Daniel C. Dennett
Stanford Humanities Center

On Consciousness || On Evolution || On Breaking Spells || On Dennett’s Work || Why?



On Consciousness

The human creation of the self

But the strangest and most wonderful constructions in the whole animal world are the amazing, intricate constructions made by the primate, Homo sapiens. Each normal individual of this species makes a self. Out of its brain it spins a web of words and deeds, and, like the other creatures, it doesn’t have to know what it’s doing; it just does it. This web protects it, just like the snail’s shell, and provides it a livelihood, just like the spider’s web, and advances its prospects for sex, just like the bowerbird’s bower. Unlike a spider, an individual human doesn’t just exude its web; more like a beaver, it works hard to gather the materials out of which it builds its protective fortress. Like a bowerbird, it appropriates many found objects which happen to delight it &mdash or its mate — including many that have been designed by others for other purposes.

This “web of discourses” [...] is as much a biological product as any of the other constructions to be found in the animal world. Stripped of it, an individual human being is as incomplete as a bird without its feathers, a turtle without its shell.

Consciousness Explained, p. 416

The Multiple Drafts model of consciousness

Consciousness ExplainedHere is a first version of the replacement [of the Cartesian Theater model], the Multiple Drafts model of consciousness. I expect it will seem quite alien and hard to visualize at first — that’s how entrenched the Cartesian Theater idea is. According to the Multiple Drafts model, all varieties of perception — indeed, all varieties of thought or mental activity &mdash are accomplished in the brain by parallel, multitrack processes of interpretation and elaboration of sensory inputs. Information entering the nervous system is under continuous “editorial revision.” For instance, since your head moves a bit and your eyes move a lot, the images on your retinas swim about constantly, rather like the images of home movies taken by people who can’t keep the camera from jiggling. But that is not how it seems to us. People are often surprised to learn that under normal conditions, their eyes dart about in rapid saccades, about five quick fixations a second, and that this motion, like the motion of their heads, is edited out early in the processing from eyeball to... consciousness.


These editorial processes occur over large fractions of a second, during which time various additions, incorporations, emendations, and overwritings of content can occur, in various orders. We don’t directly experience what happens on our retinas, in our ears, on the surface of our skin. What we actually experience is a product of many processes of interpretation — editorial processes, in effect. They take in relatively raw and one-sided representations, and yield collated, revised, enhanced representations, and they take place in the streams of activity occurring in various parts of the brain. This much is recognized by virtually all theories of perception, but now we are poised for the novel feature of the Multiple Drafts model: Feature detections or discriminations only have to be made once. That is, once a particular “observation” of some feature has been made, by a specialized, localized portion of the brain, the information content thus fixed does not have to be sent somewhere else to be rediscriminated by some “master” discriminator. In other words, discrimination does not lead to a representation of the already discriminated feature for the benefit of the audience in the Cartesian Theater — for there is no Cartesian Theater.

Consciousness Explained, p. 111-113

The mind as a virtual machine

We know there is something at least remotely like a von Neumann machine[1] in the brain, because we know we have conscious minds “by introspection” and the minds we thereby discover are at least this much like von Neumann machines: They were the inspiration for von Neumann machines! This historical fact has left a particularly compelling fossil trace: computer programmers will tell you that it is fiendishly difficult to program the parallel computers currently being developed, and relatively easy to program a serial, von Neumann machine. When you program a conventional von Neumann machine, you have a handy crutch; when the going gets tough, you ask yourself, in effect, “What would I do if I were the machine, trying to solve this problem?” and this leads you to an answer of the form, “Well, first I’d do this, and then I’d have to do that, etc.” But if you ask yourself “What would I do in this situation if I were a thousand-channel-wide parallel processor?” you draw a blank; you don’t have any personal familiarity with — any “direct access to” — processes happening in a thousand channels at once, even though that is what is going on in your brain. Your only access to what is going on in your brain comes in a sequential “format” that is strikingly reminiscent of the von Neumann architecture — although putting it that way is historically backwards.

Consciousness Explained, p. 215

The “intentional stance”

Researchers have several other terms for the intentional stance. Some call it “theory of mind” [...], but there are problems with that formulation, so I am going to stick with my more neutral terminology. Whenever an animal treats something as an agent, with beliefs and desires (with knowledge and goals), I say that it is adopting the intentional stance or treating that thing as an intentional system. The intentional stance is a useful perspective for an animal to take in a hostile world [...], since there are things out there that may want it and may have beliefs about where it is and where it is heading. Among the species that have evolved the intentional stance, there is considerable variation in sophistication. Faced with a threatening rival, many animals can make an informationally sensitive decision either to retreat or to call the other’s bluff, but there is scant evidence that they have any sense of what they are doing or why. There is some (controversial) evidence that a chimpanzee can believe that another agent — a chimpanzee or a human being, say — knows that the food is in the box rather than in the basket. This is second-order intentionality [...], involving beliefs about beliefs (or beliefs about desires, or desires about beliefs, etc.), but there is no evidence (yet) that any nonhuman animal can want you to believe that it thinks you are hiding behind the tree on the left, not the right (third-order intentionality). But even preschool children delight in playing games in which one child wants another to pretend not to know what the first child wants the other to believe (fifth-order intentionality): “You be the sheriff, and ask me which way the robbers went!”

Whatever the situation is with nonhuman animals—and this is a topic of vigorous and hotly debated research — there is no doubt at all that normal human beings do not have to be taught how to conceive of the world as containing lots of agents who, like themselves, have beliefs and desires, as well as beliefs and desires about the beliefs and desires of others, and beliefs and desires about the beliefs and desires that others have about them, and so forth. This virtuoso use of the intentional stance comes naturally, and it has the effect of saturating the human environment with folk psychology [...]. We experience the world as not just full of moving human bodies but of rememberers and forgetters, thinkers and hopers and villains and dupes and promise-breakers and threateners and allies and enemies.

Breaking the Spell, p. 110-111

Consciousness Explained, or Explained Away?

When we learn that the only difference between gold and silver is the number of subatomic particles in their atoms, we may feel cheated or angry — those physicists have explained something away: The goldness is gone from gold; they’ve left out the very silveriness of silver that we appreciate. And when they explain the way reflection and absorption of electromagnetic radiation accounts for colors and color vision, they seem to neglect the very thing that matters most. But of course there has to be some “leaving out” — otherwise we wouldn’t have begun to explain. Leaving something out is not a feature of failed explanations, but of successful explanations.

Only a theory that explained conscious events in terms of unconscious events could explain consciousness at all. If your model of how pain is a product of brain activity still has a box in it labeled “pain,” you haven’t yet begun to explain what pain is, and if your model of consciousness carries along nicely until the magic moment when you have to say “then a miracle occurs” you haven’t begun to explain what consciousness is.

This leads some people to insist that consciousness can never be explained. But why should consciousness be the only thing that can’t be explained? Solids and liquids and gases can be explained in terms of things that aren’t themselves solids or liquids or gases. Surely life can be explained in terms of things that aren’t themselves alive — and the explanation doesn’t leave living things lifeless. The illusion that consciousness is the exception comes about, I suspect, because of a failure to understand this general feature of successful explanation. Thinking, mistakenly, that the explanation leaves something out, we think to save what otherwise would be lost by putting it back into the observer as a quale — or some other “intrinsically” wonderful property. The psyche becomes the protective skirt under which all these beloved kittens can hide. There may be motives for thinking that consciousness cannot be explained, but, I hope I have shown, there are good reasons for thinking that it can.

My explanation of consciousness is far from complete. One might even say that it was just a beginning, but it is a beginning, because it breaks the spell of the enchanted circle of ideas that made explaining consciousness seem impossible. I haven’t replaced a metaphorical theory, the Cartesian Theater, with a nonmetaphorical ("literal, scientific") theory. All I have done, really, is to replace one family of metaphors and images with another, trading in the Theater, the Witness, the Central Meaner, the Figment, for Software, Virtual Machines, Multiple Drafts, a Pandemonium of Homunculi. It’s just a war of metaphors, you say — but metaphors are not “just” metaphors; metaphors are the tools of thought. No one can think about consciousness without them, so it is important to equip yourself with the best set of tools available. Look what we have built with our tools. Could you have imagined it without them?

Consciousness Explained, p. 454-455

On Evolution

Biology as engineering

It is only slowly dawning on philosophers of science that biology is not a science like physics, in which one should strive to find “laws of nature,” but a species of engineering: the analysis, by “reverse engineering,” of the found artifacts of nature — which are composed of thousands of deliciously complicated gadgets, yoked together opportunistically but elegantly into robust, self-protective systems.

“Self-Portrait,” in Brainchildren, p. 360

On the ad hoc “odd hacks” of evolution in consciousness

Here, in the individual habits of self-stimulation, is where we should look for kludges (it rhymes with Stooges), the computer hacker’s term for the ad hoc jury-rigs that are usually patched onto software in the course of debugging to get the stuff actually to work. (The linguist Barbara Partee once criticized an inelegant patch in an AI language-parsing program for being “odd hack” — as fine a serendipitous spoonerism as 1 have ever encountered. Mother Nature is full of odd hacks, and we should expect to find them in the individual’s idiosyncratic adoption of the virtual machine as well.)

Here is a plausible example: Since human memory is not innately well designed to be superreliable, fast-access, random access memory (which every von Neumann machine needs), when the (culturally and temporally distributed) designers of the von Neumannesque virtual machine faced the task of cobbling up a suitable substitute that would run on a brain, they hit upon various memory-enhancing Tricks. The basic Tricks are rehearsal, rehearsal, and more rehearsal, abetted by rhymes and rhythmic, easy-to-recall maxims. (The rhymes and rhythms exploit the vast power of the pre-existing auditory-analysis system to recognize patterns in sounds.) The deliberate repeated juxtaposition of elements between which one needed to build a link of association — so that one item would always “remind” the brain of the next — was further enhanced, we may suppose, by making the associations as rich as possible, clothing them not just with visual and auditory features, but exploiting the whole body. Le Penseur’s frown and chin-holding, and the head-scratchings, mutterings, pacings, and doodlings that we idiosyncratically favor, could turn out to be not just random by-products of conscious thinking but functional contributors (or the vestigial traces of earlier, cruder functional contributors) to the laborious disciplining of the brain that had to be accomplished to turn it into a mature mind.

And in place of the precise, systematic “fetch-execute cycle” or “instruction cycle” that brings each new instruction to the instruction register to be executed, we should look for imperfectly marshaled, somewhat wandering, far-from-logical transition “rules,” where the brain’s largely innate penchant for “free association” is provided with longish association-chains to more or less ensure that the right sequences get tried out.

Consciousness Explained, p. 224-225

On the domestication of religion

What I now want to suggest is that, alongside the domestication of animals and plants, there was a gradual process in which the wild (self-sustaining) memes of folk religion became thoroughly domesticated. They acquired stewards. Memes that are fortunate enough to have stewards, people who will work hard and use their intelligence to foster their propagation and protect them from their enemies, are relieved of much of the burden of keeping their own lineages going. In extreme cases, they no longer need to be particularly catchy, or appeal to our sensual instincts at all. The multiplication-table memes, for instance, to say nothing of the calculus memes, are hardly crowd-pleasers, and yet they are duly propagated by hardworking teachers — meme shepherds — whose responsibility it is to keep these lineages strong. The wild memes of language and folk religion, in other words, are like rats and squirrels, pigeons and cold viruses — magnificently adapted to living with us and exploiting us whether we like them or not. The domesticated memes, in contrast, depend on help from human guardians to keep going.

People have been poring over their religious practices and institutions for almost as long as they have been refining their agricultural practices and institutions, and these reflective examiners have all had agendas—individual or shared conceptions of what was valuable and why. Some have been wise and some foolish, some widely informed and some naive, some pure and saintly, and some venal and vicious.

Breaking the Spell, p. 170-171

On breaking spells

The taboos of religion and atheismBreaking the Spell, Religion as a Natural Phenomenon

This sets the order of business: First, we must look at the issue of whether the first spell — the taboo — should be broken. Of course, by writing and publishing this book I am jumping the gun, leaping in and trying to break the first spell, but one has to start somewhere. Before continuing further, then, and possibly making matters worse, I am going to pause to defend my decision to try to break that spell. Then, having mounted my defense for starting the project, I am going to start the project! Not by answering the big questions that motivate the whole enterprise but by asking them, as carefully as I can, and pointing out what we already know about how to answer them, and showing why we need to answer them.

I am a philosopher, not a biologist or an anthropologist or a sociologist or historian or theologian. We philosophers are better at asking questions than at answering them, and this may strike some people as a comical admission of futility — “He says his specialty is just asking questions, not answering them. What a puny job! And they pay him for this?” But anybody who has ever tackled a truly tough problem knows that one of the most difficult tasks is finding the right questions to ask and the right order to ask them in. You have to figure out not only what you don’t know, but what you need to know and don’t need to know, and what you need to know in order to figure out what you need to know, and so forth.


Like the revivalist preacher, I say unto you, O religious folks who fear to break the taboo: Let go! Let go! You’ll hardly notice the drop! The sooner we set about studying religion scientifically, the sooner your deepest fears will be allayed. But that is just a plea, not an argument, so I must persist with my case. I ask just that you try to keep an open mind and refrain from prejudging what I say because I am a godless philosopher, while I similarly do my best to understand you. (I am a bright. My essay “The Bright Stuff,” in the New York Times, July 12, 2003, drew attention to the efforts of some agnostics, atheists, and other adherents of naturalism to coin a new term for us nonbelievers, and the large positive response to that essay helped persuade me to write this book. There was also a negative response, largely objecting to the term that had been chosen [not by me]: bright, which seemed to imply that others were dim or stupid. But the term, modeled on the highly successful hijacking of the ordinary word “gay” by homosexuals, does not have to have that implication. Those who are not gays are not necessarily glum; they’re straight. Those who are not brights are not necessarily dim. They might like to choose a name for themselves. Since, unlike us brights, they believe in the supernatural, perhaps they would like to call themselves supers. It’s a nice word with positive connotations, like gay and bright and straight. Some people would not willingly associate with somebody who was openly gay, and others would not willingly read a book by somebody who was openly bright. But there is a first time for everything. Try it. You can always back out later if it becomes too offensive.)

Breaking the Spell, p. 19-21

Escaping a prevalent fear in the human sciences

I continued [during the writing of Consciousness Explained and Darwin’s Dangerous Idea] to notices instances of the pattern that had inspired and shaped Elbow Room: the hidden agenda that tends to distort theorizing in all the social sciences and life sciences. People working in quite different fields with different methodologies and research agendas nevertheless often shared a veiled antipathy, trying to keep their distance from the implications of two ideas: Our minds are just what our brains non-miraculously do, and the talents of our brains had to evolve like every other marvel of nature. Their efforts to keep this vision at bay was bogging down their thinking, lending spurious allure to dubious brands of absolutism and encouraging them to see small, bridgeable gaps as yawning chasms. The aim of this book [Freedom Evolves] is to expose the misbegotten defensive edifices people have constructed in response to this fear, dismantle them, and replace them with better foundations for the things we hold dear.

Freedom Evolves, p. xi-xii

Scientific methods in the study of human culture

The ardent anti-Darwinians in the humanities and social sciences have traditionally feared that an evolutionary approach would drown their cherished way of thinking — with its heroic authors and artists and inventors and other defenders and lovers of ideas. And so they have tended to declare, with desperate conviction but no evidence or argument, that human culture and human society can only be interpreted and never causally explained, using methods and presuppositions that are completely incommensurable with, or untranslatable into, the methods and presuppositions of the natural sciences. “You can’t get here from there!” could be their motto. “The chasm is unbridgeable!” And yet we have just completed a sketchy but nonmiraculous and matter-of-fact stroll, all the way from blind, mechanical, robotic nature to the passionate defense and elaboration of the most exalted ideas known to humankind. The chasm was a figment of fearful imagination. We can do a better job of understanding ourselves as champions of ideas, and defenders of values, if we first see how we came to occupy such a special role.

Breaking the Spell, p. 188

The examination of morality

This is perhaps the most shocking implication of my inquiry, and I do not shrink from it, even though it may offend many who think of themselves as deeply moral. It is commonly supposed that it is entirely exemplary to adopt the moral teachings of one’s own religion without question, because — to put it simply — it is the word of God (as interpreted, always, by the specialists to whom one has delegated authority). I am urging, on the contrary, that anybody who professes that a particular point of moral conviction is not discussable, not debatable, not negotiable, simply because it is the word of God [...] should be seen to be making it impossible for the rest of us to take their views seriously, excusing themselves from the moral conversation, inadvertently acknowledging that their own views are not conscientiously maintained and deserve no further hearing.

Breaking the Spell, p. 295-296


Dennett and his work

Content and consciousness

In my opinion, the two main topics in the philosophy of mind are content and consciousness. As the title of my first book, Content and Consciousness (1969) suggested, that is the order in which they must be addressed: first, a theory of content or intentionality — a phenomenon more fundamental than consciousness — and then, building on that foundation, a theory of consciousness. Over the years I have found myself recapitulating this basic structure twice, partly in order to respond to various philosophical objections, but more importantly, because my research on foundational issues in cognitive science led me into different aspects of the problems. The articles in the first half of Brainstorms (1978) composed in effect a more detailed theory of content, and the articles in the second half were concerned with specific problems of consciousness. The second recapitulation has just been completed, with a separate volume devoted to each half: The Intentional Stance (1987) is all and only about content; Consciousness Explained (1991) presupposes the theory of content in that volume and builds an expanded theory of consciousness.

“Self-Portrait,” in Brainchildren, p. 355

What’s new?

But there is a novel texture to my work, and an attitude, which grows primarily, I think, from my paying attention to the actual details of the sciences of the mind — and asking philosophical questions about those details. This base camp in the sciences has permitted me to launch a host of differently posed arguments, drawing on overlooked considerations. These arguments do not simply add another round ot the cycle of debate, but have some hope of dislodging the traditional intuitions with which philosophers previously had to start. For instance, from this vantage point one can see the importance of evolutionary models (1969; 1974; 1978a; 1983a; 1984d; 1990a; 1990b) and, concomitantly, the perspective of cognitive science as reverse engineering (1989; 1991a; and chapter 16 of this volume), which goes a long way to overcoming the conservative mindset of pure philosophy. The idea that a mind could be a contraption composed of hundreds or thousands of gadgets takes us a big step away from the overly familiar mind presupposed by essentially all philosophers from Descartes to the present.

“Self-Portrait,” in Brainchildren, p. 365-366

Philosophers have spent decades dreaming up thought experiments designed to prove or disprove W.V.O. Quine’s (1960) principle of the indeterminacy of radical translation: the surprising claim that in principle there could be two different ways of translating one natural language into another natural language and no evidence at all about which one was the right way to translate the language. (Quine insisted that in that case there wouldn’t be a right way; each way would be as good as the other, and there would be no further fact of the matter.)


If the point still eludes you, it may help to consider a simpler case of the same phenomenon, my “Quinian Crossword Puzzle.” It is not easy concocting a crossword puzzle with two equally good solutions, but here is one. Which is the real solution? Neither, for I deliberately set out to make it that way.

A Quinian Crossword Puzzle

















  1. Dirty stuff
  2. A great human need
  3. To make smooth
  4. Movie actor
  1. Vehicle dependent on H2O
  2. We usually want this
  3. Just above
  4. U.S. state (abbrev.)

Breaking the Spell, p. 389

Another (similar, but not-quite-Quinian) crossword

Here is a simple test to remind you how limited our abilities [of mental visualization] actually are: In your mind’s eye, fill in the following three-by-three crossword puzzle, writing the following three words down in the columns, starting with the left column: GAS OIL DRY





Can you readily read off the horizontal words? In an actual diagram on paper, these words would “pop out” at you — you would be unable not to see them. That, after all, is the point of making diagrams: to present the data in a format that makes a new breakdown or parsing of the data easy or inevitable. A three-by-three array of alphabetic characters is not a very complicated data structure, but it is apparently not something our brains can hold in place steadily enough for its visual systems to do their “pop out” work. (If you want to try again, here are two more groups of words for the columns: OPT NEW EGO, and FOE INN TED.)

Consciousness Explained, p. 295-296

Correcting a common philosophical mistake

Philosophers often maneuver themselves into a position from which they can see only two alternatives: infinite regress versus some sort of “intrinsic” foundation — a prime mover of one sort or another. For instance, it has seemed obvious that for some things to be valuable as means, other things must be intrinsically valuable — ends in themselves — otherwise we’d be stuck with a vicious regress (or circle) of things valuable only as means. [...]

There is always another alternative, which naturalistic philosophers should look on with favor: a finite regress that peters out without marked foundations or thresholds or essences. Here is an easily avoided paradox: every mammal has a mammal for a mother — but this implies an infinite genealogy of mammals, which canot be the case. The solution is not to search for an essence of mammalhood that would permit us in principle to identify the Prime Mammal, but rather to tolerate a finite regress that connects mammals to their nonmammalian ancestors by a sequence that can only be partitioned arbitrarily. The reality of today’s mammals is secure without foundations.

“Self-Portrait,” in Brainchildren, p. 361-362


[... O]ne of the troubles with teleology [is]: where does it all stop? What final final cause can be cited to bring this hierarchy of reasons to a close? Aristotle had an answer: God, the Prime Mover, the for-which to end all for-whiches. The idea, which is taken up by the Christian, Jewish, and Islamic traditions, is that all our purposes are ultimately God’s purposes. [...] But what are God’s purposes? That is something of a mystery. [...]

Today’s cosmologists, like many of their predecessors throughout history, tell a diverting story, but prefer to sidestep the “why” question of teleology. Does the universe exist for any reason? Do reasons play any intelligible role in explanations of the cosmos? Could something exist for a reason without its being somebody’s reason? Or are reasons [...] only appropriate in explanations of the works and deeds of people or other rational agents? If God is not a person, a rational agent, an Intelligent Artificer, what possible sense could the biggest “why” question make? And if the biggest “why” question doesn’t make any sense, how could any smaller, more parochial, “why” questions make sense?

Darwin's Dangerous IdeaOne of Darwin’s most fundamental contributions is showing us a new way to make sense of “why” questions. Like it or not, Darwin’s idea offers one way — a clear, cogent, astonishingly versatile way — of dissolving these old conundrums. It takes some getting used to, and is often misapplied, even by its staunchest friends. Gradually exposing and clarifying this way of thinking is a central project of the present book. Darwinian thinking must be carefully distinguished from some oversimplified and all-too-popular impostors, and this will take us into some technicalities, but it is worth it. The prize is, for the first time, a stable system of explanation that does not go round and round in circles or spiral off in an infinite regress of mysteries. Some people would much prefer the infinite regress of mysteries, apparently, but in this day and age the cost is prohibitive: you have to get yourself deceived. You can either deceive yourself or let others do the dirty work, but there is no intellectually defensible way of rebuilding the mighty barriers to comprehension that Darwin smashed.

Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, p. 24-25


Why religion?

The three favorite purposes or raisons d’être for religion are

  • to comfort us in our suffering and allay our fear of death
  • to explain things we can’t otherwise explain
  • to encourage group cooperation in the face of trials and enemies
Thousands of books and articles have been written defending these claims, and such compelling and familiar ideas are probably at least partly right, but if you settle for one of them, or even all three taken together, you succumb to a disorder often encountered in the humanities and social sciences: premature curiosity satisfaction. There is so much more to ask about, and so much more to understand. Why would these ideas comfort people? (And why are they comforting, exactly? Might there be better, more comforting ideas to be found?) Why would these ideas appeal to people as explanations of baffling events? (And how could they have arisen? Did some would-be proto-scientist hit upon a supernatural theory and enthusiastically proselytize her neighbors?) How do these ideas actually manage to enhance cooperation in the face of suspicion and defection? (And once more, how could they have arisen? Did some wise tribal leader invent religion to give her tribe a teamwork edge over the rival tribes?)

Breaking the Spell, p. 102-103


[1] Von Neumann machine:

John von Neumann [...] modified Turing’s basic ideas to create the abstract architecture for the first practically realizable digital computer. We call that architecture the von Neumann machine.
Turing was an extraordinarily well-organized thinker, but his stream of consciousness, like yours or mine or James Joyce’s, was no doubt a variegated jumble of images, decisions, hunches, reminders, and so forth, out of which he managed to distill the mathematical essence: the bare-bones, minimal sequence of operations that could accomplish the goals he accomplished in the florid and meandering activities of his conscious mind. The result was the specification of what we now call a Turing machine, a brilliant idealization and simplification of a hyperrational, hyperintellectual phenomenon: a mathematician performing a rigorous computation.
Turing’s set of primitive operations [...] was deliberately impoverished, so that there could be no question of their mechanical realizability. That is, it was important to Turing’s mathematical purposes that there be no doubt that each step in the processes he was studying be one that was so simple, so stupid, that it could be performed by a simpleton — by someone who could be replaced by a machine[...].

Consciousness Explained, p. 213, 212

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