There is a theological aspect to ontologies that I'd like to share with you.
I call it ontheology.
I remember the disappointment I had after attending, for the 1st time, a W3C lecture on semantic web and ontologies. I expected to get a clear explanation on how a MACHINE can understand the meaning of words by using ontologies. I thought I'd see something like a dictionary entry surrounded by all sorts of meta-tags that will make it machine comprehensible. After all, that's what Tim Berners-Lee vision of the semantic web is all about.
But eventually what we've seen was a demonstration of syllogism triplets, i.e. if sentence A and sentence B, then sentence C.
But how the MACHINES can understand the meaning of the words in sentence A, B or C?
Puzzled and frustrated, I went to my car, accompanied by Mr. Grossbard. We both tried to figure out what we have missed. Then we dwelled into an interesting conversation about the nature of meaning, when all of a sudden I understood how fool we were.
If you try to explain to someone the meaning of any word, how'd you do that? By using other words! You'd then use more other words to explain the other words used to explain the original word. And so it goes, on and on and on – forever.
Probably not forever; probably, if you go up enough in the ontology tree you'll encounter the essence of all Words. Ontologists call this original word Thing, or Root. Have a look at Protégé 2000 – an open source ontology editor. The first class in the ontology is always ":Thing". All other classes (i.e. Words) are derived from ":Thing".
If we merge all the world's ontologies to create the ultimate human kind knowledge-base, which word will be :Thing? (Or as closest to :Thing)
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God", book of John, 1:1.
So :Thing is God.
(that's a syllogism a' la Shirky :) ).
And from here, an interesting thought:
The 1st linguistic act of Adam in the Garden of Eden was to name the beasts (Genesis, 2:19). It is said in the Bible, that the names given by Adam were the animals' souls. It was well before Babel, where God introduced arbitrariness between a Word (signifier) and its Subject (signified). In Eden, Words were the Subject. After Eden, Subjects have gone for good and we have become subordinated to a world of words pointing one at each other.
In an allusion to my earlier post on Web 2.0 and Ontologies, I'd say that ontologists are aspiring at the recreation of Eden, or the re-establishment of "Word Order". They assume reality is objective, i.e. that there's an animal out there and now its time to name it – like Adam.
While Clay Shirky represents the post-Babylonian chaos, the negation of an objective reality and the acceptance of a life in a world of Words (or tags…). Still, there's a very interesting twist to Clay Shirky's view (as I interpret it): unlike the natural intuition, the post-Babylonian era is not conceived as a disaster or as a lesser-degree reality. On the contrary – it seems that man has finally found his real home and his real love: playing with words.