Defining Fundamentalism

Originally posted on The New Oxonian:

“To be a fundamentalist, you have to have a book. And you have to forget the book has a history.”

A New Oxonian Oldie

I’ve been puzzling about this recently: whether there is anything that Christian and Muslim fundamentalists have in common. I’ll leave the Jews and the Sikhs and Hindus to one side for a minute. Just because I want to.

First of all, you have to have a book to be a fundamentalist. It’s no good trying to say you take your religion seriously if you don’t have a page to point at or a verse to recite.

Theoretically, various gurus can exert the same sort of control that a book can exert over the mind of a true believer. But usually gurus begin by pointing at books as well.

That’s what both Jim Jones of People’s Temple, Inc., and David Koresh of Branch Davidian fame did. They…

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Mythicism: Anything Goes?

Originally posted on The New Oxonian:

The Jesus Process

1.  Plausibility and Possibility

In a few previous posts I’ve talked about the weight of “plausibility” in assessing arguments for the historicity of Jesus. A few commenters have correctly said that plausibility is not evidence. That’s true.  No one said it  was.

Plausibility is a precondition for managing the kinds of information that would be suitable for discussing a character like Jesus of Nazareth.  A plausible cabbage is a cabbage that is not being passed off as a cucumber.  Socrates–even without much evidence for his existence, outside dialogues attributed to him by a pupil whose dates and specifics are also sketchy–is typical of a range of fifth century Athenian philosophers.  He is thus plausible as Herakles is not. Franklin D. Roosevelt and Clark Kent were contemporaries in 1938; only one is plausible.

It is the minimal distinction between what is typical and what is unusual (or, strictly, incredible) that permits us to raise questions about plausibility. It’s true that a good writer can invent plausible figures, but…

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Update on the Birmingham Qur’an Debacle

The case for the antiquity of the Birmingham Qur’an fragments grows weaker by the day.

As with all orchestrated media splashes,  the original story having done its work, not many people will pay attention to the unraveling of the growing mythology surrounding the discovery.

1.  It has been suggested that the two-leaf parchment fragment uncovered in Birmingham “belongs with another sixteen in Paris (BnF Arabe 328(c); as indeed they sit neatly in a lacuna in that text.”  However the need to situate these leaves in a larger work (I do not spot the lacuna myself)–which would make the larger work the real story rather the detached bits–seems to come from another piece of lore: It is this

2.  “…there can be no doubt that the full manuscript was not an ‘aide memoire’ (in the speculation of the Guardian reporter) but a lectern Qur’an for a major mosque.  Moreover, as we know that the Paris Qur’an was obtained from a Cairo mosque founded in 642 CE; we have a very plausible context for the production of this particular manuscript.”

The Cairo mosque mentioned can only have been the tent mosque of the conqueror Amir ibn al as who created a makeshift masjid beginning, according to a very weak tradition,  in 642. It was razed in 691, rebuilt on a different site in 698 AD (79 AH).  The mosque was then demolished and expanded by Abdul-Aziz Ibn Marwan, Egypt’s ruler; once again in 711 AD (93 AH), the mosque was demolished by Prince Qurrah Ibn Shuraik al-Absi Upon the orders of Caliph al-Waleed Ibn Abdul-Malek, the mosque area was enlarged, a niche, a wooden pulpit (minbar) and a compartment and copings of four cloumns facing the niche were added.

There is no evidence of a “lectern” being installed prior to the eighth century; thus tying these scraps to a non-existent pulpit based on an incredible dating for a mosque that did not exist is far more fanciful a provenance than the suggestion that we may (a) be looking as fragments from a later date, or (b) looking at an aide memoire of uncertain provenance; or, perhaps less appealing to Muslim faithful (c) we may have evidence of sources earlier than the Prophet’s time that were later imcorporated into the Quran, as the  subject matter of the material is (as already stated) part of the most derivative sections of the book.

It should also be said that if the Paris MS cannot be certainly associated with a Cairo mosque as early as 642, it is irrelevant to argue for the association of the  Birmingham parchment and BnF Arabe 328(c); in fact it would contribute nothing to the discussion.  As it stands, given what we know about the history of the Amr Ibn al’As mosque, we would have to say that any association between it and both the Paris and Birmingham parchments is highly unlikley if not impossible.

2.  All attempts to date the writing have fallen on deaf ears. This despite paleographers who have exmained the leaves and have noticed peculiarities that argue against an early 7th century date: Almost uniquely, the New York Times reported that Saud al-Sarhan, the director of research at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, said he doubted that the manuscript found in Birmingham was as old as the researchers claimed, noting that its Arabic script included dots and separated chapters — features that were introduced later. He also said that dating the skin on which the text was written did not prove when it was written, as manuscript skins were sometimes washed clean and reused later. In such cases, the dating of ink and the paleography rather than tests done on the parchment itself will be dispositive.

3.  If however this text is earlier that the Uthmanic recension in 653, it is possible that it became isolated because in its other parts it did not correspond to the authorized text.   However, if that is true, then this text, despite its more or less fauthful wording to later recensions that are being used as standard, would hardly make it useful as proof for the unalterabilty of the Quranic text.

What is needed in the interest of honest scholarship is for the scholars involved to dial back their claims  look more constructively at the problems of evidence and provenance, and to construct a more balanced appraisal of the significance of this material.

The New Orientalism: Why China Will Win the World

To be honest, I don’t understand what ultra-conservatives in Congress want, except I know I don’t want it. They seem to want the way things used to be, without having any critical sense of how terrible some of those things were—not least for many intellectually ordinary people like them. They hate the idea of universal health care, seem silent on the issue of social security, but have firm opinions on social values like abortion, marriage equality, think they are being originalistly patriotic when they oppose taxes but need taxes to fight their wars and pay veterans and police, revere guns because they say they hate lawlessness, believe in the Constitution but are prepared to fight a revolution that might well dispense with core parts of it.

That should make me a liberal except I am not sure where progressives are going, and every leftward destination—whether it’s legalization of gay marriage, non-interventionism in global affairs, anti-business, or at least anti unbridled corporatism, or a penitent attitude towards the American past seems not to be leftward enough.

There was a time, in the days of real European socialism, when even our cousins the Brits could look at American politics as a boring desert of non-choice between political parties—“not a dime’s worth of difference” was the motto of every election between 1950 and 1968. Kennedy ran further to the right of Nixon on the issue of Communism.  Both parties seemed to feel that women had the uninfringeable right to vote and that with that right all change was possible.  But a large chunk of both parties would not have included in that change the right to abortion or to marry someone you love, irrespective of sex or race.  We knew who our friends were, what our enemies wanted–world domination—and where we stood in the world—on top.  Vietnam changed minds. Civil rights and the Women’s Movement changed the rest. As European politics became as dull as American politics used to be, thanks to the overarching dullness of the EU, as enemies morphed into new challenges–with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Opening Up policy of China after 1982, America could only turn inward.  When it did, it discovered that it didn’t like what it saw. We had met the enemy, as Walt Kelly famously captioned, and He is us.

Its defining ideology had disappeared.  For a century almost—the twentieth—that ideology had been a robust deregulated capitalism supported by the truths of the Christian religion and superior military strength to defend it,  and a healthy sense of wealth and gun ownership (but within the bounds of common sense and civic responsibility) as normativity.  Even poor people supported the idea that the United States was not, like these puling, tiny European democracies, a giveaway country teetering on the edge of extinction with its entitlement programs.  In America, we work without a net and if you fall from the high wire to the ground, you are a victim of the choices you made.  Just like Calvin pbuh taught us.

A part of that ancient certainty is what we now see in the lives of the gunners and the Biblers. They miss it. They want it back.  They are in mourning for the self-confidence America once thought it possessed among the nations of the world—Redeemer Nation.  The City on  the Hill. Exceptional America.  Don’t Tread on me.

When America had the money, the military and the mission—no matter how ineffective, inarticulate, or venal its leaders—the ordinary family felt safe and secure in their lives because their country stood for the same things they stood for—those superman values—Truth, Justice and the American way (subject to exegesis but not too much), the Platonic Verities on main Street.  But primatial though some conservatives may be, they are hearing the right notes right when it comes to the loss of that certainty.  They have the right idea about America struggling for identity.  When the Soviet Union collapsed, the headline was America, the World’s Sole Superpower (subtext We Win).   The Russian humiliation in Afghanistan, aided and abetted by American support for the Taliban freedom fighters (who cared if they hated women and loved unschooled children: they hated the Russians more), seemed to confirm that the United States could now pretty much buy what it wanted.

What it did not see was an emergent China, that rightly asked the question, in the wake of the Soviet collapse, how can we turn this failed experiment called Marxism into a triumph for the Chinese people.  What the United States did not see is that a billion people with the strongest sense of ethnic, linguistic and family identity in the world could decide to beat America at its own game—if calculations turn out to be right—in less than fifty years.

The Chinese will out-produce, out trade- and out-consume America using a system of tightly regulated, state-serving capitalism that is jokingly referred to as “socialism with Chinese characteristics.”  It is capitalism based not on the market but on the expectation that loyal Chinese will work hard, spend freely, and consume cheap and middle-range goods (especially electronics) in massive quantities.  They will buy high end Korean and American phones, computers, and electronics and they will manufacture and sell their own brands alongside them. Lenovo anyone?

America can argue its case in forums like the World Trade Organization; it and its partners (if it has any left) can brings cases, file complaints against unfair practices, fret over currency manipulation and complain that China falsifies its statistics (it does); but in the long term, it is the sheer size of China that will bring the United States down to size, all puny 317,000,000 of it.  Besides, why worry about the WTO and IMF when you can create a powerful Trans-Pacific Trade Alliance with yourself at the center?

The best economists and political observers know all of this; but they are less astute at connecting it to the effect it has on ordinary Americans: the ones who don’t own stock, don’t save much money; don’t travel outside the boundaries of the continental United States—and probably think that China is an old fashioned Communist country that is still struggling along under the burden of its communist system.

Not much public education has been done to familiarize Americans with the new China. Consequently Americans are not aware of how China can beat them at their own economic game.  But its an easy win.  Wealthy Americans (outside Hollywood anyway) make money through savings and investment.  That is why the stock market is hitting all time highs.  Ordinary Americans have no money left over and have been engineered to think that during slow economic times they need to be careful with their money. Shopping stalls. Businesses suffer. Small manufacturing firms collapse.

In China on the other hand, with its tightly regulated economy, only a small minority are making money from the stock and investment game.  But the average former Maoist now believes that it is his patriotic duty to spend money in fair weather and foul, to buy and buy. So buy he does—in stores, online, in the street, in malls and in alleyways.  The purchasing power of the Chinese population is so awesome that a Financial Times article a few months ago suggested that using PPP as an index puts China in front of the USA already as the world’s largest economy.  Note—not the richest country, or the world’s most stable economy—but China is banking on the fact that purchasing power will eventually buy wealth, stability and a competitive edge that the United States will not be able to challenge.  This is the China that many Americans do not see or worry about, a China in which doing one’s duty has moved from having a bicycle to buying a car and where private wealth has been converted from being a social taboo to a social benefit to the state.

China is still a great mystery. Her desires and purposes are not clear.  But if I had to guess, I would say that it is a dangerous purpose.  Her recent propaganda drive has been to appear a warm and cuddly bear, wanting a cuddle after a two century nap.  But there are three things that china will not change, whatever system it finds useful in winning the current competition.  It is  anti-freedom.  It is anti democratic and it is anti-individualistic.  China has not escaped the collectivist mentality that comes not from one=party rule but one –family rule, with over 90% of the whole 1.3 billion person population being cut from the same Han genome.

It amuses people that in their attempt to make Barack Obama a dictator, his enemies (opponents is too weak a word for their dislike) sometimes depict him as Hitler and sometimes as Mao.  It may be merely academic to point out that national socialism and communism were diametrically opposed systems, since in the long run they each produced their own version of dictatorship and totalitarian rule of the state.  It is academic because the effects of any political ideology are first to sustain power, and it can only do that by reducing the rights of the people to a right of general consent: the press will be restricted, free speech and dissent will be limited, education will be transformed, the good and image of the state will govern all foreign relations, and in the long run any challenge to these sustaining norms will be met with the violence normally reserved for an aggressor: people will be reprimanded, humiliated, arrested, executed.

The tyranny of the right, represented by such savants as  Senator Ted Cruz, see any attempt to curb gun ownership as an infringement on a constitutional right to own and carry a gun. The tyranny of the left proclaims that the government is not entitled to any secrets—not even in the case of national security, which they see as a mask for intrusions into the private lives and transactions of ordinary citizens.  Both of these worshiping groups have their tabernacles and Meccas; the First and the Second Amendment.  Neither cares very muvh about the others god.

And neither pays very much attention to the fact that they are able to carry on their vituperation under the shield of guarantees of personal liberty and free and open discussion that are almost unthinkable outside the West, and even unusual within the West.  America has a failed tradition of propaganda, a lively tradition of self-mockery and self-flagellation; it came with us from Europe, but not coincidentally because most of the founding immigrants and colonists were critics of the regimes of the homeland: the monarchy, the established churches, the social policies, the poor laws, the taxes on inheritance.  We were formed as a country of critics and malcontents—a very good thing if you want to cultivate independence and self-reliance, but not so good if you need popular assent to get things done that can benefit the whole society.

Our enemy is a country with a very limited==virtually non-existent– tradition of dissent, political or cultural. The hardwiring of the Chinese psyche goes back to Confucius’s idea that the state is the extension of the natural family and to disrespect it is to disrespect the ancestors and to hate your father and mother.  Even in periods when Confucius’ iideas were considered retardant to progress, as during the Cultural Revolution, his endemic effect has never waned.  Patriotism and filial piety are part of the same construct.  In America and Europe, as filial piety has waned over the last two hundred years and was never truly Asian in  heft to begin with, the state has become that provisional construct which can do no right except by accident, from time to time, to everyone’s surprise.

Americans can bleat on about America’s once-greatness; Europeans, with their more pronounced cynicism, can rant about their uncertain future as a stewing pot of unmelded national identities and conflicting interests.  While the tyranny of the right tugs one way and the tyranny of the left at the other sleeve, things will stumble on.

But mission, money and minds are under attack from a nation that is not immersed in self-doubt, regales in its “5000 Year Civilization” but is determined by using stratagems and learning from the mistakes of its anguished opposites in the West what mistakes not to make in pursuing Honorable Glorious Ends..

The BBC-Birmingham “Qur’an” Facts Fiasco

It is one of the cardinal tenets of Islam that the Qur’an was essentially “complete” in the Prophet’s lifetime and written down very soon after in the time of  Uthman before the end of the seventh century  It is a further tenet that the exact wording of the text has remained unchanged from the time of its revelation until today. A standard web-based information site offers the following standard orthodox appraisal:

“The Qur’an is a record of the exact words revealed by God through the Angel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad. It was memorized by Muhammad and then dictated to his Companions, and written down by scribes, who cross-checked it during his lifetime. Not one word of its 114 chapters, Suras, has been changed over the centuries, so that the Qur’an is in every detail the unique and miraculous text which was revealed to Muhammad fourteen centuries ago.” (www.islamicity.com, search for ‘What is the Qur`an?’)

To this surgically clean declaration of authenticity, one might want to compare the tortured history of the New Testament:  academic study has shown that nothing was written by Jesus; nothing was written in Aramaic, the language he spoke, and the written record shows a long history of textual transmission and change going back to a fluid period of “orality” in which specific sayings and deeds were recorded (and others chopped or forgotten).   Modern biblical criticism, though it did not begin as this, has been for the last two centuries a systematic exploration of redactions, alterations, variations and theological finessing of texts:  There are no original manuscripts and there is today no possibility of finding one that could  indubitably be called “original.”    None existed in the time of Jesus or his followers, as far as we know, and it is really not until the end of the first century that written gospels begin to appear—and not until the second that we begin to see hard—papyrological–as opposed to narrative allusions to their existence.

The belief that the Qur’an had an entirely different history from the biblical text was called into question by a palimpsest (a manuscript from which an existing text has been scraped or washed to make room for another one, to avoid the expense of additional writing material) known as ‘DAM 0 1-27.1.’1, discovered by Muslims in 1972 at the ancient Great Mosque of Sana’a in Yemen.

Aided by ultraviolet photography, this palimpsest was shown to contain many differences compared with today’s Arabic Qur’an. They range from different and missing words and dissimilar spellings to a changed order of Surahs and words within verses. The find is part of a bundle of parchments thought—until a few days ago– to be the oldest surviving copies of the Qur’an.  According to Gerd Puin, a western expert in the early text of the Qur’an, the palimpsest known as ‘DAM 0 1-27.1’ contains at least 38 Qur’an leaves.  It is undoubtedly extracted from a “book” rather than notes used by imams for the purpose of recalling stories learned  by rote. They were each written on parchment with an approximate size of 36.5 x 28.5 cm. Since on the majority of the leaves a primary text is visible and both texts contain parts of over 70 % of today’s Qur’an, the palimpsest must be a remnant of two, previously complete, yet different Qur’ans. ‘Folio 16r’2 contains Surah 9:70-80 in the less visible primary writing and Surah 30:26-40 in the better visible secondary writing. The Yemeni Qur’an provides almost conclusive evidence that the text of the Qur’an was not settled in the seventh century and underwent the same kind of editorial emendation that parchment-manuscripts routinely went through in the process of copying and transcription.

The Yemen Qur’an’s story is repeated in the work of the Coranica Project.  Scholars at the University of Tübingen, examined a  Quranic  manuscript written in Kufic script, one of the oldest forms of Arabic writing.  Using carbon-14 dating on three samples of the manuscript parchment, the researchers concluded that it was more than 95 percent likely to have originated in the period 649-675 AD.  The Tubingen Qur’an also showed clear signs of alteration, increasing the probability that the Qur’anic  text was altered over time.

The Birmingham “Qur’an”

The discovery in Birmingham University touted by the BBC and happily embraced by Muslim scholars and others as “the oldest” copy of the Qur’an yet discovered is riddled as Robert Spencer argues with journalistic error.  The BBC story, trumpeted by news agencies all over the world, is one of those examples of media reporting about religion based on wishful thinking and an ill-disguised hankering for stories about miracles that occasionally remind us that journalism is not science, nor history, or even responsible analysis.  Eventually, experts will chime in with questions, the most poignant of which will be these:

  1. Islamic tradition itself asserts that the Qur’an was finalized during the reign of the caliph Uthman in 653 who ordered “other versions” burned. What were these “other versions” if not variant texts that differed from the text of the one he authorized to be used in his region?  Inscriptions at The Dome of the Rock (ca. 691) do not respect the Qur’anic ordering of the surahs as they have come to exist in modern editions of the Qur’an; it would be anomalous indeed if a text (arguably) dating from so close to the Prophet’s lifetime followed the ordering of surahs (chapters) used in later versions of the text.
  2. The earliest literary reference to the Qur’an as a complete book is from the early eighth century, in the context of a debate between a Christian monk from the monastery of Beth Hale (Iraq?) and an Arab nobleman. The dialogue suggests that Muhammad taught a portion of what Muslims believed in the Qur’an and a portion in free floating “surat albaqrah and in gygy and in twrh.”  The surah the monk mentions is now fully incorporated in the Qur’an, but in his time was not, since he knows it as a stand- alone book, سورة البقرة‎, al-Baqara. It is the second and longest surah in the Qur’an as we possess it today.
  3. The Birmingham University professor, David Thomas, who has made extravagant claims for this discovery does not seem to be aware that he is arguing against his own position: Since (as for a gospel) there is no standard prototype of the Qur’an which could possibly show whether the “original” text has been altered or modified, how can we possibly be sure that the thin series of verses available correspond to an original word order?   The Yemen and Tubingen Qur’anic extracts showed just the opposite:  under ultraviolet examination they revealed editorial modification or “bleeding” beneath the superscribed text.  As Robert Spencer correctly asks, if the only reliable date we have is for the organic material (sheep or goatskin) we still need to date  the ink, as Hijazi script, while early, is common in parchment found from this part of the Arabian peninsula.
  4. The nature of the leaves themselves is puzzling: bits of Suras 18 and 20, “containing a story about Moses  (18), along with material about Dhul Qarnayn, who is usually assumed to be Alexander the Great, and the Christian story of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, and sura 19, with an extended retelling of the Virgin Birth of Jesus Christ.”   These are some of the most obviously derivative sections of the entire Qur’an– stories which the Qur’an cannibalizes without attribution, increasing the likelihood that what we may have is not the Qur’an at all but fragments of stories that were eventually incorporated into the Qur’an at a later period.

Compositionally this may be an exciting archaeological find—since it would tell us something about the real process under which the book was compiled using fragments of other books. Instead, using the traditional religious view of compositional integrity, a theological doctrine rather than a scientific conclusion, the Birmingham experts and the media rush to conclude that we have a kind of proof for the immutability of the text. The Birmingham team as much as admit this since we are told that  “the verses are incomplete, and believed to have been an aide memoire for an imam who already knew the Qur’an by heart, but the text is very close to the accepted authorized version.”

  1. Even if we would allow that the parchment, the ink and the verses coincide to give us the oldest example of Qur’anic material yet discovered, which is not only not conclusive but highly improbable, the question remains why such an early “edition” of the Qur’an should have been circulating among the illiterate Arab populations of the Middle East at such an early date. No one can have read it. It was not used for distribution to masses of believers or potential converts.  The only plausible explanation is that what has been found in Birmingham is an aide memoire of a few verses that may correspond to late stories incorporated in the Qur’anic  corpus.  It is not from that corpus and probably, given the selection of material, was used to preach to Christians and Arabic speaking Jews who were interested in hearing how their own traditions could be reconciled with the teaching of Muhammad.  In other words, what has been discovered is proof of the fluidity rather than the rigidity of the Qur’anic compositional process in the late seventh or more likely eighth century.
  2. Faith before reason: A disturbing feature of this story is in the backlight.  The problem is clear enough from this part of the BBC report:

‘The British Library’s expert on such manuscripts, Dr Muhammad Isa Waley, said this “exciting discovery” would make Muslims “rejoice”.  The manuscript had been kept with a collection of other Middle Eastern books and documents, without being identified as one of the oldest fragments of the Koran in the world.When a PhD researcher, Alba Fedeli, looked more closely at these pages it was decided to carry out a radiocarbon dating test and the results were “startling”.  The university’s director of special collections, Susan Worrall, said researchers had not expected “in our wildest dreams” that it would be so old. “Finding out we had one of the oldest fragments of the Koran in the whole world has been fantastically exciting.”  The fragments of the Koran are still legible.’

It is disheartening enough to think that an archivist thinks that archaeology has the reinforcement of religious belief as one of its byproducts, but it is clear from the way the story has been told and disseminated that enthusiasm for an outcome has outdistanced any sober examination of claims.  The find is already being touted throughout the Islamic world as a vindication of Islamic belief.

So to repeat:  What we have at Birmingham is the discovery of leaves of parchment, probably recycled and scraped and used by a religious teacher to record bits of memorized narrative from sources that finally make their way into the Qur’an.  That there should be some overlap in these extracts and later editions of the Qur’an as copied and printed is not at all surprising.  But as there is no prototype, it can hardly be said to be evidence of an unalterable textual tradition.   There is no compelling reason to think that this slim discovery proves the inviolability of the Islamic holy book, or vindicates any doctrine.  In fact, if treated intelligently and using the methods of western textual criticism, this could shed light on how books like the Qur’an evolved over time to become compendiums of the words of men regarded as the prophets and teachers of their tradition.  So far however, we see little evidence that the find will be treated in that way.  As Gerd Puin has said, “My idea is that the Koran is a kind of cocktail of texts that were not all understood even at the time of Muhammad. Many of them may even be a hundred years older than Islam itself. Even within the Islamic traditions there is a huge body of contradictory information, including a significant Christian substrate; one can derive a whole Islamic anti-history from them if one wants…”  What we have at Birmingham perfectly illustrates that point.

The Dark Sayings of Richard Dawkins

Since the publication of his book, The God Delusion in 2006, Richard Dawkins has become at least as famous as a guru for atheist advocacy as he was when he was pushing his vaguely spiritual meme theory as an evolutionary biologist.

I have said it before and I’ll say it again, Dawkins the explainer was a very powerful voice for science education and the public awareness of science—something this old world (especially this old world in America) desperately needs. Richard Dawkins the atheist is not nearly so impressive, or persuasive. And there have been times when I’ve thought he should employ a good comedy writer or unemployed logician (there must be many)–to script his throwaway lines.

Let me pick on two famous Dawkinsisms.

“We are all atheists about most of the gods that societies have ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.”

Presumably that 1% remainder consists entirely of the God of the Jewish/Christian/Islamic tradition. The only problem with it is that it’s too easily flipped: What Christian fundamentalist wouldn’t respond, Human civilization has worshipped many gods over the centuries, but some of us know who the one true God is. The trouble with radical monotheism is that is banks entirely on the 1%, and every self-respecting scientist knows, we only need a fraction of 1% to disconfirm (falsify) an accumulation of outcomes and assumptions.

As a scientist Dawkins knows the power of exceptions, that to falsify a hypothesis or de-axiomitize an axiom we only need an exception. The claim of the monotheistic traditions is precisely that they have identified that one exception—not only that, but almost the whole weight of their doctrine is based on exceptionalism. So it hardly helps for Dawkins to say he’s just rounding up because that’s where certainty is driving him. Where does this certainty come from, since even he agrees that the God hypothesis cannot be disproved.

The problem however is that it plays to the “statistical improbability” crowd. Life on earth may be sui generis. The improbability of this conjecture is based on what we know about the conditions necessary for the development of life, the statistical multiplicity of possible locations for it to have developed, and the fact that it has happened, as far as we know, at least once. The argument against it is that these same conditions might not exist anywhere else in the cosmos and even if they did might not have developed in a way identical to the process that would have been necessary for the beginning of intelligent life. If this argument from analogy sounds as familiar as it is weak, it is because creationists use it all the time when they use the “irreducible complexity” argument to support their belief in a world created by God. And it is small step from that to saying that since we have no example (unless it’s the cosmos itself) of uncaused effect, there is a high probability that the cosmos was created by God. It only needs to happen once, not 365 times or even 10 out of 10,000. Take that you imposter gods and unpromising dead planets. (I’m leaving the “something from nothing” debate to one side for the time being or at least until Laurence Krauss realizes that his argument for it echoes the fallacy in Anselm’s argumentative notion that God exists because nothing greater than God can be conceived and therefore cannot be conceived not to exist. Existence (or being) is not a predicate, said Anselm’s critics. If this is true, the existence of the cosmos cannot be used predicately to argue for its origin. Simple ontology.)

Many of the veterans of the Dims vs Brights phase of the New Atheist scenario will remember another Dawkins line. After a brief rehearsal of all the things religion gets wrong that science gets right about the cosmos and the origins of human life, Dawkins memed the idea that religion is the “default position” “of Dims. Since they can’t really explain anything scientifically, they have to appeal to the Big Decider in the sky, the creator God, to do the explaining for them. God is the answer to questions they find too hard to explain, or are simply too lazy to try to explain, or too stupid to figure out for themselves, even with textbooks, teachers, and long recesses. As with everything Dawkinsish, it has to be true that some religiously hyperactive people can’t explain anything–from rain to drought–without seeing the hand of the Almighty in the disaster or (more rarely) the reward or the cure. When just last week the once disgraced televangelist Jim Bakker (or is it Jimm?) was shouting his approval as a fellow God-botherer was explaining from the Bible how the California drought is linked to Biblical prophecy about homosexuality. I too think these people should be neutered, or their lips stitched shut. Fiddling with their brain would be too risky, since almost any new information would result in a system overload.

And it is precisely because these trogs still walk the earth and can fill rooms and auditoriums with their kind that atheists have to be careful of not falling into their own broth.

We know too much outside the physical sciences, to make religion, or religious training, or the Inquisition, or the condemnation of Galileo, the end and source of all evil in the world. As an historian of religion I can probably find a religious context for everything, even secular and nationalistic wars and revolutions that weren’t directly caused by religion.

But I am also realistic enough to know that if we take seriously the Feuerbach hypothesis that religion is just the expression of what we are socially, culturally, emotionally, aesthetically–then a world without religious meddling –a fully secular world—would not look much different from a world in which religion plays its sometimes abominable role. Except that in such a world—a world that might have been Stalin’s or Mao’s, to name only two twentieth century secular saviors, the moral voice against violence would have lacked the shadings of the sermon on the mount. The absence of religion may be devoutly to be wished by the atheist hordes, but the secular voice, the moral authority that would replace it, is far from settled. Dostoevsky’s nightmare was the nightmare of the twentieth and now the twenty first century.

The point is, to claim (with some justice) that religion is the default position of many people who hate science and rational explanation, is also to lapse into a kind of irrational defaulting by saying that religion is the source of the world’s ills and moral failings. It is simply a flipped generalization, but actually more inaccurate when flipped.

ISIS and The Limits of the Grotesque

Originally posted on The New Oxonian:

Saturn Devourng His Children

Stalin did not actually say “The death of one man is a tragedy, but the death of millions is a statistic.” But had he said it, he would have been right.

The mawkish anticipation of new and better terror after September 11, 2001 is one of the saddest commentaries on the rubber-necking proclivity of the human soul: the part that delights in seeing hurricane damage, fatal car crashes, planes lost from radar, and manned spacecraft decimated in the noonday sky. And, yes, beheadings and bombings.

While some of these catastrophes are what theologians like to call “natural evil”—things that happen without our being able to prevent them—like earthquakes and avalanches—and another portion accidental– there has been no shortage of what theologians (yet again) like to call “moral evil”: the man-against-man form of catastrophe. And as we all know, a reliable source of this kind of evil is religious extremism.

Interestingly…

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The Failure of of Atheo-Scientism

What do Richard Dawkins, Laurence Krauss, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Sam Harris—the detritus of what used to be the New Atheist explosion– have in common?

That’s it. They are the detritus of the New Atheist Explosion, the little bang that keeps on banging.

I haven’t written about atheism for a while. Instead I’ve been watching it kill itself softly with its own monotonous song–Religion is bad, Science is good–in self-congratulatory events and fatuous debates with “theists” (the new atheist name for a God-believer) and Christian apologists like William Lane Craig.

In their roundtable events, the Gnus (and neo-Gnus) like to make the point that while the sciences convey knowledge, other fields—philosophy and theology are usually singled out—convey basically nothing of any significance. They find it especially cloying that both philosophers and theologians have complained that the Gnus could actually improve their arguments if they paid a little attention to how philosophers frame questions and how theologians think about God and the universe and (just for good measure) take the time to find out when things actually happened in history, why, and how. Historical causation and context are for the average atheo-scientist what hard science is for the religious fundamentalist. Unknown.

For their part, the atheist cohort believe they are doing just fine, thank you very much, without knowing any of these things, because (after all) they are getting the right answers without having had to wade through philosophical mud and theological twaddle. History? It’s just stuff that gets written down.

The Atheo-Scientific Argument

To start with their main argument:

Science is the only way to know anything about the world, or flipped, what we can reliably know about the world is made possible through science.
It is hard to quarrel with that. If you define the world as the quantum of what we see and experience around us, then the information we receive and process is best understood using a scientific model which depends on observation, tests, corroboration of evidence, and conclusions based on experimental outcomes. The scientific revolution that began just before the 18th century and continues in our time is the greatest cultural revolution since Neolithic times.

But problems rush in to drown our enthusiasm. Even if I mean by “science” the amalgam of natural, physical and theoretical disciplines that describe and predict the way nature works, how things behave, how life was formed and how it exists, I am still fifty-cents short of describing the totality of how human beings experience the world. That is because radical empiricists and scientific naturalists often fail to acknowledge a reality beyond the testable reality of the physical sciences. They do this for the best of reasons, being suspicious that free-range imaginary worlds–like the worlds and heavens religion created in the ancient period–distract people from understanding the models of the world and cosmic origins that science has described in the last century.

There is no doubt that the naturalist position towards stubbornly ignorant “world views” that are rooted in mythology and religious legend is justified. But it is not a legitimate step from that concern to the conclusion that the physical world provides the sum total of reality that human beings experience in their lives, or that a meaningful life could be lived if it were limited to that knowledge alone.

Worlds
Part of the problem is that “the world” does not mean the same thing for scientists and – let’s say – philosophers, historians, or poets. And it may mean something still different for cosmologists and theologians. I am not saying that these worlds inhabit or possess the same reality; I am simply saying that the use of the word “world” to mean only the physical world, which we regard as coterminous with experience, is only one possible meaning of the term. If one begins with the assumption that the physical world “specifies” the meaning of the term it would be permissible to conclude that anyone who possesses special knowledge of this world is in a privileged position compared to those who do not possess such knowledge. That, in essence, is the position of atheo-scientism—or to use the more familiar name, scientific naturalism. Scientists are the priests and wizards of the modern period, presiding over the disenchantment and demystification of the cosmos.

This is not a small thing to mention. The given world, the world we experience as physical reality, is to a certain extent taken for granted by human beings–“like the air we breathe”. It is the job of scientists to explain it to us and help us to understand it for ourselves. When a scientist says (as Krauss often does) he is an “empiricist” he means that the experienced–or to use a 18th century formulation– experimental world–is the only world he recognizes as giving us knowledge. Thus by a simple solipsism a world that doesn’t give us knowledge could not exist. A good place to begin defining world then is with the question whether or what kind of knowledge it provides.

In fact, the physical world does not give us theorems or laws: those things derive ultimately from the same rational mechanism that permits us to interpret any kind of experience, from smelling gardenias to fighting a war. The physical world is the world that makes physical existence possible, sustainable. It neither explains that existence nor requires the laws we impose on it for its interpretation. In fact until the last three hundred years we survived with very little understanding of the physical world. The understanding we have come to possess is the product of observation, experience, and imagination. The biological and physical sciences are human constructs that arise from the human need for explanation: they are not the physical reality itself.

It has been a common mistake of scientific naturalists to think that the physical reality which science describes is superior to any other form of knowledge or, indeed, excludes other forms of knowledge, by conflating the reality with its description. In philosophical terms, it holds that a scientific description of a phenomenon explains all we can meaningfully say about it. Naturalism is to the physical world what pantheism is to religion: it objectifies knowledge in the elements of inquiry so that knowledge itself becomes merely the explication or amplification of physical observation.

Naturalism says that what we know about this world is limited to the evidence of what we can see and test. “We” in this case means human beings who are uniquely equipped to solve complex problems and reach conclusions based on evidence–which may be physical– and inference, which must be logical–the faculty which since ancient times has been referred to as “reason”. The operations of this faculty can be observed in its effects, but reason itself is a metaphysical construct, not a physical one. That is to say it is not the sum total of functioning brains applying themselves to problems. As Kurt Koffka once said of the Gestalt, The whole is not greater than the sum of its parts. The whole is other than the sum of its parts.

Despite our physical and genetic resemblance to other animals, only human beings have a certain conscious control over the physical world through the use of reason (including language and abstract representational systems) and methods and products that derive from it—like computers. We build dams; we put out fires (and cause them), we know when to evacuate an island ahead of a typhoon and how to annihilate cities with nuclear weapons. But if this is so, then we have moved a step beyond the raw world of experience (the world, in a sense, happening to us) to a meta-world of interpretation and explanation which exists intellectually but not physically: us happening to the world. The act of explanation creates a different world of causes and effects and origins (and postulation) which is unique to our species.

Transcendence

We can at least imagine ourselves to transcend this world because we can understand and manipulate it. We can even associate knowledge and understanding of it with mastery and control. We can imagine a being who transcends it and created it, primarily because we have never encountered “being” that is not in some sense, conditional, contingent, or caused. Even the universe, which is physically vastly greater than us. can be conceptually transcended, if in fact we are not limited to defining reality to the physical universe. Augustine, the Christian mystics, Descartes, Einstein, and Planck have all done this, in different ways for different reasons. Religion is only the primitive form of the assertion of transcendence through postulating a being (God) or beings (avatars) and processes (karmic or apocalyptic cycles) that explain the universe.

Religion is the source of our idea of being, eternity, and infinity, though none of these things is purely physical or has ever been tested, and can only therefore exist conceptually. As an explanation of the physical world religion, in the broad sense of the term, commonly resorts to myth, symbol and ritual—to the irrational—rather than to description.

From the naturalistic standpoint, religion has nothing to say about the natural world that would constitute “knowledge.”

Reductionism

Limiting the definition of “world” to the physical reality we experience is a form of reductionism, and the kind of scientific naturalism that Krauss and the atheo-scientists subscribe to is reductivist: it claims a kind of epistemological sovereignty over knowledge because it limits knowledge to its definition of the world.

But not all knowledge is knowledge of the physical word. There are serious and fatal problems in assuming that it is, as not only artists and philosophers might rush in to say, but even theoretical physicists who don’t share Krauss’s naïve understanding of what counts for knowledge. The worlds of poets, mathematicians, artists, architects, economists, musicians, philosophers and religious people are also unique to our species. The products of culture they generate are not necessarily physical, yet they constitute a crucial part of human experience, not merely an extension of the physical world. A musical composition, a design for a bridge or museum, a mathematical theorem, and a new model for cosmic beginnings can be instantiated on paper and in space, but their physical reality is (to use Aristotle’s’ language) accidental to what they are essentially, substantially. Substantially their form exists in human imagination and intelligence, where most of what we see around us in daily life (that isn’t rooted in the earth or forming its boundaries and mountains) exists. The physical world as described by the laws of physics and chemistry does not account for these extended worlds, nor are they necessitated by it. They are the products and expressions and preservers of human knowledge which tradition calls “civilization.”

Et Invisibilium

There are a great many things that we know that we cannot see or test. In medieval logic, this division was thought to exist as a division between “truths” or principles which were known a posteriori (by accumulation of experimental evidence) or a priori, known by reason, as for example the truths and axioms of mathematics. Mathematics was never seen as being a branch of knowledge because it allowed you to measure for living room curtains or calculate the distance to the sun, but because it could be used to express relationships and model between physical realities and abstract or imaginary ones, just as language permitted us to speak in ever more specific ways about existential, social and psychological realities. It is one of the most cloying issues for the naturalists to acknowledge that mathematics, the indispensable language of science, is not based on empirical but, as John von Neumann argues, intellectual and even aesthetic models.

These thought worlds were not physical, but they were nonetheless real. And even a physiological model of how they are constructed does not make them real in the sense the physical world is real to us. For one thing, the physical world expresses itself more or less univocally (in constants) to every person. Other worlds present themselves in various ways to groups or even individuals, while the general public may never experience them at all. The world of Quantum physics and cosmology in fact is that kind of world, despite the claim that it is rooted in empirics. As George Ellis has commented, “Amazing fine tuning occurs in the laws that make this [complexity] possible. Realization of the complexity of what is accomplished makes it very difficult not to use the word ‘miraculous’ without taking a stand as to the ontological status of the word.”

To put it slightly differently, science is unsurpassed in its ability to explain the elements and operations of the external world. But even with advances in neuroscience and the relegation of certain debates (mind-body dualism for example) to the attic of metaphysics, science has no special role to play in describing thought worlds and non-empirical reality. Moreover, we need thought worlds to exist. It is where Einstein and Bach and Shakespeare lived; indeed, many scientists live there as well. Except for the tautology, “Culture is what people make,” there is no unitary explanation for why we make it, just as in religion there is no explanation for why God makes the world and why in quantum physics there is no (convincing) reason, absent an eccentric definition of nothing, as to why there should be something.

There is nothing in our experience of the world to suggest that the physical world is the terminus of our experience and cognition. In fact, the progress of science itself will likely render scientific naturalism and its reductive tendencies obsolete. To develop a complete model of the way in which human beings experience and interpret the world, naturalists must reject the twentieth century model that science is the world explaining itself to us in a special language. The model itself eerily echoes the one promoted by Egyptian and Canaanite priests in the 1st millennium BCE. Instead, they must look more closely at extended worlds, imagined worlds, and non-physical reality which have provided both knowledge and meaning necessary for human and cultural survival and progress. We have really just begun to explore these worlds and do not possess a sufficient calculus or language for the study, but as learning progresses, the fate of the atheo-scientist, secure on his island of experimental knowledge, is unclear.

Knowledge

The existence of imagined worlds is not the same as the existence of imaginary worlds or virtual worlds: since the time of the ancients, it has been possible to construct utopias and dystopias, heavens and hells (their religious equivalents), to furnish and populate them and give them laws and geography.

Plato’s Atlantis—a fiction from the start–was the model for More’s Utopia; Vergil’s underworld, through Dante’s use of its architecture, becomes one of half a dozen models of the mediaeval Christian hell. The Christian heaven is more elusive; but the Islamic paradise is described in fulsome detail both in the Qur’an and in other writings, like that of al-Bukhari, and ultimately derives from pre-Islamic poetry and cults like the Sabaens.

These imaginary worlds are fantasies, strategies and illusions. Their “reality” is limited to the psychological context in which they occur. They are not objects of knowledge but products of religious tradition, much of it inconsistent. No reasonable person, religious or otherwise, should have any issue with a naturalist critique of imaginary worlds. They are clear examples of projected wishes, dreams and desires usually clumsily configured in terms of mansions, opulence, gold, and sexual delight—or the deprivation of these things in a place of everlasting suffering.

“… there will be there all that the souls could desire, all that the eyes could delight in …” (Quran 43:71)
“Eat and drink at ease for that which you have sent forth (good deeds) in days past!” (Quran 69:24)
“… They will be adorned therein with bracelets of gold, and they will wear green garments of fine silk and heavy brocade. They will recline therein on raised thrones. How good [is] the recompense! How beautiful a couch [is there] to recline on!” (Quran 18:31)
“They will never fall ill, blow their noses or spit.” (Saheeh Al-Bukhari)

It wasn’t too long before philosophers caught on to the fact that the human imagination unconstrained by reality is capable of producing visions on demand. Coincidentally, though the history of Renaissance art may seem to belie this, not much was added to the theological description of Hell and Heaven after the Middle Ages, and it was the raw physicality, the this-worldliness, of these doctrines that made belief in reward and punishment a growing embarrassment for the Church after the sixteenth century. The more we know about consciousness and cognitive states, the more we know why this is true. Wishful thinking can create Wonderland, life on Mars, parallel universes, and the Islamic Paradise. Without the ability to we would be limited to the reality presented to us by the physical world—a world in which we see suffering, destruction, and our own death.

Moreover, some imaginary worlds are cosmologies while others are not. The Genesis story is not a cosmology, except in the minds of Christian and Jewish fundamentalists. Formally, it is an etiological myth about creation that was probably sung by Hebrew priests once a year to celebrate the winter solstice, the end and new beginning of the primitive astronomical year. It is not a story about “heaven” as a dwelling place of God because in the story god pre-exists it and makes it. It is an early, ritualized account of physical beginning that is scientifically wrong but historically interesting.
Moreover, in most ancient Near Eastern religions, heaven and hell do not exist as eternal abodes: the ancient Hebrews did not regard either immortality or heaven as appropriate fates for mortals—only the gods, or God, were fit to possess eternal life.

In fact, one of the characteristics of mythological expressions of religious ideas is that they are normally fluctuating, inconsistent, and even contradictory over time.

Atheo-scientists have habitually ignored the rich store of information made available in the last two centuries from the historical study of religion in favor of a trivial focus on what modern believers believe. This fact has made it embarrassingly easy for them to attack a kind of religious straw man concocted of their own assumptions about what religion is, what “typical” religious people believe, and what forms of irrational behavior religious books and doctrines drive people to. This war between atheo-science and yahoo religion is made possible because both sides adhere to literal interpretations of ancient texts and their mythical view of the world, the believer putting his physically specific non-existent world into competition with the existing physical world as though both were plausible descriptions of reality: the result is the twin ignorance and parallel literalism of the uninformed believer and the unknowledgeable “scientific” observer. This is especially true when the atheo-scientists join other atheists in lampooning the contents of a 2500 year old religious anthology for its “violent” content, on the assumption that the generality of modern believers follow its rules and believe its stories at face value. In its present deadlocked state, and with the foremost atheo-scientists saying they have nothing to learn from the study of history, philosophy and theology, the entire controversy is little more than a slanging match performed on a wobbly stage of badly constructed premises.

The medieval theologian Anselm of Canterbury, replying to a minor empiricist named Guanilo of Marmoutiers, asks his readers to distinguish between a “perfect desert island” we know by report and one that exists only in the mind. For him, true knowledge consists of something existing not merely in the mind, but in the mind as well as in reality and given the weird contours of medieval philosophy an island which exists only by report or in the mind is less “perfect” than one which exists in reality. God (he argues) cannot be thought not to exist (a) because it is the greatest being that can be thought to exist (unlike a paradise island), and (b) any lesser not-necessarily existing thing would be contingent for its existence on a previous necessarily existing being. Anselm’s arguments have been fodder for undergraduate philosophy and theology for almost a millennium but the key thing is that he regards existence as a kind of “perfection” added to something which can simply be conceived or imagined in the mind. For an empiricist like Guanilo a thing that can be conceived but does not exist is not in any sense “knowledge” because (physical) reality provides the control for truth. For Anselm, working on an ancient stoic principle, a thing exists in the mind before it exists in reality, a phenomenon the stoics associated with idea of logos: the unspoken or thought word (logos endiathetos) and the expressed word that exists as a sentence or piece of writing, a theory, a museum, (logos prophorikos). In the extended world, something must always exist in the mind in an unexpressed way before it exists in a real way. The child is father of the man; in the beginning was the word.

Without becoming overly technical, it is this important ancient critique of empiricism that modern naturalist scientists like Krauss and Dawkins and their followers have simply lost, have never encountered—or don’t understand. If it is true that the physical world is the font of all that counts for knowledge then anyone who understands that world and the languages through which is mysteries are communicated “knows” more than someone who doesn’t. And clearly, someone who spends his time lost in the imaginary worlds of religious fantasy—in Heaven or Valhalla or Armageddon—is farthest away from knowledge.

But as we have seen, the physical world is simply the launching pad for other worlds of knowledge that constitute essential components of human experience, providing  pleasure, meaning and value extensive of the natural world, imagined worlds, and internal worlds. The study and apprehension of these worlds is at least as important as a solid knowledge of the physical and biological sciences,.

In a variety of unguarded moments Krauss has said “What contribution to knowledge has Philosophy made in the last 500 years?” Dawkins is famous for saying that theology is an empty box and has no business being studied as an academic discipline. In a hundred venues in universities and colleges they have repeated this absurdity in front of impressionable audiences of undergraduates who have come to hear a serious discussion of why science trumps religion.

It is almost impossible to know where to begin answering throwaway lines contrived to be brave and unarguable but brimming with the same level of anti-intellectual incuriosity that characterizes regressive religious thought.

The easiest way to answer the challenge is with counter-questions:

What contribution have the physical sciences made to better understandings of society, social justice, the nature of human personhood and equality, the nature and role of political systems?

What has physical science done to enhance the cultural world of the species? What equivalent to music and art, books and writing systems, mechanisms for the preservation of knowledge and the transmission of learning?

Religion created the universities—not science. What discussions of meaning and value and critiques of political systems has science produced? What essential questions about human nature and the nature of reality, equivalent to those raised in the philosophy and theology of Duns Scotus, Meister Eckhart, Adorno, Richard Rorty and Michael Waltzer.

What contribution did physical science make to the anatomy of the soul, the self, the psyche, the mind. What is the physicist’s model of holistic education?

What meditations on suffering, love, meaning, absurdity has science produced? Where is Yeats meditating on old age and beauty, Eliot on alienation and modernity, Neruda on the impossibility of love and tranquility?

Did science humanize our physical spaces, create our laws, or raise the questions that made life (including economic) life in community possible?

Was science at the forefront of battles for racial, gender and sexual equality, care for the young, the elderly, the vulnerable?

Where in science is the appreciation of human form and social space—we know its appreciation of the galaxies—the ideas of goodness, justice, and beauty itself? For that matter, where is science’s poetic self-reflection and analysis, and what concretely has it contributed to the philosophy of religion except hastily constructed polemic and screed?

If the answer of atheo-science is that their role is more limited, their purview more specific and the range of their competence more targeted, no one will quibble. It is only when you ask questions about the merit of these “other worlds” and their contribution to human knowledge that people have an obligation to call you out for ignorance, arrogance and sloppy thinking.

The Opposite of Religion?

Originally posted on The New Oxonian:

  1. In a reply several weeks ago to my discussion of the hijacking of humanism by new atheist commandos, the Center for Inquiry’s John Shook—who is normally a responsible philosopher—says something very irresponsible. So irresponsible that I wondered for a minute whether this was the John Shook I knew and worked with for a couple of years at the Center.

    Or is it John Shook acting the part of point-man for the movement I have accused of gutting humanism of its core meaning and facilitating its co-option by hardcore sci-philes like P Z Myers and Jerry Coyne, abetted increasingly by formerly responsible voices like Ophelia Benson and the Richard Dawkins idol klatch.

    Shook writes that “Religion is the opposite of humanism.”  That opinion, even if it is not entirely private, is epically silly and as my teachers used to say, historically indemonstrable.

    It is true, of course, that in strictly rhetorical…

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