W3C home > Mailing lists > Public > uri@w3.org > April 2003

Re: resources, stuffs and individuation

From: pat hayes <phayes@ai.uwf.edu>
Date: Wed, 23 Apr 2003 18:09:43 -0500
Message-Id: <p05210608baccc0b1c3be@[]>
To: "Roy T. Fielding" <fielding@apache.org>
Cc: uri@w3.org

>>>Here is my problem: 100 philosophers are in a room talking about the
>>>nature of resources.
>>Just an aside, but I doubt if any philosopher has ever argued about 
>>that. The term 'resource' as used in W3C circles is a private term 
>>of art in the W3C, and not used in this sense by any other 
>>community as far as I know.
>You sound as if the term philosopher has some private meaning.

I was using the term to mean one who publishes in a generally 
recognized philosophy journal; but no doubt that is symptomatic of a 
sterile academicism on my part, so let it pass.

>I can assure you that there are well over 100 philosophers in the W3C
>and IETF, and a good many of them even have Ph.D.s.  I can further assure
>you that many of them argue about "resource" far too frequently, as evidenced
>by the size of my saved mailbox.  Whether or not they are qualified to
>be called "philosophers" is yet another ontological debate that is
>better avoided.

Indeed. I have been a professor in two philosophy departments, but I 
wouldnt count myself as a philosopher.

>>>If you can come up with
>>>a better definition and can get rough consensus that it doesn't exclude
>>>things that others consider to be resources, then I'll put that in the
>>I would prefer to not exclude anything. What's wrong with. "A 
>>resource can be anything."  I can't see any reason so far to impose 
>>any kind of restriction on what can count as one.
>Anything includes those things that cannot be identified, and those things
>are not resources.

What does 'cannot be identified' mean? I take it that you do not 
mean, 'has not been identified yet', but have in mind that there 
might be (are?) entities which are inherently incapable of being 
identified, which by their very nature will resist being identified; 
and you wish to exclude them.

Now, I do not know what these things could possibly be; but perhaps 
that is because I am not sure what you mean by 'identified'. Can 
something be identified by being described closely enough, or is 
identification some kind of operation performed on a thing, or some 
process by which the thing can be accessed (in some sense)? Would it 
be enough to simply be able to conclude from what you know, that 
there must be a unique thing that satisfies the criteria for 
identification (like Russell's analysis of definite clauses in 
English)? Or not? Or what??

For an example, consider the description "The tallest building which, 
at 9am on the 20th of October 1998, was further north than the oldest 
plumber born in Philadelphia." Barring extraordinary plumber 
fortitude, this description picks out a unique building, but I have 
no idea how to set about finding it.  Is that building 'identified' 
in your sense? Why?

>>Thanks for the pointer, but Im afraid that only makes things worse 
>>for me. I have no idea what you are talking about in this message. 
>>What for example is a 'system of identification'? What is 'sameness 
>>of essential character'?  Does it differ from inessential 
>>character, for example? Citing Webster isnt good enough, sorry: we 
>>are trying to get these ideas tied down well enough so that we can 
>>use mathematics on them. (BTW, if this is not a philosophical 
>>discussion, I must be dreaming.)
>Heh, that's amusing.  I'd cite the OED or some more definitive source,
>but they don't have a convenient website.
>Mathematics is a tool, not an answer.  If you can't do the translation,
>then maybe you are using the wrong tool.  What good is having a mathematical
>model if that model fails to correspond to what is supposed to be modeled?
>Maybe the wrong type of mathematics is being applied.

I am much more confident in the mathematics than I am in the clarity 
of your explanations. So far, the relevant techniques have provided 
the basic foundation and analytical tools for all of the formal and 
exact semantics done for the last 60 years or so, and are used 
throughout philosophical and mathematical logic, computational 
semantics and formal linguistics.

But in any case, the issue is not whether the tools can do the task - 
I am am sure they can - but to clarify what the task actually is.  A 
simple appeal to dictionary definitions is not usually a good way to 
achieve technical clarity in any discipline, even philosophy.

>>What do you mean by an 'identification mechanism'? (mechanism??)
>A system of identification that has been mechanized.

I have no idea what a "system of identification" is, or what it would 
even mean to mechanize one.

You know, this is the central problem I am having in this discussion: 
the more I ask for clarification, the more there is to explain. The 
situation seems to grow worse rather than better with each 
explanation. If there is some background theory behind all this stuff 
that needs more and more stuff to explain it, please point me 
directly to the source so I can learn the technical terminology being 
used (and please explain, or at least refer to an explanation, when 
you use this terminology in a normative document, maybe as a 
glossary.) Particularly if there is a community of people who are all 
communicating with this terminology, and a background literature, 
that would be great.  But Websters (or the OED) seems increasingly 
irrelevant in the face of all this flood of technical terminology.

>>Your example of the clock I find particularly confusing. Why would 
>>it be a different resource if it gives me UTC time rather than 
>>local time? The criteria for what counts as a resource seem to be 
>>getting murkier with every sentence in your explanation, rather 
>>than clearer. (BTW, can the time itself be a resource?)
>What is time?  Please don't tell me it is an absolute quantity independent
>of any frame of reference.

To a very good approximation, yes, it is.  One needs to have a more 
sophisticated relativistic version to handle very high velocities or 
GPS timings, but Newtonian time was good enough to navigate the 
Voyager spacecraft to the Kuiper belt, and for most earthly purposes.

How precise a definition of time do you need? There are formal 
ontologies of time available which go into incredible detail, or I 
could cite notions from physics, or refer to timezones and 
calendering conventions.  But the point of my question was to try to 
clarify what you mean by "resource", so I invite you to choose your 
own sense of 'time', and then tell me whether it is or is not a 

>>Im not trying to be difficult, honestly. I am just totally 
>>confused. None of what you say about resources enables me to get a 
>>clear picture of what you mean by the term.
>I think you need to slow down and spend more time thinking about it.
>It's not as if this is a new subject, and I don't see any reason why
>you need to completely understand it in an day's study.

That 'day' is about two years spent designing model theories for web 
formalisms and talking with W3C folk and others about this, and more 
years than I want to admit studying and doing semantics more 

But I love to learn more.  Can you point me to any publications on 
the topic that might enable me to get up to speed? Are there any 
generally respected authorities on the topic on resource-hood, or 
documents which are considered to be definitive statements of any 
particular school of thought? Has anyone done for resources what 
Quine did for possible worlds?

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Received on Wednesday, 23 April 2003 19:09:47 GMT

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