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Happiness and Suffering as the Basis for Morality
Posted: 16 December 2007 09:51 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 16 ]  
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derekjames - 16 December 2007 02:05 PM

Wow. You can disagree with someone or ask for clarification about what they are saying without lowering yourself to this. First time I’ve ever been accused of obscurantism. How exactly was I being purposefully obscure?

...What you can do is say that there is either little or no evidence in favor of such a claim, so a belief in leprechauns (or god) is not well-justified.

...If you are claiming to know that god does not exist, you are making an unreasonable, untenable claim.

There are some ideas that are so improbable that they are not well worth one’s effort in sustaining them. Think about winning the PowerBall lottery, for example. It’s not impossible, but very unlikely. At least in that case, there is a tangible (i.e.,  evident) reward for being right. And you can actually buy a ticket.

Depending upon the notion that one can never be certain about the nonexistence of something is quintessentially obscurantist, and subtly (and unreasonably) magnifies the significance of the tiny bit of uncertainty there is about such ideas. Leprechauns, though probably non-existent, are well-described. Absent any specifications of a “god” whose existence you wish to consider, I will say that an unspecified god is impossible, simply because it consists only of possibility and evinces nothing of existence. In other words, you are contemplating the possibility of impossibility.

Surely you do not consider Thor and Thoth to be possible manifestations of God! Go ahead and specify an interventionist god, and I will tell you that you are talking nonsense. And I will tell you why I think so.

That goes for you, too, ASD. You are in the same boat as Derek. It is a leaky boat, and one that propels itself only by not having both oars in the water. This goes a long way to explain how that boat manages only to paddle around in circles.

Antisocialdarwinist - 16 December 2007 02:27 PM

Wait a minute.  Are you saying that people who believe in God actually know He doesn’t exist?  What evidence do you have of that?

All the gods that people have specified have characteristics that existent objects do not possess. Unless you have a special meaning of “exist” that I do not know about. I say nothing about the existence of gods that remain unspecified. You know, the Tao that can be named is not the true Tao.

Depending upon the impossibility of proving the nonexistence of something is merely a plea to go on talking about it. You are wasting your time and mine on unlikely scenarios. We do not have that much time.

[ Edited: 16 December 2007 10:12 AM by Traces Elk]
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Posted: 16 December 2007 10:27 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 17 ]  
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derekjames - 16 December 2007 12:10 PM

Why, in principle, would it be morally wrong to believe something false that made you happier and did not have the net effect of decreasing anyone else’s happiness?

I would probably not use the term “morally wrong.” Instead, I warn of the danger posed by anything that hinders or cuts off one’s sense of reality, whether it’s a delusion or it’s a mind-altering chemical.

[quote author=“Salt Creek”]You seem to be arguing that one can have thoughts (or beliefs) that have no possibility of having any impact on other people.

Good point. Remember that the belief in question is that an undetectable all-powerful being demands obedience. It would be ludicrous to claim that such a belief has little or no impact on a person’s actions. Even the deist belief in an unconcerned deity has some influence on actions, however small in comparison to the theist belief.

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Posted: 16 December 2007 12:34 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 18 ]  
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Salt Creek - 16 December 2007 02:51 PM

Depending upon the notion that one can never be certain about the nonexistence of something is quintessentially obscurantist, and subtly (and unreasonably) magnifies the significance of the tiny bit of uncertainty there is about such ideas.

So because I don’t speak about knowledge in your absolutist tones, I’m being obscure? That’s an interesting position. This reminds me of arguments I’ve had in the past over the use of the terms agnostic and atheist. There’s a pretty big difference between saying:

I know with absolute certainty that X does not exist.

and:

I do not believe in X because the evidence and justifications for X are extremely weak.

The first seems to be what you’re saying, and it is a very bold, arrogant, and unreasonable ontological claim. You are claiming an absolute, which would necessitate a form of omniscience on your part (which, if I may return the compliment, makes you look foolish).

But back to the central point, I’m a bit confused about what some of the posters here seem to be implying. Some people seem to be strongly resisting the idea that false beliefs could ever be more utilitarian than true ones. That’s what I’m getting out of the some of the comments, anyway.

My contention is that false beliefs can sometimes lead to increased happiness/longevity/general quality of life, but even in those cases I would still prefer to know the truth. There are some here who don’t even seem to want to acknowledge the first part of that contention, that false beliefs in some cases might actually be more utilitarian than true ones. Is that the case?

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Posted: 16 December 2007 01:22 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 19 ]  
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derekjames - 16 December 2007 05:34 PM

There’s a pretty big difference between saying:

I know with absolute certainty that X does not exist.

and:

I do not believe in X because the evidence and justifications for X are extremely weak.

Two things:

A) You haven’t specified X. Proposing to discuss the existence of something that you have not specified is a recipe for the creation of nonsense. This is different from saying we have not learned everything possible about the universe. Is that what you wanted to suggest? If so, do not be obscurantist about it.

B) If X is Thoth, nobody will argue with you about the existence of Thoth. If X is the God of Abraham, and of Isaac, and of Jacob, the evidence for X is non-existent and the justifications for X are tragically inconsistent and brutal. I am certain that such a god does not exist. Why are you asking about beliefs that make people happy? Why not ask about beliefs that require such a brutal explanation?

The stories about such a God in the Old Testament of the Bible are fiction. Arguing about the existence of that God is like arguing about the existence of Gandalf the Gray. A person who insists that he is entitled to believe in the God of Abraham simply because it makes him feel good is asking for trouble; further stipulating that this entitlement is due to the fact that the existence of the G of A is incapable of disproof is asking a mighty favor of any person who still requires the use of his intellect. A person made “happy” by a belief in such a brutal, egomaniacal, jealous god is just a weirdo in my book. The god of the New Testament does not fare much better. This god still condemns to hell anyone who does not honor the memory of his masochistic envoy. And as bad as these gods are, they’re still not as bad as Allah of the Muslims. Let’s not go there, OK? Suffice it to say, Allah is a crummy knock-off of previous fake gods.

derekjames - 16 December 2007 05:34 PM

There are some here who don’t even seem to want to acknowledge the first part of that contention, that false beliefs in some cases might actually be more utilitarian than true ones.

Harboring false ideas that one knows to be false can never be utilitarian, let alone benefiicial. Ignorance is not bliss, and the historical misery of people ignorant of the germ theory of disease is well known. People who require fantasies they know are nonsense to get through the long day are not doing themselves or anyone else any favors, and can be diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. If their justification is that they will run amok and commit mass murder without the comfort of those fantasies, well, they know what they are talking about, don’t they? If you are worried that they will run amok (without any evidence that they will do so), then your own paranoia would seem to be the trouble spot, wouldn’t it?

People make mistakes, commit errors, act on imperfect knowledge all the time. Somehow they are able to proceed. Have you ever purchased shares of an equity security? Choosing a god is not like picking a stock, for you have absolutely no data to go on, and there is no upside following the choice, except that “happy idiot” feeling. Ignorance of whether or not your beliefs are true may be blissful to you. Wallow in it with my blessings. Do consider, however, the possibility that beliefs for which you hold no evidence may, in fact, be false.

derekjames - 16 December 2007 05:34 PM

My contention is that false beliefs can sometimes lead to increased happiness/longevity/general quality of life

The sad fact is that holders of false beliefs will sooner or later run into someone who knows that those beliefs are false. The conflict over whether or not one’s false beliefs are true or not does not lead to happiness. It is not unreasonable to ask you to procure evidence for the existence of your favorite deity. Or at least to specify in some detail the properties of such a deity, rather than simply calling it “X”.

[ Edited: 16 December 2007 01:38 PM by Traces Elk]
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Posted: 16 December 2007 03:18 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 20 ]  
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Salt Creek - 16 December 2007 02:51 PM
Antisocialdarwinist - 16 December 2007 02:27 PM

Wait a minute.  Are you saying that people who believe in God actually know He doesn’t exist?  What evidence do you have of that?

All the gods that people have specified have characteristics that existent objects do not possess. Unless you have a special meaning of “exist” that I do not know about. I say nothing about the existence of gods that remain unspecified. You know, the Tao that can be named is not the true Tao.

Depending upon the impossibility of proving the nonexistence of something is merely a plea to go on talking about it. You are wasting your time and mine on unlikely scenarios. We do not have that much time.

I’m not debating the meaning of the word, “exist” or asking for proof of the nonexistence of anything.  I’m asking if you really meant to say that people believe in God even though they know he doesn’t exist:

Salt Creek - 16 December 2007 01:37 PM

I think people know whether or not their beliefs are true or false, or whether the truth or falsity is really unknowable at the 50-50 level.

On the face of it, that sounds like a pretty leaky boat. 

Maybe you meant to say that people pretend to believe in God even though they doubt his existence.  That at least sounds plausible, although I’d still like to see some evidence before I believe it’s more than a rare exception.

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Posted: 16 December 2007 03:25 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 21 ]  
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Sander - 16 December 2007 02:46 PM

It is one thing to observe a small group of people for some time and draw conclusions based on this experience.
If you are trying to find out something about a large group of people whom you do not know at all you are better off relying on metrics.

All right, then I assume the two weeks you spent posting on a Christian forum was sufficient for you to draw the conclusion that the Christian posters there were scared, ignorant and miserable.  What specifically did you observe that led you to such a conclusion?

edit:  Ignorant I’ll buy—no need to convince me of that.  But what about scared and, particularly, miserable?

[ Edited: 16 December 2007 03:28 PM by Antisocialdarwinist]
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Posted: 16 December 2007 04:03 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 22 ]  
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[quote author=“Antisocialdarwinist” date=“1197865507]
All right, then I assume the two weeks you spent posting on a Christian forum was sufficient for you to draw the conclusion that the Christian posters there were scared, ignorant and miserable.  What specifically did you observe that led you to such a conclusion?

edit:  Ignorant I’ll buy—no need to convince me of that.  But what about scared and, particularly, miserable?

OK,

One thing about this community that is very different from ours is that they are almost without exception in agreement on the basics of their beliefs and they are so convinced of the validity of them that they don’t hold their cards very close to their chest.
They are very frank about their thoughts and their personal lives that it is easier to get an idea of who these people are and what tickles their fancy or soils their shorts.

They were constantly warning me about hell fire, and they meant it. They see this as a very possible outcome for anybody. It is the mother of all fears, so it is not a stretch to assume that they live fearful lives.
They were also putting themselves down for perceived imperfections and I don’t think it takes a genius to see that if you are in constant conflict with your own balls you are not a happy, well-adjusted person.

If you want I’ll send you the website and you can read the conversations I had.

Actually, I need to mention that not all of them were ignorant. I met two articulate and funny people who were not in the ‘inerrant word’ camp.
Also, I quite liked most of them.


I have to say though that I am a bit surprised that you are asking me to elaborate on this.

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Posted: 16 December 2007 04:56 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 23 ]  
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Antisocialdarwinist - 16 December 2007 08:18 PM

I’m not debating the meaning of the word, “exist” or asking for proof of the nonexistence of anything.  I’m asking if you really meant to say that people believe in God even though they know he doesn’t exist:

Salt Creek - 16 December 2007 01:37 PM

I think people know whether or not their beliefs are true or false, or whether the truth or falsity is really unknowable at the 50-50 level.

On the face of it, that sounds like a pretty leaky boat. 

Maybe you meant to say that people pretend to believe in God even though they doubt his existence.  That at least sounds plausible, although I’d still like to see some evidence before I believe it’s more than a rare exception.

Yes, I think people pretend to “believe” in god even though they know their beliefs are false. Either that, or they are incapable of integrating any of the stream of information about the world they are obtaining through their senses.

Some people are afraid of lots of things that come in on this stream, and suffer from lots of self-loathing, and are rather uncomfortable in their status as animals capped by this weird, nervous-making brain. Most mild-mannered believers (or what we like to call “moderates”) obviously pretend to believe in god because it allows them to gather in churchy social clubs and make all sorts of profound-sounding incantations about the meaning and depth of human existence. People who talk about “peak experience” are referring to occasions when everything was working correctly, rather than occasions when one has achieved something superior to “normal operation”. People do not wish to believe there is nothing that is superior to “normal operation”, because of what that might imply about their typical experience. Sadly, the day-to-day tasks of cognition necessary for social interaction do not lend themselves to it; most people are neither willing nor able to give up social interaction to go straighten out their brain waves in some cave.

I think it is pretty obvious, also, that the fire-breathing believers pretend to believe in god as a means of expressing their self-loathing (e.g., about what happens below their waists) and their fear of other-ness. Misogyny and homophobia are prominent evidence of the kinds of fear experienced by these folks. For them, the experience of “god” is the temporary relaxation of that self-loathing and fear. It’s not an experience of the “divine”, but an experience of “normalcy”.

I don’t think that much short of suicide terrorism really suggests a belief in god incapable of recognizing that it is engaging in self-delusion. If Mother Teresa can let that cat out of the bag, anyone can.

The people who show up on-line to argue for the existence of god are the worst offenders. I don’t know how they square (with themselves) the use of rationality in all other aspects of their lives, while they pretend (with sterile and circular arguments) to protest the arguments against theism. It is obvious that their “belief” itself is insufficient, otherwise they would not be defending it.

[ Edited: 16 December 2007 05:01 PM by Traces Elk]
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Posted: 16 December 2007 05:01 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 24 ]  
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Sander - 16 December 2007 09:03 PM

I have to say though that I am a bit surprised that you are asking me to elaborate on this.

The reason I ask is that I can imagine a Christian coming to this forum and arriving at the same conclusion about people here, that we’re ignorant, scared and miserable.  Since that’s likely their preconception of atheists, it’s likely they’d see more fear, ignorance and misery than someone without such a preconception.

I don’t want you to think I’m accusing you personally of reaching a subjective conclusion, but sometimes it’s easy to see something when you expect to see it.   

I’ve actually tried to register on a couple of Christian forums, but they both had a screening process that required a moderator to personally approve my application.  For whatever reason, I never got the approval.  Maybe I should try something besides “We Want Jack Daniels” for a user name.

I would be interested to read your conversations if you don’t mind sending me the link.  I promise I won’t try to post anything—I’ll just read.

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Posted: 16 December 2007 05:15 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 25 ]  
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Antisocialdarwinist - 16 December 2007 10:01 PM

The reason I ask is that I can imagine a Christian coming to this forum and arriving at the same conclusion about people here, that we’re ignorant, scared and miserable.  Since that’s likely their preconception of atheists, it’s likely they’d see more fear, ignorance and misery than someone without such a preconception.

This ignores a serious asymmetry in the kinds of issues that members of each “camp” are dealing with, and in the modes that each “camp” uses to deal with those issues. For believers, rationality is a half-silvered mirror on the reflective side of which they find themselves. “Atheism” (or whatever convenient term you care to substitute) is not a belief system. In most discussions with believers, almost all effort is invested in addressing the faulty kinds of reasoning used by theists to defend their “beliefs” against a perceived “attack”. What I am coming to suspect is that they are protesting the notion that somebody has said “the emperor is naked”.

To get back to what the OP was on about, it seems that telling oneself a falsehood to try to induce happiness is only successful if no one is there to whisper that it is, indeed, fantasy role-playing.

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Posted: 16 December 2007 05:40 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 26 ]  
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Salt Creek - 16 December 2007 10:15 PM

To get back to what the OP was on about, it seems that telling oneself a falsehood to try to induce happiness is only successful if no one is there to whisper that it is, indeed, fantasy role-playing.

What I was on about was the contradiction in Sam Harris’ assertion that increasing happiness and reducing suffering should be the basis for morality, and his criticism of belief in falsehoods that increase happiness and reduce suffering.

That seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle, though.

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Posted: 16 December 2007 05:45 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 27 ]  
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Antisocialdarwinist - 16 December 2007 10:01 PM
Sander - 16 December 2007 09:03 PM

I have to say though that I am a bit surprised that you are asking me to elaborate on this.

The reason I ask is that I can imagine a Christian coming to this forum and arriving at the same conclusion about people here, that we’re ignorant, scared and miserable.  Since that’s likely their preconception of atheists, it’s likely they’d see more fear, ignorance and misery than someone without such a preconception.

I don’t want you to think I’m accusing you personally of reaching a subjective conclusion, but sometimes it’s easy to see something when you expect to see it.   

I’ve actually tried to register on a couple of Christian forums, but they both had a screening process that required a moderator to personally approve my application.  For whatever reason, I never got the approval.  Maybe I should try something besides “We Want Jack Daniels” for a user name.

I would be interested to read your conversations if you don’t mind sending me the link.  I promise I won’t try to post anything—I’ll just read.

http://www.christian-forum.net/

My name there is Visarion.

Enjoy.

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Posted: 16 December 2007 06:00 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 28 ]  
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derekjames - 16 December 2007 10:40 PM

What I was on about was the contradiction in Sam Harris’ assertion that increasing happiness and reducing suffering should be the basis for morality, and his criticism of belief in falsehoods that increase happiness and reduce suffering.

In The End of Faith, Harris says:

A rational approach to ethics becomes possible once we realize that questions of right and wrong are really questions about the happiness and suffering of sentient creatures.

Ethics (unless I am completely mistaken) is about deciding the rightfulness and the wrongfulness of actions. You may choose to use the word “morality” here, but that carries extra connotations that Harris is not obliged to deal with in his proposals on the subject of ethics. I will otherwise ignore your imprecision.

It has further been pointed out to you that Harris has criticized “belief” from the perspective of indicating in just which ways it may tend to increase human suffering. It is your (unsupported) contention that a belief may increase the happiness of its holder regardless of whether or not it is a true belief, and that for this reason, it contradicts Sam’s position on ethics. If that belief leads to action (and you have not specified that it does) then the action and its impact on happiness and suffering will be available for ethical analysis. A belief in and of itself is not subject to ethical quantification.

A belief whose sole function is to increase the “happiness” of the one who holds it would not be impacted by the ethical calculus that Harris proposes. However, you have failed to demonstrate that such a belief is even possible, let alone common. A whimsical example is given of the man who holds the (false but unexamined) belief that there is a ten kilogram diamond buried in his back yard. As soon as he tries to use it as collateral for a mortgage, the game is up for him; regardless how happy he has been to “know” about this diamond, his dealings with the banker are bound to make him unhappy.

[ Edited: 16 December 2007 06:07 PM by Traces Elk]
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Posted: 16 December 2007 06:12 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 29 ]  
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Salt Creek - 16 December 2007 09:56 PM

Yes, I think people pretend to “believe” in god even though they know their beliefs are false. Either that, or they are incapable of integrating any of the stream of information about the world they are obtaining through their senses.

Some people are afraid of lots of things that come in on this stream, and suffer from lots of self-loathing, and are rather uncomfortable in their status as animals capped by this weird, nervous-making brain. Most mild-mannered believers (or what we like to call “moderates”) obviously pretend to believe in god because it allows them to gather in churchy social clubs and make all sorts of profound-sounding incantations about the meaning and depth of human existence.

Well, your shtick about ridiculing “believers” makes a lot more sense in this context.  Someone pretending to believe in God in order to fit in probably would be susceptible to your approach.  But I question how prevalent these “conformist” pretenders really are.  I’m sure they exist, as do other types of pretenders who do it for more selfish reasons (like the Pope, for example, or some politicians).  But I always figured they were a small minority among a majority of true believers.  What about someone like Tony Blair?  He perceived his faith as a liability to his political career.  What motivation could he have for faking belief?

Maybe I’m oblivious, but it’s not obvious to me that most mild-mannered believers are pretending.  What do you see that gives them away?  I mean, you paint a convincing picture of why they might want to pretend (peak experience, self-loathing, normalcy), but it’s still a jump from there to the conclusion that they actually are pretending, isn’t it?

Salt Creek - 16 December 2007 09:56 PM

I don’t think that much short of suicide terrorism really suggests a belief in god incapable of recognizing that it is engaging in self-delusion. If Mother Teresa can let that cat out of the bag, anyone can.

I think that’s a bit of a stretch.  Mother Teresa was pretty exceptional.

Salt Creek - 16 December 2007 09:56 PM

The people who show up on-line to argue for the existence of god are the worst offenders. I don’t know how they square (with themselves) the use of rationality in all other aspects of their lives, while they pretend (with sterile and circular arguments) to protest the arguments against theism. It is obvious that their “belief” itself is insufficient, otherwise they would not be defending it.

You’re assuming here that they are pretending.  And couldn’t the same argument be used against atheists?  Is our on-line defense of atheism proof of our own insecurity?

You may be right, Salt.  My experience with religious people is limited to looking in from outside.  The Christians I know seem pretty well adjusted and happy from that perspective, and I tend to take them at face value.  Maybe it’s all an elaborate facade.  But don’t you think, if pretenders were as common as you say, that sooner or later they’d sort of realize they were all pretending and give it up?

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Posted: 16 December 2007 06:22 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 30 ]  
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derekjames - 16 December 2007 10:40 PM

What I was on about was the contradiction in Sam Harris’ assertion that increasing happiness and reducing suffering should be the basis for morality, and his criticism of belief in falsehoods that increase happiness and reduce suffering.

That seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle, though.

Derek, I don’t think it’s been lost in the shuffle.  You’re assuming that belief in a falsehood can actually increase happiness and reduce suffering.  I’m inclined to share that assumption, but I don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion.

Speaking hypothetically, (hypothetically a person can find happiness through faith) I think your argument is sound.  After all, by the time someone reaches the point where they’re supposed to be in heaven, they’ll never know they didn’t actually get there.  That’s the difference between believing in heaven and believing there’s a diamond buried in your backyard.

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