To clear up misinterpretations:
[PH] >> 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
I have tried to explain several times that the word “defining”
in the phrase “conceptual defining vocabulary” is used in an
analogical way, and that the foundation ontology will consist mostly of concept
specifications that use necessary conditions, not necessary and sufficient
conditions. But if you believe that only an ontology with all N&S
definitions will be useful, then I can only disagree. Too many useful basic
notions are not N&S definable. If you are merely objecting to the use of
the term “defining” in that phrase, then substitute any other word
you consider less problematic for your own use.
[PC] >> 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.
[PH] > 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
And no, I did not say that mere proximity of a word and
object is enough to associate a term with a meaning. I never used the word ‘near’.
What I said was “words are associated with their meanings by
experience in context”. Of course, the process of language learning involves multiple
clues, including possibly an innate ability to exclude certain combinatorially
possible syntactic constructions from the grammar. My point was that the language
learning process is sufficiently *similar* in different people learning
the same native language, that the process supports the ability of learners to
develop a common internal ontology (of unknown structure) that is very close. I
merely alluded to a couple of components of the learning process as examples of
things that would be similar among learners. Of course, saying this doesn’t
prove it, and your doubting it doesn’t disprove it either.
You correctly point out the disputes among adults when
trying to formalize a common ontology. But in those cases the terms used need
to acquire a much more precise meaning than the terms used in normal
communication. Even though they consciously try not to get hung up on
terminology, it appears to me that some disagreements still are caused by a
desire to fix a specific meaning to a term, where different ontologists have a
different notion of how that term should be formalized. My suggestion is to
formalize all of the different notions, and give them different names. If that
process results in a **logical contradiction**, it is my expectation that one
or more of the formalizations specifies a concept that is not primitive and is
not required as part of the foundation ontology, and would be required only in
an extension. This latter expectation is part of the “conceptual defining
vocabulary (CDV) hypothesis”. But this can only be proven by attempting specifically
to create a foundation ontology as a CDV. The question of whether people
actually use an innate common ontology is a scientific question, but the
methods for investigating that are likely to be horrendously complex, and I do
not think that past efforts to create a foundation ontology at Cyc actually address
this specific question. The development of a foundation ontology as a CDV would
not itself prove that the internal ontologies of sixteen-year-olds are similar,
but it would at least show that it is possible to have some reasonably small
set of concepts that can be used in combination to describe the meanings of a
very large number of other more specialized concepts. That knowledge would be very
useful, in my opinion.
The common terms in English can have multiple meanings. Yet,
it appears to me that assertions using those terms by people trying to be clear
are almost always (> 99%) unambiguous, taken in the full context of the text.
So I believe that there is a disambiguation process that results in the
selection of the proper sense, at least 99% of the time. Three amplifications:
That statistic represents a use-weighted accuracy. There may be
some basic terms that are misinterpreted with a lot higher frequency, but those
terms, if they exist, appear to be used infrequently. This accuracy is
intended to refer to accuracy in interpreting written text, read in a context in
which the background of the communication is already known. Spoken language
may be more accurate, by having more situational referents and an opportunity
for feedback; it may be less accurate if too much knowledge in the hearer is
The senses in which terms are interpreted may still be quite
vague. That would leave room for misinterpretation in the case where the
vagueness masks an important distinction. But I believe that where there are
important distinctions, people trying to be clear will use more specific terms
or phrases to avoid significant misinterpretation.
The senses that are represented by the basic linguistic defining
vocabulary may not be identical to some enumerated sense in a given dictionary.
[[]] [PC] >> None of this is a theory of
language acquisition, but it is a description of how people can acquire the *same*
[PH] WHY is it that? You
keep saying that, but even your own account does not support this claim.
I didn’t think that suggesting a hypothesis –
stated as such - required an actual proof of the hypothesis. But I did say
that my own observations suggest that communication using the basic vocabulary
is highly accurate, and that that implies a common set of meanings that can be
attached to the words. This estimate of accuracy is a non-systematic observation
that would need proof if one wanted to investigate the hypothesis. I think it
would be the first thing that needs proof, if one were to properly investigate
the notion of a common ontology used in language understanding. I am not aware
of whether the accuracy of basic communication has been formally investigated
(didn’t do a literature search – Googling some relevant phrases has
not lead to anything on point). If you don’t think that linguistic
communication using the basic words (Longman’s, e.g.) is accurate,
perhaps you have some reason for that skepticism, which I would like to hear.
But the ambiguity of
Individual words is not at issue. The question is, if one
person tries to explain something to another, using the basic words in their
basic senses, how often is the explanation misunderstood? (outside of the basic
set of words in their basic senses, misunderstanding can easily occur. For
example, the meaning of “definition” in the N&S sense is not in
Longman’s at all).
[mailto:ontolog-forum-bounces@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx] On Behalf Of Pat Hayes
Sent: Monday, March 10, 2008 11:11 AM
Subject: Re: [ontolog-forum] Ontology similarity and accurate communication
At 12:46 AM -0500 3/8/08, Patrick Cassidy wrote:
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
To be more specific:
[[]] [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
[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.
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