March 16th, 2021

📝 Barry Smith and Ontological Realism

In scientific ontologies, should we insist on realism?

Mike Travers linked me to his paper Politics and Pragmatism in Scientific Ontology Construction. It's almost my bedtime and I only had time to read a little bit but I'm excited to read more.

I'm trying to write these daily notes, I skipped yesterday so I'll do a quick thing now.

In Section 3, "Conceptualism vs Realism," Travers brings up Barry Smith as a proponent of realism in ontological representation, and criticizes this realist position.

It's an interesting question and I'm not committed to any view but I suspect Smith's position might be a bit more sympathetic and nuanced than the position Travers criticizes. For example, Travers quotes this paragraph by Smith:

The influence of the concept-centered view ... has become entrenched also in virtue of the fact that much work on ontology has been concerned with representations of domains, such as commerce, law, or public administration, where we are dealing with the products of human convention and agreement – and thus with entities which are in some sense merely ‘conceptual’. Today, however, we are facing a situation where ontologies are increasingly being developed in close cooperation with those working at the interface between the informatics disciplines and the empirical sciences, and under these conditions the concept-centered view is exerting a damaging influence on the progress of ontology.

Travers summarizes:

This is a very clear statement of the metaphysical basis of Smith’s approach to ontology – the physical (or empirical) is real, while the social consists of “mere” concepts.

This is a very plausible reading, but then in Smith's 📙 Building Ontologies With Basic Formal Ontology, we can read:

Ontological realism applies equally to all branches of science, taking the view that, for example, collateralized debt obligations are no less real than electrons and planets. *

So that's a clear statement in a seemingly opposite direction: here a commercial, legal, accounting entity is no less real than an electron.

Maybe Smith is inconsistent, but my reading is different. It's not that social reality is merely conceptual and therefore less real.

I understand Smith's problem with conceptualism from this rather funny paragraph in 📙 Building Ontologies With Basic Formal Ontology:

The Systematized Nomenclature of Medicine (SNOMED), a leading international clinical terminology, defined a “disorder” in releases up to 2010 as “a concept in which there is an explicit or implicit pathological process causing a state of disease which tends to exist for a significant length of time under ordinary circumstances.” At the same time it defined “concepts” as “unique units of thought.” From this it follows that a disorder is a unit of thought in which there is a pathological process causing a state of disease, so that to eradicate a disorder would involve eradicating a unit of thought. *

This seems to describe an ontological error in a high-profile medical ontology that's a direct consequence of an habitual tendency to define classes as subclasses of the Concept entity.

Smith states his commitment to the realist stance as follows:

ontologies are representations of reality, not of people’s concepts or mental representations or uses of language. *

This is a bit confusing because I'm quite sure he doesn't mean to imply that concepts, representations, or utterances are not real parts of reality. Instead he's criticizing a tendency to define the root entities in ontologies as denoting concepts.

But I'm looking forward to reading further in Travers's article to learn about other approaches to thinking about scientific ontologies, because Smith is basically the only source I've read!

I was impressed by Smith's commitment to "perspectivalism," "fallibilism," and "adequatism." Three quotes demonstrating each of those:

The implications of perspectivalism for ontology are that the irreducibility of different perspectives should be respected also in the design of ontologies. Ontology developers should not seek to represent all portions and features of reality in a single ontology, but should seek, rather, a modular approach, in which each module is maintained as far as possible by experts in the corresponding scientific discipline. *
Some specific implications of fallibilism for ontology design in support of scientific research include the following: That every ontology must have sophisticated strategies for keeping track of successive versions of the ontology. *
Adequatism [...] holds that the entities in any given domain should be taken seriously on their own terms and that room must be made in our set of theories of reality for all of the different sorts of entities that reality contains, at all levels of granularity [...] For the adequatist all scientific disciplines are prima facie of equal worth in providing representations of what exists in reality. *

Together, these commitments made it seem to me that Barry Smith's realist ontology design is actually in line with pragmatism. His realism doesn't seem like any kind of scientistic chauvinism or a distaste for tentative conceptual schemes that prefers to die on the hill of imaginary perfect correspondence. Rather he seems to be working together with practicing scientific communities in order to help formalize the practically realist ontologies that they are already working with.

But I'm not sure!

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