Does the Universe Have a Purpose? Your vote counts

Joe Hanson shared this quote from Michio Kaku: “Physicists are made of atoms. A physicist is an attempt by an atom to understand itself.”

And vorjack shared this from Phil Hellenes:

It’s like the universe screams in your face, “Do you know what I am? How grand I am? What are you, compared to me?”

And when you know enough science, you can just smile up at the universe and reply, “Dude, I AM you.”

Vorjack says, “I like the sentiment, but we’re only a tiny part of the universe.” And thus it’s a stretch to “[equate] ourselves with the universe because ‘we are all star dust’ or something similar.”

You are here.

I agree. Each of us is only a tiny part of the universe. A tiny, tiny part.

But undeniably a part of it nonetheless.

And that, it seems to me, has to be an essential consideration for considering the “Big Question” recently posed by the John Templeton Foundation: “Does the Universe Have a Purpose?

Neal deGrasse Tyson’s response to this question — “I’m not sure” — seems to have gone viral. That’s deservedly so, since it’s his usual Sagan-esque mix of science and near-poetry (and has already been transformed into another terrific NdGT-narrated YouTube video).

Tyson emphasizes how very, very tiny we are against the incomprehensible vastness of space and time. This is science, but it reads like one of the monologues spoken by the character God in the book of Job:

If you are religious, you might declare that the purpose of life is to serve God. But if you’re one of the 100 billion bacteria living and working in a single centimeter of our lower intestine (rivaling, by the way, the total number of humans who have ever been born) you would give an entirely different answer. You might instead say that the purpose of human life is to provide you with a dark, but idyllic, anaerobic habitat of fecal matter.

Tyson concludes:

So in the absence of human hubris, and after we filter out the delusional assessments it promotes within us, the universe looks more and more random. Whenever events that are purported to occur in our best interest are as numerous as other events that would just as soon kill us, then intent is hard, if not impossible, to assert. So while I cannot claim to know for sure whether or not the universe has a purpose, the case against it is strong, and visible to anyone who sees the universe as it is rather than as they wish it to be.

The problem there, as Kaku and Helles remind us above, is that our wishes for how the universe ought to be are part of the universe. A tiny, tiny part of it, perhaps, but a part of it nonetheless.

We have a say in this.

We cannot consider the question “Does the Universe Have a Purpose?” without considering the sub-question “Do I Have a Purpose?” or even the sub-question to that, “Do I Want to Have a Purpose?”

Answering “Yes” to that third question means answering “Yes” to the second. And that means — even if only in a very tiny, tiny way — answering “Yes” to the first.

Consider Jane Goodall’s response to Templeton’s question. Maybe all that talk of wonder and beauty and spirit is just her wishful thinking. But even so, as she argues there, the wishful thinking of Jane Goodall is also a part of the universe and thus must also be at least a part of what we consider when we ask if the universe has a purpose.

I’m not really disagreeing with Tyson here, just trying to approach the question differently than his essentially Thomistic take. He echoes scholastic arguments when he says:

To assert that the universe has a purpose implies the universe has intent. And intent implies a desired outcome. But who would do the desiring?

Many theologians have posed that question in just that way, of course answering, “God — God does the desiring, and God supplies the intent.” I believe that’s true, but I can’t supply any more evidence that it is than the God-character supplied to Job.

As Nancey Murphy said in her response to Templeton’s question: “Nothing can be known of any plan for the future perfection of the world or the human condition.”

So let’s try another answer to this question from Aquinas and Tyson: “Who would do the desiring?”

How about us? You and me — we can do the desiring.

That’s actually a terrific word for what we are capable of doing as incomprehensibly tiny parts of the universe. We can’t ensure any outcome, or impose our intent on the universe. But we can desire a purposeful outcome.

“The arc of the moral universe is long,” Dr. King said, “but it bends toward justice.” That’s a statement of faith, not of science. It’s a statement about the universe as we wish it to be rather than as it is — “random,” with “events that are purported to occur in our best interest … as numerous as other events that would just as soon kill us all.”

But our desiring, our wishing it to be, is also part of what is. A tiny, tiny part, perhaps, but there it is.

That’s why as much as I like the responses from Tyson, Goodall and Murphy, my favorite of all the responses from Templeton’s conversation comes from Elie Wiesel. Does the universe have a purpose?

“I hope so,” Wiesel said. “And if it doesn’t, it’s up to us to give it one.”

Does the universe have a purpose? Do you have a purpose? Do you want to have a purpose?

Three forms of the same question. And my answer is the same as those of Goodall, Tyson and Wiesel: Certainly, I’m not sure, I hope so.

  • http://www.nicolejleboeuf.com/index.php Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little

     So… if an evangelical Baptist who blogs about social justice, literary criticism, and theology spends a week mainly in that third category, it’s “fuck atheists week”? Really?

    If a religious person blogs primarily about their religion, it’s somehow a great big middle finger in the face of atheists? And not just, say, a person blogging about topics of interest to themself?

    Water_Bear, your stance is remarkably similar to that of those who insist that there’s a war on Christmas based on the existence of people who don’t celebrate it and/or respect that there are others who don’t celebrate it.

  • http://www.nicolejleboeuf.com/index.php Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little

    And of course everyone got to Water_Bear before me. Sorry for adding to the pile-on.

    Interestingly, my reaction to Fred’s post was about 180 degrees away from MaryKaye’s. I guess in my particular brand of pantheistic and polytheistic Paganism*, I do not feel that “I” am separate from “The Universe” in the first place, so that “who does the desiring? How about us?” is a perfect answer. Sentient beings are, to my way of thinking, one vector through which the Universe expresses its desires and purpose.

    Sure, there’s a bunch of potential problems in there — like, is it fair to No True Scotsman the monstrous desires away as not being true Purposes, the way I’ve heard done when those who espouse “Do what they will shall be the whole of the law” defend it against the same charge? — and working through those problems is very much a work in progress for me. But I’m only speaking for myself and not trying to convert anyone to my way of thinking, so I don’t need to hurry the process up according to anyone else’s timeline. So there. Nyah.

    *On some days we can throw an “agnostic” in that list of qualifiers too.

  • Tricksterson

    It’s been a long, long, looong time since i read the books, listened to the radio play (the best version IMHGO)  saw the BBC series or saw the movie, which IIRC doesn’t have that joke in it anyway.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ann-Unemori/100001112760232 Ann Unemori

    Well, one reason I link John Wright’s comments is to have an intelligent response; he needs to know what he’s up against.
    Me, just trying to learn and think.

  • Graeme from BC

    The Tao of Angel: If nothing we do matters then all that matters is what we do.
    And of course, 42.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Oh yeah, I wasn’t snarking at you. I was snarking at him, especially his excuse-making for why humanity should never strive to improve its general lot in this universe.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ann-Unemori/100001112760232 Ann Unemori

    I like what he has to say, but also I know he needs to hear the other side, and this is a very intelligent other side.
    I know I need to hear it too.

  • ohiolibrarian

    Maybe the universe’s purpose is dark energy and we are just a side effect? 

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Sue-White/1605859612 Sue White

    How about us? You and me — we can do the desiring.

    But do we want the same thing?

    As far as I can tell, my purpose these days is to function as cat furniture.

  • http://www.facebook.com/swbaxter13 Scott Baxter

    Interestingly, my reaction to Fred’s post was about 180 degrees away from MaryKaye’s. I guess in my particular brand of pantheistic and polytheistic Paganism*, I do not feel that “I” am separate from “The Universe” in the first place, so that “who does the desiring? How about us?” is a perfect answer. Sentient beings are, to my way of thinking, one vector through which the Universe expresses its desires and purpose.

    I kinda think NdGT adequately addressed that one in his original answer – we can’t prove that isn’t true, but the evidence doesn’t seem to point that way. As far as we know, sentient beings who can ponder that kind of question have been around for maybe a million years – making a somewhat generous assumption about the philosophical capabilities of Home Erectus and such – but the universe clocks in at quite a bit older, 13.75 billion years give or take a few million. 

    Now, you might think NdGT is just wrong, and that’s fine, but it isn’t clear to me that he’s objectively wrong.

    As for Fred’s post, he pretty much lost me here:

    We cannot consider the question “Does the Universe Have a Purpose?” without considering the sub-question “Do I Have a Purpose?” or even the sub-question to that, “Do I Want to Have a Purpose?”
    Answering “Yes” to that third question means answering “Yes” to the second. And that means — even if only in a very tiny, tiny way — answering “Yes” to the first.

    See, this makes no sense to me, because if I replace “Purpose” with some other noun, like “Dog,” the relationship Fred claims must exist clearly isn’t true. I want a dog, but do not have one. The only way – for me, at least – that it makes sense to speak of the universe having a dog is that it contains dogs, but that is completely different than the sense in which I want to have a dog. And there are certainly people out there who would answer yes to “do I have a dog?” but no to the third question.

    So the only way Fred’s chain of reasoning works for me is if “Purpose” is something very different from other nouns, which no doubt explains the capitalization. I just don’t think the argument works without explaining what’s different about this use of Purpose, because without knowing that I can’t tell you whether I have it, or whether I want to have it.

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

    Yes, whether X contains a dog is independent of X’s desires, and whether X contains a purpose is not independent of X’s desires, and dogs are different from purposes in this regard. (Other things that are like purposes and not like dogs in this regard are fears, hopes, expectations, anticipations, and aspirations. The thing that they have in common is that, unlike dogs, they are functions of intentional systems such as minds.)

  • Morilore

    I find it a little cheeky to accuse Fred of pissing on atheists in this post, because the Philhellenes quote he passes on comes from a video that is itself at least 50% devoted to shitting on religion.

  • mud man

    So in the absence of human hubris, and after we filter out the delusional assessments it promotes within us, the universe looks more and more random.

    The universe might have purpose for which humans are not strictly central. That is, to see the universe as random because it doesn’t favor us sufficiently is indeed hubris. To imagine that the view from this particular window is the ultrafication of very itness.

    Looking at modern cosmology for more than 2 seconds shows that the universe definitely has had an arc to it in the past. So why not expect that arc to continue into the future? Not that us humans can prospectively ever figure out whither.

  • http://www.facebook.com/swbaxter13 Scott Baxter

    Your examples also fail to preserve the chain of reasoning Fred says exists. For example, whether I have a fear is independent of whether I want to have a fear, and again it’s not clear at all how my personal status of having a fear maps to the question of whether the universe has a fear. It looks like exactly the same problem as with the dogs: Fred’s argument appears to make no sense for anything other than Purpose, which must be different from mere purpose in order for his chain of arguments to hold true.

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

     Whether I have a fear is not entirely independent of whether I want to have a fear, though I agree with you that wanting to have a fear (or not wanting to) is neither necessary nor sufficient to cause that fear (or eliminate it). More generally, the capacity of a system to have desires is tightly related to that system’s capacity to have fears.

  • http://profiles.google.com/marc.k.mielke Marc Mielke

    It works better if you add the final line (IIRC):
    (Arthur Dent): “I always did think there was something fundamentally wrong with the universe.” 

  • arcseconds

     I find your noun replacement technique to be rather curious.  Do you find it normally gets results?

    I would have thought it would end up casting the net a mite wide, myself.  You’re supposedly trying to work out how Fred gets from ‘I want to have a purpose’ to ‘I have a purpose’.  To try and recover the reasoning by replacing ‘purpose’ with every noun imaginable strikes me as a rather large search space.  Most such replacements will of course be ridiculous, but I suspect that’ll be true of any non-tautological argument.

    I mean, here’s a piece of non-tautological physics reasoning:

    “for something not to move, it must have no net forces acting on it.  All matter experiences the mutual force of gravity.  Therefore, the parts of an object that isn’t collapsing in on itself must have internal forces that resist the force of gravity”

    now, let’s see if we learn anything about the reasoning here by replacing ‘force’ with ‘cheese’:

    “for something not to move, it must have no net cheeses acting on it. 
    All matter experiences the mutual cheese of gravity.  Therefore, the
    parts of an object that isn’t collapsing in on itself must have internal cheeses that resist the cheese of gravity”

    Yes, I suppose your conclusion follows: there must be something special about ‘force’ that makes it different from every other noun.

    But didn’t we know this already?  I mean, hopefully nouns aren’t universally replaceable for one another in every context, otherwise they’d all mean the same thing, and we could ditch a huge redundancy in English by replacing all the nouns with ‘thingy’.

  • Ima Pseudonym

     There is every probability that, even if the universe DID have an organized purpose of some sort, it would be one that was so completely alien to our way of thinking that it would be almost impossible for us to grasp, and murderously indifferent to us even if we COULD grasp it. 

  • http://twitter.com/WayofCats WayofCats

    The Universe has a purpose: it is to be random, so that everything that can possibly happen will happen.

    We have a purpose: it is to increase the sum of love in the Universe, so all the good things are more likely to happen.

    I have a purpose: as a writer, I explain things.

    And there’s no point in getting hung up on quantity… when quality is more important. I may be a tiny bit of the Cosmos, but I strive to have more influence.

  • Ima Pseudonym

     It kind of strikes me as a government make-work project that was subcontracted out to the absolute lowest bidder.  They threw the whole thing together, made sure that it kinda-sorta-maybe worked and wouldn’t fall apart before they could collect their paychecks and shuffle off into the distance, and escaped as fast as they could before it did something to bring the wrath of their employers down on them.   Which probably means that collapsars are potholes that no one’s gotten around to filling in.  Or something.   

  • Mira

    I’ve read all the comments trying to figure out why “does this universe have a purpose?” makes me roll my eyes and feel frustrated, even though it seems like a fairly significant question to…Fred and some famous people, at the very least.

    First off, I think it feels somewhat reductive – a purpose can usually be expressed in one sentence, or a short mission statement, and I don’t really *want* my understanding of the universe to boil down to that, it would seem cheap. So that’s my personal, emotional reaction. On an intellectual level, “what is the mission statement of this incredibly complex thing of which you are a part, and therefore unable to perceive fully” seems almost meaningless, too - I have no reason for assuming that I should have access to that knowledge.

    Second, why is anyone bothered enough by an answer to argue about it? I think it comes down to preemptive defense against more human-scale implications – if the universe has no purpose, maybe that implies that God didn’t design it, that humans have no purpose, and that life is meaningless! That seems to be sort of what Fred is saying: if we humans find meaning and purpose in our lives, isn’t that in some sense  “yes” answer on behalf of the universe? And then some on the other side seem worried that if we agree it does have a purpose, then uh oh,  God does exist, and now we lack the freedom to determine value in our own lives.

    I’m not sure any of these implications are actually inevitably bundled, though. Even Christianity doesn’t assume that the universe has a purpose just because it has a creator; we wouldn’t say that all great art has a purpose, even though art is a product of intentional creation. We might even value pieces that have clear purpose less because we consider instrumental or didactic use a drawback in that sphere.

  • http://www.facebook.com/swbaxter13 Scott Baxter

    I find your noun replacement technique to be rather curious.  Do you find it normally gets results?

    Yes. It’s extremely useful for determining whether additional definition of terms is required, or whether an argument’s structure is generally applicable. Fred’s argument applies no special characteristics at all to “Purpose” (well, beyond capitalization, I guess), he merely asserts that the relationship he claims holds. I’m saying it doesn’t.

    Such substitution is, at most, first-year university level argument analysis (and really should be high school), such as introductory logic as you might find in a philosophy course.

    Note that your cheese example does exactly the same thing – it demonstrates that a statement about forces is not generally true about other things, you need to know what a force is in order for your original statement to make sense. And indeed, if you take a physics course, the instructor will most likely spend some time defining what a force is, so everybody’s on the same page when you start reasoning about forces. Same thing here – Fred is claiming an argument is generally true, when in fact it isn’t. He hasn’t done the groundwork of defining his terms so his argument can be evaluated.  

  • Carstonio

    if the universe has no purpose, maybe that implies that God didn’t
    design it, that humans have no purpose, and that life is meaningless!
    That seems to be sort of what Fred is saying: if we humans find meaning
    and purpose in our lives, isn’t that in some sense  “yes” answer on
    behalf of the universe?

    My own stance for some time has been similar – there’s no evidence of inherent or created purpose for the universe  or for anyone’s lives, and that our purposes as individuals are ours to create.

    And then some on the other side seem worried that if we agree it does
    have a purpose, then uh oh,  God does exist, and now we lack the freedom
    to determine value in our own lives.

    In large part, it’s really an argument against gender essentialism. Refuting the hateful idea that women have no business making their lives about anything other than bearing or raising children. If women were created for those specific purposes, it makes the case for gender egalitarianism more challenging – one has to argue that it was wrong to create women that way, which brings up the inevitable cry of “What, are you challenging God?”

    It’s also an argument about individuals determining value in the lives of others. That’s not much different from many believers in eternal damnation claiming that people who don’t share their beliefs are doomed to everlasting torment after death. They take self-righteous pleasure in idea that they’re privy to this knowledge, even though any claims about afterlives can be proven or disproven. Many believers in inherent purposes talk the same way, as if they had inside information about what Person A’s purpose.

    Even Christianity doesn’t assume that the universe has a purpose just because it has a creator

    It would arguably the other way around – if the universe has a purpose, that would almost require that it has a creator who conceived of that purpose.

  • lowtechcyclist

    You are a fluke of the universe.  You have no right to be here.
    -Deteriorata

    http://www.leoslyrics.com/national-lampoon/deteriorata-lyrics/

  • Michael Pullmann

     Well, sure, a lot of things don’t make sense if one insists upon being deliberately obtuse.

  • stardreamer42

    In Life’s name, and for Life’s sake, I assert that I will employ the Art
    which is Its gift in Life’s service alone. I will guard growth and
    ease pain. I will fight to preserve what grows and lives well in its own
    way; nor will I change any creature unless its growth and life, or that
    of the system of which it is part, are threatened. To these ends, in
    the practice of my Art, I will ever put aside fear for courage, and
    death for life, when it is fitting to do so – looking always toward the
    Heart of Time, where all our sundered times are one, and all our myriad
    worlds lie whole, in That from Which they proceeded.

    - The Wizard’s Oath from Diane Duane’s Young Wizards books

    Removing the bits directly relating to magic, it’s not a bad philosophy for anyone; I’ve heard it paraphrased as “I will strive to retard entropy wherever I can.”

  • EllieMurasaki

    It’s fairly good, yeah, but…nothing in there suggests, and in fact the ‘nor will I change’ bit seems to actively contradict, that people who take that oath are thereby obliged to do anything to level the playing field. Which, if the oathtaker’s world has widespread biases pertaining to such things as gender, race, and disability that are backed up by institutional power (which, you know, of course it does), is a Major Problem.

  • http://www.xkcd.com/285 Eran Rathan

    6×9 = 42 in Base13, but as Adams himself wrote, “Nobody makes jokes in base13.”

  • stardreamer42

     In context, it’s a rejection of non-consensual spells of compulsion, which is an extremely ethical position. There’s nothing in it about not working non-magically to change things that need to be changed about the world, but it is an affirmation that you don’t just arbitrarily change living beings for your own convenience — or for “their own good”.

  • EllieMurasaki

    I can get behind rejecting nonconsensual compulsion spells. But the wording of the oath still seems to suggest that the oathbreaker will make no effort to, for instance, make a rapist or rape apologist into a feminist. That would change the person, and his being a rapist or rape apologist doesn’t threaten him or the system he’s part of (just a bunch of society’s vulnerable people).

    The oathwriter and oathtakers mean well, I’m sure, but I’m too used to institutions that don’t make a point of calling themselves feminist/antiracist/etc actually being sexist/racist/etc institutions regardless of their members’ good intentions.

  • Leum

    In this case the oathwriters are the omni-benevolent creators of the universe. I wouldn’t be too worried.

  • EllieMurasaki

    I’m not convinced that makes things better. Okay, they have the best intentions ever. Yay. *waves little flag* Do institutional-power-backed biases exist in that world? If so, what is being done about correcting them, and how does taking that oath help instead of hinder that effort?

  • stardreamer42

     Once again, there’s nothing in the Oath about not trying to convince such a person that what he’s doing is wrong. Also, to use magic to stop a rapist in the act (and turn him over to the law) would be perfectly appropriate, since he is causing harm. What is forbidden is to use wizardry to force the rape apologist to become a feminist. Argue with him, mock him, whatever, that’s just fine — but not to compel him to mend his ways, because that is deeply unethical.

    If you haven’t read these books, I recommend them very highly, in part because they do spend a lot of time on the discussion and  illustration of ethical issues. The first book is called So You Want To Be A Wizard.

    Also, I will note that it’s more than a little weird to be judging a fantasy universe by real-life standards.

  • EllieMurasaki

    *nodnod*

    Huh. I have seen that book in my house. Might see if I can find it.

    Well what other standards am I supposed to judge it by? Some questions that come up in fantasy simply don’t in real life (for example, anything involving mindreading or mind control or ‘this prophecy says’ where we know there’s a proven-excellent accuracy rating on prophecies), but any real-life situation, literally any, can be and probably has been seen in fantasy. One can certainly judge the characters involved in those fantasy situations by the same standards one would apply to real people in those similar real-life situations.

  • AnonaMiss

    Purpose is arguably different from other nouns even in lower-case, because as a social/human construction a purpose can be created from thin air/at will. In the same way that choosing a philosophy for yourself makes that your philosophy, but choosing a dog for yourself does not (in itself) make that your dog.

  • Amaryllis

     “Physicists are made of atoms. A physicist is an attempt by an atom to understand itself.”

    “They”

    The new explorers don’t go
    anywhere and what they discover
    we can’t see. But they change our lives.

    They interpret absence
    as presence, measuring it by the movement
    of its neighbours. Their world is

    an immense place: deep down is as distant
    as far out, but is arrived at
    in no time. These are the new

    linguists, exchanging across closed
    borders the currency of their symbols.
    Have I been too long on my knees

    worrying over the obscurity
    of a message? These have their way, too,
    other than a prayer of breaking that abstruse code.

    - R. S. Thomas

    (Can I help it if the man had a word or two to say about, well, life, the universe and everything?)

  • stardreamer42

    I didn’t express that well. What I meant was that saying “I expect organizations in stories to be sexist if they don’t explicitly make a point of not being sexist” is  like saying “you can’t have a black guy as the protagonist in your alternate-history 1800s because that’s unrealistic!” It’s a story, and the author can write into it whatever she wants, and the world works that way in the story because that’s the way it’s written.

    I’m also having a really hard time here with you thinking that the wizards would be sexist, or would fail to work against sexism where they found it, but that’s because I’ve read the books. Duane just doesn’t write characters like that as her protagonists.

  • EllieMurasaki

    I expect organizations to be sexist if they’re not pointedly feminist. The ‘in stories’ bit is rather beside the point.

    I’ll take your word for it about Duane.

    (And why can’t an 1800s US AU have a black protagonist? There’ve been black US residents for the entire history of the US. Even during slavery, some of those black US residents were free and some of those were prosperous, so not wanting to write about a slave or a poor person in a place and time where most black folk were slaves and most of the rest poor wouldn’t mean one would have to write about someone who isn’t black.)

  • AnonaMiss

    If you take a collection of vectors and sum them, the result is a single vector. :)

  • hf

     If you told a genie or an AI to fulfill this Oath, it would do something awful. (Probably it would discard the “change” clause on the grounds that all life is in fact threatened – by heat death, for example – and would itself grow to consume all available matter as gray goo, using this computing power and sensory apparatus to look for ways around the heat death of the observable Universe and/or ways in which “That from Which they proceeded” might affect its utility function. You can argue it would keep some humans alive to experiment on.)

    If you gave the Oath to a human being, you’d likely get Gandhi-style pacifism or a slightly weakened version thereof. Which still seems wrong to me, but much better than the literal meaning.

  • hf

    The OP itself seems pretty good to this atheist, but it has two lesser flaws.

    First, we have no decisive reason to believe the Cosmos is finite. Our observable Universe cannot possibly be the whole of physical reality unless my layman’s understanding of physics (inflation and ‘space’ in particular) is entirely wrong. And it seems like even alternate-but-still-recognizable copies of us would add up to a finite amount. So our “vote” could come to exactly 0% of the total.

    Second, I once would have said that our will is by definition the Will of the Universe as it concerns our actions. This still seems sort of true. But I would expect a sharp limit to what one could discover of the true ontology underlying consciousness by pure introspection. To put it another way, consciousness seems like a functional process that could run on many different ontologies and feel indistinguishable from the inside. (Again: screw you, Firefox, “ontologies” is a word.) So while a materialist could define “matter” in part as something that produces purpose in certain circumstances, those circumstances seem like the important bit.


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