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Monopolizing Knowledge, Part 3: Clarity

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December 20, 2011 Tags: Science & Worldviews
Monopolizing Knowledge, Part 3: Clarity

Today's entry was written by Ian Hutchinson. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

In his new book Monopolizing Knowledge (available for purchase now), physicist Ian Hutchinson engages with the world-view he calls “scientism”: “the belief that science, modeled on the natural sciences, is the only source of real knowledge” (page vii). In Hutchinson’s eyes, this erroneous world-view is at least indirectly responsible for the apparent friction between science and religion that many see today. In this series (taken from the larger book, which engages the topic in a much fuller and deeper fashion), Hutchinson will attempt to both explain and dismantle “scientism” by examining both what we mean when we say “science”, and how the scientistic worldview oversteps this definition and becomes a philosophical and metaphysical framework. In part 1, we took a brief look at the origins of scientism. In Part 2 , Hutchinson described "reproducibility", the first of two key characteristics of science that underlie its immense power but limit its scope. Today, we move on to explore the second key characteristics of true science: Clarity.

The second major characteristic that natural science requires I refer to as `Clarity'. I use capitalization to indicate that the word is being used in a specialized sense. Clarity is a requirement for the expression and communication of reproducibility; so these two scientific traits are partners. The results of any scientific investigation have to be expressed in terms that are unambiguous. Otherwise it is not possible for other investigators, or indeed even the same investigator, to tell whether repeating the experiment or observation gives the same answer as on the prior occasion.

The most direct way to ensure this unambiguous Clarity is for scientific observations to consist of measurements. The consequent reduction of the main parameters of the observations to numbers offers Clarity because numbers are probably the most familiar universal concept of thought. Measurement is more than numbers though. To measure the physical world we need shared scales, references, and common systems of units, which are crucial supporting parts of science.

Figure 1: The replica K48 of the official kilogram, kept by the Danish National Metrology Institute under two bell-jars.1

Clarity is a deliberately vaguer description of the crucial characteristic of science expression than mathematics. That is for a good reason. The description of experiment and of field observations involves a lot more than what most people would recognize as mathematics. And yet those aspects of science also strive for Clarity and precision. The ability to focus on the important aspects of the phenomena, and avoid over-burdening descriptions with endless details that are irrelevant, is something that is learned by scientists through apprenticeship and numerous informal experiences, not formal courses. So, paradoxically perhaps, scientific Clarity is something that can't be learnt or prescribed with Clarity.

There are many important questions that inherently lack the kind of Clarity that science requires. Consider the beauty of a sunset, the justice of a verdict, the compassion of a nurse, the drama of a play, the depth of a poem, the terror of a war, the excitement of a symphony, the significance of a history, the love of a woman. Which of these can be reduced to the Clarity of a scientific description? Yes, a sunset can be described in terms of the spectral analysis of the light, the causes of the coloration arising from light scattering by particles and molecules, and their arrangement and gradient in the sky. But when all the scientific details of such a description are done, has that explained, or even conveyed, its beauty? Hardly. In fact it has missed the point. Many-layered connections and implications are intrinsically part of the significance of these subjects. We appreciate and understand them, we know them, through sharing conceptually in the interwoven fabric of their often only evocative allusions. Removal of ambiguity destroys that significance, because ambiguity is at the very heart of their meaning. One cannot appreciate ambiguity unambiguously. Consequently, matters such as these cannot be encompassed scientifically.

This is not a problem for science. But under scientism's presumptions there's a major problem for subjects like these. They either have to be dismissed from the set of topics offering any real knowledge or they have to be reduced to something like science. The first strategy is often at work, for example, when people talk about the distinction between fact and value. If scientism places the discussion of value into a category of non-knowledge, of unsupported doctrine, of mere opinion, it fundamentally undermines its significance. The second strategy: reducing the topic to something like science by imposing on it the structures of scientific analysis, is commonplace in many social disciplines, and spills over, for example, into popular journalism through an excessive reliance on opinion polls.

Reduction or reductionism is sometimes regarded as a principle of science. A complex system is explained in terms of the interaction of a number of simpler subsystems from which it is composed. Those subsystems may themselves be further explained by a lower hierarchy of sub-subsystems, and so on. Actually, though, this general strategy has a much simpler name than reductionism. It is precisely what is meant by analysis: the separating of something into its constituent parts in order to understand it. A scientistic viewpoint very often adopts reductionism not just as a useful method, but as an inviolable principle. It is presumed that when a satisfactory scientific explanation at a reduced level exists the higher level descriptions lose their force or relevance. Donald MacKay2 coined the disparaging but descriptive phrase "nothing-buttery" to refer to this ontological reductionism. "Nothing-buttery is characterized by the notion that by reducing any phenomenon to its components you not only explain it, but explain it away". It is definitely helpful to analyze animal bodies in terms of their cells, but it is unhelpful, and fundamentally untrue, to conclude that if one completes such an analysis, then animals are demonstrated to be nothing but assemblies of cells.

It is more helpful, instead of focusing on reductionist explanation in science, to think in terms of the integration of new phenomena, specimens, or models into the overall network of scientific description. An analogy that seeks to express the cross-connectedness of science is to speak of its knowledge as being like the warp and woof of the weaver's cloth. The threads of fact and understanding have only little strength in isolation, but when woven into the fabric of our overall knowledge they gain mutual support from the other threads with which they interact, and thus make up a robust whole.

The concepts by which it is considered appropriate to explain novel phenomena are not so much those that are reduced, simpler or more familiar, but rather those that are integrated into the shared fabric of science or of personal knowledge. A major part of scientific explanation is the recognition of specific new or unexplained phenomena as examples of more general classes of phenomena, for which we already have developed techniques of analysis and prediction. The identification of a rock pattern as a fossil is not actually the explanation of something in terms of its components. Instead it is a process of abstraction; of recognizing a phenomenon as being an example of a general type of thing; of thereby attributing to it a possibly highly complex set of attributes; but attributes which we have already systematized and made part of the matrix of knowledge that we call science. A measurement may be considered the expression of some physical quantity in abstract terms: namely numbers. This is the important sense in which measurement possesses Clarity. But comprehending the semantic content of that abstraction requires prior experience and understanding that is personal and, when pursued to its ultimate roots, eventually non-scientific.

There is another sense of reductionism that is probably more appropriate to apply to science. It is the principle of seeking to describe events in terms of Efficient Causes. Aristotle's science depended upon Final Causes, even for inanimate objects. In modern science the effects follow the causes in accordance with the impersonal, reproducible dictates of natural laws, not because there is any aim in view but because of a specific microscopic causal chain. Seeking Efficient Causes is the modus operandi of science.

When nobel prize-winner Jacques Monod says that "The cornerstone of the scientific method is ... the systematic denial that `true' knowledge can be got at by interpreting phenomena in terms of final causes - that is to say, of `purpose' "3, he's expressing this principle that science operates by Efficient, not Final, causes. [He's also confusing "true knowledge" with science in a classic example of scientism, but let that pass.] Science rules out explanation in terms of personality, and hence rules out purpose, from the beginning, as an operational postulate. If a cause and its effect are to be truly reproducible, then the cause cannot be a free agent. Free agents' actions are precisely not reproducible. That non-reproducibility we take to be one of the evidences of agency. Purpose in the sense of intentionality of an agent is ruled out of science's descriptions by presumption.

There are aspects of Clarity, also, that exclude agents and purpose. Natural science generally regards introspective observation as lacking sufficient Clarity to be admissible as science. This is one of the most important distinctions between natural philosophy (science) and just plain philosophy. Incidentally, common sense tells us that introspective observation can never be fully excluded from knowledge that involves humans, and this is one of the reasons why the status of psychology as natural science is debatable. Persons are not describable impersonally.

There are, then, strong reasons founded in science's reliance on reproducibility and Clarity why science effectively rules out explanations in terms of purpose. Purpose presupposes an agent, a personality. Persons can't be adequately described within the rubrics of reproducibility and Clarity. They are methodologically excluded. And so is purpose.


1. Figure 1 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Denmark%E2%80%99s_K48_Kilogram.jpg
2. Donald M. MacKay. The clockwork image. Intervarsity Press, London, 1974.
3. Jacques Monod. Chance and Necessity. An essay on the natural philosophy of modern biology. Vintage, New York, 1972. Translated by Austryn Wainhouse from the French "Le Hasard et la Necessité", 1970.

Ian H. Hutchinson is professor of nuclear science and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His primary research interest is plasma physics and its practical applications. He and his MIT team designed, built and operate the Alcator C-Mod tokamak, an international experimental facility whose magnetically confined plasmas are prototypical of a future fusion reactor. He received his bachelor’s degree in physics from Cambridge University and his doctorate in engineering physics from the Australian National University. He directed the Alcator project from 1987 to 2003 and served as head of MIT’s nuclear science and engineering department from 2003 to 2009. In addition to over 200 journal articles on a variety of plasma phenomena, Hutchinson is widely known for his standard monograph on measuring plasmas: Principles of Plasma Diagnostics. For more, see Hutchinson's book Monopolizing Knowledge.

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Jon Garvey - #66693

December 20th 2011

More interesting points raised this time. The general thrust, it seems, is rightly to restrict science to its proper sphere: to keep it out of the realm of metaphysics (scientism’s error) and to keep it out of the realm of persons, “for persons are not describable impersonally.” This seems to go some way to justifying Hutchinson’s previous attempt to restrict science proper to the natural realm and exclude human sciences, etc.

But again, I feel there are some natural-science blinkers in place. In describing clarity, pretty well all the excluded things he excludes (like sunsets etc) are aesthetic or moral. But there are more fundamental things about some of them. For example, the key thing about a poem is not its depth but its meaning; of a war not its terror but its justifications; of a symphony not its excitement but its intention. These human events are not so much explained away by reductionist scientific approaches - they are simply not validly explained at all.

So science has a problem - whatever it can study truthfully about such things is trivial: anything it says that is not trivial lies outside the clarity of  science and therefore carries no authority. It could not claim to “explain” these things in any definitive way.

Now cut to nature. Supposing nature (and especially life) is ultimately the work of a Creator, with a purpose in view. That ought to be uncontroversial on a site like BioLogos. Science (according to Hutchinson) willingly truncates both ends of its quest - it cannot comment on the First Cause or the Final Purpose. It works cheerfully and humbly in the cause/effect network between the two. Which sounds like a good call for methodological naturalism.

But if human agency, as in the case of psychology, renders the scientific approach inappropriate, why should not divine agency (or even lesser agencies such as self-organising cells) do the same? If science cannot truly explain (except by invalid “explaining away”) poems, wars or symphonies, but only their trivial properties, how much explanatory power does it have for nature, if some conscious agency is accepted that is outside its scientific purview?

In other words, once more, the apparently clear demarcation between natural science and human non-science is, at least in a theistic setting, hard to justify.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #66707

December 21st 2011

I have some observations.

One is that clarity has to do with measuring relationships.  The physical sciences work relatively well because the physical is relatively simple and stable.  Thye life and human sciences are much more complex and unstable.  Those who ignore these distinctions imperil the whole system. 

I recall a situation where one simple error doomed a space probe which was intended to send a satellite around another planet, if I recall accurately.  The science was right and the math was right.  The only problem was the height of the satellite was stated in the English system, while everything else in the plan was determined in the metric system.  The more variables in the system the harder it is to figure out precisely. 

If everything in nature worked neatly and simply, there would be no problems, but nature is not neat and simple.  Quantum physics is not neat and simple.  The universe as we find it, not as we want it to be, is irreducibly complex which is why reductionism is a useful tool, but not a complete answer.  Almost all entities the the product of complex relatationships, both internal and external. 

Theories and ideas are good, but they need to be applied if they are to be worthwhile.  That applies to science and that applies to faith.  Nothing really exists in a vacuum, only when applied to real problems and issues. 

Evolution is an important scientific concept which helps to explain much about life on earth.  That is fine.  However when it is used by Dawkins and others to say that it provides an alternative to a belief in God, it does not work nearly so well.  Unfortunately some Christans seem to agree with Dawkins that evolution is an alternative to the belief in God, giving credence to this view.

On the other hand Genesis, John 1, and the whole Bible are important to our understanding of Who YHWH is and why the universe exists as it does, but not about the exact mechanisms that brought it about.  When we bring science and Christianity together we have the basis for full understanding of who we are and why we are here.    

HornSpiel - #66710

December 21st 2011

I agree with you almost completely. I just do not understand your comment:

Unfortunately some Christians seem to agree with Dawkins that evolution
is an alternative to the belief in God, giving credence to this view.

That seems contradictory on the surface. Why would any Christian believe that? Can you give an example?

By the way your comments about human errors got me looking up the details of a couple of space probe mishaps:

NASA lost a 125 million Mars [Climate] orbiter because a Lockheed Martin
engineering team used English units of measurement [foot-pound-seconds (lbf-s)] while the agency’s
team used the more conventional metric system [newton-seconds (N-s)]  for a key spacecraft

The Genesis spacecraft, sent to study the solar wind, crash landed in Utah because an accelerometer (an electronic component the size of a pencil eraser) was installed backwards, so its chutes did not deploy.
Roger A. Sawtelle - #66735

December 21st 2011


Many conservative Christians are convinced that if evolution is right, then Christianity is wrong, instead of trying to see how they might be reconciled.  That is their basic argument, either believe God or believe Darwin. 

You are right, it makes little sense and there are historical reasons why it is true, but it is wrong theologically.  The other paradox is how fundamenatalist Christians and atheists feed on each other’s antagonism. 

beaglelady - #66711

December 21st 2011

Roger you appear to be 2 making contradictory statements.

“The physical sciences work relatively well because the physical is relatively simple and stable.”


“Quantum physics is not neat and simple.”

So what is going on here?

Roger A. Sawtelle - #66737

December 21st 2011


The physical sciences are relatively simple and staple.  Note I said relatively.  Quantum physics throws a curve into this pucture, because it tries to explore a nano world that we cannot see, and since we cannot not measure it, we really do not know what is going on. 

Thus there is uncertainty even in this relatively simple world, thus defeating those who expected to find the answers to life’s problems in the most basic of particles, i.e. uncovering the face of God.  

beaglelady - #66741

December 22nd 2011

Quantum physics is still part of the physical sciences. And I have no idea at all what you mean by “find the answers to life’s problems in the most basic of particles, i.e. uncovering the face of God.”

Roger A. Sawtelle - #66753

December 22nd 2011


If you believe that life is determined as many people do, humans could control life by knowing how the universe works.

beaglelady - #66764

December 23rd 2011

I don’t understand what the most basic of particles has to do with uncovering the face of God. That’s what my question was.

ZeroG - #66719

December 21st 2011

Unfortunately some Christans seem to agree with Dawkins that evolution is an alternative to the belief in God, giving credence to this view.

Hi Roger, I think this is where Christians go wrong. Not because they give “credance” to evolution by believing it, but rather because they believe  the two concepts, God and evolution, are in conflict. First a Christian is really looking quite arrogant claiming that his God is THE creator. Second, when the world around you conflicts with what is said in the Bible, you look like an idiot when you say the world is wrong. Christians, and just about every other religion out there, have this problem because of their creation story.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #66736

December 21st 2011


Christians believe in Creation because it is scientifically accurate.  Science is built on the fact that the unicverse is indeed created and not eternal. 

The doctrine of Creation says that God created the universe.  It does not say how God did it.  Thus it opens the way for humanity to discover for itself how this happened, thus thinking God’s thoughts after God.  What is idiotic is Steven Hawking saying that Science governs the universe when science is a body of discovered knowledge, not a force or an agent. 

ZeroG - #66746

December 22nd 2011

I believe this is the quote you are refering to…

“What I have done is to show that it is possible for the way the universe began to be determined by the laws of science.” -Steven Hawking

It is obvious he was not saying science governs the universe, but rather that the universe was created according to real physical laws like gravity, and not something supernatural (not natural) like God.

I am a Christian and I don’t believe God created the universe. I do believe that God gave me the ability to perceive the world, acquire the knowledge of it, experience the awe of it, and the love for all people. It is not important for me to give Him “creator” attributes. 

You say that science is a body of discovered knowledge, which I agree with. However, your first statement says science is built on the fact that the universe is created. You must be careful here, as you are assuming somethings, mainly creation from nothing,  and the non-eternal nature of the universe. These are impossible concepts to understand for us. We just are not wired for this kind of understanding. Maybe Hawkings IS wired this way, the man amazes me.  Anyway, the more you know, the more you add to your body of knowledge and take from your creator.

Logically a creator makes no sense, so why have it? What purpose does it have? To give us a purpose? To know that we just didn’t appear here by chance? We have arrived at a point in knowledge of the universe where it appears as though we are here by chance. There is no creator. So where does that leave your belief in God? If after learning about about how everything was created, your belief in God dies, then your faith wasn’t very advanced to begin with. In a sense your belief in God was as advanced as a child’s belief in Santa Claus.

HornSpiel - #66747

December 22nd 2011

Your comment seems to indicate that you think that physical “laws” somehow make God unnecessary as a creator.  That they are somehow superior to God in that they put limits on what God can or needs to do.

I believe that the “laws” of science are simply precise descriptions of God’s normal, consistent way of sustaining the universe. The Hawking quote above does not in my mind exclude God.  Even if you had a complete explanation of the origin of matter, life and human beings in terms of physical laws—I am not saying that will ever happen, but if it did—I could still affirm that God created it all.

One thing I think people overlook is why the “laws” are the way they are. To say that is just the way they are begs the question. God did not just create the laws (determine what they would be), he sustains the laws. He is involved.

This leads to the so-called “problem” of the fine-tuning of the universe. It has led to research/speculation that there are an infinitude of other universes and that we just happen to be in the one, of course, where the “laws” are suitable for our evolution. In other words the multi-universe.

Lets suppose that the  multi-universe theory becomes well established through indirect experimental observation. Does that exclude God? No! It just pushes the question of why things are the way they are to a deeper level. Why does the multi-universe exist? What fundamental laws are there that allow for different universes to exist?

Again I say the only logical explanation is that there is something greater than what we can observe. That something is the Creator I believe in.

ZeroG - #66748

December 22nd 2011

Hi HS,

If there is always something more to know, with God being that which we still don’t know, then what is the point of the Creator from our scientific/natural point of view.

Putting my trust in God that my daughter drives home safely late at night, provides me with peace of mind. Trusting in God that the world will not end because Kim Jong Il had a bad day, is very liberating. Getting on with my life after I sinned, because Jesus died for my sins, is very humbling. Knowing something designed or created all of this, does nothing for this believer.

All this talk of science in the context of faith, actually detracts from that which is important, that I live according to what He wants. Maybe that is why we have a creation story, so that we don’t dwell on that which doesn’t really matter.

HornSpiel - #66751

December 22nd 2011


I find your attitude puzzling, unconventional and unorthodox. I doubt there are very many Christian who “don’t believe God created the universe.” After all, all the major creeds affirm God the Creator. However I do not feel it is my task to straighten you out. 

I am glad you put your trust in God and that gives you peace of mind. Also that you trust in Jesus for the atonement of your sins and as the way to truth and communion with God.

I think there is something distinctly Christian though about  believing in God as Creator. Because of that belief, science becomes a way of discovering more about God the creator and thereby, in a sense, glorifying and worshiping Him. This may not be the central message of Christianity, but it certainly can enrich ones faith. It does so for me.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #66752

December 22nd 2011


Maybe you disagree with me, but it seems to me that the biggest challenge we have as humans is to learn how to live together in peace and cooperation, which is something that science does not profess to teach.

When you look at this world of our and even at our disfunctional Congress right now, you can see what a thin thread of civility holds our world together.  Atheists seem to take this for granted, but I do not.  We can have all the scientific knowledge we ever dreamed of and still destroy ourselves.  Nazi Germany was an advance scientific nation as was the Soviet Union.

Maybe you are not wired to believfe that all things have a beginnig some time and some place.  The Big Bang is a perfectly good scientific description of this event.  I do not know why you can’t accept that. 

If you believe that all the conditions for the existence of life exist in our universe by pure chance, that is fine.  I do not.  I do believe and find from living that my life and human existence is meaningful and we are not living in a a irrational, purposeless world.  Maybe you and others disagree and this is why there is so much mess in the world.    

If the world is rational, logically it is the work of a rational Creator.  If the universe is not rational, then it is the product of irrational chance.  If you can prove to me that the universe is irrational, is governed by irrational chance, then I will agree with you that it is not created. 

PS Hawking was quoted in several recent articles as saying that science governed the universe.  Maybe he was misquoted or misspoke, but that is what people said he said. 


ZeroG - #66767

December 23rd 2011

Hi Roger, I agree with you about the challenges of the human race. Where my view is different than you and most other people on this site is, I don’t believe you can ever find our purpose searching through the physical world, ie. science.

I believe our purpose is found within ourselves, each and everyone of us. I also believe our minds are wired to do His work for the good of all. That is where our purpose resides, between our own two ears, not in the Creator of the universe, or multi-verse, or whatever we discover next.
Rational and logical are relative terms and have no place in physics. Rational is usually tied to a decision. It can also be tied to a view on something, like “that looks rational to me.” Something like, it fits your understanding of how things are. As we learn more about the universe, things become more rational. That doesn’t mean that it was designed that way by a rational super-being making rational decisions, it only means that conforms to what you know, it makes sense now. 

Roger A. Sawtelle - #66775

December 23rd 2011


It appears that you do not believe that there is a connection between what is and what we know.  If there is no connection between rational knowledge, which is orderly and consistent, and the physical universe, then science is a joke. 

If our purpose resides within us, as it does in part, why is it true that there is so much conflict in this world and we need government and other institutions to provide order. 

If order does not come from rational design, where does it come from?  Whether or not rational order comes from a rational Creator God or not is open for discussion. 

It seems to me that some people are denying the rational order of the universe in order to deny the existence of a rational Creator God, rather than on the basis of the evidence.  It seems to me that 2 + 2 = 4 is a rational, logical statement, and math and natural laws play an important role in science.    

ZeroG - #66778

December 23rd 2011

We need government because not everyone has given their life to Christ.

I think I see what you mean, you are saying people use the non-existance of the Creator to justify bad behavior. I’m sure there are people who that excuse. But I can also say that there are people who take the Bible literally and exude a lot of hate because of it. Actually, as you look through history you can see tons of instances where people have thrust their beliefs on others so much so that they have justified taking someone elses life because they did not believe the same things.

I think it is this notion of an all knowing, all powerful Creator which is the root of a lot of injustice and hate in the world on the part of so-called Christians. There is something to say about the “fear of God” and the wrath of hell, and it can and does have an affect of some people for the better.  

2 + 2 = 4 is not something you will find in nature. It (math) is a tool you use between your ears to help you make sense of the world, science. Like you said, science is not a force or agent, it is the body of knowledge which is in your head.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #66779

December 24th 2011


Thank you for your response.

You are right, it is very troubling to see people who seem to be Christians act in a very unChristian manner.  It is very true also that many Christians have not given their heart ,or maybe their whole heart to Christ.  Sometimes I find myself tempted to do things that I know I shouldn’t do.   

There are several reasons for this, the first is that some christians are outside the faith because they are not born again. Some Christians are born again but their faith is immature.

The other is because all humans are sinners, even if we are Christians.  The problem is some christians believe that they are better than others because they believe themselves to be a member of the Body of Christ.  Humility is a primary Christian virtue.

Sadly there are other anti-Christian ideologies which have showed themselves even more destructive of humanity than misguided Christianity has been at its worse, namely Marxist-Leninism and National-Socialism.  I might also add Al Quaidaism.   

Science is a body of knowledge in your head, but unless that knowledge somehow corresponds to what exists in the world it is useless.  If you forget the password to your computer your computer is useless.  This is the real mystery of life, both of science and faith that somehow humans can understand our world scientifically and spiritually.

The only reason we can claim that giving our lives to Christ makes a fundamental difference in the way we live and exist is because Jesus Christ is the Logos of God and the universe. 

God made the universe for a purpose, to be a habitat for human beings and all of the rest of life on earth.  God made humans for the purpose of living in peace, harmony, and joy with each other, with God, and nature.  

This is the good news of Jesus Christ.  A blessed Christmas and a great 2012. 

When we refuse to follow Jesus Christ and try to go our own selfish way, we suffer the consequences of wars, injustice, environmental catastrophes, etc.   

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