In non-essentials, liberty…

October 19th, 2017
by Chris

Peter Stanley blogs at “Outside the Goldfish Bowl of Christian Religion”, and as someone still critically examining faith at 82, gives me hope for the future! He has recently republished a piece by Andy Vivian which took my attention.

Vivian sets out to identify four strands of “Progressive Christianity”, which are “Evolutionary Spirituality” (referencing John Spong), “Emerging Church” (referencing Brian McLaren, with a mention of Marcus Borg, although I question whether putting Marcus in this category is at all helpful), “Radical Theology” (referencing Peter Rollins) and “Atheistic Christianity” (referencing Greta Vosper). He does clarify that he is referring to PCN conference speakers here, and states “For the sake of simplicity, I’ve divided them into four strands or paradigms, but the boundaries between them are diffuse so please don’t take the titles too seriously.” No doubt he expects by that to deflect the criticism that dividing Christians into groups is at least potentially a counterproductive thing, but nevertheless he is doing it.

Dividing Christians into groups is clearly a tendency which was established very early, as Paul talks about it (and argues against it). Indeed, although in the West we tend to think for a large slice of our history of “One Church”, this being the Catholic Church, there were plenty of early divisions, and although at least the fiction of a single Christian church was maintained until Catholic and Orthodox separated finally in the eleventh century, ostensibly over a point of trinitarian doctrine which most these days find absurdly trivial but in truth more over the issue of whether there should be one Pope or multiple patriarchs of whom the Bishop of Rome was only one, in fact there were several other strands of Christianity, usually referred to as “oriental”, such as the Coptic Church and the Syrian Orthodox Church, which were not part of this. Nonetheless, until the Reformation (the anniversary of which we celebrate this year, though “celebrate” has too upbeat a ring for my taste), there were only two major “denominations”, and they were not massively dissimilar – indeed, had the filioque and the status of the Pope been finessed, there might well only have been one Church of major extent. Then, of course, Luther came along with the concept of “sola scriptura” and the “priesthood of all believers”, and the result was  a splintering of the church, to the effect that there are now over 41,000 Christian denominations.

I actually think that there are more strands than Vivian identifies, and would particularly mention Open Theism and Process Theology, which the AAR lump together as “Open and Relational”, though those do find room for serious discussion, as a Homebrewed Theology live podcast recently demonstrated. Nonetheless, as Rachel Held Evans commented at the end of that podcast, they may have differences, but they are happy to acknowledge each other’s points of view as valid – and to get tipsy together.

This, I think, well illustrates the saying of Marco Antonio Dominis quoted in this Biologos piece, “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.” The question is, what are to be regarded as “essentials”. I wonder whether some help can be found in a new book by Philip Clayton, which is a follow-up to his book “The Predicament of Belief”, which I strongly recommend (I haven’t yet bought the new one, but it’s on my wish list!). He talks about it in this podcast, and makes, I think, a good case for us all to go away and ascribe a set of numbers to the strength of our beliefs.

As for myself, I definitely fall within the category of “Liberal Christian”, at least when it is opposed to terms like “Conservative Christian”, but I also find quite a bit of identification with people who are comfortable with the “Progressive Christian” label. The thing is, I wouldn’t really say that I was in the camp of any of Spong, McLaren, Rollins or Vosper. Yes, I think spirituality is evolving, yes, I think something which has the potential to be a “new thing” is “emerging” from Christianity, yes, I am sometimes extremely radical in my thinking about scripture and God (although not in quite the same way that “Radical Theology” is normally couched, given that it stems from the “Death of God” concept emanating from Nietzsche and made famous by Thomas Altizer) and yes, I can reasonably be described as atheistic, if that is the appropriate term for someone who does not believe that God wears his knickers outside his tights, as I tend to put it – the picture of God as an intervening super-superhero (hence the knickers and the tights…) who constantly intervenes in a way contrary to established natural processes. I have time for all those thinkers, however – and others, such as Tom Oord in the “Open Theism” camp and, of course, Philip Clayton (see above), who is a Process Theologian.

The thing is, using Philip Clayton’s 1-6 rating of beliefs, most of what I believe in terms of theology is down in the 4-6 region. I have certainty that God exists (for some value of “God”), so that is, perhaps, my only relevant belief rated “1” (I wouldn’t even rate as a “1” the proposition that “I exist” – that’s at best a 2 or a 3…). I can entertain viewpoints which seem to conflict (hey, I’m a Theoretical Physicist if you take my University degree as defining, so I grew up with wave-particle duality…), and I tend to find that most people in the “Progressive” camp are at least tending in that direction. I shudder at the viewpoint I saw in an article a little while ago, which suggested that the first and most fundamental thing we should fix is a “doctrine of God” – I may be certain that God exists, but I at least strongly suspect (maybe a 3 or a 2) that human brains are fundamentally incapable of a full understanding of God, so any “doctrine of God” is going to be wrong. That is the last thing which we should be claiming is an essential and demanding unity on!

So, less essentials, please. Perhaps the most defining characteristic of Christian who can be called “Progressive” is a willingness to consider more stuff to be non-essential. Vivian illustrates what he regards as “Progressive” by saying “The concept of an all-powerful, heavenly Divine, who intervenes in our fate is no longer credible. The time-honoured Christian narrative of a God who sends his Son into the world to save it, is at best a poetic myth.” I would respond that he is being far too prescriptive there. Yes, I agree with his first sentence – I cannot bring myself to believe in an interventionary God in the supernatural Theist mould. But “at best a poetic myth”? As Philip Clayton would put it, the idea of a God who sends his Son into the world to save it, is not less than a poetic myth (a 6 on Clayton’s scale). But it might be more than that, and in conscience, a poetic myth is already an incredibly powerful thing…

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Board games and economies

October 13th, 2017
by Chris

Among my interests which have so far not come up on this blog is board games. I’ve liked board games since I was in primary school. I’ve had flirtations with other games – I’ve spent quite a bit of time playing bridge, for instance; I went through a phase in my teens and early 20’s of liking table top wargames a lot; I did a lot of fantasy RPG play back when the concept was very novel and I’ve played a lot of computer games in my time, but I keep coming back to board games, and in that category tend to like the ones which have at least a nodding acquaintance with some aspect of reality (so chess and go are not high up my list) as well as preferring those without massive amounts of chance (so generally not games involving a lot of dice throwing). Wednesday night is games night here, and most Wednesdays a small group of friends gather with me to play the board game of the moment.

This post is going to involve a lot of talk about games, but it is also going to touch on economic, politics and even maybe a little religion – so non game players may not actually want to stop reading just yet!

For some time now, that has been a game called 1817. This is a fairly recent development in a family of games which revolve around building railways (and making money in the process) which started with 1829, a game set in England (with a later extension covering Scotland), the name being taken from date of the first passenger-carrying railway. I’ve had a copy for a long time! The same game designer, Francis Tresham (who also designed one of my other favorite boardgames, Civilisation, which deals with the rise of civilisations in Mesapotamia and points West of there) then cooperated with others to produce 1830 (the founding of the Baltimore and Ohio RR), which was set in the Eastern United States, and had rules which were far more slanted towards financial manipulations than were those of 1829.

Tresham is one of those game designers whom hobbyists love; he was entirely open to having enthusiasts produce other games using the same basic mechanics, and there are now an absolute host of 18xx games produced by other people, usually with the last two numbers being the date of foundation of the first passenger railway in the country the game is set in – the main Italian game, for instance, is 1841.

1817 is also set in the Eastern USA, but the date comes not from an early railway, but from the date of foundation of the New York Stock Exchange. As you might guess from that fact, it’s possibly the most financially complex of the set so far, having advanced concepts like short-selling shares. It’s also more random than any of the big titles in the 18xx series previously, with players starting their railways in any available station (not one already taken by another player save one double station and one location, New York, with two startpoint station places), whereas the norm is to have fixed, historical locations. It’s taken the 18xx gaming world by storm – at some recent conventions, more than half the games played were 1817.

I’m also a compulsive tinkerer with games, as are a couple of the other Wednesday players. Tresham’s “Civilisation”, for instance, involved a map of Europe and the Middle East and North Africa cut off to the North at around Switzerland, to the West at around the boundary between Italy and France and to the East in Western Iran, and after a little while it acquired an authorised extension map which took the Western boundary to approximately Gibraltar. Those boundaries seemed far too arbitrary to me – after all, Roman civilisation extended throughout Spain and into Britain, and Greek civilisation at one point extended all the way to the Indus valley in what is now Pakistan. So there is in existence a set of extensions designed by me which do include much of the British Isles, all of Spain and the rest of Iran – and no, they aren’t available commercially. There were good game-play reasons why the board was truncated where it was, as I found out in trying to keep the gameplay sensible, and although my extension does allow and additional two civilisations to be played above even those in the extended game, very few people want to try to assemble even the seven players needed for a full game of the original.

By the time I bought a copy of 1817, my Wednesday group had been playing 1830 for a while, but a significantly altered 1830. Many years ago, when Avalon Hill was still producing 1830, they also produced a DOS computer game of the same name, and one of the features of that was that you could have a random map, which I fancied seeing for the board game. I had played around for some years with mechanisms for producing an at least somewhat random map for the game (as had another of our group), and about three years ago I came up with a scheme involving triangles of 6 hexagons which could be shuffled and dealt into a larger hexagon with a set of border pieces and a single centre hex, plus the ability to start railways anywhere on the map (which is now a feature of 1817) and a wrinkle on the ideas of private companies in the base game which added to the randomness. It was a real hit with our Wednesday group, and we’d been playing it (with some slight adjustments to the map pieces to improve balance and playability along the way) more or less exclusively when 1817 came along.

1817 took over. However, after we’d played it for a couple of months, one of our regulars said “Chris, why don’t you do a random map for 1817?” So I did that, and that’s what we’ve been playing on since then. Then someone else suggested we try simluating the westward expansion of US railways in a second phase of building, so we now have a double-hex map with a second set of private companies…

All this tinkering with games and their mechanics has taught me a number of things. Firstly, where a game includes maps, the maps have been very carefully designed to avoid obvious winning positions based on the topography – games are no fun if the only factor is who gets to start! I spent months tinkering with the Civilisation map to ensure that all the start locations had a decent fighting chance of doing well, and even more designing the random map sections for 1830 and then 1817. A game is only fair if you don’t have huge advantages from the start (or alternatively if huge start advantages can be easily circumvented – there are some games where this is the case). Secondly, if you’re trying to design a game which has a long playing time (and both Civilisation and the 18xx games typically take 5-10 hours), you have to be very careful to design mechanics which prevent someone getting an early advantage which is impossible for other players to overcome – and you have to do that through carefully crafted sets of rules, not (for instance) by just saying that everyone in a multi-player game has the same chances of making bargains with others as does any other player. Although there isn’t all that much luck in the 18xx games, there is definitely some – mostly based on where you are in the turn order compared with other players. I’ve mentioned avoiding the first player being able to take a prime position which can’t be matched by others, but in addition the player whose turn is immediately after someone who makes a mistake in game play is typically the one who can capitalise on that mistake.

In chess or go, of course, there are only two players, so it matters a lot less that a single mistake can cost a game – in multiplayer games a single mistake can still cost a player the game, but it can also win the game for another who has done nothing to deserve it other than being in the right place at the right time. Or it can lead to a player being eliminated very early, and having nothing to do but watch the other players for the next few hours, which is also something which game designers are going to want to avoid. Typically, therefore, in multiplayer games you want to have mechanisms in the rules to let players recover from mistakes, and to ensure that someone who is a beneficiary of such a mistake doesn’t run away with the game as a result of that.

In other words, you need a lot of carefully crafted rules in order to have a fair game which carries on for a long time. If you want a game which allows someone to come into it after it’s been running for a while (which we haven’t done in the 18xx games, but which I have considered for other games), you need to have additional rules in order to give the new player a sensible chance of not getting knocked out pretty much immediately – giving them the resources someone had at the start of the game absolutely doesn’t work, because other players will have built up far greater resources than that. Without such rules, even if a new or existing player has a wonderful idea which can improve their position massively, the inertia of others who have massively more resources is impossible to overcome.

With that in mind, I look at the naive suggestion by neoliberals that the “free market” should be shorn of any rules, and see in that a recipe for a “game” which eliminates “players” fairly quickly, leaves them little or no chance of “getting back into the game” and equally prejudices anyone who comes late to the “game”. It doesn’t even have the benefit of an end-point at which you can say “George has won”, after which you pack up the game and, perhaps, start another where everyone has an equal chance at the beginning. It condemns an increasing number of the players to sitting on the sidelines watching others and having no real stake in what is going on. In a financial game like 1817, money makes more money, eventually more or less irrespective of how well a player is playing – unless there are rules to stop that happening, to deliver some penalty for “bad play” – and that is equally what happens in “free market economies” unless they are well-regulated. As the author of this article comments, “Right now, the economic game is enormously fun for far too few players, and an increasingly miserable experience for many others.”

Our Wednesday group is a fairly friendly group, and in fact the better players frequently deliberately don’t make use of opportunities which having vastly greater resources gives them, particularly if that would result in bankrupting another player and thus removing them from the game (a smaller group does occasionally get together for a more cutthroat game in which bankruptcies are very common – but even then tends to declare the game won after any particularly sensational coup which produces an obviously winning situation, so as to relieve the loser from the burden of being a spectator only for some hours). This is, of course, conduct which in the real world, practising neoliberal economics with the dictum that the only responsibility of directors is to maximise shareholder value, would be horribly penalised. The share price of a company run like that would fall hugely, and the directors would be sacked… But it reflects a compassion which neoliberal economics regards as a fault (and, of course, Christianity regards as a virtue), as well as the self-interested motive of retaining the other players’ interest so that you have people to play with next week.

And having people to play with next week is something which neoliberal economics doesn’t take into account, even via the mechanism that, if you grind down all the other players enough, you will have a monopoly (all the money in the game), but you will have no-one able to buy your product any more. Indeed, the end of each game has a player in what is either a monopoly position or which, if continued long enough, one which will become a monopoly position – and a monoply (or, in the real world, more often a cartel) is the inevitable end point of these economic games – and where there is a monopoly or cartel, the “free market” no longer exists. Unlike a board game, you don’t pack up the economy and start from scratch next week.

Against my neoliberal friends, therefore, I can say with complete confidence that in order for there to be a free market, you need rules (i.e. government regulation) and in order for it to stay a free market you need more rules, as a free market is inherently an unstable thing.


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The mechanics of mysticism?

October 1st, 2017
by Chris

Thanks to James McGrath for pointing me at this article, which sets out at least a partial neurological mechanism for mystical experience.

The question has to be, of course, does this in any way negate such experience? I think the answer has to be “no”; it is trivially obvious that mystical experience occurs in the brain of the person experiencing it, and so there are going to be neurological processes involved – and these researchers have, perhaps, pinpointed one of those. Indeed, though they don’t yet have an answer for why such experiences are ecstatic (“better than sex, drugs and rock & roll” as I tend to put it), sooner of later I expect an answer to that as well.

The mechanics of neurology are, however, never going to determine the content of such experience, any more than dissecting an eye tells you about what you see in front of you. Admittedly, the content which is capable of being communicated after the event is fairly small (and trying to communicate the content during the event is one of the surest ways I know of stopping it in it’s tracks), but I have to believe the powerful sense that there is a LOT more content than that, were my brain capable of reducing it to intelligible language.

OK, maybe that is a side-effect of the fact that the experience is hugely self-verifying, at least in it’s fullest expression. But what mechanism self-verifies experience? I am not, frankly, used to experiences which do that, being a confirmed sceptic…

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Identity is not the most important issue

September 30th, 2017
by Chris

I’m not always a big fan of Sam Harris, as I think his antipathy to religion in general and Islam in particular is toxic – he would do far better to acknowledge that religion is a facet of human existence which we need to take into account. However, the guy does think, and think deeply, as evidenced in a recent podcast largely focussing on identity politics.

At this point, I perhaps need to confess to being a cis white male in a Western developed country, which, according to identity politics, arguably gives me no place to stand in terms of criticism of the state of the world. Sam does make the point (and I think it needs underlining) that this does not preclude someone from having a valid opinion – most of us, if we have a habit of thinking rationally, are able to separate ourselves to at least some extent from our situation in life and consider other points of view. Granted, unless you are (for instance) black, you are handicapped in having an emotional understanding of how it is more difficult to make your way in society (and, from what I see, more so in the States than in the UK, which is where my experience comes from). Likewise I might find it more difficult to relate emotionally to the situation of women, who still face a significantly greater challenge in reaching high level positions here than do men (though that has lessened massively over the course of my lifetime).

Things are made rather more difficult by the concept of intersectionality. This quite accurately notes that there is an additive (or possibly a multiplicative) effect of being in more than one group which is underprivileged; the concept stems initially from the observation that, within feminism, being black disadvantaged you twice – feminism tended to benefit white women, and anti-racism tended to benefit black men. The trouble is that this leads to a tendency toward discounting anyone’s voice unless they are an unemployed black lesbian immigrant disabled muslim, for instance.

I will grant that, in the upside-down economy of the Kingdom of Heaven, where the first shall be last and the last shall be first, this does put one person of my acquaintance at the very pinnacle of that economy. Should she, however, be the only person whose opinion is valid? To listen to some exponents of identity politics, one would think so. Sam and his guest make the extremely good point that this divides people (which is a bad thing) and makes it more difficult to create a broad platform which can actually hope to gain political power.

What I would like to see is a recognition that in a puralist society like ours, everyone is a member of some minority, at least if they apply enough labels to themselves – I have a number of potential labels which render me a member of an underprivileged minority (notably being partially disabled by reason of mental illness), and while I have to accept that I am not as underprivileged as some, I can still look to the fact that (for instance) in the open labour market I am pretty much unemployable. Happily, I have a couple of part time occupations which bring in some money, and am old enough to draw a pension and disabled enough to receive some benefits, so I don’t actually need to work for a living. There was, however, a period during which I was already ill enough not to be able to work, but hadn’t yet the part time occupations, the pension or the benefits, so I do understand on an emotional basis to some extent the situation of those who are less lucky than I have been in those respects.

I also have the liberty to think and write about this, which a lot of people who are less lucky don’t have – their whole concentration is going to be on where the next meal is coming from…

Harris and his guest also touch on the fact that there is actually a sizeable majority of people who are seriously and increasingly underprivileged in our society, as the gap between the very rich and the rest of us widens and the category of “very rich” shrinks, while the middle class who used to bridge the gap increasingly become little or no better off than the working class or the poor. That is a point which I would have liked stressed much more – there is a problem which the vast majority of us face, which is now systemic, and it prejudices most of us, and it is the imbalance in our financialised globalised “free market” capitalist societies.

Nick Hanauer has a splendid TED talk expressing this. Now, Nick is a self-confessed plutocrat, but he sees that the levels of inequality which we now face and which are growing will inevitably lead to a collapse in society – as he says, “the pitchforks are coming” – but that will not merely mean that he and those like him are likely to find themselves on the wrong end of pitchforks, but that there will be a huge disruption in society. I, for one, do not relish the thought of living through a revolution (though, actually, I probably wouldn’t live through it, only into the early stages of it…); revolutions are messy things and tend to kill a lot of people, and in addition have very unpredictable results – sometimes things become better for the majority, but often they don’t. Both the BREXIT vote here and the election of Trump, it seems to me, are expressions of a population which is saying “I don’t mind if things are in complete turmoil, I don’t mind if the world burns, I just want change… any change”

[There was, arguably, a long, slow revolution in the UK between 1800 and around 1970, which progressively made things better for working people and certainly reduced inequality massively, both in absolute terms and in terms of opportunity. That was among the very few revolutions which I can point to which had a generally beneficial effect and very few deaths – a few protestors, but nothing on a large scale. Sadly, the Thatcher government coupled with Blairite Labour managed to undo most if not all of the progress which took 150 years to achieve…]

Identity politics on the left, it seems to me, get in the way of addressing this problem; they divide us where we need to unify to face a more existential threat. There has been a cartoon going around showing a couple of people amid the smoking ruins of a city saying “But for a beautiful moment in time we created a lot of value for shareholders“.

My worry is that they might equally have been saying “for a beautiful moment in time we achieved marriage equality and eliminated racial and religious discrimination”.

Inequality is not the only existential threat, either. Climate change, unless we can by some miracle mitigate it sufficiently, is going to produce just as much misery as would worldwide revolution – but actually is likely to be accompanied by worldwide revolution.

I have huge sympathy with minorities, but do not want to concentrate on bettering their situation at the expense of civilisation.

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Myths, metaphors, mysteries and making it up: theology meets fiction

September 2nd, 2017
by Chris

(This is another post which first appeared on The Way Station blog).

There is a saying which I’ve seen variously attributed to African, Amerind and Asian wise men, which goes “I don’t know if it happened this way, but I know this story is true”.

A little while ago, I blogged on the back of a short story by Ursula le Guin called “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (here’s a link if you’re interested), which is most definitely “made up”. On the other hand, through an entirely fictional place and people, it conveys a really important truth about how I, at least, feel about morality, and in particular the utilitarian concept that the individual should be sacrificed for the greater good. It rests on the concept that the entire happiness of an otherwise idyllic, utopian society is founded on them keeping a vulnerable innocent in appalling conditions, and never even speaking a kind word to the victim – and, on learning of this truth about their society, some elect to walk away, then or later, despite leaving also all the positives of their society.

Now, the blogger who reminded me of the story was using it as a metaphor (or, probably strictly speaking, an allegory, which is an extended and often more symbolic metaphor) for the church – and it made sense and conveyed, I think, a truth about the church. I used it as a metaphor for western society, and in particular the society of the UK in which I live. It doesn’t aspire to the category of myth – myths are the great stories, the archetypes of human interaction or of the identity of a people. The story within the story of Omelas is, for the society described, a myth (as are our British legends of King Arthur, a foundational myth) – Ms. leGuin writes science fiction and fantasy, so within the logic of the story, it might be true, and in that event it would be a true myth,  or it might be false, in which case it would still be a myth, but the happiness of Omelas would not actually necessarily depend on their continued cruelty. As it is clearly a foundational myth, though, tinkering with it might well produce unanticipated consequences even if there is no material causal link between the misery of the innocent and the wealth and happiness of the society, which is why I use the caveats “necessarily” and “material”. One such possibility lies in the works of Rene Girard; the innocent may be functioning as a scapegoat, and thereby actually contributing to the peace of the society through psychological rather than material mechanisms.

The thing about metaphor, allegory and myth is that ultimately it doesn’t matter whether “it happened this way”, the truth (or falsehood) of one of these literary figures is in how we apply it to situations in the real world – and it is then true to the extent that we are able to construct such an application.  A similar example is a joke – if I say “A rabbi, a priest and an imam walk into a bar”, you are not going to ask me where the bar was, or what an imam was doing in a bar anyway, or when this happened, far less whether it happened. Those are just not the point – the point is in the punchline (which is “and the barman says ‘this is a joke, isn’t it?’ “).

Similarly, when Jesus told parables, they were metaphors or allegories; it wasn’t important whether they happened that way (or at all), the message what in what you took from them. We are quite happy with the idea that Jesus made up these stories on the spot to illustrate a truth (or sometimes several truths) which were outside the stories themselves. Happily, even my most fundamentalist friends realise this.

However, when we are talking of events in the life of Jesus which are recounted in the gospels, the more conservative among us suddenly become very concerned about whether things happened this way – where the bar was, in other words – and it becomes very difficult to get beyond that.

There is a quite excellent book by John Dominic Crossan called “The Power of Parable – How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction about Jesus”, which treats the narrative history of Jesus contained in the gospels as story, not asking whether it happened this way, but what lessons we can draw from those stories today. This just ignores the issue of “whether it happened like that” and looks at a selection of stories from the gospels purely on the basis of what these stories can tell us about the situations we are in now.

The trouble is, I suspect that my more conservative friends would really not be able to glean anything from it, because Crossan is taking as read the fact that the gospel writers were adjusting their stories in order to make their own points…

It rather recalls to me discussions on the old Compuserve Religion Forum, where a wide variety of people were posting, from absolutely fundamentalist Christians through very liberal ones to atheists, agnostics and followers of other religions – the objective there was to discuss the religion, not to proselytise or fellowship. There were permanent problems actually getting a viable conversation going between these viewpoints, as the fundamentalists permanently homes in on whether the Bible was an inerrant historical (and scientific) account. Where I found an avenue to better discussion was in saying “let’s set on one side whether it happened that way, leaving biblical criticism and theology for later, and discuss application – how does this account impact your life at the moment?”

That way, we could sometimes manage to avoid the issue on which the two sides were never going to agree, and have sensible discussions. Not infrequently, the result was that a biblical inerrantist and a non-supernaturalist materialist could actually agree on the meaning of a passage, and that ultimately it was the application which mattered to them.

And they “got the joke”…

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The patterns of AI in the stuff of the future.

September 2nd, 2017
by Chris

There’s a fascinating interview of Max Tegmark, a prominent physicist now focussing on artificial intelligence research, by Sam Harris (the well known atheist neuroscientist), broadly on the future of AI, in particular once it reaches the point of producing a generalised intelligence at least equal to that of humans.

There are too many points of interest for me to extract those and save you from the recommendation that you listen to the podcast, but a few points stood out to me.

Firstly, Max has apparently pretty much the same view as I have about ontology (i.e. the study of what is actually there at the most fundamental level); he even uses the same language as I’ve been doing. I suppose that as we are both physicists at root, this is not as surprising as it might seem (I’m pretty sure he hasn’t read what I write, and I’ve not read anything he’s written!) There is “stuff”, and there is pattern, and pattern is not heavily dependent on the stuff which bears the pattern – as he puts it, pattern is substrate-independent. He points out that wave equations later adapted to describe fundamental particles were originally developed in fluid mechanics; the mathematics describes this class of patterns (which happen to be dynamic patterns) irrespective of whether they are in water or in, say, the electromagnetic spectrum.

He moves rapidly from there to discussing how AIs of the future are likely not to be using electrons in solid state systems, they could be in something entirely different – but the patterns will be transferrable, and in the process mentions that in IT there is one basic element, the NAND gate, which he likens to synapses in the human brain. However, of course, you can construct a NAND gate out of all sorts of “stuff”…

The bulk of the interview is about how we might control intelligences we create which could be far greater than our own intelligence, but there are many directions in which they could have gone but didn’t. Can we hope, sometime, to upload the pattern which is “us” to a computer, and thereby defeat death, or at least the limited lifespan of our biological substrate? Mention was made of the fact that the best chess player is now not a computer, after the famous defeat of Gary Kasparov, but a human-computer team, which Max calls an “android” – probably correctly, as it is a human-machine combination. Might we augment ourselves and become amalgams of human and machine? (As I get older, I would very much appreciate some memory augmentation, perhaps a few terabytes…)

What, morally, is our position regarding a machine with a generalised intelligence greater than ours? Is it morally acceptable for it to be effectively a slave? (There is some discussion of this, but by no means exhaustively). If not, will we see a situation, as Sam and Max discuss, of the superhuman intelligence being, in effect, in the position of an adult surrounded by young children, unable to make decisions as good as the adult?

If I have one overwhelming worry about this prospect (and it is closer than we might think – the self-driving car is already with us, the military are playing with machines which may, Bond-like, have a “licence to kill”, and the cheapest calculators can perform calculations many times faster than even the fastest human, giving a glimpse of what the situation might be were their “intelligence” generalised rather than restricted to arithmetic), it is that we are biological systems, and as such have emotions – and emotions are what founds most of our moral behaviour (as well as some of our most immoral). Without emotion, can an artificial intelligence ever be trusted to make good moral decisions? I worry about that; my long period of depression, which ended in 2013 (deo gratias!) ended up in a state of anhedonia, in which, broadly, I did not feel emotions. I could assess what would happen if I did something fairly well – my computing power wasn’t seriously damaged – but I couldn’t make a decision as to whether actually to do it or not because there was no emotional charge giving me this instead of that course of action. Even the prospect that the action would damage me, perhaps kill me (or others), had no emotional charge – it was a matter of indifference whether I were injured, or in pain, or dead in the future.

I got through that period by following a set of rules, largely “act as if” rules. Others did not get damaged, other than perhaps emotionally, and I got damaged relatively little and am still here to write about it. But it could so easily have been different.

Would a super-AI have the same problem? If so, we would want there to be VERY strong “rules” imbedded at an early stage to avoid disaster.

But then, I took much the same view when raising children…

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Fear no evil?

August 11th, 2017
by Chris

I spent the early part of last week doing a Mental Health First Aid course. This was a stretching exercise, largely because we had to delve into areas which I find uncomfortable (such as depression, anxiety and PTSD, all of which I’ve been diagnosed as suffering from) – and to some extent because some of the class exercises demanded that one of our group tell a sad or distressing story, which led to me twice dredging up incidents from my past which were painful at the time, and, it seems, are still distressing now. One of the class members couldn’t cope with the second day and vanished, hotly pursued by one of the instructors, who made sure that she was safe enough to be allowed to make her way home. However, it was also rewarding and informative, and bolstered my confidence in being able to give appropriate support to people suffering from various mental health crises. I probably need to except psychotic breaks from that – I still really feel those are well above my pay grade and need a professional!

I can strongly recommend going on such a course to anyone who has a lot of contact with people. My first draft of this said “people with mental health problems”, but frankly such a high proportion of the population suffers at some point in their lives from a disagnosable mental health condition (at least 25%) that I’m confident that anyone dealing with people regularly will find occasions where mental health first aid training would be useful.

We had a diverse and interesting group, including a bunch of police officers (one or whom specialises in talking people down from bridges or out of hostage situations and who had a wonderful line in rather black humour, which I suspect goes with the territory), some service users, some carers and a few people actually in the mental health establishment, and that contributed a lot to the benefit of the course – we had people who had actually experienced most of the conditions “from the inside” as well as having between us experience of trying to care for people with all of them.

It was therefore slightly surprising to find that it needed to be me who contributed one piece of advice, this being for anyone dealing with someone experiencing a panic attack. That advice is “don’t get between them and the door”. The rationale is this – when suffering a panic attack, it is overwhelmingly likely that the conscious mind will be overwhelmed by the subconscious “3F” reaction, which many psychologists call the “reptile brain”. The three “f’s” are fight, flight and freeze.

Freeze is distinctly the easiest to deal with from a first aid point of view – the person panicking is probably going nowhere, and you can talk to them in a calm and measured way if they aren’t in danger, or guide them gently out of danger if (for instance) they’ve frozen in the middle of crossing a road. If someone is running away, you can follow them. However, the subconscious flips between these rather easily, and particularly if there’s a strong impulse to flee, clearly getting in the way of that can very easily trip the subconscious into the “fight” reaction instead. That may also be the case if the person panicking appears frozen to you – they may be on the edge of flight, and closing off the available exit can be enough to flip them into fight.

The thing is, this is not a “press the f*-it button” reaction much of the time. Sometimes that is the case – the tide of “must do this” is resistable, at least for a time. But other times, the tide overwhelms the conscious mind, and willpower (or, more accurately, won’t-power) is just not a factor any more.

When this happens, the panicking person is, to my mind, not responsible for their actions – and those can potentially be very violent. As Frank Herbert wrote in “Dune”, “fear is the mind-killer”. In the case of someone panicking, I’d be inclined to think that the person who got in the way was primarily responsible for getting injured, at least if they had any understanding of panic.

But how about a whole society which panics? I’m inclined to argue that this does happen; it happened in most of the West, but particularly America, when communism was seen as an existential threat (and there was a particular fear-factor in the nearness of mutually assured destruction through nuclear war, not entirely unreasonably, given that 99 red balloons could conceivably have started war – a flight of seagulls came close on at least one occasion). Western governments did things to combat that perceived threat which were, frankly, unconscionable, such as propping up right wing dictators and formenting rebellion against left wing governments.

Much of the Western world (and again, in particular the States) now lives in constant fear of serious crime, such as home invasions – which, statistically, seem about as likely as lightening strikes. However, the reaction is, both sides of the Atlantic, to hand down swingeing sentences for violent crime, and in the States to cling to guns as if they would solve the problem (there is very little evidence that gun owners successfully foil violent crime, and every evidence that gun owners and their families are in more danger from their guns than they ever would be from criminals). This is not a sane response. Fear is the mind-killer.

We also have on both sides of the Atlantic populations which are increasingly insecure in relation to employment. Gone are the days when most people could be assured a “job for life” – several changes of actual job, and multiple changes of employer are now standard, and although technically employment has increased significantly in the last 30 years, most of the jobs “created” are not good jobs, i.e. jobs which can keep a family in reasonable comfort. The threat of unemployment leading, potentially, to homelessness and destitution, is far far higher now than it was when I first looked for a job in the 1970s. People generally are scared, and perhaps rightly so, as statistics show that most of us are at most three pay checks away from destitution.

And, of course, scared people do stupid things (fear is the mind-killer). They fix on immigrants as the cause of their job-insecurity, for instance, despite evidence that immigration actually contributes to the economy (after all, the immigrants are going to spend significant amounts of their money in our economy, not the one they’ve left). They decide that government regulations are holding us all back, rather than protecting us (mostly, the second is the case); those two factor were big in both our Brexit decision and America’s Trump decision. Those in government are not immune – instead of protecting people against destitution, they fix on austerity as being the solution to all our problems, and thus deepen insecurity for everyone who is not in the top 10% – and they so capably sell the same message to the rest of us that we actually vote them back into office.

We are a scared and anxious people, and the news media seem calculated to keep us that way – or, perhaps, it’s just our own fascination with death and disaster, as good news doesn’t seem to sell papers…

With this background, I am less than ecstatic to find Trump posturing against North Korea – or, at least, I hope it’s just posturing. The trouble is, making excessive threats is the action of a scared person. The USA has at least 7,000 nuclear weapons, and the idea that an unfriendly power might acquire one or two should really not be all that worrying, unless they are totally insane. Or, of course, very scared; fear is the mind-killer, and either Trump or Kim Jong Un might, conceivably, be very scared, and therefore very stupid. If either were to use nukes against the other, there would assuredly be retalliation, and there is really no way of knowing what other players would then do…

In the lowest days of my depression and anxiety, I sometimes found myself repeating over and over again the 23rd Psalm, and in particular the words Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil”. Readers who are keener on SF and fantasy than on religion might just go with Frank Herbert; “I shall not fear, fear is the mind-killer”.

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Scared of sacred texts? (Daring to look beyond the Bible…) Part 4

August 4th, 2017
by Chris

I’ve now talked about secondary and marginal Jewish and Christian scriptures, about the Hebrew Scriptures and their interpretations (also regarded as scripture by Judaism) and about the interpretative tradition in Christianity. There is one area left within “sacred texts” which I haven’t covered – religions other than Judaism and Christianity.

Many people I know would be very uneasy about a suggestion that Christians might read the sacred texts of other religions. We are, after all, Christians – and so we consider that Christianity is the way to understand and show devotion to God – don’t we? We have all heard John 14:6 being quoted time after time, after all…

Firstly, I’ll look at what came before, just as did the Hebrew Scriptures. I’d suggest that, if we are to understand the creation narrative of Genesis 1-3, we should look at what the creation narratives of nations which preceded Israel and from whose area the Israelites are said to have come say about creation, and which bordered the area where the Israelites eventually settled. There are two major narratives from Mesapotamia (Babylon), the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Enuma Elis which treat of creation, and the parallels (and differences) between those and the Biblical text are fascinating. Biblical scholars have made much of this in understanding how Genesis came to be in the form it is.

The big question, however, is whether we should look to scripture which are entirely outside the traditions of the Bible (such as the Vedas and Upanishads, the Buddhist Sutras and the Dao de Ching), or those which follow on after Judaism and Christianity, such as the Koran, the writings of the Sufis, Bah’ai writings and, I suppose, the Book of Mormon (I apologise for any offence given to LDS readers, if there are any; I personally find the Book of Mormon very difficult to regard as anything but a pastiche of King James language, and I have yet to find in it anything I might wish to take to heart which is not already in the Bible).

Dealing with the second category first, I think it necessary to point out that by many standards (and certainly in the eyes of most non-Christians) the Latter Day Saints and the Seventh Day Adventists are Christians, but the first definitely have additional scriptures in the form of the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants, the second arguably treat the writings of Ellen White as scripture. The Koran acknowledges Jesus as a prophet, but considers Mohammed to have given a better and less corrupted revelation; the Bah’ai  faith accepts the Bible and the Koran but considers the writings of its founders to correct (or at least update) both. Needless to say, in the chain of successor religions, each tends to regard the next one in the chain with particular disfavour (Judaism to Christianity, Christianity to Islam, LDS and to a lesser extent SDA, and Islam to Bah’ai and, from time to time, the Sufis). The same mechanism probably explains the particular venom of the early church towards the Gnostics, which I mentioned in part 1.

Are these scriptures worth studying? I know people who would claim that they are without exception Satanic attempts to mislead the faithful, and that we should therefore avoid them like the plague. I think this woefully underestimates both the Bible and God, assuming that (as those of that persuasion would argue) that the Bible is “The Word of God”. Beyond that, I would argue that there is huge value in knowing how others think, and part of that is (for believers) going to rest on their scriptures. If, perchance, we mistrust or fear the actions of those of a particular religious persuasion, there is no more convincing argument than to quote their own scripture to them.

Also (and this is going to apply to the unconnected scriptures as well) there is no more positive exercise for deepening one’s own faith than to allow it to be critiqued by others – and that is particularly the case when those others are from “successor religions”. Those in The Way Station (for whom this post is initially written) will maybe have encountered this idea in Peter Rollins writings and practices – it is “The Evangelism Project”, in which you talk with those of other faiths (or none) and allow them to evangelise you, rather than arguing with them.

Those scriptures which do not share any philosophical or theological presuppositions with Christianity are perhaps even more challenging in one sense, that they require a complete change in thinking, though less challenging in the sense that they are less likely to have an insidious evangelising effect. One could argue that they challenge also in that they may not be wholly accessible to us without a knowledge of the languages and cultures from which they developed, though the number of Christians comfortable with Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek and Latin is fairly limited!

Do they give us something which we cannot get from the Bible? Well, J. Robert Oppenheimer would have been hard pressed to find anything as apposite as the Baghavad Gita’s “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds” to comment on the development of the Atomic Bomb. While I value the writings of Christian mystics highly, none of them has quite equalled Baba Kuhi of Shiraz writing “In the market, in the cloister, only God I saw”, and that link is to a site mostly devoted to Rumi, whose writings I know have inspired countless Christians. Is there, I ask myself, anything Biblical which conveys the message of “The Tao that can be spoken is not the true Tao”, or of a host of Zen koans?

When  we come to praxis (or practice), very many Christians do yoga or other meditative practices with their origins in Eastern religion – where would they be without Patanjali’s yoga sutras, or the nikayas? They find there nothing contrary to their Christian belief.

So yes, I think we definitely should dare to look beyond the Bible. There is a massive amount there which could inform or enhance our Christian faith. And, in conscience, if as a result we end up not being Christian any more, perhaps we can recall “in my Father’s house are many mansions”.

As a postscript, I will say that the two scriptures which scare me the most (and probably should scare anyone else who is part of the Western developed world) are “Be perfect, as your Father in Heaven is perfect” and “Sell all you have and give it to the poor”. And they are both not only part of the New Testament, but ascribed to Jesus himself.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3


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Scared of sacred texts? (Daring to look beyond the Bible…) Part 3

August 3rd, 2017
by Chris

In parts 1 & 2 I talked firstly about scripture which was in one way or another secondary, either because it was not fully accepted by some churches, or because it wasn’t accepted by any of them any more, and about the Hebrew Scriptures (which scare many Christians) and their interpretations in Judaism.

In Christianity, we do not share the Jewish concept of interpretation as being added to scripture and as part of it, as I talked of in part 2. There is interpretation in the New Testament – most of the content of the Epistles is actually theological interpretation, and Paul can reasonably be regarded as the first Christian theologian. Once the first generation of Christian interpreters were no longer with us, it became much more unlikely that writers of interpretation would be accepted as scripture (though I argue in Part 1 that it is still worth finding out what they were saying!) and after the mid-second century, the canon of scripture was effectively closed. However, we actually are very reliant on the work of various interpreters for what we include in such documents as the Creeds and as Statements of Faith.

Let me take one example, that of the concept of atonement. Much of Protestant Christianity at the moment considers that the basic Christian message is that of Penal Substitutionary Atonement; mankind fell into sin with Adam, the penalty for that is death (and perhaps damnation), and God advanced Jesus (his son) as a perfect, sinless sacrifice to bear the penalty for that sin on behalf of all (or at least potentially all). Indeed, one helper at an Alpha course said to me, when I said I had problems with PSA, “But that IS the gospel”. Well, no.

We would not have had the concept of original sin on which that rests without Augustine’s “City of God” in the Fourth Century. Judaism had (and still has) no concept of original sin in the way it is understood in Christianity. Augustine was a Western theologian, and original sin is not thought of quite the same way in the Eastern churches.

And, indeed, neither is atonement. Augustine laid some of the groundwork for the concept of a “ransom”  – a death paid to ransom us from sin, or Satan, or both – which was dominant for a millennium in the Western Church; the Eastern churches tended to hold that and something like the concept of “Christus Victor” in tension.

In the eleventh century, however, Anselm of Canterbury wrote his “Cur Deus Homo” and introduced the concept of “satisfaction” – in his eyes, taking the concept of honour from the feudal society then dominant, sin was an offence to God’s honour, and all offences to the supremely high honour of God could only be expiated by death (at least!) – which, again, Jesus took upon himself.

Some 400 years later, Martin Luther and John Calvin changed the concept to a judicial one; God’s law demanded death, and that penalty (from which the word “penal”) was taken on himself by Christ; God’s justice (it is argued) demanded a sacrifice, that sacrifice had to be of blood, and only a life of supreme value (because it was both human and divine) would suffice.

Can you get there from a simple reading of scripture? Well, there are passages which talk of debt, there are passages which talk about ransom, there are passages which talk about victory… there is even a passage which comments on the Levitical regime of sacrifice that almost no atonement was possible without blood (not, may I point out, no atonement at all without blood, as is so often misquoted…)

However, as I mentioned in part 1, there is also the simple example of the Maccabean Martyrs, whose deaths were described as an atoning sacrifice for all of Israel – and they weren’t of the blameless or of an individual in whom God and man were uniquely joined.

It took a set of four of the most influential theologians to have lived in the West and over 1400 years of discussion to arrive at PSA. Most of those who espouse this idea (which, I may point out, is not in any of the creeds) have no idea how it developed.

Similarly, unless you read the early Eastern church fathers, you are likely not to understand the concept of the Trinity (which is reflected in the Creeds), and how concepts from Greek philosophy interacted with what we see in scripture to produce the formulas which many of us obediently mouth on a regular basis. Though, in conscience, even if we do read (say) Gregory of Nazianzus, Trinity might still turn out to be “a holy mystery beyond the grasp of human intellect”…

My suggestion for this part is that, despite the fact that they are often difficult to read (scary!), and always extremely dated in their viewpoints, we really ought to read the more prominent theologians if we want to understand our current beliefs better. And, of course, my hope is that if we understand how we got to PSA better, we will abandon it as a concept of atonement…

It might be thought that in three parts and over three thousand words, I might have exhausted the subject. Not so; on to part 4…

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Scared of sacred texts? (Daring to look beyond the Bible…) Part 2

August 1st, 2017
by Chris

In part 1, I looked at some examples of what one might call “secondary scripture”, including the apocrypha (or deuterocanonical, which is a translation of “secondary scripture”) and a set of completely extra-canonical works which probably were “scripture” for some churches at some time, but now are not.

However, the biggest source of being “afraid of sacred texts” I come across on a day to day basis is the Hebrew Scriptures (or “Old Testament”). I lose track of the numbers of people I encounter in church, notably in small groups, who have actually read a little beyond the carefully selected texts which tend to be preached on, and are troubled by (for instance) the end of Psalm 137 “O daughter of Babylon, you devastated one, How blessed will be the one who repays you with the recompense with which you have repaid us. How blessed will be the one who seizes and dashes your little ones Against the rock.”  This tends to be avoided like the plague by preachers who are, however, content to use the beginning of the same psalm “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion”, conjuring up memories of Boney M. They didn’t get to the end either…

The early triumphalist history of Israel is littered with examples of apparently divinely approved violence, from injunctions to kill every last Amalekite (including livestock). Saul’s very minor reinterpretation of this is grounds for divine displeasure (and it is uncertain whether the fault is just in leaving Agag alive, but captured, or in keeping the livestock alive…). It was not just the Amalekites who needed to worry – Israelites themselves could be a target, and the Israelites were not exactly good neighbours to Canaan, Philistia, Moab or Edom. In fact, I could probably have stopped at “not exactly good neighbours”…

It is hardly surprising that my small group fellows agonise about whether the God presented in the Hebrew Scriptures is actually the same God as evidenced in the words of Jesus, and prefer to avoid most of the historical parts. Similarly, stoning children for cheeking their parents is one of a set of commandments which we now have extreme difficulty in accepting as “divine commandments”, perhaps even more so than avoiding bacon or lobster…

They are not, of course, by any means the first Christians to have this concern. In the second century, Marcion of Sinope had similar worries, and decided that the Hebrew Scriptures were “not needed on voyage” – and also reduced the New Testament to an abbreviated version of Luke-Acts and the Pauline letters in an attempt to avoid cognitive dissonance. He was, of course, condemned as a heretic, one of the first clearly named heretics, but his ideas by no means died with the suppression of Marcionite tendencies, and Marcion’s identification of the God of the Hebrew Scriptures as the Demiurge, a kind of “imposter God”, was to be a mainstay of those Gnostic interpretations of Christianity of which the Gnostic Gospels were accused (see part 1).

By far the most important reason I would advance for studying the Hebrew Scriptures is, however, not because to avoid them might be slightly heretical, but the fact that they formed much of the matrix of thought in which Jesus operated and in which the New Testament writers formulated their accounts. You cannot really understand the New Testament without understanding the Hebrew Scriptures, because the New Testament is either appropriating texts from there to approve or giving a counter-testimony against them (“You have heard it said… but I say…”).

And, in conscience, that is the key to the Hebrew Scriptures; they do not just give a single viewpoint, there is a constant ebb and flow of testimony and counter-testimony, which at the simplest can be thought of as a main narrative with prophets giving a counter-narrative on a regular basis, and some of the writings (notably Ecclesiastes and Job) subverting both.

This is brought out excellently in two recent books, firstly John Dominic Crossan’s “How to Read the Bible and Still be a Christian”, secondly Peter Enns “The Bible Tells Me So”. (They are by no means alone; divine violence is a hot topic in the Christian publishing world at the moment).

The church fathers’ wisdom in keeping four gospels against Marcion’s wish for there to be only one and avoid ambiguity was foreshadowed by the wisdom of the Jewish forerunners of the Rabbis in keeping completely contradictory accounts and regarding both at the same time as inspired scripture. Equally, there is testimony and countertestimony between the seven definitely Pauline letters and the probably not Pauline letters, and between the Pauline viewpoint and that of the Epistle of James.

Christians could, I think, learn much from Judaism in their approach to scripture. Indeed, I’d go so far as to suggest that when venturing beyond the safety of the texts we’re used to hearing, we could do worse than to look at Jewish interpretations of their own scripture. Judaism does, after all, have a significant head start over Christianity in trying to interpret these scriptures!

The earlier of those were collected into the Talmud, which ranks as scripture (at least of a kind) for Judaism; it’s thought of as containing the “Oral Torah” (in balance with the five earliest books of the Bible, which are the Torah) and as being possibly as authoritative – and, if you’re a conservative or Orthodox Jew, as having originally been communicated to Moses on Sinai but not written down… Indeed, in the eyes of Jewish conservatives, if a young rabbinic scholar comes up with a new and interesting interpretation of Torah tomorrow, it will still have been communicated to Moses on Sinai… (This is the mindset which, as I mentioned in part 1 of this essay, decided that the rock followed Moses. It is maybe not easy for a Christian to understand, but it has a logic of its own).

Maybe reading the Talmud is a step too far, but something like the Jewish Annotated New Testament can be very valuable in Bible study in giving at least some of the Jewish tradition, as can a Jewish Study Bible for the Hebrew Scriptures.

At this point, I’ve gone beyond what is even regarded as “scripture” in either Judaism or Christianity with the study Bibles. In part 3, I intend to go even further…

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