Monday, October 09, 2017

Buridan's ass


Paradoxes have always fascinated me, not only since I have become interested in philosophy but already when I was a child. I remember that once I got a book titled To Measure Is to Know. Somewhere it discussed Zeno’s paradox about Achilles and the tortoise, which I treated already shortly in my blog dated 12 December 2016. I found the paradox very intriguing and I asked my mathematics teacher about it. He said that it was nonsense and that he had never heard about it. I was surprised and I still am, for how could a teacher that had studied at the university and taught at a Dutch gymnasium not have heard about it?
I also remember that even before I had read about Zeno’s paradox I came across the problem of Buridan’s ass. Here is a description of this paradox:
“A rational hungry donkey is placed between two equidistant and identical haystacks. The surrounding environments on both sides are also identical. The donkey cannot choose between the two haystacks and so dies of hunger, which is simply irrational.”
Actually, it’s not correct to name this paradox after the French philosopher Jean Buridan (1295-1363), for philosophers before him – including Aristotle – had already examined it, although often in another version. Also after Buridan, the paradox has been discussed again and again, for instance by Leibniz.
What would you do, if you were in the same situation as the ass? So, if you were in a situation that you inescapably had to choose between A and B without having criteria to choose between A and B? Will you do like the ass, so you’ll do nothing even if it leads to your destruction?
On the face of it it looks like a perfect case of free will: You can exactly do what you like, for there is nothing that forces you to perform one action or another; to choose the left hay stack or the right haystack or to abstain from choosing. Which choice you’ll make, it will be your choice, anyhow. However, I think that the case shows that free will cannot involve that you can make any choice you like. If there are no criteria you cannot choose, with the consequence that you’ll do nothing, and you’ll die like the ass between two haystacks. The case of Buridan’s ass illustrates that freedom is only possible within limits and these limits determine your criteria.
Happily, we are not asses. Even more, according to Michael Hauskeller also Buridan’s ass will survive, as he explains on https://philosophynow.org/issues/81/Why_Buridans_Ass_Doesnt_Starve . If you have no criteria, you’ll simply choose, with a reason (even if you don’t know it) or without a reason. Doesn’t this happen so often to us, for example in a restaurant? “Imagine”, so Hauskeller, “you go to a restaurant. Looking at the menu, you discover that they serve your two favourite meals – say asparagus and spinach tart. What will you do? You may hesitate for a while, but then you will make your choice. You have to make a choice, don’t you? Even if you’re hungry or greedy enough to order both, you have to decide which to eat first.” Has it ever happened to you that you don’t choose and that they chuck you out, because the restaurant closes and you have still to make your choice? Of course not. You ask your partner for advice; you wonder what you have eaten last week; you follow your gut feelings... And when the waiter comes to note down your choice, you say “I take the asparagus” or “I take the spinach tart”. And so it happens always in life. There is always a reason, even if there’s none. That’s the way we are constituted and be happy that we are.

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