Observers and Systems

Table of Contents

Ashby’s system triad

W. Ross Ashby in his 1956 book An Introduction to Cybernetics, in section 3/11 answers the question “What is a “system”?”:

Our first impulse is to point at the pendulum and to “the system is that thing there”. This method, however, has a fundamental disadvantage: every material object contains no less than an infinity of variables and therefore of possible systems. The real pendulum, for instance, has not only length and position; it has also mass, temperature, electric conductivity, crystalline structure, chemical impurities, some radio-activity, velocity, reflecting power, tensile strength, …

He goes further to state that (emphasis mine):

Any suggestion that we should study “all” the facts is unrealistic, and actually the attempt is never made. What is try is that we should pick out and study the facts that are relevant to some main interest that is already given.

So, Ashby makes a clear distinction between “machine”, “system” and “model”. In Design for a Brain in chapter 2/5 Ashby explains in more detail his use of the word system:

Because any real ‘ machine ‘ has an infinity of variables, from which different observers (with different aims) may reasonably make an infinity of different selections, there must first be given an observer (or experimenter); a system is then defined as any set of variables that he selects from those available on the real ‘ machine ‘. It is thus a list, nominated by the observer, and is quite different in nature from the real ‘ machine ‘. Through- out the book, ‘ the system ‘ will always refer to this abstraction, not to the real material ‘ machine ‘.

In Kihbernetics we strictly follow Ashby’s interpretation and define the basic terms like this:

MachineA phenomenon observed in a common domain of interaction of two or more observers
SystemAn organized set of variables selected by an observer to study the machine’s function and/or behavior
ModelAn organized structure made from the selected system variables by the observer for sharing with other observers
Variable (noun)A selected element, feature, or factor (property) of the machine subject to variation or change. A variable is a quantifiable entity (scalar) within well-defined boundaries.
State (of the system)The current state of the system is defined as the vector containing all current values of the variables selected by the observer to define the system.

The word system is frequently used to identify which is actually a machine or a model. The difference is, however, the same as between an observed triangular object (a machine) or a drawing of it shaped like a triangle (a model) and the concept of a triangle (the system). A system is just an idealized concept of the machine containing a selected subset of all the machine’s properties.

Machines and their models exist in a phenomenal domain external to the observer. However, all observers as biological entities reside in the same domain as the model and the machine so they can readily interact and investigate (validate) them. This is why different observers can have a different meaning (system) for the same machine or model of it. However, as the model is always a simplified replica with less variety than the machine it was built to explain, a consensus between “standard observers” may be easier to reach.

So, the system is not something that is already given and exists in the real world independent from us observers, That’s the machine. The system is the result of us observes exercising our free will and selecting a finite list of variables and finding their interrelationships by observing (or imagining) the inner working of the machine.

When this is understood, then it is not too much of a stretch of our imagination to conclude that things like structure, hierarchy, information, etc. are also just constructs used to aid our ability to discuss systems and build models for sharing our observations with other observers.

HvFoerster’s Observer Blunder

Heinz von Foerster in his famous speech from 1979 Cybernetics of Cybernetics speaks about:

three concepts that are in a triadic fashion connected to each other. They are: first, the observers; second, the language they use; and third, the society they form by the use of their language.

He goes further to state:

This interrelationship can be compared, perhaps, with the interrelationship between the chicken, and the egg, and the rooster. You cannot say who was first and you cannot say who was last. You need all three in order to have all three.

We beg to differ. We think that there is a clear historical timeline in place.

In the beginning, there was the lone observer who, by observing their environment looking, as usual for food and shelter, observed some other entities that behaved in a strangely familiar way and started socializing because together they could achieve more (food, protection) than when they were alone. And slowly these observers started using signs, sounds and words to describe (model) and share with others what they observed or realized from observing something.

Not sure where the chicken, rooster, or egg would fit in my story, though.

Earlier in the same speech Foerster recognizes:

… Maturana’s proposition, which I shall now baptize “Humberto Maturana’s Theorem Number One”: “Anything said is said by an observer.”

And proceeds with, what I consider a gaffe of adding a completely unnecessary corollary:

… to Maturana’s Theorem … which, in a modesty, I shall call “Heinz von Foerster’s Corollary Number One”: “Anything said is said to an observer.”

In fact, the whole statement from Maturana’s Biology of Cognition, written back in 1970 is more than complete and requires no corollary because it reads like this:

“Anything said is said by an observer. In his discourse the observer speaks to another observer, who could be himself;”

Maturana’s Scientific Explanations

Maturana in Ontology of Observing (1988) states that:

there are no such things as scientific observations, scientific hypotheses or scientific predictions: there are only scientific explanations and scientific statements

He further explains that (emphasis mine):

the criterion of validation of scientific explanations entails four operational conditions:
a) The specification of the phenomenon to be explained through the stipulation of the operations that a standard observer must perform in his or her praxis of living in order to also be a witness of it in his or her praxis of living.
b) The proposition, in the domain of operational coherences of the praxis of living of a standard observer, of a mechanism, a generative mechanism, which when allowed to operate gives rise as a consequence of its operation to the phenomenon to be explained …
…. the phenomenon to be explained and its generative mechanism take place in different non-intersecting phenomenal domains in the praxis of living of the observer
c) The deduction, that is, the computation, in the domain of operational coherences of the praxis of living of the standard observer entailed by the generative mechanism proposed in (b), of other phenomena that the standard observer should be able to witness in his or her domain of experiences as a result of the operation of such operational coherences, and the stipulation of the operations that he or she should perform in order to do so.
d) The actual witnessing, in his or her domain of experiences, of the phenomena deduced in (c) by the standard observer who actually performs in his or her praxis of living the operations stipulated also in (c).

The above citations contain several, fundamental revelations about autopoiesis and systems sciences in general:

  1. The observer is an autopoietic (living) dynamical system with the capability to explain (model) phenomena observed in its praxis of living (in the domain of operational coherences of the praxis of living);
  2. This explanations can be interpreted by other standard observers living in the same phenomenal domain
  3. The praxis of living of the observers spans through two adjacent but non-intersecting phenomenal domains:
    • the domain of interactions (function) of its elements as a composite entity (his or her domain of experiences)
    • the domain of interactions in the environment as a simple unity (behavior in the domain of operational coherences).

Topics / Issues for further discussion:

  • Communication as modeling:
  • The first type of communication must have been audio-visual (signs)
  • The oldest type of modelling is storytelling, first by pictures and then by spoken and written language.
  • The model is a message produced by the observer to communicate with other observers.
  • Except for DNA where the model is part of the machine?
  • All autopoietic (living) machines are observers trying to make sense (extract meaning) from their environment?
  • What is the relationship between life (autopoiesis), observation and cognition?