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A Bale of Woe

The name of the medieval logician Jean Buridan (c.1295-1358) is forever linked to a curious problem in decision-making. Peter Cave recounts his own sad but instructive meeting with Buridan’s Ass.

Meandering lonely as philosophers do – o’er vale and hill, cross truth and mind, through dale and wine – I encounter an ass as lonely as I, so strange and doleful a creature indeed, as doleful and strange as I; and yet, unlike I, around his neck a placard does swing and hang, a placard which says:

“The ass of Buridan – all feeders of whom prosecution shall meet.”

PC: My dear, dear Ass, so thin, so scraggy, Ass of all but scrag and bones – and so sad, so sad – tell me do, why to feed unfortunate you is it so very forbidden?

Ass: My master – ‘Buridan’ he calls himself, but I am not so sure, for ne’er have I found my predicament explicitly drawn in his oeuvre – uses me, or even abuses me, making me an example, a dreadful example, to others.

PC: Yet an example of what? Have you sinned? Is this your punishment for some asinine misdemeanour, maybe a misdemeanour such that upon it ‘tis best not to dwell or even ask?

Ass: No, Sir. A vicious ass, certainly I am not. Virtuous and rational am I. I am, in a way, rationality incarnate. And, by way of correction to your view, let me stress that my master proclaims no objection to my feeding myself, though, being rational, I follow the reasoning and see that I too should then be prosecuted. But feed myself, this I cannot do; hence, for centuries, have I gone lacking all food. Centuries, centuries and centuries…

PC: Come, come, why is that so? There’s a splendid and – mmm… if I may be so bold – succulent bale of hay a mere few yards away. That would buck you up; and you’d realize how kindly your master is – to have placed such splendid succulence for you – and so near.

Ass: Yet you are blind, if I too may be so bold. An equally succulent bale, also nearby, on the other side, has gone unnoticed by you.

PC: So? With two lots of hay, you can eat so well and swell. All the better to have two rather than but one. Have a dinner – invite your assy friends around!

Ass: Poor irrational human, you are: an understanding of rationality you without a doubt do lack. Both bales, as far as I can tell, are desirable and equally so: they are the same size, the same texture, the same density, the same delicious scent of summer sun caught within – and, from me, exactly the same distance. How can I choose?

PC: The problem is?

Ass: A certain Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, for example, whose birth well postdates mine, insists on a sufficient reason for everything. I find myself perched on his apex of rationality, an uncomfortable perch, ‘tis true; but all I seek is a reason to choose one bundle rather than t’other. With no such reason, how can I act rationally – or even act at all? Thus it is that my master Buridan does me ensnare. There is, you see, a master far greater than he, The Philosopher, Aristotle; and his work, De Caelo, speaks of a man equidistant from food and from drink. Being equally hungry and thirsty, the man is, you see, bound to stay where he is, under the necessity – the yoke – of indifference. And that is my plight. I am yoked by rationality. And – dare I add? – a yoke is no joke.

PC: Indifference is, truly, a paralysis source. Anaximander postulated, I believe, the earth’s equidistance from all extremes to explain its static station; Plato had the earth motionless, given its equipoise; and a Sophist example was that of a hair stretched with identical tension throughout, making such a hair unbreakable. Spinning forward beyond your early years, dear starving Ass, Rabelais tells of the paralysis of Gargantua, when his son, Pantagruel, was born:

“There was none more astonished and perplexed than Gargantua; for on the one side seeing his wife Badebec dead, and on the other side his son Pantagruel born, so fair and so great, he knew not what to say nor what to do. And the doubt that troubled his brain was to know whether he should cry for the death of his wife or laugh for the joy of his son. On either side, he found sophistical arguments which took his breath away; for he framed them very well in modo et figura, but he could not resolve them, remaining pestered and entangled by this means, like a mouse caught in a trap or kite snared in a gin.”

Ass: I am that mouse; I am that kite.

PC: But, no mouse, no kite, need you be. You are a free man – well, a free ass! You don’t even need to choose between the two hay bales: you could have first one, then the other.

Ass: I think I am allowed to have solely one, but even if two, how do I choose which one to have first? And if just one – and, it is true, one is all I need – which one? Should I choose the one on the left? The one on the right? I need to prefer one to the other; but there is nothing about one which could justify my preferring it to the other. I cannot ‘just’ choose. That extra bale, whichever it is, is indeed a bale of woe for me. ‘Tis one bale too many.

PC: Ah, how about this idea, poor Ass? Let me place some extra straw on one; then you will have reason to choose it.

Ass: Oh, gracious Sir, yes, indeed – just one extra straw, one that I can, of course, notice; that is all that I require.

PC: Even a teensy weensy sliver of a straw?

Ass: Yes, yes, so long as it is detectable by me. You are a kindly man, I see that, Sir. Pray, go ahead.

PC: Right, well, let me add this tiny straw to this bundle of hay here… Or, maybe [becoming hesitant] I should add it to this one, er… Yet, thinking about it, maybe the first would be better; but…

Ass: Sir, please, just add it to one – any one bale.

PC: Oh dear, I cannot choose which…

Ass [disappointed, in despair]: Oh dear me no, you are as foolish as I am. You too must be a philosopher, a man of reason, and all the more an ass for being one, as I believed Spinoza once quipped of someone in such a plight.

PC: Suppose I had added some extra straw to one. Would it have helped you in your gustatory quest? You would have had still the choice between taking a first mouthful there on the bale and one here.

Ass: That thought is new for me; but hold on, one clump of straw might then be nearer to me than another; so on that basis thus could I choose.

PC: Why should one being nearer than the other be a good reason for choosing it?

Ass: ‘Tis simple. I prefer exerting myself less than more.

PC: No doubt, especially given your sickly state; but why should that be the basis of your choice?

Ass: That is how things are. If I have a preference for something, then – caveats recognized, of course – that is what it is rational to choose. And, remember, I am rational. Of course, one bale being to my left and one to the right marks a distinction; but that distinction holds no weight for me. It is an irrelevant distinction given my aim to eat and live well – and so affords no reason for choice, no reason for rational me.

PC: I guess that there must always be some such distinction, if we are to detect two bales. So, other asses might have had no problem, had they happened always, say, to prefer hanging out on the left rather than the right – as far as eating is concerned, I hasten to say.

Ass: No doubt – but that would have been irrational, having nothing to do with the quality or quantity of what would satisfy their hungry hunger desires.

PC: There is, then, one question of whether some preferences, some ends preferred, are rational; and there is another question of whether the means to secure those ends are rational, given the ends – and there is the further question of whether one needs a preference in order to choose at all.

Ass: No doubt, there are many questions. But an ass cannot live on questions alone. I need hay – but also a reason.

PC: You do, of course, have a preference to eat instead of starve? Undoubtedly, that is rational, given your aim to live well; so you could just choose one bale on that basis – either this one or that one. Whichever one you eat, you will have done better than starving; you will have met your preference to eat over that of starvation. Rational choice is possible, even though there is no motivation for one over the other.

Ass: Sir, my preference is to go unstarved – but how do I choose which bale to use to bring that happy – and seemingly impossible – end about?

PC: Simple! Let’s forget about the second bundle. See your choice as one between starving and eating a bundle simpliciter.

Ass: This is getting tedious. Let me repeat: which one do I adopt this attitude to? Which one do I eat?

PC: Well, the one you are concentrating on right now – or the one to the left of your visual field, for example.

Ass: True, given the choice between starving or eating the left one, I have a preference for eating the left, and would do so; but I have a greater choice, for I also prefer eating the right bale to starving. To eat one first rather than the other, I need to choose one rather than the other – and that requires me to have a preference between them.

PC: Let’s try again. Boring indeed is this asinine puzzle becoming – not that I mean I do not enjoy our conversings.

Ass: Reciprocated – though my strength is leaving me, for want of some food.

•••••

PC: Suppose one bale to be, indeed, much larger – and we accept that each currently is sufficiently large to satisfy you. You’d then choose the larger, you say; but why? You’d eat as well off either of them, it was agreed. So, the extra size is a difference that is irrelevant to your aim.

Ass: A good point. Perhaps I am being as irrational as the left-hanging preferers whom we earlier mentioned; so be it. At least I would then happen to have a preference and so I could act accordingly; and that act would secure my end. I find myself with these preferences and perhaps that is all that can be said, when there are no relevant reasons for choice. After all, I hear some humans just happen to have preferences, preferring, for example, humans to donkeys for intimacies; and some even prefer poetry over pushpin – and the taste of dead heated flesh over succulent raw carrots.

PC: Sorry to say this, dear Ass, but you have now considerably weakened your position. If you are meant to be so rational, why base your choice on preferences that you agree are irrational – have no relevance – given the end in view?

Ass: I guess that just is the way things are. And in this particular case, of these equal bales, one to the left, one to the right, I happen to have no preference between them.

PC: We are down to psychology, then, rather than seeing something deeply irrational in choosing one over the other, when there is no relevant difference – unless you think preferences can only come about through reason.

Ass: Well, I guess I have a preference for such preferences.

PC: I am tempted to ask you for your reason for such a preference. But let us move on. You accept that what would move you to act is a feature of the bales (namely, excessive size of one) that is in practice irrelevant to your aim. And, of course, some (unlike you, dear Ass) can make decisions on other irrelevant grounds, for example, one bale is on the left as opposed to being on the right. Your problem is then just a psychological matter, you poor, poorly and deficiently motivated Ass. To snap out of your paralysis, as you now see, you just need a preference, whether it be relevant or not, for one bundle over another – for one of those succulent heavenly bundles of hay, with the golden sun…

Ass: Please, don’t, Sir – don’t aggravate my hunger by stressing it so. Still, I am but an ass, so it should surprise you not at all that I have an ass-like psychology.

PC: You are far from an ass, Ass, but a poor philosopher (join the club), seeking reasons where none exists. The tale which you inhabit insists on the reality of a starving ass, seeking food, needing to make a decision, yet the tale enmeshes you with the demand of only choosing on the basis of a relevant difference, while fixing you with items with no relevant difference.

Ass: Yes, I see that – what Master Buridan has trapped me within. And now I see that you humans frequently make choices on irrelevant bases, yet are none the less rational for so doing. Frequently when you – when choosers - make choices to do this rather than that or that rather than this in order to secure some end, the choices made involve elements having no bearing on the ends sought. You want a glass of wine; and you happily accept that glass rather than this. You walk to the bar, putting left foot forward rather than right. You choose one book to read rather than another...

PC: Quite.

Ass: So, how do I in practice escape my plight?

PC: Just ignore one bale – and don’t ask me which. The rational thing is to take one. What are the adverse consequences? You can always turn to the remaining bale later, if that is your concern. It is not as if in choosing one, you damage the other – unlike human all too human indecisions, where choosing A might upset B and choosing B might upset A, and if C comes onto the scene, then whatever you do might upset all three. This tale, dear Ass, traps you with a motivation to seek the better, when there is no better to seek.

Ass: That sounds true, for even as you speak, my eyes swivel from one bale to the other, and I continue to be unable to choose one over the other.

PC: You are suffering from the typical manoeuvre of paradox purveyors: hidden within the tales are demands that contradict other features of the tales. In your case you should see that there is no reason to think that, in order rationally to choose A over B, there must be something about A that is relevantly better than B. Indeed, even if your ignorance might lead you to wonder whether there is something better about A over B or about B over A, it might well be better still to take the risk of never finding out than having neither A nor B.

Ass: Yet, some argue that if I can do such – if I can choose. when there is no relevant difference – then I undermine causal determinism.

PC: Apparently that is indeed said; yet it is curious to believe that. Let us think it through. We suppose causal determinism true (if sense can be made of such determinism) or at least we suppose deterministic stories, where you are concerned, are true. Then we suppose that there could be situations such as yours, with equal hay bundles, and yet ones in which you would choose one rather than the other….or at least situations in which human beings would still make a choice for one rather than the other.

Ass: Sounds like a lot of supposing. But it is meant to show that you humans would then still act; and so, given this, you must have free will – and the assumed causal deterministic story cannot be right. It cannot be right because human beings are not seen to be paralysed in the way I am.

PC: Just so. Well, let us suppose the relevant determinism is true: then, the obvious comment would be that why we do not see much decision paralysis in the way described is because it is rare to be placed between two such identical bundles or options. Indeed, if there were two identical bundles on either side of you and one was chosen, then maybe some causal story could still then be given for the move to the left (say) rather than the right. It is not as if a causal chain leading up to the behaviour of a seeming choice between, for example, equal bundles somehow looks to the future to choose between those bundles. We should add that even if there is some causal story for such choosings, that need have no bearing on the accuracy of what the agent might be saying about his choice, for example, commenting, “Well, I just fancied the one on the left” or “I merely chose randomly”.

Ass: Okay, my tale of woe has no bearing on causal determinism; but where does that leave me?

PC: Well, given your desire to live, rationality demands that you choose one – either one. It is rational to choose one over none, even though it is not more rational to choose one rather than the other. Make an arbitrary choice – or deploy a random strategy. And that’s an end to it.

Ass: [silence]

PC: Ass, ass, aren’t you listening to me?

•••••

As the ass collapsed and died, he managed to say that he could not decide whether to follow my advice or not. And so I was witness to the sad death of the most rational, the nicest, the most thoughtful ass of the asinine world – or even a world much wider. As the tears flowed down my cheeks, while I cradled his head, I reflected further upon his words, and with that reflection I found myself curiously unable to choose which tears to wipe away first.

© Dr Peter Cave 2005

Peter Cave is a Soho philosopher who lectures for The Open University and City University, his most recent papers being in Philosophy and The Monist. If you live in Britain, listen out for him on Radio 4 in June.

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