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Re: [ontolog-forum] {Disarmed} Re: OWL and lack of identifiers

To: "[ontolog-forum] " <ontolog-forum@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
From: Steve Newcomb <srn@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
Date: 14 Apr 2007 12:54:31 -0400
Message-id: <87r6qmdhh4.fsf@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
This is a *great* discussion about something that's very important,
with excellent insights contributed by every participant.    (01)

I think there's a way forward here, and in order to explain it,
I'd like to begin by posing the following question:    (02)

  * Which is more fundamental: Expressions (signs), or what
    expressions signify (meanings)?    (03)

Please try to come to an agreement with yourself about the answer the
above question before reading on.    (04)

My personal answer is that meanings are more fundamental than
expressions.  I can't believe anything else, because I believe that
it's possible for *different* expressions to mean *exactly* the same
thing.  The fact that such a comparison can only take place in the
mind of a human being doesn't bother me.    (05)

If we say that it's *impossible* for two different expressions to mean
exactly the same thing, then we must accept some pretty unhappy
corollaries, including that peace and freedom cannot occur
simultaneously in the story of civilization.  I'm too much of an
optimist -- or perhaps too Jeffersonian -- to accept this.  I *don't*
accept it.  I prefer to believe that the human family is in the
process of achieving both freedom *and* reconciliation.    (06)

Nevertheless, the opposite view is defensible.  Support for the
opposite view can be rooted, for example, in the inarguable prevalence
of natural selection.  As Dawkins (The Selfish Gene) points out, human
bodies are merely vehicles for the survival of our immortal genes.
Their "conserved domains" have been around continuously for *millions*
of years.  Our bodies, although useful for short times, are most
accurately regarded as disposables, like a sequence of paper cups into
which the same water is being poured and re-poured.  So the genes (the
"expressions" or "signs") are really prior to what they signify (the
"meanings" -- our bodies).  The competition between genes is warfare,
not reconciliation.  The weapons are our bodies.    (07)

Actually, however, in the case of genes, at least, this defense is
based on an oversimplification.  It is based on the assumption that
there is an identifiable thing called a "gene" and that it always
means the same thing.  The actual situation is mind-bogglingly more
complex and messy than that.  With genes, as with all other
expressions, their meanings (or the lacks thereof) are determined in
concert with their changing contexts.  The same sequence of base pairs
can mean different things in different contexts.  And: (and here's the
rub:) no two contexts are ever identical.    (08)

Now, you're probably wondering, where am I going with this?    (09)

A class of expressions, such as URIs, cannot be well understood except
as an *instance* of one or more *even more abstract* class of
expressions.  There must be a context.    (010)

The trouble is that there is no uniformity in contexts.  All contexts
are unique, and the *significance* of an expression -- the very same
thing that reveals it to be an expression -- varies with its context.
Moreover, for any given expression, every human being *must* apply a
unique context to it before it can fulfill its function.  Viewed in
this light, successful human communication can be seen as the miracle
that it is.  The high frequency of this major miracle is the reason
for the optimism I feel about the human condition.    (011)

Now... now that I've established a new, uh, context for them, please
re-read Ken Laskey's remarks:    (012)

Ken Laskey wrote:    (013)

> Note that our model is starting to get rather messy.
> This is why Tim Burners-Lee says you need to impose some discipline
> on your site.  The problem is that several different conventions
> have emerged (including not imposing any discipline), and there are
> no reference standards.    (014)

All of which is very true, even the last phrase, "...there are no
[applicable] reference standards."  However, that last phrase will
soon be rendered obsolete.  There will soon be an ISO standard,
13250-5 ("Topic Maps, Part 5: Reference Model") that changes the
situation.    (015)

The Topic Maps Reference Model does not establish a context within
which a certain class of expressions is expected to be interpreted.
Nor does it establish a syntax of any kind for such a class of
expressions.    (016)

What this "reference standard" is supposed to do is to establish a set
of disclosure requirements that must be met in order to establish a
context within which some set of expressions -- regardless of their
nature or syntax -- can be seen as a set of "subject proxies" (i.e.,
as representatives of specific "subjects of conversation").    (017)

It's going to be a pretty interesting standard, partly because it
standardizes none of the things that practically all other standards
standardize.  No syntax.  Almost no semantics.  No logic at all (John
Sowa: please take note!).  At the same time, the Topic Maps Reference
Model is a harsh mistress to those who would conform to it.  They must
reveal how some set of expressions (e.g., a database of records, or an
XTM instance, or an RDF Schema, or a newspaper article) can be
understood as providing information about specific subjects of
conversation, in such a way that *other* information about those same
subjects, whatever they are, can later be co-located within subject proxies
for those same subjects.    (018)

The Topic Maps Reference Model is no more and no less than a set of
requirements for exploiting a rhetoric: the rhetoric of "subject
proxies".      (019)

  Digression: Personally, I find it hard to believe that this wasn't
              done before now.  The thing that appears to be most
              unusual about it is the assumption that any given
              subject proxy can include any number (>0) of ways of
              identifying its subject, in any number (>0) of disclosed
              contexts.  To utter a subject proxy that identifies its
              single subject in the terms of more than one context is
              to demonstrate a belief that it's possible for different
              expressions to mean the same thing.  (And that's why I
              began this letter by asking you to think about whether
              that's possible.)    (020)

#######################################################    (021)

Now, what does all this have to do with our conversation?  Well, I
think my above words, uh, "provide a context" in which everything
that's been said so far in this conversation fits together nicely.
But more than that, it also shows that the knowledge that's been
represented using Owl, Conceptual Graphs, Topic Maps, and various
other communities (with their various ontologies, meta-ontologies, and
upper ontologies) is not doomed to eternal separation from its
siblings.  Nor need there be any single grand ontological unification
of all these contexts before these diverse communities can mutually
exploit all of each other's diverse works, in a manner in which the
whole aggregate of their knowledges is far more valuable than the sum
of their various contributions to it.    (022)

Nor are the Web's conventions for subject identification either right,
or wrong, or necessarily adequate for any given context.  We do not
need to be saddled with <schemename>:<opaque string> as the required
syntax of every expression that identifies a subject.  All we need to
know is the identification information, and the context in which we
want to understand it.    (023)

Even the restriction that a subject identifier must be a string is
demonstrably incompatible with the scope of the general problem of
human communications and the systems that support them.    (024)

I'm not saying that such restrictions are bad.  Given any *particular*
context, restrictions are always essential!  But the Web is just a
context.  Contexts come and go, and new ones are born every second.
But no matter how contexts will change, it will still be important (a)
to remember what they were, and (b) what certain expressions used to
mean in those contexts.    (025)

Returning to nature's way of conserving information: I doubt that
it's purely coincidental that the salinities of human blood and semen
approximate the salinities of primordial oceans -- that the human
genome carries with it the memory of those salinities, so that, e.g.,
the molecular devices that made flagellae flagellate in those ancient
waters can continue to operate in modern times.    (026)

All that the Topic Maps Reference Model is saying is that
self-disclosing information necessarily includes certain disclosure(s)
of the context(s) within which it expresses specific meaning(s).  The model
does NOT require that anything in particular means anything in
particular.  Conformance to it merely means that opinions about the
meanings of particular expressions in particular contexts are
knowable.      (027)

Why bother to make these disclosures?  Well, I can think of three
reasons:    (028)

(1) Loyalty to your tribe.  You want to maximize the robustness and
    exploitability of corporate memory, without imposing prior
    constraints on its missions or its ways of thinking and
    communicating about its missions, or the contexts in which it can
    prosper.    (029)

(2) Self-aggrandizement.  Even though "you can't take it with you",
    you nevertheless want to leave something behind.  Nature shows how
    to preserve information for millions of years, with no end in
    sight: namely, to preserve the memory of its context.    (030)

(3) Altruism.  Maximize the potential for freedom and reconciliation
    among your (and/or your contemporaries') descendants.  "The truth
    will *make* you free."  (It doesn't just "set" you free.)    (031)

-- Steve    (032)

Steven R. Newcomb, Consultant
Coolheads Consulting    (033)

Co-editor, Topic Maps International Standard (ISO/IEC 13250)
Co-editor, draft Topic Maps -- Reference Model (ISO/IEC 13250-5)    (034)

http://www.coolheads.com    (035)

direct: +1 540 951 9773
main:   +1 540 951 9774
fax:    +1 540 951 9775    (036)

208 Highview Drive
Blacksburg, Virginia 24060 USA    (037)

(Confidential to all US government personnel to whom this private
letter is not addressed and who are reading it in the absence of a
specific search warrant: In keeping with the publicly-confessed
criminal conduct of the Bush administration, and with the
irresponsible actions of the pusillanimous and corrupt 109th Congress,
you are co-conspiring to subvert the Constitution that you are sworn
to defend.  You can either refuse to commit this crime, or you can
expect to suffer criminal sanctions in the future, when the Executive
Branch of the government of the United States of America once again
demonstrates respect for the rule of law.  I do not envy you for
having to make this difficult choice, but I urge you to make it
wisely.)    (038)

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