Blog Closing Announcement

In a week I will be deleting my facebook and blog. I have come to the conclusion that I am prone to a life of questions regarding my faith, and that there is a way for me to be a Christian and a member of the Catholic Church while I still seek to find wisdom with regard to those questions. But for me this journey is not well complimented by blogging or facebook. There is too much of a temptation for me to voice my doubts through the medium of blogging and facebook, when in reality such things should be worked through in the context of prayer, confession, and a patient exploration of the truth.

I have very much enjoyed my friendships that I have made on facebook and my blog. I have learned a great deal from many of you in various respects. I tried most of the time to be a patient and sincere person. But I apologize for the times when I was mean spirited or intentionally provocative, when I was concerned with making myself look good as opposed to submitting myself to the truth. And most of all, I am sorry for the offense I have caused to the gospel of the Lord Jesus. I cannot in any way consider myself a virtuous Christian. I recognize that I have been a scandalous individual, and that my propensity towards doubt has resulted in a pattern of scandal. I seems wiser to wrestle with my doubts in the right contexts, which for me will include a small group of wise Catholic people.

For those who, like me, have fallen away from the Lord, I would recommend that you not think that the die has been cast. Follow the truth even if it leads you to repentance. However difficult it is to face the music and admit that we committed great sin, it is worth it to be forgiven and restored to the side of Christ. For those who are contemplating a turn away from Christ, I would advise against it as a dead end. The road to the ultimate truths gets narrower and narrower the more we open ourselves to being as reasonable as possible. Ultimately, that road must lead us to Christ or to some eventual dead end. Wise people learn from reason, whereas unwise people (like myself) have had to learn the more painful way, through experiencing the dead ends personally and existentially.

Sincerely,

Doug

Movies, Television, and Self-Cultivation

Ang Lee, one of my favorite directors

My reading of Confucius has me pondering the role of movies in the task of self-cultivation. It seems that Confucius places a great amount of stress on literature and music as a means to self-cultivation. And it is worth pondering whether movies or television might indeed have the same function.

One of my friends claimed that television cannot do what great literature can do when it comes to self-cultivation. His reason for this assessment was based on the structure of television shows. He thought that there was something problematic way in which television unfolded when contrasted with books.

My own opinion, however, is that television and movies both have a role to play in the life of self-cultivation. Good art imitates life and raises questions about life. Television and film have the capacity to do this. What we often lack is the ability to rightly watch television and movies, as well as the wisdom to select the right television shows and movies to watch.

Confucian Self-Cultivation: The Requirement of Devotion to Antiquity

My reading of Confucius has left me with a distinct impression of that man. He was interested in being a human being and helping others to also live whole human lives. To what extent he was right is worthy of debate. But if Confucius was right about what it means to be a well-cultivated human being, then there immediately arise some problems for people from the United States

One of key aspects of Confucius’s philosophy, as I understand it, is that a well ordered human being will be devoted to antiquity. The obstacles to this type of self-cultivation are many.

First, the United States is relatively young, which means that there isn’t a robust sense of antiquity in our country. Second, those who self-consciously devote themselves to the United States and its traditions can be considered nationalists or jingoists. Furthermore, the history of the United States is so intermixed with horrendous evils (i.e. Slavery, the treatment of Native Americans, etc.) that it is not very clear how one can have a devotion to the United States and its traditions..

I am inclined to think that Confucius was indeed right, that self-cultivation requires us to understand ourselves in light of a tradition with a past and a future. We study and devote ourselves to the past in order to live good lives in the present. Such self-work is done for the sake of contributing the the future betterment of our society and world. But how can a person from the United States devote themselves to antiquity?

My opinion is this: I think this type of devotion to the past requires prudence. Devotion to antiquity will differ for each individual depending on their unique circumstances. We are a diverse country. We do not all share the same experiences nor do we have exactly the same traditions. That said, we can learn from Confucius a valuable lesson in self-cultivation. We must exercise wisdom in selecting those great texts and traditions from the past and forming ourselves by them. This might include for some people cultivating a deep knowledge of the Western tradition. For others it might mean cultivating themselves in light of their religious tradition.

If I understand Confucius rightly, then we cultivate ourselves in particular traditions in order to be more benevolent to our families, our societies, and indeed to all life. Many in the West today think that being a humanist requires us to throw off devotion to our parochial traditions so that we might just consider ourselves “human beings.” But I think Confucius has a more realistic picture of humanity. In order to be full and complete people, we must be rooted in particular traditions, rituals, and forms of life. By cultivating ourselves in such a way, we ironically put firm ground beneath our feet in order to walk the path of genuine humanitarianism.

People in the United States might never be able to be as completely human as people in China, however, because there might be too much of a disjunction between our devotion to our traditions and our devotion to our country. In China (particularly eastern China), the traditions seem to have the potential for greater unification – for greater harmony between the traditions and rituals of family, region, and country. But for those living in the United States, there still seems to be great value in learning to cultivate ourselves in truly human ways advocated by Confucius, such as devotion to the past. I do not know whether a Westerner can truly be a Confucian, nor am I sure that it would be best for me to be one if it were possible, but I do think that Confucius was right about the relationship between self-cultivation and devotion to antiquity.

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Picture Credit: http://history.cultural-china.com/chinaWH/upload/upfiles/2009-04/30/on_study_by_confuciuse5bd134a6e52e6bb993a.jpg

The Awakened Ape Parable

Imagine a community of primitive apes that existed prior to Homo Sapiens (i.e. before humans). They have a basic form of speech, and are organized into a type of society. They are at war with other apes that are more or less equivalent to them in intelligence and ability. Of the apes in this community, there are three of them that try to give wisdom to the others.

The first ape tells the others (in a primitive way) to love their own community, and to be suspicious of the apes in the other communities.

The second ape tells the others (in a primitive way) to love every community of apes equally.

The third ape tells the others (in a primitive way) that the path into wisdom requires a long and patient journey, a journey to find the ways in which the first and second ape are both right and wrong.

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Photo Credit: http://images.nationalgeographic.com/wpf/media-live/photos/000/601/cache/neanderthal-genome_60159_990x742.jpg

The Human Being and the Need for Rootedness

Are there fundamental human needs? We might speak of the minimal needs of food and shelter. But what of other needs, like the need of love or respect? These also seem to be needs for human beings, things that make us whole and complete. I would like to focus upon another possible need: rootedness.

What is the definition of rootedness? Are we referring to an objective reality or a subjective feeling? Is it even appropriate to phrase the question in terms of an objective-subjective divide? It seems that any primary definition I give for rootedness will be infested with problems. So I am going to begin to define rootedness with respect to one of its possible contexts: mythology.

Human beings seem to relate to the world in a mythological way – not completely mythological, but at least mythological. They understand themselves in terms of stories. It is these stories that give the land its mythological meaning. Some pieces of land are considered of higher value than others. These pieces of land are either implicitly or explicitly conceived of as sacred (not sacred in the supernatural sense, necessarily, but “set apart” by some special meaning). Other pieces of land are associated with negative mythological qualities (the land where a tragedy happened, or the land where our “enemies” live, etc.). As such, our mythologies shape that land in a negative fashion. It seems to me that mythology is one of the main contexts in which “rootedness” emerges.

Human beings seem to have a need for mythology, a mythology that either gives them a sense of belonging to the land they are in or a sense of being exiled from a land to which they belong. They have a need to fit into a story or a tradition, one that gives a person the sense of belonging to a  “homeland.” Without this, one will have a difficult time finding “existential rest.”

When people do not sense that they fit into the story of the land at all, then this can leave such people feeling incomplete. As such, many will seek out rootedness in other lands, like for instance their ancestral homeland. Often times, however, this quest can end in a type of failure. They might find that they are not fully a part of the story of their current land or their ancestral homeland. And as such, they will not feel complete as human beings. They will lack that sense of wholeness that comes (in part) from rootedness. Even their traditions that make them feel “at home” will in some way remind them that they are without a home.

In further posts, I would like to explore the role of historiography in relationship to mythology, and its implications for the sense of rootedness. Also, I would like to raise the question of whether the story of biological evolution can indeed serve as a mythology of the land, a mythology that can enkindle the sense of rootedness.

On Being Bald

Men are often filled with some regret when they begin to lose their hair, and even more regret if they lose most of it. The reasons for this are manifold: people often treat men with male pattern baldness differently than they treat men with hair. One’s dating success will likely go down hill. For others the difficulty lies in something else: the losing of one’s identity. There are many responses to male pattern baldness. And many men thus stricken feel compelled to respond.

I have some advice for you. Whether you shave your head, whether you rub your head with hair growth chemicals, whether you get hair plugs, or whether you just sport the natural bald look with hair on the sides, no matter what you do: Amor Fati!

But how does one love his fate? In my view, the practice of philosophy is one way to overcome the sorts of insecurities that manifest themselves in numerous ways throughout our lives. No matter who we are, we all suffer from some sort of unhappiness with ourselves. And that is why we need a medication for such an affliction, the medication of wisdom. One drop of wisdom can go a long way in dissolving our unhappiness with our bodies and our appearance. Wisdom can direct us to a more perfect cultivation of ourselves.

Few of us care how the bottom of our feet look, at least when compared to other parts of our bodies. Wisdom helps us see that all of our bodily imperfections are small in comparison to the imperfections of our souls. And unlike the perfections of the body, the soul of any person can be improved dramatically, though this might take much time and pain. To love wisdom is to philosophize. And to possess wisdom is happiness.

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Picture Credit: http://www.phawker.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/ClowesHeadShot_1.jpg

The Regenerate Head Problem: A Hypothetical Problem for Some Models of Life After Death

I would like to do a thought experiment. Imagine that you have died of a heart attack. One day later some scientists came and severed your head from your body. They placed your head into a special preservation chamber, in the hopes that one day in the future they might find a way to bring you back to life. Years go by and the science is unsuccessful. It seems that there will never be the technology necessary to revitalize your dead head. But one day, an eccentric genius who only sleeps two hours a day comes up with a new method. He is successfully able to revitalize your head and transplant it onto a replica of your body that he has grown in his laboratory.

After the experiment is complete, you all of a sudden come to life. The process is so successful that none of your memory has been lost. You in many ways resemble the state of those who come out of a comma with their memories intact.

Now let us reflect on this thought experiment. It does not seem absurd to think that scientists in the future could accomplish an experiment of the sort described in the thought experiment. What does this suggest about life after death as it has been conceived by many? Some versions of reincarnation, for instance, suggest that there is a single self that reincarnates in many different lives. This particular version of reincarnation would seem difficult to square with the Regenerate Head Problem. Of course, I am not claiming that such a synthesis would be impossible. Other versions of reincarnation do not even have a tension with the Regenerate Head Problem, since they do not think there is a continuing self that reincarnates, only that the process in which we have our existence continues into some other impermanent form.

But what about other models of life after death, like the belief that the soul goes to heaven (or to be with God) after one dies? There are reports of those who have technically died on the operating table going to heaven for a bit and then returning to their bodies. Such a possibility has not historically seemed problematic to many. The greater problem seems to arise when we extend the period of death for many, many years, perhaps even 1,000. This problem is compounded further if one posits that hell is a real place that one might go upon death. Imagine that you go to hell after you die, but that 1,000 years later the scientists are able to regenerate you. This would seem to place a great deal of power in the hands of scientists, such that they have the power to snatch people from heaven or hell through the regularities of the scientific method.

Now there are many ways to square the Regenerate Head Problem with the belief that one goes to heaven or hell (or purgatory) upon death. One possible way of finding a synthesis is to focus in on the very concept of time. Obviously it seems hard to imagine that a person in hell, heaven, or purgatory could be brought back to life 1,000 years after he died. But we do not know what time might be like in heaven, hell, or purgatory. Perhaps those who briefly die and experience time in heaven with the same qualia in their sense of time-frame as those whose experience of death is much longer in terms of earth-years.

That said, perhaps some of the orthodox religions will have to rethink the question of what it means to be sentenced to hell, heaven, or purgatory in light of the possibility that future scientists could very well be able to revitalize the dead long after they have died. This might not be hard to do, considering that Christians have long confessed that the chief judgment of humanity occurs at the resurrection of the dead, rather than at the moment of death.

Gnostic and Agnostic Philosophers: A Partial List and Explanation

As we survey the history of philosophy, we can see many patterns. One of those patters is this: some philosophers claim to deliver knowledge concerning the fundamental problems of philosophy, while others claim to offer a way to live without such knowledge. Those who claim to have knowledge about the main problems of philosophy can be called Gnostic Philosophers, while those who claim to not have such knowledge can be called Agnostic Philosophers. Because every philosopher is open to numerous interpretations, I should admit that what follows is based on my own interpretation of these philosophers, which might indeed be wrong.

Gnostic Philosophers 

If you want to become a good philosopher, it is paramount that you study those philosophers who have made bold and detailed arguments concerning the nature of reality. In Western Philosophy, Aristotle and Kant seem to stand as the two greatest Gnostic Philosophers. Aristotle and Kant seemed to think that where others had failed to solve the problems of philosophy, they had succeeded. Of course, they had different ideas about what it meant to solve the problems of philosophy. For Kant, this meant drawing a definite line between what we can and cannot know, and then explaining why the line is as it is. Nevertheless, he seems to think his system of philosophy gives a basically true and final way to approach the problems of philosophy.

Agnostic Philosophers 

If you only read the Agnostic Philosophers (i.e. philosophers who claim to not have knowledge about the fundamental problems of philosophy), you won’t be as good of a philosopher. And that is because all of the Agnostic Philosophers presuppose a thorough grounding in the Gnostic form of philosophy. To read Nietzsche, for instance, without reading Aristotle and Kant first will not make you a good philosopher. To be a master philosopher in the Agnostic sense, one needs to be well grounded in the Gnostic philosophers.

Agnostic Philosophers don’t claim to have knowledge concerning the problems of philosophy. Instead, Agnostic Philosophers offer a way to live in light of it being highly unlikely that any answers to the problems of philosophy will be successful. In Western Philosophy, the foremost Agnostic Philosophers are Plato’s Socrates, Nietzsche, and the Pragmatists. We see, for instance, that Plato’s Socrates claims to be without knowledge, but his response to his Agnosticism is to search for knowledge. But Nietzsche offers a different way to live without knowledge: the aesthetic justification of life. Lastly, the Pragmatists claim that our ignorance of the highest truths should not hinder us from making the world a better place. Even if we don’t have a common apprehension of the highest truths, we can still make the world better through a different method, namely by finding out what works to stave off corruption and promote human flourishing.

When it comes to Chinese philosophy, it seems that Confucius falls into the Agnostic Philosopher camp. But Laozi is more of an enigma. He can very well be read as an Agnostic Philosopher, but he could also be viewed as a Gnostic Philosopher. The crucial question is whether he believed he had knowledge concerning limits of human knowledge concerning the Dao and its manifestations.

A Method for Studying in the Face of Fear and Depression

One of the biggest obstacles that many of us face is fear and depression. This is especially true with those who live the life of the mind. For that reason I would like to put forward a method that I have which may or may not work for those like me, those who sometimes find themselves unable to be as productive as they would like due to fear or depression. I will make this post brief and clear.

The Goal of this Method 

All methods are designed to overcome some obstacle. For many people, one of their biggest obstacles to being productive is fear and depression. This especially applies to the task of thinking, which requires a certain degree of mental strength. It is very difficult to think well about philosophy or theology while one is in a state of depression or fear. Of course, sometimes depression and fear can serve as wind in our sails, propelling us to find the remedy to our ailment. But much of the time such states of mind can be shackles that weigh us down. So the obstacle that this method is intended to overcome is psychological. The monster is our own self-defeating depression and fear. The goal of this method is not necessarily to slay this monster, which might never happen for those of us who are prone to melancholy. Rather, the goal of this method is to be productive despite the monster.

The Logic of this Method 

The reason why this method appears the way it does is to counteract certain types of thoughts that come into our minds. For instance, we are often defeated by the thought that we are not good enough, or that we have wasted the majority of the day and now it is too late to begin. We sometimes might think that the task is too daunting. Or we might get anxious and desire to do some other task or read some other book or think about some other topic, the result of which is an aimless day where our thoughts flow from one topic to another or one book to another without any real strategy.

The Features of this Method 

There are two basic features of this method: the way of being and the way of proceeding. Perhaps these two are in reality only one thing. But we can make distinction between them, at least, through an act of intellectual abstraction. The way of being refers to the way in which we comport ourselves to whatever task we are doing. It is a mindset. Great athletes will often say that what they do is overwhelmingly mental, by which they mean that one has to have a certain strength of mind in order to do what they do. The second feature of this method – the way of proceeding – is the best course of action one can take in order to avoid being eaten alive by the monster of fear and depression. There is a unity between the strength of mind that one must have and the manner in which one proceeds. Even most Buddhist monks who are masters at controlling their minds still have limits to the type of actions that they can perform without becoming overwhelmed. Perhaps some of them have no limits. And if we ever find ourselves achieving such mental strength, then we can throw away the training wheels of the “way of proceeding.”

The Way of Being 

A good preliminary framework (which can be further developed) consists of the following three steps.

  1. Speak to Yourself: As you study, give yourself positive reinforcement. Tell yourself that you can give effort for another five minutes. That this task is worthwhile. That you are right to think and study as you are doing.
  1. Control Your Breathing: The Buddhists have long known that intentional breathing is helpful in maintaining a calm and tranquil mode of being, of relieving anxiety, and of keeping you mindful of the present moment. Buddhists sometimes are disappointed that their techniques are used by capitalist CEO’s in order to compete better against their opponents. But we are not using these techniques for that reason. We are learning to control our breathing so that we can think in a more sober way about all of reality. Intentional breathing helps us not be overwhelmed in such a daunting task.
  1. Visualization: Every person needs exemplars. Think about a person (whether real or fictional) that exemplifies your highest aspirations. Imagine how such a person would do the task that you are about to do. Then imagine yourself doing the task as they would. This act of imagination should not necessarily take too much time. It can be done in 20 seconds or so. But as you do the task, self-consciously do the task as if you are walking in the footsteps of your exemplar, as if you are imitating their way of being. If you feel yourself to need no exemplar, then make your own ideal-self (i.e. the self that you want to become) to be the exemplar.

Way of Proceeding 

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The method of avoiding the paralyzing power of fear and depression is built on the two-set. A two-set is a to-do list that is composed of two tasks. The logic behind the two-set is that long to-do lists are daunting. Can you really finish a to-do list that has ten items on it? Perhaps you can psyche yourself up to do that. But you don’t need to psyche yourself up to do very minimal tasks. For instance, if you were told to stand up, that in itself would not be daunting for most fearful and depressed people. But imagine that the same fearful and depressed person was contemplating doing an exercise wherein they were to drop to the floor and stand up over and over again. Such a task might seem too daunting. But standing up once? That seems relatively easy for most. Likewise, a to-do list with two items on it is not really that daunting to the psychology of many of us, especially if each of those items on the list are bite-size in nature.

But why not put one thing on the to-do list? The reason for this is also psychological. If you put one thing on the to-do list, then there is a potential to become aimless. There should be some strategy to your reading, at least for most of you. The two-set is designed to allow for a balance of all your goals in thinking, namely your professional goals, your personal goals, and your pleasure-reading goals. If you have to read something that is simply drudgery, then put that in a two-set with something very pleasurable. This will enable you to counteract the psychological drudgery of one item with another.

That said, the two-set is balanced in favor of my energy level (if your energy level is different, then you can adjust accordingly). I need a small break after every hour of studying, if I want to study for the maximum amount possible. Because the tasks on the list are to be bite-sized, each item on the list should take you no more than thirty minutes. This means that a two-set should take you an hour. But don’t think of it this way. After all, you should only take on item on your list at a time. That said, the logic behind the two set is that you will not be able to keep rolling from one task to another without any breaks. You will have to determine the sweet-spot for your own breaks. If you are like me, then every hour there should be a little break.

Very important is that you immediately write down a new two-set the moment you complete your old one. Write it down before you take your break, so that you know exactly what you need to do when the break is over. Again, you are going into the break with a manageable goal to be accomplished when you return. Only two small bite-sized items!

Important, psychologically, to the two-set is not letting you mind make a longer set. That is, if you have two items on your paper to-do list, don’t make another to-do list in your mind, lest you  get overwhelmed and defeat the psychological benefit of the bite-sized chunks. You will most likely have an intuition of all that you will need to get done. Don’t allow your mind to drift onto that if indeed your biggest enemy is the paralyzing monster of fear and depression.

Now of course, as you are working on the two-set, your mind will start thinking about possible things to do when the two-set is over. They will pop into your mind. Do not decide what you will do, however, until after you complete the two set. And then right after you complete the two-set, make another to-do list that is comprised of two items. After you have written them down, then you speak to yourself as was mentioned above in the “way of being” section: are you telling me, Doug, that you can’t do these two items?

The second feature of the two-set is the bite-size nature of each task. Rarely if ever have a task on the to-do list that takes more than thirty minutes. I rarely make a goal of reading more (or less) than five pages at a time. The logic behind it is this question: “Doug, are you saying that you are too overwhelmed to read five pages?” Such a task doesn’t seem that daunting, even if I am really vexed in spirit.

Lastly, after you complete each item, rate yourself. I like to use a five star system. I write down next to the item on the to-do list my review. Sometimes I give myself two stars out of five, sometimes three and a half stars. This feature enables you to always remember that completing a task is not the only goal. You want to do the task well.

Bonus

There are other techniques that can be added to this list. One of which is to read five pages after every meal and reading one page after every time you go to the bathroom. But again, these techniques are supplements to the two-set, which is the staple.

The Groundedness Aura

I was watching a video today by one of my old professors in seminary. He is a wise man who is only about seven or so years older than I am. He is an evangelical, just as I once was. Watching him I am reminded of some of the Catholic theologians and priests I know. There is a state-of-being which they share, even though they have some very important differences in their theology. The thinker who is grounded in a religious tradition seems to be capable of a unique type of groundedness that is perhaps unavailable to the zetetic philosopher. And it seems that this groundedness lends a certain type of dialectical leverage to the religious thinker.

There is a pathos that is characteristic of people who are grounded in a religious tradition. These people have a type of moral self-assurance, a belief that they are right to believe what they believe. There is a rest, an at-homeness, a way-of-being that flows from their groundedness within their religious tradition.  It seems that such people might very well have some sort of dialectical leverage when they converse with a zetetic philosopher. This is in many ways due to the way that a zetetic philosopher relates to his own type of groundedness. All people are in some way grounded or rooted in some tradition or another. But the zetetic philosopher seems to relate to his groundedness in a different way, in a way that is unsatisfied in some regard, in a way without intellectual rest, in a way that is unsure and perhaps a bit self-critical. He always is open to the possibility that he could be wrong about the way he is living his life, that he might need to submit himself to the claims of this or that form of revelation.

Now not all philosophers are zetetic. Some like Voltaire might get triumphalistic in their disdain for revelation. But it seems once a philosopher becomes like Voltaire – triumphalistic in his non-religiousness – he devolves into an ironic form of dogmatism, something that in most cases will make him seem less moral. A zetetic  philosopher might enter a quasi-religious type of rest in his atheism or agnosticism, but such a way-of-being will not seem to have the type of aura or power of religious groundedness.  And this is because religious groundedness usually has some sort of revelation or something that functions like revelation. Groundeness and rest rely on some sort of trust in an epistemic authority, some authority that is bigger than oneself. When a thoughtful religious person has this type of trust, he can enter into  way-of-being that that exudes a powerful presence, particularly when such a person is dialoguing with the zetetic philosopher.

Religious groundedness seems to give the religious thinker a greater type of dialectical leverage than is proper to the zetetic philosopher. This of course does not apply in every case. Sometimes the religious person is obnoxious, even if he thinks well. There are other exceptions too. But there is a unique type of interaction that is natural when a true zetetic philosopher dialogues with a thoughtful person grounded in a religious tradition. The way-of-being of the thoughtful religious person seems to have a type of leverage that is naturally more powerful than that of the zetetic philosopher. Perhaps a better way of putting it is this: there is a level of groundedness that is possible within the context of religion that is not there for the zetetic philosopher.

How does one know when he or she is observing a person who has this religious groundedness? There is an aura that is given off, something that can’t be precisely captured in words. It manifests itself in the context of dialogue. We can call this the Groundedness Aura. Perhaps the Groundedness Aura is possible for a non-religious person. But it seems that there is a unique type of Groundedness Aura that is manifest in a thinker that is grounded in a religious tradition. A person who has this aura is not simply a person with a halo or a beaming face. It is a way-of-being that gives them a unique type of dialectical leverage.

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