Knowledge Problems

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

A Basic Knowledge Representation Framework

Reminder: There is some mathematical notation in this post. If you use Internet Explorer, you may need to download the free MathPlayer plug-in from Design Science. If you can see the equation below (rather than a bunch of ASCII text), you should already be good to go:

`sum_(k=1)^n k = 1+2+ cdots +n=(n(n+1))/2`

OK. On with the show...

Perhaps the most basic knowledge representation framework is the rectangular object-property table or array, in which rows represent individual objects or entities, and columns represent properties or variables. An example is shown below:

Object Property
  `P_1` `P_2 `P_3` `\ldots` `P_n`
`O_1` 2 1 100 `\ldots` -0.01
`O_2` 3 0 430 `\ldots` 0.23
`O_3` 2 1 `\ldots` 0.30
`\vdots` `\vdots` `\vdots` `\vdots` `\vdots` `\vdots`
`O_m` 3 0 430 `\ldots` -0.43

Sometimes this format is simply called "raw data" or "flat data," because this is the basic representation for data acquired from multiple sensors, channels, etc., and the format used in familiar spreadsheet applications. In the Rough Set literature (pawlak_91), this framework is called an "information system" (pawlak_81), "knowledge representation system" (wong_ziarko_86), "attribute-value system" (ziarko_shan_96) or "information table" (yao_yao_02). In the case where the property values are binary (i.e., present or absent), the format is what Watanabe (1985) calls an "object-predicate table," or "Aristotelian table". It can be given a rigorous mathematical definition, but we'll skip that here, since it's pretty clear what's going on. A great many knowledge discovery problems can be represented in this model (ziarko_shan_96).

The `m \times n` attribute-value table above represents a set of `m` objects (also called entities or situations), wherein each object or situation (i.e., each row in the table) is described by a set of `n` properties (also called variables, attributes, features, or dimensions). We use these terms interchangeably as do others (goldstone_98,bruner_goodnow_86), although many authors also find it convenient to draw distinctions. In the example above, all properties have been coded numerically, although it makes no difference for our discussion. For example, the `P_1` property might represent "day of week," and the actual names of the days could be substituted for the numerical indices shown. The example also illustrates that different properties may have values drawn from different domains. For example, whereas property `P_1` appears to adopt single-digit integer values, property `P_2` appears to be a (binary) attribute adopting values in the domain `[0,1]`, property `P_3` appears to adopt larger integer values, and property `P_{n}` apparently adopts real (floating point) values, perhaps in the domain `(-1,1)`. The issue of missing values, such as that for property `P_3` on object `O_3`, will not be relevant to this discussion.


We will move to a more concrete example a bit later, but let us first pause to note a number of points about this kind of representation.

  1. An object or entity in this representation is just a list of property values, called a "tuple" in database jargon. Thus, object `O_1` can be described as the property vector or ordered list `[2,1,100,\ldots,-.01]`, which is just convenient shorthand for `[P_1=2,P_2=1,P_3=100,\ldots,P_{n}=-.01]`. Geometrically, then, each object represents a point in an `n`-dimensional "feature space."

  2. An object in this framework is just a list of property values. Two objects having the same set of property values are entirely indistinguishable. Depending on the application, it may still be the case that these objects are physically distinct from one another, but they are nevertheless indiscriminable based on their properties, and therefore completely interchangeable. Identical objects occupy the same point in feature space. There is in some respect a commitment here to something like Russell's "bundle theory" in which an object is nothing more or less than its descriptions (in all possible worlds), there being no "substrata" or essence to it; that is, there is no substrate in which the properties inhere. However, since all we can ever deal with rationally are descriptions of one sort or another, this doesn't seem like a shortcoming unique to this particular representational system. More on this later.

  3. This kind of system can represent many kinds of knowledge. The objects in question may be individual entities, such as donuts on a shelf, where the properties may indicate donut attributes such as flavor, topping, calories, etc. Alternatively, the objects may represent the state of some system at discrete times. For example, an "object" or "situation" might be the weather in Central Park at a given moment, so that `O_1` is the weather at 9am, `O_2` is the weather at 10am, `O_3` is the weather at 11am, and so on. The attributes in this case could be descriptors of weather such as temperature, pressure, precipitation, cloud cover, etc. Thus, the knowledge base in this instance represents a multidimensional time-series or multidimensional signal. This idea is incredibly powerful, because each object/row then represents "the state of the universe" at a given moment in time. By "universe," I mean "universe of discourse," that is, the set of all properties that we are concerned about in a given application, which in the limit we can imagine to include all the properties in the actual universe. (We can imagine!)

  4. A real-valued (i.e., "continuous") or high-cardinality variable such as `P_{n}` in the example above would typically need to be discretized (quantized) for purposes of analysis. Patterns in data often only become (statistically) visible when we step back and view the data at a distance, i.e., at a coarser level of resolution (ziarko_89). To do this, we represent an entire range of variable values with a single symbol, no different than when we round-off decimal numbers to the nearest integer. This process of quantization is actually a matter of categorization, which we will discuss in much greater detail later. In the examples that follow, we will play only with integer values.

  5. In almost all cases of any interest, a given object-property table will be considerably smaller than the maximum size that such a data table might have if all combinations of attribute values were to occur. That is to say, in practice, not every object that can logically occur does actually occur (Mervis_Rosch81). For example, although one might logically conceive of a flying animal that weighs more than 300 pounds, in fact there are no such animals. This means that not every value of the attribute "able to fly" defined on domain `{yes,no}` co-occurs with every value of attribute "weight" defined on the real numbers. The observation that not all objects that can occur do occur, or — more generally — that their probabilities of co-occurrence are not uniform — this is an observation about the very essence of structure (pomerantz_lockhead_91). Structure in data manifests through the unequal co-occurrence of certain sets of attribute values, i.e., the tendency of certain attribute combinations to occur with greater or lesser frequency than other attribute combinations. The "empty locations" in feature space — the events that could logically have happened but did not — are the hallmark of structure. We will return to this important idea a little later.

  6. There is an object-property duality that becomes apparent by rotating the object-property table 90° counterclockwise. Just as it is possible to describe an object as a vector or tuple of property values, it is possible to describe a property as a vector of "object values." A given property then corresponds to a particular point in "object space." This duality is very interesting and, as I understand it, forms the basis for the field of Formal Concept Analysis (FCA), but we will not be concerned with it here.

Finally, before we get to the major limitation of this framework, let us point out a minor limitation: The information system representation described above has been accused of failing to adequately represent relational information, (e.g., arnone_71). As Hahn & Chater (1997) point out, a "bird" is not just a collection of features {wings, beak, feathers, ...}, but is rather a collection of these features having a particular relationship to one another: "A creature with all the right features in the wrong arrangement would not be a bird!" However, while the information system may not be the optimal representation for relational information, it is still possible to represent such information within the system. If, for example, the distance from wing tip to wing tip is an important relational aspect of birds, we can introduce a property that represents this distance, and we can do the same for any other relational qualities. If there it is a relation among many features that is of importance, then we can introduce a new variable to code that as well. This is not to say that the information system gives us the reasoning apparatus by which to deduce new relational information, such as would automatically allow us to know, for example, that "A larger than B and B larger than C entails A larger than C." No, we are simply stipulating that it is possible to represent relational information within the object-property table, and this should be enough.

The Major Limitation

Now, having gotten the more neutral observations out of the way, it is crucial to point out a number of limitations on the sort of knowledge representation system we have been describing above. Principally, the very idea of there being "objects" and "attributes" is a philosophically troublesome one. Firstly, it is just not obvious that we can represent the totality of the external world in terms of objects (Watanabe_85). Who instructs us on what are the "correct" properties by which to distinguish legitimate objects? In the opinion of Bruner, Goodnow, & Austin (1986), all that is required of an attribute is that it be a distinguishable element: "An attribute, in brief, is any discriminable feature of an event that is susceptible of some discriminable variation from event to event. Indeed, if it did not vary it would very likely not be discriminable in any case — the fish will be the last to discover water." So essentially anything discriminable constitutes an attribute, which therefore places almost no constraint on the set of possible attributes for a given system. It goes without saying (maybe) that if we have a discriminable property `P_1` and a discriminable property `P_2`, we can always imagine an additional discriminable property `Q` that is equal to `P_1^2`, or `P_1 \times P_2`, or `\pi P_1 sqrt(P_2) + 42`. So what makes one feature set more legitimate than another? And if what distinguishes two objects is just their features, as our object-property representation scheme assumes, then this ambiguity on what constitutes legitimate features propagates to an ambiguity on what constitutes legitimate objects (watanabe_85).

More provocatively, are there indeed really such things as features or objects at all? This question did not appear to bother the medieval or ancient thinkers, who believed that objects and features were indeed objective aspects of the external world. "Tails" and "hooves" are indeed genuine features of horses, and "horses" are in turn genuine objects. The ancients could debate how significant the possession of tails or hooves is to a horse's horseness, but they could not debate the fact that these objects and attributes genuinely exist. However, in the wake of Berkeley and Kant, the confidence about what constitutes objects and features has evaporated, and it is now clear that the things we subjectively regard as objects and features are themselves the product of a complex interaction between what exists in the external world (distal stimulus) and a sequence of processing performed by our perceptual and cognitive apparatus. Thus, the features to which we have access are symbols employed by a knowledge representation system (our mind) that correspond in some consistent way to aspects of the external world (markman_99), but these features are still notably the product of a classification already imposed by the mind on the world. We cannot of course assume that features are strictly internal symbols, since then we would face a much larger problem of explaining in what way (if any) these features are grounded in reality (harnad_90).

This bifurcation between external and internal features has been given the catchy name of Occam's Cleaver (panaccio_05), which, stated poetically, instructs us that "we should be cautious not take as features of the things signified the features of the signs that signify them. In other words, we should not conflate representational features with ontological ones." This cautionary attitude toward features and objects certainly also characterizes the position of modern cognitive science, where the topic of how objects and features are "made" by minds remains a vigorous area of empirical study, often yielding surprising results. In machine learning and statistics, the question of "What are the features?" plays out practically in the areas of "feature selection" and "feature creation," which include such techniques as Independent Components Analysis and Projection Pursuit. Although there is no final answer to this question, it always being a matter of needs and expectations for a particular application, in some sense a learning theorist might say that the "right" set of features are those which capture the majority of intrinsic structure in a given system. Any set of features having this property is then the "right" set of features, and there may obviously be many such sets.

This last observation gives us a way to recover somewhat from criticisms regarding a severe over-commitment to objects and features. Let it be the case that an actual system (in the distal world) can indeed be described in a myriad of ways; that is, using a large or infinite variety of different feature sets. We can still assume that there is at least one such description that will adequately capture all the interesting structure in that system. In other words, there is some property-based description — not necessarily available to a given observer — but there is some description, in some property language, that adequately represents the phenomenon in question. This assumption can be rephrased to state that there is no system in the distal world that is completely impervious to description in some property language — i.e., by some set of attributes or variables. This is not an assumption that every distal system is describable by us — just that it is, in principle, susceptible to description.

The Major Objection

It will probably immediately be objected that in fact there is a perfect and devastating counterexample to the assumption that "there is no system in the distal world that is completely impervious to description in some property language," and that this counterexample is the Deity himself. After all, have not Rambam and a thousand lesser souls admonished us that God is beyond and above all description? Wasn't this their whole point: That there is at least one distal system, God, that is not amenable to any description whatsoever?

My answer is that, yes, in some instances this may have been exactly their point. But, I believe that many thinkers (e.g., Philo, Aquinas, see earlier) probably intended something much less sweeping, and meant by their remarks merely that God is not describable by or to human minds. Not that he is resistant to description altogether. (Can even God not describe God?) This more moderate unknowability proposal poses no problem for us, since all we are assuming of distal systems is susceptibility to some description, not necessarily description by the human mind. The more extreme claim, however — that God is resistant to property-based description of any kind whatsoever, whether the description be accessible by human minds or not — this would in fact pose a problem for us, if it were a coherent claim. But it is not.

It is certainly possible to say that "God is resistant to any description whatsoever," but this is writing a check that cannot be cashed. I do not believe we can claim to offer a coherent concept of "that which cannot be described in any possible description language." That is, we can neither offer an example of such an indescribable entity, nor can we provide an explanation of how or why it is that an entity would be resistant to description in every possible language. In light of this, we have to consider the idea of the absolutely indescribable entity to be incoherent. Now, I do realize that there are arguments made by Rambam and many others as to why it is that God cannot have qualities of any kind, which as I understand the arguments (see earlier posts) all come down to the issue of the unity or non-compositionality of God. And, as I said earlier as part of my "unavoidable heresy", the idea of non-compositionality is also incoherent, and so proofs from that direction cannot ameliorate the incoherence in the notion of a system that has absolute resistance to description.

And so my position here is as follows: The notion of an entity that is completely impervious to description under any possible description language is a notion that is incoherent, and a concept which can neither be explained nor exemplified. Hamilton (1864) writes that "What in reality has no qualities, has no existence in thought, — it is a logical nonentity," and by this I understand him to mean that it is incoherent to talk about a system or phenomenon which has no attributes whatsoever. Such a notion represents not profundity, but stupidity.

That being said, the idea that a system or phenomenon might be indescribable to some observer or by some property language is not stupidity. It may not be especially profound either, as it turns out, since we are well familiar with many observers having limited descriptive abilities; infants, mosquitoes, chess programs, etc. It is entirely coherent to state that a given phenomenon in the distal world is describable by certain observers and not by others. This is the approach we will take in what follows.


  • Why I support the Charedim in their ban of the web.

    I just clicked the "Best Torrent Search" link in your side menu and ended up on what looked like a torrent pornography site.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at Aug 6, 2007, 1:28:00 PM  

  • Hah hah. It's just a popular torrent aggregator, but they do have some racy advertisements. I'll switch the link to mininova, which I've been using more frequently anyway.

    By Blogger Big-S Skeptic, at Aug 6, 2007, 8:21:00 PM  

  • I don't get what the math does. The main argument you seem to be making is that an entity whose attributes cannot be clearly defined is irrelevant.

    You assume therefore that G-d has to be a definites object with definite properties.

    The Kabbalistis use ain-sof in reference to G-d. The name Jahweh which seems to translate to some tense of being.

    The LCD of both is that 1.G-d is, 2. Infinite.

    The buck stops here, we cannot go any further in attempting to define God because a sof cannot perceive the ain-sof.

    Some emanation of G-d seems to have been experienced by the prophets. This emanation contained very definite feelings of pain,love,sorrow etc. (I've never understood how Maimonides via negativa can fit with the very strong emotions described in the prophets?)

    Thus far- G-d is infinite- thus his attributes cannot be defined in any way we know. G-d does seem (if one accepts the Prophets account) to contain within him something akin to what we term emotions but which again cannot be clearly defined.

    If one says then that despite not being able to be clearly defined in human terms there exists an infinite force that takes in emotional interest in the affairs of humans. That in some level we feel we can connect to this force. Is this then irrelevant?

    (Maimonides didn't believe that G-d was without attributes. He rather said that by describing certain things that G-d is not we can see what G-d his. See hi ship example)

    By Anonymous wolf2191, at Aug 6, 2007, 11:05:00 PM  

  • Thanks for commenting!

    thus his attributes cannot be defined in any way we know.

    What I will shortly show is how this EXACT situation can arise AND be also susceptible to analysis. Wait and see...

    Maimonides didn't believe that G-d was without attributes. He rather said that by describing certain things that G-d is not we can see what G-d his. See hi ship example

    I don't believe the ship example can be squared with the rest of his statements regarding God's absence of attributes. I think there's enough passages in MN to that effect: God cannot have essential attributes, neither can God have accidental attributes. Rambam says something to that effect many times. I think Rambam is pretty clear about those things, and his ship example is a poor cover for his real view. My opinion.

    By Blogger Big-S Skeptic, at Aug 6, 2007, 11:26:00 PM  

  • good stuff...

    By Blogger Ben Avuyah, at Aug 7, 2007, 1:11:00 PM  

  • "I think Rambam is pretty clear about those things, and his ship example is a poor cover for his real view"

    Azoi enfert men a shvere Ramabam. You obviously weren't un\lucky enough to attend a Lithiuanian yeshiva. There's likely a "tzvei dinim" to G-d's attributes. Let's say that the chomer of Gd is unkowable entirely but a certain understanding of his tzurah (achurei panim) can be reached through negative questioning.

    By Anonymous wolf2191, at Aug 7, 2007, 2:48:00 PM  

  • Well, I did actually go to Litvish yeshiva for high school... unluckily as it turns out, since I evidently didn't learn much there.

    But in any case, it is the tenability of the "tzvei dinim" that is exactly what I'm going to try and explore. In other words, can there simultaneously be knowable and unknowable aspects to God, or is this just nonsense? I don't want to telegraph my conclusion, but let's just say that it's very difficult but not impossible. But what exactly does it entail??? Stay tuned...

    By Blogger Big-S Skeptic, at Aug 8, 2007, 6:06:00 PM  

  • Big-S,

    Your analysis doesn't make sense at all. If you believe in a God that has physical attributes or can be explained in physical terms that automatically means God is physical and that is no different than believing the world is eternal. In your analysis, there is no purpose in having a God.

    And this to you is more reasonable then there being a God who we can prove exists but is just not comprehensible?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at Aug 20, 2007, 11:13:00 PM  

  • Thanks for the post, Anon. Well, first off, I have not even begun my analysis yet, I'm just laying groundwork.

    All I am insisting on is that we cannot (and should not) escape positing attributes in God. I did not say that these attributes are "physical," nor did I qualify them in any other way. I just insist that there exist distinguishable qualities — distinguishable in principle — albeit not necessarily distinguishable by us.

    I have nowhere been discussing the purpose of having God, but rather the coherence of the notion of an incomprehensible God. To do this, I must first define the notion of "comprehension", which I will do in the near future based on the groundwork which I am now trying to lay.

    By Blogger Big-S Skeptic, at Aug 21, 2007, 11:25:00 AM  

  • why is it not possible to say that we cannot understand God because we are bound by the physical? It surely makes more sense than saying we can ascribe physical attributes to him. You can't say that your not applying physical attributes to him and at the same time say that we can describe God. Thats contradictory. No matter how you go about trying to qualify this you will dig yourself into this hole.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at Aug 21, 2007, 7:02:00 PM  

  • why is it not possible to say that we cannot understand God because we are bound by the physical?

    You can say it, but this is not the position of the great scholars (Rambam, Aquinas, Albo, etc.). If you wish to pursue this argument seriously, you must define what you mean by "physical" as opposed to "non-physical," and I wish you best of luck. You will be chasing your tail for sure.

    Like I said, I am using the term "attribute" to designate any distinguishable quality that can adopt different states. You can call it "physical", but I have neither used that term nor defined it, so I'm not sure what distinction you believe you are seeing. If by "physical" you mean "any distinguishable quality that can adopt different states," then I guess these would indeed be "physical attributes", but the modifier is not doing any work in that case, since all of that was already implied by the term "attribute" itself.

    I'm not sure what contradiction you are referring to. My position in laying the groundwork is that God must be describable in principle, although not necessarily by us. I see possible concurrence with this position by the likes of Aquinas. You may dislike my stipulation that God is in principle describable (although I have explained why this is necessary), but I don't see where you are finding a contradiction. Enlighten me!

    By Blogger Big-S Skeptic, at Aug 21, 2007, 10:33:00 PM  

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