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I was reading through this collection of short essays from theologians, scientists and thinkers each responding to the question "Does the Universe have a purpose?" which was suggested to me in a response to my question here on the purpose of the universe. On p. 2, in an article entitled "Unlikely," Laurence M. Krauss, a professor of physics and astronomy at Case Western Reserve University, says:

"Of course, nothing would stop science from uncovering positive evidence of divine guidance and purpose if it were attainable. For example, tomorrow night if we look up at the stars and they have been rearranged into a pattern that reads, “I am here,” I think even the most hard-nosed scientific skeptic would suspect something was up."

This, as I understood, means that for physicists, maybe, and only maybe a phenomenon like stars lining up in "I am here" fashion, can be regarded as a miracle. Then I thought: is there anything special in nature that can cause a rational person to think of that phenomenon as a miracle?

What should a rational person consider as constituting a miracle? For example, if someone appears now and brings dead people back to life, why should a rational person believe his/her action as a miracle? Maybe because he can't do the same, or because he knows that returning a dead person back to life is impossible, or maybe he/she doesn't accept that action as miracle.

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    Dead people come back to life all the time. Raising the dead is simply uncommon, not miraculous. What would be miraculous would be raising the long dead. – user179700 Aug 1 '11 at 4:22
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    Can you provide the definition of "miracle" in the sense that you are using here? – stoicfury Aug 1 '11 at 4:45
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    @user, miracles don't have to be uncommon to be miraculous. We Catholics consider a miracle to happen every time the Lord appears to us as bread and wine. An event which likely is happening all around the world at every minute of the day several times over. – Peter Turner Aug 1 '11 at 21:51
  • @Peter Yes and no. As every priest invoking this presumed miracle isn’t beatified, clearly even the Catholic Church is drawing some distinction. One could equivocate to the point of saying anything that happens is miraculous, but then one hasn’t really said much of anything. In short, if there is common evidence of miracles it shouldn’t be difficult to actually demonstrate that something is going on. – user179700 Aug 2 '11 at 4:28
  • It's because they aren't dead, if a dead priest consecrated a host, you can bet they'd be fast tracked for sainthood. But, I get your last point, the whole reason for miracles is to assist belief in unexplainable ways - not to take away from our freewill. – Peter Turner Aug 2 '11 at 11:27

14 Answers 14

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It's interesting. Given the context (Krauss' larger argument) the point seems to be that among the uncountably many pieces of scientific data which the human race has carefully collected, prudently analyzed, ruthlessly abstracted, reduced, synthesized with other data, etc., we have never encountered anything remotely resembling a valid miracle that has withstood any degree of scrutiny.

Part of the problem may be the definition of the word. Just like "purpose" is meaningless (and even potentially cognitively harmful) when applied outside the context of human affairs, the word "miracle" doesn't have much meaning outside of a theological context. Absent that, in a secular context 'miracle' tends to simply indicate 'against all odds' or 'nearly impossible.'

I am not certain whether a serious answer to the question is really possible, given the problem that "miracle" has no effective transcendent meaning for science. There are things we do not know, sure — that does not make them miracles. The basic problem is that declaring something to be a miracle implicitly demands the priority of a particular theological interpretation of events, which is rarely satisfying to scientists and many philosophers.

The larger problem of why humanity would have need for the notion of miracles in the first place is probably better left to a response to a more specific question.

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    +1 for "'Miracle' has no meaning in a scientific context"- for me this is as close as one could come to summarising Hume's rational empiricism in ten words or less and a remarkably salient point. – Tom Boardman Aug 1 '11 at 11:33
  • The connection between miracle and purpose (see: Aristotelian teleology) is excellent. It's not clear that talking about purpose outside of human affairs is necessarily harmful; how is this harm measured? Purpose is a way to unify disparate events, similar to how scientific models operate. It is a way to predict future events. It's really just a different kind of model, isn't it? – labreuer Dec 16 '13 at 19:24
  • @labreuer I was just thinking that's a rather sharp claim; have amended to 'potentially' cognitively harmful. At the least it is mystical-panpsychist, more poetic/spiritual than critical-scientific, to say that, for instance, a stone, a plant, etc., can have 'purposes' or indeed a 'purpose', assuming we don't mean this figuratively. The issue that I think I was trying to underline is the problem in interposing some transcendental logic placing an 'intention' somehow outside of actual interactions, evolutionary history, learned behaviors, blind chance... – Joseph Weissman Dec 16 '13 at 20:18
  • I would be careful with 'blind chance'; it is a negative term, not a positive one. It asserts that the theory works without further ordering/lawfulness. As best as I can understand, the only definition of 'science' which survives is, ironically, one based on purpose: anything which allows us to better model nature. If someone were to make string theory empirical via teleological reasoning, I doubt anyone who questioned the discovery because of how it was arrived at would be listened to by scientists interested in doing science more than defending their philosophy. :-p – labreuer Dec 16 '13 at 20:33
  • Surely 'miracle' has meaning in a scientific context - it means you've eliminated all scientific explanations for an event. This is an essential property of science, it has to be falsifiable. If it is impossible to eliminate all scientific explanations, and science itself is not falsifiable, it ceases to be scientific by its own criteria. – yters Jul 13 '14 at 2:21
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A rational person would accept as a miracle something which

  • Is extremely clearly observable
  • Is not subject to any remotely plausible subterfuge / illusion / etc.
  • Contradicts extremely well-established theory*, where that theory has previously been known to be incredibly robust.

The first point is necessary, or observers (including said rational person) may simply not know what they're looking at. The second is necessary, or the observer may be duped by clever con-artists (moving stars is good on this account; reversing the orbit of the moon would work well also). The third is necessary, or it should perhaps more parsimoniously be categorized as the outcome of a natural law that we don't know about. If all three criteria are met, then a rational person can be highly confident that it should not have happened, but it did.

(* - Theory meaning either a scientific theory or less-formalized observations that nonetheless are conclusive enough to turn into a scientific theory should one be so motivated.)

  • I don't see the third as being necessary, though it seems as if it would add weight to an argument. For instance, I don’t know there’s a ‘Can’t talk to the dead theory’ or ‘Dead must stay dead theory’ though doing either of those could be miraculous. – user179700 Aug 3 '11 at 17:55
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    @user179700 - That's an implicit theory. You need some very good reason to believe that something else should have happened. Before we understood what was required for someone to be alive, it would have been hard to argue that someone coming back from the dead was a miracle. We could have argued it was rare, yes, but rare phenomena happen now and then by coincidence. – Rex Kerr Aug 3 '11 at 19:20
  • a theory in science generally has a well-defined meaning. I had never heard of implicit theory and Google seeems to attribute it to Psychology. Do you have a citation in epistomology or in the hard sciences? It seems problematic to equate 'well-established theory' to "stuff we accept' or somesuch. – user179700 Aug 3 '11 at 21:58
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    @user179700 - The second point was that whether a theory is implicit or explicit, it has to have very good support or else the "we have a lousy theory" explanation is more parsimonious than the "we have a miracle" explanation. In particular, although we had much experience with people dying and not coming back a thousand years ago, we didn't really know what made people alive vs. dead on a detailed level, so we did not have good justification for a "dead must stay dead" theory (implicit or explicit). – Rex Kerr Aug 3 '11 at 22:37
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    @user179700 - Feel free to suggest something weaker that is still rationally justified. Maybe I'll agree and change the answer. I don't know how to justify anything weaker. (If I write it this way, I just say "Science works." That is, I defer to the philosophy of science to explain why it's justified.) – Rex Kerr Aug 3 '11 at 23:04
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In his lectures entitled "The Meaning of it All," Richard Feynman talked about UFOs and psychics a lot. It seems that this is something that has pestered him a lot, as almost every collection of his stories includes something on UFOs and psychics.

He talked about what it would take for him to believe in psychics (bear with me, I think it's relevant). Supposing there were a 'psychic' who claimed to be able to predict the outcome of things at a casino. So he went to a roulette table, and began to predict them, one by one. Suppose he got it 30 times in a row. Even then, Feynman said he would be completely skeptical. He would suspect collusion or some other trick first. But if he brought that 'psychic' to a variety of casinos, and he predicted it another 30 times at many different places, then he would believe. And he would be excited, because he hadn't expected it.

The idea is that everyone starts with an initial bias. And there are always lots of alternatives. Is it possible to show that something is a 'miracle' (whatever that means - in this context, I'm taking it to mean something whose explanation does not lie within our current body of knowledge) to a scientist (inasfar as he represents a rational thinker), but one would need to exhaust all other possibilities that seem more likely to him.

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'Miracles' exist only because our current set of knowledge can not contain them. In other words, a miracle does not exist at all in the exact sense we consider it to be. It is just a matter of time and effort for science/knowledge to expand its horizons to that level where 'it' becomes no more a miracle.

A rational person thus totally dismisses the notion of miracle-that can exist (absolutely) infinitely over time.

Once the underlying equations are found out, and if those findings are simple enough to be closer to the truth, Miracle just transcends to be a scientific phenomenon, and is explained well...or even man can interfere with or control it.

Flight, Rain, Rainbow are all simple examples

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    How about magnets? – Joseph Weissman Aug 1 '11 at 12:26
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    @Mitch - Actually there is because it did. Even though we did not understand what it was, the explanation was there. It is not rational to expect that we will ever be able to explain everything. That does not mean there is not an explanation for everything. – Chad Aug 1 '11 at 14:44
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    @Kiran - You seem to discount the possibility of there being an actual miracle. While it my be irrational to expect them, to discount them as a potential source, simply because we do not know is also irrational. 100 years ago much of what is today accepted in particle physics was unknown this did not make untrue though anyone making accurate claims about it may have seemed irrational as well. – Chad Aug 2 '11 at 13:20
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    @Kiran - So then you close yourself off to a potential world of wonder for no reason other than you do not want to believe it is possible? Does that sound rational? – Chad Aug 2 '11 at 17:47
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    @Kiran - I am simply saying that you discount it as possible because you have not proof. But you have no proof that it is impossible either. Is that rational? I am not trying to say that when you see a piece of toast that appears to have a char pattern vaguely resembling some deitiacal figure you first jump to DI, but that discounting the possibility of it with out reason is not rational either. – Chad Aug 3 '11 at 13:29
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Miracles are by definition beyond rationality. The rational mind knows that everything can be explained. So a miracle, defined as something happening for reasons, and through a process can not be explained, is beyond rationality. So any acceptance of a miracle is really just the surrender to the inability to find any scientific process that can explain it.

However if you define miracles as an act of god who is the creator, then everything is a miracle. How can something have come from nothing? How does life begin, the grow, then develop the ability to think? All of this is miraculus even though we can explain the process scientifically the fact that it actually happened unstead of just theoretically is miraculous. Just because we understand the process that got us here does not take away from the that.

  • I don'[t think you can unequivocally say 'beyond rationality'. If a miracle is 'a transgression of natural law by divine intervention', then in some sense, the 'divine intervention' is a catchall exception to whatever rules exist so far (the 'god of the gaps', I think is one way of saying it). -That- is not particularly satisfying scientifically (or theologically), but it is rational. – Mitch Aug 1 '11 at 13:51
  • @Mitch if you can prove or even show rational cause for belief in the divine intervention then certianly. However unless you can show rational cause for that belief that choosing to ascribe it to divine intervention is irrational. It is much more logical(rational) that there is some process we do not understand that is the cause. – Chad Aug 1 '11 at 14:05
  • 'Process we do not understand' can cover divine/mystical/magical/ESP-like things to the same degree that it covers, say, rainbows. Before Descartes (and really afterwards too), it is somewhat simpler to posit that a benevolent personality 'willed' its existence (paranoia is sometime right for the right reasons (if you're a mob boss). How does gravity work? We know some of its properties scientifically but it's a 'miracle' that it can work at a distance, and it is scientific and rational to ignore the gaps in our knowledge about it to determine other properties. – Mitch Aug 1 '11 at 14:24
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    @Mitch - As I said, "if you can prove or even show rational cause for belief in the divine intervention" then certianly. However saying it is divine intervention just because we do not have another explanation is not rational any more than saying it is the work of a magical invisible unicorn. Faith does not require rationality. – Chad Aug 1 '11 at 14:38
  • Oh, OK, I was unintentionally ignoring the part about 'If you can show...'. – Mitch Aug 1 '11 at 14:46
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When events whose probability of happening is extremely low happen, such occurrences are called 'miracles' in my opinion.For example if the odds of a certain event not happening are 5000 billion against 1 possibility of the event happening, and it happens we can call it a miracle because it is almost a statistical impossibility.

Considering the comments below I think I need to make my answer a little clearer.Consider the following example.A healthy adult male can release between 40 million and 1.2 billion sperm cells in a single ejaculation but only one fertilizes the egg & goes on to develop into an embryo.Suppose we mark any one sperm at random from among the billion sperm cells before competition between the sperm cells begin, and it turns out that the marked cell is the one that fertilized the egg, such an occurrence I would call a miracle.

Note that I do not say that fertilization in itself is a miracle.In fact it is an extremely probable event considering that there are 1 billion cells in the competition.I call it a miracle only if the successful cell was the cell that we picked beforehand.The probability of that happening is extremely low.

I can extend this answer to the Dartboard question mentioned below.Suppose one particular spot on the dartboard was marked beforehand & the darts-man was blindfolded.If he is able to hit that one particular spot,then and only then will I call it a miracle.

Further, if you notice many of the so called 'miracles' in Bible are just highly improbable events whose occurrence was considered impossible.For example this one in which Jesus apparently walks on water is one such event.

Admittedly the Bible has no significance in this discussion but what I want to highlight was that miracles are closed related to improbability.

Hope that makes it clearer.

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    The probability of hitting any one exact spot on a dartboard is zero ('infinitely small' for the non-mathematically inclined), and yet I have often seen darts hit the board, is this a miracle? – Tom Boardman Aug 1 '11 at 16:50
  • Lotto winners might be another example -- "highly improbable event" does not equal "divine intervention". – Joseph Weissman Aug 1 '11 at 19:24
  • The bible should have quite a but of significance since it can put us on the same page for what is miraculous and what isn't regardless of our beliefs. As well as foster a discussion of what it takes to accept a miracle, which apparently is much more than just seeing. – Peter Turner Aug 2 '11 at 11:37
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    @Tom Actually its not zero or even infintatly small. However I have seen some people throw darts where i would classify thier hitting the board a near miracle, the example above I would not. – Chad Aug 2 '11 at 17:34
  • @Chad, what probability would you ascribe, then, for hitting, say, the exact centre of the board? I know that it may not be zero exactly (when I first wrote that comment I tried to edit it to clarify the potential deficiency in applying a continuous probabilistic model to a physical situation [where the reality may in fact be macro combinatorial- noone knows] but by the time I had finished, the comment was closed to edits) but certainly near as dammit- and quite likely in reality, the probability is zero. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impossible_event for clarification. – Tom Boardman Aug 2 '11 at 17:51
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I highly recommend that you read Miracles by C.S. Lewis. Lewis answers this exact question from a Christian perspective, yet he assumes the reader is initially skeptical of miracles. The book is very readable and relatively short (you could probably read it in a few days).

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The point where it would be rational to accept a miracle should be the point where it would be irrational to not accept a miracle.

For instance, St. Thomas says, "I will not believe Jesus is risen from the dead until I put my hands into His wounds". When Jesus comes and asks him to put his hands into His wounds, Thomas just says, "My Lord and my God".

At this point, had he actually put his hands into Jesus's wounds, it would have been irrational for him to have continued in doubt, given all he had seen and having his demands fulfilled.

What is irrational is to keep asking the same questions ad infinitum after your initial query has been fulfilled.

  • So miracle is just a belief? – WinW Aug 2 '11 at 17:34
  • @Peter - I do not know that that is true. I can rationalize this and come up with a non divine reason for Jesus to survive and have his wounds. And I do not think it was irrational for St. Thomas to accept the miracle. How ever if you take away the knowledge of the rest of Jesus life and teachings and just jump to miracle because someone you saw die on a cross is now alive, look at Chris Angel. – Chad Aug 2 '11 at 17:44
  • @Chad, it's not irrational to accept any miracle, it's irrational to deny a miracle that you have every reason to believe. – Peter Turner Aug 2 '11 at 18:31
  • @Peter - while that true I do not know any miracle, including ones that I accept as miracles that actually fit that desciption. I accept them because it does not hurt anyone to do so and it fill me with comfort. That is not a rational choice it is a personal one. – Chad Aug 2 '11 at 19:42
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We have very good evidence that the universe is governed by a small set of laws: that science and technology have worked to explain and control the natural world. The fundamental assumption of science is that of the mechanistic universe.

A rational scientist, who accepts this assumption, would presume that an apparently impossible event can be explained scientifically, even if nobody has thought of an explanation. It would not be a "miracle", but merely an unknown physical phenomenon. Even if explaining it requires overthrowing the whole of physics, I would not call it a miracle, since the underlying assumption is unchallenged.

Only a pattern of "paranormal" phenomena, observed by reliable sources, would challenge his belief in a mechanistic universe, and only then would he believe in miracles. One would require a lot of evidence to be convinced, considering how much evidence we have accumulated in favor. (I think Richard Dawkins wrote that he would sooner doubt his sanity than believe something he observed was supernatural, reasoning that the probability he's nuts is much higher than the chance that millennia of accumulated evidence is all wrong.)

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A miracle at its basic meaning is a event that is believed to be the intervention of a deity of some sort into the physical world. So it stands to reason that those who believe their to be no deities would as a extension of their beliefs not hold that miracles have any validity. The inverse is also true for those who do believe in the idea of deities or gods.

To me the question of whether miracles are possible (Or rational in your case) is closely tied to whether one can convince a person that a God of some sort does exist. You seem to have to first be able to admit something exist before it can intervene in the physical world.

When I consider the claim of it being irrational I find it wanting. If their is a God with enough power to create a life sustaining universe then something as mundane as raising a Jew from the dead to try and convince people of his existence seems entirely reasonably thing for a Omnipotent being to do.

No you may not think that such a being exist. That is a conversation worth holding. But for those who do believe such a being exist their seems no lack of rational behind believing he can have a influence on the universe he created.

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Contra Hume, suppose 'miracle' is roughly defined as (inspiration):

an event which adheres to deeper laws of nature than we currently understand

Could we ever observe such events and know that we have observed them? Consider an event which a person:

     (1) observes with his/her senses, for which
     (2) no known mechanism exists, but which
     (3) still fits into some [guessed] unifying 'purpose'.

Science does not deal with sample sizes of one. But we can still equate:

     (1) with evidence
     (3) with hypothesis (model)

What is required for this person to have sufficient confidence that:

     (a) he/she really saw something close to what he/she thinks she saw, and
     (b) his/her guessed 'purpose' is a good model?

Let's look at a few different measures of 'success' in science:

     (i) Can the model remove signal from the data?
     (ii) Can the model help us make more unexpected and compelling observations?
     (iii) Can the model somehow help us understand the world better?

I'm a bit skeptical about (iii), but something seemed missing without it. Given that biological research utilizes teleological reasoning, rejecting the use of 'purpose' on the grounds that only minds have purpose both begs the question of what is a mind, and also fails to understand instrumentalism, which is allowed to use any method of modeling which helps to efficiently predict observations. Contra the accepted answer, I see no reason why a person would be unable to enjoy (i-iii) and thus confirm (a-b) by doing (1-3).

Perhaps the most unusual contribution this answer provides is the verification of a miracle, especially by (ii). This likely means observing more miracles, miracles which follow a pattern (purpose, or telos). For example, suppose a person starts hearing a voice which tells him the name of a person he will meet within the next twenty-four hours. It is logically possible that this 'voice' could be correct a large amount of the time. Neither the nature nor mechanism of this voice is required in order to hear it. After not too many data points, the hearer of the voice would be justified in claiming that he/she is witnessing 'miracles'.

One-off miracles are possible knowable; just consider a non-mathematician suddenly receiving a vision of the proof of some yet-unsolved conjecture in pure mathematics. The proof that the vision was received would be by verifying the mathematical proof. No mechanism would be known. This example is a bit difficult though, since we still know so very little about the brain.

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I would not perceive any natural event as a miracle.

But there is a meaning which allows me to classify certain acts performed by people (or another conscious being) as a miracle. Basically miracle is an action performed on an object not through physical means, contact and transfer of energy, but using invocation, spell, prayer, symbol, thought, or another verbal or semiotic phenomenon.

Thus the difference between miracle/spell and any other action is the same as between digital and analog information.

Just some examples. Suppose a healer and a patient. Which healing method I would perceive as a miracle?


The healer throws a powder to the patient which heals him. - not a miracle

The healer moves his hands along the patient's body at a distance which cures him. - not a miracle

The healer makes gestures with his hands as if he was making waves towards the patient which heals him. - not a miracle

The healer makes a fireball with his hand which he moves toward the patient which heals him - not a miracle.


The healer draws a symbol in the air which heals the patient - miracle

The healer calls the spirits which heal the patient - miracle

The healer asks God to heal the patient, and he does - miracle

The healer calls the spirit of illness inside the patient and orders it to go away - miracle

The healer just says something in unknown language and it heals the patient - miracle

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It is a miracle that the physical universe that we live in is rationally explicable by a small set of laws. It is also a miracle that there is a universe than not.

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.

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As I see it, the definition of miracle would be something like "the impossible made possible", that is, a miracle points to a contradiction. E.g. - it is impossible to walk on water, for that to happen, it would have to be a miracle. So, a miracle denies an impossibility. The concept of miracle is illogical, and only happens because language allows the construction of statements even though there's no logic to it. I recall here Chomsky famous construction "colorless green ideas sleep furiously", if something is colorless, it cannot be green. The phrase is grammatical, but not logical.

What could a rational person accept is another problem. If rational is all that this person is, and rationality excludes contradiction, then a rational person could not accept the existence of a miracle.

Maybe human beings make use of reason but cannot be defined as purely rational beings.

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