Buridan’s Ass: The Paradox of Free Will

Naimuz Saadat Niloy

We live in an era that requires us to be proficient in decision making. There are countless contents out there portraying the importance and development of decision making. Let’s not ponder out there and over-saturate the matter, instead let’s discuss something ordinary yet enigmatic to the very core. 

Imagine you have a 500 on you for spending on food, you cannot spend more than that as it will be reduced from your other expenses which you cannot afford. You go to a restaurant with your chill buddies. And as always you have encountered the utmost gastronomical conundrum, what to eat. The menu seems endless, you can’t choose between your favorite pasta or pizza. Both the dishes are the same regarding price and the ability to quench one’s desire to fill the stomach with an Italian delicacy. 

Well, you are not the only one, as per the title suggests, there was an ass (Not the one you are thinking of, no. I am talking about a donkey) that encountered similar circumstances. The donkey was ravenous. It suddenly came across two stacks of hay but soon it realized a problem. The stacks were identical in terms of distance required to cover to get to them, mass, in short, they were indistinguishable to the extent that the donkey was in an impasse, it couldn’t decide which one to go for. This story has a dark ending. The donkey died of starvation. 

This dark ending came from the mind of a French philosopher Jean Buridan. Though he was not the pioneer of such an intricate thought experiment, Aristotle and Abu Hamid al-Ghazali had similar thoughts portrayed through different circumstances way before Buridan. 

The point is not who thought of it first, the point is whether the donkey died because it was stupid or because it lacked free will to decide upon which stack to consume.

If we give it a thought, Buridan’s thought experiment is not perfect and is not possible in reality. First of all, the premise is constructed by assuming some variables. ‘Identical’ has been emphasized in the premise which is not entirely correct as to be identical two objects must be in the same place, in the same time, made of the same material which is clearly not, one stack was on left and the other was on the right of the donkey (imagine an equilateral triangle). So, the decision-making process will depend on the preference of the donkey’s being inclined towards left or right. 

The other thing assumed in the experiment was that the premise is timeless. The debate can go on and on. But the thing to consider is that the experiment is a thought process and cannot be constructed (yet) in reality. 

In reality, you would have chosen pizza or pasta. In any decision-making process, where it seems that the choices or alternatives available are the same, it is actually not, that’s why it’s called a choice or alternative. In the restaurant, you are bounded by time, or perhaps on that particular day, you were craving a spicy basil pesto which rendered you to order the pasta instead of the pizza. We are constantly bounded by various factors that make our choices and alternatives truly distinguishable and even though the outcome may be the same, the way we approach is always different. 

So, to know whether we act on free will or not, our premise would have to be as same as that of the donkey but in reality, you won’t find any donkey dying like that, not even a donkey is that stupid. 

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