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Re: [ontolog-forum] Finnegans Web

To: "Smith, Barry" <phismith@xxxxxxxxxxx>
Cc: "[ontolog-forum] " <ontolog-forum@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
From: Pat Hayes <phayes@xxxxxxx>
Date: Sat, 5 May 2007 10:30:05 -0700
Message-id: <p06230973c262647dcb9a@[]>
>  >PatHayes writes:
>>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.
>>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.
>Pat is doing very well    (01)

Thank you, Barry.    (02)

>until he inserts the phrase 'enforce ... the
>entire planet' into the discussion.    (03)

Perhaps the rhetoric did get a little flowery there.    (04)

>The OBO Foundry
>(http://obofoundry.org) is realizing alternative (2), for biomedical
>ontologies, by involving only certain parts of the planet on an
>entirely voluntary basis.    (05)

Oh, let me say at once that I have no problem with this, and didn't 
mean to argue against such initiatives. Of course alternative (3) 
isn't meant to imply that every single separate ontology must be done 
in isolation; quite the contrary, in fact. The SWeb idea envisions 
communities forming, or being organized, which will cohere around the 
use of an agreed ontological framework. I hope that many such flowers 
bloom, and that many people get trained in their use, just as there 
are such intellectual clusters in almost every technical domain of 
application (the XML 'community', the UML, PSL, XMD 'communities', 
etc..)    (06)

>One benefit we can claim is that we are
>giving non-experts in ontology much needed guidance as to how to
>represent, for example, size for tumors in such a way as to do
>justice to the fact that this varies with time. If all biologists
>working together on a given set of problems can be encouraged to
>represent this in the same way, then benefits of different sorts
>flow. We are visibly making progress as a result.    (07)

No doubt: and I don't mean to in any way disparage the advantages of 
this arrangement when it works (and virtually any such framework is 
better than no framework at all, no doubt). However, any such agreed 
method has its dark side: things it cannot represent as well as a 
different approach can. There is no universal ontological solvent. So 
there will be rivals, developed perhaps for a different purpose but 
which someone will discover can be used in this domain very usefully 
for some purposes (just as people discovered that Petri nets can be 
used to plug some expressive gaps in description logics). Then one 
has a choice: to instruct them not to do that, or to find some way to 
put the rival frameworks together. The problem now is that this way 
will almost certainly involve moving outside the ground rules of both 
of the frameworks, and doing something 'illegal'. And if those 
notions of what is 'legal' have been incorporated into standards or 
(worse) into software, then this translation process has been 
artificially made much harder than it needs to be.    (08)

>The OBO Foundry has no objection to mappings a la alternative (3)
>(see http://obofoundry.org/cgi-bin/table.cgi?show=mappings), though
>it has proved much more difficult in medicine than Pat here suggests.
>(3) may indeed be the right solution in the long run. But I believe
>that it can be successful only if different groups first follow
>alternative (2) in coherent fashion to create a solid basis for later
>mappings. For alternative (3) surely gives ontology developers too
>little guidance as to what to do in the short run.    (09)

Perhaps. But what bothers me is this idea that ontology developers 
need to be given 'guidance'. By who? By the ontology experts? But 
there are no ontology-writing experts, really. We are all beginners 
at this game. By philosophers? Excuse me while I laugh. By engineers? 
Librarians? Software designers? Management experts? Nicola Guarino? 
There are no end of people ready to give such advice, but none of 
them have any real qualifications to do so; and all the advice given 
is controversial.    (010)

On the other side of the coin, I have been constantly surprised by 
the extent to which people in the wide world have come up with new 
ontological ideas when left to their own devices. Would anyone in the 
existing 'ontology community' have thought of the idea of 
folksonomies? Would anyone have thought that a virtually empty 
ontology (the Dublin Core) could acquire great ontological force 
simply from being re-used in a large, and essentially socially 
defined, set of transactions (FOAF)? I certainly didn't predict 
either of these, and I didn't hear anyone in the ontology community 
predicting them before they actually happened. What worries me is 
that by setting up 'academies' to explain to the great unwashed how 
to use these terribly sophisticated tools we have invented, we may be 
stultifying creativity and invention.    (011)

No doubt this tension between exposition and limitation is universal, 
and both are needed. I think that Barry and I can agree that some 
form of (2) and of (3) is necessary in the long run. What I tend to 
protest about is a version of (2) which implicitly or explicitly 
claims universality for the whole of human thought; but I agree that 
great benefits can flow from organized attempts to create ontological 
versions of a 'controlled vocabulary', especially for a technical 
community for whom accuracy of communication is vital; and that do 
achieve this it may be essential to impose a single overarching 
ontological 'top level' framework on the whole.    (012)

>It is a bit like
>wanting to populate a library by encouraging people to write books
>using bits of Hebrew, bits of French, bits of Gaelic,    (013)

In my vision of the Sweb, it is more like throwing a lot of kids 
together who all speak different languages. And what happens then is 
that at first a pidgin is spoken, with a simplified and crude grammar 
and a mix of vocabularies; and then, in one generation, an entirely 
new creole language appears. Never underestimate the ability of 
people to find ways to express things :-) And whether they talk 
proper, like, in some teecher's opinion, ain't really to the point.    (014)

>and to
>encourage people not to worry about the resultant difficulties in
>understanding, because we will have Pat to translate it all into IKL
>and sort out translations as the need arises.    (015)

Not Pat, but the products of the IKRIS project and then some. In 
fact, we are already starting a project (which my friends, indeed, 
call "pat-in-a-box") to automate these translation strategies as part 
of a general-purpose ontology interface. If we ever get it done, it 
will be openly and freely available.    (016)

Pat    (017)

PS. Great subject line, Barry.    (018)

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