What Is Buridan's Ass Paradox?

To explain the complexity of Buridan's ass paradox, which came to life in the 14th century, we need to fast forward just a few hundred years and visit the Netherlands.

To explain the complexity of Buridan's ass paradox, which came to life in the 14th century, we need to fast forward just a few hundred years and visit the Netherlands.

One famous philosopher of the Enlightenment period, Baruch Spinoza, stated how nobody can be genuinely rational if presented with two options of the exact same value. Determinism and the notion of free will are in the focus of Buridan's ass paradox, and the discussions that it raises. 

Jean Buridan, the French philosopher after whom the paradox got its name, is not the first thinker that questioned the concept of rational decision making. Before him, the Greek superstar philosopher Aristotle used the same analogy of a man who is both hungry and thirsty.

Al-Ghazali, the most prominent Muslim philosopher of the 12th century, used an example of a man who can not decide which girl to pick for a date, as he likes both of them. 

Concept Of Rationality Meets An Ass

One thing worth mentioning is that decision making or the way people deal in situations where they are presented multiple choices is a massive interest of philosophers in general. But, we will get back to this later, after we explain what kind of a choice an ass could not make, and figure out is the Buridan's paradox actually a truly contradicting experiment.

An ass, or a donkey, if this sounds too weird from the start, was equally hungry and thirsty and the same time. The animal is put into a situation where it is in the center between a bowl of water and a haystack. Buridan's paradox presumes how the donkeys, as a species, will choose whatever is closer.

As both sources, the donkey needs to survive are on the same distance away from it, he dies, unable to make a decision. The donkey needs both food and water, and since they are equally apart, he can not figure out which is more important and is not able to make a rational decision. 

Does Free Will Exist?

Now we get back to determinism. This philosophical concept is the one that refutes the idea of free will. In the case of Buridan's donkey, he dies because he can not decide, but what are the implications of his inability to figure out the solution?

If you look at it, the same outcome - a dead donkey - will happen if the animal was presented with two bowls of nothing. The argument of determinism that critiques Buridan's concept is that it focuses on the wrong choices. It is not a choice between food or water, it is a choice between life and death

Finally, the main problem with Buridan's paradox, at least when we apply it to other situations that do not involve an indecisive donkey, is the way it limits rationality itself. A rational way of thinking would be that both sources, for both the donkey and the human, are equally good and that they would arbitrarily pick one. However, in (hard) determinism, there is no such thing as an arbitrary choice.

About the Author

Antonia is a sociologist and an anglicist by education, but a writer and a behavior enthusiast by inclination. If she's not writing, editing or reading, you can usually find her snuggling with her huge dog or being obsessed with a new true-crime podcast. She also has a (questionably) healthy appreciation for avocados and Seinfeld.


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