“To attain any knowledge about the soul is one of the most difficult things in the world.”1 Aristotle’s frustration has been experienced by all who have attempted to comprehend the complexities of the human soul. What it is (or even that it is), how it came to be, when its existence begins, and how it comes to be present in a particular human are just some aspects of ensoulment that continue to call forth dialogue among theologians.
From a Christian perspective, that is a biblical perspective, it is the soul that differentiates humanity from the rest of creation. It is only into man that God breathes the breath of life so that he becomes a living soul.2 Though the human body was fashioned from pre-existing materials (“dust”), the soul originated ex nihilo. This is integral to the second creation distinction concerning mankind: that they (male and female) are created in the image of the triune God, according to His likeness.3 All the other living creatures were created after their kind; man in or according to the image of God. Calvin points to the relation between the two distinctives when he states that the “proper seat of [God’s] image is in the soul”4 and that the image of God “is an inner good of the soul.”5 Thus, the creation distinctives point to humanity as the pinnacle of creation as the image of God, and the soul as the pinnacle of man as the locus of the image of God in man.
The constitution of humanity has been represented throughout church history as either tripartite (consisting of body, soul and spirit), or bipartite, that is, body and soul. Berkhof sees the “prevailing representation of the nature of man in Scripture” as “clearly dichotomic.”6 He admits that Scripture uses the terms “soul” and “spirit,” but denies that this in any way conclusively establishes a trichotomic constitution of man. These two words are used almost synonymously or “interchangeably.” They both refer to the “higher or spiritual element in man . . .”7 Calvin, similarly, refers to the soul (“sometimes it is called ‘spirit'”) as man’s “nobler part.”8 This dichotomic view gained the ascendancy it now holds in the church by the Middle Ages, being firmly established by Augustine. Before him, early Greek or Alexandrian Church Fathers such as Origen, Clement of Alexandria and Gregory of Nyssa held to trichotomic conceptions of man (though not all identical).9
The dichotomic relationship between body and soul “remains to a great extent a mystery.”10 There are two important approaches to this relationship, monistic and dualistic. This difference can be traced back to the Greek philosophers and finds clear distinction in the musings of Plato and his student, Aristotle. Plato’s Idealism held that “for each thing there is an entity which has the same name and exists apart from the substances.”11 This being true also for man, Plato is traditionally viewed as seeing the soul as distinct from the body, an intermediary between substance and form, nearer the divine form. Partee suggests that “the so-called ‘Platonic dualism’ of soul and body” evolved over time, with the focus remaining on the soul as intermediary.12 Aristotle, on the other hand, understood the soul and body to exist only in combination.
Monistic theories build on the presupposition that body and soul are of the same essential substance. Within monism, there are two perspectives. Materialism holds that this substance is matter, and any “spirit” or “soul” is derived from, a product of, or an aspect of this matter. The most common working out of this monism today is the materialistic reductionism of scientism that sees man merely as stuff. As will be pointed out below, this has significant impact on the valuation of embryonic life.
According to Idealism or Spiritualism, the essential substance is spirit. This “becomes objective to itself in what is called matter. “13 Rather than all being matter, matter itself is a product of spirit. This is seen in pantheistic Eastern religions and in modern philosophies that deny the existence of anything outside the mind itself. Attractive in such monistic thinking is the unity of the individual over against dualism. The objection to a monistic view “is that things so different as body and soul cannot be deduced the one from the other.”14
Over against monistic theories are those of dualism which build on the assumption that there is an essential dualism of matter and spirit, worked out to greater or lesser extents of dualism. First established during modern times by Descartes, and perfected by Kant, dualism of matter and spirit or body and soul was absolute. There was no discernible interaction between them. For some, such as Leibnitz, the seeming correspondence between body and soul is explained by the theory of “pre-established harmony.” According to this theory, “God wrote the definition or life history of each so that they would all work in perfect conjunction to produce the world we know.” 15
A biblical perspective sees an essential unity of the person, but within and understanding of substantial (or realistic16) duality. As Berkhof describes, “Body and soul are distinct substances, which do interact, though their mode of interaction escapes human scrutiny and remains a mystery for us. The union between the two may be called a union of life: the two are organically related, the soul acting on the body and the body on the soul. . . . The operations of the soul are connected with the body as its instrument in the present life; but from the continued conscious existence and activity of the soul after death it appears that it can also work without the body.”17 Calvin saw a union of body and soul as a union without confusion analogous to the two natures of Christ. But along with this he held a distinction between body and soul.18
In the dichotomy of body and soul related through substantial duality, man is distinguished from the rest of the created order by the possession of a soul in which is seated the imago Dei. Though much has been opined about the meaning of the imago, there is no precise definition of it in the Scriptures. For the purposes here, however, revelation is clear that, as Henry has written,
“From the beginning, man in the Bible is depicted not as an evolved animal but as a uniquely endowed creature specifically distinguished from the lower animal world and specially related to God by the divinely bestowed image.”19
Calvin agrees with this elevation of the human creature above all others: [W]e may gather that when [God’s] image is placed in man a tacit antithesis is introduced which raises man above all other creatures and, as it were, separates him from the common mass.20
As seen above, Calvin ties his understanding of the imago very closely to that of the soul. It is not unexpected, then, that he seeks to “know of what parts this image consists” by looking to “the faculties of the soul.”21 These he condenses to two:
“the human soul consists of two faculties, understanding andwill.”22 The purpose of understanding is “to distinguish between objects, as each seems worthy of approval or disapproval . . .”23 That of the will is “to choose and follow what the understanding pronounces good, but to reject and flee what it disapproves.”24 Others see a greater diversity of aspects of the imago ﾖ though, perhaps, Calvin would subsume them all under his duality. Henry sees rational and moral aptitude, capacity for self-transcendence, exercise of will, and immortality as elements of the divine image. “The divine image, a cohesive unity of interrelated components that interact with and condition each other, includes rational, moral and spiritual aspects of both a formal and materialnature.”25
It is important to note, though it will not be developed, that this image remains in man even in the fallen state. Whether, or better, to what degree it is spoiled by the Fall and just which of its faculties are lost or weakened is not of importance here.
That the image remains in man even after the Fall is the significant point. The purpose here of reflection on the imago Dei is to see that ma
n, because of ensoulment as the image of God, has significance beyond all other creation. Thus, the linking of ensoulment to sacredness provides moral spectacles through which the inherent value of the earliest human and existence can be recognized. It remains to consider the mechanism of ensoulment (origin of the individual soul) and its timing, and then to relate these to how we ought to approach the embryo.The Origin of the Soul in the Individual. There are three historically significant theories about the origin of the soul in the individual. A very limited acceptance of the Platonic, re-existence of the soul was associated primarily with the Alexandrian school in the early Church.26 Championed by Origen, this theory taught that the souls of men existed in a state prior to that of the embodied, and in that previous state certain things occurred that account for the state in which the embodied soul is found. Specifically, this theory was used to provide for the fallenness of man ﾖ original sin. According to Origen, the “inequalities and irregularities, physical and moral” are “a punishment for sins committed in a previous existence.”27 But the Church for several reasons quickly rejected this theory.28 First, it had no Scriptural basis whatsoever, being chiefly derived from Plato by Neo-Platonic thinkers. Also, it tended to propose a lowered view of the body since the soul was seen as without the body initially and, therefore, not essentially lacking in its existence at death without the body. This is in contrast to Paul’s description in 1 Corinthians 15. This pre-existence destroys the concept of the unity of the human race in Adam, as all souls pre-existed him. Finally, as man has no consciousness of any pre-existing state and no idea of his soul being imprisoned in his body (but, in fact, “dreads the separation of body and soul as something that is unnatural”29), this theory finds no support in man’s consciousness.
A second theory was closely tied to “the Stoic concept of an ethereal yet corporeal soul and the Aristotelian perception of it as the interpenetrating form of the body . ..”30 This theory, known as traducianism,31 claims that the soul has its origin either “through the material act of generation out of the animate or inanimate matter (‘material traducianism’), or . . . as an offshoot of the substance of the parental soul (‘spiritual traducianism’ or ‘generationism’).”32 In the early Church, Tertullian is most closely associated with this school, having said that the soul “is ‘handed on’ from parent to child,” but Gregory of Nyssa and Jerome were also well-known proponents.33 It was the leading theory in the Western Church until well into the Middle Ages. It was not until the close of the fifth century (4200) when Anastasius II condemned traducianism as heretical34 that creationism supplanted traducianism as the favored theory of ensoulment in the Western Church. Though it is easy to see why some would see traducianism as closely aligned with modern scientific “facts,” this is really because it is amenable to materialistic reductionism rather than because it is logically apparent or empirically evidenced. On the other hand, materialistic traducianism finds least contemporary support among theologians.35 Philosophically, traducianism is favored by the argument that a child cannot really be called the parents’ child unless her soul is transmitted from her parents. In response, the philosophical argument from the indivisibility of the soul disallows the transmission of part of the parents’ souls in any essential way. Also, that a material substance could effect a spiritual one proposes a disproportion between the cause and the effect.36
Scripturally, traducianism is supported in that God breathed into man the breath of life (the soul) and then left it to man to propagate; that Eve’s soul must have been transmitted from Adam as she was “from man” (1 Corinthians 11.8); that descendants are described as being in the loins of their fathers; and that God’s creating ended after the sixth day and He rested from His creating work. Finally, the idea of original sin is easily accounted for in the passing of substance from the sinful souls of parents to the child.37
In response, there is no Scriptural preclusion to God continuing to breathe into man the breath of life (including Eve), that is to create ex nihilo each individual’s soul. That God only acts mediately in His creation after the original creation is refuted by the doctrine of regeneration. This theory ultimately results in a numerical unity of the substance of all human souls. As such it fails to explain why man is responsible only for Adam’s first sin and not for all his sins and the sins of the rest of their ancestors. Finally, it raises questions about why the human nature of Christ is not sinful.38
The third theory of historical significance is creationism. This view holds that each individual soul is a direct creation of God ex nihilo. It does not necessarily hold that the soul is created outside and therefore separate from the body, but that the source of the soul is not the substance of the parents ﾖ of their souls or their matter ﾖ but is immediately from God. Berkhof gives the following as the important arguments in favor of creationism: (1) The original account of creation gives a clear distinction between the origin of Man’s body and that of his soul. The body comes mediately, taken from the dust; the soul comes immediately from God’s breathing it into the body of Man. (2) Creationism is more consistent with the immaterial and spiritual ﾖ and therefore indivisible ﾖ nature of the soul; traducianism, in holding that the substance of the soul derives from parents, necessitates a breaking off (or division) of the parental soul. (3) Only creationism preserves the high Christology, understanding that Christ, though possessing a real human nature, did not share a numerical unity with the sinful Adam.39
Creationism has its critics as well. Two strong criticisms hold that creationism necessitates a commitment to dualism wherein the created soul is regarded as higher than the body that is derived from the parents; and that creationism makes God the source of sin since He either puts a sinful soul into the individual, or puts a “clean” soul into a body that will surely defile it. Other criticisms have been alluded to in the discussion of traducianism: that God ended His creative activity after the sixth day of creation and now acts through secondary causes only; and that if the earthly parents beget only the body of their children, this does not allow them to fully claim the child as theirs, and it does not explain the mental and moral similarities between parents and child.
A final theory of soul origination will be mentioned for completeness. It is based on emergentist theories of the mind, such as emergentist materialism which holds that mental states form a subset of brain states.40 Similarly, at conception the genetic endowment of parents lead to the gradual development of a complex nervous system, generating a “soul-field” that progresses toward soul maturity. This evolvement wherein matter produces spirit is directly from God as primary cause.41 Through the influence of Aquinas in the Roman Church and the Reformers (for the most part, Luther excepted) in the Protestant Church, creationism has held dominance in the Western Church since the end of the Middle Ages. But that does not indicate a simple solution to the origin of the soul. Augustine, for example, whom many of the Reformers held in high esteem, never settled the issue in his mind. In fact, just two years before his death he wrote that “he did not know with certainty whether each soul comes from the first man (traducianism) or whether it is created directly by God (creationism) [Retractationes 1.1.3].”42 But it is not the purpose of this paper to decide the mechanism of the origin of the soul.
The Timing of Ensoulment
The ethics of abortion, reproductive technologies, genetic manipulation and contraception are all closely tied to when a human embryo is recognized as h
aving significant dignity. It is the presupposition of this paper that the presence of a soul, as the seat of the imago Dei, renders that dignity as that which separates humanity from the rest of creation. Therefore, it is necessary to reflect on when the soul is present, for its presence proclaims sacredness for the individual. With Yates’ emergent ensoulment theory, there is a gradual evolution of the soul from conception until soul maturity. In this schema, “there is no single point at which an individual may be said to have ‘received’ his soul. The soul like the body develops gradually.”43 But it is obvious that the presence of soul depends entirely (Yates’ obliging recognition of God as primary cause notwithstanding) on the maturity of the body’s central nervous system of which it becomes a derivative. Therefore, the timing of ensoulment (or rather, soul maturity) depends on what level of functional central nervous system one arbitrarily chooses as defining soul maturity. In all likelihood this would not attain any earlier than the appearance of brain waves in the first trimester, but probably much later. The theory of the pre-existence of souls would place ensoulment simultaneous with conception, that is at the time the material self first appears. However, since souls pre-exist such ensoulment, “souled” existence antedates even this. For traducianists, ensoulment takes place likewise at conception. Though the substance of derivation is not agreed upon (whether from the material or soul-stuff of the parents), the timing is not in dispute. There is no need, then, to discuss attainment of personhood, primitive streaks, totipotency, implantation, twinning or placental tissue. The totality of the individual ﾖ body and soul ﾖ is present from the moment of ‘dual conception.’
It is not so simple or straightforward for the creationist. For here the question becomes, when does God infuse the soul into the human individual? “Is it possible that there is a human intellectual soul in the embryo from conception, or must there be time enough for the development of the body before God infuses such a soul?”44 One possibility is immediate hominization which holds that the soul is infused at conception. Delayed hominization sees the soul’s infusion occurring later, depending either on its ability to act through a suitably developed body or on some point wherein the embryo is deemed simple and distinct as an individual (after the possibility of twinning and differentiation of placental tissue, for example). The Aristotelian-Thomistic view is typically characterized as delayed hominization, based on such statements as that of Aquinas, “Aristotle defined soul as that which actuates an organized physical body with the potential of life, a potential not existing apart from the soul.”45 Some see in this (an organized physical body is one that has organs46) that Aquinas is “saying that all the organs necessary for the proper operations of the human soul must be in place for a human rational soul to be infused in the body.”47 So Aquinas opines, “at the end of the process of human generation, God creates an intelligent soul . . .”48 Aquinas’s acceptance of Aristotle’s theory regarding ensoulment is tied very closely to (“totally dependent on”) Aristotle’s understanding of biological generation.49 Heaney opines that if Aquinas possessed knowledge of modern embryology, his thoughts on ensoulment would be much different: “Faced with the facts as we know them, however, he probably would have worked out a different theory to explain human development.”50 The importance of this is that “there is no power other than the embryo’s own soul which can perform the formation of the organs necessary for the operations of the soul . . .”51
Reformers such as Philip Melanchthon and John Calvin held that “the infusion or inbreathing of the human soul takes place at conception rather than at birth”52 as Aquinas had claimed. Showing himself as a proponent of immediate hominization, Heaney surmises that the soul “must be a human intellectual soul from the beginning of the embryo’s being; and . . . from the time of fertilization the conceptus is matter properly disposed to be the subject of such a form as the rational soul. Thus, it is reasonable to say that infusion of this soul by God takes place at conception and that we are from conception human persons.”53 He adds, “A one-celled conceptus with the specific human genotype . . . is matter well enough disposed to be the proper subject of the human intellectual soul in regard to first act, to be matter for which such a soul is the substantial form.”54
The basic disagreement seems to be that proponents of delayed hominization maintain a necessity for an ontological human individual before a rational soul can be joined. They characterize the immediate animation position as requiring a rational soul to be joined to a potential human body (or virtual human body). The fact is, “when a rational soul is joined to matter, you no longer have a potential human body but rather an actual human body with potential, potential to develop in certain ways.”55 It is, in other words, the soul that makes matter to be a human ontological individual.56 Aristotle himself saw that it was the soul that was “the ’cause and principle’ (aitia kai arch? of the living body.”57
In concluding the discussion on timing of ensoulment, the relationship of ensoulment to twinning and placental differentiation will be addressed as these two issues continue to be foundational for many theories of delayed hominization. That is, these types of occurrences prove convincing for many with the assumption that human existence or personhood appear some time after conception. Twinning raises questions for those who time ensoulment at the point of conception. What does the appearance of two human individuals indicate about the solitary being who pre-existed the twinning? Can a single ensouled being become two ensouled humans? Does the original being persist (survive) twinning as one of the two beings? Proponents of delayed hominization answer these last two questions negatively. But are they on such firm ground in doing so that immediate hominization is totally debunked?
There is no logical necessity in such an argument, nor any empirical evidence of such an overwhelming nature as to establish immediate hominization as a dead theory. It is not known whether the cause of twinning is genetically determined or the basis is some somatic structural effect. Neither is it illogical that one ensouled being could give rise to two.
This may be more difficult for the traducianist, but really raises no additional questions than those dealing with the soul’s indivisibility (because the immaterial is indivisible) or the derivation of the spiritual soul from the matter. These the traducianist must deal with even without twinning. Twinning merely shifts the “parental” role to the original embryo in the case of twinning.
For the creationist who holds to ensoulment at the time of conception, twinning presents no problem of potency to an Omnipotent Ensouler. The difficult question ﾖ though not one that must be solved in order to sustain immediate hominization ﾖ is whether or not the ensouled being presupposed to pre-exist twinning continues existence after twinning. Again, there is no logical necessity in either direction. If the original living being ceases to exist, he or she has essentially shared the life span of the majority of all embryos: they experience spontaneous abortion prior to implantation.58 That each twin is a uniquely ensouled being is obvious in time, and this is not because of genetic peculiarity. The basis must be due to distinct ensoulment and the creationist is on firm ground here. Whether one embryo is the “older sibling/parent” is currently undetectable.
Differentiation of placental tissue from the “embryo proper” also leads proponents of delayed hominization to argue for ensoulment only after this distinctive is established. However, this is to assume that the placenta is “other” to the embryo. Modern forensic techniques would establish t
he placenta as belonging to the embryo “beyond a shadow of a doubt” on the basis of DNA testing. That the placenta serves a chronologically limited ﾖ though vitally important ﾖ purpose does not give credence to its being other to the embryo proper any more than the fate of the umbilical cord and vessels and the ductus arteriosis do. To look forward a short time, the scalp hair in a man with male-pattern baldness has an analogous fate, yet is recognized as “same” in relation to the man. Placental tissue is embryo proper and does not testify in any manner regarding ensoulment.
Conclusion: Ensoulment and the Sacredness of Human Life Man, because of ensoulment as the image of God, has significance beyond all other creation. The linking of ensoulment to sacredness provides moral spectacles through which the inherent value of the earliest human existence can be recognized. As alluded to previously, scientific reductionism denies that there is anything other than the stuff of matter comprising human beings. For those holding such a presupposition (which cannot be documented on its own criteria), theories of ensoulment are of no interest. But there is a growing understanding in the field of psychology that mind is something more than can be explained by brain activity. Ensoulment, especially in light of the understanding of the soul as the seat of the imago, is pertinent to such thinking. The soul provides for a non-material understanding of the mind. All three of the historically significant theories of ensoulment are compatible with this recognition of the sanctity of human life from the completion of conception. Only the emergentist theory of ensoulment is incompatible with this understanding. Some creationist understandings of ensoulment, however, see “personhood” attained at later development based on arbitrary guideposts. If the soul is derived from the body(-ies) or soul(s) of the parent(s), then that which gives humanity overarching significance ﾖ the imago Dei ﾖ is present at conception. The conceptus, then, has attained sanctity. If God creates the soul ex nihilo, and infuses it simultaneous to conception, then the same conclusion is reached. Holding to a later ensoulment based on function or capacity is not mandated by either understanding of ensoulment and should be seen for what it is: presuppositional.
The analogy inherent in the idea of man as the image of God is instructive. Holding to a later attainment of worth in human beings leads inevitably to an absolute transcendence of value of “mature” man over his embryonic being. Thus, man is to embryo as God is to man. Yet if God treated man as man treats the human embryo, then Nietzsche was right. There is only the self-serving will to power. But God does not treat man as man currently treats the human embryo. God is concerned more with that man is and what man is than with how he is or will be (meaning the level of man’s ability). Remove the fixation on ability (or, perhaps better, disability), and the sacredness of the conceptus is recognizable. Failing to recognize the image of God in the fertilized ovum results from a backward future orientation. A perspective beginning with adult human being and his abilities and looking back from the future on the embryo obscures the image of God in the embryo. Thus an “it is not” understanding of the embryo is proposed. Contrast this with the future orientation which looks forward from the viewpoint of the embryo. Herein are the moral spectacles through which the inherent value of the earliest human existence can be recognized. It is in the “now she is the image of God, but she is not yet as she shall be” perspective.
Going back to the analogy between God and man it is clear that He has this future orientation regarding His children. Promise holds a central place in how God looks upon man. It is in His perspective of promise that He sees what individuals are and, then, what they will become. His creation as well as His redemption and consummation are closely tied to the inherent nature of man as God’s image. “Now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we shall be.”59 Only into man does God breathe the breath of life so that he becomes a living soul. Only man is as the image of God. This soul, in the image of God, grants special status in creation to the ensouled human individual, regardless of the number of cells or the ability in the individual. Would that the imago might grasp the centrality of the soul and therein see through the moral spectacles from the perspective of promise.
- Barnes, Jonathan, ed. “On the Soul,” The Complete Works of Aristotle, Princeton: The Princeton university Press, 12004, 64
- Genesis 2.7
- Genesis 1.26, 27
- McNeill, John T., ed. Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion, Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960, 186.
- Ibid., 190
- Berkhof, Louis. Systematic Theology, Fourth Edition, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1941, 192.
- McNeill, op. cit., p. 184.
- Berkhof, op. cit., p. 191
- ibid., p. 195.
- Partee, Charles. “The Soul in Plato, Platonism, and Calvin,” Scottish Journal of Theology 22(1), 1969, 279.
- Berkhof, op. cit., p. 195
- Clark, Gordon H. Thales to Dewey, Second Edition, Jefferson, Maryland: The Trinity Foundation, 12009, 355.
- Berkhof, op. cit., p. 195
- ibid., pp. 195-196.
- Partee, op. cit., p.291.
- Henry, Carl F. H. God, Revelation and Authority, Volume II: God Who Speaks and Shows, Waco: Word Books, 1976, 125.
- McNeill, op. cit., p. 188.
- ibid., p. 190.
- ibid., p. 194.
- Henry, op. cit., p. 125.
- Yates, John C. “The Origin of the Soul: New Light on an Old Question,” Evangelical Quarterly 61(1), 12009, 121 (n. 3).
- Berkhof, op. cit., p. 197.
- Yates, op. cit., p. 121 (n. 3).
- ibid., p. 121.
- Billy, Dennis J. “Traducianism as a Theological model in the Problem of Ensoulment,” The Irish Theological Quarterly 55(1), 12009, 19.
- From tradux, Latin, meaning offshoot, sprout or branch. Traducianism teaches that an individual’s soul is the offshoot of the parental soul(s). 3
- Billy, op. cit., p.18. 3
- Yates, op. cit. P. 123.
- Billy, op. cit., p. 21.
- Billy, op. cit., p. 20.
- Berkhof, op. cit., pp. 197-1200.
- Berkhof, op. cit., p.199.
- Yates, op. cit., p. 134.
- Yates, op. cit., 136-138.
- Billy, op. cit., p 24.
- Yates, op. cit., p. 137.
- Heaney, Stephen J. “Aquinas and the Presence of the Human Rational Soul in the Early Embryo,” The Thomist, 56(1), 1992, p. 24.
- Aquinas, St. Thomas. Summa Theologi? A Concise Translation (Timothy McDermott, ed.) Westminster, Maryland: Christian Classics, 12009, p.116. (Emphasis in the original.)
- Heaney, op. cit., p.24.
- Aquinas, op. cit., p. 163.
- Heaney, op. cit., p. 29.
- ibid., p. 31. (Emphasis in the original.)
- ibid., p. 37.
- Billy, op. cit., p. 28.
- Heaney, op. cit. P. 37.
- ibid., p. 23. (Emphasis in the original.)
- ibid., p. 48.
- Barnes, Jonathan, ed. “Psychology,” The Cambridge Companion to Aristotle, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995, p. 175.
- Heaney, op. cit., p. 44.
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