Imagine 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.