How Might Ash’arī Theologians Respond to the Evolutionary Debunking Argument Against Metaethical Realism?

Sherif Salem
Sunday 24 July 2022
  1. Introduction
  2. Fields of Study
  3. Discussion
  4. Conclusion

1. Introduction

The nature of morality has been debated since Plato or even before. Questions like how we ought to behave in a specific situation, what makes our moral judgments justified, or how we arrive at these judgments in the first place have been investigated for ages by philosophers, theologians, psychologists, and social scientists. Nevertheless, since Darwin’s publication of The Descent of Man, evolutionary (and other natural) sciences began to play an essential role in these philosophical debates about the nature of morality. What Darwin suggested is that human morality does have evolutionary origins. The result of this thought can be expressed in the words of William Brooks in his Foundations of Zoology:

Many good and thoughtful people hold that proof that our moral sense has had a natural history would have very dreadful consequences; that it would show that duty is not duty, right and wrong neither right nor wrong, and that the significance man has attributed to this part of his nature a mistake. (1899, 118)

Given the zeitgeist of the time, these Darwinian views were met by sheer hostile criticisms. For instance, an anonymous author wrote in The Edinburgh Review that “The sense of right and wrong, according to this view, is no definite quality, but merely the result of the working together of a series of accidents … We need hardly point out that if this doctrine were to become popular, the constitution of society would be destroyed” (217).[1]

In the 1960s and 1970s, interests in evolutionary ethics were exemplified by the rise of sociobiology as in the work of William D. Hamilton (1964) and Robert Trivers (1971). Sociobiology aimed to present an evolutionary understanding of diverse social phenomena including ethical ones. Specifically, as expressed by Edward Wilson (2000), the goal was to remove ethics from the hand of philosophers and “biologicize” it. In the 1980s, more ideas were proposed regarding the possible implications of sociobiology on the status of moral beliefs, knowledge, and justification.[2] In recent times, Richard Joyce (2000; 2001; 2006) and Sharon Street (2006; 2008; 2011) are two philosophers who benefited from all the work done in sociobiology to boost what came to be known as Evolutionary Debunking Arguments (EDA) — a family of arguments that explicate how evolutionary explanations debunk our moral beliefs and knowledge in toto.[3] Street is more specific, as she thinks that EDA only work against metaethical realism.

Before getting into more details, we need to grasp the main thesis of evolutionary ethics. What does it mean for evolutionary biology to explain ethics? The common answer is that the origination/existence of ethical behavior can be explained by the process of natural selection due to its advantageous effects on ancestral fitness.[4] This kind of explanation is referred to as a functional explanation, which is meant to explain x by referring to the function of x in a specific structure or system. For example, a physiologist can explain the existence of kidneys by referring to their functions of removing waste from human bodies. One can say that functional explanations play the same role as the Aristotelian notion of final cause or telos. Larry Wright (1976) argues that “the function of x is F” means:

  1. x is there because of F
  2. F is the consequence of x being there

Given that analysis, many contemporary philosophers of biology subscribe to the view that natural selection can be treated as a functional explanation of a diverse range of phenomena. In such a way, the explanation of morality will correspond to a selection pressure that causes a specific attribute to be constituted and/or sustained throughout our evolutionary history. That said, this article aims to analyze one of the main challenges that face evolutionary ethics, namely the evolutionary debunking argument against metaethical realism, and then propose that a specific Islamic theological school (the Ash’arī school) can be useful when thinking about this evolutionary dilemma.

2. Fields of Study

2.1 Evolutionary Ethics

When talking about evolutionary ethics, there are many versions that we can refer to. William FitzPatrick (2016) describes three kinds: a) descriptive, b) normative (or prescriptive), and c) metaethical. The first kind conceives morality as an empirical phenomenon that ought to be explained. So, the task is to appeal to evolutionary theory to explain how certain moral dispositions, tendencies, capacities, sentiments, and behavior evolved, using empirical tools like primate studies and comparative genomics.[5] For example, there is a large body of literature that provides evolutionary explanations for biological and psychological altruism[6]—as in the work of Hamilton (1964) on kin selection, Maynard Smith (1982) on teamwork due to selection pressures, Joyce (2006) on indirect reciprocity, and Elliot Sober and David Wilson (1998) on group selection. The second kind studies the interplay between evolutionary theory and normative ethics. In contrast to descriptive ethics, which can be treated as an anthropological exercise about the actual moral codes in different societies, normative ethics is concerned with the prescriptive stand of our moral commitments, thoughts, behavior, and judgments. In that sense, normative evolutionary ethics uses Darwinian evolution to undermine or justify certain normative theories about ethics[7] (for example, to justify the morality of market capitalism). This project is mainly attributed to Herbert Spencer (1879), who led the initiation of the social Darwinism movement. Finally, the last kind of evolutionary ethics is the metaethical one. Basically, evolutionary metaethics employs evolutionary theory to undermine (or support) a given metaethical theory, like the thesis that there are objective moral values, or to challenge the possibility of knowing such values. In this article, we are mainly interested in metaethical realism, which is interpreted as follows: our normative moral judgments are objective, in the sense that they are independent of our minds, languages, attitudes, dispositions, etc. That said, the main puzzle that we are going to tackle here is: can evolutionary theory debunk metaethical realism?

To be more specific, here is Huemer (2008, 377. Emphasis added) formulation of the problem:

An organism’s reproductive fitness would seem to be best promoted by its having values skewed in a certain direction: by the organism’s taking its own reproductive success, or things normally correlated with one’s own reproductive success, to be good, whether or not those things are objectively good. … For this reason, it would seem that if the values toward which natural selection biased us coincided with the objectively correct values, this would be sheer coincidence. Such a coincidence cannot reasonably be expected.

So, here we assume that reproductive fitness played a role in promoting our specific normative ethical values. In Street’s expression: “the forces of natural selection have had a tremendous influence on the content of human evaluative judgments” (2006, 113). But if so, Street continues, “either the evolutionary influence tended to push our normative judgments toward the independent normative truth, or else it tended to push them away from or in ways that bear no relation to that truth” (2011, 12). Let us assume the first case, that evolution pushed our judgments towards some form of normative truth, then we have the following difficulty: it seems that evolutionary pressure is truth-insensitive. In the sense, that natural selection does not favor attributes with regards to their truth or falsity, but only with respect to their fitness-maximization. Hence, there is no reason to assume that evolutionary pressure has led us to true normative evaluative judgments about ethical issues. As Alex Rosenberg  notes: “There doesn’t seem to be anything in itself morally right about having lots of kids, or grandchildren, or great-grandchildren, or even doing things that make having kids more likely. But this is all the evolutionary fitness of anything comes to” (2011, 110). This is what Street refers to as the “Darwinian dilemma”, she gives a useful analogy:

[A]llowing our evaluative judgements to be shaped by evolutionary influences is analogous to setting out for Bermuda and letting the course of your boat be determined by the wind and tides: just as the push of the wind and tides on your boat has nothing to do with where you want to go, so the historical push of natural selection on the content of our evaluative judgements has nothing to do with evaluative truth. (Street 2006, 121)

Take also Russ Shafer-Landau’s  similar analysis of the Darwinian dilemma:

Suppose, for instance, that someone told you that there were exactly 5,422,000,000,000 fish in the world’s oceans. You have no idea whether this number is even close. Then you discover that he landed on this figure by assuming that it was identical to the U.S. trade deficit for 2011. You now have all you need in order to discredit his belief. (2012, 2-3)

Since our guess that there are 5,422,000,000,000 fish in the world’s oceans is not justified due to the fact that the U.S. trade deficit is insensitive to the number of fish in the oceans. Then, in the same manner, the truth of our moral judgments cannot be justified by appealing to the forces of evolutionary selection since natural selection is truth-insensitive too. Consequently, it would take an exceptional coincidence for evolutionary mechanisms to favor the evolution of our moral judgments in a way that turns out to be true, given that these mechanisms were not truth-tracking in the first place. Call this the coincidence challenge to moral realism. Assume now that a metaethical realist insists that there is a reliable correlation between evolutionary based fitness-maximizing dispositions and the truthfulness of our normative judgments. Street (2006, 125) then argues that the burden of proof is on the realist as there is no apparent explanation for this correlation, “This degree of overlap between the content of evaluative truth and the content of the judgements that natural selection pushed us in the direction of making begs for an explanation”[8] (2006, 125). One can summarize the evolutionary debunking argument against moral realism argument as follows:

  1. Our normative moral judgments can be best explained by evolution (causal premise).
  2. Evolutionary mechanisms aim for fitness-maximization and not for mind-independent truth (epistemic premise).
  3. Then, it will take an exceptional coincidence for our normative judgments to be mind-independently true (the coincidence challenge).
  4. Since such a coincidence is not justified, metaethical realism is not epistemically justified.

As noticed, the argument leads to general moral skepticism about the existence of ethical values and our capacity to know them. Is there a way out of this epistemic angst? There are for sure some potential answers in the literature, but I am not going to survey them here.[9] However, I am going to propose another rebuttal for this kind of moral skepticism by examining how Islamic Ash’arīs theologians thought about metaethics.

2.2 Islamic Theology

In the history of classical kalam (i.e. Islamic theology), the discussion on the issue of “judgments of goodness and badness” (al-taḥsīn wa-l-taqbīḥ) has been a central one. Ultimately, it was a metaethical discussion on the nature of moral judgments, reasoning, and language. One of these debates was on whether moral acts have objective intrinsic values that can be discovered by unaided reason. There are two dominant theological schools regarding this debate: the Ash’arīs and the Mu’tazila.

The Mu’tazila argued that ethical values do have real and objective attributes (in the world of objects) that can be discovered by unaided human reason. One can say that this is similar to contemporary metaethical realism. ‘Abd al-Jabbār (d.1100), in Mughnī (6/1, 18 and 63), wrote that the mind can recognize ethical facts in the same way it can recognize non-ethical facts about the external world, and this knowledge can be either immediate (ḍarūrī) or discursive (naẓarī). Some eleventh century Muʿtazilīs understood the process of knowledge acquisition as a causal process (from reasoning and observation) that lead to the tranquility of the soul (sukūn al-nafs). Consequently, their epistemology relied on this inner state of knowledge that is grounded in the consistency of human faculties. This allowed Muʿtazilīs, like ‘Abd al-Jabbār, to endorse a conception of normative ethics that does not hinge on revelation, as expressed by Mankadīm (1965, 48).

On the contrary, the Ash’arīs, like al-Baghdādī (d. 1037) in his Usūl al-Dīn (202–5), thought that unaided reason can know some metaphysical truths (e.g. that God exists and the nature of prophecy), but they maintained that moral language cannot refer to real ethical properties that are in the world of objects since “goodness” and “badness” are not objective values in general. But why is that?

Ibn Fūrak (d. 1015) writes in his Mujarrad:

[Al-Ash’arī] maintained that there is only one sense for ‘bad’ and ‘good’ in the observable: that what is bad is avoided for the imperfection and harm that it results in for one who does it, and that the good and wise act is chosen because of the benefit and perfection that it results in for one who does it. There is no ground for the act’s performance or omission, in the observable, but this or its like. (141–2)

Thus, ethical claims cannot be metaphysically grounded in the observable world since they are agent-relative. What is “good” for agent x can be “harmful” for agent y, depending on their relative context and stance. If so, then how can we explain altruistic acts? Classical Ash’arīs explain these moral acts as purely emotive ‘generic sympathy’ (riqqa jinsiyya). Al-Ghazālī (d. 1111) provides a similar argument for emotivism[10]—against Mu’tazilīs metaethical realism— as many of our ethical actions are motivated by inclinations (mayl), dispositions (ṭab’), and imagination (khayāl).[11]

To understand their position better, it is worth noting that classical Ash’arīs based their epistemology on a veridical representational relation between the observable world and human intellect. This representational relation (that uses observation and reasoning) is limited by our shared common experiences. While one can have knowledge, based on the shared experiences, of some empirical or metaphysical facts, Ash’arīs maintained that normative judgments cannot be known in the same way. Why? al-Bāqillānī’s (d. 1013) answer in the Tamhīd is the following:

If this were known [normative judgments] by necessity, it would have been common knowledge among all discerning people . . . We know that this is not the case [since we deny it ourselves]. Moreover, plenty of predestinarians and some schools of thought deny the goodness of inferential reasoning altogether … Therefore, we hold that knowing that it is obligatory is not necessary. (13)

This is basically a version of the skeptical argument from disagreement against metaethical realism. If moral knowledge follows by necessity like (some) empirical or metaphysical knowledge (e.g. Ali is standing or everything that exists has a cause), then why do we have widespread disagreements regarding basic moral statements? Al-Juwaynī (d.1085) echoed the same argument, in Kitāb al-Irshād, against the Mu’tazilīs; if normative judgments can be universalized then they cannot be disputed, which is not the case.

Whatever you claim is good or evil by necessity has been disputed . . . so how can you claim that we know good and evil by necessity while you know that those who disagree with that opinion cover the whole face of the earth? Any minute sample from them surpasses that minimum number that constitutes knowledge held by the masses. (260)

To sum up, Ash’arī epistemology rejects all sorts of reason-based normative judgments as genuine knowledge due to their inherently subjective nature. As a result, unaided human intellect cannot access the true nature of morality, and all that we can express by our normative judgments is socially constructed. Nevertheless, this does not mean that Ash’arīs accept global moral skepticism, rather they think there is another path that one can follow to have a robust moral epistemology. In the next section, I am going to examine the Ash’arī solution, and how it can function as a response to the aforementioned Darwinian dilemma.

3. Discussion

Following the previous criticisms of the Mu’tazilī arguments that unaided reason can attain moral knowledge, the Ash’arīs started offering their solution, a specific version of theological voluntarism. For Ash’arīs, an act is moral if it follows from “Islamic jurisprudence” (shar’), which is derived from Divine sources. Ibn Fūrak in Mujarrad writes: “The bad is bad by virtue of the relation of God’s prohibition to it” and “to say that our acquisition (kasb) is ‘good done by us’ is equivalent to saying that it is commanded by God” (94-95). Interestingly, Al-Juwaynī, in Kitāb al-Irshād,  makes a subtle, but foundational, point: “‘Good’ is not an attribute additional to law, which becomes known through it; rather, it is the same as the law’s presentation of praise for one who does it” (280, emphasis added).

Accordingly, for the Ash’arīs, the conventional separation between law and morality (say in the Anglo-Saxon common law) does not apply in the case of Islamic jurisprudence. Instead, moral judgments are identical to legal judgments; there is no normative gap here. So, if “lying is immoral” is true, then this is not the case because of some queer objective property of the world, but because “lying is prohibited” in Islamic jurisprudence. That said, how does this fix the subjectivity problem of Mu’tazilī’s moral epistemology? One answer is that Islamic jurisprudence (usūl al-fiqh) is founded mainly on Divinely revealed texts, which shifts the question from “how do we know that act x is moral?” to “how can we infer from revealed texts that x is legally permissible?” The first question is epistemological, while the second question is hermeneutical. For the Ash’arīs, analyzing divine speech (through textual analysis and interpretation) can generate more robust moral knowledge than the mere normative speculations of unaided reason as claimed by Mu’tazilīs.

That said, one Euthyphro-like objection offered by Mu’tazilīs to Ash’arī’ theological voluntarism is the following:

Had goodness and badness not been knowable by reason, it would have been impossible for us to know them after revealed law presented them; for assertion (taṣdīq) must be preceded by conception (taṣawwur). Therefore, the basis of goodness and badness must be knowable by reason. (Nihāyat, 199b, emphasis added)

However, al-Rāzī (d. 1209) offers an intriguing reply to this objection:

We do not claim that we acquire conceptions of the essences of goodness and badness from revealed law—which may entail the error you refer to. For we may say that ‘obligatory’ is what the Lawgiver commands the performance thereof and forbids us from omitting. This much is conceived by us prior to our reception of revealed law. Therefore, in saying that these judgements become affirmed only by revealed law, we do not imply that they become intelligible by revealed law alone. (Nihāyat, 200b)

Hence, al-Rāzī is pointing out that the Ash’arīs are not claiming that Islamic jurisprudence is meant to reveal the essence of true morality, rather it just constitutes how we should act without giving reasons for why we should act. al-Rāzī’s point is crucial in discerning Ash’arīs’ version of theological voluntarism from its counterparts in, say, medieval Christian philosophy; for instance, when considering Ockham’s moral theory. One can find that he has a two-dimensional view, at least according to Peter King (1999), of metaethics. In some texts, Ockham affirms a version of natural law theory, where morality is grounded in some facts that can be discovered by human reason. Either due to the fact that they are per se nota or because they can be derived from epistemically accessible sources in combination with experience. More specifically, Ockham conceives, as noted by Francis Oakley (1961), that natural law is “absolute, immutable, and admitting of no dispensation.” If so, then it has to be connected with human nature in a way that,

directs human acts apart from any precept of a superior” or authority. It includes all evident practical principles whether known per se—e.g., ‘Every intrinsic good (honestum) should be sought,’ ‘Every intrinsic evil (inhonestum) should be avoided,’ ‘The will should conform itself to right reason,’ ‘Every benefactor deserves to be benefitted,’ etc.—or from experience—e.g., ‘An angry person is to be soothed with soft words’—or inferable therefrom. (Adams 1986, 15)[12]

On the other hand, Ockham writes in the Dialogues that God can make exceptions to the natural law, and hence not bound by it:

Because Abraham received the command about sacrificing his son, he was obliged to prepare himself to kill his innocent son, and yet he was obliged to take care not to kill other innocents, because it was commanded to him simply to sacrifice his son, and not others, and he could therefore not have drawn any other meaning from the words of the commandment except that which they first expressed. And they were so explicit, being free from all ambiguity, that there was no room for interpretation, and he could not have drawn any other meaning. And by reasoning, also, he could have drawn no other meaning from these words of God, since he was not ignorant that God was the lord of life and death…. If they are simply commandments of natural law, no case should be excepted for any necessity or utility whatever, unless God specially excepted some case (as, notwithstanding the commandment of purely natural law about not knowingly killing the innocent, God made a special exception in commanding Abraham to sacrifice his son.) (III Dial. I.2.24, 188-1889), emphasis added)

This looks more like a more straightforward version of theological voluntarism. Accordingly, there are two ontological sources for morality: natural law and divine command. This is what Marilyn McC(Adams 1986) labels the double criterion of morality for Ockham. Aquinas appears also to have the same double criterion for moral obligations. For instance, as Philip L. Quinn (1990) argues, Aquinas holds the position that some moral statuses are ontologically grounded in God’s commands.  Take this discussion from the Decalogue as an example:

Consequently when the children of Israel, by God’s command, took away the spoils of the Egyptians, this was not theft; since it was due to them by the sentence of God.—Likewise when Abraham consented to slay his son, he did not consent to murder, because his son was due to be slain by the command of God, Who is Lord of life and death: for He it is Who inflicts the punishment of death on all men, both godly and ungodly, on account of the sin of our first parent, and if a man be the executor of that sentence by Divine authority, he will be no murderer any more than God would be.—Again Osee [=Hosea], by taking unto himself a wife of fornications, or an adulterous woman, was not guilty either of adultery or of fornication: because he took unto himself one who was his by command of God, Who is the Author of the institution of marriage. (ST Ia-IIae, q. 100, a. 8, ad. 3, quoted in (Quinn 1990, 358)

All of the acts mentioned in the passage are clear violations of the natural law. Nevertheless, Aquinas justifies the permissibility of these acts in these specific contexts because they were grounded in God’s commands. That said, Caleb Clanton and Kraig Martin (2019) notice a problem here: how can God’s commands violate the natural law if the latter “is comprised of a subset of the dictates of God’s eternal practical reason, and hence it admits of no exception”? One potential answer is that these specific acts (viz. theft, murder, and adultery) do not constitute genuine acts of theft, murder, and adultery, even if they appear so prima facie. Why? Aquinas (2002, 83) answers “the commandments of the Decalogue, regarding the nature of justice that they include, cannot be changed. But specifications applying the commandments to particular acts, namely specifications whether this or that be murder, theft, or adultery, are indeed variable.” (ST Ia-IIae, q. 100, a. 8, Aquinas 2002, 83) Hence, in these specific cases, the acts do not match the proper definienda of “murder”, “theft”, and “adultery” as conceived by natural law. Aquinas explains,

Fornication is said to be a sin insofar as it is against right reason. Human reason is right when measured by the divine will, which is the first and supreme rule. Consequently, what a man does by God’s will and in obedience to his command is not against right reason, though it may appear to be against its common order. (ST IIa-IIae, q. 154, a. 2, ad. 2, quoted in Boyd 1998, 224)

In this way, one can reconcile natural law with divine law when there is an apparent contradiction regarding specific acts: just reinterpret the natural law in a way that makes it consistent with the divine law (e.g. reinterpret the definiendum of “theft” to fit the children of Israel’s actions when despoiling the Egyptians). That said, the double criterion of morality might be useful in solving, what Robert Adams (1999) refers to as, the autonomy objection. Namely, that theological voluntarism implies following arbitrary moral rules that cannot be rationalized and hence threatens our moral agency. But it comes at the expense of having two distinct ontological sources that ground morality (divine and natural laws), and in some instances they clash as we saw in the previous cases. Dissimilarly, Ash’arīs theological voluntarism rejects the double criterion of morality and hence reduces all moral sources into divine commands and/or will. The non-existence of a natural law theory for the Ash’arīs helped them avoid many problems that, say, Ockham and Aquinas faced when interpreting scripture or revelation in general. Interestingly, the Ash’arīs have a solution to the autonomy objection too, but this will go beyond the scope of this paper.

Now, let us go back to the evolutionary debunking argument against moral realism at the end of the previous section. If you recall, the main takeaway was that metaethical realism is false because of the coincidence challenge, and moral skepticism is the justified epistemic position. How the Ash’arīs can respond to that? Here is one potential way of constructing their argument:

  1. Our normative moral judgments can potentially be grounded in evolution or in a Divine source.
  2. Evolutionary mechanisms aim for fitness-maximization and not for mind-independent truth.
  3. Then, it will take an exceptional coincidence for our normative judgments to be mind-independently true (the coincidence challenge).
  4. Since such a coincidence is not justified, our normative moral judgments cannot be grounded in evolutionary mechanisms (from 1-3).
  5. For the Ash’arīs, analyzing divine speech (through textual analysis and interpretation) can generate robust moral knowledge.
  6. Thus, one can achieve moral knowledge from Islamic jurisprudence (from 1, 4-5).

Note that premise 1 is not meant to be exhaustive by any means. Accordingly, normative moral claims can be grounded in other sources, but the point is that if one wants to endorse any naturalistic version of metaethical realism (i.e. a version that just relies on unaided reason), then she will be challenged by evolutionary debunking arguments. So, what I am suggesting here is that one other option to preserve metaethical realism can be found in Ash’arīs’ theological voluntarism.

4. Conclusion

To wrap up, one thing that the Ash’arīs share with the proponents of the evolutionary debunking argument is their skepticism of the ability of the human intellect to reveal the true essence of moral judgments/acts. Nonetheless, they differ in the conclusion: EDA advocates reach the conclusion that metaethical realism is not epistemically justified, while the Ash’arīs defend a specific version of theological voluntarism that allows them to discount the dichotomy between the “legal” and the “moral”, and hence defend the possibility of having robust moral knowledge without relying on metaphysical speculations.


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[1] Frances Cobbe (1871) expressed a similar concern in a piece he wrote in The Theological Review.

[2] See, for instance, Singer (1981), Nozick (1981), Parfit (1984), and (Ruse 1986).

[3] There are many versions of EDAs. Here we are going to focus on Street’s version.

[4] As in the discussion in Tinbergen et al. (1962) regarding why black-headed gulls promptly toss the empty eggshells to protect their offspring from predators who get attracted by white eggshells.

[5] C.f. Rosenberg (2006) and de Waal (2006).

[6] Biological altruism is meant to focus on benefiting others in terms of improving their reproductive fitness, while psychological altruism is more general as it does not pose any restriction on the type of benefit involved. See Kitcher (2011) for a comprehensive discussion.

[7] See Greene (2003; 2008), and Singer (2005) for a defense of this approach.

[8] Also, Rosenberg (2011) rejects this possibility as “scientifically indefensible”.

[9] See Ruse and Richards (2017) for a comprehensive survey.

[10] In contemporary metaethics, emotivism is the position that ethical judgments do not express facts, but the speaker’s emotions. So, if Ali says, “stealing is bad,” he means “I dislike lying,” or something similar.

[11] See Hourani (1976, 71-74).

[12] Adams is quoting Ockham in this passage.

Cite this article

Salem, Sherif. 2022. How Might Ash’arī Theologians Respond to the Evolutionary Debunking Argument Against Metaethical Realism?Theological Puzzles (Issue 12).

Contact the author

Sherif Salem
[email protected]

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