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Author Topic:   Does science ask and answer "why" questions?
kbertsche
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Posts: 1062
From: San Jose, CA, USA
Joined: 05-10-2007


Message 16 of 353 (647016)
01-07-2012 6:58 PM
Reply to: Message 8 by Mr Jack
01-07-2012 1:20 PM


quote:
Of course science answers why questions: it's breathtakingly good at answering why questions.
"Why is the sky blue?"

"Why do birds fly south in winter?"

"Why are planets round?"

Answering why questions is the absolute beating heart of science.



And the "why" answers that (physical) science offers for all of these are mechanistic, not teleological. Modern (physical) science consciously tries to restrict itself to mechanism, and this is one of its strengths. This makes modern (physical) science much more objective and a-religious than, say, Medieval "science", which was highly teleological.

"Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind." – Albert Einstein

“I am very astonished that the scientific picture of the real world around me is very deficient. It gives us a lot of factual information, puts all of our experience in a magnificently consistent order, but it is ghastly silent about all and sundry that is really near to our heart, that really matters to us. It cannot tell us a word about red and blue, bitter and sweet, physical pain and physical delight; it knows nothing of beautiful and ugly, good or bad, God and eternity. Science sometimes pretends to answer questions in these domains, but the answers are very often so silly that we are not inclined to take them seriously.” – Erwin Schroedinger


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kbertsche
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Posts: 1062
From: San Jose, CA, USA
Joined: 05-10-2007


Message 17 of 353 (647017)
01-07-2012 7:05 PM
Reply to: Message 11 by NoNukes
01-07-2012 1:36 PM


Re: Why questions.
quote:
When we ask why a species of animals exhibits some feature, we might also give an answer based on the theory of evolution. I don't see any significant distinction in scope between that kind of "why" question and the question of why God might have done such a thing.

It's interesting that some of the most prominent and strident atheists insist that evolution is dysteleological, having no goal and no purpose. They seem to realize that questions of purpose will open the door to religious answers, which they want to avoid at all costs.

For example:

Charles Darwin writes:

The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.


Daniel Dennett writes:

In the beginning, there were no reasons; there were only causes. Nothing had a purpose, nothing had so much as a function; there was no teleology in the world at all.

Edited by kbertsche, : Add Darwin quote

Edited by kbertsche, : No reason given.


"Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind." – Albert Einstein

“I am very astonished that the scientific picture of the real world around me is very deficient. It gives us a lot of factual information, puts all of our experience in a magnificently consistent order, but it is ghastly silent about all and sundry that is really near to our heart, that really matters to us. It cannot tell us a word about red and blue, bitter and sweet, physical pain and physical delight; it knows nothing of beautiful and ugly, good or bad, God and eternity. Science sometimes pretends to answer questions in these domains, but the answers are very often so silly that we are not inclined to take them seriously.” – Erwin Schroedinger


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Replies to this message:
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NoNukes
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Posts: 5625
From: Central NC USA
Joined: 08-13-2010
Member Rating: 1.3


Message 18 of 353 (647022)
01-07-2012 7:33 PM
Reply to: Message 17 by kbertsche
01-07-2012 7:05 PM


Re: Why questions.
It's interesting that some of the most prominent and strident atheists insist that evolution is dysteleological, having no goal and no purpose. They seem to realize that questions of purpose will open the door to religious answers, which they want to avoid at all costs.

Your proposition seems a bit silly to me. Why cannot the reason for rejecting a goal/purpose for evolution be that they don't accept or believe that there is any purpose?

I would think that an atheist would take the religious answers to be nonsensical and/or wrong.


Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also in prison. The proper place to-day, the only place which Massachusetts has provided for her freer and less desponding spirits, is in her prisons, to be put out and locked out of the State by her own act, as they have already put themselves out by their principles. Thoreau: Civil Disobedience (1846)

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Modulous
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Posts: 6514
From: Manchester, UK
Joined: 05-01-2005
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Message 19 of 353 (647038)
01-07-2012 8:22 PM
Reply to: Message 15 by kbertsche
01-07-2012 6:48 PM


If you are thinking of the social sciences, you probably have a point. (I am a physicist, and I often use "science" as a shorthand for "the physical sciences").

I'm talking about science. The practice of using observations and reasoning from those observations in a particular fashion. If you want to suggest that purpose is a socially constructed thing, then fair enough. But it can still be studied empirically.

I would argue that the physical sciences do not address purpose.

I would agree that physics does not address human purposes. But as I say, I'm talking about science, a certain empirically based methodology for learning about the world, not just physics, chemistry and biology.

Edited by Modulous, : No reason given.


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kbertsche
Member
Posts: 1062
From: San Jose, CA, USA
Joined: 05-10-2007


Message 20 of 353 (647039)
01-07-2012 8:27 PM
Reply to: Message 18 by NoNukes
01-07-2012 7:33 PM


Re: Why questions.
quote:
Your proposition seems a bit silly to me. Why cannot the reason for rejecting a goal/purpose for evolution be that they don't accept or believe that there is any purpose?

I would think that an atheist would take the religious answers to be nonsensical and/or wrong.


Yes, I largely agree with you. Prominent atheistic evolutionists have a theological/philosophical belief that there is no purpose behind evolution. Theistic evolutionists, on the other hand, have a theological belief that there is a purpose behind evolution. Whether or not there really is a purpose cannot be answered by science alone.

Denis Lamoureux is very clear about the distinction between teleological and dysteleological evolution, and the fact that this is a theological/philosophical question, not a scientific question. I recommend his videos, which can be found in YouTube and iTunesU:
Coming to Terms with Evolution
Beyond the Evolution vs. Creation Debate

Edited by kbertsche, : Fixed YouTube links?


"Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind." – Albert Einstein

“I am very astonished that the scientific picture of the real world around me is very deficient. It gives us a lot of factual information, puts all of our experience in a magnificently consistent order, but it is ghastly silent about all and sundry that is really near to our heart, that really matters to us. It cannot tell us a word about red and blue, bitter and sweet, physical pain and physical delight; it knows nothing of beautiful and ugly, good or bad, God and eternity. Science sometimes pretends to answer questions in these domains, but the answers are very often so silly that we are not inclined to take them seriously.” – Erwin Schroedinger


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 Message 18 by NoNukes, posted 01-07-2012 7:33 PM NoNukes has acknowledged this reply

    
Dr Adequate
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Posts: 12964
Joined: 07-20-2006
Member Rating: 2.1


Message 21 of 353 (647040)
01-07-2012 8:45 PM
Reply to: Message 17 by kbertsche
01-07-2012 7:05 PM


Re: Why questions.
It's interesting that some of the most prominent and strident atheists insist that evolution is dysteleological, having no goal and no purpose. They seem to realize that questions of purpose will open the door to religious answers, which they want to avoid at all costs.

Alternatively, maybe they say it because it's true. This would be something to think about before you get all psychoanalytical.

Similarly, before you start trying to explain my claim that there are no fairies at the bottom of my garden in terms of my deep-seated psychological hatred of fairies, you might take a peek at the bottom of my garden.

The known mechanisms of evolution do in fact have no goal (any unknown mechanisms are ... unknown, like those elusive fairies at the bottom of my garden) and the fact that evolution cannot think or plan ahead is in fact necessary to understand phenomena that would otherwise be puzzling.

For example:

Charles Darwin writes:

The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.

Charles Darwin and Richard Dawkins are actually two different people.


This message is a reply to:
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Replies to this message:
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kbertsche
Member
Posts: 1062
From: San Jose, CA, USA
Joined: 05-10-2007


Message 22 of 353 (647046)
01-07-2012 9:08 PM
Reply to: Message 21 by Dr Adequate
01-07-2012 8:45 PM


Re: Why questions.
quote:
The known mechanisms of evolution do in fact have no goal (any unknown mechanisms are ... unknown, like those elusive fairies at the bottom of my garden) and the fact that evolution cannot think or plan ahead is in fact necessary to understand phenomena that would otherwise be puzzling.

But there is also opposing evidence that evolution does have a direction or goal. Simon Conway Morris (a theistic, teleological evolutionist) has shown evidence of this with examples of biological "convergence", such as the similarity between the human eye and the octopus eye.

quote:
Charles Darwin and Richard Dawkins are actually two different people.

Oops; did I mis-attribute a quote?

"Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind." – Albert Einstein

“I am very astonished that the scientific picture of the real world around me is very deficient. It gives us a lot of factual information, puts all of our experience in a magnificently consistent order, but it is ghastly silent about all and sundry that is really near to our heart, that really matters to us. It cannot tell us a word about red and blue, bitter and sweet, physical pain and physical delight; it knows nothing of beautiful and ugly, good or bad, God and eternity. Science sometimes pretends to answer questions in these domains, but the answers are very often so silly that we are not inclined to take them seriously.” – Erwin Schroedinger


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 Message 21 by Dr Adequate, posted 01-07-2012 8:45 PM Dr Adequate has responded

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nwr
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Posts: 5182
From: Geneva, Illinois
Joined: 08-08-2005
Member Rating: 2.8


Message 23 of 353 (647047)
01-07-2012 9:11 PM
Reply to: Message 15 by kbertsche
01-07-2012 6:48 PM


I would argue that the physical sciences do not address purpose. Even an MRI (or PET scan) only addresses mechanism, not purpose.

Yet an MRI scan is done for a purpose.

If I go to the store to purchase some eggs, then I went to the store for a purpose.

"Purpose" by itself is not a problem. It is how we use that term. We need to distinguish between local or short term purposes, say an bird catching a fish for the purpose of feeding itself, and a long term or ultimate purpose (why birds exist in the first place). Biologists tend to prefer the term "teleonomy" for such local or short term purposes, and they try to avoid using teleology which would presumably be applicable to ultimate purposes. It would be difficult to discuss biology without "teleonomy."


Jesus was a liberal hippie

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Dr Adequate
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Posts: 12964
Joined: 07-20-2006
Member Rating: 2.1


(1)
Message 24 of 353 (647050)
01-07-2012 9:19 PM
Reply to: Message 22 by kbertsche
01-07-2012 9:08 PM


Re: Why questions.
But there is also opposing evidence that evolution does have a direction or goal. Simon Conway Morris (a theistic, teleological evolutionist) has shown evidence of this with examples of biological "convergence", such as the similarity between the human eye and the octopus eye.

But that's just equivocating on the word "goal". If you and I both drop bricks, they'll both move in the direction of the center of the Earth, but that doesn't mean that gravity has a "goal". Yes, the bricks have a direction, but no, gravity does not have a goal.

Compare this with how we would hit golf balls from the same tee. We would (I suppose, I don't play golf) both direct them towards the hole. Then their common direction would have a teleological explanation --- a common goal --- without which we would be unable to explain the phenomenon.


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RAZD
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Posts: 16125
From: the other end of the sidewalk
Joined: 03-14-2004
Member Rating: 2.1


Message 25 of 353 (647053)
01-07-2012 10:42 PM
Reply to: Message 5 by kbertsche
01-07-2012 12:21 PM


who what when where why how ... purpose and science
Hi kbertsche,

I do believe you and Catholic Scientist got it. Context is very important to good communication.

"Why" has a number of different valid meanings, as you point out. But as CS says, when the context makes a contrast between "how" and "why", it is generally distinguishing between mechanism and purpose. When someone claims that "science answers the "how" questions and religion answers the "why" questions" this is the distinction that he is trying to make. I agree with CS that this meaning should be so obvious from the context of the statement itself that it needs no further explanation.

Another place where context is important is when the 5W's + H are discussed:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Five_Ws

quote:
In journalism, the Five Ws (also known as the Five Ws (and one H), or the Six Ws) is a concept in news style, research, and in police investigations that are regarded as basics in information-gathering.[1] It is a formula for getting the "full" story on something. The maxim of the Five W's (and one H) is that for a report to be considered complete it must answer a checklist of six questions, each of which comprises an interrogative word:[2]

  • Who is it about?
  • What happened?
  • Where did it take place?
  • When did it take place?
  • Why did it happen?
  • How did it happen?

The principle underlying the maxim is that each question should elicit a factual answer — facts necessary to include for a report to be considered complete.


Note that this applies to research and police investigations, and not just journalism.

Note that the answers should be different, as they answer different aspects of the situation.

A "how it happened" answer should not be used for "why it happened"

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Research

quote:
Research can be defined as the search for knowledge, or as any systematic investigation, with an open mind, to establish novel facts, solve new or existing problems, prove new ideas, or develop new theories. The primary purposes of basic research (as opposed to applied research) are documentation, discovery, interpretation, or the research and development of methods and systems for the advancement of human knowledge. Approaches to research depend on epistemologies, which vary considerably both within and between humanities and sciences.

The five Ws + H are good methodology to focus your research.

Suppose you enter your Grandmother's house, hear a teapot whistling, and ask, "Why is the teapot whistling?" Someone could answer in terms of thermodynamics, fluid flow, the physical properties of water, acoustic properties of the nozzle on the kettle, etc. The answer would be a perfectly valid mechanistic answer of "why" the teapot is boiling. But someone could also answer that the teapot is boiling because Grandma is thirsty and wants her afternoon tea. This answer is just as valid and accurate as the first. One answer addresses mechanism, and the other addresses purpose.

Curiously, your first answer actually tells us how it happened that the whistle sounded, the second answer tells us a part of why it happened, a part of the purpose behind the whistling of the kettle.

Even more curiously, however, this purpose does not fully answer the question of why the kettle is whistling. Thirst can be quenched with cold water, tea can be made with cold water ("sunshine" tea) or with water boiled in a pot or from an "instant hot water" tap. In addition, a whistling kettle can be used to boil water for coffee or soup or cold remedies. In scientific parlance there is no direct correlation between a whistling kettle and making tea or with making tea and the quenching of thirst.

Birds, people, animals with brains can have purpose. That purpose does not necessarily fully explain the question.

Yes, we can scientifically discuss (observe and record) parts of why birds sing: one answer proposed on this thread is that birds sing to attract a mate (others could be to protect territory or announce presence). That too is purpose, but again this is not a full answer to the question, it does not answer the question of why did it happen that birds can sing.

There are bird species that don't sing, yet they are not handicapped in their existence compared to bird species that do sing.

There are also birds that sing and don't attract mates.

Thus saying that birds sing to attract mates does not answer the question of why birds sing: mate attraction can be accomplished without it, and singing can also occur without attracting mates. This does not explain why birds sing.

It is a bit like the post hoc ergo propter hoc logical fallacy, the complex cause logical fallacy, and the part for the whole logical fallacy all mixed together. Just because you know a (small) part of the answer does not mean that you know (all) the answer.

Science may be able to discuss partial answers, based on observations, assumptions, and inference, but that does not mean that science provides the full answer, or that it ever can. There are certain details in a complete answer that science is not equipped to determine.

Why did it happen that birds can sing?
Why did it happen that the sky appears blue?

These are essentially untestable\unfalsifiable aspects of the "why" issue, and thus cannot be determined through science.

By contrast, science can do very well at answering the how questions, and while those answers may be incomplete, there is no significant reason that would suggest that more details can be developed through science.

How did it happen that birds can sing?
How did it happen that the sky appears blue?

These can be answered through science.

Enjoy.

Edited by Zen Deist, : clrty

Edited by Zen Deist, : link

Edited by Zen Deist, : rearranged a bit


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cavediver
Member (Idle past 140 days)
Posts: 4129
From: UK
Joined: 06-16-2005


Message 26 of 353 (647111)
01-08-2012 6:40 AM
Reply to: Message 5 by kbertsche
01-07-2012 12:21 PM


Suppose you enter your Grandmother's house, hear a teapot whistling, and ask, "Why is the teapot whistling?" Someone could answer in terms of thermodynamics, fluid flow, the physical properties of water, acoustic properties of the nozzle on the kettle, etc. The answer would be a perfectly valid mechanistic answer of "why" the teapot is boiling. But someone could also answer that the teapot is boiling because Grandma is thirsty and wants her afternoon tea. This answer is just as valid and accurate as the first. One answer addresses mechanism, and the other addresses purpose.

So "how" is simply a level of explanation that requires less coarse-graining than a "why" explanation?

No matter how you decide to communicate it, the point is that science can only deal well with mechanistic, cause-effect explanations. It can't address teleological questions very well, if at all.

And how much evidence do we have that teleological explanations are ever required?

Thinking that "why" is something different to "how" (other than mere depth of observation) is begging the question. Stating that science cannot ascertain "purpose" is begging the question.

Until evidence is forthcoming, God, "purpose", and teleology are merely hypotheses, and I refer you to the comments made by our mutual predecessor, Laplace.

Edited by cavediver, : No reason given.


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bluegenes
Member (Idle past 83 days)
Posts: 2812
From: U.K.
Joined: 01-24-2007


Message 27 of 353 (647182)
01-08-2012 11:02 AM


So far:
O.P. writes:

(1) Science doesn't ask/answer "why" questions

(2) The proper use of "why" is to answer questions of purpose.

(3) Science answers the "how" questions and religion answers the "why" questions."

So far, no one seems to want to defend statements (1) and (2), which is hardly surprising. There's some defense on statement three, mainly based on the idea that the meaning of "why" in it should be considered in context. As it's there on its own in the O.P. without any surrounding verbiage, I'll try to find some scholarly articles that use that phrase or something very similar when I've got the time.

Supposing we amend it to:

(3a) Science answers both "how" and "why" question, but only religion answers the "why" questions that are concerned with purpose.

Put this way, it's still wrong. Science certainly deals with purpose when it deals with us and any other animals capable of purpose. And there's no reason to suppose that science couldn't or wouldn't deal with purpose if it was somehow identified elsewhere. It just hasn't been.

Edited by bluegenes, : rong speling


  
bluegenes
Member (Idle past 83 days)
Posts: 2812
From: U.K.
Joined: 01-24-2007


Message 28 of 353 (647187)
01-08-2012 11:24 AM
Reply to: Message 22 by kbertsche
01-07-2012 9:08 PM


Re: Why questions.
kbertsche writes:

But there is also opposing evidence that evolution does have a direction or goal. Simon Conway Morris (a theistic, teleological evolutionist) has shown evidence of this with examples of biological "convergence", such as the similarity between the human eye and the octopus eye.

I think you're now inadvertently making the case for science not only asking why questions, but asking any and all why questions. Both Simon Conway Morris and Richard Dawkins are scientists who've made observations, and come to conclusions in relation to teleology, albeit different ones.

So, we can both easily agree on mechanistic why questions. I hope you're coming round to the idea that the hard sciences do actual study humans and other animals, and therefore must consider purpose in their studies. And surely I can persuade you that there's no reason to restrict science from doing what Morris and Dawkins (and many others) have done.

All in all, doesn't the first statement in the O.P., the bald "science doesn't ask/answer why questions" just seems a silly thing to say when it's so obviously false?


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kbertsche
Member
Posts: 1062
From: San Jose, CA, USA
Joined: 05-10-2007


Message 29 of 353 (647199)
01-08-2012 1:45 PM
Reply to: Message 26 by cavediver
01-08-2012 6:40 AM


quote:
And how much evidence do we have that teleological explanations are ever required?

Thinking that "why" is something different to "how" (other than mere depth of observation) is begging the question. Stating that science cannot ascertain "purpose" is begging the question.



I don't see how this is "begging the question"? Rather it is stating that questions of teleology are outside the realm of science. And if teleological questions cannot be addressed by science, then neither can science declare that there is (or is not) any teleology underlying the universe. This is a theological/philosophical question, not addressable by science.

quote:
Until evidence is forthcoming, God, "purpose", and teleology are merely hypotheses, and I refer you to the comments made by our mutual predecessor, Laplace.

I agree that teleology is scientifically untstable. My understanding of the sense of Laplace's famous statement is that he did not need to invoke theological (or teleological) language to provide a purely scientific explanation of physical phenomena. I understand that he was a theist, so he did not mean that God (or teleology) did not exist.

I believe I've recommended Helen Quinn's excellent Physics Today article, What is Science? in other threads. Here is an excerpt from it:

Helen Quinn writes:

In everyday usage the question “Why?” can be either about the mechanism by which something occurred or about the reasons for or purposes behind an action. Thus the distinction between reason and mechanism, or between effect and purpose, is often blurred. Religion and philosophy are interested in reasons and purposes, but science cares only about mechanisms. That apparent reduction of the goal is a powerful step that separates modern science from its ancestor, natural philosophy. ... However, scientists tend to forget that issues of reason and purpose are central to many people’s questioning, so the answers they get from science seem inadequate.

Edited by kbertsche, : No reason given.

Edited by kbertsche, : Fix Quinn reference


"Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind." – Albert Einstein

“I am very astonished that the scientific picture of the real world around me is very deficient. It gives us a lot of factual information, puts all of our experience in a magnificently consistent order, but it is ghastly silent about all and sundry that is really near to our heart, that really matters to us. It cannot tell us a word about red and blue, bitter and sweet, physical pain and physical delight; it knows nothing of beautiful and ugly, good or bad, God and eternity. Science sometimes pretends to answer questions in these domains, but the answers are very often so silly that we are not inclined to take them seriously.” – Erwin Schroedinger


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cavediver
Member (Idle past 140 days)
Posts: 4129
From: UK
Joined: 06-16-2005


Message 30 of 353 (647204)
01-08-2012 2:42 PM
Reply to: Message 29 by kbertsche
01-08-2012 1:45 PM


Hi Kirk, thanks for the reply.

I don't see how this is "begging the question"?

It is assuming that there is something (purpose?) that makes "why" a different question to "how", in order to take "why" outside the realm of science - and it is assuming that "purpose" is something more than emergent behaviour of certain complex systems.

Rather it is stating that questions of teleology are outside the realm of science.

Again begging the question. What teleology? There is no teleology other than that dreamt up by theologians and philosophers. And the mindsets that produced these dreams of teleology are very much within the realms of science.

If there is no "purpose", there is only the natural world, and then all concepts are ultimately reducible to science. To claim that questions of teleology are outside the realm of science is to claim that there exists a relam outside of science... and there isn't


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