The epistemology behind Second Acts

I’m currently reading: Francis A. Schaeffer: The God Who is There, Inter-Varsity Press, 1968. This article is a set of interesting citations from that work, with my comments. It turned out to be the first rather complete presentation of the epistemology behind the Second Acts project, but is still ordered by the order of the citations. No systematic presentation here yet, sorry. But enjoy the read anyway.

Young people from Christian homes are brought up in the old framework of truth. Then they are subjected to the modern framework. In time they become confused because they do not understand the alternatives with which they are being presented. Confusion becomes bewilderment, and before long they are overwhelmed. [p. 13]

If this is also an adequet description of the situation today, then the Second Acts project is the struggle to uphold the old concept of truth in this confusing situation. But not only the old concept, even to eliminate its weaknesses. Because the old concept of revealed antithetic truth is that this is no sound epistemology because revelation can be claimed. Truth always must be detectable, and if in addition to revelation.

What were these presuppositions [of the old concept of truth]? The basic one was that there really are such things as absolutes. They accepted the possibility of an absolute in the area of Being (or knowledge), and in the area of morals. […] So if anything was true, the opposite was false. […] Absolutes imply antithesis. [p. 14]

This is probably what Schaeffer will argue that we need to return to. By “absolutes” he seems to mean not God, but objective reality. So because objective reality includes things that “are”, it is false that they are not. To be or not to be is an absolute attribute of things. But: extending that basic statement of natural science to “the area of morals” is not necessarily something I want to see repeated. Dividing reality into “areas” shows a lack of understanding how these areas are connected, so that reality is ultimately one area. With only one type of absolutes. With respect to morals, there is no need to treat them as absolute, pre-existing “things”. Instead, it’s only needed to think of God as being “pre-existing”, because morals can be thought of “his will”. That will of God finds its expression also in the (God-created) fact that societies work (“are stable, and cause no harm or pain”) only if based on this will, which is basically the principle of mutual love.

So here, I see “morals” as just an abstraction, nothing that has an own existence. That is, I see atoms and information as the only entities of which objective reality is composed. (A spirit, in my view, is basically a self-referential information-based system, which might or might not incorporate atoms in the system. Such a system is also called a “person”. I will elaborate on that later.) The one upside of this thesis is, it offers a “continuum reality” incorporating both spirit and matter, but not as separate categories or realms, but heavily intertwined, e.g. in man. Of course this thesis has to be tested, e.g. by its claim that persons can be composed of matter and information, and because matter can serve as a substrate to store and process information, that persons can be fully implemented in matter. That claim could be verified by building a self-referential computer system that offers basic person-like attributes, like qualia.

The other upside of this thesis is a very simple definition for “truth”, without the need to distinguish conceptually between moral and ontologic truth: “Truth is adequate information about the objective reality.” Moral truth would be just a special case, no own category: “Moral truth is adequate information about the will of God, which is a piece of objective reality.”

Humanism in the inclusive sense is the system whereby man, beginning absolutely by himself, tries rationally to build out from himself, having only man as his integration point, to find all knowledge, meaning and value. […] So rationalism and humanism is the unity within non-Christian thought. [p. 17]

Schaeffer claims that humanism is the unity within non-Christian thought both in the old antithetic and the new sythetic approach to truth, but in different forms. In my view, there is a third way that’s not humanism and not the traditional Christian view of revealed truth. I assert that it is an alternative that is theoretically feasible but might be practically impossible because of man’s “quality”. That’s no problem however, as we’re dealing here with finding a sound epistemology, not necessary a practicable one. For the first step, it would be good news that there is such a thing, meaning that it is at least in theory possible to have justified knowledge.

Now what is this epistemic approach that I want to propose? Just as humanism, it starts with man. Because recognizing truth is, lastly, a process that must be done by each person individually and himself, meaning that it’s impossible to just copy the results over to somebody else. And because it’s a person that recognizes truth, it starts with the person. Recognizing truth (“forming adequate information about the world”) is the process by which a person makes sense of the world. This starts with recognizing ones own existence, as separate form the external world. That is, with recognizing man. Determining truth starts with the moment our brain started to work, as it received sensual information of the external world and starts to make sense of that.

This radical view that relates epistemology to individual history as a man is largely neglected, but necessary. Normally, Christians state that “all starts with God’s revelation”. But: this assumes persons who can receive revelation, meaning they can speak, think, and are capable of logic. How did they acquire these abilities, and assert all the information as “true” needed to acquire these? Because we cannot neglect this, the search for truth starts with man.

But then, in contrast to humanism, man is not the integration point. Because man can decompose himself into basic entities of the objective reality (atoms and information, see above). Therefore, the objective reality is the integration point. And as God is (in the sense of being, and at least from our modeling perspecive) “part of” that reality, meaning and value can be build out of that integration point. As in the case of morals, being the will of God (see above).

In the light of the epistemology just proposed, I claim that it is epistemically unsound to “start with God” instead of “starting with man”. Starting with God can only means an a-priori presupposition, because if it’s the starting point then even the knowledge how to experience and verify God is missing. And everything with an a-priori in it is epistemically unsound.

But at a certain point this attempt to spin out a unified optimistic humanism ceased. At this point the philosophers came to the conclusion that they were not going to find a unified rationalistic circle that would contain all thought, and in which they could live. […] [A]nd so, departing from the classical methodology of antithesis, they shifted the concept of ttruth and modern man was born. [p. 18, emphasis removed from original]

Nowadays, we’d use the word post-modern instead of modern, but for the rest, the description is valid. Post-modernism is nothing but covering ones defeat in an unsuccessful search, by re-defining truth. That’s why Schaeffer also calls the transition the “line of despair”. However, there have been multiple alternatives available. First, there’s no need to think that man’s search was unsuccessful: one philosophy might have been correct, but it was drowned in the sea of competing ones. So, the search did not lead to justifiably correct results. That would have been a good point to accept the need for justifiable revelation, and to start searching for it. Second, there would have been no harm in admitting that man is not in the position to be able to determine the basic concepts in reality, because he simply has no access to certain knowledge, and therefore to blatantly give up the search as “theoretically impossible”. It’s really no shame to admit not to know, if one cannot know.

A good case can be made for thinking that […] [Hegel] remained an idealist. He thought that in practice synthesis could be arrived at by reason. But this did not prove possible […]. [p. 21]

Why not? In my view, it’s valid to think, as Hegel, that there is a rational synthesis of both thesis and antithesis, and that this is closer to truth. A yet unknown synthesis after many levels of applying this scheme would be really close to truth, that is, the real antitheiss in the whole process. But because this was not, and could not be known in the beginning, man had to resort to an incremental process of synthesizing, rather than proposing the true antithesis right from the start and then accepting it. So, Hegel’s dualism, if and only if using reason, is a valid approach to the problem that philosophers were unable to find the true antithesis. It is even a good description of the scientific processof model refinement over the centuries.

Kierkegaard came to the conclusion that you could not arrive at synthesis by reason. Instead, you achieved everything of real importance by a leap of faith. […] As a result, from that time on, if rationalistic man wants to deal with the real things of human life (such as purpose, significance, the validity of love) he must discard rational thought about them and make a gigantic, non-rational leap of faith. [p. 21-22]

Here, all the mess of post-modern thinking starts. In my view, the solution would have been to “deal with the real things of human life” in the light of rationalistically justified revelation. Yes, rationalistically, not just rationally. As I claimed above that a man, starting with nothing but acknowledging the existence of a unified external world, by making sense of his sense experiences, can come to see some piece of revelation as justified, while others is not. Justified revelation consists not just of the claim to be revelation (as is the case in Islam), but generates supporting facts like signs and miracles, which establish the authority and trustability of the revelation’s source.

Logical positivism claims to lay the foundation for each step as it goes along, in a rational way. Yet in reality it puts forth no theoretical universal to validate its very first step. Positivists accept that, though they present no logical reason why this should be so, what reaches them from the ‘outside’ may be called ‘data’, i.e. has objective validity. [p. 25]

As my position as put forth in this article so far seems closely related to logical positivism, it seems that I need to justify it here. To overcome the problem as described by Schaeffer, my concept has this to say. There is no need (and perhaps not even the possibility) to formally verify your true system of philosophy. Formal verification is an act of logic, and if you are not in the position to grasp all of the starting conditions exactly enough, you might not be able to apply logic. In this case, if you are not able to verify that what reaches you is indeed “data” about the outside world. Also note that, eben without formal verification of the whole system, conclusions can be drawn (see on “paraconsistent logics”).

In this case, what can be concluded about the signals one receives is, that they span out a space of “testable consistent” experience. With repsect to things, they’re even testable in strict empiric manner, whenever you want. Each test is a confirmation that there is a realm of consistent experience, and aggregated, these conformations mount to be scientific (empirical) proof. Empirical proof has, compared with a philosophy that needs formal verification, the great advantage of requiring less form reality to be feasible. Empirical proof is a valid, pragmatic approach to truth.

One can then choose to term this realm of consistent experience the “external world”. In terms of conclusions, there is no difference if we start with a real external world, or a realm of consistent experience that we call the external world. Because, conclusions will only affect us in terms of experience, and experience is the same in both alternatives. It does not matter if this world is a Matrix-style simulation and God is outside of it, or if it is a real world, and God is part of it (i.e. consists of matter and / or information). With regards to the conclusions, these alternatives are equivalent.

The interesting step in my epistemical system is then, that empirical confirmation of the authority and trustability of revelation is possible. Accepting this revelation is another valid, pragmatic approach to truth. The big difference to the traditional Christian view is that I do not start with revelation that has to be accepted a-priori, on the basis of simply, nothing.

To conclude, my epistemical system is not philosophy, but natural science, and (in the case of inter-personal trust in a revelation) social science. It offers no formal verification, as it argues that this is impossible: all that man can know enters through his senses, which is, in the best case, data about an external world. Now with data you can do nothing more than to make sense of it, that is, you will end up with empirical, but not formal / logical proofs. There is no channel by which man can directly perceive the principles that generate the data. And even when it comes to trustable revelation, we have no more than empirical proof (perhaps even a bit less): finding out of a source of revelation is trustworthy is a process that’s imlemented in making sense of sensual data. The revelation might reveal the principles that generate the data, but you cannot be justifiably more sure of it than you can of empirically found proofs. Now the good news is that this way of epistemology, though not formally exact, is totally sufficient to arrive at true information about the basics of reality (it’s more difficult for the details, as the experiments become difficult then). But for the basics: the possibility that you interpreted chance instead of facts gets lower and lower with every repetition of your experiments and perceptions, by yourself or others.

Also, it seems to me that all these post-modern philosophies that find no purpose or meaning in the rational and logical, and in the world of things, and see themselves driven to claim a “tital dichotomy” between rationality and meaning, simply did not catch the idea of “implementation”. Matter might have no meaning on its own, but it can be used as a substrate to carry meaning. In the sense that meaning can be derived from the matter. I have this concept from the “implementation” idea in computer science: bits are electrical signals without meaning in themselves, but they can be orchestrated to carry the meaning of a program. And, the meaning of the program (as far as it affects other programs and accessible entities in the real world) can be inferred from the bits, by comparing the operation of the program to what happens in the real world, and finding out what piece of information represents what. That’s reverse-engineering. So what I propose is “reverse-engineering” the material world to find the meaning of man. One should find then, that man is created as an image of God. And that the relationships between plants, animals and human beings were intended to represent love, but now represent in part some diabolic agency.

With regard to the emergence of synthesis-based truth, we have to note that it only affects “those aeas that make man to be man – purpose, love, morals and so on” [p. 44]. In the area of concrete, material things, the old antithesis-based concept of truth is still applied, as can be seen on modern natural science. Now the interesting thing of the epistemology as presented here is, it overcomes the difference between these “areas”. Because there are no areas: there is only spirit (information) and matter, and both are connected by implementation. And then, in this uniform area, one can apply natural science with its old concept of antithetic truth, and move on from that without ever admitting something a priori. And arriving at truth in the spiritual categories, by means of justified revelation. The upside is, even post-modern man can join at the start, as they still apply the antithesis-based approac to truth to the material world.

These paintings, these poems and these demonstrations which we have been talking about are the expression of men who are struggling with their appalling lostness. Dare we laugh at such things? Dare we feel superior when we view their tortured expressions in their art? Christians should stop laughing and take such men seriously. Then we will have the right to speak again to our generation. These men are dying while they live, yet where is our compassion for them? There is nothing more ugly than an orthodoxy without understanding or without compassion. [p. 36]

Good words. What I marvel at when perceiving such modern art, esp. in poetry and song lyrics, is the adequateness by which they represent their perception of the world. They perceive it as meaningless, chaotic, and they perceive God and his moral will as non-existent, and their art represents it. Despair is not adequately depicted by a part of reality, but by an image of destroyed reality.

What Gentile is saying is this – that Leonardo [Da Vinci] as the first real mathematician in the modern sense understood the problem with which modern man is no grappling. He understood that, if man starts with himself alone and logically and rationally moves through mathematics, he never comes to a universal, only to particulars and mechanics. The problem can be formulated thus: how can finite man produce a unity which will cover these particulars? And if he cannot, how can these particulars have unity and meaning for him? [p. 59]

But in my epistemology, man also starts “with himself alone”, or better, with the study of particulars through natural science and logic, because prior to having a universal man does not really know who he is and therefore cannot accept himself to start with, as this would be something to accept a priori. (For example, if accepting ones own emotionality without knowing if emotions relate to objective entities or if emotions are pieces of information that can, but need not, represent reality adequately.) The difference is that, in my epistemology, there is a way of transition from particulars and mechanics to unity. By using the particulars and mechanics for no other purpose that to test the authority and trustfulness of revelations. Unity is then arrived at by believing those revelations that have withstood the tests.

Perhaps I should throw in a hint how I want to test the authority and trustfulness of revelations: claimed divine revelations that have authority will authenticate themselves by signs of divine omnipotence, and trustfulness is established by a blameless record of other revelations that afterwards proved to be true, e.g. by prophetic fulfillments.

[If you] say that the material universe may finally be reduced to energy particles moving in opposite directions in a vortex, […] what about yournaturalistic colleagues? What happens to them if they go home to their wives and families at night? […] The very ‘mannishness’ of man refuses to live in the logic of the position to which his humanism and rationalism has brought him. To say that I am only a machine is one thing, to live consistently as if it were true is quite another. [p. 63]

Where is the problem? Man’s incapability to live out some statement surely is no argument against the truth of that statement. What Schaeffer seems to promote here is a mild form of pragmatic epistemology, in that something can only be true if one can live it out. Though it would be clearly nice that way, there’s no compelling reason why this has to be the case. The same with the popular scientist-in-love example: why should a scientist, just for the sake of strong emotions that he does not yet understand, change his anthropology or epistemology? In the area of epistemology we operate out of the boundaries of immediate experience, so we should get used to the fact that we cannot feel the validity of our epistemology just as we feel love.

But to resolve the question in the scientist-in-live example, what is love, by the way? It’s a spiritual concept, i.e. a concept consisting of information only, that is implemented (in the sense of multiple instantiation) in the activity that makes up inter-personal relationships. Namely, it is found wherever such activity is motivated by doing good to somebody. Note that motivation is also a spiritual concept, i.e. a concept consisting of information only, but implemented materially in brain actions etc., and that motivation has a teleonomic aspect. Teleonomics is absent in the world of matter alone, but information (and information-based systems of matter) can have a teleonomic aspect with ease, as it information can represent a situation that should be there, just as it is used to represent a situation that is there.

On the basis of biblical Christianity a rational discussion and consideration can take place, because it is fixed in the stuff of history. When Paul was askes if Jesus was raised from the dead, he gave a completely non-religious answer, in the twentieth-century sense. He said: ‘There are almost five hundred living witnesses;go and ask them!’ This is the faith that covers the whole man including his reason; it does not ask for a belief into the void. As the twentieth-century mentality would understand the concept of religion, the Bible is a non-religious book. [p. 65]

Nice quote! But, Schaeffer has, up to this point in his book, not come up with any solution why Christianity does not require the “leap of faith” that post-modern thought requires ton enter discussing meaning. True, if there were five hundred people to ask about what God didrecently, this would be different. But in the current situation in Western culture, which I describe as man having some hearsay of the Christian God but no confirming experience, a like leap of faith is required to accept biblical content as divine revelation. Which means, simply, that it’s long overdue for us to dive into studying what God does today. All we have in this area seems to be some reports of miracle mongers, which makes everything worse, at best.

Currently, I do not know how relevant Schaeffer’s thoughts are for today. True, the intellectual elite is busy with post-modern thinking just as in 1968 when Schaeffer wrote. Also, amorality has indeed entered our societies to an even higher degree, by being portrayed in movies, and by being allowed by some laws. But, ordinary folks are returning to a simple, aphilosopic, purely pragmatic and petty bourgeois form of life. They’re complaining about amok gunners, for example, and just want to live their quiet life in the material realm up to the end, without bothering about God, meaning and the spiritual. Perhaps this post-post-modern attitude can be used as a new start for Christianity in our countries?

Hm, I just noticed what Schaffer means by the dichotomy between upper and lower storey, between meaning and rationality. It’s a “divided concept of truth” [p. 80], meaning this: in the lower storey, where man deals with rationality in the realm of the particulars, traditional antithesis-based epistemology is applied. But man could not find meaning through that. Therefore, he “finds” meaning by jumping with a leap of faith to the upper storey, which is said to have no contact with the lower one. There is no reason to jump, and no possibility to validate what is there viz. what one creates there, but “at least it’s about meaning”. Here, the synthesis-based concept of truth is applied, in that man thinks that there is no real antithesis, so that every development in the upper storey happens by creating a new synthesis, involving a new leap of faith. And as per itself, the upper storey is the leap-of-faith based synthesis of rationality and meaning, which were seen as antithetic to each other.

Rightly understood, Christianity as a system has the answers to the three basic needs of man. In this it differs from the new theology, which has no adequate basis upon which to give answers which will stand up to the test of rationality and the whole life as we must live it. The first basic need is caused by the lack of certainty regarding the eality of individual personality. [p. 87]

In my view, Schaeffer is poor here. A system in itself that is free of contradictions within itself and when applying it to all of life is a valid theory, yes. But if it’s not falsifiable, it’s just a theory of which you cannot known if it’s true. It would be a nice system of thouht, but not grant you the justification to life by it. And, if you have equally valid, non-falsifiable theories, which do you choose? For example, I could make up the theory of “Judaistic deism”, meaning that God ceased to care about the world after the fall or, for the latest, after the deluge. This would also answer questions about man’s origin and fallen condition, but give no hope.

In essence, words and thoughts cannot give hope. Facts do, and words have just the task to communicate facts. They are not really good at this, however. Words of Jesus’ miracles while he was on earth are dim and do not ignite hope if they are not re-confirmed by contemporal experience, or trustable words of contemporal experience.

In face of this modern nihilism, Christians are often lacking in courage. We tend to give the impression that we will hold on to the outward forms watever happens, even if God really is not there. But the opposite ought to be true of us, so that people can see that we demand the truth of what is there and that we are not dealing merely with platitudes. In other words, it should be understood that we take this question of truth and personality so seriously that if God wold be not there we would be amongst the first of those who had the courage to step out of the queue. In so far as we show this to be out attitude, maybe the far-out ones will begin to take us seriously and listen to what we have to say. If they do not lay hold to the idea that in our integrity we would join with them in destruction or ‘dropping-out’, except that we know we have an adequate basis for personality and the reality of morals, then they will not and should not listen to us. [p. 90]

Nice quote!

On pp. 105-107 Schaeffer goes on to define morals as “that which is according to the character of God”. Which is also my view, see above. Then he speaks about guilt and propitiation as if these were pre-existing things “made of spiritual matter”, rather than concepts fully implemented in personal interaction. This would need another article on demystification, in addition to the existing ones.

Imagine a book which has been mutilated, leaving just one inch of printed matter on each page. […] if the torn off parts of each page were found in the attic and were added in the right places, then the story could be read and make sense. […] man’s reason would have been the first to tell him that the portions which were discovered were the proper solution to the problem of the ripped book. So it is with Christianity: the ripped pages remaining in the book correspond to the abnormal universe and the abnormal man we now have. The parts of the pages which are discovered correspond to the Scriptures which are God’s propositional communication to mankind, which not only touch ‘religious’ truth but also touch the cosmos and history which are open to verification. [p. 108]

Illustrations in matters of philosophy are effective but dangerous means in dialogue, so I have come to dislike them. In this illustration, it can be assumed that nobody had an intention to fake the lost pages. While it’s different in the reality that should be illustrated: we have not only the Scriptures, but many more documents that try to explain. Also, in contrast to the illustration, there is no need to find a document, but an explanation. So that every feasible explanation joins the Scriptures and the other documents as a candidate for explaning the world. Also, it is even not clear if the explanation is accessible, i.e. it might be impossible to understand by humans, which would mean that agnosticism would be the correct approach in this case. Which one do we choose? Occam’s razor advises to choose the simplest sufficient theory, but we’re not dealing with adequate modeling here but with historical facts – and these, as facts, don’t necessarily care to be simple. So, which one do we choose? Schaeffer goes on to treat that:

In dealing with the question of proof which has been raised by the illustration of the book, I want to suggest that scientific proof, philosophical proof and religious proof follow the same rules. We may have any problem before us which we wish to solve; it may concern a chemical reaction or the meaning of man. After the question has been defined, in each case proof consists of two steps:

A. The theory must be non-contradictory and must give an answer to the phenomenon in question.

B. We must be able to live consistently with our theory. For example, the answer given to the chemical reaction must conform to what we observe in the test tube. With regard to man and his ‘mannishness’, the answer given must conform to what we observe in a wide consideration of man and how he behaves. [p. 109]

Nice shot, but two concerns. First, he does not show how to deal with multiple competing theories that withstood these two steps of proof. Second, the phrase of the “phenomenon in question” hides that there should be peer review in order to confirm that there is indeed such a phenomenon in question.

It should be added in conclusion that the Christian, after he is a Christian. has years of experimental evidence to add to all the above reasons, but we may stop at the same place as Paul in Romans I, by saying that the existence of the external universe and its form and the ‘mannishness’ of man demonstrate the truth of the historic Christian position. [p.111]

Sigh. He stops at the most interesting point. Paul did not use these as evidence for the “historic Christian position”, but for the general faith that there is a creator God of everlasting power and divinity, instead of idol gods. This is what considering the external world can bring us to, at most. It does not prove the revelation of the Messiah, meaning that we have to deal with that separately, as a revelation.

How dare we deal with men in this way [letting them face the unlivable consequences of their non-Christian presuppositions]? […] We cannot do this until we have personally faces the question as to whether the Judaistic-Christian is true in the way we have been speaking of truth. When we are certain about this for ourselves, then if we love men, we shall have the courage tolift the roof [of thought-protection] off of other people’slives and expose them to the collapse of their defences. We ourselves, as we face these people, must have the integrity to continue to live open to the questions: Does God exist? Is the content of the Judaistic-Christian system truth? [p. 131]

A problem why I am not easily content with any answer regarding the truth of that Judaistic-Christian system is because I do not accept pragmatical answers. Even Schaeffer, in his book, arrives at a pragmaticals answer to that question in claiming that one must be “able to live with it”; and since it is “dark out there” [p. 131] in a meaningless universe that also attributes no meaning to man, people should rather convert to Christianity. You will find a multitude of answers of this kind. But: a comfortable answer is not necessarily true, and an uncomfortable answer is not necessarily false. Who can guarantee that universe is not structured in one way, while man is structured / programmed in a way to not like it? The question of truth must be answered on a factual level, not a pragmatic one. It’s a circular argument: only because you suppose man to have meaning, you can infer that he is created / structured in a way that he will be able to live comfortably with the truth about himself, from which you can then infer that the truth about himself is that he has meaning, because man cannot live with the opposite.

My faith is simply the empty hand by which I accept God’s free gift. [p. 135]

So much to the question of faith is a work if it is based on a human decision.

The invitation to act [by exerting faith] comes only after an adequate base of knowledge has been given. This accords with the reason John gave for writing his Gospel […] The same kind of groundwork of true knowledge is set forth in the prologue of the gospel of Luke […] Knowledge precedes faith. This is crucial in understanding the Bible. To say, as a Christian should, that only the faith which believes God on the basis of knowledge is trie faith, is to say something which causes an explosion in th twentieth-century world. [p. 142]

Cool quote.

There must be an individual and corporate exhibition that God exists in our century, in order to show that historic Christianity is more than just a superior dialectic or a better point of psychological integration. [p. 163]

That’s surely right, and the center of the Second Acts approach. But: what Schaeffer means by “individual and corporate exhibition” is something he has talked about before (pp. 151-157). He means by that: exhibiting substantial healing in the psychological and sociological realm. However if these do occur either outside of Christianity also, or else, can be caused by the authoritative Christian message alone (without a God), this is not an “exhibition that God exists in our century”. At least no finally persuasive one.






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