Ruse: the trouble with Richard Dawkins

Here, in an interview in Australia, philosopher Michael Ruse makes his recurrent claim that Richard Dawkins has very little comprehension of the theology he attacked in The God Delusion.

Ruse on the First Cause argument:

“You know, and I know, that Christians (St. Augustine, certainly St. Thomas) spent a hell of a lot of time—I mean, they knew this—what they were trying to do, was articulate a notion of God who would be First Cause: you know, the whole notion of a Satiety Aseity, God as a Necessary Being.  You know, God’s essence is His existence.”

. . . Christians have got some grown-up responses to these sorts of things, and I think that Dawkins does a serious disservice to the cause of nonbelief by not being prepared to take seriously the kinds of things that believers believe in.”

Well, as many have pointed out, I’m neither a philosopher nor a theologian, but these highly sophisticated defenses of the First Cause Argument seem to me merely intellectualized versions of the assertion, “My kind of God did too exist forever!” Perhaps real philosopher/theologians like Eric MacDonald can weigh in here.

Anyway, here, according to a new survey by the Pew Forum, are some of the things that Americans do believe (proportion of respondents who accept the notions):

Bible as the word of God:  63%

Bible as the literal word of God: 33%

Life after death:  74%

Heaven:  74%

Hell:  59%

Miracles:  79%

Angels and demons:  68%

Own religion is the one truth path that can lead to eternal life:  24%

Many religions can lead to eternal life:  74%

100 Comments

  1. ennui
    Posted February 25, 2010 at 8:04 am | Permalink

    Wow, his Cosmological argument kinda morphed into an Ontological argument there. Truly this is sophisticated navel gazing–to the extreme!

    Checkmate, Richard Dawkins!

  2. Posted February 25, 2010 at 8:08 am | Permalink

    “… Christians have got some grown-up responses to these sorts of things, …”

    Only in the land of rubber homes with plastic cars and cardboard children.

    At least Ruse admitted he wants a bestseller…

  3. NMcC
    Posted February 25, 2010 at 8:10 am | Permalink

    Er…what is the trouble again with Dawkins according to Ruse? I missed that bit.

    I think it’s that he doesn’t grant religious people the unfettered right to talk a load of bollocks. But I might be wrong.

  4. Jonn Mero
    Posted February 25, 2010 at 8:13 am | Permalink

    “Christians have got some grown-up responses to these sorts of things”

    Yeah, like . . . ?’
    Or did he mean ‘over-grown’?

    And respectful, informed debate?
    So figments of imagination are ‘informed, and deserve respect?
    Ruse, another Templeton call-girl?

  5. Cliff Melick
    Posted February 25, 2010 at 8:13 am | Permalink

    The problem I have with criticism such as Ruse levels against Dawkins is that it does not matter how sophisticated one’s theology is if it is based on the existence of a mythical being. And since there is no scientific evidence supporting the hypothesis that God exists, it follows that any and all theology is devoid of any meaning whatsoever. Or perhaps, like Dawkins I’m just being too simplistic.

    • Posted February 25, 2010 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

      Yes, exactly! Theology is as meaningless, ridiculous, and unimportant as fairyology, or CeilingCat-ology, or leprechaun-oligy, etc.

      • daveau
        Posted February 25, 2010 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

        You can choose to not believe in Ceiling Cat if you want, but I’ve seen pictures.

    • Posted February 25, 2010 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

      Oh no, I iz true believer in teh Ceiling Cat. kthxbye

      • daveau
        Posted February 25, 2010 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

        OK. Just so we’re clear. But all those other guys are totally delusional.

    • fyreflye
      Posted February 25, 2010 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

      Of course this is exactly Dawkins’ response to those who make this criticism. But how about this: if Ruse is, as the moderator here says, an “avowed nonbeliever,” doesn’t that mean that he himself finds the arguments he’s defending to be unconvincing?

      • Passerby
        Posted February 25, 2010 at 9:47 pm | Permalink

        Its up to you to decide whether or not God is mythical. You can’t prove he exists, yet you can’t prove that he doesn’t. Just like how science can’t prove evolution happened in a way that one species changed into another, like reptiles to birds. Science cannot make a final answer, and thus evolution is just a theory. Not to mention, you can’t “test” evolution. No one was around to see it happen, thus the subject can be put in the same category as God. Unsolved.

        • allie
          Posted March 16, 2010 at 3:24 am | Permalink

          *sigh* Passerby has a very poor grasp on what evolution actually is.

      • Occam
        Posted February 26, 2010 at 3:33 am | Permalink

        Passerby:
        Your current understanding of evolution clearly does not sustain your rather peremptory statements. Read up. Jerry Coyne’s book would be an excellent place to start.
        As for your arguments on the decidability of God’s existence: flunked logic class. Hint: it can be logically quite difficult to prove conclusively non-existence, yet this does in no way imply the converse proof of existence.
        Not the same category at all.
        One statement stands, though: Science cannot make a final answer. No, science cannot. Nothing can. That’s the beauty of it. And there is a special beauty in the precise ways in which science cannot make a final answer, because that’s not the point.

      • Posted February 26, 2010 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

        So clearly, if a tree falls in the forest and nobody is there to hear it, not only does it make a sound, but there is nothing wrong with stubbornly arguing that the tree never even fell to begin with. Even the presence of a toppled tree proves nothing. “Well, it could have just grown that way! You don’t know, nobody was there to see it!”

        Idjut.

  6. Jer
    Posted February 25, 2010 at 8:16 am | Permalink

    I’ll say it again:

    If all Christians were of the type that Michael Ruse is describing, Richard Dawkins would in all likelihood only be publishing biology books and wouldn’t have written “The God Delusion” in the first place.

    If Ruse wants the mean secularists like Richard Dawkins to go away, he can start by talking to those OTHER Christians – the ones who want to shut down science education in our schools because when empirical evidence conflicts with the Bible they believe you have to throw out the empirical evidence. Convince them to stop and folks like Dawkins will go away.

    Dawkins wasn’t really aiming at YOUR God Michael Ruse, he was aiming at their much less “sophisticated” God. Your God just got caught in the cross-fire because he’s vulnerable to some of the same arguments against him that the God of the fundamentalists is vulnerable to (he must be or you would be able to defend him much, much better than you do in this clip…)

    • Posted February 25, 2010 at 8:38 am | Permalink

      It takes a different imaginary scope to aim at another manifestation of nothing.

    • MadScientist
      Posted February 25, 2010 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

      You miss the point – those are *NOT* True Christians(tm), so Dawkins should be attacking those pretend christians rather than the True Christians(tm).

    • edivimo
      Posted February 26, 2010 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

      Dawkins wasn’t really aiming at YOUR God Michael Ruse, he was aiming at their much less “sophisticated” God. Your God just got caught in the cross-fire because he’s vulnerable to some of the same arguments against him that the God of the fundamentalists is vulnerable to

      That’s so true, atheist’s arguments destroy almost all the gods of all ages, that’s the problem when you make assertions without evidence.

  7. Bill
    Posted February 25, 2010 at 8:23 am | Permalink

    I think people (like Ruse and Eagleton) miss the point with what Dawkins did – and I have had this argument before – Dawkins’ argument may be ‘unsophisticated’ or ‘simplistic’ theologically, but then most people are ‘unsophisticated’ theologically (especially believers of course). Dawkins’ book represents an intelligent, thoughtful, lucid person’s approach to a difficult question – he is not trying to be a theologian, he represents the average thinker who has sat down and tried to articulate their problems with reconciling two different ways of thought. That he comes down strongly on one side is exactly what a lot of people wanted to see stated clearly. It DOESN’T matter if his level of ‘theological’ understanding is low – he articulated what a lot of people thought and gave a voice to the average atheist/agnostic. So Ruse should call off his toothless attack dogs, theists should stop claiming Dawkins is the unbelievers infallible ‘Pope’ and all that nonsense. Dawkins spoke for the average thoughtful person, that is all, and allowed people to realise that many others thought the same way as they did.

    • Michael K Gray
      Posted February 25, 2010 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

      Theology is the study of nothing.

  8. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted February 25, 2010 at 8:46 am | Permalink

    “You know, and I know, that Christians (St. Augustine, certainly St. Thomas) spent a hell of a lot of time—I mean, they knew this—what they were trying to do, was articulate a notion of God who would be First Cause: you know, the whole notion of a Satiety, God as a Necessary Being. You know, God’s essence is His existence.”

    Translation: “The emperor’s gold and silver tunic is detailed with absolutely the highest quality embroidery. If Dawkins can’t see that, then I can only feel pity for him.”

    • Antonio Manetti
      Posted February 26, 2010 at 2:33 am | Permalink

      Then Ruse goes on to say:

      . . Christians have got some grown-up responses to these sorts of things, and I think that Dawkins does a serious disservice to the cause of nonbelief by not being prepared to take seriously the kinds of things that believers believe in.”

      “Taking things seriously” does not mean accepting these responses as true, as some folks here seem to assume, but engaging these arguments with a reasoned critique.

      • MadScientist
        Posted February 26, 2010 at 5:00 am | Permalink

        There have been numerous explanations of why the things people believe in are silly or bogus – but most of the faithful will simply not listen. In fact like Ruse they tend to whine about the godless not taking them seriously simply because the godless tell them that their beliefs are nonsense and explain why it is nonsense. Perhaps they hope a miracle will happen and suddenly their beliefs will not be nonsense and the godless will still somehow tell them that it continues to be nonsense.

  9. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted February 25, 2010 at 8:50 am | Permalink

    Ruse misses entirely a crucial distinction: the philosopher’s omni-God (onmipontent, omniscient, omni-benevolent), for whom the logical arguments such as the First Cause argument are constructed, is certainly not the Christian God of the Bible. We can state with very high probability that the Christian God does not exist.

  10. Posted February 25, 2010 at 8:52 am | Permalink

    Meh. I reject astrology even though I don’t know the nuances of it.

    The burden of proof are those who claim the existence this “first cause god” and they’ve yet to provided any; it appears to me that they don’t understand elementary hypothesis testing:

    The null hypothesis is “there is no god” and they’ve given us no reason to reject the null hypothesis.

    Instead, these people want the null hypothesis to be “there is a god”.

    Instead they want the

    • Passerby
      Posted February 25, 2010 at 9:38 pm | Permalink

      “…and I think that Dawkins does a serious disservice to the cause of nonbelief by not being prepared to take seriously the kinds of things that believers believe in.” Then, “Perhaps real philosopher/theologians like Eric MacDonald can weigh in here.” Isn’t that just proving his point? Your not taking him seriously as a philosopher.

      • Posted February 26, 2010 at 8:46 am | Permalink

        “You’re not taking him seriously as a philosopher.” (I corrected your typo…sorry…can’t help it)

        Yep. There is nothing wrong with philosophy; it is fine entertainment for those who enjoy it. But it isn’t my cup of tea. :)

  11. Occam
    Posted February 25, 2010 at 9:06 am | Permalink

    These levels of belief in miracles, heaven, hell, life after death, angels and demons have the merit of consistency with American foreign, financial, economic, environmental, educational, and health policies over the past decade.

  12. Eric MacDonald
    Posted February 25, 2010 at 9:18 am | Permalink

    First off, a simple corrective. ‘A Satiety’ should read ‘aseity’ which means, basically, ‘in its-self-ness’ (from the Latin ‘a’ – from – and ‘se’ – oneself), a being such that its being and essence are identical – hence, necessary beng.

    Second, if I snapped at Ovy yesterday – the philosophy student who said, offended, no less, that not only is the question about the existence of god not the most profound, but that the conept of god is meaningless – it was because, as a philosophy student, he doesn’t get to make fun of the tradition, without having at least tried to understand what the tradition is about, and how the concept has been dealt with in that tradition. In other words, as a philosopher, he still has to pay his dues, and find out why, and in what sense, it makes sense to say that the idea of god is a meaningless concept. But he doesn’t get the right to be offended unless he has at least done that.

    Third, with Peter Strawson, I am prepared to agree, as he says in his book on Kant, The Bounds of Sense, that “it is with very moderate enthusiasm that a twentieth-century philosopher enters the field of philosophical theology, even to follow Kant’s exposure of its illusions.” (207) And the same thing applies in the twenty-first century, though for some reason, a number of believing philosophers have tried to resurrect the old philosophical theology by relating it to science, or (like Plantinga) to play neat logical tricks.

    One of the things that is noteworthy, when you look at the philosophical greats, is that no great philosopher since Kant has really taken philosophical theology with great seriousness, though Wittgenstein seemed to leave room for the das Mystische (wovon man nicht sprechen kann). In fact, Collins should have discovered that when he was searching for the greatest minds to put the intellectual case for faith. He should have discovered that, as you go along, there is less and less that is being said for faith, and more and more that is being said to undermine its foundations.

    There is some contemporary work that has been done in philosophical theology that is worthwhile investigation, if you are a philosopher, some very ingenious arguments, both on the side of belief and on the side of unbelief. Platinga (for) and Gale (against), and a whole host of linguistic philosophers who examined the philosophy of god, the god concept, the arguments for the existence of god, questions about the coherence of god concepts, the relationship between reason and commitment, and so on.

    All this is very interesting, no doubt, if you are a philosopher, and you have a responsibility to do more than just say, without further investigation, that it’s all meaningless drivel. However, religion is not only an intellectual pursuit. The philosophy of religion, dealing with arguments about god and the coherence of religious concepts is one thing – and anyone who studies it will soon come to the conclusion that there’s simply not much life left in philosophical theology since Kant (who is notably missing from Collins’ list of ‘great minds’ – as I said, not one prominent philosopher since Locke), even though as an intellectual discipline there are still interesting epistemological/ontological problems here.

    Now let me catch the second part of that thought! Religion is not only an intellectual pursuit, it is also a matter of practical life choices which include specific answers to the questions that philosophers ask as a matter of ongoing investigation, and when it comes to jumping from the concept of god in philosophical theology, with its aseity and necessity and simplicity, etc. (and there is philosophical question about how much makes sense here since we are pushing at the limits of language, as Wittgenstein noted) – jumping from that to a specific account of god, and a specific story of god’s nature, action and demand, is another thing altogether, and trying to develop, in Ruse’s sense, a coherent concept of god, is a very different thing from making commitments to a particular description of god, especially when, aside from running up the causal chain to the beginning and calling that god, all known god concepts in positive religion are completely amorphous and indeterminate. You can hear that in the frequently expressed, “I can’t believe in a god who would ….” (and then fill in the blank with what is unacceptable for that person or religion). Try to pin a theologian down to a specific content that doesn’t have the moral, epistemological or other problems that any god concept is bound to have, and before you can say ‘aseity’ he’s jumped over the fence of the intellectual corral he’s just built to pin god down, and is running off on the wide prairie somewhere where he can’t be caught.

    But to go back to Ruse. Ruse complains that it’s just a simple philosophy 101 ploy to say, when god is defined as first cause, well, then what caused god? Dawkins, he says, should know better than this. The only problem with Ruse’s condesension is this. Suppose we do follow Aristotle or Aquinas back to first cause(s) (Aristotle thought there was more than one). Whatever the first cause is, we can’t simply define the question, “Well, then, what caused the first cause?” out of order, because – and here’s the point that Ruse seems to have missed – we’re working at such a high state of rather rarified generality that we can’t say anything specific about that first cause. We can’t say, as a matter of definition, that the first cause can’t have a cause, because that’s the way we’ve defined it. That’s just begging the question. So Dawkins was right to take the cosmological argument and treat it as a fairly harmless bit of word-spinning, no matter how great the minds of those who first came up with it. And the Kalam cosmological argument rules out the question, since it takes it to be the case that anything that begins to exist must have a cause. Not only don’t we know this, but we don’t even know if, in the required sense, there has ever been simply nothing. (Which is why the question: Why is there something rather than nothing is probably a nonstarter. Perhaps there can’t be nothing, and this is buried somewhere in the physics we don’t know yet.)

    This is why questions about suffering, questions about the specific ideas that people have of their gods, questions about what could prove to a believer that their god does not, after all, exist, or is not, after all, good, or all-powerful, or did not, in fact, appear to Moses at Mt. Sinai – this is why religion has to begin dealing seriously with these questions, because the cosmological argument, which Collins thinks is so profound, can’t take you to the god of Christians, Jews, Muslims or any other positive religion.

    So Ruse, who wants to fight a turf war over this, is simply in the wrong plot. All of the things that he wants Dawkins to take seriously – like Eagleton saying, with not a little intellectual snobbery, that Dawkins obviously hasn’t even read Scotus! – won’t take him to the practical, everyday questions of belief and doubt, and would have led him to produce yet another book, like Scotus’s, that no one interested in the question – How shall I live my life, and what shall I be committed to? – would have bothered to read, and if they had, it wouldn’t have helped them answer the question.

    Philosophers have not spent much time explaining how their interests can be cashed in in terms of specific religious beliefs. At most they provide blanks for the religions to fill in. But there is no one good rational argument that is going to demonstrate that Mohammed is god’s prophet, or that Jesus is god’s son. And Ruse can be as patronising as he likes, but he’s still not going to get Dawkins to read Scotus. Because Scotus is not going to answer the questions that Jerry implicitly asks by publishing statistics about popular belief. What would lead you to believe that the Bible is the word of god? Or: Is there life after death? Ruse knows more philosophy than Dawkins. Well, he should, shouldn’t he? But when we look at the crazy things that religious believers believe, even Ruse, surely, would acknowledge, that knowing philosophy doesn’t really account for these beliefs, nor does it make these beliefs any more plausible.

    • Posted February 25, 2010 at 10:54 am | Permalink

      Dawkins obviously hasn’t even read Scotus

      Heh, I thought you were referring to the Supreme Court of the United States at first, and was wondering what that had to do with anything… ;p

      Anyway — Indeed, it seems to me like any serious philosophy regarding First Cause is completely irrelevant to practical religion. Ruse may ridicule Dawkins’ “If God is the First Cause, what caused God?” argument as philosophy 101 if we are talking about God in a non-specific philosophical sense, but as soon as “God” refers to somebody who has commandments and can be prayed too, etc., then Dawkins is dead on the money. To call that God the “First Cause” is a philosophically bankrupt position.

      It seems to me that the question of First Cause resides at the intersection of philosophy and physics, not at the intersection of philosophy and religion.

    • Posted February 25, 2010 at 11:01 am | Permalink

      Moreover, when you talk about philosophy providing “blanks” to be filled in by religion, I have to ask, even though IANAPhilosopher… aren’t there some rather important constraints on those blanks?? I simply can’t understand how any serious philosopher could talk about an “Uncaused cause” without recognizing that said “Uncaused cause” can’t possibly have a personality, thoughts, intentions, etc… In fact, as soon as the “uncaused cause” has any attributes at all, wouldn’t those attributes require a cause, and you’d be back to “Philosophy 101″ as Ruse so denigratingly calls it?

      It seems to me that if we take apophatic theology to its logical conclusion, it must assert the falseness of all existing world religions. Even if we accept the basic tenet of apophatic theology, that there is a concept called “god”, and that we can only refer to that concept by saying what it is not — it seems to me that “this god did not impregnate a virgin” would be pretty fuckin’ high on the list…!

      • Eric MacDonald
        Posted February 25, 2010 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

        Yes, there are constraints on the blanks, of course. The constraints are simply that, if you take questions about origins to the level of generality that ‘arguments for the existence of god’ are carried out at, there is no basis for filling them in in any particular way. This becomes even more clear when you consider that religions come in hundreds, thousands, or possibly millions of varieties. It must be greater than the number of named religions, because every named religion includes people who cannot agree about what that particular religion means by the locution ‘god’.

        This becomes evident when believers counter unbelievers with the claim: “This is not the god I believe in.” But if you were to ask other believers you’d not only come upon some for whom this is the god they believe in, but also a host of other beliefs about what it means to believe in god at all. So, some people, like Armstrong – and she of course can take part of the tradition with her, because this problem is endemic to all religion – decide to go the apophatic route.

        But if you go that route, and enter into the cloud of unknowing, there’s really no reason to fill in the blanks with a personal being, or an agent cause. People have all sorts of wonderful experiences whose immediate object is nature, the awesomeness of the night sky, the beauty of mountains or a sunset, or the sublimity of a waterfall. Jumping from those experiences to the idea of relationship with a personal being of some kind, is, while probably a natural response of the human brain, scarcely a reasonable thing to do. Why not just be in awe at existence – instead of trying to give it a name? As Ophelia says over on Butterflies and Wheels, it’s like calling it Larry or Janet, and just as unreasonable.

        So life and the world and the universe is sometimes just awesome, and sometimes we melt at the sight of a mountain or a pristine waterfall straight out of Eden. Well, so what’s new? This doesn’t warrant the jump to fill in the blanks in the philosophical arguments. For that you need a reason, and so far as I can tell, there is no reason for filling in those blanks in any particular way.

        Perhaps, if we could get to the end of the chain of causation that begins with the universe as we know it we’ll find that there is no end, or that there’s something that will be describeable in the equations of physics. But you sure as hell aren’t going to get to the point of saying: so that’s where Jesus came from! And it’s really pointless to try.

        The chance that any particular religion is true is so vanishingly small as to make it simply irrational to believe it. And when you consider that each religion is interpreted in different ways so as to correspond with the particular personalities/expectations of individual believers, then the vanishingly small – if this didn’t already imply a limit – is even more remote from intelligibility. That’s what makes the relgionist’s rebuttal – “But that’s not the god I believe in” – so absurd, because there is no way to define god so as to make it even intelligible. Religion has to be graspable by ordinary human beings whose model of relationship is human relationship, and so god has to fit into that kind of a relational agential slot. And philosophical argument just don’t lead there. Ruse must know this.

        Of course, some religious believers resort to symbols and myths at this point, and religion becomes a human creation, and a way, so it is thought, of being flourishingly human. Keith Ward does this in his book God: A Guide for the Perplexed. But once you do this you’ve really given up on god, or at least the word ‘god’ simply becomes a way of commenting on the human condition. But those who choose to do this must explain why this is helpful, and whether it can be done without dragging in all the less welcome aspects of the religious enterprise. I can see how the first can be done, by using myths much as we use literature to help understand ourselves more fully, but I don’t see how they can avoid bringing all the violence, intolerance and oppression of religion along with them. Only dead myths are helpful, it seems to me. Living myths make too many claims about the world.

  13. J.J.E.
    Posted February 25, 2010 at 9:41 am | Permalink

    Thanks Eric for the long post. If your post needed a CliffsNotes version, I would say this is quite nice:

    “But when we look at the crazy things that religious believers believe, even Ruse, surely, would acknowledge, that knowing philosophy doesn’t really account for these beliefs, nor does it make these beliefs any more plausible.”

    This has always been the point. People aren’t blowing up buildings or shooting doctors on behalf of an unmoved mover or an uncaused cause. They’re doing it for Allah or Jesus. They’re not voting against civil rights because of the Kalam Cosmological argument or pantheism. They are doing it because of Leviticus or verses in the Qur’an.

    It is that simple. If the religious people would keep their religion to themselves, there wouldn’t be “New Atheists”.

  14. Jonn Mero
    Posted February 25, 2010 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    Why does ‘pompous git’ ring through my mind all the time while listening to Ruse?
    Well, at least during the short time I was able to listen to his drivel.

  15. Neil
    Posted February 25, 2010 at 9:50 am | Permalink

    Ooops, he failed my gobbledegook test. Whenever some philosopher or theologian lectures atheists on their failure to comprehend some arcane point or other, they invariably start talking gobbledegook. If they had a valid point, they could put it in plain English.

    • Stephen
      Posted February 25, 2010 at 11:11 am | Permalink

      “If they had a valid point, they could put it in plain English.”

      I sympathize, but be careful applying this “test”: down that lies the wing-nut denigration of education, the GWB-style reliance on “gut instinct” over evidence and science, and the “common sense” of your typical redneck bigot.

      Not everything worth knowing is explicable in “plain English” or plain-any-other-language. To non-scientists, everything scientists say would fail your “test” …

      • Neil
        Posted February 25, 2010 at 11:22 am | Permalink

        But here we are talking logic, not quantum physics. Logical arguments can be put in plain english. Quantum physics is more difficult to express in ordinary language, but it can be demonstrated in the laboratory, so we can apply the “shut up and calculate” principle. Similarly, with evolution.

        In your comment, it seems you are starting down the “theology and science are equivalent” path. I wouldn’t go there.

      • Stephen
        Posted February 25, 2010 at 11:49 am | Permalink

        “In your comment, it seems you are starting down the “theology and science are equivalent” path.”

        Not at all. Just pointing out that “gobbledegook” is a shitty basis on which to pan an argument. Period.

        “I wouldn’t go there.”

        Quite right. Neither would I, ever. Neither have I, ever.

      • Posted February 25, 2010 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

        Yes, but the opposite of “plain English” isn’t theologicalbabble/gobbledegook. Many explanations certainly do require a sophisticated and/or specialized vocabulary. However, in most of those situations, the words in question actually mean something and are being used to clarify a point, instead of being purposely obscurant.

      • Neil
        Posted February 25, 2010 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

        You seem to miss my point. The convoluted arguments of the theologians are contrived to conceal the emptiness of their content–that is why I call it gobbledegook. Some scientific ideas are truly difficult to put in plain language because nature doesn’t necessarily conform to our prejudices. That is not the same thing, and you seem to be implying they are. That is, you are saying because some bozo can’t understand the language of science, we should not call out the philosophers and theologians who insist on expressing their point in the form of gobbledegook because they know, deep down I think, that they really don’t have a point.

      • Milton C.
        Posted February 25, 2010 at 10:33 pm | Permalink

        But here we are talking logic, not quantum physics. Logical arguments can be put in plain english.

        Not always, Neil. Take a class in symbolic logic and tell me how plain English complex logical arguments can be.

        Logic may seem to be just “plain English” in a practical reality, but it’s often not when factual reality is in play.

    • Posted February 25, 2010 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

      Neil- I was responding to Stephen, not you. Sorry about the confusion!

      • Neil
        Posted February 26, 2010 at 11:23 pm | Permalink

        Milton,

        If a logical argument is sufficiently complicated (those pertaining to the existence of god are not), you can resort to symbolic logic like mathematics. It is just a form of shorthand, and I am cool with that. (Had Anselm put the ontological argument in simple symbolic form, he may have seen immediately that it is preposterous.) That is not what these pompous pricks do, because their arguments would fail the logic. They resort to jargon in incredibly complex, and poorly constructed, sentences in English to disguise the bankruptcy of their argument.

      • Neil
        Posted February 26, 2010 at 11:25 pm | Permalink

        Or perhaps sentences in French.

  16. neunder
    Posted February 25, 2010 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    Someone must have transcribed this wrong. Ruse would not have said God is “a Satiety.” He must have said that God has “aseity”—that God exists of himself, completely underived from and independent of anything else.

  17. H.H.
    Posted February 25, 2010 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    These “sophisticated” theologians always spend waaay more time talking about how intelligent, compelling, complex, thoughtful and nuanced arguments for god’s existence do exist than they spend time actually articulating these supposed arguments. Probably because when they do, these arguments inevitably turn out to be just as banal, flawed, ill-considered, illogical, and prone to assuming the conclusion as all the others. If Ruse is pissed that Dawkins can dismiss 1600 years of deep Christian theology with astounding ease, then maybe, just maybe, it is because all the arguments for god’s existence really are that weak. Ruse certainly doesn’t offer anything substantial to counter this perception. Indeed, he seems aware that Christian apologetics are all ultimately bogus. I guess he just wishes the losing arguments were given more credit for earnestly trying for so long or something.

    • Werther
      Posted February 25, 2010 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

      Your comment that theologians get upset when skeptics just breezily dismiss 1600 years of deep theological thought shows the illogicality of the theologians’ argument. In their minds, because a fallacy is believed for a long time, ergo, it does not remain a fallacy, but mysteriously becomes a profound piece of wisdom. One could apply the same test to the Ptolemaic conception of the solar system: it was believed to be an unshakable truth for about 1400 years, but that did not make it any less false. Unfortunately for Ruse, when empirically-minded observers challenged the Ptolemaic conception, they were threatened by none other than the Church.

      It really is amazing how a falsehood is supposed to become true simply because the falsehood carries the dust of ages.

      • North of 49
        Posted February 25, 2010 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

        Excellent point. One could also apply it to something like acupuncture or Traditional Chinese Medicine ™, two beliefs which their proponents justify on the same basis of extreme age. “It’s been practiced for thousands of years so there must be something to it.”

        Except that for all those thousands of years in which these beliefs were held there was no reliable method of testing their truth or falsehood, so of course they persisted. But once we had a reliable way to test truth claims, we began discarding ancient beliefs by the truckload. (Some of us, anyway.)

        That so many ancient beliefs still persist in certain parts of the world and in certain affinity groups is, I guess, a testament to both the power of tradition (and the traditions of power), and (most of) humanity’s innate conservatism and fear of change.

  18. newenglandbob
    Posted February 25, 2010 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    Penis envy.

    And what Eric MacDonald said.

  19. Rev. Reinard
    Posted February 25, 2010 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    Theology is like one big Gordian Knot. Instead of being like most theologists who struggle to untie it with slippery language Dawkins took a sword to the whole premise.

  20. Posted February 25, 2010 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    The concept of God is meaningless, in the sense that we don’t know what it means and also in the sense that we cannot provide a reasonable formal definition. Anything with an “omni-” before it is badly defined, as set theory says, and anything without the “omni-” before it has to be clearly spelled out.

    The concept of First Cause is equally senseless. We cannot define what it is. To just define “cause” is complicated. It is not a logical cathegory, like the logical implication. It must be defined in every model. For instance: if I change this parameter in this model, the result is the change in the value of this variable, so that we can define the change in the parameter as the cause.

    But in formal models the primitive elements are what they are, and cannot be said to be caused in any sensical way. Whichever way we understand the universe, it would have some primitives (some theory of everything) and those would be “uncaused”. One may want to call the God, but it would have nothing to do with any philosophical or religious god.

    The only answer to the question “Why is there something instead of nothing?” is “There is something instead of nothing”.

  21. KP
    Posted February 25, 2010 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    I was too depressed by the Pew statistics Jerry provided to watch the Ruse video…

    • KP
      Posted February 25, 2010 at 11:45 am | Permalink

      ALTHOUGH, skimming over the report, I was a little more encouraged. Generation-by-generation there is a trend toward less religious belief. For example, fewer people of the “Millenial generation” (under age 30 now) take the Bible literally than, say Baby Boomers. Within generations, the lines are pretty flat so people seem to hold onto whatever beliefs they have when they come of age.

  22. Posted February 25, 2010 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    The thing is…if the sophisticated theological/philosophical arguments really are compelling or persuasive or not so bad, then why don’t we see them everywhere in abbreviated form? Why don’t we see boiled-down versions from every Armstrong and Eagleton and Ruse on the block? Why do they always mention them without ever actually articulating them? Why isn’t there some short compelling ‘sophisticated’ argument that would simply convince everyone? If not that there is a god, at least that it’s not just goofy to think so.

    Or to put it another way – why are most philosophers atheists?

    • Reginald Selkirk
      Posted February 25, 2010 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

      if the sophisticated theological/philosophical arguments really are compelling or persuasive or not so bad, then why don’t we see them everywhere in abbreviated form?

      And what do we see instead? Billboards with unsupported claims of different sectual doctrine, such as “Hell is Real” and “Sunday sabbath is the work of the devil.”

      Or to put it another way – why are most philosophers atheists?

      I have heard there was a surge in the percentage of theist philosophers starting ~ 1970. Looking at the work of Plantinga and William Lane Craig, the increase in numbers is not reflected in an increase of quality.

      • Posted February 25, 2010 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

        But even with the surge, theists are definitely in a minority. David Chalmers and another fella did a survey just a couple of months ago.

      • tomh
        Posted February 25, 2010 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

        http://philpapers.org/surveys/results.pl

        About 73% accept or lean towards atheism, about 15% towards theism. For philosophy graduate students the figure drops to about 64% for atheism.

      • Posted February 25, 2010 at 8:09 pm | Permalink

        In sociology of religion there was definitely a surge of some sort from the 70s onward. Evidence that “secularization” wasn’t proceeding as easily or as automatically as some had thought seemed to scare sociologists away from analyzing religion critically; many swallowed the line that religion was simply a fundamental, ineradicable part of human psychology. This opened the door for a flood of scholars whose “sociological” study of religion was just thinly disguised theology…social apologetics for religion, basically…

        Luckily in the last decade some more thorough social constructivists and Marx-influenced materialists have begun fighting back…

      • TheBlackCat
        Posted February 26, 2010 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

        How can they have “other” on either-or answer?

        Q: Are you atheist an atheist or theist?
        A: Other.

        What does “other” even mean in this context? Either you believe in god or you don’t. Do you believe god exists in some situations but not others?

        Q: Do you support classical or non-classical logic?
        A: Other.

        Once again, this seems like an either-or question. At least by the name, you would expect everything other than classical to be non-classical? So logic must fall into one of these two categories. So what is outside two categories that encompass all possibilities?

        There are a bunch of cases like that where I can’t see how “other” could possibly be a logically valid answer. But perhaps it is my lack of knowledge of philosophical terminology.

      • tomh
        Posted February 26, 2010 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

        How can they have “other” on either-or answer?

        If you change the drop-down selection box at the top under Response Details from coarse to fine, and click refresh, it breaks down the Others. On the god question there are about 7 “others”. For instance, 1.7% “reject both”.

      • TheBlackCat
        Posted February 27, 2010 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

        That doesn’t really help much. You can’t “reject both” when the two options are “A” and “not-A”.

    • Eric MacDonald
      Posted February 25, 2010 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

      Simple answer? Because the arguments for god don’t work.

      But the arguments themselves have an interest all their own. You can’t read through a book like, say, Richard Gale’s On the Nature and Existence of God, or even Mackie’s The Miracle of Theism>/i> without being struck by the logical virtuosity.

      People like Plantinga or William Lane Craig, for all their cleverness (in Plantinga’s case almost perversity), are really philosophy’s toadies, using philosophy for entirely self-serving reasons, defending already adopted positions. Reason as gigolo.

      Since Hume most philosophy of religion has had anti-religious conclusions. Pro-religious philosophy of religion is almost inevitably apologetic and therefore self-serving. To anticipate Reginald Selkirk’s point, the lack of quality lies in the proleptic conclusions. Already knowing the answer makes argument an afterthought.

      • Eric MacDonald
        Posted February 25, 2010 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

        Did I turn intalics on, and leave it that way?

    • Milton C.
      Posted February 25, 2010 at 10:29 pm | Permalink

      Or to put it another way – why are most philosophers atheists?

      I’m certainly no broad-based poll, but most of my philosopher friends and colleagues are atheists BUT are also the type that find “apologetic” arguments worthwhile arguing. They don’t dismiss them offhand as so many here seem to do. They actually see offhand dismissal as a kind of intellectual cop-out to a well-reasoned takedown, in fact. In other words, “that’s bullshit” won’t cut it.

      Again, though, my colleagues may not be representative of the whole.

      • Woody Tanaka
        Posted February 26, 2010 at 12:23 am | Permalink

        “They actually see offhand dismissal as a kind of intellectual cop-out to a well-reasoned takedown, in fact.”

        Right. I would guess that, for them, the process IS the goal, that they value the exercise as much as, or even more than, the conclusion reached. However, when you see the philosophical reasonings as a tool to reach a conclusion, and the value is in the conclusion, and not the tool, then “that’s bullshit” isn’t out of line.

      • Posted February 26, 2010 at 9:54 am | Permalink

        Yes, but my question didn’t come after ‘That’s bullshit.’ It came after some questions about why, if the sophisticated arguments are so compelling, they’re not in circulation. We hear about sophisticated arguments that are not easy to dismiss, but what we see is crude arguments that are pretty easy at least to spot flaws in.

  23. SaintStephen
    Posted February 25, 2010 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    Why do they always mention them without ever actually articulating them?

    Well, this was a wasted click and scroll. Ms. Benson took the words right out of my mouth.

    Ruse is aptly named. Whatta bunch of ado about nothing.

  24. Bjorn
    Posted February 25, 2010 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    I believe it was the chemist and hard core atheist Peter W. Atkins who said that the whole thing with “why” questions is basically meaningless. “Why is there something rather than nothing……………Why is there life………. and so on.”…….

    I am not sure I am completely in agreement with him, but think he has a point: Learn about how nature tick, don’t waste to much time on why.

    Of course this means that all of theology and a lot of philosophy is a meaningless pursuit (for the record, I have studied philosophy and really like the subject, but have to admit there’s lots of nonsense in this discipline as well)

  25. Bjorn
    Posted February 25, 2010 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

    I recommend this video with Atkins where he talks enlightenment 2 and 3 (philosophy replace theology, science then replace philosophy)

    http://thesciencenetwork.org/programs/beyond-belief-enlightenment-2-0/peter-atkins

    May be provocative to philosopher but is nevertheless less an interesting talk.

    Bjorn ( who started with philosophy and anthropology, but ended up with a MSc in evo-devo biology)

    • Michael K Gray
      Posted February 25, 2010 at 9:19 pm | Permalink

      I concur with his remarks about the retarding nature of most of what passes as “philosophy”.
      I’ll bet that philosophers will object, though! (Sans evidence, of course.)

  26. rakoc
    Posted February 25, 2010 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

    this guy is creepy…
    I almost died of a heart attack when he unexpectedly started to laugh hysterically

  27. Posted February 25, 2010 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

    “If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause. If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God, so that there cannot be any validity in that argument.” – Bertrand Russell (Why I’m Not A Christian”

    Does anything more really need to be said? Something akin to quantum foam cannot possibly exist on its own but the answer in the form of a single deity that happens to meddle in human affairs and share our likeness is? Come off it.

    You can’t prove God in any meaningful sense a priori, it’s just sad when people try. “The universe needs a first cause therefore Jesus died for my sins” seems to be missing a whole lot.

  28. Hempenstein
    Posted February 25, 2010 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

    Next time the Pew people run a survey, perhaps they’ll contact a few of us.

  29. Posted February 25, 2010 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

    What I get from people like Mr. Ruse is that they keep insisting that their conception of God must be God. We each have our own way of seeing God, and that will differ from how everybody else sees God. Being limited in our capabilities we can’t see God in full, and that inability impacts how we imagine Him.

    There are things we can prove, and things we can’t prove. God and super strings we can’t prove; though strings have a good foundation in psychics and mathematics, providing a possible solution to problems currently seen in the Standard Model.

    God, on the other hand, does not appear to be the answer to anything, and our existence can be adequately explained without the existence of God. That God is not needed to explain anything only tells us that God is not needed to explain anything, it really says nothing about the existence of God. But since we can’t prove God it makes much more sense to go on as if he doesn’t exist and deal with our problems ourselves. Daddy’s defunct and we have to do for ourselves.

    To be blunt, I can only see theology as an attempt to avoid adult responsibilities. We’re adults and it’s time we acted like it.

    • Occam
      Posted February 26, 2010 at 6:47 am | Permalink

      Amen.
      Prof. Ruse is (unwittingly?) extending the Hamish McDonald fallacy to theology: No true God…
      And yes, it’s time we acted like adults. Our biggest threat is not the global recession, it’s the global infantile regression.

  30. MadScientist
    Posted February 25, 2010 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

    Ruse the Goose gives philosophers a bad name.

    We have looked at what religious people believe in – and there is nothing which can be taken seriously. Is Ruse really telling us all we should believe other peoples’ bullshit? He’s worse than Mooney!

    I love how these people keep going “Awrk! Augustine! Awrk! Aquinas!” – after all, I find Augustine and Aquinas to be amongst the dumbest most intellectually vapid of the apologists – and yet they are held in such high esteem by some jesus cultists. I particularly loathe Augustine for all the out-his-ass excuses which he developed to justify repression of the people. Even if we were to compare Augustine and Aquinas’ writings to far more ancient people – let’s say Plato’s Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle – we find that Augustine and Aquinas are rank amateurs; they try to give the impression of being logical as they succumb to the litany of logical fallacies. What is not clear to me in either case is if they were deliberate in an attempt to mislead or if they were so damned stupid they believed their own crap. It’s analogous to kooks trying to sound scientific while defying all science.

  31. MadScientist
    Posted February 25, 2010 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    @mythusmage:

    “.. though strings have a good foundation in psychics ..”

    Yes, String Theory does seem to be based on psychics. Such a complex morass which can describe nothing already described by simpler systems and predict nothing not already known. String Theory is one of those esoteric things that physicists tend to ignore – who knows, it may eventually lead to something useful, but at the moment no one uses it to plan their experiments or to analyze their experimental results.

  32. Antonio Manetti
    Posted February 25, 2010 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

    I don’t see the problem with the Ruse interview.

    I thought Ruse was claiming that believers have well reasoned responses to the issues Dawkins raised and that he ought to engage those arguments seriously. End of story.

    What am I missing?

    • Neil
      Posted February 25, 2010 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

      What are you missing? The fact that your claim (that believers have well reasoned responses to Dawkins) is utterly wrong. Why take arguments seriously that have no merit and therefore aren’t serious? You can’t prove god’s existence logically so why engage with someone who thinks you can? Its like talking to someone who claims to have a perpetual motion machine–its best just to humor them and walk away.

      • Antonio Manetti
        Posted February 26, 2010 at 2:18 am | Permalink

        Since what constitutes a reasonable argumment is in the eyes of the beholder, let me put this another way.

        To me, Ruse was saying that Dawkins needs to take on the *best* arguments put forth by believers, as opposed to the straw man he attacks in his book.

        If Ruse is correct (I haven’t read ‘The God Delusion’), then I see nothing amiss in what he says.

      • Eric MacDonald
        Posted February 26, 2010 at 6:30 am | Permalink

        It’s very easy to say that Dawkins has it wrong, and hasn’t tried to understand believers, but Ruse does owe us at least one good argument that shows us what he thinks that Dawkins is lacking. This he doesn’t do. When he does, we might have something more substantial to deal with. Meanwhile, laughing through a scraggly beard just doesn’t pull much philosophical weight.

      • TheBlackCat
        Posted February 26, 2010 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

        No, Dawkins does not need to take on the best arguments. He needs to take on the most common ones. If the best arguments have no bearing on the belief of almost all believers, which is the case, then dealing with them is a waste of time. He should deal with the arguments that are actually used by most believers, which I am under the impression has has (I have not actually read the book).

    • Wowbagger
      Posted February 25, 2010 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

      I think the problem is the the arguments Ruse refers to are only known to a tiny fraction of Christians and play little-to-no part in the underlying support for the beliefs of the vast majority of believers.

      • H.H.
        Posted February 25, 2010 at 10:17 pm | Permalink

        I think it actually has to do with the fact that the so-called “well reasoned responses” from theists are actually non-existent.

    • Milton C.
      Posted February 25, 2010 at 10:25 pm | Permalink

      I’m with Antonio on this one, although it’s not that religious people have well reasoned arguments in the sense of REAL reason. Reason is a relative concept to a believer, and I think many believers make what they see as reasonable arguments while, to an atheist, they clearly aren’t.

      If theology is the big steaming truckload of utterly useless excrement that many of you have been guffawing that it is, then people like Jerry waste a lot of time, effort, thought, breath, and blog space so meticulously trying to deconstruct it as he does here so often. I’d frankly like to see Dawkins do a bit more of Jerry’s tack and show some outstanding logic instead of the all-too-common “well you’re an idiot and we all know it. That’s all.” that I’ve seen him do occasionally. That kind of stuff is done more as a performance than an attempt at reason.

      • mk
        Posted February 26, 2010 at 6:09 am | Permalink

        You’ve clearly not read Dawkins then. That is not what he is about. That is not what The God Delusion is about.

      • Grendels Dad
        Posted February 26, 2010 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

        I call bullshit here. The fact that you had the nerve to put such bullshit in quotes is just appalling. Provide one example where Dawkins has said anything approaching what you ‘quote’:

        “well you’re an idiot and we all know it. That’s all.”

        I have read several of Dawkins books, articles and posts from his website, and I have never seen anything approaching the level of disrespect you so blithely ‘quote’. But hey, you say it is all too common, so show me an example.

        I have seen him become exasperated with a couple of particular people, after first trying (with far more patients than I posses) repeatedly to engage in more substantive dialog. But you didn’t even have the decency to quote an actual instance of Dawkins dismissing someone who has demonstrated that they cannot be reached, instead opting to put words in some else’s mouth.

        And you do this while pretending to take a high, moral road? Bullshit.

    • Posted February 26, 2010 at 7:26 am | Permalink

      Antonio,

      Would you be so kind to provide one of these “best” arguments?

      You’re doing precisely what we’re complaining about, namely alluding to the existence of robust arguments, whilst not actually articulating any of them.

      It’s like trying to obtain a Mornington Crescent rulebook.

    • Posted February 26, 2010 at 10:05 am | Permalink

      I thought Ruse was claiming that believers have well reasoned responses to the issues Dawkins raised and that he ought to engage those arguments seriously.

      I’ve read responses from Karen Armstrong, Terry Eagleton, Chris Hedges and Alister McGrath, among others, and found them the opposite of well reasoned. Perhaps there are better, more sophisticated, more ‘professional’ responses somewhere. Could you point to some?

      • Antonio Manetti
        Posted February 27, 2010 at 4:00 am | Permalink

        I’m not addressing the merits of arguments for belief (or non-belief for that matter). Nor am I asserting that such arguments would make such a strong case for the existence of a deity that Dawkins would not be able to refute them. Frankly, I could care less either way.

        I’m simply claiming that if you stop hyperventilating and listen to what Ruse says, you’ll realize he’s merely urging Dawkins to confront the strongest of such arguments.

        After that, if you want to bash the guy, fine, have at it. But at least bash him for the right reason.

      • Posted February 28, 2010 at 4:07 am | Permalink

        And what the hell are these “strongest of such arguments”?

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted February 28, 2010 at 9:53 am | Permalink

        what the hell are these “strongest of such arguments”?

        You can find them in the same religious gap where accommodationists put their faith in faith, between the butt cheeks of sanctimonious cognitive dissonance.

        Or in other words, they don’t exist. Another test that religion and its supporters fails.

  33. Diego
    Posted February 25, 2010 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

    I was put off from the very beginning when they got Ruse’s university wrong (he’s at Florida State University, not University of Florida). I figured that if they start off with errors of fact then I shouldn’t be surprised by finding more errors of reasoning throughout. And I was quite right.

  34. Posted February 25, 2010 at 8:21 pm | Permalink

    Once again Ruse is just not understanding that the ultra-apophatic deistic “philosopher’s theism” that he feels such affection for has almost nothing to do with the religion practiced by the majority of religious people in the world (and throughout history…).

    I thought Walter Kaufmann said it nicely:

    “Theology is also a comprehensive, rigorous, and systematic avoidance, by means of exegesis, of letting one’s Yes be Yes, and one’s No, No.”

  35. littlejohn
    Posted February 25, 2010 at 8:26 pm | Permalink

    Littejohn’s Law: The less actual substance there is your field of study, the fancier and more unnecessarily confusing the language used.
    Examples: Theology, education theory, post-modernism, popular diet books.

    • Posted February 26, 2010 at 9:56 am | Permalink

      Psychoanalysis.

      • Occam
        Posted February 26, 2010 at 11:15 am | Permalink

        Characteristic denial of post-Oedipal (or is it post-Electric?) conflict by godless feminist atheist skeptic…
        Wait a second: ‘denial’ isn’t obscure enough.
        Verdrängung!
        There, with proper Umlaut and all…


3 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] Coyne blog on Ruse [...]

  2. [...] Ruse is Wrong on Dawkins March 2, 2010 — Jim via Jerry Coyne [...]

  3. [...] Ruse’s behavior lately almost has a Tourette-like component. No matter what he’s discussing, at unpredictable intervals, and at inappropriate times, he suddenly feels compelled to shout “New Atheists are BAD!!!” I’m starting to think that his dislike of Harris, Hitchens, and Dawkins stems from a deep-seated jealousy of their literary success.  This theory is supported by Ruse’s first statement in this video. [...]

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