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The ontological argument for the existence of God


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...goes something like this:

 

  1. God is that than which a greater cannot be conceived.
  2. Either God exists only in the understanding or He exists in reality also.
  3. God does not exist only in the understanding.
  4. God exists.

 

Now, let's support premise 3 with a separate argument:

 

  1. If God exists only in the understanding, than a greater can be conceived; namely, one with the same properties as God, but with the additional property of existing.
  2. Then God would not be that than which a greater cannot be conceived.
  3. Thus, God cannot exist only in the understanding.

 

Objections

 

There's quite a few objections to the argument. The first, brought up by this blogger, is that conceiving of something as existing doesn't mean it actually exists. But that misses the point.

 

Think of it this way. When I think about something, what I think of refers to a concept. If I think of cats, my mind is referring to the concept of "cat." When I think of unicorns, my mind refers to the concept of "unicorn." Each concept has properties, like "furry" and "mammal," but only the cat has the property of actually existing in reality.

 

The question is not whether I conceive of it existing, but whether the concept I refer to has the actual property of existing. And the concept of "God" has as a necessary property existence.

 

Another objection, a rather famous one, is the "perfect island" argument. Replace "God" with an island that is greater than any other conceivable island, and you seem to prove the existence of a perfect island. And since there is no perfect island, the argument must be wrong.

 

Unfortunately, the concept of "perfect island" varies from person to person: is it round? square? lush? warm? cool? what? There cannot be a perfect island because nobody can define what a perfect island is.

 

And so on.

 

What are your views on the ontological argument? Can it hold water?

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...goes something like this:

 

  1. God is that than which a greater cannot be conceived.
  2. Either God exists only in the understanding or He exists in reality also.
  3. God does not exist only in the understanding.
  4. God exists.

Your version is a nice circle. I think you might want to find a better form to discuss.

 

  1. If God exists only in the understanding, than a greater can be conceived; namely, one with the same properties as God, but with the additional property of existing.
  2. Then God would not be that than which a greater cannot be conceived.
  3. Thus, God cannot exist only in the understanding.

Does not follow. One can imagine things exist without them actually exist. I can conceive of Batman existing without him actually existing.

 

The question is not whether I conceive of it existing, but whether the concept I refer to has the actual property of existing. And the concept of "God" has as a necessary property existence.
That doesn't necessitate actual existence.

 

Unfortunately, the concept of "perfect island" varies from person to person: is it round? square? lush? warm? cool? what? There cannot be a perfect island because nobody can define what a perfect island is.

As does the concept of 'god.'
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That doesn't necessitate actual existence.

If I imagine that it exists, it has the property that I imagine it exists, not the property of actually existing. But it is greater to actually exist than to be imagined to exist, so that than which a greater cannot be conceived cannot be solely imagined to exist.


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As does the concept of 'god.'

 

Anselm uses empirical argument to demonstrate that God must be the Christian God, and have the same properties. He does this mostly through things like "is it greater to be omnipotent or merely slightly powerful?" and so on, and arrives at a definite set of properties.

 

Harder to do that for an island.

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If I imagine that it exists, it has the property that I imagine it exists, not the property of actually existing. But it is greater to actually exist than to be imagined to exist, so that than which a greater cannot be conceived cannot be solely imagined to exist.


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There is nothing to necessitate the 'greatest conceivable thing' to actually exist. You're moving from concept from object with no justification.

 

Anselm uses empirical argument to demonstrate that God must be the Christian God, and have the same properties. He does this mostly through things like "is it greater to be omnipotent or merely slightly powerful?" and so on, and arrives at a definite set of properties.

 

Harder to do that for an island.

A god who isn't a homophobe is greater than one that is, so the Ontological argument cannot apply to YHWH.

 

Even within Christianity, the concept varies wildly.

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There is nothing to necessitate the 'greatest conceivable thing' to actually exist. You're moving from concept from object with no justification.

Why not?

 

Two possible beings. Being 1:

  • Omnipotent
  • Omniscient
  • Omnibenevolent
  • Imaginary

 

Being 2:

 

  • Omnipotent
  • Omniscient
  • Omnibenevolent
  • Real

 

Being 2 is clearly greater than Being 1, at least according to Anselm. I can conceive of either Being 1 or Being 2. (That doesn't mean I "imagine" it to be real. That means I'm conceiving of a real object, like conceiving of the laptop I'm typing with vs. typing on an imaginary electric typewriter that has dial-up.)

 

A god who isn't a homophobe is greater than one that is, so the Ontological argument cannot apply to YHWH.

 

Even within Christianity, the concept varies wildly.

 

You cannot justify the homophobe idea a priori, because our knowledge is incomplete. (Perhaps God knows something about homosexuals that we don't.) On the other hand, you can definitely prove God to be a non-homophobe:

 

  1. To be homophobic is to have a fear of gay people.
  2. Fear is a result of a lack of power. (For example, you are afraid a snake might hurt you because you don't have the power to instantly strike it down with your mind before it can ever hurt you.)
  3. If God is homophobic, God lacks a power.
  4. God is all-powerful.
  5. Thus, God cannot be homophobic.

 

But I don't think you meant genuine fear anyway.


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The main problem with the argument being that "existence" assumes a material form, and yet "God" by definition has no material form.

 

Hmm. Why does existence assume a material form? There are many concepts that we say "exist" that do not have material forms.

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Well I suggest the following being. Definition:

1) It is shaped like a horse, but it has a single, spiral horn sticking out of it's forehead

2) It is invisible.

3) It is pink.

4) It exists; it is real; it has a real physical existence.

 

So what we have here is an invisible pink unicorn. A real one, too, by definition. The trouble, of course, is that it does not in fact exist. The properties 1-3 are contradictory of property 4. The definition is self-contradictory, and so despite being defined as existing it does not in fact exist.

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"This mind is the source of all, both mundane and supermundane. When mind arises the various (paradoxes) arise; when mind is extinguished, the various (paradoxes) disappear. If you give rise to the mind that is unattached to good and bad, all things are in their true state."

Damei Fachang

 

Slightly paraphrased for relevance..

 

Anselm's argument:

1. If I am thinking of the Greatest Being Thinkable, then I can think of no being greater

1a. If it is false that I can think of no being greater, it is false I am thinking of the Greatest Being Thinkable

2. Being is greater than not being

3. If the being I am thinking of does not exist, then it is false that I can think of no being greater.

4. If the being I am thinking of does not exist, then it is false that I am thinking of the Greatest Being Thinkable

Conclusion: If I am thinking of the Greatest Being Thinkable, then I am thinking of a being that exists

 

I don't believe this statement is actually true.

If the being I am thinking of does not exist, then it is false that I can think of no being greater.

 

In fact - if the being I am thinking of does not exist, then in fact no being greater can possibly exist, as non-attachment to the material means that it is more powerful than the material.

Edited by Double K
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Wonderful stuff Cap'n. However, given the times in which the ontological argument was originally proposed, most, if not all people would have been believers. The statements proposed are not necessarily applicable to someone who does not believe in Absolute attributes as Anselm, Kant or Descartes would have suggested. Conceiving of Absolute attributes or properties such as Omnibenevolence or Omnipresence seem to appeal to someone for whom these features have value.

 

For example: 'Cap'n thinks of God' only holds water if Cap'n is a theist.

 

I will return to this once I can wrap these arguments around my tiny brain.

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These ontological arguments are simply deductions, the premises of which have no basis.

 

I can make a similar argument that reaches the opposite conclusion:

 

0) I can conceive of the God concept and have faith in his existence

1) Without faith in his existence, God is nothing

2) Proof dispels the need for faith

3) the Babel fish is proof of god as a designer of organisms

4) God vanishes in a poof of logic

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These ontological arguments are simply deductions, the premises of which have no basis.

 

I can make a similar argument that reaches the opposite conclusion:

 

0) I can conceive of the God concept and have faith in his existence

1) Without faith in his existence, God is nothing

2) Proof dispels the need for faith

3) the Babel fish is proof of god as a designer of organisms

4) God vanishes in a poof of logic

No, that's not the same at all. Premise 3 is empirical; it is based in reality and can be proved or disproved. (Disproved, in this case, because there's no Babel fish and evolution works quite well.)

 

The ontological argument is an a priori proof, but you've presented one that isn't.

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Hmm. Why does existence assume a material form? There are many concepts that we say "exist" that do not have material forms.

 

On the other hand, that which cannot be conceived of doesn't exist for us. Offering proof that God exists changes a conception of an irreality to something real, thus dispelling the need for faith. Proof of God's physical presence demonstrates that he is not solely beyond the physical universe. Since a God greater than the physical universe is greater than a God that isn't, a God which offers proof of itself cannot exist.

 

With physical proof, we dispense with the need to conceive of a God greater than the physical universe. Since I've already shown that which we cannot conceive does not exist, proof of God's existence eliminates our conception of a greater God thereby negating his existence.


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No, that's not the same at all. Premise 3 is empirical; it is based in reality and can be proved or disproved. (Disproved, in this case, because there's no Babel fish and evolution works quite well.)

 

Wrong, sir!

 

The Babel fish is a concept that was conceived, not observed. If I can conceive that proof of God's existence could be found, this is a priori and proof enough.


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I cannot conceive of anything greater than a babel fish that exists, therefore the babel fish must exist. If a babel fish exists, it must be because God designed it, and is therefore proof of his existence...

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In addition to the above objections, I would say that "that than which a greater cannot be conceived" is not itself something that can be conceived, any more than "an integer higher than any other integer" can be conceived. Just because valid terms are arranged in a grammatically correct sequence does not necessitate that the result means anything.

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...goes something like this:

 

  1. God is that than which a greater cannot be conceived.

Ok this is fine. If anything greater than God could be conceived, that thing would be God.

 

 

  1. Either God exists only in the understanding or He exists in reality also.
  2. God does not exist only in the understanding.
  3. God exists.

This deduction is fine if you accept the premise as true. No logical flaw, at least.

 

However, wouldn't a God that could exist in the understanding AND existing in reality (in other words, a God that doesn't obey the exclusionary principles of the universe's logic) be greater than a God that does not defy logic?

 

Since I have just conceived of a greater God that can exist only in understanding AND in reality, that God must be the greater God than yours (and therefore must be the actual God).

 

Since this is the greater God, it won't follow that "God does not exist only in the understanding" or that "God exists."

 

A God that is greater is a God that can break our logic. Therefore, ontological arguments can't work.

 

 

Now, let's support premise 3 with a separate argument:

 

  1. If God exists only in the understanding, than a greater can be conceived; namely, one with the same properties as God, but with the additional property of existing.
  2. Then God would not be that than which a greater cannot be conceived.
  3. Thus, God cannot exist only in the understanding.

 

I've disproved this already by showing that God greater than this exists; a God that can have simultaneous properties of existing in the imagination AND in reality.

 

Therefore, God can exist only in the understanding.

The question is not whether I conceive of it existing, but whether the concept I refer to has the actual property of existing. And the concept of "God" has as a necessary property existence.

You haven't shown this to be true. Existence may be a necessary property, but if a God with more properties is also a greater God, than a God with an additional property of "non-existence" are greater still.

 

It's only by logical restraints that we ascribe exclusivity on existence and non-existence. However, a greater God could conceivably exist that could also not-exist.

 

Unfortunately, the concept of "perfect island" varies from person to person: is it round? square? lush? warm? cool? what? There cannot be a perfect island because nobody can define what a perfect island is.

 

I would argue that it is similarly impossible to define what a perfect (or greatest) God would be since we are limited to our universes perceptions, dimensions and experiences.

 

Surely, the greatest God of all would not be something we could constrain or prove with logic.

 

I think this does still relate to my Hitchiker's Guide argument. If we constrain the greatest God as an entity whose existences precludes empirical evidence, than any and all empirical existence weakens the ontological argument.

 

After all, which is greater? A God that exists and demands belief requires faith only OR a God that exists and offers proof of his existence? If it's transitive, than ontological arguments don't apply to God (because they don't work). If there's something that's justifiably greater, then which is it?

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Wrong, sir!

 

The Babel fish is a concept that was conceived, not observed. If I can conceive that proof of God's existence could be found, this is a priori and proof enough.


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I cannot conceive of anything greater than a babel fish that exists, therefore the babel fish must exist. If a babel fish exists, it must be because God designed it, and is therefore proof of his existence...

 

Until you find the Babel fish, there is no proof of God's existence, and you're still left with faith. Saying "well, it could exist" doesn't prove that it does, or that God exists.


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In addition to the above objections, I would say that "that than which a greater cannot be conceived" is not itself something that can be conceived, any more than "an integer higher than any other integer" can be conceived. Just because valid terms are arranged in a grammatically correct sequence does not necessitate that the result means anything.

 

Much like "an island than which a greater cannot be conceived" cannot in fact be conceived, and thus the Perfect Island argument doesn't work?

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Until you find the Babel fish, there is no proof of God's existence, and you're still left with faith. Saying "well, it could exist" doesn't prove that it does, or that God exists.

 

No, it does exist. Existence is one of the properties I conceive of it having. (Wouldn't be a very good translator if it wasn't real!)

 

Much like "an island than which a greater cannot be conceived" cannot in fact be conceived, and thus the Perfect Island argument doesn't work?

 

That doesn't work for different reasons, since presumably you're talking about qualitatively "best" (arbitrary) as opposed to quantitatively greatest. The "God" argument doesn't work for both reasons, as "greatest" there is being equivocated all sorts of ways.

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However, wouldn't a God that could exist in the understanding AND existing in reality (in other words, a God that doesn't obey the exclusionary principles of the universe's logic) be greater than a God that does not defy logic?

 

Since I have just conceived of a greater God that can exist only in understanding AND in reality, that God must be the greater God than yours (and therefore must be the actual God).

 

Since this is the greater God, it won't follow that "God does not exist only in the understanding" or that "God exists."

 

A God that is greater is a God that can break our logic. Therefore, ontological arguments can't work.

The argument I present doesn't intend to say that God cannot exist in the understanding. The point is that God cannot exist only in understanding; it must exist in reality also.

 

You haven't shown this to be true. Existence may be a necessary property, but if a God with more properties is also a greater God, than a God with an additional property of "non-existence" are greater still.

Not "a God with more properties." One has the property of existence in reality, the other has the property of non-existence in reality. And Anselm's definition of perfection includes existence; something that does not exist at all cannot be perfect, because it cannot be experienced and its properties are meaningless.

 

I would argue that it is similarly impossible to define what a perfect (or greatest) God would be since we are limited to our universes perceptions, dimensions and experiences.

Very true. However, Anselm's Proslogion goes through quite a few properties God must have, like being immaterial.

 

But if we did have the benefit of greater knowledge, could a greatest possible God be better defined?

 

The Perfect Island can't be defined even if you know everything about islands, but a Perfect God might be definable if, say, you understand the true nature of the multiverse, or something like that.

 

Surely, the greatest God of all would not be something we could constrain or prove with logic.

I'd say the greatest God would be one whose existence is so necessary to the universe that He can be proven to exist with ease, either empirically or not. He is greater if He is intrinsically required for every part of the universe to function.

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The argument I present doesn't intend to say that God cannot exist in the understanding. The point is that God cannot exist only in understanding; it must exist in reality also.

 

That doesn't contradict my point. Surely a god that (only exists in understanding) AND (exists in reality) is the greater God. A God that cannot be constrained by logic is greater than a God that can.

 

 

I'd say the greatest God would be one whose existence is so necessary to the universe that He can be proven to exist with ease, either empirically or not. He is greater if He is intrinsically required for every part of the universe to function.

The only way to prove the existence of such a God would be to remove God from a parallel universe and observe if it stops functioning.

 

Of course, if we could do that, we would already know that God, at least, exists and if we could remove God, than we would be the greater God.

 

The point being, is that experiments to 'test God' are as impossible as logical arguments to test God. Just because we conceive of something and define that something as the properties of "existing" doesn't mean that is does exist. Just because a test for the hypothesis that God exists could be conceived, doesn't mean we can actually test it.

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That doesn't contradict my point. Surely a god that (only exists in understanding) AND (exists in reality) is the greater God. A God that cannot be constrained by logic is greater than a God that can.

So a God that cannot possibly exist, by virtue of being logically impossible, is greater than one that can?

 

I'm not sure there's a logical way to evaluate that, considering that it defies logic by definition.

 

The only way to prove the existence of such a God would be to remove God from a parallel universe and observe if it stops functioning.

 

Of course, if we could do that, we would already know that God, at least, exists and if we could remove God, than we would be the greater God.

 

The point being, is that experiments to 'test God' are as impossible as logical arguments to test God. Just because we conceive of something and define that something as the properties of "existing" doesn't mean that is does exist. Just because a test for the hypothesis that God exists could be conceived, doesn't mean we can actually test it.

Of course. God could alter the results of our experiments.

 

But things like irreducible complexity, if it were adequately demonstrated that no physical process could result in the complexity, may suffice.

 

For example, the Discworld in Terry Pratchett's novels would need a creator, albeit one with a wicked sense of humor.


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No, it does exist. Existence is one of the properties I conceive of it having. (Wouldn't be a very good translator if it wasn't real!)

If you conceive of it having the property of existence, then it has the property of being conceived to exist.

 

Of course, this could all be resolved by going the Kant route and arguing that existence isn't a property at all. That argument makes much more sense to me.

 

That doesn't work for different reasons, since presumably you're talking about qualitatively "best" (arbitrary) as opposed to quantitatively greatest. The "God" argument doesn't work for both reasons, as "greatest" there is being equivocated all sorts of ways.

I think perhaps the wording could be significantly improved to remove some of the equivocation. I'm using a version my philosophy professor constructed, not what Anselm originally presented.

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So a God that cannot possibly exist, by virtue of being logically impossible, is greater than one that can?

existence is relative, so yes. One of the concepts of Kabbalah is that God encompasses the universe, yet is beyond it. He exists as nothing and yet as everything, everywhere and nowhere.

 

Such a great God baffles all of our puny concepts of existence. A human could not gain greater understanding of God's true nature and remain sane.

 

 

I'm not sure there's a logical way to evaluate that, considering that it defies logic by definition.

Exactly my point.

 

1) The greatest God that can be potentially conceived is God.

2) A God that defies logic, explanation, existence and understanding is greater than a God that can be more easily explained

3) A God that defies logic, explanation, existence and understanding is God.

4) A God that defies logic cannot therefore be analyzed by logic

5) As a form of logic, Ontology will necessarily fail to analyze God, as long as 1 and 2 hold true.


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For example, the Discworld in Terry Pratchett's novels would need a creator, albeit one with a wicked sense of humor.

Surely. But surely the inhabitants of discworld could conceive of a creator greater than, say, an alien engineer.

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1) The greatest God that can be potentially conceived is God.

2) A God that defies logic, explanation, existence and understanding is greater than a God that can be more easily explained

3) A God that defies logic, explanation, existence and understanding is God.

4) A God that defies logic cannot therefore be analyzed by logic

5) As a form of logic, Ontology will necessarily fail to analyze God, as long as 1 and 2 hold true.

 

If we accept defying logic as a necessary property of the God proved to exist by the ontological argument (if you accept it, that is), doesn't this say that such a God could possibly not exist, despite necessarily existing, because He defies logic?

 

Oh dear.

 

This is a really good point, though. It's possible to define God to be impossible to conceive of logically, since that'd imply God is so much greater than we are that He cannot be understood by us. At which point the ontological argument necessarily implies that the ontological argument cannot work.

 

Does that sound right?

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That is what I'm getting at and I'm glad we found some agreement (I'd be very curious about what your philosophy professor thinks of this argument).

 

However, I think you may have taken it a step farther than I intended. I think it says that such a God could possibly not exist, but not that it necessarily doesn't exist.

 

My point was that, by accepting the reasonable premise that anything greater than a conceivable God is God, we can 'create' a God that is impossible to talk about on ontological terms.

 

If the premise is that ANY God that is greater is the real God, than this might necessarily (though I'm not sure) produce a definition of God that defies logic and therefore cannot be proven or disproven using logic.

 

edit: I'm rereading your above post, and I think you're agreeing with more than I thought, and stating it better.

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(I'd be very curious about what your philosophy professor thinks of this argument).

Me too. I'm going to have to think about this; I'll be taking another philosophy course this fall so if I still think this argument is sound then, I might bring it up.

 

My point was that, by accepting the reasonable premise that anything greater than a conceivable God is God, we can 'create' a God that is impossible to talk about on ontological terms.

 

If the premise is that ANY God that is greater is the real God, than this might necessarily (though I'm not sure) produce a definition of God that defies logic and therefore cannot be proven or disproven using logic.

 

Hmm. Let's try it:

 

  1. God is that than which a greater cannot be conceived.
  2. God could obey logical rules and be understandable through logic, or God could break logical rules and be inconceivable via logic.
  3. It is greater to be unbound by logic than to be bound by logic.
  4. Therefore, logical rules cannot bind God.
  5. The ontological argument is a logical argument to prove the existence of god.
  6. Because logic does not bind God, the ontological argument cannot apply to God.

 

This could be formulated better; this is just my first attempt.

 

I think by "unbound by logic", we agree this means that if I were to formulate a logical argument about God ("therefore, God must like cheese," or whatever), God would not necessarily obey the conclusion; the argument might be valid, but its conclusion may not apply to God anyway.

 

But there's only one alternative to the conclusion of the ontological argument: God might not exist at all. And I don't see how God could break the logical rules by refusing to exist at all.

 

Is there something wrong with this line of reasoning?

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But there's only one alternative to the conclusion of the ontological argument: God might not exist at all. And I don't see how God could break the logical rules by refusing to exist at all.

 

A & ~A breaks the rules of logic and does not exist.

 

I was going to say how a god that can microwave a burrito so hot he cannot eat it, is greater than a god that cannot. Also, a god that could eat said burrito anyways would be better than a god that cannot. Essentially the same argument as you folks made above.

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