There once was a man called Buridan that had an ass that he loved and cared for.
One day, the ass was hungry. And thirsty; in fact, this day, Buridan’s ass was equally hungry and thirsty.
Buridan knew his ass was equally hungry and thirsty, but how he knew was a mystery.
What Buridan did not know was if his ass, being equally hungry and thirsty, would prefer food or water.
Buridan devised a scheme that would let his ass decide.
He put a stack of hay on one side, and, just as far away but on the other side he put a pail of water. His ass was precisely midway between the two forms of nourishment.
Buridan left to attend to other things.
He returned to a great tragedy; not being able to make the choice to move to one or the other, Buridan’s ass starved.
I made that story up.
Well, not entirely …
There was a man named Buridan. He was a 14th century French philosopher.
Buridan didn’t really have an ass. (Well of course he did, but we’re talking the donkey kind! And as far as I know, he didn’t have a donkey; but no matter even if he did…)
Buridan is known for espousing a philosophy of moral determinism that posited that a human facing alternative courses of action must always choose the greater good. And in the face of equally good alternatives, he believed a rational choice could not be made.
The Buridan’s Ass thought experiment later surfaced (source unknown, but certainly not from Buridan) to satirize his philosophy. (And, methinks, to ridicule him; else why an ass?)
I simply turned the thought experiment into a story… ’cause it struck me as fun… 🙂
But even long before Buridan’s Ass came onto the scene, a different but similarly crazy idea was ridiculed by Aristotle in much the same way as the starving ass paradox. Aristotle, in ridiculing the Sophist idea that the Earth is stationary simply because it is circular and any forces on it must be equal in all directions, said that is as ridiculous as saying that a man, being just as hungry as thirsty, and placed in between food and drink, must necessarily remain where he is and starve to death…
Now I’m sure you’re wondering by now where this is going (other than providing me some story writing fun). Especially if the central premise of this post was debunked long ago!
I see relevancy in Buridan’s starving ass because the diversity of choice we have today sometimes lands us in a spot where the perceived difference between two choices is negligible or insignificant. Yet, our rational brains must have a reason for choosing one over the other… and that may lead to inaction, through indecision. We are unable to choose.
But our rational brains must also factor in the consequences of not making a choice.
Our choices are not simply between two or more alternatives… Not making a choice is also an option that our rational brains must include in the decision analysis!
Just ask Buridan’s starving ass. Wait; sorry, you can’t. His indecision was
Ask Buridan! Wait; sorry, he’s long gone as well.
(It’s only rumor that he was ridiculed to death.)