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Re: live meaning and dead languages

From: rick <rick@rickmurphy.org>
Date: Sun, 08 Feb 2009 13:11:54 -0500
Message-ID: <498F206A.5030408@rickmurphy.org>
To: semantic-web@w3.org

Jeremy Carroll wrote:
> One of the occasional defects of people in SW is a tendency to arm chair philosophizing.
> I will indulge.
I think some arch chair philosophizing would go a long way to clarifying 
some issues for the semantic web community.
> A book I've been reading this week, had the following, rather over-egged, paragraph:
> "By language, I mean the dance of signs, the continuous process of symbolic exchange between people, the humming communication network of which the human life world consists. I mean also to invoke the vast strange and multi-dimensional world of linguistic mean-ing -- and I am hyphenating mean-ing, like be-ing, because <em>mean-ing is a process too</em>. We need to make this point because for so long European intellectuals studied only dead languages -- Latin, Greek and Hebrew -- and failed to grasp the way the transactions of life are carried out and the life world is produced and formed by the <em>motion</em> of living language." [1]
> In terms of meaning on the web, I see that the web as a place where the life world is produced, by active extensions of our linguistic apparatus. I hence have an aversion to techniques and technologies that somehow pretend that meaning on the web, and in particular the semantic web, should or could be made static and somehow lifeless. So, I have difficulty seeing the meaning of any URI as univocal or fixed or even particularly well-defined. This leads to some hesitation concerning systems of definitions and axioms built on top of such univocity.
Same here, but the semantic web lacks this design principle.

As I have written before, the model theory on which the semantic web is 
based is defined in Alfred Tarski's Semantic Conception of Truth. 
Briefly, Tarski defines truth in terms of material adequacy and formal 
correctness. Note that Tarski does not define meaning, only truth. I 
think everyone would agree that material adequacy applies only to 
resources can be dereferenced and that  it is formal correctness that 
provides the foundation for inference.

So what can we say about meaning on the semantic web? We can say that 
URIs are definitions, but we need to be clear that meaning is not 
definition. Quine writes about this in Two Dogmas of Empiricism. Live 
meaning as referenced above implies interpretation.

The question then is whether inference is interpretation. I believe 
inference as used on the semantic web is necessary, but not sufficient 
for interpretation. Interpretation as it applies to meaning implies 
abduction as well as induction and deduction. Inference on the semantic 
web implies formal correctness and truth.

It's not clear whether the semantic web lacks this design principle 
intentionally, but without this design principle, the semantic web will 
lag the web in its utility.

As a compelling example, consider how the web serves as a meme pool for 
cultural transmission. How would we expect the semantic web to serve as 
a meme pool with dead languages ?

> I think this worry becomes more so as axioms and systems of axioms become more complicated. (I just about see similarities between OWL2 and the Shorter Latin Primer I had at high school).
> A term which is too tightly nailed down in its relationship to other terms has been dug into an early grave. Having fixed its meaning, as our world moves on, the term will become useless.
A semiotic domain is a good next step to start developing this flexibility.
> The trick, in natural language, is that the meaning of terms is somewhat loose, and moves with the times, while still having some limits.
> This looseness of definition gives rise to some misunderstandings (aka interoperability failures), but not too many, we hope.
Pragmatics is a step after semiotics.
> So I wonder, as some people try to describe some part of their world with great precision, using the latest and greatest formal techniques, just how long that way of describing the world will last. Maybe there is a role in such precision in allowing us to be clear about differences of opinion --- but it doesn't seem to me to be a good foundation for building knowledge.
While I agree that we need to recognize the limitations of where we are 
today, I think Tarski's Semantic Conception of Truth is a pretty good 
place to start. We also need to recognize the challenges of moving along 
the path to live meaning.

If you're looking for some fun reading, Robert Kent has already defined 
the Information Flow Framework which parameterizes languages, logics, 
models and theories into a much more flexible approach than the semantic 
web. But hold onto your towel ...

> Perhaps fortunately, I am an engineer not a philosopher!
> Jeremy
> [1] Don Cupitt, 2001, Emptiness and Brightness,  p95


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Received on Sunday, 8 February 2009 18:13:03 UTC

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