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Many of the world's religions are based on a book or text that adherents claim to have been written by or directly inspired by a god, perhaps omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent.

My question is whether there is anything, in principle, that could be written in a text that would convince a rational person that the text must have been written by a god, and in particular, that it could not have been written by a human being, even a very insightful one?

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Not written by humans doesn't necessarily imply written by a supernatural being. –  Raskolnikov Jun 23 '11 at 10:37
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@Raskolnikov, of course I agree with that; my question is what it would take in a book to convince a rational agent that it was from a god. In particular, I take this to imply that it was not written by a human, but indeed this would be a weaker claim. –  JDH Jun 23 '11 at 12:53
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Simple: it would require proof. How does one prove that a book was written by or inspired by God (or anything for that matter)? I would have to observe such writing or inspiration occurring such that there could be no explanation other than that a God did it (and therefore exists). Thus, this question is really just a veiled way of asking "How can we prove the existence of God?" (although the OP may not have realized this when writing the question). –  stoicfury Feb 29 '12 at 17:20
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Mr. Smith Goes to Washington says "Liberty is too Precious a thing to be buried in books". Couldn't this be rephrased for love/god ? in the end this shows that books are weak attempts to render something that is inside our souls ? or could your soul be so finite that it can be buried in a book ? –  robin girard Aug 17 '12 at 9:30
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If I can be convinced that a certain book has been written by an omniscient god, that omniscient god would know it (even if I don't). Therefore the best proof of it would be if after reading the book I'd be convinced. –  celtschk Sep 23 '12 at 16:10
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26 Answers

To convince me that a book is written by God, it will have to contain information only God could know, but which can still be verifiable by me. This is likely impossible.

For example:

A list of all major global future events of types that are not possible for anyone but god to influence, like a complete list of all volcano eruptions and earthquakes for several years, with magnitudes and death tolls is not enough. These events are not possible to influence, but a book from the future could record them, so this does not exclude time travelers.

A detailed list of local weather changes everywhere I go for months would also be impossible to predict, and to control. Temperature to the centigrade, exactly when rain stops and starts, and thunder claps, recorded to the second. That excludes everything except somebody who secretly follows me around for months to record this, and then sends the book back from the future.

Let us say that the book included things only I could know, such as private information about me and my thoughts. But that still doesn't exclude a cooperation between time travelers and a future me, and this is where it gets tricky.

Lets say somebody has small technological insects that monitor me, and record everything I do, and everything that happens including major earth quakes and my local weather for years. They then compile a book of this, and cooperate with a future me that adds information only a future me would know and sends that book back. I do not see any way to put information in the book that a combination of a future me and these time hitech travelers would not know.

Hence, I can not find anything to put in a book that only God could know that would still be verifiable by me.

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For some reason what you've written reminded me of P=NP problem. –  Lie Ryan Jun 23 '11 at 16:10
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I appreciate your honesty. Far too many people suggest that they would believe in God if only he were to X, but don't consider what they would actually believe if X occurred. It seems far too likely that they would demand further proof. I also find it odd that you assume time travelers attempting to trick you into believing in God is more likely than God himself. I suspect I know why you evaluate it thusly, but it's still interesting. –  Jon Ericson Jun 23 '11 at 17:22
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@Jon: I think practical time travel probably is impossible, but I find it way more likely than the creator god for some reason trying to convince me I exist. A creator god likely would hardly know I exist, not give a shit if I exist or not, and certainly not try to convince me he exists. The whole idea of a loving creator god is an attempt to put oneself into the center of the universe, which I find to be a particularly narcissistic form of egotism. If I had a whole universe to play with I seriously doubt that I would care what one little stupid spec of dust thinks of me. –  Lennart Regebro Jun 23 '11 at 18:01
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I'd say that if you believe time travelers more likely than a god to attempt to convince you of a god's existence, no written knowledge will ever convince you. Your best bet will be some sort of epiphany and it's difficult to know how rational you'd find that. ;-) –  Jon Ericson Jun 23 '11 at 19:02
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@Jeff: Of course I have a need to write it. Otherwise I can't send it, and that would cause a paradox, and the universe would stop existing (except for the book). Talk about need! :-) Now stop discussing the complexities of time travel, it's completely off-topic and utterly besides the point. The book is written. It's sent back. Done. There you go. –  Lennart Regebro Jun 25 '11 at 19:37
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Blaise Pascal, who I consider a rational agent, said:

The prophecies, the very miracles and proofs of our religion, are not of such a nature that they can be said to be absolutely convincing. But they are also of such a kind that it cannot be said that it is unreasonable to believe them. Thus there is both evidence and obscurity to enlighten some and confuse others.

Therefore, his view of the Christian scriptures is that a rational agent could reasonably believe or disbelieve the "proofs of our religion". This is also the view of Alvin Plantinga and it seems the authors of the Bible as well.


Other religions, particularly Islam, believe that their scripture is self-validating:

Surely, any sincere and unbiased searcher of truth will come to believe that the Qur'an is the revealed Book of Allah.

Here's an example of the argument:

"The above observation makes the hypothesis advanced by those who see Muhammad as the author of the Qur'an untenable. How could a man, from being illiterate, become the most important author, in terms of literary merits, in the whole of Arabic literature? How could he then pronounce truths of a scientific nature that no other human being could possibly have developed at that time, and all this without once making the slightest error in his pronouncement on the subject?"

Maurice Bucaille, THE BIBLE, THE QUR'AN AND SCIENCE, 1978, p. 125.

I don't have any particular evidence that people who believe these sorts of statements are not rational beings. My personal experience with people who make these claims is that they are rational. It would be unfair of me to claim they are irrational so that I can dismiss their claims as irrational.


I believe that I am a rational agent. I believe the Christian scriptures were "breathed out by God", which doesn't quite mean they were written by God, but that they were directly inspired by him. This isn't really the time or place to defend that belief, but the basic outline looks like this:

1) The Bible, when it treats historical subjects, broadly reflects historical reality.

2) The historical events treated by the Bible, particularly in the life and death of Jesus, are strong evidence of a God not anticipated or invented by humanity.

3) History since the events of the Bible shows rational men and women clinging to their belief in the truth of the Bible even to the point of death.

I don't expect anyone to be persuaded by this sort of argument (point #1 would probably be impossible to prove to someone who firmly rejects the Bible), but I would hope other rational agents could imagine how I might rationally be convinced of this.


Update: To answer JDH's comment, there are essentially two questions that I see: the explicit and the implied. The answer to the explicit question seems to be "No". (Other answers bare that out, I believe.) For the Bible, at least, there's even an expectation that it will be seen as foolish:

For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. -- 1 Corinthians 1:22-24 (ESV)

That's a restatement of the first section above.

But there is also an implied question: "If there's nothing that can written in a text that would convince a rational person that it was written by a god, can a rational person believe a text was written by a god?" It is a question of what Dr. Plantinga calls Warrant which loosely defined is that property that separates knowledge from belief. One might extrapolate that since evidence for god-inspired texts isn't absolutely convincing, that belief in god-inspired texts isn't warranted.

I pointed out in the second section, that some do hold that some holy texts are self-validating, but you can't dismiss the claim out of hand. The specific evidence for the claim must be dealt with. It would be invalid to hold that people who believe a particular text is god-inspired can be written off as arational agents. I think the evidence for the Qur'an is a bit thin, but until I deal with it directly, I can't say that belief in its god-inspired status is unwarranted. That would be an invalid shortcut.

The third section deals with my personal belief. I'd be happy to defend it1, but it would be time-consuming and of perhaps limited interest. Even though I feel the evidence is strong, I know that each step would be hotly contested and at the end of the day, my view would be rejected by some (and probably all who don't already agree with me). But the point is the evidence itself must be evaluated, not the person making the claim.


Footnote:

  1. I've started my defense of the first point about the historical reliably at the Skeptics site.
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great analysis here -- I really like the Pascal quote you open with: "both evidence and obscurity to enlighten some and confuse others" –  Joseph Weissman Jun 23 '11 at 21:30
    
@Joe: Thanks! (I always worry about giving explicitly Christian answers, which I fear aren't helpful or constructive to other view points. I'm critical of answers that don't have any persuasive value to the other side of the debate, so I feel I have to be especially careful on that point.) –  Jon Ericson Jun 23 '11 at 21:49
    
I don't really see how this answer addresses the question. Pascal appears to be saying specifically that the bible does not have the features that I am requesting, and you also do not seem to be defending the self-validating view of the koran. (And as you say, you don't really defend here the last part of your answer.) Have I misunderstood something? –  JDH Jun 26 '11 at 0:32
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I responded to (1) w/ a link over at skeptics. You didn't defend historicity as much as you argued lack of solid evidence was consistent with historicity. For (2), there isn't a great amount of evidence of supernatural events beyond, and Jesus' life seems modeled after a lot of pre-invented gods. (3) seems really irrelevant and inevitably fallacious - intelligent people have defended myriad false and irrational beliefs sincerely believed to point of torture and death throughout history. This outline looks pretty impotent and garden variety. –  anon Aug 22 '11 at 2:44
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@anon: May I quote myself? "I don't expect anyone to be persuaded by this sort of argument (point #1 would probably be impossible to prove to someone who firmly rejects the Bible), but I would hope other rational agents could imagine how I might rationally be convinced of this." –  Jon Ericson Oct 6 '11 at 18:50
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If it were written in a language not known by man on Earth but was easily comprehended despite not knowing or understanding the language by all. Such comprehension would be universal and the understanding of it consistant. The content should be such that it advances concepts previously unknown as any creation of an all powerful being is going to be for a purpose. Any demand that people not seek to understand or clarify would tend to steal credence for such demands are clearly signs of insecurity not of a creation of an all powerful being.

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Aliens? ------- –  stoicfury Feb 29 '12 at 16:59
    
I like it, but how can you verify the understanding is "consistent" for a Chinese, an American and Amazonians uncontacted tribes? –  Paolo Mar 31 at 16:36
    
@Paolo - cause im really good. –  Chad Mar 31 at 16:40
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Abstractly you want an interaction between two parties that will show to the first one that the second one is God, i.e. an interactive proof by God for the verifier who is our rational person.

Answer depends on what you mean by God (prover), what you mean by a rational person (verifier) and what you mean by convincing (what kind of interactions/proofs are allowed?).

Let me explain.

To show that a book is from God you need to show that the book could not be written by anyone else. This sentence has a universal quantification that can not be checked empirically, so we need to argue that logically. To do this we need to use what we know about God and argue that no one not satisfying those conditions could have written the book, or at least show that this is very unlikely. Most arguments would only show that the prover has certain properties, but this may not mean that the prover is really God, e.g. it does not rule out directly the possibility that it is written by an alien creature with super-human powers.

Same with verifier, our rational person. What kind of actions that person can perform? What are his assumptions about the properties that God has? etc.

The kind of interaction is also important. Sending a book or a written text is one possibility, but there can be more complicated interactions, e.g. other kind of miracles. A text by itself can be a miracle and theoretically a proof that the other party posses very high computational power that is unimaginable that a human can have (here we need to argue what are the capabilities of a human being). It is plausible that the prover is capable of solving a computationally undecidable problem, a problem that we know no computer can solve. But the verifier needs to be able to check the correctness of the proof. A more interesting case is for example a problem that does not have simple algorithms to find an answer but if given an answer the verifier can check its correctness (a.k.a. an NP-complete problem in computer science). If we repeat this process enough times we can be sure that the other party is capable of solving NP-complete problems very quickly, and if you believe in something like Extended Church-Turing thesis, then that should be very convincing.

Interestingly the proof can be very personal and not intersubjective, i.e. God can convince you that a book is from him, but you cannot show this fact to any third party (this is what is called a Zero-Knowledge proof in computer science).

I concentrated on the computational power of God, but one can use other capabilities of God that the verifier believes no one else is capable of like omniscience or omnipotence, e.g. if God raises mount Sinai over my head and I hear a voice that says Torah is from God a few thousands years ago, I would be convinced (though others might not since they believe that what they see and hear is not enough, it might be magic or something).

Interaction can increase the possibility of a proof considerably, i.e. it is much easier to convince if there is a two-way communication, e.g. verifier asks questions or make requests and God answers them. A book can perform as a common knowledge between two parties. For example, if the book is very long and although contains an answer to a question, finding it might be impracticable. But the verifier can ask for a proof of say NP!=P and God would say look at page X of the book. This is probably going to be a much shorter communication than a full proof of P!=NP (you can interpret this as what some people consider signs from God which directs them to answers to their problems or questions).

I again focused on computational power of a human, but if a verifier has other capabilities they can be used also, they don't need to be computational.

The previous part deals with what is called authentication, it does not mean that the book has not been altered, i.e. its integrity.

One last point. Most rationals have been heavily influenced by science and only accept arguments that look scientific and are intersubjective. Say a personal interaction with God which is not intersubjective and reproducible might not convince such persons. Also arguments which appeal to other capabilities of humans which science does not understand well at the moment, a poem or a picture or a natural even can have a very strong effect on a human, but because science does not certify it they would reject that as a reasonable argument. But it seems that the sender/author of books like Torah or Quran does not share their idea and values psychological and literatural effect more than a scientific argument, maybe it is because science changes too quickly too much, or probably he has a better understanding of how a human-being's mind works. Probably, these books should be analyzed from that perspective.

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Very useful answer. Though too scientific at first, you regain balance by including the last paragraph. It is important to know we are biased in a specific manner, not necessarily towards the best possible manner to gain useful philosophical knowledge. –  Alireza Mar 16 '13 at 19:29
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The book itself would have to have the following properties:

  1. The book manifests as a tangible object--paper, clay tablets, etc.
  2. The book has always existed in every human culture.
  3. Everyone can read it, whether they know how to read or not.
  4. The book is clear and unambiguous on every point, and everyone who reads it agrees that this is so. This means that there are no incidents, in history or experience, where two humans have ever disagreed about what the book says or how to apply what it says to a given situation.
  5. The book is not published by any known human agent, but it exists anyway, and no human is ever unable to obtain a copy. That is, the book itself is not subject to the laws of physics. Further clarification: if a human wants to read the book, they just reach out and grab a copy out of thin air, and put it back into thin air or onto a bookshelf when they are done.
  6. No other book meets this criteria.

While this wouldn't prove that the book was written by an omniscient, omnipotent being that created the universe, it would definitely prove that the book is not written by man. So it's written by a being that is at least godlike.


An edit, based on muz's comment. It occurs to me that the questioner mentions "a god" as opposed to "God". In that case I suppose we could have many such books, and the best way for a rational person to be convinced that it was written by a god would be for the god to claim credit. For example, if there actually were an Athena and her powers and attributes were sufficient to demonstrate her godlike nature, then if she appeared on the Daily Show to promote her book, there wouldn't be a rational reason to doubt that she wrote it.

My first answer is based on the assumption that the book itself has to be proof of the existence of the god in question.


A further edit in response to sehe's comment. The properties I'm listing in my first answer are not properties of an intangible thing, or forces of nature like gravity. I'm saying that in order for a book to convince a rational person that it was written by a god, the book itself--the thing written on parchment, stone tablets, clay, or other media--would have to have those properties. I'm saying that if I wanted to read part of the Book, I would have to be able to reach out into thin air and conjure a copy of the Book, and that I couldn't conjure any other book. That's criteria 4. Criteria 3 means that whenever humans discuss the book, they agree. No exceptions, not even between teenagers and parents.

The book is also a source of unlimited electrical power, because it can be conjured and burned indefinitely, but depending on the contents people might or might not do this.

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Point 4, combined with the ones before it would make it not a book.. it would be some kind of natural insight. Point 5 might not be true; Islam and Christianity recognize other books as revelation, though this might contradict with your Point 1 in that such a book can't be introduced at a later date. –  Muz Mar 14 '13 at 5:05
    
@Muz I think that is sort of the point, though. In order for a rational person to be convinced that something was the product of a supernatural being, the thing has to contain a convincing proof of supernaturalness, such as being supernatural itself. –  philosodad Mar 14 '13 at 14:16
    
I'm thinking "gravity" fits the description of this "book" (it is untangible, yet appears to be omnipresent and rarely debated). My point is: this implies the perception of it (the 'book') by humans is important to qualify, and yet we know how perception is a debatable source of truth. For starters, we could have a phenomenon satisfy the criteria 'locally', with no way to assess universal applicability. My stance is, we couldn't know, even if we went along with the assumptions stated in your answer. –  sehe Apr 19 '13 at 20:16
    
@sehe gravity is not a book, nor is it like a book, so it doesn't meet the most basic criteria. The properties I'm listing are not properties of an intangible thing, they would be properties of an actual book. –  philosodad Apr 20 '13 at 11:30
    
I know it was ludicrous. However, your list specifically did not constrain to "a book" (whatever that may be) and it did constrain with "is not subject to the laws of physics". I was merely thinking along. Funny how you condemn my comment for an paradox/contradiction you postulated yourself. (FTR: I was willing to stretch the definition of "book" to include any kind of externally observable entity that can act as a source of repeatable information. Yeah, it's more like "medium". Hofstadter's "record into space" thought experiment comes to mind.) –  sehe Apr 21 '13 at 11:09
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There seems to be an equivocation between "rational" and "believes only in things which are 'true.'" This is not at all what "rational" means:

[Rationality] refers to the conformity of one's beliefs with one's reasons for belief, or with one's actions with one's reasons for action... A rational decision is one that is not just reasoned, but is also optimal for achieving a goal or solving a problem. - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rationality

Suppose someone offered you a billion dollars to believe that the moon was made out of cheese. It would be perfectly rational for you to start believing in the cheese-moon hypothesis, assuming you valued the billion dollars more than you valued the 'truth'.

So what would it take for a rational agent to believe God wrote a book? Like everything else, the solution is large sums of money.


A harder question to answer would revolve around defining 'truth'. We might suggest that to assert "X is true" means something like "it is useful for one to believe X". We could point to an increased sense of community among believers, for example, as evidence that belief in a divine being is useful and therefore true. This is a (poorly phrased version of a) tack that James took.


And of course there's the nuclear option - denying the value of "truth". Consider the Knight of Faith. One of my favorie Kierkegaard lines:

Kierkegaard uses the story of a princess and a man who is madly in love with her, but circumstances are that the man will never be able to realize this love in this world ever... The knight of faith would say "I believe nevertheless that I shall get her, in virtue, that is, of the absurd, in virtue of the fact that with God all things are possible." This double movement is paradoxical because on the one hand it is humanly impossible that they would be together, but on the other hand the knight of faith is willing to believe that they will be together through divine possibility. [emphasis mine]

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Concerning the first point, I don't see any way that an offer of a billion dollars is in conformity with the cheese-moon hypothesis. I can't really imagine anyone looking at that particular confluence and concluding the belief is rational. Mercenary would fit better. (I don't understand where you are driving with this argument at all. I think you fell off the track right at the beginning.) –  Jon Ericson Jun 27 '11 at 18:31
    
@Jon: If we accept that "rational" means "optimal for achieving a goal", and our goal is to make lots of money, then surely the rational thing to do is take the money? –  Xodarap Jun 27 '11 at 21:02
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But we don't accept that condition. The normal term for abandoning a greater good for money is mercenary. Abandoning truth for the sake of personal gain is normally called hypocrisy. Note the Wikipedia definition you gave also says: 'The term "rationality" is used differently in different disciplines.' –  Jon Ericson Jun 27 '11 at 21:15
    
@Jon: It has been my experience that epistemology and certainly logic take "rational" to mean something like "epistemically closed." If you have some data to indicate otherwise, please let me know. –  Xodarap Jun 28 '11 at 1:05
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From dictionary.reference.com/browse/reason: "7. Philosophy . a. the faculty or power of acquiring intellectual knowledge, either by direct understanding of first principles or by argument. b. the power of intelligent and dispassionate thought, or of conduct influenced by such thought." –  Jon Ericson Jun 28 '11 at 1:28
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If I were aware of a book that had been "written" by a spiritual being and wanted to convince a rational person that the book was divinely written, I would tell/show them the following:

First, we would have to agree that the book was not actually hand-written by the divine being, and that a human, who was able to communicate with the being, had transcribed the true author's meaning.

Then, I would introduce the rational mind to the human being which had communication with the spiritual being so that we might gather evidence. If the human transcriber was unconscious and clearly on an ego-trip, then we would dismiss the case. If the human communicator was clear- headed and aware, then we would continue to look for clues. We would continue to be attentive and observant of the transcriber. We might look for whether the human transcriber has a political or moral agenda (and drop the case if so).

Next, we would read the book. We would read the words and feel intuitively whether or not the words are beautiful. That is, the rational mind and I would take a moment to use our other facilities, that of intuition, to get a larger sense of the book. Then, we would discuss, in detail, the contents of the book. What is the book about? Is there a new archetype which is trying tell it's story? If so, what is the story it is trying to tell and does it help humans to understand the larger picture and answer questions like "Why are we here?". Do the words evoke fear and division (if so we dismiss the case)?

By reading the words and talking with the human transcriber, the rational mind and I would hold an image of the divine being. We would discuss what this non-physical essense is trying to communicate and why. We might again use our transcendental ('right-brain') abilities to open ourselves up to the possibilty of having a conversation with the being ourselves. We might imagine asking the being questions and listening to the answers. If we succeed, we would discuss whether the words written by the transcriber accuately reftect the astral being's meaning. If we hold different images of the being, or hear words of hate or distress then we drop the case.

If, after much discussion we feel a sense of the being and find the words as accurate as possible, then perhaps the rational mind will feel at ease knowing that a divine being "wrote" the book.

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You did not really answer the question. What if the book was actually and literally written by a god? –  Chad Jul 12 '11 at 17:59
    
Then, that god would have some way of interacting with physical tools such as a writing utensil and paper. In which case, the god would have some physical or human qualities. Perhaps this being is an archetype like Jesus. In which case does this disqualify the author as solely a god since it has the human qualities of linear thought, language, and motor skills? –  Erin K Carmody Jul 12 '11 at 18:40
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Could a god not just create the book, without having written it? You assume limitations that do not exist in the question. –  Chad Jul 12 '11 at 18:59
    
In that case, skip the part about speaking with the human transcriber. –  Erin K Carmody Jul 12 '11 at 19:03
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I should have started with Welcome to S.E. Philosophy. Please do not get discouraged at being challenged. Refinement of answers is not just allowed but encouraged. –  Chad Jul 12 '11 at 19:09
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Assuming the rational agent has a brain, there should exist a state where the neurons and molecules are arranged in such a way that the agent believes that a book has been written by or directly inspired by a god.

So, an intermediate translation of the original question is: "How can one change the brain of the rational agent so that the agent believes that a book had been written by or directly inspired by a god?

The answer would be totally dependent on the rational agent. A brain operation could be enough. Chemicals might do it. Rational arguments may also work.

I think this answers your question, but I assume what you're really looking for are the rational arguments that could convince such a rational agent to believe such a thing. If you could start out showing, with rational arguments, that things aren't always rational, I think that would be a good start. (ref the incompleteness theorem)

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FYI. We've had a few question about Gödel's incompleteness theorems and how they are applied to non-mathematical problems. You might want to look at these questions: philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/tagged/godel –  Jon Ericson Jun 24 '11 at 17:34
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This sort of argument is completely lost on anyone who believes in a God that created them as a dualistic being with an immortal, rational, soul that is the thinking thing within them, and a body that happens to have a brain in it. I suspect the "rational person" in the question is a poor premise. –  Wooble Aug 24 '11 at 17:01
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Nothing written in a book could convince anyone that it has been written by god.

3 reasons:

Because any extraordinary written stuff could have been coincidentally written.

A book with thousands (or more) of different ideas (not necessarily predictions) has a good chance that some of them could later be interpreted as real predictions or as ahead of its time impossible scientific discoveries.

Because any book can be written randomly by a computer.

A book is only a combination of limited letters (or symbols, ideogram etc. depending of the language) and any powerful machine can randomly create all possible books (if the book is not unlimited).

So if you showed me a particular book and you told me it has been written by god, then I'd respond that a machine could have written this book or similarly that a human could have randomly created the book.

The designer of the ideas in that book would then be chaos/chance/randomness which is far away from any god definition.

Because we could live in a simulated reality in which any data could be produced by a super intelligent being in order to manipulate us.

In this case, any extraordinary content displayed in the book (as predictions) could be explained as manipulations from the super-intelligent designers of this "matrix".

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That same reason justifies not believing that a book was written by a human. –  Mitch Aug 23 '11 at 20:47
    
Yes, you are right. –  Geoffroy CALA Aug 24 '11 at 13:46
    
Was that your point then? It might be useful as an extreme skepticism, but then so is solipsism. –  Mitch Aug 24 '11 at 13:58
    
No. Solipsism is where you are 100% sure that only your mind exists. I never said that. I just list possibilities; "any book can..." or "we could live...". The original question was to convince so with 100% certitude, I just showed that as there is no certitude, one could never convince of this fact, hence my negative answer. –  Geoffroy CALA Aug 24 '11 at 14:22
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Oh, so it -is- your point that it would be difficult to establish authorship (at least of ideas) by a god (or -any- source), because any text -can be- randomly created or simulated, right? –  Mitch Aug 24 '11 at 15:00
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I think we are all touched by facts for which we hardly find an explanation that falls under our life and spiritual experience.

For example, a very precise prediction of a very particular fact is often destabilising and indeed it is difficult to measure, even a posterior, what was the knowledge of those who wrote the book (possibly god) and hence what was the probability of the prediction to be right. That would make me think that a precise fact is not enough. Maybe I would find more significant an exact prediction of a complex system of precise facts. Also this happens every day in plays and I would need a prediction for natural uncontrollable system of very unlikely events.

It might be difficult for god to make his way through prediction. Maybe I would be more convinced by two unexpected lines of insightful poetry changing abruptly the rest of my life.

In the end, asking the question "what would it take from a book..." might show that you have not understood what religon and god was all about, I would not say I am much into religion, but from what I understood god is not to be found in books (that would be weird to think it can, and your question and the associated answers show it is indeed) these are to be found digging into your soul, aren't they ? books are finite, but the source of your spiritual life is infinite isn't it ?

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If it were possible for a human to understand what was written in the book, then it would have to be possible for a human to have written it. So the only thing that should be able to convince a rational agent that it wasn't written by a human, would be something that no human can understand.

That could be, for example, as robin suggested, an exact prediction of a complex system. Say the book contained a precise explanation of how to build a spaceship that could travel faster than light, including explanations of all the physics involved, none of which were known to anyone on Earth, and which took our brightest physicists and engineers years to grasp before the ship could actually be built.

However, in that example the more likely explanation would be that the book was written by an alien civilisation more technologically advanced than ours.

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Or rather, that it could be build, even though nobody had any clue of how it actually worked. But this would then just be non-human information. That doesn't mean god. –  Lennart Regebro Jun 23 '11 at 11:44
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I find this question somehow similar to this one: What should a rational person accept as a miracle? In such a way, I do believe that the answer goes pretty much in the same way: it all depends on what you define by "rational" and what you define by "God" (although... do'h, that's totally breaking your question apart).

The point is that if a rational person would not accept God-inspired-books because it's just not "rational" to accept or because there are no direct proves for that, then you're defining being rational by being proof-based. Then, any proof of non-human inspiration could be the proof for God-inspired (but this may not be not actually correct) and the source of an inspiration can be definitely subjective. Pretty much in the same way as what do we consider a miracle and what do we consider extra-human-inspired, it is so subjectively accepted that there's no easy "rule" to define what's into it and what's not.

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Although the future-humans-of-considerably-advanced-technology possibility raised by Lennart is indeed formidable, I think there is a fair leeway for a rational person to be convinced that a book having been written by some sort of omniscient/omnipotent entity is the best explanation currently available to them, and on that basis become convinced until further information should present itself.

  • Sidenote: the conspiracy-with-future-me portion is not strictly necessary as we can also imagine some future device that extracts information from your mind against your will, or even which extracts the same information from some sort of background signal in an alternate dimension some time after your death. Otherwise you could simply commit on reading the book never to cooperate with future individuals and also obtain rational warrant for your belief that way, assuming you trust yourself.

For me, if a book described some sort of one-way function built into the physics of our universe, a Grand Unified Theory within which to thoroughly test said function, and a substantial set of predicted output from that function; combined with complete working instructions for a time machine in order to verify that the one-way-function changes its output under time travel; and then after verifying all this personally and traveling forward in time to the end of the universe to see that none of this technology is ever discovered by human beings (presumably the book instructs me to destroy the included knowledge after doing all this); then I would consider it highly rational to believe the book was likely written by some sort of omniscient/omnipotent entity (with respect to my universe at least) until or unless contrary information of some sort became available to me. Under the circumstances, it would be the best explanation currently available to me.

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This is an amazing question. If we restrict ourselves to the contents of the book alone, i.e. we can think of the book as an actual, finite letters-on-paper object made of earthly materials, then wouldn't we surely find this book in the Library of babel? Generated simply by a permutation of all possible symbols, purely by chance? And if there was this book that "proved" god A, wouldn't we find a similar book that is able to prove a different god B? Now how can we know which one is correct one? By this argument, one can never be absolutely sure that any book was truly divine. A sufficiently well-written book could of course, I'm sure, trick the most rational people into believing in it, but we were talking about irrefutable proofs.

If we allowed for qualities other than the text alone, Borges' Book of sand could probably be the best example of a truly divine book: The book that is all books!


As you might have noticed, the question in general reminds me very much of the works of Jorge Luis Borges, who often explores concepts of books, god and revelation. For example

  • in The secret miracle, God was in a single letter of a book
  • In muslim tradition, there is the 100th name of Allah, "The Greatest Name of Allah is the one which if He [Allah] is called (prayed to) by it, He will Answer." (according to Wikipedia). Borges mentions this several times. This name could be an appropriate content for the book in question.
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It depends on your definition of god. For example, the catholic god has three basic caractheristics: all-knowing, all-mighty and eternal.

If a book were to convince any rational person that god was it's author, it must be some kind of interactive book (probably more of a website) where I could ask anything and get a correct answer, I could command anything and get it immediatly done and somehow it would have the ability to extract me from time -probably experiencing past, future and present at once- thus proving me it is eternal.

Repeat this logic for the god of your choice and you'll have your answer.

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That is wrong, because for god to be all-knowing he doesn't have to give you answers, even more answers you'd understand, and the fact that he's almighty isn't proven by you getting what you asked for. –  iphigenie Nov 19 '13 at 9:09
    
For a God to be all-knowing it does'nt have to give me or anyone else answers, neither it has to prove nothing to noone, but the hypothetical question assumes it wants to show us –  Eduardo Serra Dec 4 '13 at 13:53
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I would have difficulty believing that any text written in a human natural language (HNL) came from a god like the ones described by most religions. The purpose of HNL is to help humans to accomplish human goals, which include acquiring resources, social stability, happiness of self/friends/family, and protection against threats, mostly other humans.

Unlike formal languages, HNL has no clear and precise common basis crucial for reliable communication as in math and science. Mental representation of concepts, words and meanings depend on one's personal, family, and cultural history. HNL is not truth or false-preserving and so it's easy to make anything sound true or false. We use it because everyone can learn it, false ideas can have enormous benefits, it's too hard to find a valid proof or teach everyone how to use a more appropriate language, and it has great manipulative power.

HNL does not exist to find a clear, explicit, truthful, unbiased, minimal representation of how the universe works (sometimes it's the opposite because humans thrive on mystery and stories). That's the goal of science, and that's why science uses formal languages. HNL is completely inappropriate for representing truth.

The most well developed of technologies is psychological and social control through language. Humans have spent tens of thousands of years refining ways to control other humans and we are easily fooled. Using HNL, religious texts are optimized to activate certain human instincts that are difficult to control. A tactic used by the Quran, Bible and salesmen is to put the listener in a certain mindset (thinking about loved ones or punishment for example), which restricts their thought process making it very difficult to think clearly. Another tactic is to use a chain of low probability or unverifiable, contingent "what if" events that lead to a psychologically appealing end. There are many more very effective methods to covertly inject bias into a human's thought process using HNL because that is one of its most valuable uses.

Rationality is relative to an agent's goals and current knowledge of its environment which its idea of truth often contradicts. Thus humans have evolved to cope well with contradictions, by using faith for example. What goals does a healthy, rational human usually have? To find the truth no matter how painful, destructive, possibly disrupting peace, inciting anarchy, or to survive while maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain?

The concept of god(s) is a deeply rooted primal instinct that probably originated from living under and being dependent upon a chieftain, tribal elders or some type of primate leader for millions of years. In all cultures god (or a perfect leader) is a crucial part of a species-wide self control mechanism, so tightly coupled with social stability and personal well-being that all atheists and agnostics (relative to the god of the culture they live in) recognize the danger in announcing their beliefs.

A basic requirement for me is that the text would have to be written in some kind of precise, explicit formal language that is not biased toward humans. Hopefully, I will know enough true facts about the universe already that I can use as a key to decipher the language. It must successfully address the problems with HNL stated above. It would contain all conceivable knowledge, address all valid open questions (it will likely show most questions to be nonsense) and be brutally honest. It can't appear to be concerned with the fate of humanity or morality and it can't be selling a way of life or a way to get anything humans need or want, other than clearly describing the nature of god and the universe. It can say how humans are different but not "special". It will read like a math or science book and some parts will take years to understand. Most of it will be out of reach of my primitive hominid mind. It must not "reek" of humanity or contain stories like most texts, or have any hint of human-like psychology (other than describing explicitly how humans or aliens behave). This may exclude the possibility of a caring, theistic god who would not want such dangerous knowledge to be in my hands.

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Each person that reads the book is treated to a complete history of their life, including their thoughts and motivations up to and including their thoughts about what they are reading. Revisiting the text, it is updated to include what has happened since the last time they read it.

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I wonder if it would be possible to convince a truly rational person person about the existence of God at all (i.e. including not only books, but miracles and whatnot)? At the very least, it is impossible to differentiate between a supernatural agent having complete control over you and your surroundings, and a natural agent having the same control (some brain-in-a-vat situation), and the second needs less premises, and is thus favored by Occam's razor.

The same is even more true for a book. Anything that can be understood (not to mention validated) by the quite limited humen intellect certainly would not require an infinite intellect to produce (assuming for the sake of the argument that the term "infinite intellect" even makes sense). A very powerful AI capable of simulating a huge number of human beings could, for example, produce every string which is short enough for a human to read in its lifetime, then simulate all the efforts humans could muster to validate such texts, and throw away those which the simulated humans would not find godlike, thereby producing a godlike text (if one exists at all) while not being God.

On the other hand, it is not hard to imagine a book which could not have been written by a human being. One which asks you on the first page to get a coin and lists the results of your coin throws on the next few hundred pages would suffice. (It does not rule out time travellers, but then time travel has contradictions of its own.) If predicting future events is disallowed, then listing the solutions for all current hard problems of math, physics, biology etc. would still prove it was not written by a human.

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If you are a brain in a vat, and all you experiences are controlled by me, am I then not for all intents and purposes your God? –  Lennart Regebro Jul 24 '11 at 12:58
    
No (for the usual meaning of God, at least). For example, few people would feel obliged to revere a being just because it is powerful. Religious thinkers usually attribute some vaguely defined "infiniteness" to God (it is not just very powerful, but omnipotent; not just ethical, but defines ethics etc.); I'm arguing that that sort of infiniteness is not empirically different from plain old boring "very powerful". If by God you simply mean "very powerful", then yes, it is possible for a book to prove itself to be written by God. –  Tgr Jul 24 '11 at 13:33
    
What if I copy the first pages of God's book and then I write my own "finale" of it? How can we tell which is the true one and which is the scam? :) –  Paolo Mar 31 at 16:27
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No. I will hazard that rational individuals have little to no idea of the full capabilities of people in terms of insight. Consequently, it makes no sense to rule out that a book absolutely could not have every gotten written by a person or group of people. A text written by a supernatural god, by its very nature, rules out such a possibility, and thus makes no sense to any rational person.

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I understand you want a holy book prove of existence of God.

Is the God you want to prove a necessary God?

Before you know how a holy book's hypothesis can prove a concept like God you need a proper description of God's nature. If God is something beyond proper description with any of the concepts or properties that we can employ, a being that defies comprehension, it cannot be clear to even the believer what he believes, or whether his pious belief has any content at all. There has been no unanimity in human conceptions of the divine. There is little evidence of common consent here. On what possible grounds can it be asserted that these seemingly radically different concepts are, at bottom, the same concept? If there is a same concept, what it would take for an idea of the divine not to share in that same concept?

To a holy book's hypothesis to be a proof of God it must cohere with our other beliefs, the scientific theories. It would be necessary that a God hypothesis would not be superfluous to explain and understand better the workings the world we observe. The God hypothesis may be challenged if it make no contribution to the predictive success of actual science.The history of science gives us reasons to be wary of committing ourselves to the existence of the unobservables postulated to explain observable phenomena. Since there are many ontologically incompatible yet empirically equivalent Gods, some ‘principle of privilege’ is required if we are to think that a holy book's hypothesis that we can have under consideration will is the true hypothesis. How we can know that none of the other possible God's we have not considered until now is not better than the best that we have now? Obsolete Gods, which no longer have active adherents, are evidence that holy books are not so eternal.

Of all holy book's possible proves, a deduction is the strategy that we would expect to be successful were there a necessary God. As there isn't a valid deduction of any non logical existence, we can conclude that there is no necessary God.

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The question is unclear, because it is not clear what 'god' means. Assuming some common meanings of 'god' like 'mythological and religious figure with supernatural, mystical, or otherwise currently unexplainable capabilities', the book would have to be able to convey intimate knowledge of such capabilities, including perhaps how to perform alleged miracles or otherwise making it plausible that they are possible.

However, there is a catch. It is well-known that when a civilization with very advanced technology encounters a society with a much lower technological development, the members of the latter might consider those of the first gods, especially if they are prone to superstition. But they would be wrong. A rational person will likely be aware of such examples from human history. If so, he or she would probably not believe that such a book was truly written by a god, as from this perspective it would be more reasonable to assume that the book had been written by the member of a technologically highly advanced society, where 'technology' is meant to be understood in a very broad sense. Hence, unless you think high technological advancement equals to being a god, nothing a book would say or predict ought to convince a rational person that it has been written by a god in the mystical or religious sense of the word.

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To convince me that a book is written by God, it will have to contain information only God could know, but which can still be verifiable by me. This is likely impossible.

This is the view of the highest ranked answer to this question. I would posit that if this is how you discern a books chances of being inspired then a positive case can be made for the Bible as being inspired.

Take for instance the first three words in the Bible

In the beginning...

This is a wholly remarkable claim for a person living 3 odd thousands years ago to make. The scientific view of the time was nowhere near thinking that the universe had a beginning.

To be exact it was the work of two physicist named Arno Penzias and Robert Woodrow Wilson who discovered the background radiation that gave scientific credence to one of the first claims of this archaic and wholly unscientific book. This happened in 60's and 70's just to illustrate to you how recent this discovery really was.

This discovery was deemed so remarkable that the two scientist who discovered this phenomena was both awarded Noble prizes.

Now how do you explain the Bible telling us this thousands of years before these two discovered it? Is it something that only God would have known at that point of history? Seems so. Is it something verifiable today. Yes.

So it seems that if this is your criteria for inspiration of holy books then the Bible passes. I wonder then how does this factor in in those who denounce religions lack of evidence?

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Any book that starts with "In the beginning ..." is written by (a) god? –  Dave Apr 1 at 19:16
    
Any book claiming to inspired and predicting scientific discoveries by three thousand years has a good case for being inspired. –  Neil Meyer Apr 7 at 7:59
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The book should have a spell like this:

Each time you say the word Abracadabra a copy of this book will appear in your right hand. When you let it go it will disappear

(just to make sure we are not submerged by garbage...)

This would be something nobody can rationally explain, everybody can verify it and most important no other book can take credit for this magic event.

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I mention one reason. This reason is brought forward by Quran.

Write something similar

Now, if you (or anyone else) can write something similar, then screw God and be happy, because you have proved that the book is not by God. But if you (or anyone else) can't write a similar book, then ...

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The problem with this seems to be that a lot of people have. For example, if you believe that the Quran was written by God, what about the Bible? Clearly that wasn't written by God, so it must have been written by man. But it's awfully similar to the Quran. –  Cody Gray Jul 15 '11 at 15:35
    
In that case, I think we can conclude that No book is written by God. :) –  Saeed Neamati Jul 15 '11 at 17:15
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This answers the inverse question: Are the "divinely inspired" books of today written by or directly inspired by a God? It doesn't answer the OP's question, i.e. whether any book could theoretically be constructed such that it would convince a rational person that it was written by a deity. So while your point is reasonable it's been downvoted because it's not really an answer to the question. :( –  stoicfury Feb 29 '12 at 16:53
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We're looking for long answers that provide some explanation and context. Don't just give a one-line answer; explain why your answer is right, ideally with citations. Answers that don't include explanations may be removed.

Everyone seems to take certain knowledge of a proposition as meaning that it's negation must be logically impossible. As Wittgenstein argued if the negation of a proposition is logically impossible so also is that proposition, that is to say one is not really dealing with a proposition at all in such circumstances. To know x, not x must be logically possible or else there is no x to be known. It's logically possible a God planted fossils to test our faith. That doesn't mean we can't know he didn't. In fact it must be logically possible that he did before we can know he didn't. Would we say we can't know it's raining because it's logically possible millions of demons are spitting on us?

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This does not answer the question that was asked. –  Eric '3ToedSloth' Mar 18 '13 at 14:36
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We're looking for long answers that provide some explanation and context. Don't just give a one-line answer; explain why your answer is right, ideally with citations. Answers that don't include explanations may be removed.

Quran gives such a test of authenticity of authorship.

Quran says in verse 82, Nissa chapter, Do they not study Quran (with care)? Had it been from other than Allah (God), they would surely have found therein much contradiction.

Quran contains many logical arguments regarding the necessity of a creator and that the creator must be unique. This kind of logic in the Quran is a higher order logic. Quran does not ask for a blind faith. Quran wants the believers to examine the facts and then make a decision to accept or reject. So, my advice to you if you want to know, read Quran and make up your mind about who wrote the book.

Here is my own experience. I consider my self a rational man of science and I earned my PhD in computer engineering. Every time I read Quran I get more convinced that Quran is not written by any human and Quran is the words of Allah, my creator.

One such example of knowledge of the type you are looking for in the Quran is the statement of the Quran that everything is created in pairs which is only understood just recently when we discovered that elementary particles come in pairs which we call matter and antimatter. For instance, electron and positron pair.

If Quran was from any source other than Allah (God) then we would find many logical contradictions. These contradictions could be internal between different parts of Quran or external with indisputable facts. For instance, many claimed that there are contradictions in Quran. For example, they cite that Quran states that ants talk to each other in the story of Prophet Solomon with ants( Ants chapter, verse 18). Just recently, scientists discovered in 2009 that ants "talk" to each other using sound produced by its abdomen. See this ABC News clip about the discovery.

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Please explain your downvote. –  Mohammad Al-Turkistany Feb 4 '13 at 20:14
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-1 There is no reason why any book not written by Allah should contain much contradiction. So finding much contradiction in Quran could prove that it is not written by Allah, but the opposite is not true. –  Thomas Klimpel Feb 4 '13 at 22:34
    
But ants don't talk like people, that is they do not use words. The fact is that there are many coincidences out there. If they were not sensitive to sounds, you would have said they "talk" through smell sense and so on... –  Theta30 Feb 24 '13 at 18:53
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