A review essay of James and Whitehead on Life after Death by David Ray Griffin
Life is entwined with death from the start, for death is the price we must pay for being born, even though we don’t choose it, which may be why some people who are very angry at the deal, decide to choose how and when they will die, as if they are getting revenge on someone who dealt them a rotten hand, even if they don’t believe in the someone.
The meaning of death, and whether humans do or do not survive it in some form, has always obsessed people, from the average person to the great artists and thinkers. Death is the mother of philosophy and all the arts and sciences. It is arguably also what motivates so much human behavior, from keeping busy to waging war to trying to hit a little white ball with a long stick down a lot of grass into a hole in the ground and doing it again and again.
Death is the mother of distractions.
It is also what we cannot ultimately control, although a lot of violent and crazy rich people try. The thought of it drives many people mad.
No one is immune from wondering about it. We are born dying, and from an early age we ask why. Children often explicitly ask, but as they grow older the explicit usually retreats into implicity and avoidance because of adults’ need to deny death or their lack of answers about it that makes sense.
David Ray Griffin is not a child or an adult in denial. He has spent his life in an intrepid search for truth in many realms – philosophy, theology, politics, etc. He is an esteemed author of over forty books, an elderly man in his eighties who has spent his life writing about God, and also in the last twenty years a series of outstanding books on the attacks of September 11, 2001 and the demonic nature of U.S. history. He fits T.S Eliot’s description in The Four Quartets:
Old men ought to be explorers
Here and there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Though the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning
In his latest book, which is another beginning, James and Whitehead on Life after Death, he explores the age-old question of whether there is life after death and concludes that there probably is. It is a conclusion that is arguably shared in some way still by many people today but is clearly rejected by most intellectuals and highly schooled people, as Griffin writes:
The traditional basis for hope was belief in life after death. Modern culture, however, has so diminished this belief that today, in educated circles, it is largely assumed that life after death is an outmoded belief….The dominant view among science-based modern intellectuals is that the idea of life after death is not one to take seriously. That conclusion, however, is virtually implicit in the presuppositions of these intellectuals, such as Corliss Lamont. According to these modern intellectuals, there is no non-sensory perception; the world is basically mechanistic; and the world contains nothing but physical bodies and forces.
Griffin argues the opposite. His book is devoted to refuting these presuppositions with the help of William James and Alfred North Whitehead. It is not an easy read, and is not aimed at regular people who would find it rough going, except for the middle chapters on mediums, extrasensory perception, telepathy, apparitions, near-death out-of-body experiences, and reincarnation – the stuff of tabloid nonsense but which in Griffin’s scholarly hands is treated very intelligently. Moreover, these chapters are crucial to his overall argument. However, the book will mainly appeal to the intellectuals whom Griffin wishes to convince of their errors, or to those who agree with him. It is scholarly.
Without entering into all the nuances of his rather complicated thesis, I will try to summarize his key points.
Griffin is what is called a process theologian and his work of philosophical theology is intimately linked with scientific thinking and the idea of evolution, even as it rejects the modern mechanistic worldview for a “postmodern” cosmology based on recent science, in particular, the work of microbiology. Although he is a Christian, the present book does not presuppose any Christian beliefs such as revelation, nor, for that matter, specific beliefs of any religion, although he does presuppose (and partially explains in chapter eleven) the existence of a “divine creator” or “divine reality” who is responsible for the evolutionary process that is the expression of a cosmic purpose with the “fine-tuning” of the universe. This “Holy Reality” is important to his argument.
The thought of the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead underlies everything Griffin writes here. Whitehead is known as the creator of process philosophy, which, to simplify, is the idea that all reality is not made up of things or bits of inert matter, no matter how small (e.g. atoms, brain molecules) or large (people or trees) interacting in some blind way with other bits of matter, but consists of conscious processes of ongoing experiences. In other words, reality is constant change, flowing experiences with types of awareness and intention and the free creativity to change. Humans are, therefore, ongoing experiments, not static entities.
Following Whitehead, Griffin has coined the term “panexperientialism,” meaning that all reality is comprised of experiences. It is worth noting that the etymology of the words experience and experiment are the same – Latin, experiri, to try. Life is therefore a trying. As some might say, it is trying to be born and to know you will die.
Griffin begins by noting the importance of life after death and why many argue against it. He states how he will avoid many of their objections and how he will show how the valid ones dissolve under his analysis. He promptly writes that “Microbiology has dissolved the mind-body problem.” He bases this on the work of acclaimed evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis,, among others, and her theory of symbiogenesis:
Her theory of symbiogenesis was based on the idea that all living organisms are sentient. Saying that her world view ‘recognizes the perceptive capacity of all live beings,’ she held that ‘consciousness is a property of all living cells,’ even the most elementary ones: ‘Bacteria are conscious. These bacterial beings have been around since the origin of life.’
Margulis’s point is consonant with Whitehead’s philosophy of organism, meaning that all physical reality possesses a degree of perceptive experience, although Griffin says “some of us may prefer to save the term ‘consciousness’ for higher types of experience.” The fundamental point is that all of physical reality experiences, or, as he quotes William James, “is a piece of full experience.” In layman’s language as applied to people, the mind and body are one.
Having laid down this scientific/philosophical foundation in the first four chapters (and in two more detailed appendices), Griffin turns to psychical research and how Whitehead and James believed in the need for such research and how James’s radical empiricism supported the reality of parapsychological events as did Whitehead, who accepted telepathy. Griffin writes:
Like James, Whitehead affirmed the reality of non-sensory perception. Moreover, besides affirming its reality,Whitehead argued that non-sensory perception is fundamental, so that sensory perception is secondary. Far from being primary, sensory perception is derivative from non-sensory perception….Accordingly, there is nothing supernatural about telepathy; one becomes aware of the content of other minds through the same non-sensory mode of perception that tells us about causation, the real existence of physical objects, memory, and time.
(Let me interject the simple but important point that it follows that in order to have any perceptions one must exist in physical form.)
Turning to actual psychical research that was promoted by the establishment of The Society For Psychical Research (SPR) in London in 1882, Griffin, as previously mentioned, devotes four key chapters to mediums, telepathy, extrasensory perception, near-death out-of-body experiences, apparitions, and reincarnation. This research and its findings, while rejected by the modern scientific worldview, is widespread and quite believable, in various degrees. Griffin shows why this is so. The truth of such psychic experiences is hard to refute since there are so many examples, which Griffin gives. He would agree with James who said:
The concrete evidence for most of the ‘psychic’ phenomenon under discussion is good enough to hang a man twenty times over.
And James, of course, the longtime professor at Harvard University, is revered as one of the United States’ most brilliant thinkers, not a fringe nut-case. This is also true for many of the others Griffin calls on to show how solid is the evidence for much psychic phenomena. Most readers will find these chapters very engaging and the most accessible.
Finally, Griffin explains why the idea of a fine-tuned universe makes the most sense and how it dovetails with the belief in God, even as it runs counter to the mechanistic, materialistic, and atheistic view of many intellectuals. He writes:
The new worldview advocated in this book requires a new understanding of the divine reality. Whitehead and [Charles] Hartshorne [an American process philosopher and theologian who developed Whitehead’s work] advocated a view of the universe known as ‘panentheism.’ The term means ‘all-in-God.’ Panentheism [the world is in God] is thus distinguished from pantheism, on the one hand, and traditional theism, on the other.
Based on these factors – microbiology, Whitehead and James’s philosophy, psychic research, etc. – Griffin concludes that there is ample evidence for life after death, not in the physical sense but in that of psyche or soul or spirit. He says that he has “long believed in life after death,” but that in offering this book with his argument for life after death as our “only empirical ground for hope” since we all die, he does so reluctantly. “I suggest this answer with fear and trembling, knowing that most of my friends and other people whose opinions I respect will hate this answer.”
That they would be surprised by his conclusion is a bit perplexing since he has long believed in life after death. I surely do not hate his answer and believe that he has made a strong case for his long-held belief. I share it, but differently. And I think that many of his scientifically-oriented friends and others may indeed agree with him more than he thinks, for his argument is rooted, not just in philosophy and theology, but in science. It is based on the idea of the non-duality between mind and matter, with the difference being that for him matter is conscious and for them it is not. They may come to accept the recent findings of microbiology and reject the “assumption of materialists and dualists alike” that “neurons are insentient.” They may reject some of their own presuppositions. For these debates take place at the highest level of abstraction where intellectuals dwell, and accepting one new scientific paradigm does not necessarily lead to belief in life after death. Far from it. That is when God enters the picture.
Griffin wisely uses hardcore commonsense beliefs to refute dualism and materialism. But I propose that there is another hardcore, commonsense belief that he ignores: that people know and feel that they are flesh and bones. Out of this feeling comes our conceptions about life, not the other way around. The Spanish philosopher Miguel De Unamuno, in The Tragic Sense of Life, put it this way:
Our philosophy – that is, our mode of understanding or not understanding the world and life – springs from our feeling toward life itself …. Man is said to be a reasoning animal. I do not know why he has not been defined as an affective or feeling animal …. And thus, in a philosopher, what must needs most concern us is the man.
David Griffin, relying on John Cobb’s term, says the “resurrection of the soul” is a better term for life after death than the more traditional ones of “immortality of the soul” and the “resurrection of the body,” since it splits the difference, thereby taking a bit of truth from both terms.
But as I understand his argument in this book, he is doing what he cautions against via Whitehead: “… he [Whitehead] said that one must avoid ‘negations of what in practice is presupposed.’” Griffin’s presupposition is that both dualism and materialism are both wrong and panexperientialism is correct. He writes:
Panexperientialism is based upon the supposition that we can and should think about the units comprising the physical world by analogy with our own experience, which we know from within. The supposition, in other words, is that the apparent difference in kind between our experience, or our ‘mind,’ and the entities comprising our bodies is an illusion, resulting from the fact that we know them in two different ways. We know our minds from within, by identity and memory, whereas in sensory perception of our bodies, as in looking in a mirror, we know them from without. Once we realize this, there is no reason to assume them really to be different in kind. [my emphasis]
So if that is true, I ask this question: why, if body and soul/mind are inseparable and are what people are, why is it necessary to argue for their divorce in death? If God created them as one at birth, could not God recreate them as one in death? Why Griffin concludes that this is impossible or would require a miracle escapes me. Maybe contemplating it is a bit too pedestrian and non-philosophical.
Despite my point above, James and Whitehead on Life after Death is another quintessentially brilliant volume from Griffin’s pen. It forces you to think about difficult but essential matters. It may not be easy reading, but it may force you to imaginatively ask yourself, what, if anything were possible and life continued after death, you would want such a life to be like. Maybe the man David Ray Griffin wants it to be non-bodily. Maybe many do and can’t imagine an alternative. But I can, and I hope for bodily resurrection. It’s just what I am.
Philosophy and theology can get very abstract and leave regular people in the dust. Another poet comes to mind, a counterpoint to T.S. Eliot, William Butler Yates, who wrote in “An Acre of Green Grass”:
Grant me an old man’s frenzy,
Myself I must remake
Till I am Timon and Lear
Or that William Blake
Who beat upon the wall
Till Truth obeyed his call;
A mind Michael Angelo knew
That can pierce the clouds,
Or inspired by frenzy
Shake the dead in their shrouds;
Forgotten else by mankind,
An old man’s eagle mind.
I would love to read what a frenzied David Ray Griffin has to say, now that I have read his philosophical logic. I can’t help agreeing with Unamuno:
And thus, in a philosopher, what must needs most concern us is the man
The man of flesh, blood, and bones.
24 thoughts on “Is There Life After Death?”
Interesting piece. I also believe in ‘Het Al’. It is a sort of translation out of Dutch for ‘All That is’ as the divine being. But what I miss is a clear answer on the question why: why are we here? What have we got to learn if we are part of the ‘perfect’ divine or isn’t the divine perfect? Just finetuning the creation? What if is finetuned? Is there a beginning and ending on the finetuning?
I have an answer and it is written in the piece above and given to me by dream in 2004, but I don’t know who put it in my mind. The answer ,I recieved’, is ‘the Law of Change’. A perpetual change that drives the divine as a perpetuum mobile. And what about love? Love gives the biggest connecting ‘change’, because after all ,everything is one, one in ‘Het Al’. Like the cells in a body. They never saw the human, but they ‘are’, they feel him and know that there must be a being within they function. They know they are part of something bigger and they are right.
Why are we in doubt about that?
Some speak in parables, I speak in fables (eaglestory) to explain it on a simple way, completely not scientific, but right from the heart and my dreams. I don’t won’t to compete with the one that spoke with parables, he was, is and shall be the Example for most of us.I’m just an ordinary guy, just as most of you. The books are not my words, they are translations of dreamimages given to me. It is a pitty, they are (for now) only in Dutch and as free e-books available . You are free to read them if you like and understand dutch.
If not, maybe google translation can help.
Don’t be angry if you not agree with my opinion, everybody if free to think what they want, everybody has his own path. Just keep the respect. The respect for yourself and the other!
This will require more digestion, but it reminds me of something I find myself thinking about increasingly these days.: In a world which depends so very often on things unseen, like radio waves and the whole frequency spectrum we utilize, how is it that so many people want to believe that things they can’t see don’t exist.
This despite admitting that we can only perceive a tiny part of the spectrum of frequencies possible. A subject I find myself returning to every several years is that of past life experiences and related studies, which have been documented in a scholarly way for hundreds of years. Our modern “governments”, however, want to send everything outside the prescribed thinking down the memory hole, at least until they find a way to turn it to their advantage. And government is only one on the list of captured institutions.
But we are taught on weekdays as children that science has revealed that creation does not require a creator, that pure randomness and an abundance of time explains how everything came to be the way it is and not some other way.
But of course, that is the pablum fed to the public. Actual scientists vary in their conclusions. Everything learned is an opportunity to learn what you don’t know, which is a much larger subject.
One thing I find curious is that David Ray Griffin can be so logical and perceptive around a variety of topics, but that he has gone the way of the establishment on the topic of climate change. Of course, it is not the easiest ruse to penetrate, and alarmists can find their assumptions affirmed in the provided explanations, and their iconoclasm in complaining that governments are not doing enough to save us from the big oil companies.
I tried to read his book “Unprecedented”, but I felt like I could be reading the website of the UN IPCC, with the same kind of appeal to authority quotes, etc.
I probably need to try again.
Do you deny that our hyper-capitalist consumer lifestyle is destroying (polluting and plundering) the natural environment (large ocean fish populations, insect populations, fresh water supplies, tropical forests, topsoil layers, etc., etc., etc.), or are you merely disputing the mainstream narrative reducing all these ominous issues to greenhouse gasses and climate temperature?
There is evidence of God, angels, heaven, eternal souls, life after life, life after death, resurrection of the body, and reincarnation of individual souls into new bodies. Much of this evidence comes from individual accounts of personal supernatural experiences.
Links to short videos (10 min. or less) with some personal accounts:
1. Hello From Heaven! (book): https://youtu.be/jBjkpBWZ9oo
2. To Heaven and Back (book): https://youtu.be/nYcwSGr-_5E
3. The Afterlife of Billy Fingers (book): https://youtu.be/tpXBHoLvh98
4. Dinner with an Angel – It’s A Miracle: https://youtu.be/s6BTvsQbWxw
5. A Rare Visit by Two of God’s Angels: https://youtu.be/j9QV_lmLM9c
6. Raymond Moody – Plato and Reincarnation: https://youtu.be/cZzXN1CSMLI
7. Raymond Moody – Children and Past Life Memories : https://youtu.be/ZaHcnSOYrgc
8. Gregg Levoy – Synchronicities: A Sure Sign You’re on the Right Path: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/passion/201712/synchronicities-sure-sign-youre-the-right-path
9. Mysticism and Evidence of the Divine: https://youtu.be/xNnaLLPetH4
It’s clear that all debate – more so war – is about power, whichever side one is on. The human, the material is about power. To see beyond people must go back: “The nearest the human spiritual journey will get to the divine, in this life only to be glimpsed as human intellect can get no nearer, is composed in a single feeling: love.”
I will purchase and (attempt to) read this book. But I will also (perhaps stupidly) admit I was a bit turned off by something I read in the book’s introduction: in Chapter 10, that humans may be the only species on “our” planet to be resurrected after death.
This seems to contradict his thesis that conscious processes exist in every cell, etc. Well, if so, why then is man alone endowed with resurrectability? It’s preposterous.
Can’t wait to see how Mr Griffin explains it.
The dualistic conflict between creationists and drawings omits and distracts one away from the third possibility; a union of science and spirituality; heard that one before? I have and believe it or not, miracles and the impacts of prayer and other miracles that you scoff at can be verified statistically. Sad to see yet one more renouncing a belief in phenomenon that most of us experience in small ways every day. My favorite holy example is Black Elk; the new agers cover hom so long as they don’t have to hear about how he worked with good catholics to help his people back then. People can take what pieces they want from his truth, but he was more than all of them could handle. And thankfully 100 years+ later, Part 1 of the investigation into the Native American Boarding School atrocities has been released under Deb Haalands US department of Interior. Lyle Courtsal http://www.3mpub.com
Thanks for writing about this difficult topic. Honestly, I don’t often think about the afterlife.
The take away is on target:
“Despite my point above, James and Whitehead on Life after Death is another quintessentially brilliant volume from Griffin’s pen. It forces you to think about difficult but essential matters. It may not be easy reading, but it may force you to imaginatively ask yourself, what, if anything were possible and life continued after death, you would want such a life to be like?”
If we spent more time thinking about what we really wanted the afterlife to be like, things might greatly improve in the here and now.
On the rare occasions I do think about the afterlife, I generally come down on the side of: this is all there is, no life after death. Upon reflection I realize that may be a bit hasty.
The fact is I don’t know, and neither does anybody else. Not knowing does not refute the possibility.
I read somewhere recently that the idea of a parallel universe, or universes, has gained some traction among quantum physicists. Blows my mind it is even considered a possibility. If Parallel Universes do, in fact, exist then isn’t it also possible that we could all exist somewhere else, at another “time,” in another dimension?
Putting the “existence of God” argument aside, from a scientific standpoint the possibility of parallel universe seems far from settled.
I looked it up and this seemed like a decent explanation of where physicists stand: (I’m sure there are better resources, though)
“Do parallel universes really exist?”
But just in case Ed, I wish you a long and healthy here and now.
‘…he does presuppose (and partially explains in chapter eleven) the existence of a “divine creator” or “divine reality” who is responsible for the evolutionary process that is the expression of a cosmic purpose with the “fine-tuning” of the universe.’
We are an evolutionary hodgepodge made largely of bacteria, viruses, fungi and archaea. Our eyes see less than 1 percent of the light spectrum, and retinas detach easily – even the humble shrimp has better vision! We are also fitted with sub-optimal plumbing (breathing, eating, excretory and reproductive) and, yes, programmed to die – unlike Turritopsis dohrnii, the immortal jellyfish! But perhaps this should not come as a surprise: we are part of a world where at least 40 percent of animal species are parasites, and over 99 percent of all species that ever lived are extinct. Actually, the five mass extinction events took place long before we arrived – at 23:58:43 if Earth’s history is pictured as a 24-hour clock.
A total of 105 billion people have lived so far; 7.9 billion of us are currently alive.
‘I do not believe in God, because I believe in man. Whatever his mistakes, man has for thousands of years past been working to undo the botched job your God has made’ (Emma Goldman).
2 Timothy 2:16, kjv…
But shun profane and vain babblings: for they will increase unto more ungodliness.
But without faith it is impossible to please him; for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.
2 Corinthians 4:3-4
But if our gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost: In whom the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them.
I Cor 15:1-4
Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand; By which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain. For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures:
In whom (Christ) are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.
I Timothy 2:4
Who (Christ) will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.
I Tim 3:7
Ever learning, and never able to come unto the knowledge of the truth.
That the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give unto you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him.
Take out Christ (what He said about himself from his own words) from the equation and you are left with religious speculations and vain philosophies…. empty of the knowledge of truth found in the giver of life itself.
Thank you Dawn…., apparently some esoteric teachings had thoughts, information on life after death. These ideas might not be consistent with any biblical references! Our indoctrination did not include information or lies about past societies that existed in other regions of the planet.
I find it harder to believe that life, consciousness, self awareness, conscience, compassion, selflessness, guilt and more, arose from the random banging and clumping together of rocks in space, which is what the Big Bang boils down to no matter how many equations you dress it up with, than I do in a creator who shares his awareness with us in life affirming myth and mystical religious representation. Dennis
Thank you Dennis…, I wonder what we might know if the world’s people were NOT influenced, programed by the various government indoctrination systems? Do any remaining Indigenous people have an understanding that the indoctrinated do not know; information passed through the generations by unique systems of teaching and learning? Could an individual human be a single cell of a gigantic organism, energy? Do we understand the universe and the relationships of all things? Should we possess direct knowing? Are humans too saturated with false information to attempt to speak objectively about anything?
“Are humans too saturated with false information to attempt to speak objectively about anything?”
I get the impression you have already made up your mind on that?
Thanks Shocker….yeah…I’m filled with many question marks ? Ultimately, I don’t know anything !
Sorry about the double post! I was hesitant to write anything, and now it appears I spam-bombed…
It’s fine, Andy. Thanks for it. I eliminated one. Pax, Ed
Life after death is an oxymoron, because Life has no end and no beginning.
Conscious awareness precedes living and continues after living. Just as Love does.
Thanks for this review! I’ve read every DRG book since 2001, but felt too unschooled in philosophy to attempt his “process” books. I had the opportunity to speak with Jeremy Sagan, the son of both the acclaimed atheist scholar Carl Sagan, and acclaimed “bacteria-are-conscious” evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis.” Jeremy has been an outspoken 9/11 Truth advocate, and of course so was his mother (and I’m guessing his father *would have* been). I often wonder what conversations were like in that family!
On the topic of death, it really is a shame that Carl Sagan didn’t live longer….if only to hear his comments on the C21st triumph of atheism and all its trappings of transhumanism, nuclear war, food shortages, civil unrest and suicide. I would ask him, where is the Providence of modern atheism? In Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy seems to mock Christianity when asking of Tess, after getting raped, “Where was Tess’ guardian angel? where was the Providence of her simple faith? Perhaps, like that other god of whom the ironical Tishbite spoke [I Kings 18:27], he was talking, or he was pursuing, or he was in a journey, or he was sleeping and not to be awaked.”
But where’s the promised atheist utopia? Maybe Dr. Yuval Noah Harari is sleeping….
My experience tells me that when a question appears to have no answer, I am asking the wrong question.
Maybe the real question is, “What is life and existence?” Answer that one correctly and the life after death question goes away.
Grumpy Old Timer, good point.
Epidemiology is something I’ve been most curious about. To that I would suggest picking up this book “The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding” by Humberto R. Maturana Francisco J. Varela:
“‘Knowing how we know’ is the subject of this book. Its authors present a new view of cognition that has important social and ethical implications, for, they assert, the only world we humans can have is the one we create together through the actions of our coexistence. Written for a general audience as well as for students, scholars, and scientists and abundantly illustrated with examples from biology, linguistics, and new social and cultural phenomena, this revised edition includes a new afterword by Dr. Varela, in which he discusses the effect the book has had in the years since its first publication.”
Both are outstanding microbiologists and cognitive scientists with deep philosophical roots (primarily in phenomenology). Varela later wrote an excellent follow up: “The Embodied Mind”. I used these books in a reading group and the group explored these incredible ideas.
PS Ed Unamuno’s “Tragic Sense of Life (Men and Nations)” made an important impression on me along with Henri Bergson’s “Creative Evolution”. These were referenced in Henry Millers trilogy “The Rosy Crucifixion”.
Correction, that’s Epistemology (not Epidemiology). Spending much too much time with the bean counters.
The answer is 42.
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