares that God simply said: 'let there be light.'

"The crucial point, therefore, is that dharma has nothing to fear from, nor any need to prostrate to, science. Science works well in detecting and quantifying things that have a material or mechanistic explanation, such as the structure of DNA.†It is the proper task of science to formulate and test hypotheses about how physical processes work.†This inbuilt limitation does not invalidate the usefulness of the scientific enterprise, but it does put it at some disadvantage in describing the nonmaterial, such as ethics, the nature of mind, and liberation from samsara--the core concerns of dharma."

The flip side of the Buddhism and science issue is that there are those who want science to "prove" the truth of Buddhism somehow. I've bumped into people who think the Abhidhamma is about quantum mechanics, for example. One suspects this approach could generate a lot of junk science, not to mention junk Buddhism.

The scientistic-materialistic crowd do not like to be told there are things the scientific method cannot measure, and when you do they nearly always retort that such a claim is a "god of the gaps" argument. But this assumes that the only alternative to what science can tell us is superstition and belief in unseen spirits. It's beyond their comprehension that the unmeasurable thing might be no more supernatural or the stuff of fanciful imagination than cats or gravity.

In his very excellent book Meditations of a Buddhist Skeptic, B. Alan Wallace points out that the various branches of science don't agree on materialism and whether non-material things might be "real" in some way. And as I understand it (which isn't much), quantum physics really is challenging the belief in a universe "constituted of absolutely objective matter" and nothing else. But that which is not absolutely objective matter is not necessarily a "sky fairy." It may be non-material phenomena operating under their own natural laws, but which are not measurable by any way we yet know how to measure.

Really, is that so hard to understand?

Comments
July 11, 2013 at 5:26 pm
(1) Windsor Viney says:

“But that which is not absolutely objective matter is not necessarily a ‘sky fairy.’ It may be non-material phenomena operating under their own natural laws, but which are not measurable by any way we yet know how to measure.”

That could turn out to be true, but a god-of-the-gaps opponent can point to the history of human enquiry into the nature of the world, and claim that, at least in recent centuries, it has consisted of a relentless encroachment by materialist (better: physicalist) explanations upon every area of traditionally immaterialist/nonphysicalist explanation.

We cannot now know, and probably cannot even imagine, the means with which our remote descendants (assuming there are any!) will be able to enquire into the nature of the world, but the *trajectory* of that enquiry — as far as we can see it from our limited perspective — is toward ever-more-subtle and detailed physical explanations.

As people on both sides of the discussion realize, a physicalist explanation of awareness/consciousness (if one is forthcoming) will be decisive. If it turns out that the world is completely intelligible to beings such as we are (or our remote descendants will be) — and that is itself a big “if” (the world may just be too complicated for *any* consciousness like ours fully to understand) — then my money’s on (what we now think of as) a physical explanation.

Fortunately, in the very nature of the case, I (probably) won’t have to pay up if I am wrong.

July 11, 2013 at 9:47 pm
(2) Barbara O'Brien says:

Windsor — the important thing, from the perspective of practice, is to expect nothing, to assume nothing, to anticipate nothing. Let insight come when it comes. Allow yourself room to be surprised.

July 11, 2013 at 5:34 pm
(3) leebert says:

Yes, Barb, that is very hard to understand, that Thaye gets to denigrate materialism as a naive materialism and gets to throw stereotypes around with abandon. I find that really, really strange.

July 11, 2013 at 6:56 pm
(4) leebert says:

I’m going to expand on that thought, Barbara. If you’d re-read the section about Pinocchio for yourself, I’ll provide a narrative:

First he slights academic and scientific materialism as being the same as some Vedic or Jainist view (modern materialism is nothing of the sort, Thaye is simply employing a popular slur against naive materialistm). That’s the first thought-terminating cliche or stereotype, offense #1.

Then in support of that view, he clearly demands that consciousness will never to be shown to have arisen from non-conscious processes, and likewise that animate life can’t ever be demonstrated likewise from non-animate ones (that’s a new one on me … I never knew Buddhist clerics felt that way about biochemistry). That, and any view otherwise is tantamount to hoping to raise Pinocchio out of dead wood.

He then caps it off by comparing theistic ontology (“Let there be light”) with some imputed hand-waving by empiricists. Ignoring the deeper metaphorical interpretations of “Let there be light,” Thaye belies his own hardened sentiments by rendering the phrase in Genesis into A LITERAL ONE, as a caricature of science and empiricism as a conceited ontology. What that he has cemented, reified materialism as a totemist domain of nerds in lab coats.

And by bringing “Let there be light” down to some kind of superstitious exaggeration of metaphor, he then suggests that empiricists, humanists and the like are simply superstitious in their addiction to materialism.

With those few sentences we’re supposed to accept the argument & dispense with all of that. His prior knowledge needn’t any explanation – we’re supposed to be hip that the other guys are squares.

This is a veiled case of the “No Good Scotsman” argument, that a good Buddhist should disavow a material examination of certain, inviolable processes. What entitles anyone to say *how* the Dharma may be encountered?

July 11, 2013 at 9:44 pm
(5) Barbara O'Brien says:

Wow, leebert, I’d say you’re the one who needs to re-read things. You are seeing all manner of content that I say isn’t there. Projection, dude. It’s not healthy.

July 11, 2013 at 8:48 pm
(6) Mila says:

re: “We cannot now know, and probably cannot even imagine, the means with which our remote descendants (assuming there are any!) will be able to enquire into the nature of the world, but the *trajectory* of that enquiry ó as far as we can see it from our limited perspective ó is toward ever-more-subtle and detailed physical explanations.”

As long as you haven’t yet challenged the assumption of a subject/object (aka self/world) duality, upon which statements such as this are based, you haven’t yet dipped even a little toe into the actual practice/path of Buddha Dharma.

July 11, 2013 at 9:07 pm
(7) Mila says:

re: “he then suggests that empiricists, humanists and the like are simply superstitious in their addiction to materialism.”

leebert — I just re-read the article, and nowhere do I find a denigration of empiricists or humanists.

In fact, Lama Jampa points to and applauds the empirical (and rational) nature of Buddha Dharma itself:

“Rather, itís because the dharma need only be defended by direct experience and reasoning that it doesnít need to borrow these aspects from science.”

And also to its way-beyond-humanist aspirations and capacity:

“The unique force of the dharma lies in its diagnosis of suffering and its causes and its prescription of the path to the cessation of that suffering.”

July 11, 2013 at 10:21 pm
(8) Vanya says:

There’s no need to coin a new term, scientism. It’s rationalism, an already well-developed philosophy.

I too hate it when people try to equate Buddhist concepts with quantum mechanics, or whatever.

July 12, 2013 at 2:09 am
(9) Yuan says:

The only problem with Scientism is the attachment to the view of what Scientism is (what it can do, what it cannot do, what it is, what it is not, what non-scientism is, what non-scientism can do…etc.) (c.f. The article on “Clinging to Views (About Buddhism))

Buddha said that there are 84000 ways to enlightenment, who’s to say that scientific method is not one of them. This comment from Barbara:
the important thing, from the perspective of practice, is to expect nothing, to assume nothing, to anticipate nothing. Let insight come when it comes. Allow yourself room to be surprised applies to scientists using scientific method looking at the results of empirical experiments as well as Buddhists in their practice.

There are things that we currently cannot experiment or observe using science and technologies available to us. But didn’t Buddha taught us about impermanence?

What we cannot do today with science, we may yet to be able to do tomorrow. It is best not to be attached to any views about science, about Buddhism or any ideas, labels, thoughts as if they are definite and permanent.

July 12, 2013 at 10:47 am
(10) Barbara O'Brien says:

Yuan — you are confusing scientism with science. They are not the same thing. I agree that it’s wise not to anticipate what science may or may not teach us, until it has taught us. However, scientism shuts off the possibility of learning by any other way. Scientism denies the method of direct insight taught by the Buddha.

July 12, 2013 at 11:01 am
(11) leebert says:

Barbara, that’s unfair. Thaye is making some pretty wild-looking claims, for instance that science cannot explain how animate life arose.

No, the root of this conflict lies squarely in parochial Buddhism.

Theravada doctrine states that a chain of events leads from one consciousness to another, yet part of that chain is not, itself, conscious. Vajrayana contends however that underlying that is a continuance of Mind.

The Vajrayana doctrine in particular projects an anthropic experience onto *inanimate experiences.*

I fully appreciate the framework, but the conflict with modern materialism arises out of a form of animism, Mind-animism, that reifies consciousness to such a level.

The underlying problem here is that “Mind” or “Consciousness” are actually Empty.

Consciousness, like Self, is an illusory, evanescent process – Empty. How or why this interpretation of DO has facilitated Consciousness gaining an exceptional status (from either the foundational doctrines of Not-Self or of Emptiness) is beyond any level on inquiry I’m likely to pursue.

It does suggest to me that somewhere in antiquity, there arose a cultural (animist / shamanic) discomfiture with the doctrines of Sunyata and Anatman. The solution appears to be this Animist Mind doctrine.

This puts Vajrayana in an uncomfortable situation.

I think I’ve noted in passing references to Semi-animist Mind in Zen, as part of the injunction “Where is Mind?” koan. But AFAIK, the conclusion settles on “Not there (nor there or there …),” or “Don’t Know.” At a metaphorical level I “get” this Mind-Animism, but not taken to a fundamentalist level.

Simply, with Mind/consciousness imbued into everything, an animist Dharma would appear to be under assault from any science seeking to establish how the “animate arose from the inanimate” (much less how the “conscious arose from the unconscious”).

I don’t see that this is materialism’s problem to fix.

July 12, 2013 at 1:40 pm
(12) Barbara O'Brien says:

leebert — First, the “What Is Mind” koan isn’t even remotely connected to animism. In any form. Semi, metaphorical, or otherwise. If you haven’t had some formal exposure to Zen koans, I suggest you just leave them alone. They cannot be “figured out,” and all intellectual interpretations of them are wrong.

Second, it’s a fact that science has not yet explained how animate life arose. Perhaps it will someday. Or perhaps it won’t. But the point, which you persist in missing, is that the faith of scientism rather blindly overlooks the fact that there are phenomena that science has not and may never explain; that are “real” things outside the reach of the scientific method, just as they are outside the reach of philosophical speculation.

“I don’t see that this is materialism’s problem to fix.”

Personally, I don’t know that it’s anybody’s problem to fix. But materialism must assume that animate life arose from the inanimate, because materialism (by definition) doesn’t provide non-materialist alternatives. If it’s materialism’s claim, then the challenge is to materialism to prove it. However, the dedicated materialist ducks the question by refusing to acknowledge that there are phenomena materialism cannot account for. Rigid materialism cannot be taken to logical ends without collapsing into intellectual dishonesty.

July 12, 2013 at 11:10 am
(13) leebert says:

<>

Fine.

“This modern materialism adds nothing to the old Charvaka theories except the illusion that, if complex physical processes are described in minute enough detail, we the audience will not notice the sleight of hand involved when sentience is magically conjured out of non-sentient matter and Pinocchio becomes a real boy.”

That’s offense #1 Barbara as I enumerated above (remember, I only have 2000 characters to work with in these comments).

“… In fact, materialism cannot explain how life arose out of non-life,”

Seriously Barbara. Am I supposed to take that statement at face value with any seriousness?

“… how consciousness arose from the non-conscious, with any more compelling seriousness than the theist who declares that God simply said: ‘let there be light.’”

Or that one?

Thaye is setting up materialism as a doddering naive materialism *AND* (ironically) a spiritual materialism.

I’m not unique in this perspective, other people on the Trike forum pointed it out before I did, and they felt likewise at odds with both the doctrine & found themselves patronized by other posters on Thaye’s blogspace.

Feel free to denigrate my efforts some more, my prior comment awaits your derision.

July 12, 2013 at 1:16 pm
(14) Barbara O'Brien says:

leebert — You aren’t making arguments. You are not explaining why you find the quotes wrong or offensive. You are only calling names and throwing a tantrum. Therefore, there is nothing more to be said. My administrative functions here do not permit me to ban commenters, but I can delete comments, which I will do to yours in the future if you remain incapable of coherent rational discourse.

July 12, 2013 at 2:09 pm
(15) facethemusic says:

99% of the time, the academic approach to the buddhadharma is not compatible with the practitioner’s approach. The former is “about” Buddhism as if looking in from the outside, while the latter gets someone “into” the practice directly – and over time this provides a framework for direct experience of the view. The academic approach is not a path, but more of a dualistic intellectual exercise disguised as a path.

From that perspective, much of this has an “angels on the head of a pin” feel to it.

July 12, 2013 at 2:22 pm
(16) Mila says:

leebert — like Barbara, I find your comments to be largely incoherent. Particularly bizarre is your choice to use the word “animism” (a term coined by anthropologists to describe a certain belief system, within tribal/shamanic cultures, according to which inanimate objects possess a spiritual essence) is relation to Buddha Dharma. Suffice it to say that a correct view of the Two Truths is anything but animistic. What you refer to as an “Animist Mind doctrine” is nothing but a figment of your own imagination :)

re: “The Vajrayana doctrine in particular projects an anthropic experience onto *inanimate experiences.*

I’d be curious to see textual citations which justify this claim.

re: “Consciousness, like Self, is an illusory, evanescent process Ė Empty. How or why this interpretation of DO has facilitated Consciousness gaining an exceptional status (from either the foundational doctrines of Not-Self or of Emptiness) is beyond any level on inquiry Iím likely to pursue.”

What you seem to be missing here, is the distinction between, on the one hand, “consciousness” (or “mind”) as one of the Five Sakndhas; and, on the other hand, the “nature of mind” (aka Pure Awareness or what in Zen is referred to as True Self). If ever you deign to extend your inquiry into areas which may challenge your current views — check out the debates between Mind-Only (Cittamatra) and Shentong understandings of the Three Natures of Existence.

cont’d below

July 12, 2013 at 2:22 pm
(17) Mila says:

Mahayana Buddhism is rooted largely in two philosophical systems: Madhyamaka and Yogacara. The fundamental insights of Madhyamaka are that all phenomena are devoid of an inherent nature; and that all we think of as (conceptual) knowledge is ultimately without grounding. Yogacara (a form of subjective idealism) holds that the contents of awareness (viz. thoughts, sensations, perceptions) arise out of and are ontologically one with awareness.

A materialist (naive or otherwise) view is clearly at odds with both of the above. No matter how subtle a materialist investigation becomes, if it’s still searching for the “building-blocks” of existence as a material “something” — without questioning *who* or *what* is doing the searching — it’s unlikely to be a useful ally in supporting the kind of insights which, in authentic Buddhist practice, can facilitate an awakening from the dream of suffering.

July 12, 2013 at 2:45 pm
(18) jigme dorje says:

Actually leebert isnt incoherent. What you mean is that you don’t understand his point. When we question rather than argue we may be surprised at what we may learn. Isolating animism from context rather than understanding that it is one cultural element that comprises the whole is a red herring argument. You may disagree but to do so you must first understand.

July 12, 2013 at 3:37 pm
(19) Barbara O'Brien says:

Isolating animism from context rather than understanding that it is one cultural element that comprises the whole is a red herring argument. You may disagree but to do so you must first understand.

Believe it or not, some of us actually have extensive background knowledge of Buddhist doctrines and how they developed, And while there are animistic elements in what might be called “folk” or “popular” Buddhism, this is not true of formal doctrine, and it sure as hell isn’t true of the “What Is Mind” koan. That comment by itself was utterly off the wall and reveals starkly that leebert has no idea what he is talking about. Clearly, he has dropped down some intellectual rabbit hole.

And since Leebert’s comments show he does not understand Lama Jampa’s point, please direct your comments about points to him. Thanks much.

July 12, 2013 at 4:51 pm
(20) jigme dorje says:

You’re clearly defensive.Folks like Leeburt cut their teeth on Buddhist doctrine decades back.

July 12, 2013 at 5:21 pm
(21) Barbara O'Brien says:

You’re clearly defensive.Folks like Leeburt cut their teeth on Buddhist doctrine decades back.

No, he didn’t, and I don’t have time for this silliness. Good-bye.

July 12, 2013 at 5:30 pm
(22) leebert says:

As I said before, I’m limited to 2000 word comments. The result is I’m addressing a very complicated problem without any room to do it.

But frankly I have been dismissed, and only returned to see if I could just delete any of my comments myself. I come back only to find I’ve been denigrated some more after the fact.

This is disheartening, not for any of my own misapprehensions on Vajrayana but for the insular and invidious response I received from the onset. I do understand these issues well enough to converse with like-minded people in my own Sangha, in a style to which I’m accustomed (above).

Apparently it doesn’t suit everyone, and that’s to be expected. To find a common ground requires a willingness to navigate into some new territory.

Sadly, religious Buddhism looks to me so much like Christianity from my own perspective. Between them they are two perfectly good liberation theologies being strangled by their own votaries.

Maybe this is why the secular mindfulness movement is able to move forward and expand, it’s left all this stuff behind. Maybe this is why Stephen Batchelor’s calling for a new Dharma, or a Buddhism 2.0. I’d hoped a fresh ecumenicalism would be possible, but not if this experience is any measure.

Excuse me, but I feel really disgusted, and embarrassed for having gotten into this. Enough is enough.

July 13, 2013 at 1:36 am
(23) buddhanonymous says:

I feel some compassion for people like Leeburt, who is clearly struggling with Buddhist practice and the Eightfold Path. Scientism and materialism are impediments to practice, but they can seem familiar and understandable, as against Joshu’s Mu and the Prajnaparamita Sutra. So Leeburt (and others) discards all the scary stuff, with the claim that it is remnants of animism, or something.

I think that you have said that the aspects of Dharma that are hardest to swallow are those that in the end are most helpful in practice.

July 13, 2013 at 8:04 am
(24) Tom says:

Buddhists beware!!!!

Dependent arising: arguments of the Leebert/Barbara type could lead to the arising of a buddhist equivalent of Richard Dawkins!

The confusion of science and scientism – and the resulting emotions – points out that words should be chosen carefully and their impact on the receiver considered compassionately.

In the end, it will all come out in the wash, or as His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama has said “If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong,
then Buddhism will have to change”

July 13, 2013 at 8:25 am
(25) Barbara O'Brien says:

Tom, keep it straight — I’m the one who is arguing not to keep Buddhism in a scientistic/materialistic box, or any other box. Let it breathe; let it adapt; but let it do so by means of direct insight, not by intellectual speculation. And, frankly, leebert really doesn’t know what he’s talking about, although he’s apparently very good at copying and pasting big words.

A lot of Buddhist doctrines already have been modified to fit scientific knowledge; this has been going on in Asia for quite some time. However, the Buddha’s basic teachings on the nature of suffering and liberation therefrom do not depend on the measures of the phenomenal world. Put another way, the dharma itself has not changed; just the way it is framed and presented.

I’m going to be away most of the day (silent retreat; no peaking at the Internet) so since I’m not going to be here to referee I’m going to shut down comments, at least temporarily.

July 25, 2013 at 9:37 pm
(26) Lama Rama Ding Dong says:

My Son, these maxims make a rule An lump them ay thegither: The Rigid Righteous is a fool, The Rigid Wise anither. ó Robert Burns

August 26, 2013 at 9:33 pm
(27) GBuckles says:

This is an exciting little thread and I feel compelled to make a few observations about it. Like Leebert, I can’t seem to observe the 2000 character limit, so I’ll break this into pieces. With a little luck, no one will read this anyway!

“Like many of you, I’m sure, one of the things that drew me to Buddhism in the first place is that it didn’t ask me to believe anything that contradicts scientific knowledge. But I’ve also long believed that scientific knowledge has its limits. ”

Well, that is like me. Science does not need a defense, and I’m a great believer in what I usually term scientific materialism. But no less a luminary than Sir James Jeans pointed out that science is “a schedule of pointer readings, odorless, colorless, tasteless, the endless hurrying of electrons to and fro…” There is no meter that will register a Shakespeare play as more significant than an old episode “Mr. Ed.” Many of the early quantum theorists (especially Heisenburg) were able philosophers, and their comments on the limitations of science make great reading today. Physics is an endless elaboration of just three primitive terms: mass, duration, extension. Let’s not make it into a religion!

I find it interesting that mathematics, enquiring into its own roots in the first part of the 20th century, saw only three possibilities: logicism, formalism, and intuitionalism (then derided as the “pipeline to God”). The Goedel Incompleteness theorems destroyed both of the first two options, leaving the efforts of both Ludwig Wittgenstein and Bertrand Russell to founder. More recently, as I understand it, the Bell inequalities leave even simple location as an untenable hypothesis.

August 27, 2013 at 10:01 am
(28) Barbara O'Brien says:

<blockquote>I?m a great believer in what I usually term scientific materialism. </blockquote>

Scientific materialism, unfortunately, is incompatible with the Buddha dharma. As you go deeper, you have to let go of materialism or stay stuck in half-assed understanding.

Required reading, if you are interested in this topic — <em>Meditations of a Buddhist Skeptic: A Manifesto for the Mind Sciences and Contemplative Practice</em>, by B. Alan Wallace. Unlike most people writing on this subject of science and dharma, he actually understands it.

<blockquote>Of the many things I have loved about Buddhism is that it IS highly empirical, always inviting questions and demanding that you test the teachings in the crucible of your own experience. And it points out that questions and answers are themselves distinctions, provisional steps towards a ?truth? that cannot be written down.</blockquote>

It cannot be written down, yet it can be expressed. Realizations and insights can be tested and verified. It isn’t whatever you want it to be. Indeed, if you’ve never allowed your understanding to be challenged by a master teacher, chances are it ain’t worth a bucket of warm spit.

<blockquote>So I see Leebert?s comments as sophisticated, educated, and highly worthy of consideration. </blockquote>

His inane babble about “animism” all by itself proved he doesn’t know dharma from doughnuts, never mind the rest of the word salad.

I realize there is a big subset of online bookstore Buddhists who like to fluff up their egos by pretending they know something, and making a big intellectual game out of it, and you and leebert both reek out loud of play-pretense. Five minutes in dokusan would take the wind out of your sails, I suspect.

August 26, 2013 at 9:35 pm
(29) GBuckles says:

With the Einstein tensor, we are offered a viable physical cosmology. With JS Bach’s Goldberg Variations, we are moved by an equally viable spiritual cosmology. Do we really want to argue who is the greater genius?

Of the many things I have loved about Buddhism is that it IS highly empirical, always inviting questions and demanding that you test the teachings in the crucible of your own experience. And it points out that questions and answers are themselves distinctions, provisional steps towards a “truth” that cannot be written down.

So I see Leebert’s comments as sophisticated, educated, and highly worthy of consideration. Most are outside my realm of expertise. I do think that believing science will account for everything is itself a touching declaration of faith. After all, it has not done so — and nitpicking the good lama’s ontology will not likely advance the cause of liberation.

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