On free will

First a thought experiment

Buridan’s Ass

an ass

A donkey who is much happier than the one in our experiment. (Wikimedia Commons)

Variations on this experiment date back to antiquity, this formulation was named after the philosopher Jean Buridan, whose views on determinism it ridicules.

Imagine a donkey placed precisely between two identical bales of hay. The donkey has no free will, and always acts in the most rational manner. However, as both bales are equidistant from the donkey and offer the same nourishment, neither choice is better than the other.

Question: How can it choose? Does it choose at all, or does it stand still until it starves?

If choices are made based on which action is the more rational one or on other environmental factors, the ass will starve to death trying to decide on which to eat- as both options are equally rational and indistinguishable from one another. If the ass does make a choice, then the facts of the matter couldn’t be all that determined the outcome, so some element of random chance or free will may have been involved.

It poses a problem for deterministic theories as it does seem absurd to suppose that the ass would stand still forever. Determinists remain split on the problem that the ass poses. Spinoza famously dismissed it while others accept that the donkey would starve to death. Others argue that there is always some element of a choice that differentiates it from another one.

and a guardian article

About makagutu

As Onyango Makagutu I am Kenyan, as far as I am a man, I am a citizen of the world

52 thoughts on “On free will

  1. Probably eat both.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. jim- says:

    Eating asses?


  3. limey says:

    It would rationally conclude that starving to death with food so close is dumb and that it doesn’t matter which food pile it ate because the next day it would need to eat the other pile.

    Call me Spinoza because I dismiss the suggestion that it is a problem for determinism.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. keithnoback says:

    An element of random chance is still a determinant. These arguments always turn on confusion about what constitutes a cause, and what constitutes an intrinsic cause.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Like Marlon Brando’s physical therapist, Sally Bunknocker, once said,” Marlon, the other day I found myself equally placed between two delicious pizzas. First, I ate the one on the right; then I ate the one on the left. Now I’m full.” Somehow, I think the ass would do the same.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Swarn Gill says:

    Many animals develop some preference for left or right. There also may be facts beyond what we can detect such that they are not equal. One bail of hay may be slightly fresher…one bail of hay may have been placed down first…one bail of hay may be in a more usual feeding spot. I am not sure we are able to determine equity in terms of causes. And other points like those made by Keith and Limey are also quite true.


    • johnfaupel says:

      Donkeys are not ‘rational’ and neither are we, even though our egos like to ‘think’ they are. Nietzsche asked: ‘From whence did I get the notion of thinking? Why do I believe in cause and effect? What give me the right to speak of an “ego” as a cause of thought? The hundred-times-refuted theory of “free will” owes its persistence to its charm alone. I shall never tire of emphasising … that a thought comes when “it” wishes, and not when “I” wish, so that it is a perversion of the facts of the case to say that the subject “I” is the condition of the predicate “think”… ‘. (And the same applies to a “feeling” as it does to a “thought”.)


    • makagutu says:

      I think agree and beyond agreeing, I don’t think asses would be confused as to what bale to eat

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Arkenaten says:

    Shrug and think, stupid bloody philosophers then proceed to eat both bales.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. john zande says:

    Of course it can. Like humans, I’m sure donkey’s have favourite legs. I, for example, am left-legged, but right-handed. So, if the donkey is, say, left-legged, he’ll chose the bale on the right because it’s easier to push off the left leg.


  9. hmm, donkeys make rational decisions?


  10. It’s a spurious argument, IMO. That said, I do see the free will versus determinism debate as a philosophical exercise in futility. It will not be resolved within the foreseeable future, and it will probably never be resolved because both philosophical positions are empirically inadequate to explain all observed behavior. To me, this debate is analogous to arguing over whether a glass is half-full or half-empty.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. I thought this was going to be about a donkey named Will who was being held prisoner in Kenya 😀


  12. The brain seems to have solved this problem. If you look at an optical illusion that contains two possible interpretations (the vase vs. two faces, or the duck vs. rabbit) the picture will appear to shift by itself from one to the other. As the brain tires of one picture, the other emerges.

    So the donkey will alternately see one bale as more attractive than the other, and when he gets hungry enough, he’ll choose one bale over the other.

    The key thing, to keep in mind here, is that it is never anything other than the donkey that is doing the choosing. The donkey is his brain, and whatever the donkey’s brain chooses, the donkey has chosen.

    Nor can it be said to be an “illusion” of choosing, since we observe the donkey eating from the bale that seemed best at that moment of choice.


    • makagutu says:

      Hello Marvin, I was wondering you disappeared good fellow.
      The donkey will not have a problem with what to eat. I don’t think it is a rational question to ask a donkey


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