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Re: [ontolog-forum] Inventor of the Web Gets Backing to Build Web of Dat

To: "[ontolog-forum]" <ontolog-forum@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
From: "John F. Sowa" <sowa@xxxxxxxxxxx>
Date: Sat, 27 Mar 2010 11:35:19 -0500
Message-id: <4BAE33C7.5030209@xxxxxxxxxxx>
Chris,    (01)

CP> I think you may be underestimating some of the post-language changes.    (02)

Writing certainly changes many things, but the point I was making is
that the level of sophistication by illiterate people was extremely
high.  All the ancient civilizations from the Nile to China were
founded thousands of years before any of them had a system of writing.    (03)

Just look at Stonehenge, with its careful alignment to the sun and
moon, its huge stones that required some technology to move, and
the number of people that had to be organized in order to do the
moving and constructing.  But they were all illiterate.    (04)

As another example, consider the Polynesian navigators who crossed
thousands of miles of open ocean from Tahiti to New Zealand to Hawaii
to Easter Island.  Some of the old timers preserved an oral tradition
of how they navigated, and they gave a demonstration while observers
with GPS systems watched.  And they were amazingly accurate.    (05)

CP> So, as you probably know, studies in pre-literate Mesopotamian
 > mathematics show that these cultures did not have a notion of number.
 > In other words, they did not have a clear notion of 1, 2 or 3.    (06)

I very strongly doubt that.  A few isolated tribes, such as the
Pirahã, do not have a system of counting, but that is an extremely
rare example.  See, for example,    (07)

http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2007/04/16/070416fa_fact_colapinto    (08)

CP> One can track when the idea was introduced. In the early writing,
 > three sheep were signed by three symbols for a sheep. Subsequently
 > there was one symbol for 3 and one for sheep.    (09)

The Romans wrote I, II, and III.  But they also had words 'unus',
'duo', and 'tres'.  Those Mesopotamian systems were used by
merchants for long-distance trading before they had cuneiform
symbols for the words.  I'm sure they were just as sharp at
bargaining in the bazaars as their modern descendants.    (010)

CP> We have the remnants of this is the different bases we use for
 > counting different things (e.g. hours, minutes). Japanese still
 > has residual different numerals.    (011)

Sure.  And we still use Roman numerals.  But note that the words
for the numbers from 1 to 100 are the best preserved terms in all
the Indo-European languages.  Those languages diverged from a
common source over 7,000 years ago -- thousands of years before
any of those languages were written.    (012)

There is a very good reason why the numbers are so well preserved:
merchants who spoke different dialects had to understand the
spoken numbers because they didn't have written numbers.    (013)

CP> My view is that the human mind is to some extent plastic and
 > it can learn things like numbers that have a big effect on its
 > functionality. There is an analogy with a computer, where one
 > could argue that its hardware is fundamental (in some sense) but
 > it also makes a big difference what software is loaded.    (014)

I certainly agree with that.  And I also agree that writing has
a strong effect.    (015)

CP> My only reason for pursuing this is that if these kinds of
 > claims are correct then the introduction of computing should
 > correlate with some conceptual changes - fundamental or otherwise
 > - and maybe some of this ontology stuff has a part to play in it.    (016)

Yes, I believe it can have some effect.  But as I said in my
previous note, the strongest effect is the nurturing by parents
(and other people) during the first 3 to 5 years -- a time when
most children are still illiterate and those who have learned
some reading haven't yet been strongly influenced by it.  Some
influences, such as TV, can actually have a negative effect,
largely because they reduce the amount of direct human contact.    (017)

By the way, that article about the Pirahã tribe has some other
important implications for ontology.  The following observation is
significant for the ways of thinking about individuals and time:    (018)

New Yorker> Committed to an existence in which only observable
 > experience is real, the Pirahã do not think, or speak, in
 > abstractions - and thus do not use color terms, quantifiers,
 > numbers, or myths.
 > the Pirahã perceive reality solely according to what exists within
 > the boundaries of their direct experience — which Everett defined
 > as anything that they can see and hear, or that someone living has
 > seen and heard. “When someone walks around a bend in the river,
 > the Pirahã say that the person has not simply gone away but
 > xibipío — ‘gone out of experience,’ ” Everett said. “They use the
 > same phrase when a candle flame flickers. The light ‘goes in and
 > out of experience.’ ”    (019)

In short, the Pirahã seem to classify observations about people
and candle flames in the same way -- somewhat like my simple
observation language about Kermit the frog.    (020)

John    (021)

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