Although generally I couldn't fail to disagree with John Sowa more, his
third conclusion (re. thousands of years of successful communication)
reminded me once again of a passage in George Steiner's _After Babel_ (a
long and brilliant account of language with a sustained argument that
translation--indeed communication, in general--is really impossible): (01)
"Any model of communication is at the same time a model of trans-lation,
of a vertical or horizontal transfer of significance. No two historical
epochs, no two social classes, no two localities use words and syntax to
signify exactly the same things, to send identical signals of valuation
and inference. Neither do two human beings. Each living person draws,
deliberately or in immediate habit, on two sources of linguistic supply:
the current vulgate corresponding to his level of literacy, and a
private thesaurus (p. 75 of the 3rd edition on Amazon)." (Steiner goes
on here to address the "private language" argument that would surely
arise among the Wittgensteinians.) (02)
> -----Original Message-----
> From: ontac-forum-bounces@xxxxxxxxxxxxxx [mailto:ontac-forum-
> bounces@xxxxxxxxxxxxxx] On Behalf Of John F. Sowa
> Sent: Tuesday, December 27, 2005 12:13 PM
> To: ONTAC-WG General Discussion; CG
> Cc: guarino@xxxxxxxxxx
> Subject: [ontac-forum] Future directions for ontologies and
> 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.
> John Sowa
> -------- Original Message --------
> I think most people have come to some conclusion like that:
> > 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.
> 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:
> 1. Everybody who develops an upper ontology has very different
> and inconsistent axioms at the topmost levels.
> 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.
> 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.
> 4. Database systems have been interoperating successfully for
> about 40 years with very few axioms or assumptions about
> the top levels.
> 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.
> 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.
> 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.
> 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.
> 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.
> 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.
> 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.
> 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.
> 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.
> 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.
> John Sowa
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