Christianity as a Foundation for Science
 Part 2:  Where is God in science?

by Loren Haarsma, Ph.D.

Parts 1 and 2 were a Lecture for Faculty Fellowship Forum at the National
Conference for Christian Educators Association International, July 2003.
 Part 1 and Part 2 were published together as one chapter in 
a book, Proclaiming Freedom in the Land: The Role of the
Professorate in Promoting Christ-Centered Learning.


      Summary for Parts 1 and 2
      The basic theories of science, the "laws of nature," do not explicitly refer to God.  Some scientists, and some students, incorrectly conclude that science is methodologically atheistic.  However, a biblical view of God not only motivates us to do science, but also provides us a philosophical foundation for expecting to find regular patterns of cause and effect in nature.  A scientific understanding in terms of natural laws does not exclude God; rather, it teaches us about God's governance of creation.  Scientific knowledge is placed in a context of faithfully living for God.

Another summary is the PowerPoint Overview (used for the lecture) that gives you a condensed summary/overview of the chapter.

      The basic theories and equations of science — the "laws of nature" — do not explicitly refer to God, miracles, or the supernatural.  This has led several Christian theologians and philosophers to support of the idea that science, by necessity, is religiously agnostic.  They have introduced a descriptive phrase for science: "Methodological Naturalism" or, alternatively, "Methodological Atheism."

      "There is what we might call methodological atheism, which is by definition common to all natural science.  This is simply the principle that scientific explanations are to be in terms of natural (not supernatural) entities and processes. ...  It is a fact of history (perhaps an accident of history) that this is how the institution of natural science is understood in our era.  For better or for worse, we have inherited a view of science as methodologically atheistic — meaning that science qua science seeks naturalistic explanations for all natural processes.  Christians and atheists alike must pursue scientific questions in our era without invoking a creator.  The conflict between Christianity and evolutionary thought only arises when scientists conclude that if the only scientific explanation that can be given is a chance happening, then there is no other explanation at all."  (Nancey Murphy, 1993)

      "Science, fundamentally, is a game.  It is a game with one overriding and defining rule: 'Let us see how far and to what extent we can explain the behavior of the physical and material universe in terms of purely physical and material causes, without invoking the supernatural.'  Operational science takes no position about the existence or non-existence of the supernatural; only that this factor is not to be invoked in scientific explanations.  Calling down special-purpose miracles as explanations constitutes a form of intellectual 'cheating.' ... We do not say, 'Science absolutely and categorically denies the existence and intervention of the supernatural.' Instead, as good game players, we say, 'So far, so good.  We haven't needed special miracles yet.'  The particular glory of science is that such an attitude has been so successful, over the past four centuries, in explaining so much of the world around us."  (Richard Dickerson, 1992)

      In this perspective, the stress is on the word "methodological."  Philosophical Naturalism is a worldview which claims that supernatural entities do not exist.  Methodological Naturalism, by contrast, is a tool for conducting limited investigations and for discovering limited truths.  Methodological naturalism is an acceptable tool for Christians to use, the argument goes, so long as she remembers that the discoveries made by using this tool are only partial truths.
      There is some merit to this perspective.  Certainly, it is worthwhile to distinguish philosophical naturalism from methodological naturalism.  However, I believe the idea that science is "methodologically naturalistic" is misleading in several important respects.

      1. The term "MN" restricts the scope of scientific scholarship
      One reason that the term "methodological naturalism" (MN) is misleading is that it artificially restricts the scope of science.  Science is more than a search for the laws of nature and the history of the universe.  More broadly, science addresses at least these five categories of questions:

      1) The basis for science: Is it possible to discover new truths about nature?  If so, how and why?
      2) The process of science: What is an effective scientific method for learning about nature?
      3) The discoveries of science: What does the scientific method tell us about nature?
      4) The inferences from science: Do those scientific discoveries have meta-scientific implications?
      5) The human aspects of science: What are our motives, ethics, and goals for doing science?

      The first and fourth category of questions — about the basis of science, and inferences from science — cannot be answered within science alone.  Examples of such questions include: "Why does something exist rather than nothing?  Is there a creator?  What are the fundamental characteristics of the cosmos?  What is the significance of life?  What is the significance of human beings?"  Science produces data and ideas which, for good or ill, can profoundly affect how individuals and societies answer these fundamental questions.  However, these questions also draw heavily upon religion, philosophy and other disciplines.  Christian and non-Christian answers to these questions are often fundamentally different, and they often use scientific data in very different ways when addressing these meta-scientific questions.
      The fifth category of questions — about the human aspects of science — has answers which vary with each individual scientist.  Scientists do discuss these questions with each other, often informally, often in general trade journals, and occasionally in formal settings.  A scientist's religious faith should profoundly influence his or her answers to these questions.  As a Christian, I endeavor to bring under the lordship of Christ my personal motives for doing science, my behavior and ethical standards, and my hopes and goals for science.
      The second and third categories of questions — "What is an effective scientific method?" and "What does that method actually tell us?" — are typically answered within science itself, with very little reference to other disciplines.  These are typically what most people have in mind when they hear the word, "science."  Nearly everyone agrees that Christians and non-Christians use essentially the same scientific method and, when doing their work properly, reach essentially the same scientific discoveries.  It is in regard to these second and third categories of questions that the term "methodological naturalism" is commonly used.  Even here, however, I think the term is misleading.

      2. The term "MN" implies that God is absent from natural events
      A second way in which the concept of "methodological naturalism" is misleading is that it implies that God is absent from ordinary natural events.
      When I teach an introductory physics class at Calvin College, whether for science majors or non-science majors, I like to confront them with the following question, often on the first day of class: The Bible speaks about God's governance of everything.  Modern science speaks about "natural laws" governing physical events, such as the motion of objects.  Is there a conflict here?  At this point, I let my students discuss the issue for a few minutes, and then ask them to volunteer some answers.  I think you would be pleased at the thoughtful answers I usually receive.  They understand that there isn't necessarily a contradiction is these claims.  God can govern through natural laws.
      I point out to my students that, although they don't see a contradiction here, a lot of people today do see a contradiction.  Some people are so impressed by science's success at describing the motion of apples, planets and stars that they conclude no further explanation is needed.  If science can explain something by natural laws, they believe there is no longer a need for God to do anything.  Cosmologist Stephen Hawking accurately reports this common belief when he writes, "These laws may have originally been decreed by God, but it appears that he has since left the universe to evolve according to them and does not now intervene in it." (Hawking, Stephen, A Brief History of Time.  New York, Bantam Books, 1988.)
      This may be a commonly held picture of how God interacts (or doesn't interact) with the universe, but it is not the biblical picture.  The Bible proclaims that God is equally sovereign over all events — ordinary or extraordinary, natural or miraculous.  God didn't create the universe like a watch, to be wound up, started and then let go.  The biblical picture is that the existence and orderly behavior of the universe depend continually upon God's sustaining action.  As it says in Psalm 104:19-24,

      The moon marks off the seasons,
      and the sun knows when to go down.
      You bring darkness, it becomes night,
      and all the beasts of the forest prowl.
      The lions roar for their prey
      and seek their food from God.
      The sun rises, and they steal away;
      they return and lie down in their dens.
      Then man goes out to his work,
      to his labor until evening.
      How many are your works, O Lord!
      In wisdom you made them all;
      the earth is full of your creatures.

      Note the parallel levels of description in that passage.  The sun goes down (a natural event), and God brings night (divine action).  The lions hunt prey (a natural event), and they seek their food from God (divine providence).  The biblical perspective is clear.  If something happens "naturally," God is still in charge.  This psalm was written more than 2000 years before modern science existed, so the psalmist probably wasn't thinking in terms of natural laws.  However, the psalmist certainly knew the difference between the way things usually happen in nature and miracles.  The psalms are filled with praise to God for the times in Israel's history when God did something unusual, something miraculous.  So the psalmist undoubtedly understood that there is a difference between a miracle and an ordinary event like the sun going down or a lion hunting.  Yet the psalmist insisted that God was in charge of natural events every bit as much as God was in charge of miracles.  In fact, God is to be praised and worshipped for those natural events.
      With a modern scientific understanding of natural laws, neuroscientist Donald MacKay described the biblical view this way: "...The continuing existence of our world is not something to be taken for granted.  Rather it hangs moment by moment on the continuance of the upholding word of power of its creator." (MacKay, 1988)  Theologian John Calvin wrote, "To make God a momentary Creator, who once and for all finished his work, would be cold and barren, and we must differ from profane men especially in that we see the presence of divine power shining as much in the continuing state of the universe as in its inception." (Calvin, 1989)
      A biblical picture assures us that God governs creation in consistent and orderly ways, and God gives us the gifts we need to study his creation and partially understand it.  Scientists talk about natural laws "governing" the universe.  Christians who are scientists occasionally slip into using that language as well.  From a biblical perspective, however, it is incorrect to say that natural laws govern.  God governs.  God created natural laws, and God usually governs creation through the natural laws he designed and created.  God can do miracles any time he chooses, but most of the time God chooses to work in consistent ways.  As we study God's creation scientifically, we build mathematical models and descriptions of those natural laws which God created and uses.  The biblical view is not that God is absent from events which we can explain scientifically; rather, natural laws describe how God typically governs His creation.

      3. The term "MN" implies that science must deny miracles
      A third way in which the concept of "methodological naturalism" is misleading is that it implies that science must necessarily deny the possibility of miracles.  In this paper I will have to be very brief, although I have written much more extensively on the topic of science and miracles elsewhere. (Haarsma, 2002)
      As a practical matter, science cannot claim to prove that miracles never happen.  All that science can do, under various circumstances, is say that if the laws of nature keep operating in the way that we understand them to operate, then certain outcomes are likely to happen and other outcomes are not.  From an atheistic viewpoint, matter and the laws of nature are all there is.  From a Christian viewpoint, however, the laws of nature were created and are sustained by God, and God can supersede them.  For sound theological reasons, we don't expect God to willy-nilly supersede those natural laws, but the God who made those laws is certainly capable of superseding them on special occasions.  Science can only tell us what will happen if the laws of nature keep operating the way we understand them.  The claim that science disproves miracles, by contrast, is not a scientific claim at all, but a philosophical or religious claim.
      There is a flip side to this.  Science cannot disprove miracles, but as a practical matter, neither can science prove a miracle occurred.  Imagine a surprising event occurs.  Science could tell us is whether or not that event was unexpected in terms of known natural laws.  Science could not, however, tell us whether that unexpected event was caused by supernatural activity, or super-human technology, or some as-yet unknown natural law, or simply some very improbable random occurrence.  Science, by itself, cannot distinguish between those possibilities.  Philosophical and theological arguments weigh in at that point.
      Science makes progress by studying puzzling events and attempting to explain them in terms of known natural laws (or sometimes, in terms of new natural laws which are compatible with older, well-established laws).  When these scientific models are successful, their success does not exclude God.  Instead, it illuminates God's governance of creation.  But science also makes progress when the best possible scientific models, employing known natural mechanisms, are shown to fail — when an event is shown to be unexplained in terms of known natural laws.  Science can do this, and it does do this occasionally.  When this happens, it might indicate that God performed a miracle during that event — but not necessarily.  It might also mean that God brought about that event by some unknown natural laws or processes which we might yet discover.
      If God so choose, God could perform miracles which appear to us to be scientifically puzzling or unexplained events.  It can be tempting for Christians to see scientific puzzles as potential evidence for God's existence and miraculous intervention in the history of the universe.  However, a biblical understanding of God's governance should also warn us from too quickly embracing any particular scientific puzzle as potential evidence of miracles.  Hunting for miracles is not necessarily the most faithful approach to studying God's creation.  Hunting for new scientific explanations, in terms of natural laws which God created and sustains, can be equally God-glorifying — and in many cases may be theologically more defensible.  Every time we solve a new scientific puzzle, we are not taking territory away from God's control; rather, we are learning more about how God typically governs his creation.  Every time we learn a new scientific truth about God's creation and the gifts which He gave it, it should prompt us all the more to worship the Creator.

      4. The term "MN" gives credit where credit is not due
      There is a fourth way in which the claim that science is methodologically naturalistic is misleading.  And now, at last, we will arrive at the reason for the title of my paper.  The term "methodological naturalism" gives credit where credit is not due.
      In order to do science, you do not need to adopt the entire Naturalistic worldview.  There are, however, a small number of philosophical assumptions common to science.  These worldview assumptions cannot be deduced from science itself, but arise from culture, philosophy and religion.  Worldviews which are very different from each other can share a subset of assumptions which are foundational for doing science.
      Historians and philosophers of science have written entire books regarding the philosophical beliefs underlying science.  Here I briefly list six points which I believe summarize their answers, acknowledging that this list of six points is, necessarily, a simplification.

    Philosophical beliefs which encourage scientific investigation:
    1) Events in the natural world typically have (immediate) causes in the natural world.  For example: if a tree falls and a sound is heard, then the falling tree in some way caused the sound.  The sound was not caused by some "sound spirit" or other metaphysical entity. 
    2) A linear view of time.  The universe is not an endless repeating circle, where every event occurs simply because we happen to be passing that particular point on the circle.
    3) These causes and effects in the natural world have some regularity across space and time.
    4) These causes and effects can be — at least in part — rationally understood by us.
    5) We cannot logically deduce, from first principles, nature's fundamental constituents and behaviors.  We must use observations and experiments to augment our logic and intuition.
    6) Studying nature in this way is a worthwhile use of time and talent.

      Nearly all scientists today hold these beliefs.  These beliefs are not scientific.  Scientists assume these beliefs are true for philosophical and religious reasons.  The success of science supports their validity.  They are, nevertheless, philosophical statements which lie outside of science.
      With the hindsight of science's success, these beliefs may seem obvious to us.  Throughout most of human history, however, these beliefs were not widely held.  Historically, how did they arise?  Many ancient cultures held some of these beliefs, but not others.  Most of the brilliant philosophers of ancient Greece, for example, disdained observations and experiments.  They held beliefs about the natural world which relied heavily on logical deduction from what they thought where self-evident first principles.
      These particular philosophical beliefs about nature came together at the time of the scientific revolution.  Why did the early leaders of the scientific revolution hold these beliefs?  Several historians of science such as Hooykaas (1972) have argued that they held these beliefs, at least in part, because they held biblical views of the natural world, as shown below.

    Philosophical beliefs which encourage scientific investigation:
    Some biblical beliefs about God and nature:
      1) Events in the natural world typically have (immediate) causes in the natural world.  For example: if a tree falls and a sound is heard, then the falling tree in some way caused the sound.  The sound was not caused by some "sound spirit" or other metaphysical entity.          1) Creation is not pantheistic.  It is not filled with "gods" or "nature spirits."  
      2) A linear view of time.  The universe is not an endless repeating circle, where every event occurs simply because we happen to be passing that particular point on the circle.         2) Time is linear, not circular.   
      3) These causes and effects in the natural world have some regularity across space and time.         3) God is consistent, not capricious, in His governance of nature.  Therefore, there could be regular patterns that we can discover.  
      4) These causes and effects can be — at least in part — rationally understood by us.         4) We are made in God's image and we are made suitable for this world.  Therefore, we have hope that we can understand at least some of God's creation through the gifts He has given us.  
      5) We cannot logically deduce, from first principles, nature's fundamental constituents and behaviors.  We must use observations and experiments to augment our logic and intuition.         5) God was free to create as he wished.  We are limited and fallen people.  Therefore, our preconceptions about how the world should work may not be the same as God's.  We must use observations and experiments to learn what God actually did.  
      6) Studying nature in this way is a worthwhile use of time and talent.
        6) Nature is God's creation, so it has value and is worth studying.

      A biblical view of God and nature can motivate the philosophical beliefs listed above, and therefore motivate a scientific study of the natural world.  Biblical views of God and nature offer us reasons to expect the scientific method to be successful.  In particular, the belief that nature is governed by one God in a consistent manner can lead us to look for "laws of nature" — regular patterns according to which nature usually operates — and to try to explain events in nature according to those laws.  God can still do miracles, of course.  Miracles are exceptional circumstances, when God has extraordinary reasons for doing something unexpected.  But most of the time, God — the God described, praised, and worshipped in the Bible — works in consistent ways.
      If you asked me to adjudicate which worldview should get to claim "ownership" of science, methodological or otherwise, then I might be tempted to say that a biblical worldview has the strongest claim to ownership.  Historically, amongst all the worldviews, the philosophical views necessary for modern science to flourish found a unified expression from biblical theology.  Philosophically, it seems to me that a biblical worldview provides a strong warrant for expecting these six philosophical statements to be true — at least as strong a warrant as any atheist could claim from his worldview.  (With the success of modern science, it is tempting to think that atheism naturally and necessarily leads to the philosophical beliefs listed above.  Not so.  Those beliefs follow naturally from an atheism which it is wedded to a mechanistic picture of nature.  A mechanistic picture of nature, however, was not a common picture of nature before the rise of modern science.  A mechanistic picture of nature is motivated by the success of science.  Although some atheists had a mechanistic view of nature before the scientific revolution, it is hardly the case that an atheistic worldview, by itself, necessarily leads to such a picture.)
      I would not claim that biblical beliefs about God and nature caused the development of science.  Historians and philosophers of science are still debating which ideological, social, political, historical, and other factors were most important in bringing about the scientific revolution.  Nor would I claim that biblical beliefs inevitably lead to the scientific method.  It's not that simple.  Scholars are still debating which theological beliefs helped and which hindered the development of modern science.  And for ourselves, today, it's not simply the case that a biblical view of God and creation inevitably leads us to believing that science ought to work.  The importance of our experience can't be overlooked.  Or everyday experience, as individuals and as a community, our education, and our biblical view of God and creation, all working together in a complex way, give us good reason to expect that the scientific method is the right method for investigating nature.
      So I will not claim that Christians own the scientific method.  No single philosophical or religious worldview can claim primary ownership of the scientific method.  The limited set of philosophical beliefs necessary for science, such as those listed above, are compatible with many (though not all) religious worldviews.  People of different worldviews may disagree about why those philosophical beliefs are true.  Atheists and Christians, for example, will give very different answers as to why those philosophical beliefs are true.  However, by agreeing that they are, in fact, true, scientists of a wide variety of religious worldviews can work side-by-side and reach consensus on scientific questions.  That, I believe, is why atheists, Christians, and scientists from many religious worldviews generally reach consensus about scientific methods and scientific results.  They agree on a limited set of philosophical beliefs about nature.  They disagree about why these beliefs are true, but they agree that they are, in fact, true.
      Scientists of many religious worldviews can work side-by-side and reach consensus about the natural mechanisms at work in the history and the present functioning of the world.  {details from The Harvard Society of Fellows}  The fact that Christians and non-Christians can work side-by-side in science should give Christians, not a sense of fear, but a sense of joy and gratitude.  As John Calvin said, "If the Lord has willed that we be helped in physics, dialectic, mathematics, and other like disciplines, by the work and ministry of the ungodly, let us use this assistance.  For if we neglect God's gift freely offered in these arts, we ought to suffer just punishment for our sloth." (Calvin, 1989)
      If I need a name for the methods by which scientists seek to understand how creation functions, I prefer to simply call it "scientific method."  I find the term "methodological naturalism" to be misleading theologically, philosophically, and historically.  Theologically, it implies that God is absent from natural events, and that science must deny miracles, which are both false.  Philosophically and historically, it implies that the scientific method follows more naturally from the worldview of Naturalism than from other worldviews, which is false.
      When a Christian employs the scientific method to investigate nature, a biblical understanding of God and nature motivates her to do science, and provides a strong foundation for her belief that she is using the right method.  When she uses the scientific method, she is not acting "as if God doesn't exist."  She is acting like there is a God — not a capricious God, but the God of the Bible, who made an orderly world and who still governs it in an orderly fashion.


      An Educational Application
      Every Christian educator who has taught a science class has undoubtedly noticed how difficult it is to teach science from a distinctively Christian perspective.  In other academic subjects such as politics, history, philosophy, literature, art or sociology, while there are many parts of those subjects where Christians and non-Christians do their work essentially identically, there are other parts of those subjects where it is easy to contrast Christian viewpoints with non-Christian viewpoints.  In the natural sciences, however, it frequently seems as though the entire subject is religiously neutral.  Is there such a thing as distinctively Christian physics or chemistry?  And if not, why not?

These questions are examined in this page which asks "Is God in Science?", explains why the answer is "yes, but...", and concludes:
      A biblical view of God and nature offers us reasons to expect the scientific method to be successful. ...
      This "foundational" approach to studying science applies to other academic subjects.  Each subject has its own set of philosophical assumptions and standard methods which are shared by most of its practitioners.  Christian educators can present these to their students as part of their education in the subject.  Educators can also present how Christianity and other worldviews provide justification for those foundational beliefs and methods of the discipline.  This may help students learn the subject material with less danger that they will perceive it as disconnected from — or as an attack upon — their religious faith.

      Despite the variety of worldviews amongst scientists, it has been my experience — and my joy to witness — that most scientists have a remarkably common set of commendable motives, excellent ethics, and altruistic goals for their scholarship.  Of course, sin lurks in every heart, Christian and non-Christian.  The effects of sin should not be ignored.  Some scientists do, in fact, have ungodly motives and goals for their work.  Yet I have found that most scientists pursue science out of praiseworthy motives.  The Harvard Society of Fellows Declaration of Principles says:
      "You have been selected as a member of this society for your personal prospect of serious achievement in your chosen field, and your promise of notable contribution to knowledge and thought.  That promise you must redeem with your whole intellectual and moral force.  You will practice the virtues, and avoid the snares, of the scholar.  You will be courteous to your elders who have explored to the point from which you may advance; and helpful to your juniors who will progress farther by reason of your labors.  Your aim will be knowledge and wisdom, not the reflected glamour of fame.  You will not accept credit that is due to another, or harbor jealousy of an explorer who is more fortunate.  You will seek not a near but a distant objective, and you will not be satisfied with what you may have done.  All that you may achieve or discover you will regard as a fragment of a larger pattern of the truth which from the separate approaches every true scholar is striving to descry.  To these things, in joining the Society of Fellows, you dedicate yourself."
      In the language of Reformed theology, this declaration contains a great deal of God's "common grace."  Yet as commendable as the declaration is, it pains me that it does not acknowledge the proper place of God as the Alpha and Omega of all that is excellent.  God's presence and God's promises give context to everything we do.  We exercise creativity, we seek knowledge, and we pursue wisdom because God created us to do so.  The creative process and the discovery of new knowledge fill us with joy, because that is how God intends us to explore his creation.  As we learn more about creation and its astonishing beauty, we are prompted to glorify the Creator.  The knowledge gained by science also helps us better serve our fellow human beings and helps us to be better stewards of creation.   { back to main body }

    REFERENCES  (those grayed-out are used in Part 1 but not in this page)
      This lecture (Part 2 in this page, plus Part 1) has been published as a chapter in Proclaiming Freedom in the Land: The Role of the Professorate in Promoting Christ Centered Learning, Daniel C. Elliott, ed. (Christian Educators Association International, Pasadena, CA, 2003)
      Atkins, P.W. 1995. "The Limitless Power of Science," in Nature's Imagination: The Frontiers of Scientific Vision, ed. J. Cornwell.  (Oxford University Press).
      Belgic Confession.  (Christian Reformed Church in North America).

      The Bible, New International Version. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1985).
      Calvin, John. 1989 translation. Article 1.16.1, Institutes of the Christian Religion. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans).
      Dickerson, Richard E. 1992. "The Game of Science." Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 44(1):137.
      Draper, John William. 1875. History of the Conflict between Religion and Science; (D. Appleton and Company).
      Gould, Stephen Jay. 1997. Natural History v.106.

      Haarsma, Loren.
      Hooykaas, Reijer. 1972. Religion and the Rise of Modern Science. (Grand Rapids:Eerdmans).
      MacKay, Donald. 1988. The Open Mind and Other Essays (Leicester: InterVarsity Press) p.23.
      Murphy, Nancey. 1993. "Phillip Johnson on Trial." Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 45(1):33-34.
      White, Andrew. 1896. A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, (Republished by Indypublish.Com, 2002).

This website for Whole-Person Education has TWO KINDS OF LINKS:
an ITALICIZED LINK keeps you inside a page, moving you to another part of it, and
 a NON-ITALICIZED LINK opens another page.  Both keep everything inside this window, 
so your browser's BACK-button will always take you back to where you were.

Here are other related pages:
Science and Religion in Conflict?
(Part 1 of the chapter; this page is Part 2)

PowerPoint Overview for Parts 1 and 2
 PDF file of whole chapter (Parts 1 and 2) 

Methodological Naturalism and Miracles in Science
(an expanded version of Section 3, as explained above)

Methodological Naturalism in Science
(pages by other authors)

Other Pages and PowerPoints
by Loren Haarsma

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