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Re: [ontolog-forum] A "common basis"

To: "Cassidy, Patrick J." <pcassidy@xxxxxxxxx>
Cc: "[ontolog-forum] " <ontolog-forum@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
From: Pat Hayes <phayes@xxxxxxx>
Date: Fri, 4 May 2007 21:46:56 -0700
Message-id: <p06230962c25ec36f72ab@[]>
>There is a big difference between having a vocabulary that allows us to
>describe precisely different theories and their effects, and actually
>believing that the models behind those theories are a full description
>of the real world.  There is no need to make such a confusion.  Adam
>Pease has pointed out that a lot of comments about how "one can't have
>one consistent ontology" actually resolve into differences over
>representations of the real world that can and must be resolved
>experimentally,    (01)

Wait. The differences that are most urgent and cause the most 
problems for ontology are not differences between rival scientific 
theories. The fact that nobody has a consistent theory encompassing 
quantum electrodynamics and general relativity is a serious matter 
for scientists, but not (yet) for ontologists. The real problem that 
we face is this. One can take two people who agree completely about 
the facts, and agree to use the very same logic to represent those 
facts in, and yet they will produce different ontologies. (The 
well-known example of how best to represent time and change is the 
one I know in the most detail.) Moreover, those ontologies can be 
formally inconsistent with one another. One cannot simply merge 
together sentences from two such ontologies and expect to get a 
sensible result. There are no *experiments* to resolve such 
ontological differences, since the two authors agree about the 
empirical facts; but one (for example) insists that there are two 
distinct ways of existing in time, while the other treats these 
simply as two (amongst many) ways to carve up a spatiotemporal 
universe. The two authors here might be Barry Smith and me, 
respectively. The differences are not empirical, but (sorry) 
philosophical: in fact, they are *ontological*, in the original, 
pre-AI, pre-Web, sense of that word. They reflect divergent, 
incompatible, ways of thinking about some aspect of the world. 
Differences like this cannot be resolved experimentally; and all the 
evidence so far available suggests that to even attempt to 'resolve' 
them, in the sense of deciding on a winner, is only going to alienate 
a sizeable fraction of the user base.    (02)

Now, what should we do about this? All the proposals I have ever 
heard boil down to one of three alternatives: (1) ignore it and hope 
it will go away (2) for each such conceptual debate, decide on one of 
the alternatives and make it the single standard (somehow: perhaps by 
compulsion, as some military funders seem to assume; perhaps by 
commercial pressure, as PatC seems to suggest) or (3) find ways to 
translate between them as they arise. I strongly believe that the 
only long-term feasible method is (3), and we have made considerable 
progress along these lines, enough to suggest that the translations 
are always possible and often fairly easy, once one approaches the 
problem in a pragmatic frame of mind. If all ontologies were written 
in IKL, we could definitely do the translations for almost all of the 
problems I aware of. In particular, option (2) simply isn't going to 
work. People will simply not agree on what is the single right way to 
write ontologies. Nor should they have to: there is absolutely no 
reason why they should. Any attempt to enforce (or otherwise 
persuade) the entire planet will only produce the kind of 
interminable semi-philosophical debates that we are already having.    (03)

Now, it may well be that the protagonists of a single Correct Upper 
Ontology (an idea which I cannot help but find amusing, sorry) are in 
fact doing the same thing in a different terminology. The work 
involved in translating between rival conceptual frameworks is 
probably essentially the same as that involved in fitting them into a 
single coherent overarching framework. In both cases one needs to 
worry about consistency, mappings between different ways to express 
things, and so on. So it may well be that at a technical level we do 
not really disagree. But the great advantages of taking the third 
position are less technical than social. It allows people to use the 
conceptual framework they are most comfortable using (for whatever 
reason). It distributes the effort, in that ontologies which agree 
can work together while waiting for translators to other ontologies, 
probably written by different people. It takes advantage of the Web. 
It can support an 'ontology open source' model, with all its 
advantages of flexibility and immediate 'swarming' of effort on 
urgent problems. And finally, it requires no organization or massive 
Manhatten-project scale funding or management effort. The world will 
just do it, as needed, and the global network of ontologies will in 
fact get created. It is already starting to happen.    (04)

Pat    (05)

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