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Re: [ontolog-forum] History of the Atomic Hypothesis

To: "[ontolog-forum]" <ontolog-forum@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
From: "John F. Sowa" <sowa@xxxxxxxxxxx>
Date: Sun, 27 Jul 2008 09:28:53 -0400
Message-id: <488C7815.6000709@xxxxxxxxxxx>
Alex,    (01)

Your comments raise a lot of questions:    (02)

 > For me an amazing thing is that different meanings of words were
 > determined and put together in a defining dictionaries like
 > http://www.merriam-webster.com/.
 > Formalization of this treasure is just a problem of time.    (03)

Unfortunately, people have been trying for a long time, and they
still haven't begun to formalize it.  The M-W 7th Collegiate
dictionary was available in machine-readable form in the 1970s.
There is a lot that can be done with it, but nobody has even
begun to formalize it to the level where it can be used in
detailed logical deduction.    (04)

 > For "atom" M-W has 4 meanings:
 > http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/atom    (05)

For convenience in discussion, I copied them below.    (06)

Definition #1 was acceptable from 440 BC until the beginning of
the 20th century, when people discovered that atoms could be
broken into smaller particles.  But along the way, more and more
information was learned about atoms, mostly by the chemists.    (07)

But even though definition #1 was acceptable, there were many
different theories about them, as I summarized in my previous
note.  (See the references to the various web pages.)    (08)

If by formalization, you mean a taxonomy or a type hierarchy that
can be used to classify words (or concepts or predicates), then
definition #1 is adequate.  But if you want to do more detailed
reasoning about the various theories and use them in some
application, then you need to specify many detailed axioms.
And the axioms for different theories are inconsistent with one
another.  (See those classic papers on chemistry, for example.)    (09)

 > Most important thing in a skill of definition is that definition
 > is algorithmic by nature:
 > you ask person - "What is this?". He applies his own algorithm
 > and answers - "This is an atom."    (010)

That point raises an enormous number of controversial issues.
Nobody has a clue about what goes on inside the brain (other than
the fact that different parts light up when people are thinking
about different things).  Many people have pointed out that it is
highly unlikely that the brain works like a digital computer, and
many have claimed that it's impossible to simulate the brain with
a digital computer.  But even if we could simulate it on a computer,
it still not clear that the algorithms in the computer would have
any kind of one-to-one correspondence with the processes in the brain.    (011)

For example, there is a lot of evidence that human thinking (and the
thinking of higher animals) is based on analogies.  If so, we might
implement some algorithms for finding analogies in our computer.
But the basis for answering "This is an atom" would not be that
algorithm, but the vast amount of background knowledge to which
that algorithm is applied.    (012)

That description applies to a computer, in which there is a clear
separation of the algorithms and the data on which they operate.
But in the brain, information seems to be stored in some kind of
active neural processes.  When something relevant to that information
appears in the brain, those processes "wake up" and interact with
other processes to generate new processes, which eventually lead
to the answer.    (013)

Calling those processes "algorithmic" is highly misleading, since
they are very different from any kinds of algorithms that are
implemented in ordinary digital computers.    (014)

 > If we think about "M-W:atom:1" today it is an "elementary particle".    (015)

Actually, physicists today do not call atoms "elementary particles".
They usually reserve that term for things like electrons, which
cannot be further subdivided (at least by any means known today).
Even protons and neutrons are not considered elementary particles
because they can be subdivided into quarks.    (016)

M-W definition #3 is technically correct, but the person who wrote
it should have avoided using the words 'particle' and 'element' in
the same sentence -- because it could cause the reader to think
'elementary particle'.    (017)

I would suggest the word 'subdivision' instead of 'particle' in order
to avoid that confusion.  My recommended definition:    (018)

    the smallest subdivision of an element that retains the
    defining characteristics of that element.    (019)

In summary, this discussion illustrates the point I was tying to make:
If we use words at a vague level (without detailed definitions and
axioms), we can reach agreement.  But if we try to pin down the exact
meanings to the level necessary for writing detailed axioms, we get
into an endless series of analyses and disputes about different ways
of doing the analysis.    (020)

John Sowa
____________________________________________________________________    (021)

1 : one of the minute indivisible particles of which according to 
ancient materialism the universe is composed    (022)

2  : a tiny particle : bit    (023)

3  : the smallest particle of an element that can exist either alone or 
in combination    (024)

4  : the atom considered as a source of vast potential energy    (025)

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