Pearce’s Potshots #18: Doubting Thomas & Evidence

Pearce’s Potshots #18: Doubting Thomas & Evidence March 18, 2021

Atheist anti-theist Jonathan M. S. Pearce is the main writer on the blog, A Tippling Philosopher. His “About” page states: “Pearce is a philosopher, author, blogger, public speaker and teacher from Hampshire in the UK. He specialises in philosophy of religion, but likes to turn his hand to science, psychology, politics and anything involved in investigating reality.” 

Jonathan wrote a paper entitled, “The Double Standards Involved with Doubting Thomas” (3-16-21). I replied with Pearce’s Potshots #17: Doubting Thomas & an “Unfair” God (3-16-21). I also responded at length to two other atheists in his forum, on the same topic: Debate w Atheists: Doubting Thomas & an “Unfair” God (3-17-21). Jonathan has now counter-responded with Doubting Thomas: A Response to Catholic Dave Armstrong (3-17-21), to which I now reply. His words will be in blue.

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I will leave aside the dubious historicity of this pericope, especially given that it is merely a response to the Pauline theology of a spiritual resurrection (each successive Gospel renounces the Pauline theology more and more, with John having Thomas prove that Jesus is not just resurrected spiritually, but very much bodily too).

What else is new? The atheist of course has to doubt the genuine nature of anything in Scripture (on inadequate grounds) and has to (by some immutable law of the universe) engage in worthless speculation about origins and purpose (with no supporting evidence presented, let alone plausible evidence), including a flat-out falsehood about St. Paul supposedly teaching a “spiritual resurrection only, and not a bodily one.

I dealt with this latter question, not just once, but twice, in engaging atheist polemicist Bob Seidensticker, who has chosen to utterly ignore 72 of my critiques. With this baggage (three major false premises), Jonathan proceeds to provide some sort of cogent, coherent analysis of the passage.

Instead, let me return to my original point, which is just a corollary of this asserted incident: that the great St Thomas only ended up believing in Jesus’ resurrection when presented with first-hand sensory experience of it (such that the apparent eyewitness testimony of his fellow disciples was not enough).

That’s no kind of “point”; it’s merely the assertion of a self-evident fact.

Yet, for an awful lot of modern potential and actual Christians (and all people throughout time, from Amazonian tribespeople to someone born in Riyadh in the 1600s), there is a completely unfair distribution of evidence. Thomas is afforded far more evidence so that he eventually believes (and becomes a saint, no less) than I can ever hope for or reasonably expect. If the end result of judgement (and heaven or hell) is based on my belief decision (or in Amazonians’ cases, there is no Christian option in their “decision”), then this seems even more unfair.

And I have thoroughly replied to this charge twice. We’ll see if Jonathan actually interacts with my arguments.

Dave Armstrong, a fellow Patheoser, though on the Catholic channel, often baits me to respond, and this time I have accepted. He replied to my short piece, saying on my own thread:

Perhaps some folks will have the intellectual courage, and/or curiosity, and/or open-mindedness to actually rationally interact with my argument this time, rather than engage in crazed, mindless personal attacks, such as massively, obsessively took place in two recent threads. One person already has, which is wonderful.

“Bait” has a decidedly negative connotation. It doesn’t describe how I have acted towards Jonathan at all. Merriam-Webster online defines it as:

to persecute or exasperate with unjust, malicious, or persistent attacks

to try to make angry with criticism or insults

Jonathan has replied to some five or six of my critiques in the past. Then he just stopped. I complained a bit (which was not “baiting”: but simply inquiring as to why he stopped). He explained in a long post that he was very busy and had some health problems, too. I fully accepted that, appreciated the clarification, and wished him the best. Since then I have simply informed him out of courtesy that I have replied to one of his articles. If he wishes me to cease doing that, too (and/or leave his forum if I upset the apple cart too much), I’ll be happy to comply.

My words above were not directed to Jonathan (because he doesn’t engage in such personal attacks), but to many other people on his forum who can do nothing but insult when it comes to me. I was registering my strong protest against that. Jonathan apparently has no problem with such personal attacks at all and allows any conceivable personal attack to be aired on his forum. So I rebuked it in no uncertain terms.

I’m looking for intelligent, probing, challenging discussion, not mud pie fights and urinating matches. The personal attacks from others against me continue full force on his blog, in several comboxes. I ignore them, block the people who do it, and once in a while make a protesting statement such as the above. I am certainly entitled to express indignation at such nonsense (like virtually any other human being would also do).

To give just one example of hundreds, Steven Watson, underneath this latest article from Jonathan, stated: “Armstrong is in the grip of an irrational delusion, he is a loony.” You get the idea. This is the sort of comment Jonathan has no problem permitting on his site. On my blog, on the other hand, if someone made a ridiculous comment like that about a particular atheist, he would be immediately banned. So we have vastly different opinions as to the nature of constructive and civil discussion.

So — nice try Jonathan — now we get back to the actual topic at hand.

This is ironic since he has, as you shall see, failed to interact with my actual points.

Nonsense. I responded by attacking Jonathan’s false premises. This is what socratics always do (and I am a socratic). Then the charge comes back that this is not a response. It certainly is: just on a deeper level than the person critiqued wants to deal with. In my other debate with two of Jonathan’s friends on the same topic (linked above) I go into, much more depth. Blanket statements like this that are untrue, do not help the debate proceed forward. But Jonathan does interact with my arguments to some extent.

His defences of this are as follows:

“Because you have seen Me, have you now believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed.”

Did you notice the last verse there? The Thomas incident was not regarded by Jesus as normative, but rather, a special act of mercy that was not “epistemologically required.” Jesus thought it wasn’t necessary, and criticized Thomas at the end for his undue doubt. He did it because He loved Thomas, and we all do many things that aren’t required for our loved ones.

Irrespective of whether Thomas was somewhat chastised here, the point remains entirely the same: Thomas was afforded far more evidence, and went on to be a foundational member of the church and have some kind (one is pretty sure) of union with God, which appears to be one of the goals that God has set for humanity.

This still doesn’t establish that:

1) empirical evidence is the be-all and end-all regarding evidences for God’s existence,

or that

2) all human beings must receive the same sort of visitation from Jesus, lest it is “unfair” that they received less verification, which is “required” for them to properly decide the “God question”,

or that

3) God hasn’t provided sufficient evidence of His existence to each person in many different ways (not just empirical).

It is the many unspoken premises lying beneath this charge that I attack as false.

I still don’t remotely get to cross or even approach that evidentiary threshold or benchmark. All I get is a bunch of people telling me a particular book is true, amongst a whole collection of holy books and revelations from other people and cultures and religions around the world, and the assertion that this one alone is the one.

And that’s it.

That’s not “it” at all. There are all kinds of Christian arguments. These have a cumulative effect.

I cannot be convinced by personal revelation, since Muslims and Hindus have them too.

This is considered some sort of “argument”? Obviously, one has to consider the Christian arguments for why the Bible is a uniquely inspired document, and indeed, God’s revelation. There are hundreds and hundreds of them. One way to show that it is plausible to believe that the Bible is inspired is to shoot down alleged “contradictions” in its pages. I recently did that with 59 alleged “contradictions” regarding Jesus’ Resurrection, in response to one of Jonathan’s articles. When a point of view is that consistently wrong, it shows that something is seriously awry.  No one took it upon themselves to make any sort of direct reply. Instead, I received an avalanche of personal insults.

And philosophical arguments can only really get you to atheism, or deism or theism, as large umbrellas. The Bible is what gets you to Christianity.

Correct. And that’s why I devote my time in atheist venues mostly to defending the Bible: understanding this very thinking, and knowing that going round and round with philosophy accomplishes virtually nothing. Jonathan (like many atheists) insists on taking his shots at the Bible, and I reply with counter-arguments. He’s now playing on my field when he does that. If that’s what he wants to do, more power to him. I’m here. Bring it on.

And that is very poor evidence indeed. Unknown authors, writing in unknown times and places that we can only guess at, with unknown sources, unverified and unverifiable, writing with evangelising agendas ex post facto, with no historiographical pedigree.

It’s shockingly poor evidence.

These are just blanket hostile statements, not arguments, and as such, deserve no further consideration.

And I can supposedly go to hell on the back of whether I choose to believe that very low-level evidence (let’s call it 5%) and St Thomas (the Apostle) gets to stroll through the pearly gates, one assumes, on the back of not believing (assuming the Gospels are true here) with a level of, say, 90%, and Jesus then reversing this unbelief (in the Resurrection, and thus Jesus’ divinity, and thus the atonement – not that he actually would have understood this at the time, I wager) by getting Thomas to poke him, and raising the evidential threshold to 95%!! (I am somewhat making these figures up to illustrate my point).

This is just a more colorful way of reiterating the original assertion, which is shot-through with demonstrably false premises. It’s simplistic thinking. He does (thank God for small favors!) eventually start dealing with my actual arguments.

Armstrong claims my position is based on three premises that he refutes:

1) The notion that empiricism is the only way to verify or prove anything, as if there are no other ways of knowing.

2) The denial that God is already known by observing the universe, as Romans 1 states.

3) The idea that every atheist would immediately believe (and respond exactly as Thomas did) if only they had the “100% sure!” experience of Thomas: with the risen Jesus standing there, bodily, so that he could touch Him.

Thanks for putting these words into my mouth, but the first two doesn’t really apply to Thomas – or at least all equally get him to Judaism, or some theism.

At any rate, the first two are either nonsense or straw men, or both.

Hogwash. The entire issue as atheists see it, is the alleged “unfairness” of Thomas receiving such a crystal-clear evidence of the risen Jesus, thus allowing him to more easily believe that Jesus is God, and (obviously) that God does exist. This is empirical evidence through-and-through, entailing the evidence of senses and the experience of touching a physical, alive-again Jesus Who had just been killed. So atheists complain about how this is so terribly “unfair!” God is such a meanie and a brute, to be so absurdly unjust in how He presents evidence for Himself.

My denial that empirical evidence is the only evidence or any way to reliably know anything undercuts this whole notion, because then it’s not the only way God can reveal Himself. That’s the false premise. Jonathan needs to prove first of all that empiricism is the cat’s meow, epistemologically speaking. Instead, he chooses to ignore that (the elephant in the room) and merely assert that my brining it up is “nonsense or [a] straw [man]”. I then get into willful rejection, another factor that Jonathan ignored in his presentation, as if will plays no part in the choices all human beings make on a variety of issues.

(3) is a false analogy since Thomas was not an atheist. Thomas has just been in godmanspirit’s ministry. Either he already believed Jesus was God (almost certainly not the case) or that he was a Messiah (much more likely, though it must be remembered that this whole event recorded here almost certainly never happened). Then, after all the crazy stuff that supposedly happened, and all the claims of his fellow disciples that this would have entailed, he still didn’t believe. (It is worth reinforcing here that the theology of this piece is not primarily about epistemology, but about the form of Jesus’ resurrection to fight off the theology we see Paul discussing with the Corinthians).

Whether he’s an atheist or not, his example is being used to assert that God is “unfair” and that God ought to make similar appearances to atheists en masse.

Thomas was, according to the Gospel, afforded a level of evidence I will never get, and nor will (or has) any other human, I would argue, in the history of Christianity.

Exactly. This is the point I just made (I am replying as I read).

Thomas got to be in Jesus’ gang, and then touch his resurrected body whilst conversing with him (God).

Yep.

I’ll ignore the long tirade of articles Armstrong offers to attack my apparent sole reliance on empiricism (as if, as a philosopher arguing all day long about all sorts of things, that empiricism is my single only route to epistemological conclusions).

Scholars offer footnotes for further reading: if anyone desires to do so. I offer my own articles. Somehow this is objectionable and Jonathan describes a collection of related links as a “tirade.” It’s laughable. The argument that was made was entirely of an empirical nature. An utterly empirical experience (Thomas’s) is used to try to indict God for unfairness and “double standards.” That requires a prior analysis of empiricism and noting that it’s not the sum total of all knowledge. Many many atheists think that it is. If Jonathan doesn’t (welcome to the club) then he needs to formulate non-empirical arguments with regard to Doubting Thomas and atheist unbelief.

His claims about point (2) are pretty naive:

Romans 1:19-20 (RSV) For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.  [20] Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. . . .

 Not only is this just asserted nonsense that also gets you to every other religion, but it has nothing to do with the point in hand: Doubting Thomas and the varied apportioning of evidence for the Christian god to all humans throughout time.

So I will ignore this and his defence of it.

I explained this in my related dialogue, linked above:

I was presenting how the Bible itself views this issue of God being “fair”; and how it views evidence and how God is known. The critique in the OP is of the Bible. If Jonathan didn’t want it to be [at least partially] a biblical discussion then he shouldn’t and wouldn’t have ever introduced the Doubting Thomas story into it. Since he did, I explain why it doesn’t fly (from our Christian perspective).

If I critique atheism, then you can explain your view (that I don’t accept, just as you don’t accept ours). If you claim the Christian view is unjust or insufficient or incoherent / inconsistent in some way, then the Christian quite logically responds by showing how this isn’t (internally) the case.

I’m not citing the Bible to try to convince atheists of anything: only to explain why the atheist critique of Christianity in this instance doesn’t succeed (being based on insufficient understanding of what the biblical teaching is in the first place).

It’s Jonathan who exercises double standards. He reserves the prerogative to enter into the territory of biblical interpretation by giving his two cents’ about Doubting Thomas and the implications of the story for atheists, but if I come back and attempt to explain it from a Christian perspective (getting into the wider area of unbelief), then he wants no part of it. In effect, then, he seems to think that an atheist can comment on the Bible, but if a Christian does, it’s “naive” and “nonsense” and only fit to be ignored.

To which I reply: if you’re gonna bring up the Bible, don’t be surprised that a Christian will 1) defend the Bible, and 2) comment upon related passages in it that are relevant to the point. Jonathan thinks God is unfair, and this passage is evidence (he thinks) of that. We show how it is not and show how the biblical Christian outlook, rightly understood, is not an unfair system at all. That’s completely relevant to the discussion. But Jonathan has this double standard whereby only atheists can do biblical exegesis. If the Christian apologist (who obviously knows nothing about the Bible) deigns to do the same thing, it’s “naive” and “nonsense”. It’s just dumb. Unless atheists are called on these unsavory and illogical techniques of “argument” they will keep doing it.

His defence of point (3):

As for #3, many atheists — if not necessarily Jonathan — casually assume that pretty much every atheist and skeptic would respond as Thomas did. Jesus thought quite otherwise…

He misses my point. I am not really bothered whether I would react the same or differently to Thomas. My general point is that all sorts of people react differently to the same level of evidence, and all sorts of people get different levels of evidence. It’s all a bit of an unfair mess.

How is it unfair? Jonathan has to establish that there is no other kind of evidence that people receive (Christians assert that there are hundreds of such evidences, of widely different sorts). And he has to establish that all atheists are completely objective, impartial, rational machines, in which there is no slightest shred of resistance to truth or evidence when presented; no bias, no willful rejection, no irrational emotionalism, etc., etc. ad infinitum.

All of these factors and more have to be discussed in order to plausibly make this grand charge of UNFAIRNESS of that wascally wascal: God. In other words, it’s a vastly more complex issue than he makes out. But atheists are masters at simplistic, one-millimeter- deep arguments against the Bible and Christianity.

Imagine I have a class of 30 children to whom I give a test. All 30 children have different brains, knowledges, abilities and thresholds, etc. I give them a test of 100 questions, and declare that the children who fail to get 70/100 will get detention. Children who get 70 will get a special treat.

I then give them a test.

Except, I also give out different cheat sheets to everyone ranging from 0 points of help to 90 points. Each child either gets no extra help or gets some kind of leg up to getting closer to that 70 point success. Some people, like little Thomas, get a cheat sheet with answers worth 95 points. Lucky him.

Poor Alice, who is not very clever (due to her genetics and troublesome environment) gets a cheat sheet with 0 points of help, and gets 16/100 and detention.

We could actually make this more accurate: some children are given trickster cheat sheets, like our Saudi student, Mo, who gets a sheet that actually tells him wrong answers, and leaves him with 35 points less than he would have got. He gets 50, and receives a detention.

This is my analogy to explain the point.

All of this assumes what it needs to prove: that the empirical evidence of the Thomas incident is somehow the whole ball of wax as to proofs for God. It’s simply not. The fact that the analogy has Thomas receiving 95 points out of a 100 on his cheat sheet, absolutely illustrates that Jonathan thinks such an empirical proof comprises at least 95% of the evidence or proof of God. Thanks for making my point for me, Jonathan! It still remains to be proved that, somehow, empirical evidence is 95% of all the evidence that can be mustered up in theistic proofs.

And, in my previous piece, this was my potential theistic wriggle:

Perhaps, as a teacher, I actually take in the answers, don’t announce to anyone the results until the end of the school day whereby, after plugging their results into a matrix that calculates an outcome based on (1) abilities, (2) environment, (3) cheat sheets, and (4) their results and spits out their end mark, I enforce on them a detention or a reward.

That would need some unpicking and looks rather like some kind of deterministic algorithm, the results of which, as a teacher, I knew in advance anyway. In other words, creating the test is pointless. What it would actually look like is everyone getting the same marks since the algorithm would have to be fair: there would be no child who would have their environment, genetics, cheat sheet or anything else over which they have no control giving them an advantage or disadvantage.

The only fair option for an OmniGod designing and creating all humanity from nothing is to give everyone the same chance; and when we control for causal circumstances, this translates to the same score.

Again, this is circular reasoning. An empirical-only epistemology is assumed from the outset (without proof and seeming oblivious unawareness of the massive amount of reasoning against such a naive epistemology). It’s assumed that there is no other form of evidence that can be used to prove the existence of God and offer a way salvation to all, etc. This (surprise!) leads to the conclusion already preordained from the outset by false and hostile premises: God is unfair.

Yeah: the straw-man “God” set up in such a silly mind game is what is unfair, because the whole thing is rigged from the outset with stupid, false premises. In my “tirade” of links that Jonathan blew off, I explain how and why it is a false premise, for all who are interested in hearing the reasons why. It’s not just me saying it (which I wouldn’t use as a basis for any claim). The literally logically absurd views of empiricism-only and logical positivism were destroyed philosophically by the early 50s at the latest by philosophers like Michael Polanyi and others. I’m surprised it took that long, or that these silly views ever took hold among serious thinkers in the first place.

Armstrong doesn’t get all of this, it seems; he is happy merely taking the opportunity to have some pop shots:

Jonathan, like most atheists, completely overlooks the prideful, stubborn and irrationally defiant aspect of atheism (and indeed of the human race, generally speaking). St. Paul wrote about that, too…

But lest atheists (or anyone) think that therefore no atheist can be saved, this is not Paul’s position, either, as he clarifies in the next chapter:

Therefore, an atheist can possibly be saved, and there is a big biblical distinction between the not-convinced seeker after truth and the outright rejecter of God. But they can’t be saved if they know God exists (are conscious of that belief) and reject Him and His free offer of grace and salvation. How much one “knows” is obviously the key. And only God knows that for any given person. It’s not for other persons to judge that or to condemn people to hell. They don’t have nearly even knowledge to make that determination.

Lovely, but almost nothing to do with the point at hand.

It has everything to do with the topic at hand: which is the alleged unfairness of God. I took pains to show that in the biblical, Christian view, God is not unfair at all (and even he indirectly acknowledges this by saying “Lovely”). Atheists routinely assume that the Bible and all Christians teach that all atheists (and indeed all non-Christians) go to hell and that they are uniformly wicked. I explain that both things are false and that God is infinitely more merciful and “fair” and just than the caricature that typically floats around in atheist circles.

But Jonathan is blinded in his Ultra-Empiricism as the be-all and end-all of (I guess) everything in the universe; every philosophical or theological proposed “difficulty.”

Thomas decided not to believe; he rejected God. But God gave him special treatment. Why can’t he do that for everyone else?

This again assumes what it is trying to prove: empirical proofs are all there is; therefore, since Thomas “got” this one; all others must, too, lest God be an unfair moron and arbitrary tyrannical monster. But if the premise is false, so is Jonathan’s conclusion. He hasn’t shown the slightest inclination to  more deeply analyze or scrutinize his premises. I know, it’s scary and intimidating to do so, but this is the duty of thinkers.

This is not about what it would take to make any given person believe, but about that some people throughout history are supposedly afforded huge amounts of evidence, whilst others suffer terribly from divine hiddenness, perhaps being brought up in Saudi Arabia or the Australian outback in the 1500s. Some get those cheat sheets with 50 extra points, others are set back -30.

This is incoherent. To say that Thomas (and others like him) receive “huge amounts of [empirical] evidence” is necessarily also asserting that those who didn’t receive “Thomas-like” evidence were treated shabbily. Therefore, such assertions are indeed also dealing with “what it would take to make any given person believe.” The very claim of “unfairness” presupposes this.

I should think that at some point atheists would tire of their own viciously circular arguments with utterly unexamined premises. These may satisfy and titillate those in the choir and echo chamber, but they certainly don’t impress anyone outside of it.

Armstrong finishes off with:

Lastly, atheists manage to believe many extraordinary things without much proof (or even understanding) at all.

Whaaaaat? Examples please. Otherwise what can be asserted without evidence can be summarily dismissed without any.

Of course I proceeded to explain what I meant, with examples and a link (which Jonathan cited, so I have no idea why he thinks I didn’t do so.

Why should they place the existence of God in a category all its own? For example, I have written about how atheists in effect “worship” the atom (this paper raised such a huge ruckus that I had to do a follow-up paper to explain the nature of the satire), and attribute to it virtually every characteristic that Christians believe God possesses: it supposedly came from nothing (this one not a trait of God), managed to have the inherent capability to evolve and create and bring about everything we see in the universe, including consciousness, life, the galaxies, etc.

This is what Jonathan cited from my reply, that he just claimed I didn’t explain. If you can figure out this chain of reasoning, please let me know.

Nothing to do with the point at hand. 

It has everything to do with the point at hand. It’s claimed that God must provide ironclad “evidence” (of course as atheists define the term) of everything related to God and Christianity, lest He be brutally “unfair.” We say that He does, but in ways in addition to those atheists concentrate on. My point here is one of “epistemological hypocrisy.” That is: atheists certainly don’t apply such a “strong” criterion to everything they believe.

And so (to provide an example) I mentioned my notorious “atomism” paper: that ruffled the feathers of scores and scores of atheists: with nary a single one at the time even understanding the nature of the satirical points I made in the article. This is what happens when one is deeply entrenched in the bubble of groupthink. If one doesn’t interact with outside critiques, they get to the point where they literally can’t even comprehend any other view. This is what atheism often does to otherwise sound minds.

I won’t get sidetracked onto why there is something rather than nothing. Why is God as a brute fact any more reasonable than the universe as a brute fact? God + universe fails Ockham’s Razor compared to the universe alone as brute fact.

He should, at some point, for his own (intellectual and spiritual) good.

These are extraordinary attributes. And why do atheists believe in them? Well, they have few ultimate reasons to explain it, but it’s the only alternative they think they have to admitting that God exists and that He created, designed, and upholds the universe. If you want to reject God: concerning Whom there are many evidences and arguments that have been rationally and seriously discussed for thousands of years, then you go instead to a blind faith position: the atom (and a larger materialism) can do anything: including creating itself from nothing (a self-evidently absurd position that science has long since rejected).

G. K. Chesterton observed”: “if men reject Christianity, it’s not that he believes in nothing, but that he believes in anything.”

Drivel and nothing to do with my point.

It relates to it in a way that I have explained, in my original reply and now.

All told, my point still stands and it would be nice to see Dave actually address it.

[EDIT: which he only decided to do, a little bit, in another comment on my thread, which I will address next.

EDIT 2: It seems like Geoff Benson came to the same conclusion.]

I have addressed his “point” and argument in the greatest depth, analyzing it from every which way, including the premises beneath it. This is now my third time doing the same thing. Eric’s arguments in Jonathan’s combox were more in-depth and of a constructive nature in terms of progressing in dialogue, in my opinion. I replied to him and Geoff in my other related dialogue. But Jonathan has essentially simply put his head in the sand and plugged his ears about the glaring faults of his own argument, and ignored virtually all of my counter-argument. This won’t do. But it’ll impress his echo chamber (as it always does).

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Photo credit: wilhei (4-13-15) [PixabayPixabay License]

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Summary: This is now my third go-around, discussing the same issue: whether God was “unfair” to give Doubting Thomas so much more “evidence” than almost everyone else. False PREMISES . . .

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