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Re: [ontolog-forum] Re Foundation ontology, CYC, and Mapping

To: doug@xxxxxxxxxx, "[ontolog-forum]" <ontolog-forum@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
From: "Gary H. Merrill" <gary.h.merrill@xxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
Date: Sun, 28 Mar 2010 16:54:07 -0400
Message-id: <1269809647.2847.397.camel@Ontolytics-PC>
On Sun, 2010-03-28 at 19:51 +0100, doug foxvog wrote:
Pavithra wrote

> ...
> I agree, that  in Classes, one has to define the attribute as  "Name" and
> specify it as a character string which can have a value "Kermit"! 

I prefer John Sowa's distinction, in which the name is not a character
string, but something that has a character string as a spelling.

I am not at all sure what the point is here, but I sense some possibly dangerous confusions.  One involves use of the phrase "the name" (rather than, say, "a name of").  Almost always a thing will have multiple names, each of which is traditionally taken to be a character string and to refer to the same thing (the referent, the denotatum, the thing named).  For various purposes one might then select a "standard name" or a "canonical name" or a "print name" or a "display name", etc.

If on the other hand you take a name to be something that has a character string as a spelling, then you take a name to be an abstract object of some sort:  an equivalence class, related to one or more spellings.   (I assume we adopt the view that each such name must have at least one spelling, although in the case of names for entities in an uncountable universe and relative to languages with countably many expressions, there are some  interesting question concerning this -- but that is a digression.)  Further, this allows (at least in principle) for two distinct names to have associated with them the same spelling.  (This in fact happens with some frequency in natural language and in mixing domains in scientific languages.  Consider 'mole', for example.)   At the very least, you then need a principle of individuation for names -- since the principle of individuation for character strings no longer suffices once you have broken the strict relation between a name and a (unique) character string.  When are two names the same?  Well, an obvious answer would be "Two names are the same just in case their equivalence classes of spellings are identical."  But it's really not clear what advantage such added complexity has.  Why not say "Well, 'mole' is a name but its referent and meaning differs with context." (the traditional approach that allows for ambiguity of names) as opposed to "Well, there are two distinct names, and 'mole' is a spelling of each."?  (Note that the latter MAY have the interesting consequence that names cannot be ambiguous, but that depends upon how the surround theories of reference and meaning are developed.)

This seems an odd and unnecessarily cumbersome direction in which to go.  It is not necessarily incorrect, but the motivation and advantage to it is unclear.  Why adopt a notion of name according to which one name denotes a furry creature and another name denotes a skin lesion, and each of those names has the same spelling -- rather than an approach in which there is one name ('mole') which has different referents (and different meanings) depending upon the context in which it is used?  Again, certainly one may proceed along such a path, but there is a price to pay in complexity at various levels.  Why not treat names as character strings (which are very well behaved and whose theory we know very well), and then when necessary (usually for computational purposes) introduce a "canonical name" for each entity -- one that may either be among the names in the intended equivalence classes or (generally better in formal and computational contexts) one that is created so as to be different from any such "normal" name?

An example of the complexity of such issues may be found in the Unified Medical Language System where a 'term' is not what most of us would think of as a term.  A UMLS term is in fact an equivalence class of "atoms", where an atom is (roughly) an occurrence of a string within a context.   Within the UMLS there are some clear motivations for treating terms as abstract objects, but there is also a substantial amount of resulting confusion pertaining to what conditions must be met in order for an atom to be included in the equivalence class that constitutes a particular term and what the consequences of this are for the characterizations of meanings, represented in the UMLS as "concepts" -- each of which has it's own unique identifier (can we say "canonical name"?).  And this boils over into a somewhat confused approach to synonymy as well.  There are powerful ripple effects to decisions one makes concerning what a name may be.

Talk of "the name" has the flavor of a metalinguistic context in which a unique name is needed for certain purposes.  If that is so, then fine:  choose an arbitrary name specifically for that purpose -- as, for example, is done in the UMLS with its Concept Unique Identifiers.  And don't confuse this with the names that may appear in various objectlanguages.  And beware of building semantics and pragmatics, in an unsuspecting way, into the approach being taken. The decision to treat a name as a class of expressions is in fact a SEMANTIC decision to relate a set of character strings to one another -- by having the same referent or the same meaning.  If you really want to do that, then be fully aware that that is what is being done, and don't be surprised at later consequences this has for your theory of meaning or reference.  I prefer to avoid such conflations at an initial (and apparently innocent) stage, and to make all semantic relations explicit and principled.  This tends to avoid (or at least reduce the liklihood or frequency of) "Oops!  Mushing all those together at the beginning was a mistake.  Now we can't distinguish them when we need to."

In short (too late for  that, I'm afraid), while you can decide to adopt a view of names that makes them distinct from character strings, there are significant consequences to this.  Beware.  Here there be dragons.

Gary H. Merrill
Ontolytics, LLC

+1 919.271.7259

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