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Ignorant Wisdom: The Heart of Agnosticism

  1. Sep 19, 2012 #1
    This is a modern variation on the philosophy of Socrates I've been working on using a Functionalist approach. His famous dialogue method is the subject of future work, but this short chapter on agnosticism provides the core of the philosophy. Among other things Socrates believed moral temperament was more a question of divine bequest than up bringing which we might interpret today as a genetic predisposition but, whatever the case, the point here is to avoid bias in either direction.

    Socrates said, "True wisdom is knowing you don't know" to which I would add accepting our ignorance is how we really come to know anything. If nothing else we can always be certain of our uncertainty and, therefore, our ignorance. It is the source of whatever humility, creativity, and free will we might possess, but only to the degree we are both aware and accepting of our ignorance. As far as Socrates was concerned this was a simple fact of life. If you are not aware or accepting of the fact that you don't know how to swim, for example, you'll have limited wisdom when it comes to water. This "ignorant wisdom", or knowledge and wisdom acquired by becoming aware and accepting of our ignorance, is the heart of agnosticism.

    Agnostics possess the conviction that they don't know whether God exists and some additionally believe it is impossible to prove or disprove whether God exists. Like any stance people can take it is their convictions that define them as something other than merely being uncertain, undecided, or confused. A newborn infant might not know if God exists, but what distinguishes agnostics is they know they don't know and, therefore, hold the conviction they don't know. The insistence of many atheists and believers that agnosticism be defined as mere ignorance, doubt, or uncertainty (50/50 probability) is an attempt to deny the convictions of agnostics and deny that agnosticism presents a viable alternative.

    This is common in ideological disputes where one or both sides will go to extreme lengths to deny any sort of neutrality is feasible because its existence can harm their cause. It is the aggressive group mindset of you are either with us, against us, or undecided and ideologues will sometimes stop at nothing to discourage others from establishing a viable neutral alternative. The implied threat from both believers and disbelievers alike is one reason agnostics are not more often outspoken. For agnostics the unwelcome and uninvited attacks from both sides can be a poignant reminder of their struggles to cultivate ignorant wisdom in any aspect of their lives.

    A cyclone is a common Asian metaphor for this lifelong process of cultivating ignorant wisdom. All our expectations, preconceptions, and beliefs swarm in a wild cacophony around the calm center of the storm violently colliding with one another and the world. The deeper into the storm we venture after them the more confused and disoriented we become. Sometimes the storm will throw us back into the center and sometimes we deliberately work our way there, but once in the center we can shift our focus to our awareness including that of our ignorance. In those moments we present ourselves with renewed opportunities to accept, ignore, or reject our ignorance.

    Acceptance of our ignorance is the only requirement for obtaining ignorant wisdom or becoming agnostic with no beliefs, ideology, or methodology necessary. It can be a completely spontaneous act without regard for how we came to such a decision or any consequences it might entail. An instinctive affirmation of our own awareness that comes straight from the heart and often takes us in surprising directions. Strange as it might sound, as an agnostic myself I am truly grateful for my ignorance and, in fact, I can't imagine a loving God who would want it any other way.
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  3. Sep 19, 2012 #2


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    This thread hasn't been canned so far, so I'll bite. :smile:

    I strongly disagree here because you are advocating irrationality when I believe that we are in fact rational modellers of the world (even the emotional aspects of our reactions to reality are valid learnings that have proved themselves over evolutionary timescales).

    As modellers, we already take it for granted that we don't "know" anything. But that does not then mean we need to put ignorance on a pedestal. It says we need to get on with the business of modelling reality. It is a natural urge. It is why we even exist.

    In the modelling view, wisdom is the accumulation of a broad range of modelling habits that allow for a generalised interpretation of reality. Sure there is always going to be more to learn, more fine-tuning to do. But what is actually remarkable about human philosophy is how quickly it arrived at a high state of stable generalisation - at least in the hands of the ancient Greek tradition that became the basis of the current Western enlightenment view.

    So I see nothing to celebrate in the idea of cultivating "ignorant wisdom". A retreat from the business of modelling reality is unnatural.

    Yes, there may be value in relaxing back into vaguer states of mind - this is a perfectly familiar part of the creative process. But to want to spend your whole life in a state of suspended judgement seems an anti-life stance IMO.

    So far as the Greek philosophers went, if they were concerned about the limits of the known, it was usually because they were getting ready to make the next leap into the dark. Problem identification we would now call it.

    Here for example is what I feel is a more balanced view of what Socrates was on about and the implications for definitions of wisdom....


    Note in particular the pay-off conclusion. It is all about living well (arriving at a model of reality that is a sound fit). And so true wisdom involves a balance of accumulating as much theory about the world as possible, while avoiding as many unjustified beliefs as possible.
  4. Sep 19, 2012 #3
    Embracing the irrational is not synonymous with rejecting the rational. This is more of the "you are either with us, against us, or undecided" mindset I mention in the post. Quantum Indeterminacy is by any definition irrational, but we embrace it anyway as a wonderful way to do statistical analysis. The point being to take full advantage of whatever nature throws our way including our own awareness of our ignorance.
  5. Sep 19, 2012 #4


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    No, this is definitely a case where there is a correct direction IMO. This is because we are describing a natural developmental trajectory that starts in ignorance (ie: vagueness, indeterminacy) and has as its target wisdom (ie: a well developed model of reality).

    So what you are advocating is anti-development. Reversing life's natural trajectory.

    So yes, "ignorance" is not bad - so long as it is what we are continually leaving ever further behind us in life. To make it instead sound like the goal towards which you aim is what would be irrational.

    Being aware of our ignorance, as you put it, is only of value because this is how we can know when we moving in the right direction. We can in fact see we are leaving it behind us.

    But to attempt to live in ignorance is just to exist passively in fog of nothingness. There seems no value in that.

    Of course there is another side to the coin. You can argue that our capacity for modelling reality is limited and attempts to extend beyond that results in the discomfort of mental over-load. Better to live within your restrictions as that will make you happy.

    However that seems a different justification. And it also makes it a personal choice not a general truth.

    If wisdom is measured in terms of the ratio of comprehensive model/unjustified beliefs, then the only reason to step off this developmental trajectory is when you feel you have reached some point of diminishing return on further effort. But by then, you should be some distance from your starting point of ignorance (or indeterminacy - uncommited degrees of freedom - concerning your modelling of reality anyway).
  6. Sep 19, 2012 #5
    It appears you are ignorant of the definition of ignorant.

    1.lacking in knowledge or training; unlearned: an ignorant man.
    2.lacking knowledge or information as to a particular subject or fact: ignorant of quantum physics.
    3.uninformed; unaware.
    4.due to or showing lack of knowledge or training: an ignorant statement. (Dictionary.com)

    There is nothing in the definition about vagueness or indeterminacy which makes the rest of your argument moot. I remind you that the forum rules insist on the use of standard definitions.
  7. Sep 19, 2012 #6


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    Playing the man rather than the ball? My argument is that wisdom is a natural developmental trajectory with a direction that should point away from ignorance. I await to see if you can contradict that.

    Also, so far as definitions go, perhaps you ought to consult a more philosophical source. :wink:

    For example, vagueness is synonymous with ignorance if you are taking the epistemic viewpoint.

    On the other hand, if you take the ontic vagueness viewpoint, then this is indeed another level of being beyond merely a crisp lack of the relevant facts.

    And I do indeed generally tend to the ontic view. Which is why I attempted to make it clear here by highlighting both the epistemic and ontic usages. So for the philosopher, there is "mere ignorance" and then "foundational indeterminancy".

    But either way, the essential point remains. I am arguing that what is natural is the trajectory away from vagueness of either stripe.
  8. Sep 20, 2012 #7
    I couldn't care less about your personal philosophical beliefs. If you choose to use anything other than a standard definition of a word you must explain yourself at the very least.

    As for knowledge and ignorance, from a functionalist perspective such terms are relative concepts no different than up and down, left and right, back and front. It is impossible to have one without the other because they define each other and which is which depends entirely on the context and, thus, the same applies to wisdom and foolishness. Without a specific context you might as well insist that up is always up for all the meaning it conveys.
  9. Sep 20, 2012 #8


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    So what do you not understand about the distinction between ontic and epistemic vagueness? It seems pretty standard in the literature.

    What is this "functionalist perspective" exactly? Can you provide a source? I know of the term in other contexts, like cognitive psychology, but am hazy about what you mean here.

    And yes, I am somewhat familiar with the logic of dichotomies. But I think you have some unclear thoughts here.

    Up and down (in deep space) are an example of a symmetry-breaking which indeed has no intrinsic direction. It cost the same energy to go in either direction, so any motion is easily reversible.

    But up and down on Earth does have a direction because it is easy to go one way, hard to go the other. The gravitational field creates a global entropic constraint that gives events a definite direction.

    Likewise wisdom and foolishness also have a context, as argued in the Stanford cite I provided. Indeed, a functional one (in the cogsci sense - which is why I'm baffled by your use of the term, which seems perhaps non-standard if it conflicts with this).

    This global constraint is that a model has to in fact be able to model a world. The predictions have to match the measurements. And once you accept this as a general context, the difference between wise and foolish models becomes very clear. It is easy to see there is a desirable direction that separates the two. Neutrality, agnosticism or other ideas of inaction are simply that - a failure to move, a failure to learn.
  10. Sep 20, 2012 #9
    There's very little I do understand about ontology which I consider nothing more than metaphysical gibberish. As for whether it is "standard" in the literature I couldn't care less. If it isn't a standard dictionary definition it needs to be made explicit who uses the word that way.

    Functionalism is a philosophy of mind related to epistemic contextualism which is a hotly debated subject gaining a lot of ground these days. The essential Functionalist statement is, "words only have demonstrable meaning according to their function is specific contexts". This applies especially to the word "know" which obviously has significance in this thread. You can find articles on the subject in both Wikipedia and the Stanford Encyclopedia of philosophy.

    Up and down on earth do not have a single meaning. For someone on the opposite side of the earth up is the opposite direction from me. Again, it is the specific context that determines the meaning of the word and for functionalists the context also determines what epistemic standards apply. The more specific the context, the stricter the epistemic standards. Whether the earth is flat, round, a dimensionless point, or nonexistent all depends on your frame of reference and each frame of reference is perfectly valid for those in it. Instead of attempting to force a single metaphysical frame of reference, functionalism attempts to merely describe what people perceive and how they use language to communicate their perceptions. In that way it can provide a kind of systems approach that bridges the physical and mental by analyzing language and context together.
    Last edited: Sep 20, 2012
  11. Sep 20, 2012 #10


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    It's interesting when I hear people talk about rationality.

    What is rational to someone is not irrational to another and vice versa. Everybody has a different idea of rationality for at least one thing, but thankfully there are many things that people can agree on to be rational vs irrational.

    An interesting thing would be if you ask an economist (especially a theoretical one) what rational means and if you ask someone say in a small tribe what rational means.

    The economist might pull out the rational agent/actor theory where everybody seeks to maximize their own profit/utility/benefit etc in all situations. The person in the tribe however, may say that the rationale for what they do is to contribute to the community and to work together so that they can stay alive and live happy lives.

    To a small tribe, the idea of just maximizing benefits even when it comes as an expense to the environment or other people really wouldn't make sense, but to an economist, they just can't imagine the idea where people don't maximize their own benefits (often monetarily) and the reflection of this is easily seen if you read the literature and see what the key ideas are in mathematical economics.

    Also another example is the business of war.

    Most people don't think its rational to go to war: even if the people aren't LSD and pot-smoking hippies from the 60's, the irrationality of war can be seen from a human life, and resource standpoint where not only do you kill people, you end up wasting all kinds of resources and destroying infrastructure, the civil and social order, and pretty much everything societies try and work for to build themselves up.

    But to a military contractor, war is a rational thing because it's profitable.

    These are just two examples and there are tonnes more, but hopefully the point when it comes to rationality is made that rationale is a relative thing and not an explicit, fixed quantity and I have the feeling that when people try to "rationalize" what others have done, they only attempt to use their own system rather than to just step out of their own perspective and see things from others no matter how disgusting or despicable they may be.
  12. Sep 20, 2012 #11


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    Err, as already pointed out, the "who" is philosophers - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vagueness

    Can you post an actual link to this "hot debate". The bit about semantics seems a statement of the obvious to me. But on the other hand, functionalism in the philosophy of mind is more about the substance~form distinction. The claim is that it is the global organisation which is causal of consciousness and so, for example, mind would be multi-realisable.

    You appear to be missing the point. And that is that a gravity field is a gradient. So up is a different kind of direction from down due to the presence of a definite symmetry-breaking global context. Whereas in deep space, you would be ignorant/vague about your orientation. Up may as well be down for all you can tell.

    You will have to provide a reference to make it clear what you mean. This sounds like some kind of structuralist statement. If so, I would hardly find that controversial. But I just don't think that it supports a neutral or agnostic take on knowledge.
  13. Sep 20, 2012 #12


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    What you appear to be saying is that rationality also involves goals. Models have to be constrained by a purpose. Which again is a point against this idea of privileging neutrality, agnosticism or ignorance - except as a starting point in the pursuit of knowledge.

  14. Sep 20, 2012 #13


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    I agree wholeheartedly, but I thought I'd just point out a few examples to highlight the discontinuities in what many call "rational" where they really use no point of reference or relative comparison.

    Ignorance is the very thing against the pursuit of knowledge and unfortunately it's not always unintended ignorance, but rather intended ignorance.

    When I say intended ignorance, by this I mean that people intentionally remain ignorant. Unintended ignorance is just the case where people don't intentionally go out of their way to remain ignorant.

    Ignorance establishes not having a point of reference for comparison and analysis and removes any kind of relativity to anything else which IMO is completely self-defeating.
  15. Sep 20, 2012 #14


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    Yes, that is an important point then. It goes to the fact that everyone is attempting to model the world in rational fashion, but even within the same world, the models could end up looking different if the purposes are different.

    So that would seem to make it more difficult to define wisdom - given there might be many different varieties of wisdom, due to the different purposes.

    But even so, I think it can be argued that a generalised notion of "metaphysical" wisdom is possible. This is the kind of search for invariance that Nozick outlines in his excellent book of the same name - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Invariances

    Which in turn makes it clear that this generalised wisdom is an active striving - an achievement shaped continuously by its goal. It cannot be achieved in a passive or accidental fashion.

    Ignorance is not knowing which way is up. And intentional ignorance would be thinking that was for some reason desirable. :smile:
  16. Sep 20, 2012 #15


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    The idea of invariance is probably one of the most important ideas and developmental concepts we have and it's extremely potent when we need to understand anything that is relative.

    We are developing quite a few different invariants in a wide area of subjects like physics, mathematics, statistics and probability of which one (which is becoming really important) is that of information with entropy.

    I think that the next big leap with regard to invariance will be information and descriptive invariance in the form of a language that expresses things in some invariant way where that particular descriptive capacity can not be mis-interpreted and does not have incomplete information to ascertain what it is actually referring to.

    Unfortunately though, we don't have that (yet).

    You have two extremes: completely context free information (which is what Information Theory looks at) and completely context dependent information (which is what a lot of our language is like at certain levels), but in the context of general information, there is no real invariant principles that are satisfactory.

    With regards to your wisdom comment as well as finding any kind of truth (which is most likely going to be partial), one general strategy is that when you want to see what something is, you also at the same time, say what it is not (we talked about this kind of thing in a previous discussion).

    Knowing what something isn't is just as important as knowing what something is and the real clarification comes when the actual division becomes finer and more explicit.

    Ironically this means not just seeing what wise men have to say, but also what really ignorant people have to say as well which means to understand wisdom you have to understand ignorance and to understand ignorance you have to understand wisdom.

    When you observe and study both, it becomes easier to see the distinctions between the two and as a result of this, it becomes easier to know where to create the division.

    Without this kind of process, there is no real context and no real clarification.
  17. Sep 20, 2012 #16
    You mean as you pointed out after I called you on it and posted the dictionary definition.

    That's classic functionalism, but it can also be treated as a pragmatic epistemic theory of explanation and, in the case of the original post, ordinary language philosophy.


    No, I'm not missing the point, I am making a point. The point that the more specific and detailed the context the clearer the meaning becomes and vice versa. The more vague the context the less meaningful something becomes.

    For example if I say, "She's cool" it could mean she is physically cold, unemotional, exciting, all three, or something else entirely. The more you know about the context in which the statement is made the clearer it's meaning becomes. The less you know, the more possibility of being completely wrong until the context becomes so vague any guess is as good as the next.

    In normal everyday conversations we can get away with making all kinds of assumptions about what someone means, but philosophy is more demanding. We can argue over how to split semantic hairs until the crows fly home, or merely choose to be as explicit as the situation calls for about the context.

    It's possible to view it as merely a statement of fact, of observation, and not an argument at all.
  18. Sep 20, 2012 #17


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    Yes, but it is not clear whether you are arguing - as I would - that there is a triadic logic beyond the dyadic one. And also that there is the possibility within dyadic logic for self-contextualised truths.

    So what appears to be agreed is:

    1) Explanation is epistemic (we only model reality), pragmatic (our models are shaped by internal purposes) and rational (explanation has a logico-causal structure).

    2) Semantics or meaning is not merely information but information framed by a specifying context. Uncertainty is reduced because of the information that is contained in a set of constraints.

    3) Ignorance can also count as definite meaningful information. Knowing that you don't know something is a specific and valid kind of knowledge.

    What I argue further is that:

    1) States of knowledge are developmental and hence triadic in the deeper view. So a crisp and definite dyadic division of information into 1s and 0s is a process of adding constraints. In the beginning, whether there is a 1 or 0 is still indeterminate or vague. But as a semantic context is developed, the answer can move towards a definite state.

    2) Certain dyads - dichotomies - are self-contextualising. They are mutually exclusive and jointly exhaustive. So a dyadic pairing like discrete~continuous captures two opposed extremes of being, and they leave no room for any other imaginable alternative. Each becomes all the context you need to make its other true. This really matters in philosophy because it does suggest that pure reason can discover fundamental truths. At least the truths that ground our epistemic modelling.

    Now your initial statement seems to want to make a fruitful dyad of wisdom and ignorance. And we can agree that in some way they are two sides of the same coin. But after that, I become very unclear about what you are actually arguing.

    One objection I have is that wisdom is a generalised state of knowledge, so ignorance here would have to be read similarly as a generalised antithetical state. It would not be the kind of specified ignorance that Chiro mentions - the known unknowns, the crisply identified gaps - but instead some kind of unspecified and generalised ignorance. Which as I pointed out is really talking about a vagueness.

    There is an obvious difference between knowing for sure you don't know something (where the ignorance is highly constrained) and being vague about whether you know it or not (where the ignorance is actually uncertainty or indeterminancy because you might be right, you might be wrong, you have yet to find out).

    So my comment was that your OP conflates these two kinds of "ignorance". And wisdom, as a generalised notion, cannot be opposed to the "known unknowns" variety of ignorance, as that is the crisply specified form. Instead, it can only be opposed to the vagueness variety of ignorance - the kind of ignorance found in a newborn baby before it develops its definite epistemic models of the world.

    I further objected to your talk of a leap of faith affirmation of ignorance as "a completely spontaneous act without regard for how we came to such a decision or any consequences it might entail."

    This seems irrational as the known unknowns variety of ignorance that is actually useful, that is actually meaningful information regarding gaps in our certainty, is something that has to be carefully constructed, carefully developed. As you mention, a context of constraints has to be forged for us to be able to know what is unknown (as much as what is known).

    So it is the opposite of spontaneity or leaps of faith.

    Instead, a triadic approach - such as Peircean semiotics - say that spontaneity or leaps of faith are only what take place at the beginning. When you are still stuck in vagueness, when you are pre- the unknowns as much as the knowns. This is what Peirce called abduction. It is a way to start the journey towards certainty.

    If you are arguing that you must re-enter a state of vagueness to move ahead to higher states of understanding, then I would agree. It does not seem controversial. You have to relax your preconceptions - your prevailing state of constraint - so as to develop some different, hopefully better, mental framing of the world.

    But the point still remains that this is all about actually then constructing some broader, improved set of mental habits. Not about entering a vaguer state never to leave.

    So there are many things here that seem agreed. But the critical sticking point may be that there is a difference between ignorance as vagueness and ignorance as the known unknown. And the process of "spontaneous affirmation" you outline seems to me more about how you re-enter states of vagueness rather than achieve a definite vision of the known unknowns.

    Although even then, because states of knowing (that include the known unknowns) have to be constructed (via the addition of specifying constraints), then even getting back to a productive form of vagueness has to be a rational process of de-construction. It has to be a achieved through systematic inquiry rather than some form of unthinking revelation.

    Having said that, there is then the fact that the brain has inbuilt machinery for relaxing and reframing (just as it has the complementary machinery for building up stereotyped habits). So if we sleep on a problem or otherwise let things lie, a state of specified constraint - a set of anticipations and expectations - will dissipate and we can suddenly find we are able to take a fresh angle.

    So I acknowledge there is that aspect of the creative process. It is well studied. But again, real insights happen only in prepared ground. First comes the sweat of rousing a wide range of knowledge (a bunch of candidate knowns) and then can follow the inspiration, the sharp sorting of this candidate knowledge into some new arrangement when one prior set of constraints has been relaxed enough to allow some new set to develop in their place.
  19. Sep 20, 2012 #18


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    It seems reasonable that for the truth seeker, wisdom must include knowing when you do not really know something. I do not know anything about Philosophy, but in practice a meticulous humility seems characterisitc of many scientists and other types of investigators.
    Clearing the mind of appearances and assumptions can enable insight while presumptions and acceptance of apparent truth can prevent it. Further, Nature is always ready to surprise us and bring our best beliefs into question. Perhaps this is what is meant by wisdom through humility. Some scientists that I know personally never think they know anything but only feel that they are forming hypotheses that better approximate the truth.

    As far as belief goes, it would seems wise to see that belief is merely that, belief.
  20. Sep 20, 2012 #19


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    Following lavinia's comment, the great thing about nature is that provides so much stimuli that all we really have to do is pay attention.

    It's not like we are short of anything where we need to really go out of our way to get clues or data: it's all there and anyone that wants to pay attention will find out something.
  21. Sep 21, 2012 #20
    I don't know how I could make it any more clear. This is an ordinary language philosophy and ordinary language does not define ignorance according to triadic logic.

    Not quite in agreement here. Models can be purely descriptive and not provide any causal structure.

    Meaning isn't just framed by context, but can also be perceived to be created by context and which you perceive it to be, again, depends on the context.

    Ignorance counts as information, but it is our awareness and acceptance of that ignorance that makes it meaningful. A computer has information, but it isn't demonstrably meaningful to the computer.

    It's nice to have your own ideas, but it isn't an ordinary language interpretation so it has nothing to do with my philosophy.

    Wisdom is commonly defined as both knowledge and sagacity and my philosophy covers both by describing wisdom as the result of acceptance of our ignorance. It is simultaneously an intellectual and emotional achievement and, thus, both crisp and vague. We have crisp data and vague feelings and you can't have knowledge or sagacity without having both.

    This completely ignores the central theme of what I wrote which is acceptance of our awareness.

    No, it's about accepting our awareness. What some might compare to religious or psychological surrender, but in this case it is acceptance of our awareness of our ignorance.

    Not just the creative process, but the work of people like Antonio Damasio which strongly implies we need both emotions and intellect to have any real self-awareness or knowledge. Without it we are little better than walking automatons. How a triadic logic might apply or even if it is applicable at all I haven't a clue and I don't feel it necessary to know to continue to work on this model.
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