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Whitehead - Process And Reality


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What did A. N. Whitehead really say and why would Progressive Christians care? Let me begin by saying that Process and Reality is a very difficult read. It contains ideas that some Progressive Christians might not be willing to embrace. Others find it compelling. So what was Whitehead talking about?

 

First, Whitehead was not comfortable with the notion that everthing can be explained by the laws of physics. Nor was he satisfied with Kant's view that rationality is our highest cognitive achievement. Instead, Whitehead elevated the laws of nature (biology) to the level of the laws of physics or rationality. His main question is why would we have a concern for the world in general and, more importantly, for other living beings? In Process and Reality, Whithead refers to his system as "The Philosophy of Organism".

 

Second, according to Whitehead, there is nothing in the world other than 'actual entities'; trees, rocks, and living beings. This then leads to Whitehead's claim that God must be an 'actual entity' and in the world, not outside it. Thus a reverence for God dictates a reverance for the world and a reverance for life.

 

Third, Whitehead rejects mind-body dualism. Both are part of nature and subject to the laws of nature. This means that both mind and body are enabled by and constrained by the laws of nature.

 

Fourth, Whitehead agrees with Kant that the mind constructs reality. He disagrees with Kant on the direction in which this construction takes place. Kant believes that mind presuposes consciousness and builds his theory in a top-down manner. Whitehead inverts Kant and shows how the mind constructs reality from the bottom up. For Whitehead then, consciousness presupposes experience. Consciousness emerges out of experience and biological processes.

 

Fifth, because the mind is always constructing a model of the world, from the bottom up, he askes what is the basic element of experience? The basic element of experience is a 'prehension' or "drops of emotion". What emotion? Empathy. As Whitehead states in Process and Reality, his theory replaces Kant's Critique of Pure Reason with a Critique of Pure Feeling.

 

Finally, the highest constructed output of mind is the 'subject', he calls this the 'subject-superject'. This output is constantly changing, building, growing. Thus "I am who I am becoming" or "I feel, therfore I am". In Kant's view, beings understand each other as rational beings seeing eye-to-eye. Object to object. For Whitehead, it's the other way around. It is two relational subject-superjects linked by empathy. Subject to subject. Reality is intersubjective.

 

Myron

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Hi Myron,

 

About 25 years ago I took a class on Whitehead's Process and Reality (P&R). We used A Key to Whitehead's Process and Reality, edited by Donald W. Sherburne (1966, U. of Chicago Press). In that class, I wrote a paper incorporating some process ideas with liberation theology. In the paper I cited two liberation theologians, Schubert Ogden and Delwin Brown. Maybe looking at some of their publications would help to see the relationship between progressives and process folks.

 

I get a somewhat different slant on P&R than what you have described. In that regard, I would recommend taking a look at God, Christ, Church by Marjorie Suchocki (1986, Crossroad). What I remember is that Whitehead concentrates on the process that takes place (he calls it concrescence) in going from one actual entity to the next. My further recollection is that Whitehead describes God as a "lure toward novelty" in each and every process. What I brought away from that is the idea that God is in everything all the time. Some folks call that "panentheism," but I'm not sure whether that is a process term or a later addition.

 

Somehow, I think I get from there to what you have said about prehension and empathy. for me, this means that what ever happens to anyone else affects all of us. Kind of like Donne's "No man [sic] is an island..." quote that Hemingway used in For Whom the Bell Tolls.

 

Don

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Hi Myron,

 

Thanks so much for starting this thread. My own thoughts, embryonic as they were, had been drifting to process philosophy before I really knew anything about process philosophy. It's still quite new to me, I haven't actually studied Whitehead directly as of yet.

 

I appreciate the way you have explained these basic points. The issues they deal with are obviously of immense importance in that they will, one way or another, shape what we think of the nature of reality - like, whether we think reality is alive or merely dead Cartesian matter. The move in our collective Western sensibilities from 'alive' to 'dead' has been, I think, the single biggest break in continuity between the modern world and the world of our ancestors. Whitehead seems to be one potential way of bridging that gap.

 

 

'Inter-subjectivity' here seems very important as it moves away from the confusing metaphysical expectation of pure objectivity. If there truly are subjects, then there is no such thing as a purely objective reality. As David Griffin writes,

 

'...objectivity in this epistemic sense must be kept distinct from objectivity in the ontological sense (according to which all truly existing and effective things are devoid of subjectivity, in the sense of awareness, purpose, and point of view)...

'...If the world truly contains subjectivity...then a theory that is truly objective in the epistemic sense cannot be wholly objective in the ontological sense.' (Unsnarling the World-Knot 26,27)

 

Fourth, Whitehead agrees with Kant that the mind constructs reality. He disagrees with Kant on the direction in which this construction takes place. Kant believes that mind presuposes consciousness and builds his theory in a top-down manner. Whitehead inverts Kant and shows how the mind constructs reality from the bottom up. For Whitehead then, consciousness presupposes experience. Consciousness emerges out of experience and biological processes.

 

Fifth, because the mind is always constructing a model of the world, from the bottom up, he askes what is the basic element of experience? The basic element of experience is a 'prehension' or "drops of emotion". What emotion? Empathy. As Whitehead states in Process and Reality, his theory replaces Kant's Critique of Pure Reason with a Critique of Pure Feeling.

 

Thanks for this clarification. Kant's philosophy, it seems to me, really does need inverting, as I think its dualistic pretenses (the idea that the mind 'mediates' a noumenal reality to which it only has indirect access to) are misguided.

 

Second, according to Whitehead, there is nothing in the world other than 'actual entities'; trees, rocks, and living beings. This then leads to Whitehead's claim that God must be an 'actual entity' and in the world, not outside it. Thus a reverence for God dictates a reverance for the world and a reverance for life.

 

I don't at this point have much of an understanding of just how God is defined by Whitehead. 'Actual entities' has consonance with Dogen. I'm not sure I can agree with God as 'actual entity' 'in the world', at least what that image conjures to me. Granted, for me 'in the world' is better than outside it. If Whitehead's theism involves seeing God as embodied in the universe, I think I can get on board with that.

 

Peace,

Mike

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Hi Myron,

 

About 25 years ago I took a class on Whitehead's Process and Reality (P&R). We used A Key to Whitehead's Process and Reality, edited by Donald W. Sherburne (1966, U. of Chicago Press). In that class, I wrote a paper incorporating some process ideas with liberation theology. In the paper I cited two liberation theologians, Schubert Ogden and Delwin Brown. Maybe looking at some of their publications would help to see the relationship between progressives and process folks.

 

I get a somewhat different slant on P&R than what you have described. In that regard, I would recommend taking a look at God, Christ, Church by Marjorie Suchocki (1986, Crossroad). What I remember is that Whitehead concentrates on the process that takes place (he calls it concrescence) in going from one actual entity to the next. My further recollection is that Whitehead describes God as a "lure toward novelty" in each and every process. What I brought away from that is the idea that God is in everything all the time. Some folks call that "panentheism," but I'm not sure whether that is a process term or a later addition.

 

Somehow, I think I get from there to what you have said about prehension and empathy. for me, this means that what ever happens to anyone else affects all of us. Kind of like Donne's "No man [sic] is an island..." quote that Hemingway used in For Whom the Bell Tolls.

 

Don

 

grampawombat,

 

Thank you for the connection to Liberation Theology. This summary is from Wikipedia:

 

C. Robert Mesle, in his book Process Theology, outlines three aspects of a process theology of liberation:[4]

 

1.There is a relational character to the divine which allows God to experience both the joy and suffering of humanity. God suffers just as those who experience oppression and God seeks to actualize all positive and beautiful potentials. God must, therefore, be in solidarity with the oppressed and must also work for their liberation.

 

2.God is not omnipotent in the classical sense and so God does not provide support for the status quo, but rather seeks the actualization of greater good.

 

3.God exercises relational power and not unilateral control. In this way God cannot instantly end evil and oppression in the world. God works in relational ways to help guide persons to liberation.

 

Having read Process and Reality (more than once, the work is very dense), these three points connect directly to Whithead. Initially, I had no idea what Whitehead was up to, it took time to sink in. My research focus is on how these various strains of thought overlap each other.

 

Do these points seem valid to you? My own understanding of Liberation Theology is somewhat limited.

 

My view of Whitehead is that the "the lure toward novelty" is his term for adaptation (a process). Whitehead states that no organism can exceed the limits placed on it by its environment. Some of those limits are human social constructions. So I can see how we need to remove some of these if they are limiting in a negative sense. The 'concrescence' (ever changing) of the individual is thus given a wider range of "becoming", which means a wider range of development?

 

Whithead's view is sometimes labeled "pantheism". I'm still working on that and have suspended judgment for now. At this time I feel that "pantheism" does not quite capture what Whitehead was driving at.

 

Myron

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Second, according to Whitehead, there is nothing in the world other than 'actual entities'; trees, rocks, and living beings.

This struck me as odd. I am going to throw a quote at it. I apologize but I don't have time right now. I have provided a link of interest.

 

From The Center for Process Studies: A Perspective from Process Theology.

 


  •  
  • All reality is energy, being composed of a complex combination of energy events. There is no such thing as spiritual matter versus physical matter. God and our spirits are energy events, just as is everything else.
  • The building blocks of the universe are bursts of energy, each coming into being and fading away in a split second. Whitehead calls them energy events or actual occasions of experience.
    • Each energy event has a physical pole and a mental pole.
      • The physical pole is that aspect of it which is purely a repeat of past energy events.
      • The mental pole is an element of subjectivity and, therefore, of limited but genuine freedom that enables the energy event, in the process of becoming, to have some determination over the shape it will take, and to receive new possibilities from God, the initial aim.

      [*]Rock, water, flesh, air, are all incredibly complex combinations of these energy events (societies of occasions).

      [*]God and our spirits or souls are each a series of these energy events that are highly developed in complexity, especially in regard to the mental pole.

 

I am concerned with Whitehead's belief in absolutes - later

 

Dutch

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This struck me as odd. I am going to throw a quote at it. I apologize but I don't have time right now. I have provided a link of interest.

 

From The Center for Process Studies: A Perspective from Process Theology.

 


  •  
  • All reality is energy, being composed of a complex combination of energy events. There is no such thing as spiritual matter versus physical matter. God and our spirits are energy events, just as is everything else.
  • The building blocks of the universe are bursts of energy, each coming into being and fading away in a split second. Whitehead calls them energy events or actual occasions of experience.
    • Each energy event has a physical pole and a mental pole.
      • The physical pole is that aspect of it which is purely a repeat of past energy events.
      • The mental pole is an element of subjectivity and, therefore, of limited but genuine freedom that enables the energy event, in the process of becoming, to have some determination over the shape it will take, and to receive new possibilities from God, the initial aim.

      [*]Rock, water, flesh, air, are all incredibly complex combinations of these energy events (societies of occasions).

      [*]God and our spirits or souls are each a series of these energy events that are highly developed in complexity, especially in regard to the mental pole.

 

I am concerned with Whitehead's belief in absolutes - later

 

Dutch

 

Dutch,

 

Whitehead wrote Process and Reality in a time when physics was attempting to define "matter" in terms of "energy". The attempt failed because it was "inconvenient" to revise all of the mathematics. Another "inconvenient truth".

 

Myron

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Whitehead wrote Process and Reality in a time when physics was attempting to define "matter" in terms of "energy". The attempt failed because it was "inconvenient" to revise all of the mathematics. Another "inconvenient truth".

I am not sure what you mean.

Dutch

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I am not sure what you mean.

Dutch

 

Dutch,

 

The concept of "energy" was new to physics at the time. Some physicists argued that the laws of physics could be better defined by the laws of energy rather than matter. The "status quo" of dominant personalities said "yes, you're right" but it is too inconvenient to rewrite all of our mathematical formulas in this new language ... so, we'll just keep what we have.

 

There was also a lot of generalization concerning the Third Law of Thermodynamics ... the Omega Point.

 

Myron

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The concept of "energy" was new to physics at the time. Some physicists argued that the laws of physics could be better defined by the laws of energy rather than matter. The "status quo" of dominant personalities said "yes, you're right" but it is too inconvenient to rewrite all of our mathematical formulas in this new language ... so, we'll just keep what we have.

Did whitehead go for objects or for energies?

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would it up this discussion to have an online resource we could refer to?

 

Dutch,

 

I'll see what I can do. I use the book Process and Reality and usually quote from it when I have time. Otherwise I use the Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy. But, before that, here is something to consider:

 

This belief in a final order, popular in religious and philosophic thought, seems to be due to the prevalent fallacy that all types of seriality necessarily involve terminal instances (Whitehead, 1929, p. 111).

 

Whitehead rejects any generalization from the Third Law of Thermodynamics. The process of biological adaptation (evolution) is to maintain order in the presence of disorder. Long before an organism reached the Third Law of Thermodynamics it would be dead due to the absence of energy.

 

Myron

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Hi Myron,

 

Thanks so much for starting this thread. My own thoughts, embryonic as they were, had been drifting to process philosophy before I really knew anything about process philosophy. It's still quite new to me, I haven't actually studied Whitehead directly as of yet.

 

I appreciate the way you have explained these basic points. The issues they deal with are obviously of immense importance in that they will, one way or another, shape what we think of the nature of reality - like, whether we think reality is alive or merely dead Cartesian matter. The move in our collective Western sensibilities from 'alive' to 'dead' has been, I think, the single biggest break in continuity between the modern world and the world of our ancestors. Whitehead seems to be one potential way of bridging that gap.

 

 

'Inter-subjectivity' here seems very important as it moves away from the confusing metaphysical expectation of pure objectivity. If there truly are subjects, then there is no such thing as a purely objective reality. As David Griffin writes,

 

'...objectivity in this epistemic sense must be kept distinct from objectivity in the ontological sense (according to which all truly existing and effective things are devoid of subjectivity, in the sense of awareness, purpose, and point of view)...

'...If the world truly contains subjectivity...then a theory that is truly objective in the epistemic sense cannot be wholly objective in the ontological sense.' (Unsnarling the World-Knot 26,27)

 

 

 

Thanks for this clarification. Kant's philosophy, it seems to me, really does need inverting, as I think its dualistic pretenses (the idea that the mind 'mediates' a noumenal reality to which it only has indirect access to) are misguided.

 

 

 

I don't at this point have much of an understanding of just how God is defined by Whitehead. 'Actual entities' has consonance with Dogen. I'm not sure I can agree with God as 'actual entity' 'in the world', at least what that image conjures to me. Granted, for me 'in the world' is better than outside it. If Whitehead's theism involves seeing God as embodied in the universe, I think I can get on board with that.

 

Peace,

Mike

 

Mike,

 

Whitehead's theism does involve God as embodied "in the universe". It is the basic assumption of his theory.

 

Myron

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Dutch,

 

Thank you for the resources. I'll be reading John Cobb, Jr. today. What I see so far makes sense to me, but my interpretation of Whitehead is a bit different. I would add at this point an observation made by Jung. Theory often correlates with the personality of the theorist. Whitehead was a very kind and empathetic individual. He never gave his students anything less than an A- becouse he did not want to inhibit their creativity. Given the large number of examples Jung discusses in Psychological Types, I think he has a point.

 

It is also true that Whitehead said his theory was influenced by "certain" Chinese and Indian philosophy, but as far as I know he never said which ones. He does mention Buddhism in Process and Reality without fully accepting it. I sometimes get the feeling that he was attempting to integrate Eastern and Western philosophy. Just a feeling.

 

Myron

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Here is more background to Process and Reality.

 

Whitehead's Philosophy of Organism is a form of naturalism. Early forms of naturalism are found in Spinoza and Aristotle. Whitehead is clear that he draws from both.

 

Where Whitehead states that his is a "cell theory of acuality" he means that his theory begins with the organization of a living cell. Cell Theory is a cornerstone of biology. Cell Theory is:

 

Definition: The Cell Theory is one of the basic principles of biology. Credit for the formulation of this theory is given to german scientists Theodor Schwann, Matthias Schleiden, and Rudolph Virchow.

 

Cell Theory assumes:

 

•All living organisms are composed of cells. They may be unicellular or multicellular.

•The cell is the basic unit of life.

•Cells arise from pre-existing cells.

 

The modern version of the Cell Theory includes the ideas that:

 

Energy flow occurs within cells.

•Heredity information (DNA) is passed on from cell to cell.

•All cells have the same basic chemical composition.

 

In Process and Reality Whitehad is concerned with the processes of energy flow at various levels ("societies") of organization, beginning with a living cell, to the organization of the human body, to the organization of the mind, to societies of living beings, and finally to the universe.

 

Whitehead switches back and forth from Cell Theory to Atomic Theory, including Quantum Mechanics. In Atomic Theory, the structure is the same, from atom to molecule and so on. This is why I said in the opening post that Whitehead elevated the importance of biology to the level of physics.

 

The question is whether Cell Theory can be reduced to Atomic Theory and I think Whitehead says "no". At some point in the organization of matter-energy the concept of "adaptation" enters the picture. Adaptation is the hallmark of a living cell and this principle extends to all "living beings". In "higher grade organisms" the principle of adaptation becomes a conscious process involving "decision" or "choice" - and from that to "responsibility". A "concern for the world".

 

Myron

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Minsocal,

 

Would inspiration & revelation fit into Whitehead as other emergent effects related to consciousness?

 

Nick,

 

Yes, and I think Whitehad would agree with the following distinction between insiration and aspiration:

 

Inspiration is the process of being mentally stimulated to do or feel something.

 

Aspiration is, a hope or ambition of achieving something, a goal.

 

Since Whitehead's theory is "bottom-up" concerning mental processes, he is saying that inspiration precedes aspiration. This I think is a weakness in the theory. Kant (in different Critiques) saw it as either a "bottom-up" or "top-down" process. Jung recognized this in Kant and formulated his theory on both. This is the theory of Introversion and Extraversion. His goal was "to do justice" to both types.

 

Given the fact that the human brain has rich two-way connections between the emotional-intuitive centers of the brain and and the reasoning centers, we might be better off seeing it as a reciprocal process, IMO.

 

Myron

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Thanks for that explanation.

So, revelation, defined (here at least) as God's revealing of Godself to humanity in some way, would be problematic for Whitehead because it is not a reciprocal process? Sorry for the questions, and their tone. I'm trying to figure out how to bring Whitehead into dialogue with Reformed theology. I don't accept they're fundamentally incompatible (very few intellectual stances are), but I also want to take the disagreements as seriously as I can.

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Thanks for that explanation.

So, revelation, defined (here at least) as God's revealing of Godself to humanity in some way, would be problematic for Whitehead because it is not a reciprocal process? Sorry for the questions, and their tone. I'm trying to figure out how to bring Whitehead into dialogue with Reformed theology. I don't acc "ept they're fundamentally incompatible (very few intellectual stances are), but I also want to take the disagreements as seriously as I can.

 

I think this is what Whitehead was hoping to achieve in his Consequent Nature of God. What gets confusing is where he switches between theory of mind and cosmology. In his cosmology he finds something like a reciprocal relationship between God and Nature.

 

He does say that "in each acuality there are two concrescent poles of realization - 'enjoyment' and 'appetition,' that is, the 'physical' and the 'conceptual.' For God the conceptual is prior to the physical, for the World the physical poles are prior to the conceptual poles (Pr, 348)."

 

One God with a 'physical' and a 'mental' pole and multiple organisms in nature sharing the same configuration.

 

I'm enjoying this exchange, so don't worry about tone.

 

Myron

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I have a preference for Jung's approach to psychology because it requires a stance that "does justice to" or "honors" both similarity and difference. I find myself gravitating more and more in the direction of Jung as time goes by. There is a more general notion to be found in both Jung and Whitehead which is found in the overlap of Whitehead's Ideal Opposites and Jung's Archetypal Ground Themes. More to come on that as the thread progresses, I hope.

 

Myron

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Myron wrote: "Given the fact that the human brain has rich two-way connections between the emotional-intuitive centers of the brain and and the reasoning centers, we might be better off seeing it as a reciprocal process, IMO."

 

Findings in areas of biolgical and cognition psych seem to support this.

Studies involving people who because damage to nerves critical to coordinating emotions with physical symptoms associated with those emotions were tested for risk-taking decisions and behaviors. The initial hypothesis anticipated that lacking normal emotional responses, reason would prevail and they would use critical thinking to choose the least risky options. The surprise results were quite the opposite, they were more careless about choosing riskier options than average normal people.

Eventually, the reason for this seems to be that without emotions such as fear and dread, or concern for social rejection, negative outcomes aren't as 'scary' as they are to most of us.

 

Jenell

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Myron wrote: "Given the fact that the human brain has rich two-way connections between the emotional-intuitive centers of the brain and and the reasoning centers, we might be better off seeing it as a reciprocal process, IMO."

 

Findings in areas of biolgical and cognition psych seem to support this.

Studies involving people who because damage to nerves critical to coordinating emotions with physical symptoms associated with those emotions were tested for risk-taking decisions and behaviors. The initial hypothesis anticipated that lacking normal emotional responses, reason would prevail and they would use critical thinking to choose the least risky options. The surprise results were quite the opposite, they were more careless about choosing riskier options than average normal people.

Eventually, the reason for this seems to be that without emotions such as fear and dread, or concern for social rejection, negative outcomes aren't as 'scary' as they are to most of us.

 

Jenell

 

Jenell,

 

Good points. Emotion has two important components, quality and quantity. We all know the various kinds of emotion we feel from minute to minute and that they vary in intensity over time. Whitehead (and Jung) used an energy model of mind to account for the scalar component of emotion. Energy is scalar.

 

The key to understanding Whitehead is that emotion-intuitive processes are preconsconscious. They sometimes seem to "come from nowhere." In other words, the emotion processing center is constantly making positive and negative valuations. In the case of a strong fear reaction, the field of consciousness narrows and attention if focused on the 'object' of the fear. This makes sense from a survival standpoint.

 

We might then think that Whitehead places his emphasis on the positive quality-quantity of emotion. The opposite is true. He places greater emphasis on a 'negative prehension' rather than a 'positive prehension'. The question is why? By 'negative prehension' Whitehead means that preconscious processes dismiss feelings that are not relevant, too vague, etc. In some cases, what is "dismissed" are feelings that may be too intense to handle based on prior experience.

 

In the case of PTSD, the inhibitory process breaks down and a person relives a traumatic experience over and over. I can attest to this, having battled PTSD twice in my lifetime. In the thread on Evolutionary Chrisianity I stated that recovery from trauma often leads one down a spiritual path. This is true. My first experience with PTSD left me nearly void of emotion while the second brought me back to Progressive Christianity and this board.

 

Myron

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I was surprised to see he used terms like "eternal objects" because, well, they are objects not occasions. I found here a discussion of the "disappearance" of 'eternal objects'. I understood a little of it. The conclusion was either simple or profound or both: "something matters."

 

On Value and Values in later Whitehead(Or – Where did all the eternal objects go?)Michael Halewood – University of Essex.

copied from Evolutionary Christianity thread

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