[Top] [All Lists]

Re: [ontac-forum] Future directions for ontologies and terminologies

To: ONTAC-WG General Discussion <ontac-forum@xxxxxxxxxxxxxx>, ONTAC-WG General Discussion <ontac-forum@xxxxxxxxxxxxxx>, CG <cg@xxxxxxxxxx>
Cc: guarino@xxxxxxxxxx
From: "Smith, Barry" <phismith@xxxxxxxxxxx>
Date: Tue, 27 Dec 2005 14:23:58 -0500
Message-id: <>
Responding to John, who should feel free to forward this to the SUO list.
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.    (01)

Actually I think BFO, SUO and DOLCE agree on very much; an active 
effort to merge BFO and DOLCE is under way, and I plan to attempt to 
initiate a similar effort with SUO in the future.    (02)

>  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.    (03)

There are philosophers, it is true, who have very strange assumptions 
about some of these things; but common people share very many of 
these assumptions; each that there is an earlier and later, that some 
objects are closer together than others; that objects can undergo 
processes of change; that objects can be destroyed, etc.    (04)

>  4. Database systems have been interoperating successfully for
>     about 40 years with very few axioms or assumptions about
>     the top levels.    (05)

I think John is unfamiliar with the problems of database 
interoperability facing current biomedical informatics. There are now 
beginning to be examples of cases where strong ontologies were able 
to resolve some of these problems. Hence, for example, the funding by 
the NIH of the National Center for Ontological Research (http://ncbo.us).    (06)

>  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.    (07)

I think this is just wrong. When scientists (to take just one 
example) use variables (x, y, z, t, etc.) to formulate differential 
equations there is a complex web of axioms underlying such use. These 
axioms are, it is true, rarely explicitly formulated. But that is in 
part because they are mostly trivial; in part because scientists 
themselves are tacitly perfectly familiar with them. when scientists 
from different disciplines need to interact, then some of these 
axioms do become explicitly formulated (as, again, in the sphere of 
biomedicine).    (08)

>  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.    (09)

The current movement in biomedical informatics (which is there area I 
know best) points in an exactly opposite direction. Perhaps John has 
become too much of a philosopher.    (010)

>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.    (011)

As history shows, scientific nihilism is usually a bad idea. Hence we 
should express this point positively: we can find a simple upper 
level, by going after the low hanging fruit, and from there we should 
persevere.    (012)

>For example, the upper level might say that there exist such
>things as objects and processes, but not make *any* distinction
>between the two.    (013)

Soup, eh?    (014)

>  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)

And no one should be allowed to think about the difference ?    (016)

>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.    (017)

What about apples? Or processes of apples falling from trees? Are we 
allowed to commit ourselves there?    (018)

>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.    (019)

Why not make that assumption for the obvious cases (low hanging fruit ...)?    (020)

>For any kind of detailed work in science and engineering,
>Whitehead's ontology is more realistic,    (021)

Whiteheadian philosophers see it that way, it is true ...    (022)

>  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.    (023)

Let me get this straight: when I am working on an upper level 
ontology, I am not allowed to formulate simple axioms e.g. asserting 
that processes have sub-processes as parts?    (024)

>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.    (025)

BFO does not need to make any such assumption. It is consistent with 
both alternatives.    (026)

>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.    (027)

The solution is to maximize the number of axioms we can agree on at 
all levels, and strive for consistency and usability. (This is the 
non-nihilistic version of what John is trying to say.)
BS     (028)

Message Archives: http://colab.cim3.net/forum/ontac-forum/
To Post: mailto:ontac-forum@xxxxxxxxxxxxxx
Shared Files: http://colab.cim3.net/file/work/SICoP/ontac/
Community Wiki: 
http://colab.cim3.net/cgi-bin/wiki.pl?SICoP/OntologyTaxonomyCoordinatingWG    (029)
<Prev in Thread] Current Thread [Next in Thread>