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Re: [ontolog-forum] Another approach

To: <ontolog-forum@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
From: <matthew.west@xxxxxxxxx>
Date: Sat, 23 Feb 2008 15:12:39 -0000
Message-id: <808637A57BC3454FA660801A3995FA8F06731542@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
Dear Ronald,
Well I guess I'll take a shot at this. See below.


Matthew West
Reference Data Architecture and Standards Manager
Shell International Petroleum Company Limited
Registered in England and Wales
Registered number: 621148
Registered office: Shell Centre, London SE1 7NA, United Kingdom

Tel: +44 20 7934 4490 Mobile: +44 7796 336538
Email: matthew.west@xxxxxxxxx

Dear Colleagues,

I've been eavesdropping ontolog for a while.  Now I'd like to contribute new thoughts on an ontology-1 (in the philosophical sense). I hope they are relevant to axioms and ambiguity, among other things.

I hope this message is not too discourteously long.

Our research aimed to find a way of specifying the norms that govern organized human behavior.  The practical results are very promising but they depend on finding a new metaphysical foundation, in particular an ontology-1 recognizing, to all intents and purposes, that

a)    there is no knowable reality without an agent; and that 

MW: So that isn't that there is no reality without agents, only that what is known must be known by an agent, presumably because only agents can know things. Sounds to be like you might be more interested in epistemology than ontology. 

b)    the agent must discover its own reality in the flux of events and actions. 

MW: Are you saying here that there are actually multiple realities, which are what agents discover, or that there is one reality, that different agents have different views on based on what different agents discover (know again)? 

This builds on James Gibson's Theory of Affordances: no organism opens its sense 'windows' onto a ready-made reality but, from the flux of information generated by activity (including its own), the organism must discover the invariant repertoires of behavior, that the environment affords it.  These 'affordances' are the things it perceives. 

We call the ontology-1 "actualism".  

MW: I think this name has already been grabbed:


 Bishop Berkeley's ontology is the nearest approximation I have found.  He had to explain what happened to the tree in the quad when no one was around to perceive it. As expressed succinctly in the well-known limerick:

There was a young man who said "God

Must think it exceedingly odd

If he finds that this tree

Continues to be

When there's no one about in the Quad."

We substitute Society for God, with excellent effect.  An isolated human organism will know little of reality without the cooperation of the rest of Society.  

MW: Again, I notice you are talking about what agents know, not about what exists.

I'm no philosopher, theologian or politician but an engineer looking for solutions that works.  Some have accused me of an anti-individual political bias but this approach does not diminish the importance of the individual. Belief in God or in any other Truth, is unaffected within this paradigm, provided you acknowledge that these are beliefs for which you bear responsibility

In practical information systems engineering, ontology-1 leads to a canonical form of ontology-2 (sophisticated data model).  

MW: OK. Data models are one way of representing an ontology, but they are also the cross over from ontology to epistemology, since that specify the information we want to hold about certain things of interest.

 We claim only an empirical basis for this Semantic Normal Form.  Could this have an axiomatic potential? 

MW: Well, data models generally contain relatively few axioms (the cardinality constraints would qualify). But these can be added.

Please give me your comments. Is our ontology-1 really new?  I'm sure you will disabuse me soon enough if I'm mistaken. 

MW: My question would be whether it is an ontology or epistemology. 

I gave a paper at the 2007 ICCS (the series that, I believe, John Sowa instigated); sadly he was not there.   But that now encourages me to introduce the ideas to this group.

Our research on the formalization of social (and legal) norms, which started at the London School of Economics, forced us to handle semantics rigorously while never losing sight of the human connection between sign and reality. 

MW: Have you read John Searle,  The construction of social reality ?

Talk of meaning obliges one to start from the fact that Signs have meanings because they stand for real things. Hence, to have a clear position on meaning, one must make a commitment about the nature of reality. 

MW: Right. 

None of the conventional ontology-1s seemed to work.  

MW: Which ones did you try? Realism is the one I favour (along probably with the majority of others here). What was it that did not work about realism?

 Finally we adopted Gibson's Affordances and added social norms, which are invariants that afford repertoires of behavior in the social sphere.  Gibson's Theory of perception of the material world is insufficient to explain an individual human's perception except, perhaps, in cases of enfants sauvages. The rich perceptions of those raised as members of society incorporate many extra perceptions that have been supplied by other people and form the community's shared perceptual norms.  Moreover the reality of the social world also depends on the many other behavioral, cognitive and evaluative norms that we also derive from the community that nurtures us.  Therefore we have taken Society as the root agent in our model of perception. 

Berkeley explained a person's perception of a tree as the result of an idea in His mind,  

MW: Now that is beginning to sound like conceptualism.

 so that we can accept that the tree continues to exist in the Quad when "nobody" can see it, because God is always there. 

Without the mysterious intervention of God, Society provides an empirically testable explanation for continuing to accept the tree's existence.  

MW: How? I would have thought the tree was sufficient for continuing to accept the tree's existence.

 Based the cognitive norms shared across Society and using the reports of responsible observers, checked by critical discourse with others, we can justify believing that the tree still stands in the quad. 

MW: This sounds like something based on our collective knowledge again, tied perhaps to beliefs.

The rich world we ontolog participants believe in lies beyond the perceptual reach of any isolated human being.  

MW: So here at least you seem to acknowledge a world independent of our perceptions.

 Society enables us to aggregate our puny individual experiences through the information we exchange, the norms we share. We test them until we arrive at the familiar picture of an apparently objective reality. 

MW: Sounds like epistemology again. 

To represent fully something that we believe exists, we must say who perceives it and what affordance the agent realizes for the period of its existence.  So we need sentences of the form:

                Agent affordance

The root Agent must be a particular (convention: uppercase capital).  During the Agent's realization of this affordance, it is, in effect a modified kind of Agent able to experience some other affordance.

                (Agent affordance) affordance

When an affordance ceases to be realized, as far as the root Agent is concerned that thing totally ceases to exist.  

MW: But only as far as the agent is concerned, not necessarily in reality, right? 

The environment may afford the Agent two of these repertoires of behaviour simultaneously:

                Agent (affordance while affordance)

again becoming the modified agent

                (Agent (affordance while affordance)) affordance

Thus the effective existence of anything  

MW: As opposed to the actual existence of anything.

 depends fundamentally on the agent who takes responsibility for his/her/its choices.  

MW: This sounds like beliefs again.

 It also depends on the coexistence of some other, 'ontological antecedents'. Between the Agent and the affordance in question one may draw a lattice where each affordance has one or a maximum of two antecedents.  If this lattice includes the antecedent affordances that are necessary and sufficient for the existence of the one being analysed, one will have a schema in Semantic Normal Form.

A little example (I'll leave you to draw a graphical version) is a marriage:

   marriage (person-1 (Society), person-2 (Society))

If person-1 proposes such a marriage, he (usually) must use a sign that stands for that marriage, which does not exist:

        proposal (person-1 (Society), "marriage ( . . . .)")

As the ontology-1 only allows us to talk about things existing here and now,  

MW: Oh, so you are a presentist too then are you?

 everything in the past or future is available only in this semiological form. 

SNF-compliant schemas are very stable and systems built on them can accommodate changes of requirements with remarkable economy. Looked at from another angle, the schema in SNF has a valid generality across cultures, while able to accommodate any differences through the variations in the authorities that determine when things start and finish their existence.  This supports the accretion of semantic information without imposing any artificial uniformity.  Presumably, these properties are highly relevant to the semantic web.

SNF-compliant schemas can be aggregated.  We have built some quite large schemas  

MW: Large I discover is a relative term. Is large for you 100 entity types, 1000 entity types, 10000 entity types 100,000 entity types or 1,000,000 entity types?

 but need far more experience to discover where the limits lie.

Building a schema in SNForm is not a trivial task, by the way.  If you wish to try, don't fall into the trap of treating an ontological dependency as a cause-effect relationship.  Your schema can represent only what exists here and now, as defined by the Agent and its activities. 

MW: I prefer realism and 4-dimensionalism, so I think I'll pass on this. 

Every node on the schema should be accompanied by a list of attributes that includes the identifier of the thing it stands for, the universal it instantiates, when its starts and finishes its existence and the authorities that determine these start and finish events/times. 

MW: So when does the number two start and finish, or the colour green? 

Our Legally Orientated Language for manipulating data held under SNF-compliant schemas allows us to represent social norms precisely and in a form that 'naïve' users find easy to understand.

We have designed many and built some systems (but not yet enough) using these concepts with marked success. 

MW: Can you say what the applications you have built do? 

The formal aspects need far more work

Awaiting some feedback, with my regards,

Ronald Stamper


PS: It has taken some time to be able to send this message and now I'll be away from my desk for a few days.  -  Further apologies!

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