Monday, April 10, 2017

The Virtues of Knowledge

The Virtues of Knowledge
Anderson Brown

          We are experiencing a collective epistemological crisis.  Meritocratic ideals, the culture of professionalism, the ideal of journalistic responsibility and the legitimacy of the scientific enterprise are all called into question.  There are always critical voices challenging complacency, corruption and superficiality in our epistemic norms and that is right and proper.  And there is a long philosophical tradition of epistemology, or the study of knowledge, dating back in the European tradition to the ancient Greeks, and a great variety of attitudes towards the concepts of “belief,” “knowledge” and “truth” can be found in that tradition as the centuries have passed and cultural and political circumstances have arisen and fallen away. But from time to time the nihilistic impulse gains enough momentum that the dangers that would be posed by a general collapse of epistemic norms become clear.  Times such as ours call for reflection on our concepts of “knowledge” and “truth” and on the commitments these concepts entail and the values they reflect. 
          The current wave of skepticism in our public discourse is part of a larger wave of reactionary populism driven by a sense of alienation from and distrust of professional elites by a significant faction of the population.  This is, at least so far, more sinister as a political phenomenon than as an epistemological one.  Reactionary populists and opportunistic plutocrats are fomenting confusion and mistrust in pursuit of power and money.  The tyrant and the pirates try to overcome authority by subverting authority.  This created crisis does not, at least not yet, amount to a society-wide collapse of epistemic norms.  The scientific community, for example, feels under attack but the center is holding. The situation of the media is, unfortunately, more interesting, but enormous technological changes are another complicated factor, one beyond anyone’s control.  We are not (yet) witnessing the end of civilization as we know it.  Nonetheless the potential dangers of nihilistic skepticism are greater than usual.
          We typically find philosophers working on the epistemology of ethics: What kind of thinking is ethical thinking?  Are there moral facts?  How are moral prescriptions justified?  And so on.  But now we need to spend some time working in the other direction: What can we say about the ethics of epistemology?  What can we say about our duties as believing beings?  What are the epistemic virtues?  The meta-ethical/epistemological question is this: is knowledge valuable for its own sake?  Affirming the intrinsic value of knowledge both grounds the normative discussion of the epistemic virtues and sheds new light on that topic.
          There is a global skeptical objection that should be dispensed with at the outset.  Global skepticism is the view that knowledge is not possible.  Global skepticism can be motivated in a variety of ways, some more interesting than others, but asserting that there is no such thing as knowledge is much like asserting that there is no such thing as ethics in the sense that we spend a great deal of our daily lives trying to determine what is true and what is right and no amount of philosophizing, nihilistic or otherwise, is ever going to change that.  If the skeptic prohibits our conventional use of the words “knowledge” and “ethics” then we will just have to use new words, say “schmoledge” and “schmethics,” because it is in our quotidian, day-to-day, pre-reflective world where ethics and epistemology press themselves on us in an inescapable, existential way.  It is in this world of ordinary life that the bipolarities of right and wrong and truth and falsity are givens, not constructs.  So, as the character Garcin says at the end of Jean-Paul Sartre’s play No Exit, “let’s get on with it.”
          We want to think about the intrinsic value of knowledge as distinct from its instrumental value.  We can sharpen this distinction with some analysis of the concept of “knowledge.”  It might seem obvious that knowledge is true belief, but one can come to have a true belief by accident, say, or perhaps even randomly.  For a belief to be knowledge – for us to be able legitimately to say “I know it” – a belief needs, somehow, to be grounded or connected to the external environment, and this connection needs to be causal.  These causal connections with the world are what make a belief justified.  Think of a causal chain that starts with a real entity, event, property or process of or in the world and ends with the formation of a belief.  Links in this chain can include sensory perception, memory, introspection, logical and mathematical cognition, testimony and links further downstream, notably inference and coherence.  We can refine our concept of knowledge as justified true belief: belief that is produced by reliable connections with the world.
          However, as the philosopher Edmund Gettier famously pointed out, justified true belief may not be enough to constitute knowledge.  It is not hard to invent counterfactuals that show this.  Say I have a friend and confidant who is the most reliable source of testimony in my life.  She has told me countless things over the years, she has never lied to me and everything she has ever told me has been true.  She tells me something yet again: this time, she tells me that “P.”  As always, what she tells me is true, and I believe her.  I now have a justified true belief.  But this time, for whatever reason, my friend is lying to me.  She doesn’t believe that P, but she wants me to believe what she thinks is a falsehood.  Only it is she who is mistaken, and P is in fact true.  It doesn’t appear that I know that P (does it?), even though I have a justified true belief that P.  If we followed the causal chain from my belief back towards its’ anchor in reality we would find the lie: the causal chain has a broken link.  We have refined our concept of knowledge further: knowledge is a causally grounded justified true belief.
          Now we can examine our intuitions about the intrinsic value of knowledge.  Let’s sharpen the question with a counterfactual that appears more trivial (more connotatively neutral) than the first one but that makes the same point: a newspaper reporter observes that P with his own eyes.  He reports to his newspaper the (true) fact that P.  The paper publishes the story but at the printers there is a typo and the sentence is printed that not-P.  I read the story over my morning coffee but (perhaps because I already suspect that P is true) I miss the typo.  I understand the story to be asserting that P.  Once again I have a justified true belief but again it’s not causally grounded.  If a friend asked, “Where did you read that?” and I handed him the paper he could look at the article and notice that it read “not-P.”
           What do you feel?  Do you value knowledge for its own sake?  Do you feel that it is regrettable when your justified true belief is not causally grounded, even when you don’t know that it is not, even when you never will know that it is not?  I cannot dictate other people’s intuitions, but my intuition is strong: I prefer genuine knowledge.  I want to know, not just truly believe.  Why is this?  To use a big word from ethical theory, it feels deontological: it feels like I have, somehow, a duty to prefer knowledge.  It also seems that ethics and epistemology are closely related at this “meta” level: my sense of a duty to know feels closely related to my sense of a duty to be good, and to the degree that I feel these duties I also believe that other people should and (normally) do feel them as well.  It is significant that these feelings are what philosophers call “non-cognitive”: they do not appear to be the products of logical chains of thought (remember we are putting to the side our instrumental or pragmatic reasons for desiring to know and to be good, in order that we might consider their intrinsic value).  They are, instead, intuitions, intuitions that I think most people share.
          In fact, it appears that these impulses run deeper than duties.  A duty is something I might have without knowing it, something I might have to learn.  But while my childhood caregivers taught me and the less-forgiving real world continues to teach me about specific epistemic and ethical virtues (be diligent about finding good sources, always tell the truth) the underlying impulses to goodness and truth per se are innate sentiments that must already be present if the derivative virtues are to be cultivated and sustained.  In Plato’s dialogue Theatetus Socrates confronts defenders of several varieties of relativism.  He asks why, if the relativists believe that false belief is not possible, are they arguing about anything at all?  In seeking the epistemological truth through argument, they are refuting their own premise that truth is not something that can be found.  Socrates’ claim is that it is essential human nature to seek the truth and to love the truth.  His definition of “philosophy” (which word in the 4th century BCE referred to knowledge production and intellectual activity in general: the love of Sophia, goddess of wisdom) is the discipline of trying to determine what one believes to be true and, having determined that, of stating these beliefs as clearly and courageously as possible (Plato absorbed his teacher Socrates’ message that philosophy must not distinguish the personal from the political: the love of truth is a social virtue as humans are social animals).  This activity is not specialized; it is the essential activity that defines the human being.  Philosophy defined this way, Socrates wants us to understand, is nothing less than human life itself.
          Classical philosophy had much broader aims – and readership – than contemporary philosophy which is one specialized discipline among others.  Classical philosophy was conceived as an investigation into what it was to live a good life and how the goal of living a good life might be pursued.  This investigation necessarily included a concentrated focus on human nature, human virtues and human failings.  Whereas modern ethical philosophy centers judgement on the motives and consequences of discrete actions, classical ethics centers judgement on the whole person and the life that person is living.  We call this approach to ethics “virtue ethics” and over the past fifty years or so this approach has enjoyed a revival, co-existing today with “rights” theories (that center judgements on motives) and “consequentialist” theories (that center judgements on outcomes).  Over the past twenty years or so virtue theory has spawned another area of philosophical work known as “virtue epistemology,” a small but quite vital literature that, as the name indicates, attempts to delineate the epistemic virtues in a normative spirit.
          Plato, like most classical writers, is clearly a virtue theorist at the normative level (in his case rationality, discipline and sobriety are the three virtues that correspond to the three respective parts of the soul).  But the foremost classical avatar of virtue theory is undoubtedly Aristotle.  With Aristotle as our guide we can develop the present theme of the connection between the “meta” argument for the intrinsic value of knowledge and the normative project of delineating the epistemic virtues.
          On Aristotle’s view all human virtues are useful virtues in that all human virtues function as part of the realization of a flourishing human being.  It is true that Aristotle, the great categorizer, goes on to distinguish among several groups of virtues notably including what he called the “intellectual” virtues and what he called the “practical” virtues, but this is not to isolate any one group of virtues as essential relative to the rest (Aristotle, like Plato before him, considers rationality to be the essential property that defines the human being).  For Aristotle being “good” is being an exemplification of a flourishing member of one’s natural kind (roughly, one’s species): a good horse, a good songbird and a good human will each have their own constitution of virtues.  Virtues are potentialities that can contribute to the ultimate actuality which is the realization of one’s nature (the state of eudaimonia, a word usually translated somewhat inadequately as “happiness.”  A better word might be the more Stoic “satisfaction”).  Virtuous behavior is behavior that serves to convert potential virtue into actual virtue (virtue realized through action).  A key Aristotelean concept is phronesis, the synthesis of thought (theory) and action (practice): goodness is not a static property of a person, rather it is realized at all and only those times that virtuous potentiality is converted to virtuous actuality.  On this view to say of someone that they are a good person is to say that they are consistently realizing eudaimonia through phronesis.
            We now have the conceptual tools to explain the innate desire to be good (and to know the truth) that runs deeper than normative duty: prior to deontology (the study of duty) is teleology, the study of the function of a thing, in the case of a living being the study of the realization of that organism.  To be fulfilled as a human being is to realize one’s telos.  Understanding Aristotle’s virtue theory this way we can go on to make some further observations about the relationship between virtue epistemology’s normative project and the intrinsic value of knowledge.
          Aristotle makes no distinction between qualitative virtues (“That’s a good knife,” “That’s a bad refrigerator”) and moral virtues (“She’s honest,” “He’s intemperate”).  Any potential to realize human fulfillment is virtuous, such that the sense of “virtuous” broadens out from our contemporary sense of “ethical” to something closer to our sense of “biological.”  Strong and healthy stand side by side with honest and temperate (this is what fascinated the existentialist Nietzsche about ancient Greek ethics).  It is enough that a quality that characterizes a flourishing human being is present as a potential that can be cultivated.  The reason that virtues are valuable is simply that oneself is valuable: choosing to live is more than merely choosing not to die.  (This suggests an interesting discussion of the moral status of suicide that could be developed further: the suicide could be said to have opted out of the normative discussion altogether, if prescriptions are only coherent in the context of the choice to live.  That sets an interesting limit on our warrant to characterize suicide as morally transgressive.  But this is a digression just now.)  If there is any “duty” prior to ethical and epistemic duties it is the duty to live, “living” understood as the project of realizing one’s telos as best one can.  All virtues have equal standing, as the realization of each one is intrinsic to whatever degree of fulfillment one manages to attain.
            Virtue epistemology is conventionally divided into two areas, the respective territories of the “reliabilists” and the “responsibilists.”  The reliabilists focus on virtues that contribute to occurrent justification (the justification provided by immediate experience and thought) such as sensory acuity, logical acuity, memory and attentive focus.  We might call these “cognitive” virtues.  Responsibilists focus on dispositional virtues that are conducive to knowledge production in the long run such as curiosity, impartiality, open-mindedness and responsibility.  We might call these “character” virtues.  Any number of commentators have pointed out that these two projects are in no way mutually exclusive, but with Aristotle’s teleological approach in mind we can make two further observations that might expand the discussion in salutary ways.
          First, because virtue epistemology is a normative enterprise, any virtue that is cultivable presents an epistemic prescription: right conduct is meeting the ongoing challenge of turning our potentialities into actualities.  This prescription extends with equal force across both the cognitive and the character virtues: I can correct my nearsightedness with lenses, I can take steps to correct for my implicit biases (say by adopting a “blind” protocol when grading student papers), I can practice memory-enhancing exercises, I can expose myself through travel to other cultures to increase my open-mindedness and so on.  Considered as epistemic normative prescriptions these all carry equal weight.  A question suggests itself as to how far one can reasonably be expected to self-improve. (Here we should remind ourselves of Aristotle’s insistence on moderation in all things lest this mischaracterizes him as unreasonably demanding.)  For example, are we under some obligation to exercise our memories? All other things being equal, it looks like the short answer is yes, we are, if we accept that our nature as believing beings entails a normative obligation to strive to be knowers. 
          Which brings us to the second point: granting that for Aristotle the ongoing actualization of potentialities is the definition of human life itself, this definition dissolves any difference between any virtues at all when considered as grounding normative prescriptions.  The overall project of Aristotelean virtue theory is neither specifically “ethical” nor “epistemological.”  As I said above I think the best word to capture Aristotle’s sense of virtue is a very broadly understood “biological.” (This is a fine example of Aristotle’s fundamental ontological difference with Plato: for Aristotle primary being is the unity of form and matter, a kind of non-reductive materialism, as opposed to Plato’s dualistic ontology of form and matter.  Thus, for Aristotle virtue is only present in action.)  So not only is there no coherent distinction between the cognitive virtues of the reliabilists and the character virtues of the responsibilists when these respective catalogs of virtues are used to generate normative prescriptions, but there is also no coherent distinction between whatever virtues any virtue epistemologist or virtue ethicist might choose to enumerate and any other human potentialities, normatively speaking. 
Normative prescriptions of any kind necessarily presume that we have chosen in the first place to live.  Life itself is the process of actualizing our potentialities and this encompasses all possible exercise and improvement of the body and the mind.  Plato opposed the Manichean idea that evil existed as an antipode to good.  He understood evil as (merely) the absence of good, and so he insisted that no one who truly knew the good could act wrongly.  In the same way to exist as a believing being, but without the love of truth, is in a sense an impossibility, something inconceivable, incoherent.  Underlying the motivation to love goodness and truth is the necessary, encompassing love of life.  To fail to love ourselves in this way (perhaps this is to fail to have the virtue of dignity?) is to fail to truly live.

The counterfactual involving the typographic error is owing to Alvin Goldman (Goldman 1967).

Bibliography of Virtue Epistemology
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Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Trump is Clueless About the Second Amendment and Constitutional Law

   Another day, another outrage.  Yesterday Donald Trump made some remarks that sounded a lot like previous right wing calls for "Second Amendment solutions," that is, suggestions that conservatives should resort to political violence against their enemies.  This rhetoric is, in fact, common enough among today's right wing that it is difficult to credit Trump's defenders' claims that the candidate meant something else or was "just kidding," as if he hadn't been thinking of this popular extremist trope in the first place (and of the fact that his audience would love it).  In fact the only line of defense with even a pretense of credibility is that Trump has to keep saying outrageous things because that's what's got him where he is and if he stopped the whole thing would run out of gas.  That might very well be true.

   But the "Second Amendment solution" gaffe isn't the only thing about Trump's stand on gun rights/gun control that ought to give us pause about the Republican candidate's competence for the office of the Presidency.  The Republican nominee appears to have not even a high school civics class understanding of 1) the centuries-old debate about interpreting the 2A or 2) the larger context of the relationship between the Constitution (including the 2A) and the Judiciary (broadly understood as "constitutional law").  Let's take a look at these two respective topics, and Mr. Trump's less than amateurish take on them (I'm an amateur in this department; Trump is, to use a put-down made famous by the physicist Wolfgang Pauli, not even wrong).

   1) Second Amendment interpretation.  The 2A states, in its entirety, "A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed."  A sentence consisting of two simple clauses, but two clauses that are not necessarily consistent in their meaning or implications, the 2A has been the subject of literally thousands of judicial interpretations, as it is the institutional touchstone of decisions determining the constitutionality, or lack thereof, of all local, state, and federal laws, legal rulings and legislation regarding the purchase, possession and use of firearms.

   It's easy to see why the original intention of the 2A is vexingly opaque.  If it just said "The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed" that would be relatively straightforward, although still problematic as to the scope of "arms."  Not all conservatives would be inclined to accept that this includes the right of private citizens to maintain their own private nuclear bombs, after all, or fleets of combat helicopters, although some would (and do).

   But the 2A isn't just that phrase.  That phrase is preceded by a phrase that is clearly meant to function as the framers' argument for prohibiting the infringement of the right of the people to keep and bear arms, namely that  "a well regulated militia (is) necessary to the security of a free state."  That is, in the absence of a "well regulated militia" there is no justification (offered in the Constitution, that is) for any right of private citizens to keep and bear arms at all.  At least, so a politically liberal interpreter like me would read the amendment.  And while both sensible conservatives and liberals alike are naturally going to gravitate towards common sense positions like "sports rifles yes, artillery no," no such pragmatic consensus currently exists.  Instead there is a fierce debate that rages in the face of a serious national problem with gun violence.

   But the present topic is not this all-too-familiar one about the 2A and gun rights/gun control.  My topic today is Mr. Trump's grasp of all, or any, of this.  Trump appears to believe that the 2A is universally accepted as establishing the right of private citizens to possess firearms: he appears to be unaware of the whole venerable debate.  In his latest book Crippled America: How to Make America Great Again (November 2015) Trump gives us his "positions" on a number of major policy issues. On gun control he simply quotes the 2A in full and adds one word: "Period."  He maintains that Clinton wants to "overturn the Second Amendment" which goal is not and never has been any part of her (or the Democratic Party's) platform.  What liberal Democrats like Clinton and I contend is that gun control measures are not, as such, unconstitutional under the 2A.  Which brings me to:

2) Trump is shockingly clueless about constitutional law.  This is actually worse, I think, than Trump's mistaken belief that the 2A definitively establishes the right of private citizens to possess firearms because in this case his ignorance extends to our entire system of governance. "Hillary wants to abolish -- essentially abolish the Second Amendment," Trump told the rally on Tuesday, adding, "By the way, if she gets to pick, if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks."  He appears to believe that judges can rule on the constitutionality of the...Constitution.  Well, no.  Under our system of government the legislative branch can enact laws, and the legislature and the state legislatures acting in tandem can amend the Constitution.  The function of the judiciary (as regards the Constitution) is to rule on the constitutionality of laws and legal decisions through Constitutional interpretation.  The Constitution itself is the Hobbesian formal "sovereign" under which these rulings occur: it is not itself subject to judicial authority.  That relationship goes the other way around.  And although that basic fact may not be crystal clear to every blessed soul it certainly is to every constitutional scholar, judge, lawyer, legislator and 10th grade social studies student in this country.  Trump, not so much.      


Friday, July 15, 2016

The Sanders Supporters' Blind Spot on Race

   Two days after Bernie Sanders' endorsement of Hillary Clinton, now is a time to show respect for Sanders supporters including respect for their autonomy and self-determination as voters.  But we have also arrived at a teaching moment when it is dangerous to let important things go unsaid.   During the primary season I noticed something about many of my facebook/twitter Sanders-supporting friends that puzzled me.  I see social media as a means of knowledge production: my questions are more often sincere than rhetorical.  On the occasion of the California Democratic primary vote on July 7 I posed an honest question in response to some of the Sanders supporters' rhetoric: Why did black voters stick so overwhelmingly with Clinton throughout the primaries, effectively determining that Clinton would be the nominee with their vote in California?   The response to that post from some Sanders-supporting friends was startling and illuminating, and after a week of reflection I'm convinced that there is an issue here of great importance.  My intent is neither to shame nor to provoke but rather to have a substantial conversation.

   One friend, a member of my academic network (all of the three examples here are highly educated people), argued that black voters had not had time to discover Sanders because blacks were less educated than whites and had less access to social media because they owned fewer laptops, smartphones and so on.  Needless to say he was immediately pounced on for what seems a patently racist line of thought.  I got pretty testy with him myself.  Later on he was still aggrieved, still maintaining that "blacks are less educated" was a reasonable explanation of why they stayed loyal to Clinton.

   Black voters stayed loyal to Clinton throughout all of the primaries, but let's take a look at the black community in California.  California has a long history of black radicalism and has been a center of activism since well before the civil rights movement of the 50s-60s.  From East Los Angeles to Oakland the black political community has a long history of upheaval and struggle.  As a result of this history and because the Democratic Party must retain the loyalty of urban black voters there exists today a powerful network of black churches, communities and politicians who inform and mobilize the black vote.  On June 7 these black voters gave Clinton a 55% victory in California.  Also Clinton won by an average of 15 percentage points in every single congressional district where Latinos make up at least 40 percent of eligible voters  So, yes, it is unacceptably obtuse but also disrespectful to dismiss the support of black voters for Clinton as a result of their not having enough i-phones.

   Stranger still was the Sanders-supporting friend, this time a fellow alumnus of my college, who read the Clinton victory as evidence that California was "racist."  This was a younger woman very devoted to the identity politics of these days (she said she was a "latinx").  As a defender of the oppressed she was quite affronted when I pointed out that her view of the election was quite literally the opposite of the truth.  That simply could not be.

   No, she went on her merry (actually kind of rageful) way, dismissing facts that contradicted her meticulously constructed self-projection.  My academic friend had invalidated black support for Clinton, but this friend had to deny that the actual behavior of black voters, and the effects of that behavior (voters of color in California effectively decided that Clinton will be the next President of the United States on July 7) even existed.  There was no room for the (actual) black voters in her (imaginary) political universe.

   Then there was the third and final friend, another fellow alumni, who was in a self-congratulatory mood after the California primary.  It was a moment, he said, when he could feel "proud to be a white man," as white men were the only group of California Democratic primary voters who had given a majority of their votes to Sanders.

   Ahem.  The last time white males voted in the majority for the Democratic Party presidential nominee was for Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Meanwhile the Democratic Party has won the popular vote in five out of the past six elections.  Along with blacks and Latinos, the sizable support for Democratic Party candidates from women is the key to Democratic Party wins.  It's true that white male Democrats are responsible for several of Clinton's primary defeats, notably in Michigan.  But that is not some salutary example of white men voting progressively, as my friend let himself think.  That's just white men voting the way white men do.

   There is a larger lesson in all of this.  I want to discuss a remark made by Joe Walsh the notorious former Republican congressman turned right-wing talk show host.  Mr. Walsh most recently got attention after the tragic shootings in Dallas when he tweeted "Watch out Obama and Black Lives Matter thugs.  Real America is coming after you."  I can't resist also reminding readers that Mr. Walsh was sued by his ex-wife for failing to pay $117,000 in child support.   He blamed the bad economy for his failure to support his own children.  One guess who he blamed for the bad economy.

   But I digress.  I want to talk about a statement Joe Walsh made on June 26, when he tweeted "The single greatest act of racism in American history was the election of Barack Obama."  (Pause to let the ghastliness of that remark sink in.)  Of course the point is meant to be that people voted for Obama solely based on his race.  True, black voters gave Obama 95% of their vote in 2008 and 93% of their vote in 2012 and that vote was no doubt sweeter to make on account of Obama's own blackness, for them and for quite a few of the rest of us too.  But black voters gave the Southern centrist Al Gore 90% of their votes in 2000 and John Kerry, one of the whitest rich white dudes you're ever likely to see, 88% of their votes in 2004.  Bill Clinton (whatever he is) garnered north of 80% of their votes in his two elections as well and there is every reason to think they will do the same for his wife.

   Why?  Because the black electorate is loyal to the Democratic Party.  That hasn't been an easy thing for them.  Jesse Jackson called the Party out for unfulfilled promises in 1988 to historic effect.  But that community knows that coalition politics is the only way forward for disenfranchised people.  Jackson didn't organize all the black voters, he organized "all the little fish."  He was a black champion but he understood that his campaign was a phenomenon within the Democratic Party.  He had no intention of bolting, and neither does Sanders.  Party politics is all about solidarity.   Black voters don't get to go back to Vermont.  "If the people will lead, the leaders will follow" is NOT compatible with "Compromise is a sell-out." If the black electorate had its own party not only would they not win national races, they would also help to cement in the rule of a minority right-wing.

   During one thread exchange with Sanders supporters I said "Politics is hard."  I thought we had enough mutual understanding that they would understand that we have to make sacrifices and compromises in politics: politics is hard emotionally.  But that's not how they took it.  They thought I was calling them stupid.