Enigmatic mechanisms in defense of the capability to have new ideas

Fischer Thomas (Xi'an Jiaotong-Liverpool University, Suzhou, China)


ISSN: 0368-492X

Publication date: 11 November 2013



This paper aims to present the argument that Heinz von Foerster's portrayals of non-triviality in his non-trivial machine (NTM) and in surprising human behavior are not isomorphous. It also demonstrates that the NTM does not account for spontaneity as it is observed in humans in general, nor for von Foerster's own invention of the NTM in particular.


Demonstrating an isomorphism between the NTM and the Enigma cipher machine, the paper shows differences between the NTM and non-trivial human behavior, which von Foerster implied to be isomorphous. It speculates why von Foerster may have accepted this inconsistency.


von Foerster's NTM and the Enigma cipher machine are shown to be isomorphous. Multiple portrayals von Foerster offered of non-triviality, however, are neither isomorphous, nor do they satisfy criteria von Foerster himself set for theories of living beings. Speculations are offered as to why von Foerster nonetheless used these portrayals of non-triviality, and regarding a possible lineage of inspiration that connects the Enigma machine to the NTM via the work of Alan Turing and Ross Ashby.

Research limitations/implications

The presented research is informal and speculative.


The paper's originality and value arise from its questioning of the apparent isomorphism of multiple portrayals of non-triviality, from its speculation about choices von Foerster made while facing the dilemma of defending spontaneity in terms of mechanisms, as well as from speculation about his sources of inspiration.



The author gratefully acknowledges the comments and support received from Jessica Sewell, Ranulph Glanville, Jamie Hutchinson and Mick Ashby during the work on this paper.


Fischer, T. (2013), "Enigmatic mechanisms in defense of the capability to have new ideas", Kybernetes, Vol. 42 No. 9/10, pp. 1374-1386. https://doi.org/10.1108/K-10-2012-0070

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