Philosopher Daniel Dennett On Religion, Gould and UFOs at Monsters & Critics

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Philosopher Daniel Dennett, author of Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Freedom Evolves, and most recently, Breaking the Spell, is interviewed by Dan Schneider over at Monsters & Critics. Wading through the overwrought, pretentious and often confused questions, there are some Dennettian gems to be mined from it. (In journalism, few things are more annoying than interviewers who think that they are more interesting than the people whose views they are allegedly soliciting.) I boil down a couple of the questions to their essentials and leave Dennett's answers in full.

On religion:

Q. I have to admit that the really religious-despite whatever blinders they wear, were FAR happier and focus on their lives than the anomic suburbanites or career-oriented MBAs:

DD: There is no doubt that many religions make many people happier than they otherwise would be. The same is true, as you say, of opium. Probably—I wonder if this research has been done—being an impassioned major league baseball team fan has similarly bracing effects. I find that scientists and philosophers seem to be happier than bankers and stockbrokers, by and large, but that's just anecdotal. I haven't done any careful studies. Several studies show that paraplegics are, in general, more satisfied and happy with their lives than people not confined to wheel chairs! This fascinating—and heartening—fact shows that some of our 'obvious' convictions about quality of life are just wrong. But I'm not going to start toasting to the future of my friends' children by wishing that they become paraplegics.

Q. I claim that, by that definition, all organized religion is fundamentally psychotic. Do you agree?

DD: There is definitely a similarity, but more interesting are the differences: most deeply religious people can be entirely effective and clearheaded agents on behalf of their curious beliefs. Nothing disorganized about their behavior.

On Dennett's falling out with Harvard evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould.

A. Your views on the late Stephen Jay Gould.

DD: I see Gould quite differently. He was an academic bully, who exploited his scientific credentials to push his political views—or maybe they were closer to religious views. (Remember: I started out as a friend of his; I often attended his seminars at Harvard but eventually I got so annoyed with the way he would misrepresent his critics and bully the students that I had to leave.) When I wrote DDI, I knew I was going to have to expose Gould's history of misrepresentation—since he was going to hate my book, and would pillory it with his usual tricks if I didn't attempt to preempt that vilification effort with an analysis of his own work. Gould had been selling America a watered-down and distorted version of basic evolutionary theory for decades, and when I pointed this out, he reacted–not unreasonably!– with a venomous attack on what he called my "Darwinian fundamentalism," but, you know, the evolutionary biology community knew I was right, and said so. (I am not alone in incurring Gould's wrath: I'm proud to stand with Richard Dawkins, the late, great John Maynard Smith and Steve Pinker, as sane and forthright a team of "fundamentalists" as one could ask for.) Gould could never accept that natural selection is fundamentally a sorting algorithm, and kept hunting for some softening of that fact—limiting the role of natural selection itself, or elevating 'constraints' that would subdue it. He never found any worth keeping, but he tried hard. Punctuated equilibrium, the Cambrian explosion, and exaptation all turn out to be interesting wrinkles in orthodox ("ultra") neo-Darwinian theory, not challenges to it. And today we still have to face creationists (such as Senator Brownback) who think that Gould's punctuated equilibrium shows that the theory of evolution is not established. That's part of Gould's legacy, sad to say. He didn't actively discourage the idea that he'd found a major flaw in the theory of evolution by natural selection. I don't know whether a protracted debate between me and Gould on television would have worked in any case. He was not above pulling rank, and was a master of insinuation. Certainly in our infrequent public confrontations after my book came out, he did not behave in a principled manner.

On UFOs:

Q. Why are people who claim to be alien abductees looked upon askance while those who see the Virgin Mary [are] not?  

DD: There are good reasons to believe that many who claim to be alien abductees have actually had a traumatic sexual experience at the hands of some abusing member of the family, or other sexual abuser. For them this is just the socially easiest way of "explaining" their traumatic memories, and their PTSD symptoms, and they may be entirely sincere in their hallucinated memories. (So John Mack was probably half right: these people had indeed had a terrible experience; it just wasn't with aliens.) The phenomenon should be studied with a suitably rigorous methodology (not the way Whitley Strieber "investigated" it). But that's tough, since ethical and legal problems arise immediately. That's no accident. It's an instance of Nicholas Humphrey's Argument from Unwarranted Design (in his excellent book LEAPS OF FAITH). Now why should it be that the juiciest and most contagious tales of horror and wonder always seem to involve circumstances that are systematically difficult to investigate? These myths spread because they can spread, just like the virus for the common cold.

reason's interview of Dennett in which he discussed the idea of humans as "choice machines" in his book Freedom Evolves here. Also see my review of that book here.

Finally, the whole M&C interview here.

NEXT: Social Cons vs. National Review

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  1. I saw Ron quoted on the back of Heyak’s book “the Fatal Conceit” last night.

    I sure hope Ron actually read the book and understands that Heyak’s take on religion is very different and far less spiteful then Dennett’s.

  2. Steve Gould desreves a little more credit for candor- far from concealing his agenda–his cliche’ response to undergraduate questions raising the possibility that he might have one was :

    “My daddy raised me to be a Marxist”

    I otherwise applaud Dennett:
    http://adamant.typepad.com/seitz/2007/07/the-sum-of-all-.html

  3. Oh yeah and reading Dennet’s book, the first six chapters so far anyway, consciousness explained my biggest impression so far is that Dennet spent like 2 pages explaining why the Laffer curve was wrong in clear understandable language yet could not for six chapters actually put up a simple model of what how he actually thought consciousness works.

    By the way is refutation of Laffer’s Curve is dead wrong.

    Anyway i find it funny that he says this about
    Gould.
    He was an academic bully, who exploited his scientific credentials to push his political views-or maybe they were closer to religious views.

    What a fucking hypocrite.

  4. Dennett is a smart guy who makes some very cogent points about how we think and experience the world. He is also an insufferable smug jackass. During the linked to interview with Balko he states

    “I’ve disenchanted it, but I haven’t made it meaningless. Meaning doesn’t depend on magic.”

    No meaning depends on permanence. If everything we know is destined to disappear in the fireball that is our dying sun and we are only destined to be here for a millisecond of the universe, then our world and our concerns about it are pretty meaningless. Religions, at heart, don’t talk about magic, they talk about eternity. If things are not eternal then they are pretty meaningless. The Greeks understood that, all the major religions understand that, Nietzsche understood that. I suppose an individual photon that hits my computer screen and lives a life of nanoseconds, if it had the capability, could find a way to consider its life “meaningful” but I doubt many of us would be convinced. Hey whatever gets you through the night Daniel.

  5. Why are people who claim to be alien abductees looked upon askance while those who see the Virgin Mary [are] not?

    In their own lifetimes, peope who claim to see the Virgin are often looked upon askance, even by the church. the ones who eventually become saints or beatified usually had to patiently endure a lot of grief first.

  6. John: I won’t comment on Dennett’s smugness, but immodesty forces me to note that the linked interview was done by me, not my esteemed colleague Radley.

  7. I know it was done by Balko Ron. What bugs me about Dennett is statements like “their curious beliefs” when describing religious people. Could there me a more smug and condescending way to describe people? The comparing of religious people to happy paraplegics is another example of this. The undertone of everything Dennett says is that he has figured everything out and only fools and buffoons could ever disagree with him. I can’t stand people who won’t take other views seriously and Dennett seems to be one of those people.

  8. I have to agree with John here. I read “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea,” as well as most of Richard Dawkin’s popular works and “The Blank Slate.” None of those books address something Gould understood, that natural selection really does work beautifully as justification for our worst human tendencies. There’s really no room in Darwinism for social justice, or at least I can’t find one. (And Peter Singer’s “Darwinian Left” didn’t help, either.) That doesn’t mean natural selection is wrong, only that I wouldn’t want to live a human society that was explicitly based on those ideas. (Granted, btw, that I live in a society made up of humans that are products of natural selection. I know enough about my fellow humans, however, not to trust them to draft laws based on natural selection.)

  9. The Balko interview ends with

    “So morality evolves largely because people get more benefits than not out of it.

    Dennett: Yes. Civilization is a good deal.”

    What is that if not just crude utilitarianism? If people overall become a better species and have a better civilization by killing off non-hackers like the crippled or the insane, I really can’t see how Dennett could object much less not endorse the idea. What a good deal!!

  10. John,

    I think you could argue that a civilization that lacks empathy is, by definition, not a better civilization.

  11. What is that if not just crude utilitarianism? If people overall become a better species and have a better civilization by killing off non-hackers like the crippled or the insane, I really can’t see how Dennett could object much less not endorse the idea. What a good deal!!

    Empathy and morality work in mysterious ways…

    And who says the crippled and insane are non-hackers?

    Hell even an evil utilitarian like Dennett would concede that our understanding of the human brain has been tremendously enhanced by the crippled and the insane.

    Plus you know…they can pick up the garbage at parking lots.

  12. There’s really no room in Darwinism for social justice, or at least I can’t find one.

    Thats good…not only is social justice morally bankrupt but totally useless in a morally vacant world…sounds about right.

  13. John & Karen: In addition to my interview with Dennett, you may also be interested in my interview with left-wing, animal rights philosopher Peter Singer in which we discussed his fascinating little book, A Darwinian Left.

    A bit here:

    Reason: What limits does Darwinian thinking put on the left’s core goal of fostering egalitarianism?

    Singer: I think understanding Darwinian thinking makes us realize that humans are not by nature egalitarian. To the contrary and by nature, they form hierarchies and rankings and try to move up those hierarchies. That doesn’t mean that you can’t or shouldn’t work toward a more egalitarian society, but it does mean that you should be aware that you won’t be able to do so simply by removing artificial contrivances that maintain inequality. You’ll have to do more than that. You’ll have to do something positive in order to promote or maintain equality, and there will be costs in doing that. The question the left then has to ask is, What costs are worth paying and what costs aren’t worth paying? …

    Reason: What does Darwinian thinking tell the left about why so many of the social programs they have favored have had difficulties or have failed?

    Singer: It tells the left that some of them have failed because their goals were really unrealistic. For example, if their goals were to achieve equality and to combine that with a high degree of liberty-to have the state withering away, as Marx said-it’s very difficult to see how you’re going to be able to achieve that. If you let the state wither away, then humans’ natural tendencies to form hierarchies and rank and so on are going to assert themselves. What happened specifically with the form of communism that was attempted in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe was that people went into it with some vague idea that they could have this sort of society. But they kept needing to strengthen the power of the state rather than allow it to wither away. In that sense, the original idea would just collapse. You simply couldn’t achieve it. Human beings are not such that you could expect them to work for the common good in the way that the theory assumed. The failure to understand that human nature is not as plastic as socialists often assume is a substantial part of why some of these schemes have failed.

  14. Too bad Steve Gould can no longer fight back.

    DD should discuss the difference between genuine, but falsified, scientific theories and those ad-hoc monsters manufactured out of ideological prejudice. Having read most of Gould, I can not recall his opining or even suggesting that he and Eldridge had created an alternative to the standard theory that would supplant natural selection, for example.

    In the face of philosophy (of the empirico-logicico-linguistic sort) what can one say, except echo with Descartes that “philosophers raise a dust and then complain that they can not see.”

    Ah well, we can rest content that there are no living philosophers; in anglophone lands there are only ELLosophists. It’s a good background for Law.

    Where else will a Ph.D. in philosophy have taken one in the last 40 years? DD and his ilk live off of the false hope of grad students and junior faculty — most departments of philosophy should be closed, and all remaining should be cut back.

    On the question of values. Sure, don’t look for them in scientific theories. Look for them in scientific practice, methodology. Every putative contribution to knowledge asserts that what it contains is true. You’ll find that ‘is true’ is a predicate belonging to a metalanguage which operates on scientific statements as well as statements in areas like Law and, surprise!, ordinary discourse. And, why truth rather than falsehood? Especially, when falsehood is often more comforting . . . perhaps even more adaptive for advanced Apes.

    You could read Nietzsche, DD. Or, if you desire more sober prose, try Science and Human Values by J. Bronowski.

    http://www.amazon.com/Science-Human-Values-Jacob-Bronowski/dp/0060972815

    eye-of-horus
    copyright asserted 2007

  15. The failure to understand that human nature is not as plastic as socialists often assume is a substantial part of why some of these schemes have failed.

    Bleh what bullshit…socialism is the antithesis of diversity and experimentation. That is why it fails.

  16. “No meaning depends on permanence. If everything we know is destined to disappear in the fireball that is our dying sun and we are only destined to be here for a millisecond of the universe, then our world and our concerns about it are pretty meaningless.”

    I agree with your first sentence, but not with your second. Meaning does not depend on permanence. The Epicureans had it right–we don’t lament our nonexistence during the time before we were born, and we shouldn’t lament that our looming nonexistence after our deaths, for death is not a harm to the entity that no longer exists. Our future nonexistence makes our present existence more valuable and precious, not less.

  17. Jim,

    If nothing is perminant what difference does it make how it turns out? Without perminance and consquences to our actions, why not just do whatever feels good? It is the Marquise De Sade problem. What if I like hurting people? It makes me happy. Yeah, it sucks for them, but who is to say that I shouldn’t be able to do it if that is in fact what makes me happy? I suppose there is some vague idea of doing unto others but who cares, we all will be in the same state of blissful non-existance when we die, why not get my kicks while I can? I suppose you could come up with some Kantian catagorical imperitive that says I shouldn’t do what I don’t want everyone else to do, but what if I am in charge and no one will hurt me?

    “Hell even an evil utilitarian like Dennett would concede that our understanding of the human brain has been tremendously enhanced by the crippled and the insane.”

    What happens after we no longer get any information from them and their presense no longer furthers the advancement of the species? In the end, I don’t see how people in Dinnet’s worldview are anything more than a means to the end of advancing the species and the civilization.

  18. “I think you could argue that a civilization that lacks empathy is, by definition, not a better civilization.”

    You and I think so, but why is that so obvious? Wouldn’t a civilization that didn’t have any crippled or insane and eliminated all unhappyness and advanced the evolution of the species be superior to our messy but empathetic one? If natural selection and advancement of the species is the end goal, then don’t we all have a duty to further it even if that means dying so that we don’t further pollute the gene pool with our inferior genes?

  19. John
    If I understand you correctly, then I think the issue of permanance is really one of imperfect information…we can reasonably argue what impact the idea of permanance has if we beleive it does or does not exist…but what of the reality that we do not know…

    the problem for us all then is that we have imperfect information about the permanance of our lives…our naturally selected tendencies toward ‘living the life you have’ (and all the pleasure of today) may be moderated by hedging for the life we beleive ‘we may yet get’…some may call this ‘hope’.

  20. “And, why truth rather than falsehood? Especially, when falsehood is often more comforting . . . perhaps even more adaptive for advanced Apes.”

    Exactly!! If you don’t beleive in anything infinite or eternal, then why not just believe in whatever gets you through the night? People like Dennett are nihlists who don’t have the courage to face the abysss.

  21. the problem for us all then is that we have imperfect information about the permanance of our lives…our naturally selected tendencies toward ‘living the life you have’ (and all the pleasure of today) may be moderated by hedging for the life we beleive ‘we may yet get’…some may call this ‘hope’.”

    I can’t argue with you there. To me Dennett is just claiming to have solved the problem of existential anxiety through the miracle of modern science. Sorry but I am not buying it.

  22. would it be possible for the interviewer to be more of a douchebag?

    pretty please?

  23. My god, that’s a terrible interview. Paragraph after paragraph, it’s pseudointellectual babble from the interviewer to which Dennett responds:

    I have nothing to say about this.

    It’s absolute trash. What interviewer of even minimal competence thinks that he or she is the primary source of the audience’s interest? And the profound arrogance of it all – the writer seems to fancy him or herself as an “artist” with a mind on par with Dennett’s, constantly saying “wise” things and hoping that Dennett will pat him or her on the back. Utter and complete trash.

  24. Yes, in depth queries tax the mind too much.

    Better to ask gems like ‘Your new book is called Freedom Evolves. Why?’ or ‘Where do our values come from in the first place?’

    If Reason were being honest, you’d title the piece a paid ad for the book he was pushing at the time. The only thing missing was Dennett stating what page of his book he was quoting from.

    Infomercials are not interviews, but perhaps you got a free copy of the book. Yippee!

  25. “Dennett are nihlists who don’t have the courage to face the abysss.”

    Or is it that people who believe in an afterlife don’t have the courage to face death?

  26. Alien abduction:
    Vague memories of early-in-life medical procedures.

  27. Re: the Gould digression.

    That is exactly what an interview, if it strives to be good, is about.

    Imagine the venom still held about a man 5 years dead. That says something about DD and the egos of scientists in general, re: pissing matches.

    No other interview, in print or video, with DD gets that, and there’s many more moments like that.

    Also, for a man devoted to ideas, to answer so many with flippant non sequiturs, says more than any lengthy BS answer could. That’s why they were left in.

    Compare the DD interview to the prior interview with novelist Charles Johnson. The q’s side in each interview ran about 9k words. CJ’s replies ran about 13.5k. DD’s a little over 6k, even though his q’s covered a greater range than CJ’s q’s.

    The point is it cores into the two men to contrast their answers. CJ comes off as engaged and appreciative of thoughtful in depth questions that force him to think, and even states such in the interview. DD comes off as a grumpy old man who wants to give canned answers, as in your infomercial-cum-interview. The fact that he had no book to push also played a part in his answers.

    Commerce may prefer Reason’s interview, but real reason prefers mine. It’s the better interview, by a long shot.

  28. But thanks for the plug.

  29. Commerce may prefer Reason’s interview, but real reason prefers mine. It’s the better interview, by a long shot.

    Careful patting yourself on the back, there. Wouldn’t want you to strain your shoulder.

  30. Commerce may prefer Reason’s interview, but real reason prefers mine. It’s the better interview, by a long shot.

    Did this guys just say that his “reason” is more authentic because less people read his stuff?

  31. Dan-

    Why in the world did you think it was appropriate or relevant to ask Dennett what his views on Genghis Kahn were?

    You displayed your facile views when you dismissed Chomsky’s career, why continue the process on blog comment boards?

  32. You displayed your facile views when you dismissed Chomsky’s career, why continue the process on blog comment boards?

    His career as a talented linguist or as a left wing nut job?

  33. Joshua-
    The latter. While his star has faded, and the quality of his political writings have eroded, his earlier writings were massively influential and, if I may say so, on the right side of morality and truth. I’m talking about Vietnam and Palestine.

  34. No shoulder straining, but in researching Dennett, and looking at printed (paper and online) interviews, this Reason interview (and others of the 10 questions we can ask as we pimp your current book sort) was exactly what I wanted to avoid. Again, DD’s answers to your Q’s are lifted straight from his book (sans page #s).

    Any DD ‘gems’ come only from the proper mining techniques. That would be from the q’s asked.

    Also, the Khan trope is a good one. I link to an online DD roundtable discussing people of the millennium, where many intellectual types discuss their choices. I posited mine. Now, I could have asked about causality, but given the framing of that interview, decided to show, not tell. M&C is a site more interested in Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton. The unfortunate fact is that not only the readers, but many of the folk involved, would be lost without such vivid examples.

    To try to expand readers one has to lay things out more vividly.

    As for less people reading ‘my stuff.’ M&C gets 4.5 mill hits a month. My personal site averages about 2 million. How many folk read Reason online a month? The commerce I was referring to was the infomercial as interview. My interview was for the long term, and for folk not acquainted with DD- those who might want to find out who he is, rather than Paris’s stint in jail.

    Bridging the gap between high and low culture, and diff readerships, is difficult, but one must know one’s medium. Online is the perfect vehicle for long interviews and articles. There are no paper costs.

    As for Chomsky, I dismissed his Left Wing lunacy but acknowledged his scientific creds. You don’t seriously want to defend his recrudescent Communist nonsense, do you? Thanks, Josh.

    In short, I am going more for a Charlie Rose interview in print. There are many people who loathe Rose’s interview style because he talks almost as much as the guests. But, he gets far more nuggets PRECISELY because his style is eye to eye, not supplicant to Master. And, because of the online medium, I can go longer than Rose can.

    I did think about trimming the answers to those q’s that got a ‘Huh?’ response, but realized that a lack of intellectual curiosity on subject A or B was just as revealing as a lengthy answer.

    Do I think it was a great interview? No. Was it a good one. Yes. And certainly the best of the many I read online, and by a long shot.

    Interviews are not to serve my (the interviewer’s) desires, nor even the interviewee’s, but the reader’s. They are not to merely pimp a product, but to core to the essence of that individual.

    Warts and all, that’s exactly what my interview does. Some folk have loved it, others hated it. Some think Dennet comes off pompous, some think I do, Some think both of us do. Others think it’s amongst the best they’ve ever read.

    The length of this thread proves it’s had an impact.

    How many interviews on Reason can claim the same?

  35. “If nothing is perminant what difference does it make how it turns out? Without perminance and consquences to our actions, why not just do whatever feels good?”

    Are you advocating a form of consequentialism that places all value on some final state? Why do you deny all value to all moments preceding the final state?

    Impermanence doesn’t mean there are no consequences–there are plenty of consequences within our lifetimes, and they matter in and of themselves, not in virtue of a hypothesized infinite immortal future.

  36. Dan,
    I don’t even know who what or where Paris Hilton is, so I guess I’m smarter than you.

  37. Others think it’s amongst the best they’ve ever read.

    For a High School newspaper, certainly. Gotta love this little bit:

    I’ve always felt that intelligence is the most human quality- not love, which lower animals can feel

  38. “Yes, in depth queries tax the mind too much.”

    so this isn’t an act?

    zog help you, son.

    zog help you.

  39. Rick:

    The people who run M&C did not even know who CJ or DD were. Their ideas of writers are Dan Brown and Sue Grafton, and of course, JK Rowling.

    Tacos: It’s polite not to speak and fellate at the same time. When you get out of HS, it’ll be fun to see what you think.

    Hex: send Zog Tacos’ way.

  40. no, i believe you need it more.

    but hey at least you’re better than people who read us weekly. that’s something, right? that’s definitely an accomplishment right there. totally.

    on a more serious note, you may wish to go back and review charlie rose’s program in further depth and contrast it with your own approach to see why the comparison falls flat with some folk. (hint: charlie rose is not in love with himself – and if he is, he hides it well – nor does he spend a whole interview bagging on real and imagined blogosphere foes.)

  41. Hex: Now that you’ve mastered the dialectic of a parakeet, try for an emu. Hint: ssshhh….

    As for Rose, I have watched, and read many of the Rose-haters out there.

    But, if you preferred stoop-kneed and slack-jawed commercials as interviews, you’re in the right place.

  42. yes that’s exactly what i prefer. i enjoy all that is dumb in life, unlike you who clearly is the superior oh who am i kidding ATOMIC WEDGIE!!!

    no really though you should actually watch some more rose cause i think you were asleep the first time. you will notice at no time is mr. rose beating it while staring into the mirror and mouthing the words to “i only have eyes for you.”

  43. on a serious note please fix this image on your site:

    http://www.cosmoetica.com/Side_Chaplin.gif

    the squishy chaplin effect is really fucking annoying. there are better things to do with pirated copies of photoshop like not doing that. just cut off his arms a bit. everyone will know who he is. (unless you’re one of those open source guys in which case i meant gimp the whole time, no really please don’t hurt me by replacing every “s” with a $ thanks)

  44. I said emu, not minah bird.

  45. no really: send me the .psd files and i’ll fix it for you. really. listen this is no fakey joke ha ha back and forth – i know bad amateur photoshop is like “a thing” and all but for reals it don’t have to be. really.

    like the whole “the image had squigglies everywhere so i ran one filter on this picture and now it looks wacky hooray” thing.

    http://www.cosmoetica.com/Top_Passenger_Jack.gif

    this one is better but i can’t help but feel it was scaled slightly incorrectly. or perhaps the original image was somewhat pinched.

    http://www.cosmoetica.com/Saturn_Rings_Side_500.gif

  46. the text on that last banner is still fucking unreadable though. a bunch of poor decisions strung together left alone long enough turns into myspace.

  47. Oh yeah and reading this article Iam feeling very useful

  48. As for less people reading ‘my stuff.’ M&C gets 4.5 mill hits a month. My personal site averages about 2 million. How many folk read Reason online a month? The commerce I was referring to was the infomercial as interview. Wholesale New Era Hats My interview was for the long term, and for folk not acquainted with DD- those who might want to find out who he is, rather than Paris’s stint in jail.

  49. As for Rose, I have watched, and read many of the Rose-haters out there.

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