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[ontac-forum] Future directions for ontologies and terminologies

To: ONTAC-WG General Discussion <ontac-forum@xxxxxxxxxxxxxx>, CG <cg@xxxxxxxxxx>
Cc: guarino@xxxxxxxxxx
From: "John F. Sowa" <sowa@xxxxxxxxxxx>
Date: Tue, 27 Dec 2005 12:12:35 -0500
Message-id: <43B17603.90408@xxxxxxxxxxx>
Following is an edited and slightly expanded version
of a note that I sent to the SUO list.  I believe that
the conclusions I list below apply equally well to the
ONTAC efforts.    (01)

John Sowa    (02)

-------- Original Message --------    (03)

I think most people have come to some conclusion like that:    (04)

> Maybe because we all are becoming accustomed to the thinking
> that the SUO is a pipe dream and better to leave behind the
> listing and all associated with it.    (05)

When the SUO group was founded in 2000, most of us had some hope
that a useful upper ontology could be developed, but nobody was
able to agree on a common upper level.  Some conclusions:    (06)

  1. Everybody who develops an upper ontology has very different
     and inconsistent axioms at the topmost levels.    (07)

  2. Those inconsistencies at the top make it impossible to share
     anything at the lower levels with any other ontology whose
     lower levels depend on assumptions made at the top.    (08)

  3. Yet people have been communicating successfully for thousands
     of years with very few common assumptions about top-level
     entities, such as time, place, object, process, etc.    (09)

  4. Database systems have been interoperating successfully for
     about 40 years with very few axioms or assumptions about
     the top levels.    (010)

  5. The most successful sharing in *all* fields -- science,
     engineering, medicine, business, etc. -- has been based on
     *terminology* at lower levels with very few, if any axioms
     about the upper levels.    (011)

  6. On the other hand, we do need axioms (and programs, which
     are essentially compiled axioms) in order to do any kind of
     detailed reasoning, computation, and problem solving.    (012)

  7. Therefore, we should make a clear distinction between the
     vocabularies or terminologies, which have very few axioms,
     and the problem-oriented reasoning and computational
     systems.  For general purposes, sharing should be based on
     the terminology.  For reasoning and computation, the axioms
     should be introduced at the lower, problem-oriented levels.    (013)

In short, the hope of finding a detailed common set of axioms
at the upper levels is *DOOMED*.  On the other hand, a very
simple upper level with very little detail would be possible.    (014)

For example, the upper level might say that there exist such
things as objects and processes, but not make *any* distinction
between the two.  The question of which things are objects and
which are processes would not be determined by axioms, but just
by listing them:  a ball, a tree, and a house are objects, but
walking, cooking, and cleaning are processes.    (015)

Some things, such as a star or a vortex could be listed without
any commitment to whether they're an object or a process.  Then
one could talk (or reason) about the sun as an object for some
applications or a process for others.  A hurricane could be
listed as a vortex, and it would be possible to reason about a
hurricane with either object-oriented or process-oriented axioms.    (016)

That approach would accommodate both Whitehead's ontology, which
makes processes fundamental, and an ontology that makes objects
fundamental.  In W's ontology, all objects, stars, and vortices
would be defined as types of processes, but there would be no
need to make that assumption in general.    (017)

For any kind of detailed work in science and engineering,
Whitehead's ontology is more realistic, but for reasoning
about everyday things, it might be convenient to assume that
objects are the participants that constitute processes.  For
some problems, one or another of those assumptions might be
preferable, but those detailed axioms should only be assumed
at the problem-oriented level, *not* at the upper levels.    (018)

Another example is the question whether a vase and the lump
of clay from which it is made are one object or two.  That is
another assumption that is very much problem dependent, and
it should *not* be a requirement enforced at the upper levels.
The only people who worry about such issues might be pottery
workers, and they have much more detailed problems to think about.    (019)

The SUO work over the past five years has been interesting,
and we all learned a lot.  But the most important thing we
learned is that assuming a fixed and frozen set of upper-level
axioms does not promote interoperability.  Instead, the axioms
introduce irrelevant contradictions that are a major barrier
to communication and sharing.  The solution is to minimize the
axioms at the top levels and to introduce them as needed at
the problem-oriented lower levels.    (020)

John Sowa    (021)

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