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Re: comments on http://www.w3.org/TR/2006/NOTE-swbp-n-aryRelations-20060412/

From: Pat Hayes <phayes@ihmc.us>
Date: Mon, 24 Apr 2006 12:40:49 -0500
Message-Id: <p06230906c072b0286c98@[]>
To: Frank Manola <fmanola@acm.org>
Cc: "C. M. Sperberg-McQueen" <cmsmcq@acm.org>, public-swbp-wg@w3.org

>Regarding the "bad philosophy", how bad is it?

Not bad at all. Quine was an extreme nominalist: his entire 
philosophical career can be characterized as a mission to reduce 
ontological commitments to an absolute minimum. And since, using one 
of his own slogans, to be is to be the value of a bound [quantified] 
variable, this mission has the concomitant side-effect of restricting 
what can be allowed into the domain of quantification. At times this 
kind of purging can be cathartic, but it can also be stultifying.

For my sins, I first learned formal set theory from Quine's 
idiosyncratic book 'set theory and its logic', which only gets around 
to admitting that sets exist in chapter eleven, after developing most 
of arithmetic. I am thankful, now, for the experience; but it was 
such a relief to discover Zermelo and Fraenkel.

>  I can understand qualms about some things, but what are the 
>philosophical objections to treating purchases as individuals?

Because 'to purchase' is a verb rather than a noun, and the (to some 
minds) pathological tendency to nominalize in English should be 
resisted, lest one falls into the path of temptation. Or, to make 
essentially the same point less linguistically, because a purchasing 
is a kind of occurrent, and only continuants should be individuated. 
I don't accept either of these views, but they are quite commonly 
held and defended, usually at greater length and more persuasively.

>  It certainly seems more natural to treat that piece of paper I take 
>home from the store as a record of information about an individual 
>"something" than as a record of an instance of an n-ary relation.

I entirely agree. In fact, the only viable position from an 
ontological engineering perspective, seems to me, is that anything 
that anyone might wish to assert any property of must be treated as 
being in the universe of discourse and hence amenable to 
quantification and identity. For anyone with a nominalistic tendency 
of thought, this requires giving up at least one cherished Quinean 
notion: either some very strange things exist, or to be is not to be 
the value of a bound variable. I suggest the most comfortable 
position, odd though it might seem at first, is the latter, since it 
requires no philosophical re-orientation but only a different style 
of formalization. After all, what Quine was talking about in 
'Ontological Relativity' really amounted to a particular use of 
formal notations, as a kind of conceptual microscope to reveal hidden 
ontological presuppositions: formalize your ideas and then see what 
you need to be quantifying over. But ontological engineering, 
particularly on on open network like the Web, where there can be no 
presumption that the ontological perspective of the composer of some 
formal content will match that of the user of the same formal 
content, is really a fundamentally different kind of use. The purpose 
here is not to analyze, but to come to a useful common understanding 
and have machinery work so as to reflect that common understanding. 
If I believe that purchases really exist but you don't, then if our 
task is to agree on philosophy then we seem bound to argue; but if 
our task is to complete a purchase, its probably better to just try 
to talk a common language long enough to get the necessary business 
done. And the best way to do that, is for the overall framework to be 
as ontologically permissive as it can be, so that it can mediate 
rather than impose. I love Quine's writings, but I wouldn't want a 
Quinean to be in charge of Amazon.com, or to have oncologists arguing 
about the need to individuate my tumors.

>(I don't intend this as any kind of sneer at philosophy;  this is a 
>serious question).

A philosophical question, in fact. :-)



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Received on Monday, 24 April 2006 17:41:05 UTC

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