The New Atheists vs. The New Agnostics

Posted By on June 12, 2019

thank thank you all for coming I've got to thank serene Jones and the president of Union I got an email from her last night saying she couldn't be here because she had to go to Oklahoma because of an illness in the family but she's been really instrumental in my in my being here and setting the table for these talks I met her at a conference a few years ago and we happened to be taking the same flight back and on the flight back I started telling her my story and I told her you know I was raised a Southern Baptist but you know had kind of fallen away from that didn't have any conventional religious affiliation but I said I do feel that I have a worldview that qualifies for the term spiritual I mean it's consistent with science and everything but I I think it deserves that term and I've never really put it out as a coherent whole I've written about bits and pieces of it and and she thought it'd be a good idea for me to try to do this a union put it together talk about it that surprised me it shouldn't have now that I know more about Union it's a place where experiment is very welcome so I've got to thank serene and all the people at Union who have made me feel welcome I also have to think the John Templeton Foundation it turned out that they were willing to support an endeavor like this in many aspects there were conversations this fall that some of you were at probably where there were series of philosophers and scientists I had conversations with I especially want to thank Chris Stawski he's no longer at Templeton but he's been a great help he's now finishing his PhD dissertation and he was especially intrigued by the idea of trying to articulate a spiritual worldview that you know doesn't make any claims of special revelation doesn't appeal to scriptural authority is is not just consistent with science but informed by science you know he liked the idea of a spiritual worldview you could actually argue for rather than ask people to take your your word for it and so he's been he's been great so I'm going to put these next five lectures I'm going to present this this worldview not not kind of in chapters not systematically but but chunks of the worldview will show up and then at the the fifth lecture I will try to do a grand summing up assuming there's anybody still listening by then so you know before you trot out a new term like the new agnosticism you should google it let's see if it's been used I did that a couple of weeks ago turns out it has a few people use the term there's a piece in Slate about six years ago a piece in blog killing the Buddha about 12 years ago that kind of tried to define something they called the new agnosticism it wasn't exactly what I mean by the term and I haven't found anybody whose whose version of it overlaps all that substantial he would mind the piece in Slate by Ron Rosenbaum has some overlap but but but the main point is when I talk about the new agnostics you shouldn't think that I mean you know that there is some population of people out there calling themselves in new Diagnostics and I speak for them as far as I know there's almost no one calling himself a new agnostic there are people I've talked to who I think would qualify for the term as I'm trying to define it but there there's I don't really speak for anybody but myself I'm just trying to kind of define some intellectual terrain that I think deserves to be populated one more clarification about the terminology the I've said I'm gonna lay out my spiritual worldview I've said I'm gonna talk about the new agnosticism I should be cleared those things are not the same okay and and and it's so important to convey this and what the relationship is between them that I've actually brought a diagram as you can see in preparing the graphics I spared no expense this slide was handcrafted by me its artisanal so this is a space I consider the new agnosticism you know you can think of it as intellectual and intellectual space MSW these things were my spiritual worldview that's in there somewhere it is consistent with the new agnosticism but their spiritual views some might overlap with mind some might not by the way I my worldview does not have a name so if anybody here comes up with one if you if anybody exhibits a stamina it is actually sit through all five lectures and you have an idea let me know I don't think M SWV is gonna he's gonna catch on probably but anyway that's my spiritual worldview okay so what do I mean by the new agnosticism well I would define it via two contrasts one is obviously with the old agnosticism I need to distinguish it from that and the other is from the New Atheism I think there are contrasts in both cases that are illuminating I'm gonna start with the old agnosticism talking about that and if you're wondering what the old agnosticism was well the term was coined by Thomas Huxley a friend and supporter of Darwin's about a hundred and fifty years ago and here's what he had to say about it that's it whoops that's going backwards it is wrong for a man to say he is certain of the objective truth of any proposition unless he can produce evidence which logically justifies that certainty so in other words if you're not sure there is a god or you're not sure there isn't a god you shouldn't claim either if you're not sure there isn't a God you shouldn't call yourself an atheist and he saw this agnosticism which just means without knowing not knowing as very much in the spirit of science he wrote agnosticism is the essence of science whether ancient or modern it simply means that a man shall not say he knows or believes that which he has no scientific grounds for professing to know or believe so in other words be aware of what you know be aware of what you don't know and and and be aware what possibilities are left open by what you don't know and adopt a stance of appropriate intellectual humility in light of what you don't know now my contention is that one thing science has done since since Huxley lived and wrote is actually increase the amount of intellectual humility that is appropriate okay that may sound counterintuitive because after all science has tremendously increased our stockpile of knowledge we figured all kinds of things out but oddly science has you know while adding to the number of things we know has also highlighted a number of things that we can't fathom things that we don't know and has suggested that we may never completely understand these things it has shown the world to be you know weirder and more baffling than I think Huxley might have imagined I'm sure you know part of the story Albert Einstein theory of relativity pretty strange implications time travel for example you've probably seen the movies you know Planet of the Apes interstellar person fired off into space they go to very high speed so they're aging slows down they come back to Planet Earth a lot of time has passed the apocalypse either has ensued or not ensued depending on the movie but either way physicists tell us this can actually this can actually happen now then came quantum physics which is so weird that Einstein himself could not accept it okay there are a couple of weird things about quantum physics that he just couldn't buy a number of them actually here's just a couple quickly there's there's a phenomenon of entanglement where you have two particles that have a certain kind of relationship and they are fired off in opposite directions and by measuring one of them you force it into a state that then determines the state of the other particle instantaneously with no time passing even if the other particle is like you know 10,000 miles away I've actually done the experiments if it happens it's sometimes said that the particles are communicating with each other instantaneously that's a little too spooky for my taste I think that's best seen as a metaphor but it is fair to say that influence spreads in some sense instantaneously Einstein couldn't buy that he thought the speed of light should be like a speed limit nothing should should go faster than that but they've done the experiments as I said another thing Einstein couldn't accept is that things happen in the physical universe for which there is no cause in the physical universe okay you you measure a particle it either comes up heads or tails so to speak but which state it occupies is not caused by anything in the physical universe according to quantum physics Einstein couldn't buy that either but physicists insist that he was wrong and they're right now I'm not you know suggesting that well if things happen without a physical cause you know maybe there's some you know a god up there using these loopholes in the causal closure in the universe to manipulate things I don't really do a lot with the physics stuff for purposes of my own worldview in a specific way I mainly just saying that that the universe is a really weird place I'm also saying you know in Huxley's day if you had said there are things that happen in the physical world that have no cause in the physical world he would have said well that's supernatural you're claiming supernatural things happen well physicists are telling telling us that that happens and that's pretty weird okay so since Huxley's time I think as we have understood more and more the amount of kind of profound mystery has grown and I would contrast the word mystery with the word wonder you often hear people especially kind of atheists and agnostics when asked you know where does the spiritual part of their life come from they may say well I feel a sense of wonder when I contemplate nature you know you look out at the Milky Way all you you you realize the number of solar systems that represents not not to mention the number of galaxies like the Milky Way there are in the universe and you're filled with a sense of wonder okay but that's wonder about something that we know to be the case and that we understand it's kind of clear it's amazing but it's clear it's all I feel it's great but with quantum physics you you get this sense of mystery that just feels a little different a little more Twilight Zone E or something maybe a little more profound but certainly different and I think since Huxley's time the occasion for that kind of all has grown by virtue of science ok now I said that this physics stuff I don't make a big deal of for purposes of my own spiritual worldview one thing I do emphasize in my own worldview is the mystery of consciousness the mind-body problem you know the the question of like subjective experience sentience and what what its relationship to the body is and I think you know the questions been around a long time the question of mind-body problem but I actually think that oddly science has highlighted the science has explained more and more things relevant to the question has actually highlighted how kind of baffling the question is and here's what I mean by that so you know 100 50 20 years ago among the schools of thought on the consciousness question were these two ok first there were people who said well consciousness kind of sentience is is the subjective experience it's it's this kind of metaphysical stuff that animates the body it's kind of like a soul okay and without at the body can't run an opposite more or less you would have been well actually the body can run itself it's just a machine and and consciousness awareness subjective experience is if anything just a product of the machinery running ok that's two very different worldviews two very different views of the mind-body problem now I would say on balance science has tended to favor the second view that that consciousness is kind of generated by the body but doesn't in turn influence influence the body if there's one view that has been favored by science on balance I'd say it's that women the reason is first of all as we have delved more and more deeply into the way the body works in the way the mind works it just seems to be a machine we keep understanding it cellular level sub cellular level it all makes sense it's working like a machine we don't need to invoke any spooky forces the other thing is that you know with with brain imaging and neuroscience we see closer and closer correlation between the state of the brain and the state of consciousness and if you like manipulate the brain probe the brain that creates certain states of consciousness so all of this makes it perfectly plausible that consciousness is a product of the body in the brain but doesn't influence them but here's the question that philosophers have really only fairly recently come to appreciate is well if that's the case the consciousness doesn't do anything then what is it for okay why you know it's kind of mysterious you've got this stuff that doesn't do anything why would that be part of nature so for example just to just to kind of try to you know put a finer point on it the idea from modern science basically is that if you put your put your hand too close to a flame and you feel the heating you withdraw it that it isn't it isn't the feeling of heat that's really doing the work scientists would say no we understand the whole thing it's nerve cells muscles and so on it's just a machine doing the reflex well then what is the feeling of heat for what is it what is it functionally for you can better click this because I just realized on this computer we have not set the power settings for it not to sleep and it's possible that a tech mishap could afflict us tonight get some it's imaginable so this is you know and if you imagine like natural selection working itself you know along you start with cells and so on they're just according to theory of natural selection just machines there's no reason to think that consciousness is really needed at any point according to the kind of standard scientific worldview I wrote a book in 1988 called three scientists and their gods and I called called called consciousness evolutionarily superfluous and as I said I think there's more it isn't just me talking more and more you know we had a great conversation here with David Chalmers and Rebecca Newberger Goldstein last fall two philosophers who are really ahead of the curve on this man we all kind of agreed that consciousness is pretty mysterious now why do I pay so much attention to consciousness well because it's the source of life's meaning right I mean if there were no subjective experience if there were no pain no feelings of love no pleasure well then you know what would be the point I mean if you heard about a planet of kind of robots they look like us but there was no interior life you know you and you then you heard that the planet blew up you probably wouldn't spend a lot of time lamenting it right I mean what had been lost if there was no no if there were no feelings on that planet its then life just would not have meaning the way life has meaning for us so you know it's just kind of interesting that the thing that gives life meaning in my view is a thing that it looks like science cannot explain and moreover you know the way you reach this conclusion at least for now it can't explain it does there's good reason to think it may never but in any event it's it's baffling now and interestingly you reach this conclusion by thinking like a scientific materialist okay by by conceding okay the body is a machine thinking like a hardcore scientist is what highlights this mystery science also tells us something interesting about consciousness which is that since presumably sentience consciousness you know grows in accordance with kind of a biological complexity specifically neural complexity well if you if you grant that seems to be the case then evolution has tended to increase consciousness because natural selection has built more and more complicated organisms over time and in that sense evolution has increased meaning over time I mean you could view natural selection in this sense as a machine for generating more and more meaning and I don't think that's a crazy way to to look at it and when I think about that I guess I have a combination of kind of wonder and mystery I feel you know I understand how natural selection works and why it increases the biological complexity and that's wondrous enough but but but it's kind of mysterious that there's this consciousness consciousness thing added in that that that that that gives like meaning and more and more meaning as time goes on okay so that's my contrast with the old agnosticism before moving on to the New Atheists I just want to summarize that I think there are now more grounds for intellectual humility then in Huxley's day when the term agnosticism was coined we're more and more aware of what we don't know and may never know and it isn't just that science has kind of failed to provide enough answers it is actually highlighted the mysteries and some of these mysteries are pretty fundamental as I said consciousness is about the meaning of life some questions in quantum physics you know wave particle duality and so on or about kind of determinism and the alternative to determinism famously is freewill so these are fundamental things that we just may never that we just may never understand okay so for my money I guess I would say the argument for agnosticism relative to atheism it's gotten at least a little stronger since since Huxley wrote and and so and I think of the new agnosticism is kind of a more inviting space in a certain sense than the old agnosticism at least a little and also perhaps a little more suggestive of spiritual possibility now on to the new atheist okay so who are the new atheists there are the original four new atheist Sam Harris Richard Dawkins Daniel Dennett Christopher Hitchens they were dubbed the new atheists they all write wrote kind of atheist manifestos Sam Harris his famous book the end of faith and and and so on Christopher Hitchens his book God is not great Christopher passed away a few years ago since then some more people have been added to the roster I think here's a couple people Lawrence Krauss whom we had here at Union this fall and Jerry Coyne the paleontologist Lawrence is a physicist I'm not sure that all these people would call themselves new atheist but as a sociological matter they are they're often lumped in with a new a seus and are said to events some of the characteristics of new atheist which leads to the question what are the characteristics of the new atheist what's distinctive about them well I would say one thing kind of famously is a lack of what I've been emphasizing intellectual humility a lack of intellectual humility by that I don't just mean that they're sure God doesn't exist that's always been what atheism that was that that's the old atheism as well the certainty that God doesn't exist and I'm not just talking about a tendency to ridicule religious belief or religious believers although they do some of that as well some of them and I should emphasize that you know there are very few things that all the new atheists do I'll try to appropriately qualify things and not not refer to it you shouldn't assume that anything I attribute to any one new atheist is applies to all of them but it isn't just religious people um who's they events them disdain for here's a tweet from Richard Dawkins spent the evening with four Philosopher's trying to convince myself we need them surely we can all think clearly anyway then I remembered Twitter so apparently the idea is he doesn't need philosophers these scientists who think clearly don't need philosophers but the stupid people on Twitter who criticize him and his whatever his fellow uh fellow me atheist do do need philosophers okay so this is sometimes said to be a sign of scientism term scientism means a an overly broad conception of Sciences domain of authority so for example you start encroaching on the turf of philosophers illegitimately that would be an example of the scientism number the new atheist of written books that have been accused of scientism and I just want to quick quickly down a few and give you my thumbnail take on them because some of them are relevant to to my own worldview okay so this is Sam Harris's book the moral landscape subtitle is how science can determine human values well all I'd say about that is I would join the many philosophers who say if he means by that like bedrock values that's just wrong so in other words if you're like deciding whether it be a utilitarian you know and consider the greatest good to be whatever brings the greatest happiness to the most people or in contrast to be say a virtue ethicist and believe that no an ethical system shouldn't be devoted to maximizing overall well-being it should be devoted to nourishing specific virtues like courage or honesty or whatever you've trying to make that decision what are my bedrock values gonna be I don't think there's any way you can make the case that science determines those values there's a much less significant sense in which science can inform values and I we don't have time to get into this but but it's that less significant sense it seems spends most of his time on in the book and sometimes to be honest it's unclear to me whether he's trying to make the stronger argument but I would certainly agree with the the many people who say said the stronger version of the argument doesn't work ok universe from nothing by Lawrence Krauss note the subtitle why there is something rather than nothing he may have heard of this famous philosophical and even theological conundrum although theologist think they have an answer of course but they start with the question why is there something rather than nothing Lawrence purports to answer it if any of you were present for the conversation I had with Lawrence right here in the fall you know that I am not persuaded and I think it's fair to say this this is kind of a consensus among philosophers do not be persuaded and and the reason is pretty simple to spell out and it's just basically that when philosophers say why is there something rather than nothing they mean nothing ok they mean no physical states no no physical laws no space-time continuum and it's just kind of in principle and pasta impossible to use scientific laws to explain how you got to a place that didn't have scientific laws to a place that you did or you know so so you know Lawrence can can show you that you know particles seem to emerge from vacuum states which I'll take his word on but of course a vacuum state is a physical state existing in a space-time continuum so we're not really starting out with nothing the just there's a book I want to spend a little more time on Richard Dawkins his book which actually gets accused of scientism much less often than the other two and I think is uh it's harder to criticize but there's something I do again this is this is yet another fairly audacious subtitle why the evidence of evolution reveals a universe without design well if you take that to mean that he's showing us that the universe couldn't be the product of design I don't think he really shows that what he does show is that animals and plants on this planet were created by natural selection okay so so they weren't created by some hands-on creator god that much is clear but as for whether the universe is a product of design you know who knows I mean you could view the Big Bang is the kind of algorithm and that in which you know laws were unleashed that led to the current universe and it's not impossible that the algorithm itself was a product of design we just have no way of knowing and if in that algorithm was the likelihood of natural selection happening on various planets then in that sense if the algorithm was designed and we don't know then in that sense you could say that actually even life is ultimately a manifestation of design in some very indirect sense the the physicist Lee Smolin has a really interesting highly conjectural hypothesis called cosmological natural selection and in this scenario universes actually replicate themselves perhaps through black holes and if that's true he's pointed out that it would work like natural selection that over time you get more and more universes with properties conducive to replication and so maybe that's why there's so many black holes those are the portals of reproduction and you get universes with more and more of those and there is a variant of cosmological natural selection that suggests that well maybe the way universes can get replicated is eventually life evolves to this level of super intelligence way smarter than us and it figures out how to engineer the replication of a universe and it builds into the algorithm the likelihood that more life will get created and then that life will get smart and create more universes so that's one variant of the theory of cosmological natural selection the point is just that this is this is a serious scientist in a conjectural mode but serious scientists serious hypotheses and in that scenario life would be in a sense of product of design even though of course natural selection is true in my view so when Dawkins writes in the preface preface of his book our own existence is a mystery no it is solved I kind of take issue with that I mean it's partly solved we know where animals came from the king from natural selection we don't know where natural selection came from it's it's an interesting question there's a number you know I'd like to know how likely is natural selection to take root on a planet why need it do it here there's a lot of question I wouldn't say the mysteries totally solved so a lot of audacious subtitles one new atheist doesn't even wait for the subtitle dan Dennett just puts it in the title consciousness explained given what I've already said about consciousness you might imagine that I'm skeptical that he succeeds but in any event it's worth reading all these books are worth reading and I want to emphasize that kind of oddly I have been the past kind of been been on their team you know I mean I am a Darwinian like particularly Dennett and darkins I'm a champion of evolutionary psychology in 1994 I wrote a book called immoral animal there was a manifesto for evolutionary psychology from within a framework of scientific materialism I haven't changed my mind about any of that so I buy into much of the world view but I do think there is in a sense some overreaching going on in some of these books the amount varies from book to book I'd say Gary little actually Dawkins his book it's a solid book if you fiddled with one phrase and change the subtitle I'd be fine with it more in other books more overreaching in other books as for whether they actually commit the crime of scientism I that's that determination is above my paygrade I would say at a minimum that at a time when intellectual humility seems more warranted than ever at least to me many of the New Atheists do not exude an electric humility okay but there's another sense in which some of them lack intellectual humility and in my view this is much more consequential okay and this gets at another meaning of the term new in new atheist what else is new about the new atheist compared to the old atheist well they actually proselytize actually try to convert people to atheism that traditionally hasn't been part of the definition of atheism some atheist might have done it but there were atheists who kind of you know said well I wish I could believe in God the people who believe in God seem happy seem like nice people I'm not going to try to disabuse them of the notion that God exists but these atheists insist on conversion and the reason is because they think religion is a really bad thing how bad well again a subtitle pretty much says it how religion poisons everything is that bad for you everything it's Chris Hitchens the you know even if you grant that the the the the the subtitle is intentionally hyperbolic he is still at a minimum claiming that religion is overwhelmingly bad and you know if you're gonna make that case you run into certain problems like for example a lot of good things had been done in the name of religion Martin Luther King famously fought for justice heroically resisted the temptation to resort to violence and so on so how does Chris Hitchens how did he handle the case of Martin Luther King well here's what he did he said well you know it's an important part of Christian doctrine the people who do bad things go to hell actually the doctrines a little more complicated than that but for his purposes I think that's the way he was thinking and he notes that Martin Luther King never threatened his methey tormentors with eternal condemnation even though he was actually stabbed in the chest you know but he never said you're going to hell Chris Hitchens points out and then he says this at no point did dr. King even hint that those who injured and reviled him were to be threatened with any revenge or punishment in this world or the next save the consequences of their own brute selfishness and stupidity and even phrase that appeal more courteously than my humble opinion it it's story is deserved then the key sentence in no real as opposed to nominal since then was he a Christian problem solved he wasn't religious naturally he did good things he wasn't really religious now that's kind of ironic because what he's saying dr. King did was turn the other cheek you may have heard that phrase kind of famously associated with the New Testament as is the phrase love your enemy emphasis on forgiveness and so on so you know there's a problem here and and I really I I feel kind of bad because Chris is no longer alive you know I debated him I'm blogging his TV you can google it if you want to give him his say because I confronted him with this and other things and he did very well he's a great debater I'm not saying I want to debate I'm just saying I'm just saying you know if you want his side of the story it's online so again this we're seeing a kind of a lack of intellectual humility a bold sweeping assertion that I think is not backed up but this does not qualify as scientism this is not exaggerating the domain of science this is just a failure to do science properly okay because science consists of you know carefully using evidence to investigate a question with due respect for the complexity of the question and if you ask social scientists well how should we tackle this question of whether religion does more harm than good they say well that's kind of a messy one but for starters you might try to do some kind of honest accounting of whether of you know the relative number of good things done in the name of religion two bad things you could try that but you would still face a more stubborn problem which is determining whether the things done in the name of religion are actually done because of religion okay so is it the case that whenever there is conflict in which religious people cite a religious doctrine or their religious identity that the religion per se is really the motivating factor as opposed to some material circumstances that that might have incited even non-religious people to violence well one person who seems to think that the answer to that question is yes it's the religion in any in any religious conflict at least judging by his book delusion is Richard Dawkins in that book he said if it were not for religion there would be no israel-palestine conflict now people know the history of the Middle East I think would be rightly skeptical you know Zionism itself was a fundamentally secular thing it was it wasn't a very religious movement the initial Palestinian reaction against it was not particularly religious you know what what may may have been I guess you could call the first act of Palestinian terrorism on American soil and and one of the very few so far as I know was in the 1960s when Sirhan Sirhan assassinated Robert Kennedy he explicitly said it was because of Kennedy's support for Israel I think involving arms transfers but in any event he said I did it for my nation he didn't mention religion I did it for my nation meaning at that point Jordan which which had which had had possession of the West Bank and in any event by the way Sirhan Sirhan was actually a Christian if you're you know keeping score so III think that that's kind of a you know III think Dawkins is wrong about that and but he is joined in this view that religion is the problem by seeing Harris who does a very um takes a systematic look at it in his book the end of faith he actually considers several material circumstances these this is a quote from his book that could in theory contribute to terrorism the Israeli occupation of the West Bank in Gaza the collusion of Western powers with corrupted tater ships the endemic poverty and lack of Economic Opportunity that now plague the of the Arab world any rights but I will argue that we can ignore all of these things or treat them only to place them safely on the shelf because the world is filled with poor uneducated and Exploited people's who do not commit acts of terrorism indeed he would never commit terrorism of the sort that has become so commonplace among Muslims now I'd encourage you to reflect on that logic for a second because that is exactly like exactly like saying we know that smoking does not cause lung cancer because the world is full of people who smoke and don't get lung cancer exact same structure of the argument and of course that doesn't make sense in the real world the real world causality is a complicated thing there's such a thing as a contributing factor that is only decisive in the presence of other contributing factors in cancer it might be a genetic predisposition with terrorism it's a lot more complicated than that but the point is the logic just doesn't make sense in fact you could turn it around on Sam and say well we know that religion and even Islam specifically don't cause terrorism because the world is full of religious people and Muslims who don't commit terrorism nobody exactly analogous to this argument now you might ask how could he commit you know just an out-and-out logical fallacy like that and I would say because he's human you know we're all we all do this we get attached to two arguments and and we like to to believe that we're right the you know they're there now famously a lot of so-called cognitive biases such as confirmation bias that that steer us in this direction and in fact I would say evolutionary psychology has shown early suggest that that these biases were kind of engineered into the human mind by natural selection because they help get genes into the next generation but in any event we're all susceptible to them it's you know some of the new atheist sometimes act as if they speak as if you know they and their fellow scientific rationalist are not really susceptible so Lawrence Krauss has said you know scientists love to be proven wrong if you know any scientists you know that's actually not true they would they would rather they would rather be right they may graciously conceded introduced their theory but not always the the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn said that you know when a new paradigm comes into science it isn't that that the adherence of the old paradigm look at the evidence and embrace it no to get the new paradigm totally instantiated securely you just have to from the the old scientist to dire retire you know that that often that's really the way it works mean Einstein didn't buy quantum physics so anyway if you are inclined to dismiss the significance of material circumstances then you're naturally gonna blame religion and you know say things like this it is time we admitted that we are not at war with terrorism as Sam Harris I said we are war with Islam this is not to say that we are war with at war with all Muslims but we are absolutely at war with a vision of life that is prescribed to all Muslims in the Quran I guess it's good that he added the second part kind of and said I'm not talking about all Muslims on the other hand that just introduces what I think is kind of a confusion here I think any scholar of religion pretty much would say that it doesn't make sense to equate Islam with a vision of life that is prescribed to all Muslims in the Quran I mean all religions over time and across space manifests themselves in all kinds of different ways and interpret their text in all kinds of different ways so just that equation to act as if there is some essence of Islam that you can that you can infer from just reading the text is you know I think kind of naive in any event Sam giving his view of the role of religion in all this some other we should profile about airport screening we should profile Muslims or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be a Muslim and we should be honest about it Richard Dawkins who also tends to I would say give insufficient emphasis to the role of material circumstances in in fomenting terrorism also has a dim view of Islam his tweet haven't read the Quran so couldn't quote chapter verse but often I say Islam is a greatest force for evil a day and he and he also sometimes she seems to kind of just enjoy kind of antagonizing Muslims here's one all the world's Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes in Trinity College Cambridge they did great things in the Middle Ages though very nice of him to throw in that that last thing about the Middle Ages I'm sure that that Muslims are deeply appreciative that comment okay so I know this sounds like a tangent I started out talking about my spirit world view cosmic science and so on suddenly I'm just listing kind of offensive things that new atheist have said about Muslims it's not as much of a tangent as it sounds like because my spiritual worldview actually has an historical dimension you know I my view that repeatedly in human history there have been times when humanity approached an important threshold and that we are at one now and that either we move toward a cohesive global community or things could get very very bad and I think you know avoiding a kind of downward spiral is a big moral and spiritual challenge facing all of humanity and I worry that that not thinking wisely and clearly about terrorism could could contribute to to a kind of a catastrophic outcome now this apocalyptic thinking is actually something I have in common with Sam Harris this is one thing we share here's something he wrote in the end of faith I must find a way to time on faith without evidence disgraces anyone who would claim it given the present state of our world there appears to be no other future worth wanting it is imperative that we begin speaking plainly about the absurdity of most of our religious beliefs I fear however that the time is not yet arrived in the sense what follows is written very much in the spirit of a prayer I pray that we may one day think clearly enough about these matters to render our children and capable of killing themselves over books so again I share the overall apocalyptic um Sensibility and I agree that a failure to think clearly enough as he puts it could contribute to the apocalypse I don't agree with him that this problem of unclear thinking is confined largely to religious people for reasons it may be evident by now I I don't think therefore that religion needs to be religious belief needs to be expunged from the planet in fact I think all religions have shown that they can events a whole belligerent citing intolerant side or tolerant beneficent side and that much of it depends on the circumstances including the kinds of circumstances that Sam kind of a logically dismissed earlier and there are some other things that I think can bring out the worst in religion such as saying you are at war with the religion or calling the religion evil or saying that the official criterion for profiling people Airport should be whether they look like Muslims I think those kinds of things do bring out the worst in religion and I think doing them can can actually be a result of unclear thinking even unclear thinking by non-religious people okay so when I I debated Sam Harris in Los Angeles a few years ago and Richard Dawkins was in the audience and during the question and answer session he asked me a kind of challenging question he said because I'd already criticized his views on israel-palestine and he said well is it the case that when two religious groups are fighting with each other if they didn't consider themselves members of the religious group they wouldn't be fighting that's certainly true that's certainly true I mean the Catholics and the Protestants in Northern Ireland if they if they didn't think of themselves as members of those groups there wouldn't be that group conflict on the other hand that's not driven by religious ideology that that particular thing that wasn't about religious doctrine it was really about the two groups place in the kind of socio-economic scheme and the history of that and their relative access to power and so on and that's also true even even things like Sunni Shia sectarianism it you know even if people are invoking religious doctrines to justify it if you look at how these things actually start it's often an analogous situation in Lebanon in Iraq or whatever where the two ethnic groups had very different relationships to to power so sociologists call this an ethnic marker when religion serves as just a source of your group identity it's not the only kind of ethnic marker their race can be an ethnic more nationalism so when the Serbs in the 90s rounded up 10,000 Muslim men and executed them that was more of a nationalistic kind of thing and nationality was serving as the ethnic marker even ideology can wait no I don't want to say that yet the what I want to say is that that all of these all of these problems you know regardless of the nature of the ethnic market or nationalism race religion I think the real problem here is what you could call the problem of tribal psychology again another product of natural selection and the term tribal psychology is an away misleading because you know you think tribes rampaging you think I'm just talking about aggression but more and more from the science of psychology it's clear that actually know a lot of the important tribal psychology happens earlier when the groups are convincing themselves that they're in the right that their grievances are just at the other group isn't isn't in the right and and this can it can can involve the kind of subtle coloring of all kinds of perceptions the and so I would submit that when the new 8th you say that religion is the problem it's actually subset of the problem broadly speaking the psychology of tribalism is is the problem and when I said that I think humankind is on kind of a threshold at kind of a threshold and needs to get its act together I largely meant overcoming the psychology of tribalism here is where I was going to mention ideology because I think even the ideological conflict that's that that that's threatening to kind of tear America apart right now I would say it's getting so bitter it's the same psychology at work it's the psychology of tribalism um I would say that tribal psychology even afflicts the New Atheists it's common to say that the New Atheists act like a religion well I don't know about that but but yeah I think like so many groups they do sometimes events a tribal psychology and in fact I think I'll talk about this in the next lecture on Tuesday but think the specific fallacy that Sam Harris committed that I discussed was actually plausibly driven by a specific cognitive bias that's part of the psychology of tribalism that we've only come to understand clearly within the last thirty years ago it's not it's not confirmation bias it's subtler than that and it's very interesting and and I have the same problem I also suffer from the psychology of tribalism I think of myself as in opposition to the New Atheists in some sense when I read their stuff I'm feeling extra critical looking for those flaws if I read some diatribe against them my critical faculties can desert me because I'm eager to believe it that's the way it is it's a it's a problem that afflicts us all so when I say that transcending tribal psychology is a great spiritual challenge I mean it's one for all of us and I then I use the word spiritual challenge advisedly because I think it is so subtle and stubborn getting over these various cognitive biases that sometimes nothing less than a spiritual discipline like meditation or whatever will will will will make a much progress okay so I just want to quickly the end is near believe me I want to quickly return to this map you laugh I worked hard on it just to be be clear we're a couple of things are situated here like this whole apocalyptic thing this whole belief of mind that that catastrophe will ensue unless we all humankind collectively gets gets much better at seeing its own cognitive biases I wouldn't call that part of the new agnosticism that's my own little hobby horse in my own little spiritual worldview there at the same time I would say that you know science is showing us that there are all these cognitive biases there's been a lot of progress on this front and so it's in the spirit of the new agnosticism broadly which which is very respectful of science to be mindful of cognitive biases I'd also say that you know learning about all these cognitive biases is really another another thing about science since Huxley's day that should give us more intellectual humility just appreciating what an imperfect instrument the human mind is so on those grounds as well a careful attention to cognitive biases is naturally part of the New Atheism I'd say I'd say much the same about like not ridiculing people for their beliefs for their religious beliefs I mean that's certainly part of my worldview but I think it's it's it's kind of logically oh oh I'm giving a union lecture today apparently so if any of you so it is in the I actually think we're done here so but that won't help okay but we are doing we're not quite done don't get excited we're very very close to done so anyway you know it is in the spirit of the new agnosticism being as it is committed intellectual humility to to you know not make fun of people for their religious beliefs there's the additional fact that there's more and more evidence that that often has the Appa said of the intended effect it makes fundamentalists more fundamentalist so I do consider that an important thing I said at the outset that that you know I sometimes see people who I think qualify as new agnostics even if they're not calling themselves that and one thing these people do is they tend to judge people by their behavior not their beliefs okay they're they're like whatever if you believe in God and that belief makes you a good person fine you know God bless you whatever if you treat treat other people decently that's all we ask for and I'm in favor of that that attitude okay so we're about to go to question and answer you'll be happy to hear I want to say a couple things first of all I promise the next lectures will be short or appreciably shorter one reason is next couple of lectures is actually going to have a guest who's that's going to interrogate me after the lecture on Tuesday it would be Paul bloom psychologist from Yale he we're going to talk about evil moral imagination empathy we disagree on some of these things so that should be lively I will again use some of the new atheists as foils which is one of my favorite things to do with him then a week from Tuesday the the famously contentious science writer John Horgan will be here will be arguing about history moral progress can we stop war things like that one last point before Q&A I think I owe it to you to tell you why I consider my worldview I'm spiritual or what I mean by spiritual you know how is it that a holy scientific worldview can be can qualify for that term well you know one thing I think you see in many spiritual worldviews traditional spiritual worldviews is the idea that in our kind of ordinary way of looking at the world our ordinary everyday consciousness there's some fundamental truths we don't naturally see okay so in some religious traditions this might be God or more abstractly divinity in other traditions like in Buddhism it might be more metaphysical truths like they're not self-concept or what's called emptiness but in all of these cases the idea is that if we if we saw something fundamental more clearly that would bring our behavior into closer alignment with moral truth and we would be better people well at a certain level of abstraction I I believe that I mean as you know I I think that there are all these cognitive biases built into us by natural selection and collectively at times they can they can amount to a real delusion and they can they can make us do very very bad things so you know I do think that that often just ordinary consciousness we were looking at ourselves and other people and our relation to them in ways that that our brain actually was engineered to look at them by natural selection when we're looking at things that way often we are really a long long way from the truth we're a long long way from the objective truth to say nothing of the moral truth and that really seeing the truth calls for digging a lot deeper so thank you now we can do question answer and um you know it's been uh it's been a while I won't so we'll do this for a little while and then I'll give people a chance to leave you might want to but I'll stick around as long as people want to talk long is there anybody wants to speak for the New Atheists here because I they weren't here to defend themselves okay we have a new atheist surrogate here okay there's a microphone coming to you I think was one of the ideas that Sam Harris and I think Bill Maher is pretty crazy about is the idea that some of the a liberal ideas in the world for instance like treatment of women as second-class citizens treatment of homosexuals separation of church and state are more prevalent in the Muslim world than any other religious culture I mean the New Atheists their proposal is to blame it on Islam as a whole so my I guess my question is what do you think about that yeah well I mean first of all there are things that are correlated with all kinds of religions that I'm not enthusiastic about and as a practical matter the question is if you would like to change them what's the most productive thing to do and I don't I don't think you know kind of grabbing people by the shoulders and saying your God doesn't exist don't you understand is is the best approach you know it tends to have again the opposite effect of fomenting fundamentalism I mean that said there's certainly a correlation there and you know on the one hand you could you could trace it to – you know Quranic text Islamic law plausibly on the other hand there's a lot of stuff in the Bible that if if straightforwardly manifested would lead to conditions for women that are that are worse than they are in this country and I think the question I would just raise I mean I don't deny such correlations that they're sometimes connected to tests I'd emphasize two things the correlation is not determined if there's a huge variation in in in in Muslim societies not to mention the way Muslims in America live a lot of whom you're not even aware of Muslims they you know they behave so much like other people in America in terms of their treatment of women the other thing I'd say is if you you know sometimes in sociology when there's something correlated with race you correct for income and you find that the correlation disappears okay it's really just something poor people are doing not black people in particular it's just that they're disproportionately poor there's an interesting kind of related question about religion which is if you correct for kind of level of Economic Development you know and and and and technological situation and so on do some of these things disappear or at least are some of the correlations weakened and I suspect that they are now some people like like maybe some of the new atheists would say well the reason that on average there are more Muslim countries that are at a lower level of technological and economic developed in the United States as the religion has held them back actually have an alternative explanation of my own my own pet theory so I don't buy that but in any in any event I think I personally think more important variable than religious text is like where is the society in its development is it closely integrated with other countries in a fine-grained way kind of economically and culturally because remember all of the societies in the world once had values that just seemed incredibly primitive by modern standards including America's own treatment of women you know eighty years ago you also want to speak for the new atheist okay okay can you wait for the microphone here yeah just introduce some interesting facts I have heard that there are slightly more Hindu women killed in honor killings every year the Muslim women which suggests that it's not you know Muslims are the worst or whatever it's and actually they have some men who have committed honor killings in Pakistan were interviewed and the interviewer said you know doesn't we they said do you think that the religion of Islam permits honor killings and the men kind of blushed and said well no actually the Quran says you're not supposed to do that but but but doesn't matter you have to set an example sometimes which suggests that it comes more from a local culture of you know family structures and stuff and that actually people set aside their religion in order to do those kind of barbaric things just introduced some facts into it and I'm just that's the other variable you need to correct for is culture separate from religion so for example many Muslim countries or Arab countries but there are things about Arab culture that are technically separate from Islam but may manifest themselves in the way some Muslim Arabs behave okay and to speak on behalf of the New Atheists I would say that in your debate with sam harris you said religion may be wrong but doesn't necessarily mean that it's bad or as he said I think when I think wrong is bad in the long term I think if you believe something with no reason behind it it can trip people up in the long run and an example I would use is like with segregation their religion there were religious arguments for it and religious arguments against it because you can interpret Christianity in whatever way you want to but there's no real scientific argument for segregation in fact most scientists and economists would say segregation is bad or it's it's it's there's no it's hard to make a scientific or economic argument for segregation so so I'm I speaking on behalf of the new atheist I would say won't wouldn't you concede that religion since its kind of that could be interpreted anyway you want soda sweetie yeah so I could be could lead people to do bad things or good things but science can only lead people to do good things in the end and therefore I know I know I don't think science can only lead people to do a good thing no I mean you know Hitler made use of science and medical science and so no and I mean that's that's the thing about Sam's claim that science can determine human values I mean I'm not sure if it would be good or bad but it's not the case you can't count on science alone to say yeah I think science is largely value-neutral except when it does things like Sam talks about in the book but you're uncontroversial that you know you already have your basic value system like let's say you want to maximize human wellbeing let's say science shows you that people who are in communities are happier than people who are living on desert islands well then community becomes a value that's an uncontroversial point it's not you know people have always everybody agrees that's true science can inform or values but the values have to come from somewhere and science itself cannot be counted on I think to lead to a wonderful world over there yeah right there and then maybe you to right to left because yeah you and you as you refer to yourselves right um just just piggybacking off this question a little bit I mean so well obviously the New Atheists don't have any particular affection for Christians or Jews or Hindus or Buddhists or you know other people of other faiths it does seem that there does tend to be you know a particular animus towards Muslims and I've heard the argument you know put forth several times that the this is in some way related to both Islamophobia also just sort of Western imperialist attitudes and that in many ways new atheism has benefited from lying itself on the side of Western imperialism and providing a ideological justification for you know the West's conquest you know our combat against Islam or against radical Islam how much do you buy that as you know an inherent tenant of new atheism or you know a reason for what's right okay well thank you for the question Ben um Ben as a former Union student and it's not uncommon for Union students to speak about Western imperialism the I guess I mean I I hadn't gone that far well I mean yes and no I mean I what I would say is like first of all Sam's book was a reaction to 9/11 okay the end of faith which kind of started all this Dawkins had a prior grudge against religious people actually encountered him in Oklahoma we were both speaking at a conference in the 90s I got there a day after he spoke but people were saying man did you see the fundamentalist tear into Dawkins well so he was getting grief from from Christians over evolution for a long time and I think but then right after 9/11 happened he jumped on the kind of Islam is bad bandwagon and I think you know it's not a whole lot more that is necessary to explain the focus on Islam I mean terrorism is a problem I think people are more freaked out about it than they would be if they thought calmly about the actual risks and so on and not thinking about it calmly makes it worse often but it's it's the problem does you're kind of and there's a correlation with Islam so I don't think it's crazy I don't think you need to go too far to to explain the focus on Islam on the other hand you know I'm cynical enough to have seen the way the powers-that-be elevate voices that please them and don't elevate voices that don't please them my own my own intuition is is it's just not surprising that people will be freaked out about Islam given away people react to threats so I don't think it needs a really special explanation I promised to go to the second row so I hear you making a kind of sociological argument about the New Atheists which I wouldn't argue with that they're arrogant but I would not accept that I consider myself an atheist and I don't think that automatically makes me arrogant no no no way that you can be a Muslim and not be a terrorist right so my straightforward argument for atheism is that I do think if I do a thought experiment of any of the definitions of God that that you hear I'm nipping it and you know all knowing all of those traits I I can say that I don't see any evidence for that so therefore if you have a term god that is not clearly defined it is reasonable to say that it's not true even if you don't have proof that it's not true because the term itself hasn't been defined clearly enough yeah I'm not quarreling with atheism I mean as I said I think the case for agnosticism as opposed to atheism has gotten a little stronger but I I don't have any I don't have any quibble with with atheists but but the so-called new AC has I mean part of the definition almost of a new atheist what part of what characterizes them is this kind of it's said to be this kind of intellectual arrogance and so on it's not it's not their beliefs about God that I have a problem with it's not that I think there on read those beliefs are unreasonable I think one of the points that the New Atheists make is that the scientific method and empiricism is an approach it's a way of looking at the world that leads you to test your assumptions so while the examples that you give are examples of individuals making perhaps overreaching I think the argument that that the scientific viewpoint is self-correcting because of empiricism is still valid and the criticism that religion inherently philosophically doesn't do that or forbids that and you would give examples of scientists of who are religious who who practiced empiricism but there's still a long and robust philosophical body of argument for religion placing faith above empiricism all right I think maybe I missed I think it maybe I misunderstood something or missed what is your is there oh I guess it's not a question it's a it's a it's a it's a it's a statement that you could perhaps rebuttal okay is there so Kenya I'm sorry I hate to ask you but can you say it again maybe in roughly the same way and I'll pick it up this time but sure so so it seems to me that that the New Atheists make the make an attack on religion because religion places faith above empiricism right and and that the scientific method does the opposite and thus perhaps can ultimately get it empirical reality over time in a way that religion cannot oh yeah I think science is unrivaled as a system for for figuring things out because it corrects for individual biases it and and they would make that point I agree what it does is it says look you make it you you do a theory we're gonna it has to be testable we're gonna test it and figure out who's right now some questions are not susceptible to the scientific method but within its domain its unrivaled the new atheist would say that I agree with them it gets back to fact that I'm not I'm not complaining about their views on religion so and in fact us for face I mean I'm I'm as I said I'm trying to I think I have a worldview that doesn't depend on faith but qualifies in spiritual so I'm not I'm not asking to take anything in face okay so we've been don't you so why maybe we should take like three questions just in a row I'm not gonna write them down and then we can let people and leave leave and then anyone who wants to stay can can gather round so where's the microphone do you want to be in charge of choosing people fill up that awesome responsibility just three people hi thank you for coming this evening Robert I I'm very confused how any sane person could blame religion for terrorism violence war when it's not possibly have anything to do with religion it's a consciousness in that individual or those individuals which would be a mass consciousness I and religion ISM it's a madman a man-made thing all these books written by men so no theory could make someone be violent that would have to be in the consciousness of the violent person which is completely irrelevant to any religion or so-called religion so these men Sam Richard Christopher whether they believe in God a God or not is irrelevant to actually what what they're saying because what they're saying is pretty much insane okay I think I take your point um okay next question it's it's a it's sort of a double question but it's gonna make sense there is something for me very interesting about the New Atheists is this paradox is that they all claim to come from an evolutionary worldview right they're all the sons of Darwin yet they are incapable of understanding religion in evolutionary terms right and so I was wondering if you had I mean I do believe I mean I've seen some of them especially when you interview them actually and Christopher Hitchens I think obviously has personal issues I mean it's it's really an act look I don't know I don't I don't I don't want to undermine the guy but the individual psychology of those people have something to do right so I was wondering if you had like a some thought about this and my second question coming from that would be from hearing them I personally see the same type of consciousness as you were mentioning as fundamentalist okay there is only one perspective only one logic there right everybody else is wrong they should they should change their mind and the other the others are fundamentally dangerous it's for me it's it's a fundamentalist worldview and I was wondering if you had a reaction to that okay and finally I greatly appreciate your valuation of the I think the arrogance of the New Atheists and I appreciate that a great deal at the end I thought you're gonna answer my question and I think you tried and I may have missed it when you're talking about what you meant by spiritual 30-something years ago it occurred to me that there was something about spirituality growing in culture and I was writing and thinking and talking about and trying to figure out what spirituality was and I discovered it was the religion that I grew up was with my childhood so which is what Unitarian Universalists mmm-hmm that's what binds me to life okay religion and I wonder and you say a spiritual my spiritual worldview are there other and one way your contrasting that to a scientific worldview yet I hear you also wanting to incorporate a scientific worldview in so are there other words that would work or you're you why do you prefer spiritual rather than a unified worldview list holistic worldview okay or a religious worldview okay so that is the third question I'm not sure I can respond satisfactory all the first was about how do you blame religion I isn't that more of a thing of mass consciousness I don't know I mean I think I'm not such an absolutist in minimizing the role of religion that I don't think some religious doctrines actually matter I mean if you believe in an afterlife you're more likely to be willing to to die while killing somebody then if you don't and there are things like that and you know if you're if you're religious text offers you an excuse for for killing people you're probably more likely to to do that than if there were no such sustenance for that kind of behavior in your religious texts so I don't think religion is completely irrelevant I think its role is tremendously overstated the role of specific religious doctrines in in fomenting violence relative to the kind of material circumstances I talked about you know like having your country invaded by the United States and stuff like that but I don't think religion is relevant but I do think I mean the contents of a given religion in terms of like the beliefs the scripture that's the hardest thing for us to change you know the thing we can in principle change are the circumstances in which in which the you know these kinds of material circumstances like not invading countries and stuff so that that's why I emphasize things other than religious texts I don't doubt that responds very directly to your question but it's the best I can do on okay the berries new atheists not sure what you mean by viewing religion and evolutionary terms there's a sense in which some of them do view it in evolutionary terms dan Dennett has talked about what it is about the evolved human brain that he thinks gave rise to religion there's a separate sense the sense in which religions themselves evolve I've written about that in my book the evolution of God and my own view is you know unbalanced religions have tended to evolve in a healthy direction if you compare them you know millennium ago or so and that's that is itself I think a product of kind of modernization closer integration among societies getting to know people and other cultures and stuff like that but I just do change and sometimes the circumstances most conducive to their changing in a positive direction is not not to make them feel to to threatens as for the new atheists are fundamentalists I don't know I'd go that far I mean again my view is I don't know whether you want to call him I wouldn't call him a religion I would just say that like so many groups including ideological groups including groups I belong to there is just naturally a kind of psychology of tribalism that that that tends to infiltrate groups that view themselves as in some sense in opposition to other groups on this spiritual question so you are a Unitarian Universalist which some people would call spiritual but not religious not not a lot in the way of them not a lot in the way of Christian doctrine remains central to Unitarianism ok that's good you know it's a you know I mean a certainly er I've been doing Unitarian Church with a minister insisted not only that there wasn't a God but that there was no higher purpose in the universe and I and I I thought well I've never been in a church before where the Minister was less religious than I am because I think there's at least a chance of a higher purpose anyway did you have a question about how I'm defining well I guess you know I'm gonna try to I'm a tree yeah yeah well different people mean different things by it and a lot of people mean something kind of supernatural by it if they're they may say I'm spiritual but not religious and they believe in some kind of you know I don't want to ridicule anybody's beliefs but they they you know they believe in something that science does not does not tend to corroborate I don't want that to be part of my spirituality I mentioned one thing that is a really taking seriously the idea that the human brain is really bad at assessing reality that it's designed by natural selection to do things other than judge people accurately and in all kinds of subtle ways it really really misleads us so taking seriously the idea that we live in a world of delusion and clarifying our view will make us better people and getting get us closer in touch with moral truth but there also there are a lot of things that moral worldviews I mean spiritual reviews do for people they provide consolation inspiration hope and you know I'd like to think that my worldview does that and some of the items on the spiritual checklist they can cross off and you know as I said I I take seriously the idea of a larger purpose unfolding through the workings of nature I'll be talking about that in a later lecture at the same time I can't say that I'm like sure there is such a thing I mean what you know if you if you want to have a worldview that's not the you know can't appeal the scriptural Authority or personal revelation you have to settle for beliefs that are less than certain less than completely confident you know kind of probabilistic beliefs like well I think you know maybe there's some evidence that you know that that that there's a purpose here that may tend toward the good and and the question is can you get some inspiration out of that even though you're not sure of it that's a challenge but it's the kind of challenge you're left with if if you know you want to be in the if you're an agnostic in a sense and certainly if you're so-called new agnostic so I mean if that satisfactorily answers your question but but I do look at the kinds of questions that have been central to religion you know larger purpose moral truths providing consolation and so on I asked myself how many of those things you know can I can I kind of do with my with my worldview and and the more of them I can do I guess the more justified I'd feel and calling it spiritual so again I'm happy to stick around but thanks thanks to everybody for for coming [Applause]

Posted by Lewis Heart

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