A Forever Backward Intelligence

AdamFeternity, thought 23 Comments

“The idea of a forever forward is not more or less simple than that of a forever backward.  Yet, in our culture, one idea is commonplace, the other startling, even unthinkable.”

~Truman Madsen

 I always find myself in a little conundrum  when I’m teaching about the mysterious pre-mortal life (from the approved materials, of course!), and how we were all born spiritually.  Spiritual birth discussions always lead to the Abraham scripture about intelligences, and everything gets stuck there.  Who can really say what “intelligence(s)” is?  Some have taken a stab at it:

 “Intelligence or light and truth, is also used as a synonym for spirit element. Scriptures using both terms speak of the self-existent nature of the substance involved…  intelligences were organized intelligence or in other words the spirit bodies were born from spirit element.” – Bruce R. McConkie


 “The spirits of men “are begotten sons and daughters unto God.”  Through that birth process, self-existing intelligence was organized into individual spirit beings.” – Marion G. Romney


 Joseph Smith:


“The spirit [intelligence] of man is not a created being; it existed from eternity, and will exist to eternity. Anything created cannot be eternal…” “The mind or the intelligence which man possesses is coequal with God himself.” “Intelligence is eternal and exists upon a self-existent principle. It is a spirit [entity] from age to age, and there is no creation about it.” “The intelligence of spirits had no beginning, neither will it have an end.” “Intelligence or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be.”

It seems these quotes are saying that our spirits were formed from some sort of mass intelligence (like The Borg?).  Obviously, we do not know exactly what “intelligence” literally consists of, but what do you think of the idea that we all came from the same substance?  In this sense, it seems we have not always existed—rather, the stuff our spirits were made of is what is eternal.

 Some questions:

  1. Is this an important doctrine, or is it just interesting speculation, of no pertinence to salvation?  If not, do note that it is still being taught (currently in the Joseph Smith manual).
  2. Is the idea of a “forever backwards” more baffling than a “forever forwards?”
  3. This idea (at least the idea of a pre-mortal life) has been used to justify everything from suffering, skin color, priesthood ordination, poverty, and even mental retardation.  I do not think the idea of reward here based on our prior life is an offensive one.  What is offensive to me is when doctrinal speculation is used as justification for inequality. Does the belief in a pre-mortal life still have influence on Mormon culture?
  4. Is there any Biblical support for this doctrine? Is it unique to Mormonism?

Comments 23

  1. #3: Apparently it does. The BYU Religious dean recently used pre-mortal life as a explanation for why some were born in places where they won’t hear the gospel in this life. See the discussion about that here. My view is that I agree with you that pre-mortal choices might have affected where and when we are born on earth, but that we don’t have enough information to speculate on what the reasons are for where and when we are born, so speculation (such as saying, “I must have been righteous in the pre-mortal life since i was born in a civilized place where I learned about the gospel”) is dangerous. Either that or it is just random.

  2. The odd thing about using the pre-mortal life as a justification for mortal station (especially where one is born), is that it can easily be used both ways: that is some could just as easily claim that because they were righteous in the previous life they were able to choose to be born into a difficult life here so that in doing well there they would earn yet a greater reward in the next life (if it actually works that way…).

    Or that because a person was weak in the previous life they were born into the church in this life so that it would be easy for them to find and be in the gospel and therefore they would have a greater chance at exaltation.

    Or that because they were strong, they were born in a nation were they would never hear the gospel and thus would be able to make it to a point where the veil was largely lifted before having to accept the gospel again.

    In short, there are too many possible explanations, and we simply could accept any of them. Without any evidence in favor of any of these scenarios, they are all potentially dangerous as general statements.

    That said, I’ve seen patriarchal blessings that specifically state various directions on this (born into the church because of valiance, born so that they could find the gospel, born with disabilities –all because of righteousness), but again, I’ve never heard of a PB that stated the person was anything other than valiant in the previous life. I’d guess that if the patriarch got a sense of that, they’d be told to keep their mouth shut, but you’d need to discuss that with a patriarch.

    I’ll continue in a separate post…

  3. All right, so in my first reply I argued the idiocy of trying to justify mortal position due to pre-mortal righteousness, and here I’ll address the concept of intelligence as I see it. These are simply my opinions and nothing more.

    I see it like this: in the pre-mortal life there were spirits, created from somewhere. These spirits have eternal underpinnings, but in themselves are created (else how could we as mortals be promised spirit children in the eternities?) I have long chosen to interpret the word intelligence in the D&C (and thus the PoGP as being synonymous with light in a very real sense, and thus feel that our spirits are in some fashion a form of refined and cohesive light (eg, photons and the like–though who knows what the actual form will turn out to be). Whether or not this is a scientifically viable position is something that is so far beyond my meager physics and biology knowledge as to be completely un-amusing, but I still think this has a bit of possibility to it.

    Now is there some difference between the basic intelligence that builds our spirits and the light that we encounter in the universe? I have no idea, and I really have no way to even guess at that. I’ll leave it in your speculative minds.

  4. The reason why we are different when it comes to this earth life and our placement in it is manifold. However, the Lord has given us a feel thing to think about and speculate on too. Here are a few things that I have reflected on:

    1. Before we were born into mortality we lived in a pre-mortal world of spirits. The scripture teach that Christ was the first-born of God’s spirit children. Therefore, we are different in our birth order. Some spirits are older and that may mean they have more experience.

    2. There we had the opportunity to learn and grow in many different fields of inquiry. We’re taught that what talents we developed there come with us into mortality.

    3. At some point in our experience in the pre-mortal world good and evil were manifest to us. We had a choice to follow Jesus Christ or Lucifer and we displayed varying degrees of faithfulness in this “war”… on account of their exceeding faith and good works; in the first place being left to choose good or evil; therefore they having chosen good, and exercising exceedingly great faith, are called with a holy calling, yea, with that holy calling which was prepared with, and according to, a preparatory redemption for such.
    And thus they have been called to this holy calling on account of their faith, while others would reject the Spirit of God on account of the hardness of their hearts and blindness of their minds, while, if it had not been for this they might have had as great privilege as their brethren.
    Or in fine, in the first place they were on the same standing with their brethren…
    Alma 13:3 – 5)

    4. Saviors on Mount Zion—we usually use this term for those who do temple work to bless those who died before the church was restored, but brother Carlfred Broderick expands on this here, see footnote 9. What he says here could also be used to support the idea that some of the Lord’s most gifted spirits are sent to the earth on “missions” and that could include being born in some pretty ugly times and places.

    Thanks for the interesting discussion.

    I hope the link above works. Any suggestions someone might have as how to put a link in a comment would be appreciated.

  5. “It seems these quotes are saying that our spirits were formed from some sort of mass intelligence (like The Borg?).” I always thought of the “intelligences” as being individual blobs (for lack of a better word) of intelligence. A collective intelligence would require more organization than I believe is implied. As I always saw it (not that I’m right), a bunch of amorphous intelligences decided that to progress, we would need spirit bodies, and then we would need mortal probation, etc. God was the smartest one, so He organized the whole effort. But it leaves more open questions than it closes (like everything does, seemingly). Where were we hanging out as “blobbies”? Were we stuck like lichens to the bottom of some asteroid? How did the asteroid get there? Is it like the Cylons: “All this has happened before, and all this will happen again”?

    As to the pre-mortal meritocracy system that I have heard proposed, I do not like it one bit. It seems very self-congratulatory and prideful in the way it is normally used. There’s a fine line between believing your role and mission in life are an important part of God’s plan and being insufferably arrogant. Pre-mortal meritocracy tends toward the latter, IMO.

  6. I think it is important that we are independent, eternal intelligences as opposed to creations. As to spiritual birth, I wouldn’t close he book on that one. There are many statements that seem to equate spirit and intelligence as being the same. Viviparous spiritual birth is not a definitive as well. See here for a good discussion on the matter

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    Mike – thanks for that link. It is surprising to me that that stuff is still being taught. What bothers me about that is many who hear it will believe it because of the man’s position. Not to be snobby, but it seems the general bloggernacle disagrees with him. 🙂

    Benjamin O #2 – I agree, one could twist this idea to justify anything. After all what really is a reward in this life? Certainly, the most opportunity for struggle and growth would be the biggest reward, would it not? And considering those of us who are born into the church come with some heavy responsibilities to fulfill, it’s not a reward if we fail, or even slack off a little.

    Jared – “some of the Lord’s most gifted spirits are sent to the earth on “missions”” – that I could believe, because it doesn’t limit the “great ones” to members of the church. I believe there are “great ones” in every time and place, who are sent with a purpose. BTW, I put that link in your comment-hope that was okay. If you use html it should work.

    hawkgrrrl – “There’s a fine line between believing your role and mission in life are an important part of God’s plan and being insufferably arrogant.” I love that line! As for a collective blob vs. individual “blobbies” – I like the idea of individuality a lot more, but it gives kind of a cozy feeling to think we were all the same blob a long time ago. I do like Benjamin O’s use of the word “light” rather than “blob.” Slightly more inspiring, not as funny.

  8. This is an issue that is near and dear to my heart because, like Truman Madsen and Elder Maxwell, I believe it makes a huge philosophical difference regarding how we view this life and its individualized experiences and trials (see Madsen’s Eternal Man, for instance).

    Mormon thinkers have been at odds over this doctrine for over 100 years. It was generally thought at the beginning of the twentieth century that B.H. Roberts was generally correct but went a little too far in his speculation about the nature of intelligences (see A Seventies Course in Theology or Mormon Doctrine of Deity, for instance). However, his view of uncreated, self-existing, individual intelligences held sway in the minds of most Mormons at the time, with the notable exception of certain General Authorities like Charles Penrose, who felt that the notion of uncreated individual beings somehow lessened the power of God.

    One of the big reasons people such as Bruce R. McConkie are said to have introduced what is called “Mormon Neo-Orthodoxy” is because they shifted the majority opinion on doctrines like this one. I loathe the entry in Mormon Doctrine on intelligence about as much as I do the one that says blacks were not as valiant as other spirits in the premortal world. Frankly, McConkie was just plain wrong on both of them. But he was so influential that the Church has not issued an official clarification on the doctrine of intelligence since.

    Personally, I believe that Joseph Smith’s revelations and other statements on the matter are sufficient to reasonably conclude that intelligences are both individual (“a spirit from age to age,” not “raw spirit material”) and eternal (“co-eternal with God,” “not created or made, neither indeed can be”). Beyond the statements from D&C 93 and the King Follett discourse, we do not know much. But by the same token, I do not accept anyone’s reinterpretation or distortion of this doctrine.

    Abraham 3:22 is referring to spirits in the council in heaven after the spirit birth (“in the beginning”), not necessarily to the kind of intelligence we’re talking about here. (It is worth noting that one definition of the word intelligence in the 1828 edition of Webster’s dictionary was “a spiritual being.”) However, verse 18 in that chapter is germane to this discussion, particularly the first word, “howbeit,” which is used to draw a distinction between spirits and God’s other creations, such as the stars, moons, planets, and so forth. It basically says that although there are differences between spirits just as there are differences between stars, God didn’t create spirits, for they are eternal.

    I know this is a long, rambling comment that nobody will read, but again, it’s an issue that is important to me.

    By the way, regarding the comment about the Borg, I, of course, disagree. However, for a Star Trek reference, look at B.H. Roberts’s Mormon Doctrine of Deity, where he refers to God’s existing in a “continuum.” If you’ll recall, the character Q came from what he called “the Q continuum,” which was apparently a realm occupied by omnipotent beings.

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    “God didn’t create spirits” – In this sense I always thought it was referring to “intelligences” – If we are spirit children of God, and God didn’t create our spirits, how does that work? Ugh. Too difficult to think about…

    Also, maybe someone should write the book “Star Trek and The Restored Gospel” lol.

  10. This is one of my favorite subjects in Mormon theology and history. Adam, thank you for bringing it up. As I have studied this topic, I have learned that if one really wants to understand what is being taught – and its evolution to today – one needs to study three areas. A good beginning point/overview is Blake Ostler’s essay in LINE UPON LINE, where Blake gives a very nice history of the evolution of “The Idea of Preexistence in Mormon Thought.” His paper has one glaring omission, however, which leaves his study incomplete, and which leaves the reader with errors. My third suggested area of study, below, is what Blake omits.

    First one must study Joseph Smith’s actual words. Reading Joseph Fielding Smith’s amalgamation in TEACHINGS OF THE PROPHET JOSEPH SMITH can lead one down the wrong path. I would suggest that one needs to read each of the relevant entries in the King Follett discourse in THE WORDS OF JOSEPH SMITH. Obviously, Joseph’s words have been edited, mistaken or changed by each of the transcribers. Yet by reading each entry, one can find common elements and get a feel for Joseph’s ideas and theology. One has to conclude that these ideas from Joseph Smith are much more nebulous than is the amalgamated version in TEACHINGS OF THE PROPHET JOSEPH SMITH.

    I am a big fan of B.H. Roberts, but he was a student of Joseph Smith, and was one of the greatest mind that Mormonism has produced. So secondly, I believe we have to turn to Roberts’ SEVENTY’S COURSE IN THEOLOGY or his THE TRUTH, THE WAY, THE LIFE. Whenever we discuss Joseph Smith’s ideas, we need to turn to Roberts. His ability to look globally and intelligently at a idea and then present it systematically is unparalleled in Mormon writing. So we need to turn to Robert’s TWL as the best source for a well reasoned and intelligent (no pun intended) discussion of pre-mortal life (see pages 178 to 185 and 280 to 290). This goes beyond what Joseph Smith was teaching, but I believe it is the best discussion we have from one who loved Joseph Smith and took his ideas seriously.

    Study number three: I believe that answers to your Question #4 would play an essential part in answering the other questions in your post. Things which were discussed and written in Joseph Smith’s environment may suggest the most important questions which a historian can ask when trying to understand the theology Joseph taught. Thank you for asking this question. This is where Blake’s article falls short. If Blake’s article were written today, this omission would be inexcusable since “Mormon Parallels” has been published. Below is a few examples: (These are extractions from much longer entries, but I think it will give the reader a feel for what was discussed in Joseph’s day)

    Samuel Backus. “MAN A LIVING SOUL.” A SERMON . . . Brookfield: E. Merriam and Co., Printers, 1832.

    Heavy emphasis on man’s “free agency,” with observations which come rather close to Mormon doctrines about a pre-existence and the struggle for free agency:

    “. . . long —we know not how long, previous to the creation of our system, intelligences were formed, moral and accountable beings, some of them remaining upright, singing together and shouting for joy at the new display of creative wisdom put forth when our world was made, some of them fallen, sinful and plotting its ruin.

    “It was for God to say whether every existing thing, should be adapted only for the control of mere physical power, or whether there should exist beings in their nature fitted to be subjects of a moral government—a government of laws and rewards. He chose the latter—he chose to have beings so endowed, that they should be as completely free to live and act in the capacity of subjects, as he himself to act in the capacity of moral Governor. In short, God saw that he had power to form free moral agents, and he saw it best to form them, and he has formed them, and we are such agents.” (pp. 10-11)

    Lorenzo Dow. THE OPINION OF DOW; Or, LORENZO’S THOUGHTS . . . Windham [Connecticut]: Printed by J[ohn]. Byrne, 1804.

    In the course of arguing against doctrines of predestination, Dow here reveals early nineteenth-century beliefs in the pre-mortal creation of human spirits. Dow questions such ideas, but records that they were accepted by people with whom he came in contact:

    “. . . finite accountable intelligencies [sic], were created . . . angels were created, and we must suppose they were all happy, holy and good at first . . .” (p. 31)

    “. . . there is something in man abstract from matter, which is spirit, which some call the soul, and which makes him sensible and rational, &c. And to suppose the soul to be a part of God, is inconsistent . . .
    “. . . . .
    “Some people have an idea that the souls of infants come right pure from the hand of god, by infusion into the body, and that the body, being of Adam’s race, pollutes the soul, and causes it to become impure, just as if the body governed the mind. Allowing the above, When did God make the soul of the child that was born yesterday? [p. 107 ends] Why, says one, within the course of a few months past. Hush, I deny it, for the bible says, Gen. 2. 1, 2, 3, that God finished the heavens (that is the starry heavens) and earth and all the HOST of them, and then God rested from the works of creation on the seventh day—he hath not been at work in creating new souls ever since. Therefore your idea that God makes new souls daily, falls to the ground; and you can’t deny it, if the bible be true.

    “But says one, their souls were made in the course of six days.

    “Where then have they been ever since? Laid up in a store-house in heaven? If they were, they were happy; if so, what kind of a being does this represent the Almighty, especially if connected with the opinion of some who suppose that there are infants in Hell, not more than a span long!

    “First, God makes Adam happy in Paradise, and these infantile souls happy in a store house, then when Adam falls, prohibits adultery, and at the same time previously decrees that they shall commit it to produce an illegitimate body, and he to help them on to perfect [p. 108 ends] the illegitimate, takes one of these pure souls, infuses it into the body, and the body pollutes it, causes it to become impure, and is now a reprobate for Hell fire. Thus you see some people represent God as making souls pure, and keeping them happy some thousands of years, then damning them for a sin they never committed, and now the difference between this BEING if any such there be, and dealeth thus with creatures and HIM that we call the Devil , I leave you to judge. God help you to look at it in the scale of equality, and see whether the above be right or wrong.

    “But says one, where do you think the soul comes from?

    “As Adam was the first man, I must suppose from reason and scripture he got his soul right from God, as there is no other source for him to derive it from, but Eve was taken out of Adam, and there is no account of her receiving her soul right from God; and if not, I must suppose the whole of her was taken from Adam and of course she got her soul from him as well as her body.—And as we read that the souls of Jacob’s [p. 109 ends] children, Gen. 46, 26. were in Jacob’s loins and came out, &c. I herefrom infer, that they were laid up in a store house in Heaven, but came by natural generation from the parents as well as the body. . . .” (pp. 107-110)

    Josiah Priest. THE ANTI-UNIVERSALIST . . . Albany: Printed by J. Munsell, 1837.

    “. . . SPIRITS, . . . we cannot doubt, were the kind of beings which were first brought forth, having intellectual attributes . . . That spiritual beings existed previous to the creation of Adam and Eve, and the heavens and the earth, is evident from Job . . . where it is said that God enquired of Job, where he was when the foundations of the earth were laid: when all the sons of God shouted together.” (pp. 72-73)

    “. . . the expression—”morning stars and sons of God,” point [sic] out spiritual beings, who existed prior to the creation of this system, and are spoken of in Scripture, under the names of angels . . .” (p. 73)

    “. . . we hasten to prove from the Scriptures that the angels were created in a great variety of orders or of intellectual degrees. . . . for variety even among celestial beings, would conduce to their happiness.” (p. 87)

    John Mason Good. THE BOOK OF NATURE . . . New York: Printed and Published by J. & J. Harper, 1830 (Harper’s Stereotype Edition; copyright 3 January 1831).

    “The idea that the essence or texture of the soul consists either wholly or in part of spiritualized, ethereal, gaseous, or radiant matter, capable of combining with the grosser matter of the body, and of becoming an object of sense, seems to avoid the difficulties inherent to both systems. It says to the materialist, matter is not necessarily corruptible; . . . It says to the immaterialist, the term immaterial conveys no determinate idea; . . . it is a term not to be found in the Scriptures, which, so far from opposing the belief that the soul, spirit, or immortal part of man, is either wholly or in combination, a system of radiant or ethereal matter, seem rather, on the contrary, to countenance it . . .” (p. 331)

    Ironically, Orson Pratt referred to this book in the opening remarks of his pamphlet, Absurdities of Immaterialism (Liverpool: R. James, 1849), p. 1, but only in argument with Dr. Good’s definition of “truth.”

  11. I don’t know. I tend to lean toward the individual intelligences created from eternal energy, but I don’t spend much of that energy on it. Spending intellectual energy contemplating the nature of intelligence / energy just doesn’t appeal to me. *grin* I would love to know, but I’m ok not knowing for now.

  12. While I’m not about to reject a tripartite soul like some (say Blake Ostler) I think one has to be careful with Roberts. He explicitly makes intelligences into Cartesian minds. At least Pratt was somewhat better.

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    Joe – Thanks for all that input! This is a fascinating topic to me as well – pre-mortal life, the nature of eternity, the cosmos, etc.

    Stephen-I agree, it is speculation. I think that is partly the reason why it is so interesting to think about.

  14. Has anyone ever thought about merging the doctrine of eternal progression with the doctrine of organized intellegence. If you take the two, the following must have some validity: If man as an intellegence fulfills the measure of his creation and expands himself in light and truth, does it follow that lesser beings (horses, dogs, insects, rocks) that fulfill and expand upon the measure of their creation also advance?

    Could there be a true doctrine of reincarnation in there?

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    Peter – I think “lesser beings” advance according to their sphere, if that makes any sense. I don’t necessarily think that a dog will become a human, but maybe a more “advanced” dog?

  16. I hope this wasn’t mentioned in another comment and I missed it…but I think the whole concept of forever backward and forward is probably a fallacy we make up to try to wrap our heads around the idea of eternity. Events have a sequence and a process in the natural world, and some of these we’ve adopted for our own measurement purposes, but if you are the creator / instigator of those processes, or maybe even if you’re not inhabiting a body with all its built-in clocks, I think maybe your time is always Now. Or at least it’s not just a one-dimensional line. It must be quite disorienting for us to arrive here and experience three hours of church or eight hours of school / work. I haven’t come up with a lot of evidence for my theory other than observing that time is really a difficult concept on many levels and I don’t think eternity can be properly described as a really, really long “time,” in whatever direction. I think they are different things entirely. Our brains want a sequence, first we were that, and then that, and now this, and then that again. It’s what works for us here. I’m just skeptical of how relevant it is anywhere else in the “continuum.”

  17. Oh–another somewhat related topic I’d like to discuss sometime is the extent to which our spirits (or even our ‘intelligence’) really impacts our personality. I want to continue believing that my spirit is somewhat relevant to who I feel I am walking around in the world, and that there’s a unique “me” that is beyond brain chemistry, but the more I learn about brain chemistry (mine and others’) the more I wonder how much, or if, whatever is spiritually ‘us’ ever really shows up that much. Really good program on NPR “This American Life” awhile back on testosterone and how it / the lack of it completely changes ones personality.

  18. I like the idea of our notion of time not necessarily applying to what we experience “in eternity”.

    Time and light are especially interesting when you start looking at them from a scientific perspective. For example, a high level article on light (http://science.nationalgeographic.com/science/space/universe/power-of-light.html) includes this tidbit:

    “We use the term light-year to express a unit of distance… but if you were the light itself—if you could be the photon—you’d experience no time. That long journey would be instantaneous.”

    Keep that in mind as you read DC 130:7 “…where all things for their glory are manifest, past, present, and future, and are continually before the Lord”. Now, I’m not saying that God is zipping around like a photon, but there are some pretty fascinating relationships between time and light both in science and Mormon theology.

    It seems common in the Church for some people to struggle with the idea that they have agency and that God knows the future – they feel that the latter negates the former. I’ve heard it reassuringly explained that God’s foreknowledge is by some form of deduction, “He knows you better than yourself and knows what you’d do in any situation”, etc. While that may be true, I don’t think that’s actually how He knows the future – he exists in some sort of Eternal Now, so his ability to see what will happen a year from now is actually pretty similar to our ability to see what is happening right now.

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    Emily #17 – “the whole concept of forever backward and forward is probably a fallacy we make up to try to wrap our heads around the idea of eternity.” – That may be the case. Time is only measured by us earthlings, I presume, so perhaps eternity is not “forever backward/forward” per se, but just “now” as Dave also said. We are living in “time” on earth, in the sense that we grow old and die, but even then, what is time, really? Perhaps the only true measurement is that of progress or growth, and the concept of time itself is a fallacy.

  20. I want to continue believing that my spirit is somewhat relevant to who I feel I am walking around in the world, and that there’s a unique “me” that is beyond brain chemistry,

    I think much of life is discovering who we are beyond the chemistry — and how we react and interact with the chemistry.

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    Stephen – what are some ways that we figure this out?

    Sometimes I wonder if our “brain chemistry” is indeed a reflection of “who we are.”

  22. Pingback: Charity Toward Elder Bruce Hafen’s Evergreen talk – Part II « Irresistible (Dis)Grace

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