Saving the “Semantic” Web (part 3)

On Semantic Transparency

The first responder to this series of posts, j22, argues the logic of the Semantic Web has been found to be useful.

I said as much in my post and stand by that position.

The difficulty is that the “logic” of the Semantic Web excludes vast swathes of human expression and the people who would make those expressions.

If you need authority for that proposition, consider George Boole (An Investigation of the Laws of Thought, pp. 327-328):

But the very same class of considerations shows with equal force the error of those who regard the study of Mathematics, and of their applications, as a sufficient basis either of knowledge or of discipline. If the constitution of the material frame is mathematical, it is not merely so. If the mind, in its capacity of formal reasoning, obeys, whether consciously or unconsciously, mathematical laws, it claims through its other capacities of sentiment and action, through its perceptions of beauty and of moral fitness, through its deep springs of emotion and affection, to hold relation to a different order of things. There is, moreover, a breadth of intellectual vision, a power of sympathy with truth in all its forms and manifestations, which is not measured by the force and subtlety of the dialectic faculty. Even the revelation of the material universe in its boundless magnitude, and pervading order, and constancy of law, is not necessarily the most fully apprehended by him who has traced with minutest accuracy the steps of the great demonstration. And if we embrace in our survey the interests and duties of life, how little do any processes of mere ratiocination enable us to comprehend the weightier questions which they present! As truly, therefore, as the cultivation of the mathematical or deductive faculty is a part of intellectual discipline, so truly is it only a part. The prejudice which would either banish or make supreme any one department of knowledge or faculty of mind, betrays not only error of judgment, but a defect of that intellectual modesty which is inseparable from a pure devotion to truth. It assumes the office of criticising a constitution of things which no human appointment has established, or can annul. It sets aside the ancient and just conception of truth as one though manifold. Much of this error, as actually existent among us, seems due to the special and isolated character of scientific teaching—which character it, in its turn, tends to foster. The study of philosophy, notwithstanding a few marked instances of exception, has failed to keep pace with the advance of the several departments of knowledge, whose mutual relations it is its province to determine. It is impossible, however, not to contemplate the particular evil in question as part of a larger system, and connect it with the too prevalent view of knowledge as a merely secular thing, and with the undue predominance, already adverted to, of those motives, legitimate within their proper limits, which are founded upon a regard to its secular advantages. In the extreme case it is not difficult to see that the continued operation of such motives, uncontrolled by any higher principles of action, uncorrected by the personal influence of superior minds, must tend to lower the standard of thought in reference to the objects of knowledge, and to render void and ineffectual whatsoever elements of a noble faith may still survive.

Or Justice Holmes writing in 1881 (The Common Law, page 1)

The life of the law has not been logic: it has been experience. The felt necessities of the time, the prevalent moral and political theories, intuitions of public policy, avowed or unconscious, even the prejudices which judges share with their fellow-men, have had a good deal more to do than the syllogism in determining the rules by which men should be governed. The law embodies the story of a nation’s development through many centuries, and it cannot be dealt with as if it contained only the axioms and corollaries of a book of mathematics.

In terms of historical context, remember that Holmes is writing at a time when works like John Stuart Mill’s A System of Logic, Ratiocinative and Inductive: being a connected view of The Principles of Evidence and the Methods of Scientific Investigation, were in high fashion.

The Semantic Web isn’t the first time “logic” has been seized upon as useful (as no doubt it is) and exclusionary (the part I object to) of other approaches.

Rather than presuming the semantic monotone the Semantic Web needs for its logic, a false presumption for owl:sameAs and no doubt other subjects, why not empower users to use more complex identifiers for subjects than solitary URIs?

It would not take anything away from the current Semantic Web infrastructure, simply makes its basis, URIs, less semantically opaque to users.

Isn’t semantic transparency a good thing?

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