Natural: Redux.

I need to make an alteration to the post below.  I give the impression that evolution involves teleology or agency on the part of the individual. There is no active adaptation in evolution, no moment when an animal thinks ” if I did x I would be able to deal with y better”. The ones that happen to be better adapted survive, the rest don’t. There are no decisions, and no individual changes or adapts. The picture changes gradually over generations.

But I don’t think this changes the general idea behind my argument. The point stands that “natural” is a situationally defined construct. If anything, it makes it all the clearer that there can be no meaningful appeal to a biological “nature”.

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Recently, I was involved in a conversation about gender roles. Someone raised the idea that certain things are more “natural” for men and women because of our evolutionary history.

I think the general point they were trying to make was this: women have evolved to be more nurturing and men have evolved to be more competitive because that’s what worked best when humans first evolved from apes. Women had babies they had to protect, and men had to compete for food to feed the family (be “the hunter-gatherer”). This isn’t an outrageously strange position to hold. Many people hang onto the idea that it is essentially the man’s role to be the breadwinner. Others argue that there is evolutionary-biological difference between the female and male brain (there is a difference, actually, but it doesn’t confirm stereotypes. I’ll post about this sometime in the future).

While there are many scientific, political, philosophical and social issues to be discussed here, I’m limiting myself to something quite narrow: the use of the word “natural” in any debate that appeals to evolution.

Under the theory of evolution the concept of what is “natural” is instrumental, not intrinsic. Species adopt certain characteristics because they help them adapt to their environment. What is natural is what is instrumentally useful for a creature’s survival at a certain time in a certain place. A giraffe has a long neck so it can reach the food on the trees in the area it inhabits, not because it is “in the nature of the giraffe” to have a long neck. It’s just something that happened because it was useful.

This has two outcomes for the current debate. 1. Once the particular environment has stopped calling for a certain characteristic, it is no longer useful to carry on using it. Ergo, it is no longer natural.. The fact that it was natural for men to hunt mammoths and women to be pregnant in the cave back in cave man times does not mean it is natural now. Because we (I mean, for the most part) do not live in caves and eat mammoth. Which brings me onto the second point.  2. Because what is natural is purely situational, the word should have no real force in an argument. Is it natural for women to stay at home? Well, is it a useful means to an end?  In that particular situation at that particular time?

You could say that if we are sticking close to the evolutionary framework, we should conclude “yes”- it means that women will have more babies, and this is ultimate signature of evolutionary success. But is it? The fact that we have brains which can rationalise and think about the concept of equality and happiness is no less part of our nature. So why prefer one over the other? That needs it own justifying argument. What’s more, overpopulation is a genuine global concern. There is a sense in which we will be more successful as a species if we have fewer babies because the world’s resources are running out. This has the appearance of taking a dramatic swing away from what it we intuitively label biological success (i.e. reproduction) but in reality it is no different the evolution and survival of every other species. We are adapting to our circumstances to ensure the continuation of the species.

If a couple has a baby, and the woman has a good business degree whereas the man has no qualifications, then maybe sending the woman out to work and leaving the man at home is the best way of taking advantage of the circumstances to ensure a better chance of survival for this couples child. I believe this sticks more closely to the guiding principles of evolution than my friend’s argument does.

Of course, in reality the problem is far more deeply rooted than this. Women do not have good business degrees as often as men, and here lies the real issue. But let’s not make it worse by wrongly using the word “natural” to defend traditional gender roles; giving the who thing a scientific sheen it isn’t entitled too. The time when the provider/protector dichotomy was pragmatic and useful has long since passed. Our “natures” as men and women are no longer relevant to the situation, and therefore they no longer exist. As long as we are still humans, we will always carry on evolving. It’s time our values did the same.

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“Good and evil are names…

“Good and evil are names for what people do, not what they are. People are too complex to be given such simple labels”

– Phillip Pullman.

Simple. Genius.

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“Words, words! They’re all we have to go on!”

In the post below I fell into the same trap many psychologists and writers do when talking about behaviour. I describe people as being introverted and extroverted.  In reality, there is no such thing as an introvert or an extrovert. Introversion is not a property, it is an activity- not something you are, but something you do.

Calling someone an “introvert” is simply short-hand for “someone who prefers introverting to extroverting”. Despite being aware of this, the short hand can tempt us to think in misleading ways. Even when qualifying statements about personality traits, writers use go-to phrases such as “tend to” or “more often than not”. This is equally misleading.

To see why, consider the following thought experiment. Sally is a professional biker who spends more time biking than not biking .For the sake of argument, I will assume that the only way Sally can move her bike is by pushing on the pedals, and ignore situations in which this is not the case e.g. riding downhill.

These two sentences are intended to have the same meaning:

  1. Sally is a bike rider; she often pushes on the pedals to move her bike.
  2. Sally often rides her bike. When Sally is riding her bike she pushes on the pedals to move it.

The first statement is confusing: We know that Sally is a bike-rider and we know that pedals are necessary to move the bike. So why the “often”?  Because Sally isn’t always on her bike.  She also eats, sleeps, talks with friends etc. She is on her bike often, and when she is on her bike she is pushing pedals, ergo she is often pushing pedals. Complicated, no? The second statement expresses the same idea far more clearly and logically because it doesn’t add the confusion of ascribing the property “bike-rider” to Sally. It (correctly) refers to bike-riding as an activity that she often engages in.

We see a similar pattern when describing cognitive functions-which are mental activities-as though they were properties of the person in question.

Now compare the following two sentences:

  1. Tom is an introvert; he tends focus more on his internal world than the external world.
  2. Tom often introverts. When Tom is introverting he focuses on his internal world.

In this case sentence one does not jar as much as it did in Sally’s case because we are used to talking about character traits as though they are properties rather than activities. But on closer analysis this approach falls apart. It is a necessary feature of introversion that more focus is placed on the internal world. So if Tom only “tends to” focus more on his internal world, and Tom is an introvert, what happens all those times that he is not focusing on his internal world? Is he taking a break from being Tom?

Of course not. And of course no-one focuses internally or externally a hundred percent of the time. Introverting is something Tom tends to do. So if there are times when Tom is more externally focused (like when he is at a party) he is just like Sally taking a day-off from bike training. He is not doing his preferred activity but he remains the same person, and the activity remains the same activity.

If we treat character traits as properties we cannot properly deal with the circumstantial nature of human behaviour. We end up committing ourselves to the conclusion that Tom is not Tom while he’s extroverting, or that introversion doesn’t mean focus on the internal world (which it must do, because that is how it is defined.)

Critics may accuse me of being harsh. Calling Sally a “bike-rider” or Tom an “introvert” in common parlance only means that enjoying doing these activities is part of who they are. Of course they don’t stop being themselves just because they stop for a second. That’s taking it to an unreasonable extreme. Well, maybe. But why not opt for the more accurate form of expression? I hope I’ve shown that, at least in the case of Tom, the change of emphasis would be worth our while.

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The Neuroscience of Introversion.

I recently read “The Introvert Advantage” by Marti Olsen Laney. The best chapter of the book by far was entitled “The Emerging Brainscape” which discusses the known physiological differences between introverts and extroverts. Though the book as a whole was too long for the amount of information it conveyed, this chapter was genuinely informative.

There are four key differences between the introvert and extrovert brain: the quantity of blood that flows to the brain, the path the blood takes through the brain, the chemicals needed to feel good and the type of nervous system most commonly activated.

Introverts have a greater blood flow to the brain than extroverts. Blood flows to parts of the body that are stimulated, suggesting that introverted individuals tend to be more easily stimulated than extroverted induviduals. Extroverts must compensate for this by appealing to the outside environment for stimulation through social contact, new experiences and physical activity, which is why they tend to be more engaged with the outside world.

What’s more, the path the blood takes within the introvert’s brain is longer and more complex than that of the extrovert. Perhaps unsurprisingly, blood in the introvert brain flows through areas that have a greater internal focus: like memory and planning. The extrovert blood pathway takes a more experiential route, focusing mostly on immediate sense experiences (excluding smell, for some reason).

Thirdly, introverts and extroverts require different chemicals to feel good. The extrovert engine needs dopamine to run, and lots of it. Unfortunately, the extrovert neural pathway is not very sensitive to dopamine and it must make more using adrenaline. Adrenaline is produced during action, which is why extroverts feel good the more active they are: they produce more adrenaline which in turn produces more dopamine.

Introverts, with their increased blood flow, are more sensitive to dopamine and can easily overindulge. So their dominant brain pathway avoids dopamine and instead uses the neurotransmitter acetylcholine (a-see-to-ko-leen). This chemical produces a good feeling when the person is engaged in thinking or feeling, so these activities are likely to be more rewarding than action for the introverted person.

Dopamine and acetylcholine activate different nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system (“fight or flight”) is activated by dopamine and prompts action. The parasympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, is activated by acetylcholine and prompts withdrawal. The two clearly have parallels with the everyday behaviour of introverts and extroverts.  Under stress, a person is more likely to revert to their dominant mode of functioning. In a “neutral” but stressful situation (rather than one that clearly requires a specific response, like being chased by a tiger) extroverts and likely to leap into nervous actions and introverts are likely to shut-down and withdraw.

The physiological quirks of introverts have a couple of interesting side-effects: due to their tendency to use a longer brain pathway, introverts have a slower response time than extroverts. It often takes them a while to process information before coming to a conclusion. Additionally,  an introvert’s long-term memory is much better than their short term memory. They may not be able to remember where they just put their glasses down but their recall of experiences in the distant past or information learnt a long time ago is comparatively very good.

(The information summarised here can be found in Marti’s book.)

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Metaphor: The Psychoanalytic Equivalent to McDowell’s Philosophy of Perception? Part One- Spaces.

This idea has been building within me for months. Here I will sketch it crudely, quickly, but hopefully not too inaccurately. I believe that McDowell’s model of perception can help us understand how the unconscious mind interacts with the conscious mind. In this post I hope to lay the initial groundwork for my idea by outlining the two models I am considering, and showing at least one way in which they are analogous. 


McDowell’s Big Idea:  

Here’s the problem: how do we get knowledge from sense experience? Willfred Sellars, drawing on the scheme-content debate between Quine and Davidson, has proposed two metaphorical spaces that we use to understand the world: the space of causes and the space of reasons. In the space of causes things just happen: A causes B. Why did the rock fall when it was dropped? Because the laws of gravity caused it to fall. In the space of reasons things don’t just happen: things are right and wrong in light of other statements. This is where logic finds it’s home. Take the most common logical argument: If P therefore Q. P. Therefore Q. Why Q? Because P. Unlike the example of the rock, P did not really cause Q to happen. P is the reason for Q. It justifies Q’s validity, according to the logic of the argument.

So the two spaces are like two different games with different sets of rules. What’s the problem? It’s hardly controversial to claim that empirical investigation and logical discourse are not the same thing.

Well, the problem is we,as physical bodies, exist within the Space of Causes. That means that when we see something and our retinas send the information to our brain (see Death Cab for Cutie’s “Lack of Colour” for a succint description of this process) the whole thing happens within the Space of Causes. But if we want to use this information in a rational inference- for example: there is a cup on the table. I want to reach the cup. If I reach over and grab the cup I will be able to pick it up-then it must exist within the Space of Reasons, because it has an “if….then…”structure.

How does the information get from the space of causes into the space of reasons? Well, before McDowell there were only two options, and neither were that appealing:

1.  The first is called “The Myth of the Given”. It is a “myth” because it simply ignores the problem. It is the idea that  we can simply use a piece of information from the Space of Causes in a Space-of-Reasons-style inference. Let’s say that the two spaces are two languages: English and Japanese. We are struggling to translate a word from Japanese to English, and end up concluding that it simply isn’t translatable. If we were to follow a “Myth of the Given” approach we would simply insert that Japanese character into the English sentence, completely ignoring the fact that the two languages share different rules: different grammar, a different alphabet etc. It doesn’t work.

2. The second is “Coherentism”. This idea is very Quinian. It essentially says that we should put everything within the Space of Reasons. The Space of Causes is only useful when describing the non-human, non-mental “outside” world, and we don’t have access to this anyway (viz. The Matrix). As humans we just create a coherent network of beliefs and formulas and place these over reality like a big fishing net. We don’t actually interact with reality- it just provides us with raw material that we can mould and interpret as we wish.

McDowell prefers to refer to “Coherentism” and “Frictionless spinning in a void”- I do love how overdramatic he is. What he’s getting at, though, is that in Coherentism there is no constraint on our understanding from “the outside”. As long as we come up with a coherent network (no holes in the fishing net) then we can pretty much interpret reality as we want. This isn’t as bad as 1 (which literally makes no sense), but it still isn’t ideal. In the best possible world our beliefs about the world would be based on an objective reality about the world.

So, how does McDowell propose to solve this? How does he create a bridge between the space of Causes and the Space of Reasons? He argues that human beings are the bridge. Unlike other animals we have an innate capacity to learn and use language which is a distinctly Space of Reasons phenomenon. McDowell argues that this rational-conceptual-linguistic ability is so part of nature as beings that even our perception is governed by it. We don’t see things, we see concepts. Concepts can exist within the Space of Reasons, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t genuinely tied to the thing they conceptualise.

A concept of something necessarily includes the word for that thing. There are no concepts without language. This doesn’t mean that we literally see the word “chair” instead of a chair itself. It means that the linguistic organisation of data is so fundamental to our neuro-biology that our perception of the chair necessarily uses language based “conceptual capacities” as well- we cannot divorce the thing from the word that describes it in sight, smell, touch or taste. Conceptualisation is not just a function of thinking, it seeps through the entirety of our (human) being.

So we can use sense data to justify our beliefs about the world because sense data is part of the Space of Reasons. We were born to be creatures of the Space of Reasons despite physically existing in the Space of Causes.

Freud’s Unconscious:

Like many analytic philosophers, McDowell may be guilty of over-emphasising rationality in humans. Freud is not guilty of this, if anything he swings a bit too far the other way, arguing that humans are ultimately at the sway of their biological drives. Drives give rise to emotions which motivate action. Rationalisation is essentially an excuse-it stops us facing the parts of ourselves it is so painful to face; all those things we have repressed deep into our unconscious minds.

An integral part of Freud’s theory of the unconscious is that it operates using different rules to the conscious mind (anything sound familiar, yet?). The unconscious mind works by primary process thinking which does not take heed of cause and effect, space or time. So in the unconscious “A causes B” is the same as “B causes A”. Things that happen far apart in space and time are treated as though they could influence one another. Our closest conscious experience of primary process thinking is dreaming: this is why dreams seem nonsensical and appear to have their own logic.

This dream-logic also includes two mental functions that don’t show up in conscious rational thought that often: “condensation” and “displacement”. In a dream one thing can be many-there may be one house in your dream but somehow you know that it is both your house and your grandparent’s house. This is condensation. Also, one thing can really be another- you see a person who looks like your maths teacher in your dream, but you know that person is actually your brother. This is displacement. Your brother has been displaced onto the image of your maths teacher.

Spaces, spaces, spaces:

If we combine McDowell and Freud’s models we end up with not two spaces but three: the Space of Causes, the Space of Reasons and Freud’s unconscious mind which I will refer to in future posts as “The Primary Mental Space” (governed as it is by primary process thinking).  Each space has it’s own rules, and each must interact with at least one another space, or perhaps both other spaces. This will be the topic of my next post in this series- how the mind, with both of its spaces, interacts with the Space of Causes/the outside world.

So to sum up: I believe we should treat the mind’s relationship with itself in a similar way to the mind’s relationship with the world. By not doing so, we risk oversimplifying the mind and it’s various forms of mental processing. The epistemological and logical issues that come up with one also come up with the other.

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Intuition: The Black Box.

 A friend of mine said the other day that intuition is a justifier. Having an intuitive feeling that an idea is true, he says, gives you a reason to believe it. For example, I might have an intuition that humans have a soul. Just by being in tune with my intuitions, my belief somewhat justified.  
My friend is wrong.


“Intuition” refers to a range of subtly differing ideas. Sometimes it denotes the accurate gauging of situations, mostly situations which involve guessing the thoughts and feelings of others. Psychology defines intuition as “the act of looking inward on one’s unconscious thought process”. In philosophy, it’s simply used to refer to the way things appear to be.

Each share a key feature: in all three cases people believe something without being able to say why they believe it, or how they reached their belief.

Making Links:

Malcolm Gladwell has done some research into this in his book “Blink.” In essence, what he found was that sometimes humans ingeniously and inexplicably hit nail on head and draw accurate conclusions about things we could not have known given the evidence. We do this by picking up on very subtle signals which allow us to draw connections and relationships between seemingly disparate entities. But this process can go vastly astray. For example, many psychological tests have shown that we tend to find people with certain kinds of faces (round, soft featured, big eyes) more trustworthy than people with other kinds of faces (angular, small eyes).

So let’s say I get an intuitive feeling about a person: he seems trustworthy, though I’m not quite sure why. Should I trust this intuition? Well, no. Because it could be that my intuitive system is making a calculation that goes something like “big brown eyes= unlikely to break my confidence”. There is no real causal connection between how trustworthy a person is and how big their eyes are, the intuitive system simply creates this link.  If it can do this here, how do we know that our beliefs about the soul are not the product of a similar kind of reasoning?

In the relevant sense they are exactly the same- they are beliefs formed via a process that we cannot know is reliable. And that’s exactly the problem, we don’t know. When we use intuitive thinking we put something into a system inside a black box, the black box does something (god knows what) and then outputs conclusions that are right only some of the time. It’s scary because we cannot see what goes on inside the box, so we do not know exactly how and why it goes wrong, reducing our control on things all the more.

Evolutionary psychologists say that unconcious thinking  gets it wrong because the human brain is not a perfectly rational instrument.  There are plenty of quirks to our unconscious reasoning that are shaped by evolutionary factors which have no relevance to modern life. Psychoanalytic theory claims that our unconscious thoughts do not abide by the rules of logical sequencing, space and time, so leaps in logic will be prevalent.You don’t necessarily need to buy into either of these theories to agree with my argument, The point is that we put information into a black box system, the system does something mysterious and spews out something that is only right some of the time.

Not a Reason:

So where does leave us when it comes to the third kind of intuition, the kind that philosophy regularly deals with? Intuitions of the sort “it seems clear to be that we have an immaterial soul”.

A bad place, that’s where.

Intuition and philosophy are a risky combination. Philosophy bases its conclusions on reasoned arguments, and until we know what happens inside the black box, we should not let our intuitions supply us with reasons. Who knows what calculations it performed to get there, and whether these “reasons” are really reasons at all.

It’s not my intention to slate intuitive thinking on the whole. It can be a signpost to the truth. It suggests pathways, relationships, creative and scientific endeavours that our conscious reasoning alone might be pushed to do. There’s every chance that, when used correctly, intuition can speed up our intellectual world by years at a time.

Isaac Newton, who famously quoted that “intuition is the most valuable thing in the world”, is a brilliant example of the triumphs and pitfalls of intuitive thinking. On the one hand, we have his intuition to thank for modern physics: it gave us Special and General Relativity.  On the other hand, Einstein and his intuition staunchly refused to believe the findings of quantum mechanics, which have since been proven correct, drawing his theories in question along the way.

But Newton was a scientist, not a philosopher. It’s okay to embrace intuition in science, because we can rest assured that no-one is going to accept scientific truths because they seem intuitively appealing. When we do accept a scientific truth we support our belief by appealing to empirical evidence and mathematical equations thus sidestepping the unreliability of the ol’ black box. Intuition in this case is not a justifier; it simply points us in the right direction, and it’s very good at that.

If philosophers wish to be rigorous they should think as scientists think, at least in this respect. The fact that it seems clear to you that we have a soul, should not be the first premise in your argument; in fact you shouldn’t mention it in your argument at all..

If you do, you need to supply a reason why your intuition should be taken by the court as evidence, despite its unreliable nature. When you do provide a reason for your intuition, it stops being an intuition and becomes an argument in its own right. Crisis averted.

What You See is What You Get:

The friend I was debating with drew an interesting parallel between intuition and visual experiences. We accept people’s visual experiences as evidence all the time, and these are not always correct, so why not adopt a similar attitude towards people’s intuitive responses?

While I grant that neither sight nor intuition is an infallible process, I think it’s fair to say that sight is vastly more reliable. It is usually tied to something objective, and when it isn’t, we usually can give a reason why (we can explain away a man’s hallucinations by pointing out that he is on LSD). Visual experiences produce far fewer and less extreme discrepancies to begin with, and even then we have a means by which we can account for the majority of them. The same cannot be said for intuitive responses.

It is not uncommon for two people to hold opposite intuitive reactions (“of course we’re just biology!” vs. “it is clear to me we all have souls”) and the same rarely (if ever) happens with visual experiences. This is primarily because two people can never have “opposite” visual experiences; the concept of a contradictory visual experience does not make sense. But for the sake of argument let’s compare opposite intuitions with very different visual experiences. Our two friends are looking at a scene and each say: “Look, it’s a mountain!” vs. “Oh hey, it’s a beach”.

When have you ever known this to happen? If you have, and the people in question were sober, please call me. I can wholeheartedly promise you that vast disagreements of the intuitive kind happen far more often. This makes visual experiences a much (much, much, much) more reliable means of establishing the truth about the world.

Let’s examine a more realistic example:

Five people witness a robbery. Three report that the robber was wearing a black t-shirt, the other two claim that he was wearing a blue t-shirt. A police investigator can approach this discrepancy by asking why it might be that two people saw a different colour: was the light different from where they were standing? Are they colour-blind?

More and more discrepancies will be ruled out as these questions are asked and answered, until only a few remain, if any at all. We are granted this luxury because we understand how sight, as a biological process, works. Just as Intuition is one black box, we can see sight as a series of transparent boxes. Each box represents the input and output of sight in different conditions. So we could look into one box and see the relatively simple system of how we see the world when all things are equal. Next to it is a clear box containing a slightly more complex system which shows how people see things when they are on LSD. The next accounts for colourlindness. And so on. At the end of the line of clear box systems is a red box which we cannot see into. This red box represents all the visual outputs which are odds with the way the world actually is, but we have no idea why. I’m not sure if this box would ever be needed, I think that every visual discrepancy is in, in theory, accountable for. But for the sake of arguments, let’s say I’m wrong (I’m not a scientist, after all). The number of visual experiences put into the red box will be a minority, whereas the totality of intuitions are put into the black box.

Ruling out intuition on the grounds that it is sometimes wrong does not mean we are committed to ruling out visual experiences on the same ground.Sight is a more reliable  “reason-giver” than intuition, because we understand exactly when we can and cannot use it to support our arguments. When it goes wrong, we know why. With intuition we hit a brick wall. Two people have different intuitions. Bam. Game Over.

An objector could ask why we can’t apply the same method to intuition. Just as we might ask if a person is colour-blind, we might ask if there is anything in their past experience that accounts for their intuition? Through this we can get to understand the intuitive process in a similar way.

But if it’s come to this, the objector has already conceded my point. To even embark along this path is to admit that intuition is driven by subjective, rather than objective factors. Sight is always closer to the objective data, even in the case of the police investigation we can safely conclude that the robber wore a dark shirt, for example, or that he was not wearing a red shirt. We get nothing from the two opposing intuitive responses, nothing at all.

The same objector could also ask how we know that inutuition is not a series of different systems as well? Honestly, it probably is. But we have no way of knowing, and it makes no real difference whether we are dealing with one black box or lots of smaller black boxes inside one big one.

Guilty Until Proven Innocent:

Let’s say that the black box churns out true conclusions 50% of the time. Now, we have two arguments (A and B) against the intuition that we have an immaterial soul. Argument A provides a rational reason why we should not believe in the soul, and also offers an explanation as to why it intuitively seems like we have one, despite this. Argument B only does the former: it gives a valid argument, but fails to account for our intuitions. Argument A is the stronger only in so far as it provides more information. Argument B is still valid even though it fails to account for our intuition.

If challenged by the claim “why does it seem like we do have a soul, then?” a supporter of argument B is fully entitled to say “that intuition is probably wrong”. There is no reason to believe it is right, only the brute fact of the intuition itself. It would be far more rational, in absence of other evidence, to file this intuition under “people with big eyes are trustworthy” file. The black box has failed us.

In short, my friend was wrong about intuition. And why? He, quite literally, has no idea what he is talking about.

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