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Re: [ontolog-forum] Ontology similarity and accurate communication

To: "[ontolog-forum] " <ontolog-forum@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
From: Pat Hayes <phayes@xxxxxxx>
Date: Mon, 10 Mar 2008 10:10:39 -0500
Message-id: <p06230903c3faf8594a90@[]>
At 12:46 AM -0500 3/8/08, Patrick Cassidy wrote:
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Almost all of the points we disagree on could form the basis for a very long extended discussion which would not likely reach a mutually satisfactory conclusion.  There are two  issues that are worth pursuing, but only one is central to the hypothesis that I asserted that started this thread.   The core issue is whether, in the early years, people develop a common ontology (obviously, not a formal one) and an associated vocabulary that is so close among individuals that it allows highly accurate communication **when restricted to the most basic concepts**.

I note in passing that you have not said what a 'basic' concept is, and that time and change, which seem pretty basic to me and everyone else in ontology, are topics on which competent adults can have violently differing views which have fueled long-standing controversies.

 That set of commonly understood concepts is what I consider the brain¹s equivalent of a ³conceptual defining vocabulary², a formal foundation ontology  that has an inventory of representations of basic concepts that will allow logical specifications of almost all specialized terms one might want to represent.

Again, you have not given us a shred of evidence to suggest that this incredible thing might actually exist, or that if it does, how it comes to exist. It seems to me that the burden of proof is on you, to argue for this idea and provide some evidence that it might be plausible. References, preferable on-line, please. Tomes are OK provided they were published later than, say, 1960.

  You say that I have no evidence.  I say that the fact that we can communicate accurately when we try to is very good evidence that we have an adequate vocabulary of words with agreed meanings.

First, an adequate vocabulary is not a "conceptual defining vocabulary" in the sense you use above. Second, even a conceptual defining vocabulary is not a formal foundation ontology, since you are using 'defining' in the dictionary sense (which is of limited, if any, use when describing formal ontologies). Third, you are ignoring that we apparently, in many cases, do not communicate accurately with perfect conceptual precision. We communicate accurately enough to get by in everyday life, which is not the same thing at all.

 You say that psycholinguistic research has already disproven the notion that children can learn to communicate with a common vocabulary by the experience of seeing words used in context to refer to objects and events.

No, I did not say that. At some level this is clearly true, as this is simply a description of what children in fact actually do (if you substitute 'hearing' for 'seeing', and avoid the question-begging use of 'refer to' in the last phrase.) The question is, how do they do it? And what I heard you saying was that they did it by a process of association: that when a word is used 'near' an object or event, that proximity is enough to induce an association between words and their meanings which constitutes the word-meaning mapping underlying linguistic competence. That associationist theory is what has been rejected by modern linguistics. First, it gives no account at all of how children can acquire grammar, which they do at a very early age. Second, it ignores the question of how the child is able to detect which object or event, or even which particular aspect of the object or event, that is being referred to. Third, it ignores (or fails to account for) the fact that a great deal of the speech that children hear isn't directly referential at all, so how do they distinguish the parts of it that are from the rest? Fourth, it ignores the fact that one can give alternative referential theories for the very same set of observations (a point made trenchantly by Quine), so why should the kids all converge on a single one of them? (And in fact, it seems most probable that they don't.) And fifth, when implemented in (admittedly) simplified models, it seems to work, if at all, many orders of magnitude too slowly to explain human language acquisition. There just isn't enough waking time in a child's life to do induction of experiences fast enough to learn c. 20 new words a day.

  Fine, that would be useful information.  So, educate us and provide us with the references to that research which you are convinced shows otherwise.  Online references if possible.  And on-point, please, no list of general tomes on language learning.

I understand your dislike for tomes, but pretty much any modern text will cover the main material, especially if it has a historical-review section.

To be more specific:
[[[3]]] [PH]  >> HOW? How is it possible for two children in kindergarten to align their mental ontologies? The idea doesn't even make sense: it would require them to be telepathic.
[pc]    No, no telepathy needed.  They need only both  hear a word used in reference to the same objects or events.
[PH] There is no evidence, psychological or computational, that such mere associating of word sounds with objects is enough to learn language from. How would one get from this the meaning of a word like 'embarrassing'?  You are just not talking about anything remotely real here.
. . .  and later:
[PH] I have no idea how they do it [learn language]. If I did, I would be famous in psycholinguistics. But I do know a fairly long history of failure of simplistic ideas about how it is done, of which the one you describe is one of the first, and all of which have been shown to be wrong or inadequate. The most trenchant observation about yours is that neither kids nor adults actually speak in the object/word way that would be necessary for this to work.
I am not sure what you are referring to here as being ³wrong² or disproven.  I did not say that children learn *only* by pointing to objects, but by hearing a word used in reference to objects and events.  When a person does something obviously stupid and says ³That was dumb.  I am so embarrassed² one can start right away to grasp the meaning of ³embarrassed², if one knows the other words.  Subsequent references to that  event and others as ³embarrassing² add to the detail of understanding.  And of course people use grammatical cues, and use words already learned to grasp the meaning of new words.

Of course. But try to flesh this out into an actual account of how its done (or still better, a working model which actually does it) and see if it works. If you are right, fame and fortune awaits.

 None of this is a theory of language acquisition, but it is a description of how people can acquire the *same* meanings

WHY is it that? You keep saying that, but even your own account does not support this claim. People learn language, presumably building mental models (Lets agree to call them mental ontologies) by hearing words spoken in contexts of use. They can then communicate by using language. All that is kind of obvious (apart from the mental ontologies part). Now, it does NOT follow from this that they all have the same mental ontology. It does NOT follow that their ontologies have a smallish 'core' from which all other concepts can be defined. It does NOT follow that they learn language by first learning this 'core'.

for the same words by seeing them used consistently in such contexts.  Common experience of seeing language used to describe images may also be part of the process these days.  The only point here is that there are a sufficiently large set of *common* experiences associated with language use to support the development of an adequate common defining vocabulary and associated mental objects. 

You havn't given any evidence for this. You seem to be assuming that common experiences (which isn't actually true, but never mind) plus common surface vocabulary inevitably implies common mental, ontologies, but that is wrong. It doesn't imply that.

 Whatever the full process of language learning is, the reason we can communicate is that the full set of experiences of use of words allows most native speakers to induce the same common meaning.

At some level that must be true, but "common meaning" need not mean 'identical mental ontology'.

 If this is insufficient to explain how we can acquire a vocabulary in common with those we speak to, please do refer us to the papers that explain what part of this process description is wrong and disproven.  Is it ³inadequate²? ­ of course.   At no point did I suggest that the set of language acquisition methods I referred to in one sentence is complete.
The interesting second issue is, why do people building ontologies disagree on how to represent certain concepts.  That is somewhat related, but really a separate issue which should be pursued in a different thread.  Later.

OK, lets get to that discussion, which is likely to be more productive than this one.

Pat Hayes
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