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Re: When does a document acquire (web) semantics?

From: Jim McCusker <mccusker@gmail.com>
Date: Mon, 1 Feb 2010 13:55:48 -0500
Message-ID: <68084f3e1002011055s9a8a29ey7325c7bfc5994b3d@mail.gmail.com>
To: John Madden <john.madden@duke.edu>
Cc: w3c semweb HCLS <public-semweb-lifesci@w3.org>, "Eric Prud'hommeaux" <eric@w3.org>
On Mon, Feb 1, 2010 at 1:30 PM, John Madden <john.madden@duke.edu> wrote:

> We had an interesting call in TERM today. One of the topics I would like to
> boil down to the question "When does a document acquire its semantics?" or,
> "when does a document come to mean something?"
>
> I argued the (admittedly intentionally) radical view that documents have no
> semantics whatsoever until a reader performs an act of interpretation upon
> the document, which in the Semantic Web world would be the same as
> attributing an RDF/OWL graph to the document.
>
> Even if the author of the document attributes a a particular RDF/OWL graph
> to her won document, I argued that this graph is not privileged in any way.
> That others could justifiably argue that the author's own RDF/OWL graph is
> incomplete, or flawed, or irrelevant, or even incorrect. And the same is
> true of any subsequent interpreters (i.e. authors of RDF/OWL graphs that
> purport to represent the "meaning" of the same document).
>
> Eric argued a really interesting point. He argued (and Eric, correct me if
> I'm interpreting you wrong here), that semantics instead come into existence
> (or perhaps *can* come into existence) at the point when somebody executes a
> SPARQL query on a set of RDF/OWL graphs. That is to say, maybe I'm wrong and
> semantics doesn't even come into existence when somebody attributes an
> RDF/XML graph to a document; but rather it only comes into existence when
> somebody queries across (possibly) many graphs of many different people.
>


Let me put on my Linguistics and Philosophy hats here for a second.

The world of the semantic web revolves around formal semantics as defined by
monotonic symbolic logic and, as such, means that inferences that are
created are predicated on a universe where their antecedent axioms are true.
Within that universe, those axioms and inferences are universally true, and
cannot be countermanded by further information. So, as soon as a document is
encoded using axioms of symbolic logic, within the world of semantic web,
that document gains semantics.

However, this sort of thing only holds within the worlds of formal
semantics. In linguistic semantics, none of these guarantees are true,
especially the idea of monotonic statements. One could easily claim that a
given statement is meaningless (without semantic value) outside of it's
context, and that any given statement only derives meaning from the context
from which it was derived. So in the case of the above document, it would
gain more meaining based on the understanding that was gained through, for
instance, knowing what actual entities the document refers to. Also, the
additional capabilities listed can provide some of that context on a sliding
scale, by providing that context.

Jim
--
Jim McCusker
Programmer Analyst
Krauthammer Lab, Pathology Informatics
Yale School of Medicine
james.mccusker@yale.edu | (203) 785-6330
http://krauthammerlab.med.yale.edu

PhD Student
Tetherless World Constellation
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
mccusj@cs.rpi.edu
http://tw.rpi.edu
Received on Monday, 1 February 2010 18:56:53 GMT

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