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Buridan's ass

Subject Philosophy

DOI: 10.1111/b.9781405106795.2004.x


M etaphysics, philosophy of action The fourteenth-century French philosopher Jean Buridan proposed that reasons determine our choice between two alternatives and that we will do what our reason tells us is best. To argue against this theory, a case was devised to the effect that a starving ass is placed between two haystacks that are equidistant and equally tempting. There is no more reason to go toward one stack than the other, without additional relevant information. Thus, according to Buridan's theory, the ass would starve to death. This thought experiment has been influential in the discussion of free will and determinism . It is also related to the principle of indifference. But decision theory suggests that although the ass cannot decide which stack it should choose, it surely can decide between starving to death and having either of the stacks. “Buridan's ass, which died of hunger being unable to decide which of the two haystacks in front of it happened to be superior, could have rationally chosen either of the haystacks, since it has good reason for choosing either rather than starving to death.” Sen, On Ethics and Economics ... log in or subscribe to read full text

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