• Count Timothy von Icarus
    2.1k
    In his "An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding," Locke makes an argument against the "innate ideas" of the rationalists. He is essentially trying to rebut the claim that all people have, by nature, certain ideas (e.g., an understanding of the principle of non-contradiction).

    Locke's Arguments Against Innate Ideas:

    He makes two arguments in this respect, and we'll focus on the second.

    The first is that, even if everyone agreed to some proposition, this wouldn't demonstrate that knowledge of it was innate. It is possible that everyone comes to carry the same belief because they have all been exposed to the same experiences.

    Note here how Locke's metaphysical assumptions are already in play here. For a thing to have "innate" properties is for it to have them "in-itself." (I think this is a bad metaphysical assumptions and I have a little thought experiment I call Laplace's Printer to show why he, and the essentialist view of causation inspired by Kripke, have some problems. I'll share it some time.)

    The second argument is that it does not seem to be the case that there are any beliefs that everyone will affirm. To be sure, most people will agree to the principle of non-contradiction, but what happens when you ask a child or someone with intellectual disabilities? Young children might be able to speak and to affirm some beliefs, e.g. "the ball is red," but ask them "can a thing both be and not be in the same way, at the same time," and you're liable to get a blank stare or random "yes" or "no."

    Now Locke is often presented as the modern Aristotle, as set against the Plato of the rationalists. However, here he differs from Aristotle quite a bit. For Locke, it seems like we largely display our rationality through affirming propositions. For Aristotle, our actions are also an embodiment of our rationality, and so we might say that even babies show they understand some seemingly "innate" ideas. But the other big difference is the role of potency in Aristotle. Aristotle would say: "of course we have innate ideas. But they are only there as potency, and then experience helps us reach first and second actuality."

    Locke is ready for this. He points out that all possible human knowledge would appear to be innate in terms of potency. If the rationalist tries to make the criteria for what counts as "innate" ideas rely on potency, he seems to be making the standard too weak, letting everything in.

    My Response:

    I will mostly deal with the second argument since the issues with first one would be better dealt with as its own thread. Suffice to say, I don't think it makes sense to speak of "innate" human qualities as somehow being those qualities that rely on "no context at all." Human beings never exist outside a context. Indeed, they can only survive in a quite narrow range of environments. If the type of enviornment that allows a human being to survive (or perhaps "develop normally") is of the type that it always produces certain ideas, then it would seem fair to call those ideas innate. That is, if any context that produces a healthy human adult also produces x idea in that adult, then x idea is innate.

    This gets to my problem with the second argument and its focus on children. Acorns, which are immature oak trees, don't have leaves. Yet surely leaves are an "innate property of oaks," no? Likewise, butterflies lack wings while they are still caterpillars. Yet surely the species has wings as an innate trait. It seems fair to me to say, "if all mature, healthy members of y possess x, then x is innate." To be sure, some humans lack hands, but having hands is an innate human trait. Embryos though, don't yet have hands.

    Now it seems that these innate features should be present in the immature form as potency. However, Locke has a counter for the potency argument. Or does he?

    Here, I think we need to bring in the idea of telos (which comes from form). There are many cases where, if an organism develops naturally (fulfills its telos), it is its nature to have certain properties. This sort of potential is special. The potential of a flax seed to sprout and grow into a plant seems to be of a different sort than its potential to be turned into flax bread.

    It is certainly true that, if you mess with the environment of any developing animal enough, you can cause it to develop in a way completely unlike natural development. E.g., it is possible to get embryos to end up producing almost nothing but liver cells, since cell differentiation is driven by feedback and signaling between the cells of an organism early in development (i.e. determined by the "enviornment" from the standpoint of individual cells, since each cell is part of the enviornment for all other cells).

    However, recall that Locke's project here is really a sort of philosophical anthropology tied to epistemology. If we're talking about the "innate properties of human beings" we have speak to something that can reasonably be called a human being, as opposed to say, "a mass of liver tissue." Organisms' potential to develop into the mature form of the organism is special in terms of potential. It differs from their ability to be heated, dissolved, etc. This seems like it has to be the case if we're to speak meaningfully about the properties belonging to organisms at all. If we just speak in terms of the potential related to the matter that makes up an organism, then it seems like we should be able to say something like "any animal has the potential to become any other animal." After all, if you rearrange all the constituent matter in a cat's body "just so," it seems you should be able to make a mouse or two (more realistically, matter is recycled through ecosystems in this way). Yet clearly caterpillars have the potential for wings in a way cats do not. To say otherwise in an appeal to reduction seems to bring up a host of issues. And where is this difference in potential located? If would seem to be in the form as best I can tell.

    So anyhow, I think Locke's arguments fail, even though I am not big on "innate" or "a priori" ideas myself. But in particular, I think they fail in a way that demonstrates how telos is still mighty helpful for any sort of anthropology, or even biology.
  • frank
    14.7k
    So anyhow, I think Locke's arguments fail, even though I am not big on "innate" or "a priori" ideas myself. But in particular, I think they fail in a way that demonstrates how telos is still mighty helpful for any sort of anthropology, or even biology.Count Timothy von Icarus

    Leibniz envisioned innate concepts as latent, being brought into being through a developmental path. The kneecap is an example of that. A baby is born with the seed of it, but it won't develop until the stress of walking activates it to grow. Subsequently, the adult won't be able to walk without it.

    Two other arguments for innateness are Chomsky's assessment of the timing of language acquisition and Quine's argument about the innateness of the ability to apply rules to new situations.
  • Manuel
    4k


    Fascinating discussion, I never did get around to starting a thread on Locke's "Essay", it is a wonderful book, perhaps my favorite one out of all the classics on the whole (Descartes through Kant).

    Right now, I can't comment much on your reply other than saying that I agree that Locke is wrong here, and furthermore no rationalist (that I know of) argues for the kind of innateness Locke is arguing against.

    But it is important to note, though Locke may want to downplay this, that Locke does believe in innateness. Just not those called "innate ideas".

    As he says:

    "Nature, I confess, has put into Man a desire of Happiness, and an aversion to Misery: These indeed are innate practical Principles, which (as practical Principles ought) do continue constantly to operate and influence all our Actions, without ceasing: These may be observ'd in all Persons and all Ages, steady and universal; but these are Inclinations of the Appetite to good, not Impressions of truth on the Understanding.I deny not, that there are natural tendencies imprinted on the Minds of Men; and that, from the very first instances of Sense and Perception, there are some things, that are grateful, and others unwelcome to them; some things that they incline to, and others that they fly: But this makes nothing for innate Characters on the Mind, which are to be the Principles of Knowledge, regulating our Practice."

    Bold added.

    (Book 1. Chapter III. 3rd paragraph)

    This part is frequently overlooked.
  • Count Timothy von Icarus
    2.1k


    :up: good examples.

    I guess if I had to sum up I'd say the issue is that describing organisms traits seems to require speaking to an additional sort of potency over and above the potency that exists in "all matter." I would tend to trace this to form not just because Aristotle does, but because form seems to explain how it is that matter within an ecosystem can be transformed into different organisms.

    Basically, yes, it's true that the matter in a bunch of wild boar can be transformed into a leopard, so there is that potential there. However, the way this happens always involves matter in the form of leopards. It involves leopards eating the boar, incorporating their matter into their own bodies, and then mating, which bequeaths their form.

    I don't want to get into the weeds on how this works at a fine grained scale, but Terrance Deacon's "Incomplete Nature," is one really great attempt at recovering formal cause (and thus telos) through thermodynamic processes, even if it might not get all the way there. I lean towards more of a process metaphysics, so I would tend to think of form more as morphisms between processes rather than arrangements of building blocks, which also gets around the reductive duplication of causes that was supposed to make formal cause obsolete in the first place.



    Yeah, that is quite right. This innateness becomes key when it gets to defining freedom for Locke. D.C. Schindler identifies Locke as an exemplar of the shift in the conception of freedom from the classic/medieval focus on freedom as the ability to do the good (actuality) to freedom as the ability to do anything (potency). Locke needs innate preferences here because if you have freedom as just potency and no inclinations to guide that potency you end up with moral nihilism.

    The Enquiry has a lot of gems, it's just sprawling (something he said himself). I really like Locke's reasoning and enjoy him, which is funny because I think he is wrong on a great many things, and wrong in an unfortunately influential way (mostly metaphysics). He's definitely my favorite British guy of that era. Hume sort of drives me nuts because I think he begs the question a lot (not in trivial ways, but it still bugs me). His definition of miracles would be one example of that.
  • Manuel
    4k



    I also agree with you about that on Locke getting several things wrong. As for Hume, I like him at his best, which for me include his arguments on causality and the continued existence of external objects, in these sections, he is dreadful and provides some extremely strong arguments which we are still dealing with to this day.

    Also, and it may sound kind of vulgar to say so, I think Chomsky is right here when he speaks about Locke and Hume (and others): they are not idiots. Meaning, no one of any sound mind could possibly deny the mind plays absolutely no role in structuring experience, because doing so is idiotic, it too evident that we have some innate stuff, how much of it should be considered innate and what it covers is what should be debated, not innateness per se.

    So Locke may dislike innate ideas (of a very particular sort, again, Descartes does not argue that innate ideas arise the way Locke describes them), because they look lazy to him and have an appeal to authority he does not like. But he cannot possibly deny innateness completely, as evidenced by that quote I shared, or indeed, his famous discussion on personal identity, which is an innatist argument.
  • ENOAH
    637
    Your post is fascinating and compelled me. I am inspired by it to read Locke, beyond my stumbling through Anthologies. Thanks for that.

    My comments are likely unorthodox and perhaps of no interest. I don't need to pursue them. But I reiterate my interest in reading on.


    Yet surely leaves are an "innate property of oaks," no?Count Timothy von Icarus

    Is it not more simple to recognize this is a problem which only exists in our constructions and applications of the meaning we're trying to discern? Leaves are innate to oaks. That seems to be nothing but innate. However, innate could mean something like the extremely habituated construction, so habituated it seems innate.


    See directly below,
    we might say that even babies show they understand some seemingly "innate" ideas.Count Timothy von Icarus
    Here's a place where we can see that what seems innate is just what fits the pre-fab construction. Babies may show they are aware-ing their natural environment. A smile triggers a smile naturally. That response is innate. There is no understanding using concept/idea. There is no idea. But as for once babies start understanding idea, my guess would be they have already assimilated very basic constructions. That is understanding.


    If the type of enviornment that allows a human being to survive (or perhaps "develop normally") is of the type that it always produces certain ideas, then it would seem fair to call those ideas innate.Count Timothy von Icarus

    I am not learned on Locke. But you have definitely inspired me. So far, I agree with Locke.

    In our current environment we cannot escape ideas, aware-ing has been displaced by Mind and its constructions. So you might as well call it innate.

    But homo sapiens had to exist in our organic condition in evolution but before Mind had "overtaken" it with ideas. There, the truly innate would have been front and center. No preoccupation with idea: everything innate.

    Now it's ideas all the way down. But I say Locke is right. They're ideas; thus not innate.

    And I don't know if my understanding of innate, as in aware-ing independent of Mind, is reflected as Aristotle's "potency" and his stages of "actuality" being the constructions-then-projections of Mind, but that too is fascinating.
  • Wayfarer
    21.1k
    Agree with you. If you re-frame the innate ideas as innate capacities then much of the problem goes away. Humans may not be born with an innate grasp of the LEM but they are born with the capacity to grasp it, which is brought forth by education. Same for language which humans uniquely possess. The fact that some humans are mute or disabled doesn’t vitiate that.

    I think what the empiricists such as Locke took issue with are universals which were supposed by scholastic philosophy to be grasped by reason which is unique to man and in some sense innate to the soul. But even if humans do uniquely possess that capacity to reason it must be brought to fruition by education (the root word of which means ‘to bring forth’). But aside from that, it’s obvious that individuals are born with innate capacities, if not fully-formed ideas, then at least the ability to produce them. Look at child musical prodigies, for heaven’s sake. Or math prodigies like Terry Tao. Plainly something innate there the lack of which no amount of ‘experience’ will substitute for. (Maybe the slave boy in the Meno was one such, and Socrates got lucky!)

    And besides all that, Kant clearly demonstrated the shortcoming of Locke’s ‘tabula rasa’ in his reply to Hume.
  • fdrake
    6k
    Can you give a page reference please @Count Timothy von Icarus?
  • Wayfarer
    21.1k
    Incidentally I happened upon a good definition of teleology in a video by neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett, which defines it as 'an explanation of phenomena in terms of the purpose which they serve rather than the cause by which they arise.'
  • frank
    14.7k
    I guess if I had to sum up I'd say the issue is that describing organisms traits seems to require speaking to an additional sort of potency over and above the potency that exists in "all matter." I would tend to trace this to form not just because Aristotle does, but because form seems to explain how it is that matter within an ecosystem can be transformed into different organisms.Count Timothy von Icarus

    Potential is a concept that's long fascinated me. If you hold a penny above a vat of oil, then drop it, it will proceed at a relatively slow speed down through the oil to the bottom. If you hold the penny above an empty tank, then drop it, it will drop more quickly. In each case, the potential was the same. In other words, we conceive potential as a product of resistance and kinetic manifestation. So it's not something that exists in matter, per se. At the very least, it's a component of how we analyze events, so yes, form is definitely the basis, but more the whole form of a situation. Any given situation can give rise to many events depending on the resistance that's supplied.

    So an acorn has the potential to grow into a tree. It also has the potential to become a squirrel's lunch, or a bead on a necklace. If it sprouts, there are many trees it could become, depending on the weather, and such. So potential connects one moment in time to a multitude of possibilities, each shaped by circumstances. Sorry, I did say I was fascinated by it. :razz:
  • Count Timothy von Icarus
    2.1k


    Unfortunately, I don't really recall. I want to say it's mostly Book II, maybe a bit in Book I. I recall the part about rebutting the potency argument best from a lecture. I am pretty sure it's in there, but it might have been in responses to later rationalist critiques of his program.
  • Leontiskos
    1.6k
    In his "An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding," Locke makes an argument against the "innate ideas" of the rationalists.

    [...]

    However, here he differs from Aristotle quite a bit.
    Count Timothy von Icarus

    You may have seen the paper that I was quoting from in the other thread, "The Nature and Origin of Ideas: The Controversy over Innate Ideas Reconsidered." It is about the contrasting way that Descartes and Locke approach innate ideas, how later thinkers like Kant and Wittgenstein are wrestling with the same problem, and how it differs from Aristotle.
  • Kizzy
    94
    I will mostly deal with the second argument since the issues with first one would be better dealt with as its own thread. Suffice to say, I don't think it makes sense to speak of "innate" human qualities as somehow being those qualities that rely on "no context at all." Human beings never exist outside a context. Indeed, they can only survive in a quite narrow range of environments. If the type of enviornment that allows a human being to survive (or perhaps "develop normally") is of the type that it always produces certain ideas, then it would seem fair to call those ideas innate. That is, if any context that produces a healthy human adult also produces x idea in that adult, then x idea is innate.Count Timothy von Icarus

    "That is, if any context that produces a healthy human adult also produces x idea in that adult, then x idea is innate."
    This part seems a bit off to me... any context that produces a healthy human adult (weirdly specific- I am guessing this is because an active conscious required in your case/example?) ALSO produces (X- Idea) in that adult....hmmm..I dont think it also produces the idea, I think the idea is not innate but the ability to have ideas is innately placed and certain ideas come from certain people and family trees. I think it is innate but it (the idea) is not produced as just "an idea" but produced as the chance for an idea to become real. Instead of (X- Idea) - I am thinking maybe something like - "(X- Idea from the human adults innate ability/abilities to hold idea accountable in reality)"

    However, recall that Locke's project here is really a sort of philosophical anthropology tied to epistemology. If we're talking about the "innate properties of human beings" we have speak to something that can reasonably be called a human being, as opposed to say, "a mass of liver tissue." Organisms' potential to develop into the mature form of the organism is special in terms of potential.Count Timothy von Icarus
    This is why i brought up the weirdness of your specifics earlier, "any context that produces a healthy human adult (weirdly specific- I am guessing this is because an active conscious required in your case/example?)" see above

    Organisms' potential to develop into the mature form of the organism is special in terms of potential. It differs from their ability to be heated, dissolved, etc. This seems like it has to be the case if we're to speak meaningfully about the properties belonging to organisms at all. If we just speak in terms of the potential related to the matter that makes up an organism, then it seems like we should be able to say something like "any animal has the potential to become any other animal." After all, if you rearrange all the constituent matter in a cat's body "just so," it seems you should be able to make a mouse or two (more realistically, matter is recycled through ecosystems in this way). Yet clearly caterpillars have the potential for wings in a way cats do not. To say otherwise in an appeal to reduction seems to bring up a host of issues. And where is this difference in potential located? If would seem to be in the form as best I can tell.Count Timothy von Icarus

    I am breaking down this quote above into 3 separate sections, that are relevant and of the main focus to understand. Then from "my understanding" -- I attempt to enhance for clarity ONLY. This was NOT done with intentions of rejecting OP, I am replying because I believe in the efforts that align with OP and seem to be according to what may come from such a discussion of particular interest.

    Sentence 1:
    OP: "Organisms' potential to develop into the mature form of the organism is special in terms of potential."
    Kizzy: I agree that, "Organisms'* ability** to grow and realize its purpose*** IS SPECIAL in terms of potential**.

    *(is a conscious required? If NO - leave "Organisms'", If YES - change "Organisms'" to what? humans? living things? all life? just adult humans? living things with brains? i have plenty of breathing room here, so I am open to whichever one works best in place of "organisms'" if YES is the answer above only.)

    **given the definition of potential, (adjective)-having or showing the capacity to become or develop into something in the future, I think using "ability" in the place of the first mention of "potential" makes more sense because it is more than just describing the definition. Also, since you mention "potential" a second time - see end of sentence, "in terms of potential" - Potential is regarding the capacity, but I think its not just capacity because the ability of the organisms' comes from more than what the knowable capacity is. So, using "ability" instead makes sense because along with the capacity (limits), it is also the capability (attributes in action) of the beings or organisms that can be taken as an example and used to test the difference in potential OF the form and its in the latest version of such form and can be traced only so many generations back. The first form creates the potential from within, that makes it innate, but this potential is not the same as the line continues from it- the potential is different to the first then it is to the latest form. The potential follows the 1 from the 2, from the 2 a new potential is born with a new 1...at least thats what/how I am thinking right now and I am allowing myself to wonder on here and from the wondering, we will see how far I can explain by typing the only words I have at this time. I let you know nothing though about where I may land by the direction I take. I am going to flow but through unknown ends only until a good place to land arrives and I can stand sure until I am ready to take a leap of faith from a solid place again. Jump, flow, land, plant, rest, ready, repeat!

    ***"to grow and realize purpose" instead of "develop into the mature form" to grow and to develop are the same, but the problem I have is with "into the mature form" and I replaced that part with "realize purpose" instead. Purposes can be discovered or "realized" before "mature form" is reached, or WAY AFTER it is reached or I believe some times, that chance (to do that-develop to mature form) never occurs or never was to from the beginning. That is why I think it isnt reasonable to be used like this in your case and to show how other word options make more sense in your case

    Sentence 2:
    OP: "If we just speak in terms of the potential related to the matter that makes up an organism, then it seems like we should be able to say something like "any animal has the potential to become any other animal."
    Kizzy: How can the mating abilities of animals or living things make this potential not possible, sex in nature or sexual reproduction that is forced by human aids make it difficult to say something like you did above, "any animal has the potential to become any other animal." (hybrids - a natural cause or man made- exist and we can say it) Matter makes the organism, but what about the organisms' that make new matter by bringing an offspring to life? Sex is the act that creates matter using the potential of the existing organisms' and their experiences in development at point of conceiving a new life with a mate PLUS THE TIMING OF MULTIPLE THINGS THAT HAPPEN AT ONCE! The development (mature form) of each mate can be different at the time of conception and some times is not reached yet and those different levels that come together to make a new life use their COMBINED "potential" along with ???[blank]??? Once created and born, its ability is tested further (tests can start in womb, and continue once out in the world to survive-mothers aid, to release of mothers aid - nurture vs nature) and known because of TIME in reality.

    Sentence 3:
    OP: "if you rearrange all the constituent matter in a cat's body "just so," it seems you should be able to make a mouse or two (more realistically, matter is recycled through ecosystems in this way). Yet clearly caterpillars have the potential for wings in a way cats do not. To say otherwise in an appeal to reduction seems to bring up a host of issues.
    Kizzy: I think to say something about the appeal to reduction in this manner is just non-sense. Make it make sense? The issues you seem to be worried about are actually I believe, non-issues, unless natural hybrids are happening in this manner--i am guessing they do not "rearrange" like this example you use in nature....but this is interesting choice of word, "REarrange" and "recycle" -- I think and have mentioned before on here in other threads and to others in private, and is found throughout my personal notes on other similarly tied topics to the ones of this thread... that, purposes might be able to be "repurposed" but that is for a discussion to come later at another time!


    And where is this difference in potential located? If would seem to be in the form as best I can tell.Count Timothy von Icarus
    Perhaps it is located where it can be tested...potential has to do with availability, which is time constrained. The difference is between the parents and can be tested, I think even from/in the womb. Its in the parents but not the parents as individuals, but as parents that came (literally) together to give a new life - 2 that make 1! The combination of 2 AND FROM THAT is 1 new. The new offspring from the two parents at possibly even earliest stages of conception, located where? In the womb**** or in the world outside of the egg? Both places, though very different as far as functioning, can be used to test its potential. In womb- consider also, mothers health, experiences, and environmental circumstances, and her choices with timing. Consider the Fathers genes and lineage and traits it carries in sperm.

    I believe, MATE compatibility should be highly considered before conceiving.......I believe close to perfect matches may exist for people but i cannot speak for organisms' while I am backing that belief--that perfect matches exist, I'm sure if it is true for humans, it can be true for organisms that require male/female reproduction and sex/mating to create offspring and give it life.

    ****[Power, energy, force behind the sperm that makes it into egg, perhaps the compatibility, strength, time, etc. should be considered here?] Out of womb testing - certain potential is already shown before the birth (given technology and testing ability of doctors to show and defects or disabilities) those defects are put to the ultimate test: survival. It is true, the creation of a new child involves the combination of genetic material from both parents, as well as the ongoing exchange of energy during pregnancy. The resulting matter—the baby’s physical form—is indeed a product of the parents’ combined contributions.
  • J
    225

    Haven’t we conflated two different problems here? The first – the one raised by Locke – is whether there are innate ideas, which are presumably concepts, or contents of thought, or something equally non-physical. The second is whether there are innate physical traits, like having hands or growing leaves, that can be partially explained through concepts of potency and telos (and, I suppose, DNA).

    Before I take this thought any further, let me ask whether you see these as in fact the same problem? Does “innate human qualities” cover both these categories? I didn’t read Locke as arguing for the latter.
  • Philosophim
    2.4k
    Timothy, I'm not really seeing you address the idea of innate ideas. You're more addressing the idea of innate nature. Locke doesn't deny we have innate nature. There's a reason humans are different from chimpanzees. Its whether there is some idea that is innate to all people by dna, and I think Locke nails that we don't.

    What we have are certain innate capacities. For example, we have the ability to discretely experience like most living things. I can look at something and say, "This" is different from "that". One person might say that sheep and goats are the same animal while another might say they are separate. The ability to distinctly and discretely separate identities is innate, but the idea of what should be separated, what it should be called, and its rules is not innate. That is for us to determine.
  • Gnomon
    3.6k
    In his "An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding," Locke makes an argument against the "innate ideas" of the rationalists. He is essentially trying to rebut the claim that all people have, by nature, certain ideas (e.g., an understanding of the principle of non-contradiction).Count Timothy von Icarus
    In The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker argues against the Empiricist belief that ideas only derive from personal experience. However, his examples of "innate ideas" consist mostly of knee-jerk emotions, such as fear of snakes, that seem to be programmed into human genes via transpersonal evolutionary experiences. I'm not sure that's what Plato had in mind though. And Aristotle argued that humans do not inherit knowledge of First Principles (e.g non-contradiction), which must be derived by rational methods.

    So, maybe some "ideas" are innate, and others taught, and others acquired by personal effort & experience. In any case, some cultural prejudices seem to be based on the notion of positive or negative human "natures" that are inborn virtues or vices, not learned ideas. Locke argued in favor of natural "rights" of citizens, but did he believe in the divine "right" of kings & nobles to rule over the inferior & ignoble masses? Do Rights qualify as Ideas? :smile:


    Abstract. In Posterior Analytics 2.19, Aristotle argues that we cannot have innate knowledge of first principles because if we did we would have the most precise items of knowledge without noticing, which is impossible.
    https://philpapers.org/rec/BROACO-24
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