Coronavirus Conversations: Buridan’s Ass Redux

In Reframed, I write about “Buridan’s Ass,” the famous allegory attributed to the 14th century French philosopher Jean Buridan. (It was he who the King of France reportedly had thrown in a sack into the Seine because of an affair with the Queen). A donkey is placed midway between a bale of hay and a pail of water, and since it is mentally incapable of choosing between the two, it dies of hunger and thirst. But this was not intended as an attack on donkey intelligence (and if it were, it would betray an appalling lack of familiarity with just how clever Equus asinus can be). Unlike the original version that Aristotle told in On the Heavens, this was intended as a parable about what makes society possible.

The allegory is a response to the 12th century Persian philosopher al-Ghazali, who argued that when there are no grounds to choose between two actions – for al-Ghazali, choosing between two equally delicious plates of dates–we must rely on our will to break the stalemate. Buridan’s response is based on the premise that our mind is so fashioned – by God – that we must choose that action which leads to the greater good. When reason is unable to discern which action that might be, the will is powerless to intervene.

And here we are today, placed between the bale of social distancing and the pail of reopening, at a time when few would subscribe to Buridan’s moral determinism. In al-Ghazali like fashion, we turn to the will to settle the issue. That is, that we must force ourselves to stay home or go back to work despite concerns about our health and the wellbeing of our loved ones. (Although it must be noted that there are those who would punish anyone reluctant to return to work by depriving them of their unemployment benefits, thereby taking away the luxury of choice.)

Buridan’s solution was that, “Should two courses be judged equal, then the will cannot break the deadlock, all it can do is to suspend judgement until the circumstances change, and the right course of action is clear.” Pretty much no-one has ever found this argument compelling, and it is certainly no comfort today when there is urgency to our making the right decision. But there was something else about the allegory, something that I felt was missing but couldn’t put my finger on until recently. But first things first.

By this time, it pretty much goes without saying that I want to reframe the argument. Here we have yet another variant on the Marshmallow Task: this time with an interesting twist, since it takes self-control to quell the urge for both rewards and simply settle for one. Once again, this is a Red and not a Blue Brain matter: a conflict between two strong desires. In our present case, to be safe versus the freedom to move about. Or equally, a conflict between two strong fears: fear of a silent killer versus the fear of economic ruin.

I would agree that this is not a conflict that can be resolved by self-control: but not because the will isn’t strong enough to settle the matter. Rather, it is because the will has no say in what we feel. We can force ourselves to act, but not what to like or fear. To be sure, we can close our eyes to the negative consequences of an action; but denial is automatic and not voluntary. Nor do we have to wait for circumstances to change, since we ourselves can be the agents of such change: by using Self-Reg to return to a state of calm in which rational decision-making comes back online.

This last point alludes to what I find most interesting about this allegory: it is about stress, not about willpower. Choosing is intrinsically stressful, and the more stressful a choice, the harder it is to think our way through it. What makes the allegory so powerful is the insight that if the stress is great enough the mind becomes paralyzed. There is a wonderful depiction of how this happens in the film Darkest Hour: confronted with the unbearable choice of appeasement, or what at the time appeared to be certain destruction, we watch as Churchill’s mind seizes up.

It’s not just moral choice. Any kind of choosing is inherently stressful: even inane choices, like deciding which brand of peanut butter to buy. This is the reason why we rely on heuristics in day-to-day decision-making. Not because the mind is inherently prone to laziness (Kahnemann); nor because the mind is hardwired to rely on short-cuts to make its decisions (Montier). We use heuristics in much the same way that some children eat the marshmallow in order to remove a stress. In other words, as a mode of self-regulating. One that turns out, more often than not, to be unproblematic. Or at least, more adaptive than being frozen.

In the peanut butter example – one that I am personally acquainted with – I have a few options. One is to choose randomly. Another is to allow my choice to be guided by a strategically placed “On Special” sticker (in bright red, of course). Or a third, to ask my wife. In my case, the third was the only logical option since I would have had to deal with two angry children had I brought home the wrong brand.

But there is a deeper meaning to this example than you might at first realize. Buridan sets up the problem on the classic “isolated mind” paradigm. That, no doubt, is the reason why he chose a donkey to make his point (wrongly, as it happens, since donkeys are social animals). How can I, in the seclusion of my mind, decide which of two compelling arguments is the right one? Heuristics offer us one way of reducing a stress; social engagement, such as asking my wife for help, is another.

This way of setting up the problem is what had long bothered me about the allegory: it assumes that moral decision-making is entirely internal. That the solitary mind must have been designed to make the prosocial choice; otherwise, how could society ever have been possible. But here we are today, where which course of action will “lead to the greater good” is precisely what is at issue. How is a mind to choose when there are such, if not compelling, certainly boisterous voices on both sides?

What is completely missing in the allegory is an Interbrain to help the poor donkey survive. (And in Darkest Hour, it is his social encounter on the tube that guides Churchill to make the choice that he cannot make on his own.) Social cognition, as Christina Toren has explained, is distributed [Anthropology and Psychology]. The more stressful a decision, the more a group of minds is required to make it.

Is it possible to conduct this kind of group decision-making in a manner that is unswayed by emotion? It is; and it is called science. To be sure, reactionary thinkers might see science in the manner depicted by Swift in Part III of Gulliver’s Travels. But unlike what takes place on the flying island of Laputa, science as it exists today isthe paradigm example of distributed social cognition.

Scientists operate under intense internal pressures. From these debates a consensus emerges. One that, as Popper argued, must always – and is always–subject to being over-turned. Science represents the distillation of our most rigorous thinking, given current theories and data. It is the ultimate human collectivist phenomenon. And incidentally, for all the bad press the field receives, economics belongs here as well; there is a noticeable dearth of economists amongst the voices clamoring for re-opening.

That is what is missing in Buridan’s allegory: the whole realm of social engagement. What the ass needed was not a change of circumstances, but others to help it decide when the stress was too great for it to choose on its own. Others that it could trust.

Dr. Stuart Shanker is a Distinguished Research Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and Psychology at York University and the CEO of The MEHRIT Centre, Ltd. Stuart has served as an advisor on early child development to government organizations across Canada and the US, and in countries around the world. Dr. Shanker also blogs for Psychology Today
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