Georg Ivanovas From Autism to Humanism - systems theory in medicine

4. Systemic Basics

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4.5 Trivial and non-trivial machines

The term of a trivial and non-trivial machine became widely known through Heinz von Foerster. The idea is founded on reflections of Alan Turing who had been working on ‘finite state machines’. The term ‘machine’, introduced by Turing, means a set of rules and laws how a certain state is transformed into a different state (von Foerster 1993: 135).

A trivial machine (figure) has a simple mechanism: A certain operation (f) is done with an operand (x). The result is (y).

Because (f) is determined, the result is determined and predictable (von Foerster/Poerksen: 57). If we insert a coin in a chewing gum machine, we get a chewing gum, not one time a peppermint, another time a sandwich or a condom. If we type a letter on the keyboard of our PC the letter appears on our screen.

Trivial machines are

  • synthetically deterministic,
  • analytically determinable; when we know x and y we can reconstruct the operator f,
  • history independent, i. e. every following operation is according to the operation before,
  • predictable.

Examples for trivial processes are, according to von Foerster:

input operation output
independent variable function dependent variable
cause law of nature effect
minor premise major premise conclusion
stimulus central nervous system response
motivation character deeds
goal system action
.... .... ....


A non-trivial machine (figure) is quite different. Corresponding to an internal logic the operator changes with every operation (von Foerster/Poerksen, 1999: 58). If each time we type a letter the PC would change its kind of reaction – the first time one key up and two right, the next time two up and four left or so - we would only know what happens typing the letter k, if we know the principles and would have followed the program from the beginning. If we miss even one step the reaction of the PC becomes unpredictable, independent of whether we know the principle of the program or not.

The difference between a trivial and a non-trivial machine is the difference between a chewing gum machine and an one armed bandit. As soon as three cybernetic circles are interrelated we have technically a non-trivial machine.

The idea of non-trivial machines is not widely accepted, as the normal reductionist approach investigates trivial machines. That is, the frame of observation is set such that only reliable and trivial results arise (chap. 2.1.a). But probably more often than not the human physiology works as a non-trivial machine. Already simple neuronal structures, such as the feeding network of the mollusc Aplysia shows a history dependent behaviour during repetitive stimulation (Proekt et al 2004).


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