Tough Questions Answered

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Is Life Designed? Part 1

Post Author: Bill Pratt

In an article written in 2003, Mark Isaak explored “What Design Looks Like.”  The central argument of the article was simple.  According to Isaak, creationists who claim that life is designed are using an argument from analogy –  the analogy is between human design and biological life.  In his article, Isaak lists 11 attributes of human design and then looks at life to see if it shares these same 11 attributes.

Isaak agrees that human design and life share 5 attributes: 1) intermediate level of structural complexity, 2) modular structure, 3) evidence of careless modification (jury-rigging, vestigial parts), 4) change over time; new forms are modifications of previous forms and 5) functional integration.  If we stopped here, Isaak thinks that the argument from analogy would work, that life would compare favorably to human design.

But, Isaak then goes on to list 6 attributes of human design that life does not possess.

  1. Human design includes blueprints, tools, and other evidence of the design process.  Life shows no evidence of a design process.
  2. Human designs display simple organization.  Life displays complex organization and intermodular interdependence.
  3. Human designs are manufactured.  Life is characterized by reproduction, growth, and development.
  4. Human designs are generally repaired from the outside.  Life is self-healing, at least in part.
  5. In human design form follows function.  In life, forms follow nested hierarchy.
  6. In human design, there is rapid change.  In life, there is slow change.

Isaak’s conclusion: the design argument from analogy fails.  There are too many differences between human design and life for the analogy to hold.  Isaak explains: “In particular, life’s growth and reproduction alone are enough, it seems to me, to place life and design in quite separate categories. Life’s complexity and its nested hierarchy of traits are also highly significant differences. The overall conclusion is clear: life looks undesigned.”

If you are like me, you are scratching your head.  Something seems very odd about what Isaak says counts against life being designed.  Let me slow it down a little bit.

First, he argues that life can’t be designed because we don’t have blueprints, or tools, or any other evidence of a life design process.  But surely we, standing here today, don’t have direct experience of every design process ever used.  Don’t we routinely discover objects of antiquity where we do not understand immediately how they were designed?

Take the example of the ancient Egyptian pyramids.  Haven’t modern scientists struggled for decades trying to figure out how the giant Egyptian pyramids were designed and constructed?  There have been numerous theories about what the actual processes were.  Does the fact that we don’t have blueprints for the ancient pyramids mean they weren’t designed?  If those blueprints were found, would anyone seriously suggest that it is only after the blueprints were found we could conclude that the pyramids were designed?

But it gets worse for Isaak.  With regard to life, there are labs designing artificial life forms as we speak (Craig Venter).  Granted, they are a long ways off from designing all the kinds of life we see around us, but there certainly are life design processes developing.  So Isaak’s argument fails twice.

Second, Isaak argues that because life displays complex organization with intermodular interdependence, it cannot be designed.  This strikes me as completely bizarre.  What he is saying is that because biologists have not been able to reduce life down to simple, independent subsystems that do not interact with each other, life cannot be designed.

But it is the amazing complexity and interdependence of biological systems that cause most scientists to react in awe to the genious of life.  The complexity should count toward design, not against.  Somehow Isaak argues just the opposite – because we can’t break life down into simple non-interacting parts, it can’t be designed.  That strikes me as a complete non sequitur

In the next post of this series, I will address more of Mark Isaak’s 6 alleged differences between human design and life.  Stay tuned.


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Comments

  • Anonymous

    For the 4th time: design inferences in the real world are inductive. We see beavers build dams; we come across something that looks like a beaver dam, we infer that a beaver built it. That’s why we can tell the difference between a beaver dam and a human dam; between a mesoamerican clay pot and a potter wasp clay pot, and so forth.

    But Dembski’s Explanatory Filter (and the design inference touted by ID advocates more generally) is *eliminative*, not inductive. By design, it claims that we can know **NOTHING** about the designer — this is the result of a (stupid, as it turns out) legal strategy to try and evade the plain requirements of Edwards v. Aguillard and sneak blatantly religious proselytizing into public schools.

    Of course, we now know that design inferences can’t be eliminative; you get false positives all the time. That’s why SETI initially reported quasars as extraterrestrial life; why Percival Lowell thought there must be intelligent life on Mars, and so forth.

    The bottom line is that we infer design ONLY from past experience with analogous designers, and never as a result of “okay, it’s not X, it’s not Y, therefore, it must be designed.”

  • http://toughquestionsanswered.com Bill Pratt

    Andrew,
    ID theorists do not claim we can know nothing about the designer. That is just false. Please see my response on the thread under the “Is ‘Who Designed the Designer?’ a Good Argument?” post.

    You’ve mentioned several times that SETI reported quasars as a false positive. Do you believe the SETI program is a pointless exercise then?

  • Todd

    Bill,

    If that is the case, could you reply with what ID theorists know about the designer? And if possible, how they know it?

  • Andrew Ryan

    I don’t know about pointless. But we’re doing all this listening and no transmitting. Imagine if there are a bunch of different civilisations around the galaxy, all listening intently, but none actually sending messages!

    But seriously, it seems that a big difference is that ID just looks for evidence of design, whereas SETI is looking for messages deliberately sent out, with the express purpose of LOOKING like messages to any intelligent observers. That leaves a lot less wiggle room than the ‘evidence’ put forward by ID. We can dismiss any SETI messages that look like that they might be accidental, as any aliens designing such a message would want to avoid it appearing accidental.

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  • LeeBowman

    “Isaak’s conclusion: the design argument from analogy fails. There are too many differences between human design and life for the analogy to hold.”

    Isaak stated [in table], that since we use blueprints and tools and nature does not, design in nature is not inferred. To which Bill wrote, “But surely we, standing here today, don’t have direct experience of every design process ever used.”

    True, but regardless of our ‘knowledge’ or lack of it, as posited by Isaak, the statement is refutable. Firstly, design in these contexts encompasses both design and production. Design is implied, but the ‘production’ of end products is what is observed. If we apply that to ‘cause and effect’, then the cause is the production, and the effect is the end result observed.

    Now to the question of whether our methods are equitable with natures, and secondly, was intervention required in the natural process(es), or at least highly likely.

    In nature, the production method is embryogenesis. It’s methodology is cellular reproduction in novel ways, in in designated locations, programmed by hox6 genes. So we know by simple observation, that reproduction is a natural process, but NOT that the process itself formed by natural causes.

    And now a correlation to our production methods: More and more, our production processes are fully automated. The time may come when there is no human entity needed in the production facility. By a critic of this correlation will surely state, “Yes, but

    • In our plants, the parts are fashioned by molding and machining according to digital data plans [once blueprints], but in nature, its cellular reproduction.
    • We alter designs by ‘designer input’, but in nature it’s via natural selection.
    • Isaak mentions others, like ‘nested hierarchies’ [nature, not design], more complex [nature], and others, all extremely subjective.

    But to answer the above, we can clearly see form following function, which implies purpose, since a purposeful result ensues [ontogeny]. We can infer design by the simple observation of a production line that works, whether or not we have similar ones. Our methods of altering designs are directed to a point, but natural following, since the production line performs on its own, much of what was manually required in the past.

    And finally [from the paper], yes, nested hierarchies are a requirement of biologic survival, since once initiated, nature must self-propagate. We do not have that requirement, but if we did, let’s say we were to leave the planet, we could in likewise fashion set up a process for an item to self-reproduce, incorporate changes when required, and do so until extinction ensued. It’s just that we currently have no need to do so.

    So yes, life forms differ from our methods and results, but have the hallmarks of initial, and perhaps subsequent interventionary designs.

  • Anonymous

    I am not surprised that Bill didn’t reply to this. He honestly doesn’t seem to understand anything *about* actual ID theory beyond what he’s read on apologetics websites.

    Here’s just a smattering of what William Dembski himself has to say on the subject.

    “The fact is that we infer design repeatedly and reliably without knowing characteristics of the designer or being able to assess what a designer is likely to do.

    Our ability to recognize design must therefore arise independently of induction and therefore independently of a Humean inductive framework.

    According to Reid, we attribute design as an inference from signs of intelligence (or “marks of intelligence and wisdom in effects” as he put it). We do not get into the mind of designers and thereby attribute design. Rather, we recognize their intelligence by examining the effects of their actions and determining whether those effects display signs of intelligence.”

    And so on. You can read this for yourself at Dembski’s own website:

    http://www.designinference.com/documents/2005.11.Hume_and_Reid.pdf

    In short: Bill has no idea what he’s talking about. The whole *point* of Intelligent Design as a theory was to postulate a “designer” (wink, wink) without specifying who or what that designer is, or identifying ANY CHARACTERISTICS ABOUT THE DESIGNER itself.

    The reason for this — as I’ve specified numerous times already — is that Paul Johnson thought (wrongly) that he could evade the Supreme Court’s establishment clause jurisprudence in Edwards v. Aguillard by doing so.

    (I should footnote that Bill adds that ID theorists specify that the designer must be ‘intelligent,’ but this is of course an analytic observation — their *definition* of design is “created by an intelligent agent; see above — rather than inductive. Indeed, if you just read Dembski’s own words on the subject, he explicitly notes that we can’t use inductive reasoning to draw proper design inferences, which is of course exactly wrong. Even Bill knows this; that’s why he has to misrepresent Dembski in order to continue defending ID (!)).

    This is kind of a pointless discussion; Bill wants to believe in God, and he wants to believe that ID is a good argument, and it doesn’t really matter that there isn’t evidence for either of those things.

  • Anonymous

    “Pointless” is such a strange thing to say — it’s clear to me that Bill just doesn’t understand his own pet ID theorists.

    Remember that *my* claim — and the claim of ID critics like Isaac — is that design inferences are inductive; that is, we observe agents designing and building things, and then later, when we see similar end-state products, we infer similar design.

    Inductive reasoning is, of course, probabilistic and subject to error. So no, I’m not surprised that SETI has a false positive rate. Of course it does! It would be idiotic to expect otherwise.

    But here’s what Dembski says, on page 24 of _No Free Lunch_:

    “Alternatively, I want to argue that the complexity-specification criterion successfully avoids false positives — in other words, whenever it attributes design, it does so correctly.”

    In other words: by Dembski’s OWN ADMISSION, SETI is not a reliable design inference because in the only instance in which it attributed design, it did so *incorrectly*.

    This isn’t really hard to understand.

  • LeeBowman

    “In short: Bill has no idea what he’s talking about.”

    Do you mean Dembski, Pratt or both?

    “The whole *point* of Intelligent Design as a theory was to postulate a “designer” (wink, wink) without specifying who or what that designer is” – – “The reason for this — as I’ve specified numerous times already — is that Paul Johnson thought (wrongly) that he could evade the Supreme Court’s establishment clause jurisprudence in Edwards v. Aguillard by doing so.”

    Using ID terminology or its seminal precept [design w/o specifying who] to further religious propagation attempts is factual TO A DEGREE, but only in isolated cases. Efforts to claim this as universal to ID, are the ‘subjective’ [and dishonest] claim that if an ID proponent can be shown to be religious, we can then infer [subjectively] that their motive is religious propagation.

    Again; true in some cases. But to clarify, ID is a valid prediction IF, rather than a theory, it is defined as an adjunct hypothesis to explain taxonomic progressions, and ONLY within biology, not Cosmology. This is my view, and I predict will become more universally accepted in time.

    Now regarding Dembski’s view in the cited paper that “Reid demolished Hume”, I would say that many contemporary philosophers have questioned Hume’s various epistemological conclusions. To me, some are vague, some seemingly contradictory to what he may have stated in another place, but I am not that well versed in philosophy to pass judgment. I do know that some of the philosophical things I deduced as a teenager were later found to coincide with those of others, going back to Roman times. Thus, I conclude that humans think alike. But I digress.

    “(I should footnote that Bill adds that ID theorists specify that the designer must be ‘intelligent,’ but this is of course an analytic observation — their *definition* of design is “created by an intelligent agent; see above — rather than inductive. Indeed, if you just read Dembski’s own words on the subject, he explicitly notes that we can’t use inductive reasoning to draw proper design inferences, which is of course exactly wrong. Even Bill knows this; that’s why he has to misrepresent Dembski in order to continue defending ID (!)).

    Bill seem, rather, to be agnostic regarding the efficacy of ID, but brings it up on occasion to stimulate discussion regarding. But to home in on Bill Dembski’s view of ID in this paper, firstly, it is more of a critique of contemporary ID critics Pennock, Elsberry, Wilkins and Sober, and their insistence that any ID inference be nothing but induction, and therefore false. His reference to SETI was an admission that even though, if received by radio, intelligence could be inferred, the degree and nature of that intelligence could not be known. I assume he extends this to designs in nature.

    But back to Dembski’s central point that Humean logic was challenged successfully by Reid, I agree, and by others as well. While true that there is a subjective element in attributing biologic systems to design, design can be deduced probabilistically, i.e. that:

    there is no known natural cause that can put together functional systems, in particular where many developmental steps are required, and do it stepwise where intermediates are non-functional, and most cases detrimental to existing bodily functions.

    This is kind of a pointless discussion; Bill wants to believe in God, and he wants to believe that ID is a good argument, and it doesn’t really matter that there isn’t evidence for either of those things.

    ID merely predicts intelligent [intentioned] agency [any cause that specifies an outcome]. Intelligence merely connotes an intentionally guided source.

    Let me summarize why I feel that ID is a valid hypothesis:

    Natural causation, if shown empirically as a means of which to produce novelty, complexity, co-dependent and multi-dependent systems within biology, either refutes, or is an adjunctive function to intelligent design in bio-systems. At this point in time, I know of not one empirical demonstration where NS and genetic drift have been shown to produce the above. Adaptation yes, novelty, complexity and co-dependency no.

  • Anonymous

    Lee:

    You may have your own idiosyncratic views of what constitutes “intelligent design”; that’s great.

    However, Intelligent Design as a movement — that is, as coordinated through the political arm of the Discovery Institute for Science and Culture — is as I’ve described. You’re welcome to read the court’s opinion in _Kitzmiller v. Dover_ (and even much of the pleadings, expert reports, depositions and trial testimony; they’re all online).

    It is well documented that Intelligent Design (capital I, capital D) was undertaken as a political strategy to sneak creationism into public schools. Google “cdesign proponentists” for more.

  • http://toughquestionsanswered.com Bill Pratt

    Todd, go read my comments on the other thread, as I said above.

  • http://toughquestionsanswered.com Bill Pratt

    Andrew EC,
    You still did not answer my question. If the SETI program is seeking alien intelligence by induction, then can that method work? Can SETI find authentic alien intelligence through its methods?

  • http://toughquestionsanswered.com Bill Pratt

    “SETI is looking for messages deliberately sent out, with the express purpose of LOOKING like messages to any intelligent observers.”

    That is exactly what ID theorists are doing when examining biological life. The message is contained in biological information and the message looks like a message to intelligent observers. There is simply no difference.

    In the movie Contact, the message was a series of prime numbers, and from that series the researchers concluded that an intelligent agent was behind the message. Why can’t ID researchers look at the language of DNA and conclude the same thing?

  • Andrew Ryan

    Sorry Bil, but I already answered that question in the text you quoted from me. The messages in Contact had no other purpose apart from being messages, and could not have happened naturally. DNA has another purpose – it makes us. If it IS a message then it’s a message designed to look like something else.

    Even IF one allows that it is a subtle message, that is nothing like the messages that SETI looks for.

    You can look at a bunch of plants growing in a desert and figure they’re growing in a pattern that someone has designed as a message to you, but that’s not the same as finding a big sign set in the sand with a Fibonacci sequence painted on it.

    “The message is contained in biological information and the message looks like a message to intelligent observers.”

    It’s hardly a sign of intelligent life to design a message to look the same as something that happens naturally and does a different job.

    If one wanted to transmit a clear, unambiguous message, why not set a series of stars in the sky in clusters of primes? Or encode some primes in our DNA that served no other purpose?

  • Anonymous

    Bill: I’m sorry to have to put it this way, but you don’t appear to have the slightest idea what you’re talking about.

    For starters: I answered your question in the immediately previous comment — you know, the one to which you just replied! (?!)

    To reiterate: SETI works inductively. Those methods work because we’re familiar with certain types of messages and are restricting our search to only those things.

    Accordingly, SETI will have fairly large error bars — indeed, the only time it has “detected” a message turned out to be a false positive — a quasar.

    Similarly, SETI will also have an undocumentably large false negative rate for any and all aliens that do not fit the assumptions I outlined on my previous post.

    Those flaws don’t render SETI useless (as properly understood), but they do render it a rather poor analogy for what Intelligent Design theorists seek to do, as I’ve demonstrated with the citations to Dembski above.

    And, most importantly, it means that there can be no eliminative design inference, because design inferences are inherently inductive and therefore prone to both Type I and Type II errors.

    I’ve said this SEVEN times now, in varying stages of explanation, and Bill, you continue to ignore it. I’m sure you’ll head off to “Part 3″ of “Is Life Designed?” continuing to repeat the same falsehoods. You might want to ask yourself why this is.

  • http://toughquestionsanswered.com Bill Pratt

    “It’s hardly a sign of intelligent life to design a message to look the same as something that happens naturally and does a different job.”

    That’s the entire point of ID. Messages do not happen naturally. If we find a message, then we know it did not happen naturally. There is currently no natural explanation as to where the information in DNA originated, so when you just assume that it happens naturally, you do not have any scientific evidence to back that up. You are just making an assumption based on your worldview.

    It seems that your argument boils down to: “I can infer aliens, who I’ve never seen before, from a prime number sequence, but I cannot infer a designer from the information in DNA.” I honestly don’t understand why.

  • http://toughquestionsanswered.com Bill Pratt

    Andrew_EC,
    How can SETI work inductively? When have the SETI researchers directly experienced alien intelligence? If you say that they do not need to have experienced alien intelligence, then it is not inductive.

    Induction takes observations of particular things, and then generalizes. How can the SETI researchers inductively conclude that a particular message received from outer space is from an alien intelligence when we’ve never seen an alien intelligence? If we follow Hume’s inductive method, you can only ever conclude that something was caused by a human intelligence, because that’s the only intelligence we have past experience of.

  • Andrew Ryan

    “Messages do not happen naturally. If we find a message, then we know it did not happen naturally.”

    That’s simple tautology and question begging. Messages are things that someone sends deliberately, sure, but you need to establish that it WAS a message.

    “There is currently no natural explanation as to where the information in DNA originated, so when you just assume that it happens naturally…”

    Many problems here.

    1) What do you mean by information?

    2) Leaving aside whether the above claim is actually valid, one could equally reply that there is no explanation for how one would design and create DNA either.

    3) Worse – you’re offering a simple argument from ignorance. Countless times we’re had no CURRENT explanation for something. The whole point of science is to discover such things. There is no question in the history of the world for which one could not posit a supernatural explanation. Why is the origin of DNA any different?

    My view on SETI is that the chances of any alien messages reaching us are remote. Any apparent messages we receive are unlikely to be sent by intelligent life, and therefore would need to be considered very carefully. However, a radio message differs from an organic lifeform. We know that lifeforms can grow in complexity through reproduction, gaining in ‘information’. Radio waves undergo no such process. A radio wave with the appearance of design is therefore more compelling than a well-adapted life-form.

    Another analogy ID proponents use is archaeology. Don’t archeologists assume intelligent design? Now, when archeologists find an old pot and conclude that it was made by our ancestors and not created naturally, they are drawing on several different facts. Most importantly:

    1) We know we had ancestors
    2) We know we can create pots
    3) Therefore it does not seem impossible or even reasonable that old pots we discover were made by our ancestors.

    By contrast, we do NOT have proof of 1) any Gods or 2) Anything being created by supernatural means or 3) One lifeform creating another lifeform.

  • Andrew_EC

    Bill: I don’t know how to explain it any more clearly than I already have. I’m at a loss for your inability to understand this. I even specified how SETI works inductively on the previous thread, when I described the assumptions that SETI makes about particular alien life and the limited subset of messages it is designed to detect.

    May I humbly suggest that if you know so little about these matters, that at minimum the prudent course at this point would be to *learn* this stuff before you start touting things you don’t understand as evidence for God?

  • LeeBowman

    “You’re welcome to read the court’s opinion in _Kitzmiller v. Dover_ (and even much of the pleadings, expert reports, depositions and trial testimony; they’re all online).”

    Thank you for the info, however I’m familiar with all 139 pages of the opinion, and followed the trial day by day. I also commented extensively about the flawed decision [part two], many of which are no longer accessible online.

    But here are three. If you take the time to read through, you’ll know my position.

    http://www.iayork.com/MysteryRays/2008/12/05/judge-john-jones-interview/

    And this one, where PvM and I duke it out:

    http://scienceblogs.com/clock/2008/12/interview_with_judge_jones.php

    Then there’s this one, where I commented over the first three pages, with their rebuttals extending to page five. Essentially, I defended ID, and to some extent the Discovery Institute and a few other IDsts. But it gets old after awhile, debating with to a large degree, closed-minded evotards, most of whom expressed their views of evolutionary theory, along with criticisms of ID writ large, but with little actual merit IMO.

    http://www.pandasthumb.org/archives/2008/12/texas-op-ed-ain.html#comment-panels

  • Ggodat

    Lee, it boils down to this… all the atheists attacking this blog are convinced that all biological life is here because of biological life but cant understand the circular error. They have no explanation for why there is life and how it came to be other than, “It just is”. I find it almost pointless to discuss with them because in the name of science they deny the reasoning behind good science. Nothing can create itself and nothing that has been created (or come into existance) has existed forever and no matter, space, time has existed forever. Therefore they had to “come into existance” and we have no scientific evidence to explain how NOTHING produced something.
    Never will…

  • Andrew Ryan

    Ironically given the nature of your own accusations about other people’s beliefs, your post consists almost entirely of a string of unsupported claims.

  • Ggodat

    Ironically you have no evidence to refute my seemingly unsupported claims.

  • Andrew Ryan

    “That which is asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence”

    At any rate, there are theories for how life began, and Lawrence Krauss has a famous lecture called “A universe from nothing”. Whether you accept these explanations is irrelevant – your claim that no explanations exist is simply false.

    And even if it wasn’t, why is it any smarter to posit an eternal all-powerful supernatural entity to plug holes in our knowledge? If we’d done that a few hundred years ago we’d all still be sitting in dark huts.

  • Ggodat

    Andrew, you said:

    “That which is asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence”

    So, based on this and YOUR lack of evidence for the non-existance of a designer God, i can clearly dismiss your assertation without any evidence! Thanks, that sure makes my position easier.

    I have a theory for why man cannot travel to the moon but that doesn’t make it plausible. Anyone can have a theory but without evidence it just doesn’t matter (oh except in “science” when trying to find a way around God). Since Lawrence Krauss has no evidence to suport the “Nothingness” creating something I will again use your quote and clearly dismiss it!

    Thanks again.

  • Todd

    I don’t recall Andrew ever asserting there is a god upon which to base a lack of evidence. Just as saying there is no such thing as unicorns does not mean that unicorns might exist simply because I do not have evidence of their non-existence. I think your position has not changed. If you posit a god, designer, force, etc… you have the burden of evidence.

    So… I think we’re still safe to dismissing your claims until evidence is provided to the contrary.

  • Andrew Ryan

    Yup. I’ve made no assertions that there is no God. That would be a gnostic claim. I can be an atheist without claiming there is no God. I merely have to not believe that a God exists, which is not the same thing.

    My point remains – Ggodat made a string of claims about atheists – “They have no explanation for this” etc. These claims are simply false, as the briefest of searches show.

    “Since Lawrence Krauss has no evidence to suport the “Nothingness” creating something I will again use your quote and clearly dismiss it!”

    Great. Except he does have evidence, as you’d know if you’d bothered to watch the lecture, which again is very easy to find online. You’re free to disagree with him, but it’s simply false to claim that he has no evidence.

  • http://toughquestionsanswered.com Bill Pratt

    Andrew,
    Induction works on our past experience, but you claim that we can inductively conclude that aliens exist by examining messages sent from space. We have no past experience of aliens communicating to us, so how does the process of induction work in this case?

    Your response, as you said, was in your other comment where you mentioned characteristics of human intelligence that you think can be inductively applied to alien intelligence, but there was a hitch.

    When you described the type of intelligent being that SETI was searching for, based on past experiences of human intelligence, your description could also be applied to the Christian God. You never disputed this.

    It seems to me then, if SETI can inductively conclude that aliens exist, then SETI can inductively conclude that God exists. You have failed, thus far, to make a case that SETI can conclude the existence of aliens, but not God.

    I am very curious to see if you can actually make this distinction.

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