Sep 232014

Buridan's Ass - Breaking the Free Will IllusionImagine a scenario in which you open up the refrigerator door and see two different food items. In that very moment it happens to turn out that:

A) You only want one of the items


B) You desire each food item equally

In this imaginary scenario, there is nothing for B) that is weighing your decision of one food item over another food item. One isn’t more fattening than the other, one wouldn’t taste better than the other, there is no differences in texture, size, quantity, smell, or color that would make you decide on one over the other. The location of each food item is equally desirable – in other words, there is no food item sitting by the other that would cause a decision for one over the other. There is no psychological response to the one food over the other. One isn’t closer, easier to grab, and so on.

This thought experiment is similar to Buridan’s ass, a (so called) “paradox” in the philosophy of free will. Buridan’s ass, named after 14th century French philosopher Jean Buridan, addresses a hypothetical donkey who is both equally hungry as it is thirsty. And when I say “equally”, I mean absolutely equal in every way possible. The donkey is placed in the exact center-point between a hay stack and a pale of water. It has no momentum either way, equally understands the existence of both, and neither is closer than the other (which this donkey does not assess one as closer than the other in any way – even mistakenly).

As the hypothetical goes, the donkey would both die of starvation and thirst since it cannot make a rational decision to choose one or the other.

Some might say that the donkey can arbitrarily decide (rather than rationally decide)…perhaps with an “eenie, meenie, miny, moe” type of thinking. But let’s say that such an arbitrary process is out as well. In fact, let’s remove all intuitive responses to do one over the other for the sake of not starving or dying of thirst. Let’s also remove any acausal events (events without a cause) that could push the decision one way or the other. And, of course, nothing changes in time to lead to a decision.

In such an unrealistic scenario, this donkey simply could not make such a decision. Certainly it’s unpleasant to think about such a hypothetical donkey dying in this way, but it’s not really a true “paradox”, as there is nothing contradictory about this happening.

In the real world, there will almost always be something that “pushes” the donkey to the hay or water, just as there will be something that pushes the person to one food over the other. It is theoretically possible, however, that causality aligns with not being able to push in one direction or the other. This isn’t a problem with determinism, rather, it’s a problem with people’s intuitions about such bizarre thought experiments.

But let’s imagine the food scenario in which you desire each food item equally, and there is no arbitrary process you can use such as “eenie meenie” or a coin flip (which would be part of the deterministic process if they were to occur)..and no acausal events. Does that mean you could make a “choice” between the two? Absolutely not! I know this is bizarre to think about, but it’s logically the case that if there is no causal event forcing the decision, and no acausal event that “pops in” to help cause a decision…that no decision can be made.

It’s not that unheard of either. In fact, their are various “disorders of diminished motivation” that cause these types of inabilities to make decisions within people. For example, someone with severe aboulia is unable to act or make decisions independently. Other less severe disorders (BPD, anxiety, etc.) cause an inability to make decisions as well. So it’s not too “off the wall” to think that in some extremely improbable “Buridan’s ass” type of situation in which there is nothing that could lead to one decision over the other – that this a decision simply could NOT take place. As people who make constant causal decisions this may be difficult to fathom. But the difficulty of fathoming something doesn’t make such untrue.

And of course if there is something that leads to the decision, something led to that something…on and on down the line. Free will, as always, is incompatible in such a causally deterministic place. And if such a decision comes about without a cause (acausally) – we’d have no control over this event or decision. Such happening would be entirely outside of our “willfulness”. Free will, as always, is incompatible in such an indeterministic place.

Whether causality leads to a specific decision, an acausal event forces a decision, or causality leads to a stand-still, this is not a case for free will. Whether there are two items in the fridge or ten items makes no difference here. If the universe is entirely causal, only one decision (or the lack there-of) was ever possible. If some acausal events happen, any other “possibility” they push to is entirely out of a willers control.

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'Trick Slattery

'Trick Slattery is the author of Breaking the Free Will Illusion for the Betterment of Humankind. He's an author, philosopher, artist, content creator, and entrepreneur. He has loved and immersed himself in philosophy since he was teenager. It is his first and strongest passion. Throughout the years he has built a philosophy based on analytic logic and critical thinking. Some of the topics he is most interested in are of a controversial variety, but his passion for the topics and their importance drives him to want to express these ideas to others. His other passions include pen and ink line art and digital artwork.

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  4 Responses to “What If I Like These Foods ABSOLUTELY Equally? (a Buridan’s Ass Hypothetical)”

Comments (4)
  1. The donkey would have a motive to either eat or drink; the motive would be to stay alive; hence even if it didn’t prefer the water or the hay, it would still choose one if it preferred living to dying.

    • Hi Steve, thanks for stopping by. I do understand that intuitively it would seem that way, but that assumes the motive to “stay alive” is one that will causally drive to one over the other (eat or drink). If there is nothing that is motive enough to drive one over the other, it simply can’t choose one over the other (in a deterministic universe). To get to one over the other without such a cause (or motive) you’d need to inject in an acausal event (indeterminism). The thought experiment only addresses an entirely causal universe (determinism).

      • I don’t agree. It’s not strictly a matter of choosing between eating or drinking; it’s a matter of choosing between living and dying, and living requires eating or drinking. In that case, the donkey would simply pick one or the other, even if it had no preference. For instance, if someone offered me a million dollars to eat a cookie, and gave me the choice between vanilla and chocolate, and I had no preference, I would still choose one. This choice would be determined not by my preference for one cookie over the other, but by my preference for receiving a million dollars as opposed to not receiving it.

        • There is no “simply pick one over the other”. Either there would be a cause for such an event or there would not be a cause for such event. A subconscious weighting that would lead to “water over food” would be a cause for such an event. “Not dying” alone would be insufficient. The thought experiment is that there is nothing that causally weights one event over the other (at all)…in which case you need to either inject an acausal event to push to one over the other, or you have a donkey that wants to survive but doesn’t.

          The preference for the million dollars may push you to deliberate on one over the other. It may be that your hand was closer to one, or that you were driven to one through mental processes you aren’t aware of, etc. But some causal event must tip the balance. If the universe is deterministic and there is no causal event that tips the balance, you’d be similar to the person with a disorder of diminished motivation and even the million dollars wouldn’t help. 😉

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