Tell Me Precisely, What Is It Like?
By Michael Metzler
In Good Will Hunting (1997), Robin Williams plays the part of Sean, a burnt-out college professor with the task of counseling Will, a young genius who suffers from a photographic memory and an emotional void. Philosophically speaking, Will knows all the facts there are to know about the world, but he has not yet been let out of Boston— or, we could say, his black and white room. Will does not yet know everything there is to know. Sean admonishes Will:
So if I asked you about art you could give me the skinny on every art book ever written…Michelangelo? You know a lot about him I bet. Life’s work, criticisms, political aspirations. But you couldn’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You’ve never stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling. . . If I asked you about war you could refer me to a bevy of fictional and non-fictional material, but you’ve never been in one. You’ve never held your best friend’s head in your lap and watched him draw his last breath, looking to you for help. And if I asked you about love I’d get a sonnet, but you’ve never looked at a woman and been truly vulnerable. . . .
Sean is pointing Will to what I will call ‘experiential knowledge.’ In what follows I want to investigate what this experiential knowledge comprises, in part by investigating its relation to propositional knowledge. I begin by taking a look at that aspect of human experience that is phenomenal, i.e. consciousness, by providing an analysis of Thomas Nagel’s intended use of the now classic language of ‘what it is like to be.’ I will attempt to explain with greater precision what this special language references through a critical analysis of Frank Jackson’s knowledge argument as well as a defense against P.M.S. Hacker’s rejection of Nagel’s language; contra Hacker, I regard this language as beautifully “illicit” and meaningful.
I then set out to explain the limited and dependent role consciousness plays within the broader processes involved in experiential knowledge, refining Nagel’s language by distinguishing between ‘what it is like to’ undergo an experience, i.e. imaginative simulation, and ‘what it is to’ undergo an experience, paralleling Sean’s distinction between reading a sonnet of love and actually looking at a woman as a vulnerable man. I illustrate the complex interplay between these two kinds of experiential knowledge by arguing that Mary did in fact know what it was like to see ‘red’ before leaving her black and white room. In conclusion, I propose for further research the possibility of a unique form of creative information blending at the level of phenomenal experience.
1. Nagel: Most will likely agree that one important aspect of experiential knowledge is consciousness; and Thomas Nagel’s classic language of “what it is like to be” is now broadly recognized as an accurate reference to what we take consciousness to be. However, this language is rarely used with the level of precision Nagel intended for it, and philosophers following Nagel often appear to lose sight of why Nagel originally proposed it. . . .
. . .Its philosophical use was primarily for staying clear of premature and inaccurate reduction. Nagel expressed his worry this way: “[P]hilosophers share the general human weakness for explanation of what is incomprehensible in terms suited for what is familiar and well understood, though entirely different . . .” (1974).
If it is really consciousness that one must explain then it is precisely what it is to be conscious that must remain the focus of investigation. What is it to be conscious? Nagel answers,
[T]he fact that an organism has conscious experience at all means, basically, that there is something it is like to be that organism. . . [F]undamentally an organism has conscious mental states if and only if there is something it is like to be that organism—something it is like for the organism” (160).
As J.I. Biro (1991) explains: “…[T]he ‘means’ in the first quotation suggests that the ‘if and only if’ in the second should be taken in the strongest possible sense, as expressing an analytical thesis.” Consciousness, then, just is “what it is like to be.”
2. Jackson: More needs to be said about this language, and I think our forty year old knowledge argument tradition in the philosophy of mind gives us one way of doing so. In “What Mary Didn’t Know” (1986) Frank Jackson tells the story of Mary, a girl who learned every physical fact there is to know while growing up in a black and white room. Upon leaving this room, Mary sees something red for the first time and thereby learns a new fact (e.g. “that is red”), a non-physical fact that other normal children have known all along; since Mary learned a non-physical fact, reductive physicalism must be false. In reply to Paul Churchland’s claim that Jackson is merely equivocating between knowledge by description and knowledge by acquaintance, Jackson insists that knowledge kinds are entirely beside the point. All that matters is whether or not Mary learns a new fact. In reply to the objection by others that all Mary gains is an ability, or knowledge how, Jackson is clear: Reductive physicalism fails if and only if Mary learns a new fact. Jackson goes on to tell us precisely what abilities Mary gains that have no bearing on the question of reductive physicalism:
She will, for instance, be able to imagine what seeing red is like, be able to remember what it is like, and be able to understand why her friends regarded her as so deprived (something which, until her release, has always mystified her).
Mary could gain the ability to imagine or remember what the world was like, something so grand that its absence caused her friends to consider her generally deprived; yet, for Jackson this is irrelevant to the question of reductive physicalism.
If this does not raise the eyebrow, consider again the question Jackson is attempting to answer with the story of Mary: “What she knows beforehand is … everything physical there is to know, but is it everything there is to know? That is the crucial question.” Indeed, that is the crucial question. Before seeing red, did Mary know everything there is to know? David Chalmers’ intuition ten years later is the same: “If a materialist is to hold on to materialism, she really needs to deny that Mary makes any discovery about the world at all” (1996; my emphasis).
If Jackson’s argument worked, physicalism would appear to have a problem. However, given the concession of Jackson that Mary did indeed gain the ability to imagine “what it is like” to see red upon seeing red for the first time, we have what appears to be an even deeper consideration for reductive materialism. I say this on the premise that the “ability” Mary gained to “imagine” what the world is like is naturally described as Mary gaining knowledge: Mary gained the knowledge of what it was like to be when seeing red. I will leave the naturalness of the phrase that Mary gained the knowledge of what it was like to be when seeing red up to the reader’s intuition for now; in what follows, the empirical and philosophical reasons for embracing this language have at least a brief appearance. Thus, all there is to know is not to be found in knowledge of propositional assertion, and experiential knowledge, particularly its conscious element, cannot be reduced to propositional assertion, whether physical or non-physical in kind.
This consideration does not necessarily bring us to the ‘qualia’ of consciousness. Mary does not gain knowledge about red qualia, what the color red qua property is like. Rather, she learns what it is like to be her when seeing red on a particular occasion; at this remarkable instance of her conscious life, Mary gains the knowledge of what it is like to be when seeing red for the first time. The qualia of redness, or the activity type of “seeing red” do not reference what it is like to be; they do not reference consciousness as it is. As David Pitt put it: “to say that a state is conscious just is to say there is something it is like to be in it” (2004, 3).
3. Hacker: This is where P.M.S. Hacker seems right: “Disentangling one of the roots of the conceptual confusions that conjure qualia into being is a first step towards the demystification of consciousness” (2002). But Hacker ends up grabbing the wrong root, mistakenly taking ‘qualia’ to represent that which Nagel’s other “awry” turns of phrase reference. Here are Hacker’s challenges to Nagel’s three basic pieces of language:
(1) ‘How it feels’ to have an experience, according to Hacker, is not a statement about the subjective quality of every conscious experience. When we talk about ‘how it feels’ we direct attention to our emotions or attitudes about certain experiences. Experiences are “possible subjects of attitudinal predicates.” Most experiences, therefore, “have…no qualitative character at all—they are neither agreeable nor disagreeable, neither pleasant nor unpleasant, etc.”
(2) Further, the statement ‘There is something it is like for A to V’ is appropriate only for comparison. There is something else, to W, which is like to V; but this is far better said by ‘Ving is like Wing.’ And ‘There is something it is like to V’ is only appropriate as reference to A’s attitude towards Ving, as explained in (1) above.
(3) Lastly, the question ‘What is it like for me to be me?’ is nonsensical. ‘I am me’ says nothing. “It makes no sense to ask what it is like for me to be me, for no one else could be me and I could be no one other than myself.” “[T]here is nothing to know.”
On one level, all these claims are trivially true. We do use the word ‘feeling’ to refer to our attitudes about particular experiences; it is hard to imagine our natural usage of ‘feel’ to be a direct reference to the nature of consciousness. Further, finding ‘There is something it is like to V’ in our common discourse would be to find a mere comparison, and it is very hard to imagine what sort of description would follow ‘For A to V is like….’ And “for me to be me” is certainly an “illicit” speech act, breaking the rules of conversation; as a statement of fact it comes across as nonsensical.
But Hacker considers a possible reply: “But one may reply, this is not what was meant at all.” Indeed, since Hacker’s hacking away at our language about consciousness presents us with criticisms that are so trivially true, perhaps there is just something else that is meant entirely by these “odd” turns of phrase. But Hacker only turns us back to the topic of ‘qualia’: “So what was meant by the introduction of qualia? And is it coherent?” Yet, as far as I can tell, we were not talking about the philosopher’s ‘qualia,’ but rather the language of “what it is like to be.”
In reply to Hacker’s contentions, then, here is what we could say: (1) Philosophers seem clear that by the ‘feel’ of an experience they are referring to the specific character of the experience; this is simply a technical use of this word, likely rooted in its metaphorical potency. True, as an abstract experience type, there is no special feel to rose smelling, but there is always a specific subjective feel when I know what it is like to be while smelling a rose.
The same reply is available for (2). If we take “it is like to V” as reference to the unity of consciousness through time, the complete knowledge of what it is like to be at the time of engaging in a particular instance of Ving, then Hacker’s worry falls away. There is nothing particular it is like to “see red” as an abstract action type, a depersonalized, timeless instant of being appeared to redly; but there is certainly something particular it is like for me to “see red” while walking through a beautiful garden populated by red roses following my release from the black and white laboratory. The new color would be striking and the resulting emotion mildly violent. There are an indeterminate number of particular experiences that might fall under any given V type. I can V while consciously learning how to V, while falling asleep, while unconscious of Ving after learning to V well, while depressed, while happy, while aggressively goal oriented, while passing the time. There is something “highly specific” it is like to be me at each incarnation of V.
(3) ‘Me to be me’ could be construed as a metaphorical phrase, but it need not be. Given my reply to (2), we can now say that “what it is like for me” is a meaningful statement. But the way we explained this statement was in virtue of qualifying it by the additional language “to be me.” ‘What it is like for me’ can be interpreted to refer to abstract generalizations about certain aspects to my life story, e.g. it is generally pleasant to be a middle class American. It can also be interpreted as reference to abstractions of my conscious life, e.g., what it is generally like to smell a rose. By adding the “to be me” we have made the meaning of this phrase more precise and also different; ‘What it is like to for me to be me’ precisely references my full unity of consciousness concretely located within a specific sequence of time. As I am conscious in time, there is something it is for me to be, very specifically, me.
What seems to be the primary intuition behind Hacker’s criticism of all this language is that what it is like cannot be conventionally described. However, it is not clear why we should demand someone to tell “us precisely what it was like.” This inability should be expected given that recollecting what it was like to be does not entail the recollection of propositional knowledge. Alvin Plantinga (1993, 60) made this point:
… you may remember what it looked like at a particular place on a particular climb. . .without explicitly remembering any particular proposition about it. You also remember moods, emotions, ambiences. You can remember feeling lost and desolate . . . to remember that feeling you need not remember any particular proposition.
Nagel points out that we ascribe conscious states to creatures that have no linguistic ability at all: “We ascribe them to children and animals, and believe that we ourselves would have experiences even if we didn’t have the language” (1986). And Plantinga’s point helps predict empirical results: in the case of semantic amnesia, “Language loss does not seem to affect autobiographical memory, just the ability to communicate it” (Rubin 2005). It seems we have good reason to reject Hacker’s worry “that Nagel never tells us, with regard to even one experience, what it is like for anyone to have it.” It is fine if no philosopher “actually tells us, with respect to even one experience, what its specific character is.” As Nagel put it, “we do not possess the vocabulary to describe it adequately.” According to C.S. Lewis, even “thinking about” an imaginative reconstruction of what it was like is a translation “of prior activity”:
The very essence of our life as conscious beings, all day and every day, consists of something which cannot be communicated except by hints, similes, metaphors, and the use of those emotions (themselves not very important) which are pointers to it. (1967)
This does not mean we cannot make headway in attempting to describe consciousness in general terms. We could say, for example, that to be conscious is a personal mode of existing comprising sensory inputs, proprioceptive awareness, bodily sensations, moods, and emotions, structured temporally, and as some work suggests, according to an irreducible narrative structure (Hogan 2003, Herman 2002, Crites 1971). Present consciousness is structured according to an immediate remembered past and an immediate anticipated future (Taliaferro 2001; Crites 1971). As Nagel says it, those “identifying characteristics of the mind” are “its special type of unity both at a time and over time….” (1986). There is something particular or “precise that it is like to be us…[S]ubjective character is highly specific (1974).
Further, we communicate our conscious experience all the time. Can you not, after all, communicate what it is like to be when you finally see your lover’s face appear in your window? Certainly: Juliet is the sun! (Guttenplan 2005). If Hacker wants to relegate Shakespeare to “ungrammatical gibberish,” he is free to do so; Romeo, after all, never tells us precisely what it was like be in love with Juliet. But philosophers are not typically puzzled by the 16th century poet.
4. Knowing what it is to V: Consciousness is not, however, a simple given (Fauconnier 2002). It is the product of processes intimately tied to experiential knowledge considered broadly; phenomenal experience, the knowledge of what it is like to be, is just a limited aspect of experiential knowledge, and so we must dive below the hood of awareness to investigate experiential knowledge—lest we explain something “entirely different.” I think Theodore Schick gives us a way of doing this; arguing outside the borders of philosophy of mind, Schick (1982) proposed a different use of Nagel’s language. Attempting to defend the possibility that we can gain knowledge through fiction, Schick distinguished “knowing what” from “knowing that” and “knowing what it is like.” Knowing what it is to climb a mountain is, for example, something very different from knowing what it is like to climb a mountain. At first glance, this might appear to be an entirely different use from Nagel’s, but because of the real distinction between experiential knowledge broadly considered and imaginative simulation of phenomenal experience, I think this is rather a further refinement of the language.
Consider: We unceasingly exploit complex abilities at simulating phenomenal experience. We can learn what it would be like to climb a mountain without ever setting foot on a mountain. We situate ourselves in our social world through constant empathy, engaging in what it is to be the people we have relations with by simulating what it is like to be those people. We even have the ability to remove our awareness from our real environment entirely, placing it in a secondary world while reading literature or watching a film; in the case of literature, introspection reveals that this at times involves adopting a concrete point of view within a story world (Herman 2002). The expectation of “what” phenomenally might or might not episodically occur within the next moment, next hour, or next year seems primitive to basic consciousness. Our sense of self depends on episodic memory, but even this appears to be a constant, imaginative reconstructive process bounded by the parameters of narrative coherence within our personal stories and the stories of our cultural environment (Yamane 2000). As Rubin notes, our shared knowledge via episodic memory can often be attributed to “cultural expectations, rather than to an individual’s autobiographical memory” (2005). Patrick Hogan argues for emotion and narrative universals that permit us to imaginatively appreciate literature trans-culturally and trans-historically (2003a). According to Raymond Gibbs (2006), the way we comprehend some of the metaphors that are so ubiquitous in our natural language is through “simulating what it is like.” And Lakoff and Johnson’s idea of embodied concepts, an idea that grounds our most basic cognitive abilities in simulated experience, is proving more popular than their proposal of conceptual metaphor (Ritchie 2004).
In sum, our knowledge of ourselves and our world depends on our simulating what it is like. Our abilities in imagining and empathizing are ubiquitous, necessary, and astounding. We have sufficient grounds just here for our intuition that Mary does indeed gain the knowledge of what it is like to be. However, these abilities are also something very different from our knowledge of what it is to be. Adding the “like” to the phrase ‘knowing what it is to’ carves off the non-phenomenal knowledge and so can refer to mere simulation or just the phenomenal aspect to experiential knowledge.
Phenomenal awareness must therefore be seen in its larger context, in terms of its role, what it does. It is limited and seems to function very much like our central control center, the result of a simplified and efficient information stream. This information stream is itself the segmented and sequenced information arising from our many sensory modules that select and process a manageable portion of information from all possible information arising from our embodiment in the world (Hogan 2003b). The phenomenal result of this information stream comes with a specific and limited purpose—it allows ‘us’ to track our motives, goals, moods, activity, and our special placement in the world. Although our emotions and moods determine how the world seems to us, they also thereby represent the world; and Tye seems right when he says these emotions and moods are not only about the world, but possess a phenomenology that tracks changes in our body (1995)—and I would say tracks our stable bodily dispositions as well. Our knowledge of what it is to be references this flow of embodied information and the resulting intelligently poised dispositions; knowledge of what it is to be includes our habits, abilities, skillful engagement in practices, and our movement within a social environment. This stable flow of being is represented and tracked by a coherent collage of our continuously changing focus of awareness.
Given this distinction, Sean’s admonishment to Will is further explained. Mere imagination, the simulating of what it is like to be, is not enough so say one has full, or perhaps real, experiential knowledge of the world; we would expect the phenomenology of tracking real life embodiment, and the recollecting or reconstructing of this real life embodiment has a distinctive feel, something different from mere simulation as one might find in a vivid dream or lively imagination.
5. Knowing what it is like to see ‘red’: But this tracking feature, this relationship between knowing what it is like to be me and knowing what it is to be me is complex. Consider, for example, Mary’s language use before leaving her black and white room. It follows from above that “There is something it is like for Mary to V” is a true statement if and only if there is something it is like to be Mary when Mary is engaged in a specific instance of ‘Ving.’ But from this it follows that there is something it is like for Mary to see what is called ‘red’ before leaving her black and white room. Mary would have learned that ‘red’ is a word used in highly specific ways when speaking of love, when expecting the visit from a lover bearing flowers, when enjoying the intoxication of walking through a lovely rose garden, and when one decides what not to wear to a funeral. Even though the subjective quality of redness, and perhaps the other effects of having a fully colored world, was not part of what it was like to be Mary when Mary or others used the word ‘red,’ all other aspects of Mary’s knowledge of what it was like to be were identitical to the other users of ‘red’ from whom Mary learned ‘red.’ Mary even knew what place red had on the spectrum from light to dark; Mary knew what it was like to be while enjoying the rising of the sun, the mellowness of a dusk evening, the fear of a pitch black room, and the basking in full sunlight. ‘Red’ was not used to refer to angels of light, or to those dark unlucky cats. ‘Red’ was not a word used when speaking of the purity of a nun or the sterile feeling one gets when walking into a stainless steel laboratory. Mary knew how to talk about, think about, and read about red. But did she really engage in seeing red? Certainly. Mary saw the rose garden, the flower, the dress, the blood, and the pretty woman who was “like a red red rose” – perhaps reversing the role of the metaphor — as did everyone else.
However, Mary still lacks some finer-grained discriminatory abilities the other children have. The prick of a horror scene filled with blood or the delight in finding a tree filled with fresh cherries will always remain a bit blurred for Mary—but she will get by. If this is the correct way of telling the story of Mary, then Mary in fact did not learn a new fact upon “seeing red.” Her propositional knowledge remained relatively fixed, while her knowledge of what it is like to be gained more discriminatory power in tracking the non-phenomenal knowledge of what it is to be. This puts propositional knowledge in a queer place, a somewhat impotent place. But this is what we want; we cannot, after all, tell anyone precisely what it is like for Mary or her friends to see red. But we can expect the metaphor “my love is a red red rose” to be more or less effective communication, depending on who is listening.
6. Knowing that p & Experiential Knowledge: A bit more can now be said about our original distinction between knowledge of fact and experiential knowledge. So far, knowledge of fact appears a bit ad hoc, the result of preceding experiential knowledge; and this is further confirmed by the additional claim I want to defend about the indeterminacy of what we take to be our propositional knowledge.
First consider whether we could possess propositional knowledge, that special sort of disposition to assert that p, if we did not possess linguistic practices that are grounded in our experiential knowledge of the world. It seems that we could not. This point is I think illustrated in the previous story about Mary’s use of ‘red.’ But take for another example the way we use the word ‘swat.’ The meaning of ‘swat’ is rooted in how we know when it is the case that someone just “swatted” a fly. Perhaps someone hits a fly much like I hit my door to make it close, or perhaps like I hit a ping-pong ball. This is not what we say is swatting a fly. But then what is? Let’s even say an abstract recognitional cognitive faculty kicks in, in which case we use the word “swat” by merely recognizing the action as being of a certain abstract action type. Such a recognitional device only moves the problem another step back. How did we come about possessing the ability to recognize the abstract action type “swatting” to begin with? We come to learn experientially how people get annoyed with bugs and we have our own unpleasant run ins. Bugs come to take on a role of disrespect, particularly when they dare get close to the face of a human person. We develop social style that we mimic from others as we learn to not lunge our head around or fall to the ground to emerge again with a big stick. Even if you liked bugs, social grace would not permit the hairy, green, winged specimen to plant itself on your nose while conversing with the guests. And so we take on a highly refined, aesthetic, social action we call “swatting.” It seems that the meaning of ‘swat’ implies such a story we might be able to tell. Not only does one not know that A is Ving (e.g. Sally is swatting) without this experiential knowledge, one will not even recognize Ving as an intelligent action type; “Ving” would be a meaningless word.
Further, our assertorical practices, and thus the content of our beliefs, seem to be to a degree indeterminate. I take David Pitt (2004) to be at least misleading in his view that we differentiate object O from O’s immediate environment based on what O is like, how O looks. Standing beside our discriminatory abilities, what O is like is therefore primitive. What O is like is a simple given and the basis on which ‘we’ differentiate O. However, we have already determined that conscious experience is not a simple given. As Fouconnier and Turner say it,
“The recognition of identity sameness, equivalence, … is in fact a spectacular product of complex, imaginative, unconscious work…[they are] finished products provided to consciousness after elaborate work; they are not primitive starting points, cognitively, neurobiologically, or evolutionary.”
Pitt appears to confuse the tracking function of conscious awareness and the unconscious tracking and discrimination of objects that conscious awareness rests upon. If an object present to the senses has not been successfully tracked by the body and unconscious mind, it will likely be violently forced to the fore of conscious awareness; a mere individuated O in our conscious experience presupposes an unconsciously identified and tracked ‘entity’ of sorts. Our abilities to think or assert “that O is an A” rest upon our unconscious mind discriminating O “as an A;” but this is only metaphorically speaking since our unconscious mind does not engage in the linguistic practice “that O is an A” is abstracted from. In other words, the unconscious flow of information about the world provides the river our phenomenal knowledge tracks and into which our linguistic attempts dip their bucket. Our dispositions to assert that p depend on the immediate status of this information, which includes the status of primed long term memory, and the conversational context. The information river and the conversational contexts are always in flux; we can step into propositional content only once despite our stable habits to assert the same that p over and over again.
In conclusion, note the apparent coherence between scientific methods of inquiry such as neurobiology, experimental psychology, and cognitive science with the non-reductive interpretation of Nagel’s language of knowing what it is like to be. Embodied experience, serial processing, and the temporal, perhaps narrative, quality of consciousness express a fluid yet sequenced structure that tracks and efficiently controls the flourishing of the person within the world. Our experiential knowledge is what it is for us to be in the world, our embodiment, and it is comprised of the continual flow of information always available to our tracking stare of awareness, itself a product of a highly selected and sequenced information stream. Consciousness is therefore not a simple given, but it is also not epiphenomenal icing on the cognitive cake. Experiential knowledge is distinguished by us as phenomenal and non-phenomenal; we track our knowledge of what it is to be via our simplified and limited knowledge of what it is like to be.
Some Possible Research from Here
I want to forecast a possible line of research considering all this. To continue the point made just above, recognizing that consciousness is not some epiphenomenal free gift, I think there is reason to consider special kinds of blending between knowledge domains at the level of consciousness. Here are two possibilities: First, although Ritchie (2004) and Gibbs (2006) have pointed to phenomenology during metaphor comprehension, there is generally silence on this possibility; after talk about phenomenal imagination, for example, Hogan leaves this out of his account of metaphor (2002; 2003b). Given the nature of prototypical, literary metaphor, I think this should surprise us. With regard to the novel linguistic metaphor ‘A is B’ I suggest that words are typically ripped from their use in thin cognition during comprehension, forcing the imagination to call up phenomenal, episodic memory associated with the source (B), and applying it to the now phenomenally rooted target (A). My hypothesis is that there is a creative blending of information, unique to each act of comprehension, with some necessary component that remains at the level of the phenomenal.
Second, consider the non-phenomenal and automated nature of the practices or crafts we value so much. The glory of an excellently performed craft is located in its effortless and unconscious motions. However, there would seem to be an important story to be told about how excellence in a craft, its “style” (Crites 1971), as well as the conditions of evaluating a craft, arises from the conscious, creative labor at learning a craft. As Douglas Lind explains:
The practitioner develops an understanding of the conditions of excellence for her craft while pressed to meet the internal demand of working within it. Thus the artist acquires a sense of mastery in painting while learning to conform her creative ideals to fit the natural limitations of her medium. (1999, 358; my emphasis).
This suggests another fascinating, creative interplay of information at the level of the phenomenal.
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