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Buridan's Ass

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Suppose you place an hungry ass precisely midway between two stacks of hay, equal in every respect. Make sure that an ass perceives both stacks equally. According to the 14th century philosopher Jean Buridan the poor animal will die of starvation, unable to choose which stack to approach first. From this thought experiment we could learn first that animals could choose, and if volition is an ability to choose, then they have volition. Although this is hard wired, unconscious volition, it's volition nevertheless. Second, volition presupposes an hierarchy of values. if all values are equal, no choice is possible. Such an experiment could be easily modified for humans. However, man possesses self-awareness and  conscious volition and therefore is able to make non-rational, random choices, which are not related to the hierarchy of values. In any case I'm pretty sure that man in such a situation will have no difficulty whatsoever to grab the bar of gold, or just a plate with spare ribs. Wouldn't that be a proof of existence of volitional consciousness?

Edited by Leonid

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Why do you assert "... , volition presupposes a hierarchy of values. ..."  You are way up on the food chain with this thought experiment.  The concepts of value and hierarchy (and proof too) presupposes volition not the other way around.  

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 Volition is an ability to choose. If all values are equal, there is no need to choose and no need for volition.An animal automatically acts toward the preservation of life and this is the ultimate value. The rest of the values are means to this end  and it  hard wired to choose the most suitable one.  The experiment creates a situation in which all values are equal and no choice is possible expect the random one. An animal is incapable of making random choices, its hierarchy of values is preprogramed. That why we don't think that animals have volition in the human sense and the poor ass is doomed. However man is able to make a random choices and  could choose any standard of value on which the hierarchy of values depends.  Therefore man's volition precedes the hierarchy of values. 

Edited by Leonid

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Volition is an ability to choose. If all values are equal there is no need to choose and no need for volition.A living being acts toward the preservation of life and this is the ultimate value. The rest of the values are means to this end  and he has to choose the most suitable one. This is the function of volition. The need for this ability derived from the existence of hierarchy of values. The experiment creates a situation in which all values are equal and no choice is possible expect the random one.

Wait, you think Buridan's ass (heh, sounds so funny...) really wouldn't do anything until it starved to death? Because animals make choices of this sort all the time. This isn't a "random" choice either - people and animals may be biased in a direction for choices.

 

The thought experiment isn't experimental proof of anything because 1) it makes a claim about mental states, and 2) there is no data.

Edited by Eiuol

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Wait, you think Buridan's ass (heh, sounds so funny...) really wouldn't do anything until it starved to death? Because animals make choices of this sort all the time. This isn't a "random" choice either - people and animals may be biased in a direction for choices.

 

The thought experiment isn't experimental proof of anything because 1) it makes a claim about mental states, and 2) there is no data.

Oh, really? Ever heard about Schrodinger's cat or Chinese room, Ayn Rand's robot or another dozen of thought experiments which prove a lot in physics and  philosophy. This particular experiment is specifically designed in such a way that it will eliminate any bias. The only choice which is possible is the random one. An animal cannot do it, but humans can. Your point is that in the real life it's impossible to create such a situation, and you are most probably right. But this is a thought experiment, an exercise in the abstract thinking in order to highlight and to prove that man is capable to make random choices including the choice of standard of value and therefore possesses free will, which is different from the animal volition.

Edited by Leonid

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Oh, really? Ever heard about Schrodinger's cat or Chinese room, Ayn Rand's robot or another dozen of thought experiments which prove a lot in physics and  philosophy.

Except, other biases remain. Schrodinger's cat has nothing to do with choice (it's inconsequential), the Chinese room is about what qualifies as knowledge, and Rand's robot is about not needing to worry about death. In this case, you're talking about something you can observe, about choices about the world, and can die. Furthermore "eliminate" bias is impossible, even for humans. Humans can avoid susceptibility, but no choice is truly random. Buridan's ass would probably choose the left stack for no other reason than it's on the left. This experiment has been done in similar form for humans, and people may say the leftmost shirt is the best of three because it is better fitting, but all three are the same. What happens is that people have a bias to be pick one side. That's only from memory, so I'll get you the study. Animals do the same thing, usually because of their representation of the environment, not merely concretes. Not conceptual, but a representation nonetheless. In other words, if you ran the experiment (which is possible in a lab!), you'd turn out wrong.

 

A better example is a computer in an infinite loop. Program it to choose hay stacks over iron bolts, nothing else. Then make it choose between two hay stacks. It will be stuck forever. Actually, this may be an example of a halting problem. Living organisms don't fall victim to a halting problem. Why? Hierarchy of values probably as you say, which all organisms at least have in implicit or crude form. To say Buridan's ass would literally do nothing or literally pick randomly contradicts any theory of hierarchy of values. You'd have to have a standard of value in addition to or beyond life. After all, we're talking about a living creature.

Edited by Eiuol

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There is a flawed premise that its easy to set up a situation where an animal will be in this state

 

"Two equally desirable choices, that will remain equally desirable until death by starvation".

 

If that is possible, its going to be far more involved then just sitting two piles of hay equidistant.

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This premise is flawed:

 

"If all values are equal no choice is possible."

 

The truth is "If all values are equal ALL choices are possible"

 

Imagine the animal approaching a single bail of hay in reaction to a hunger it has chosen to satisfy, as it nears they hay bail it realizes that the bail of hay is not rectilinear but is actually a  small angular section of a circle of hay and lo and behold the animal is at its center, all of the hay now being equidistant from its snout.  This I suppose paralyzes the animal, because all of the hay it was it intending to eat is now equidistant and it "cannot" choose which way to go? 

 

The answer here is not that there is no way to choose, it is IT DOES NOT MATTER which way is chosen.

 

 

Here  the choice is to eat or die, the particular patch of hay chosen for munching is immaterial.

 

 

Please note, the choice to not place any significance upon the particular bit of hay to eat is not non-rational, in a choice between life and death, choosing life and ignoring the irrelevant is imminently rational.

 

 

I'm afraid this flawed thought experiment, in addition to being flawed in more ways than one, simply does not prove anything.

Edited by StrictlyLogical

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Choice by definition is a selection between at least two alternatives. To talk about choice in the absence of alternative when all values are equal is contradiction in terms. Animals essentially are very complicated computers and at least theoretically could face a halting problem, provided that experiment eliminates all biases.They cannot reason and to connect a choice between two identical stacks of hay with the life-death alternative and therefore the referral to the ultimate choice is irrelevant. They also cannot go by the rule of thumb, which would be a rational decision in such a case. But man could and would. The experiment demonstrates the difference between animal ability to choose which I call animal volition for the want of the better term and man's Free Will. Only man is able to make a random, arbitrary or subjective choice like in the experiment with the shirts. It also demonstrates that man's Free Will didn't appear by some kind of magic out of the thin air. It represents the evolutionary development of the animal volition on the new cognitive level of self-awareness. Paraphrasing Ayn Rand, to say " I want X" one should be able first to say "I". Since an ass cannot do that he may stuck forever. This is a demonstration of  the evolutionary advantage of Free Will over animal hard wired volition. The price which we pay for this advantage is of course that we can make  suicidal choices against our best interests and life itself. We can choose any standard of value, including death. We could make random choices in the face of the real alternatives. We could choose not to think and became lower than animals. And for the proof read any newspaper or watch any TV news.

Edited by Leonid

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I'm saying the shirt experiment was actually ran, and people don't make random choices. You are making claims about what people are able to do mentally, which is scientific study, not appropriate for armchair philosophizing. Being able to identify values is one thing, but non-human organisms implicitly act on life as their standard, and non-human animals are able to use representations. Explicit identification of values is not necessary, and countless studies with animal cognition show how they are not going to be stuck by looking at two identical options. They're too advanced for that.

You can use philosophy to talk about what knowledge is, or what choices are good for, but philosophy can't be used to claim how animal cognition works or assert that people really are able to make random choices.

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I'm saying the shirt experiment was actually ran, and people don't make random choices. You are making claims about what people are able to do mentally, which is scientific study, not appropriate for armchair philosophizing. Being able to identify values is one thing, but non-human organisms implicitly act on life as their standard, and non-human animals are able to use representations. Explicit identification of values is not necessary, and countless studies with animal cognition show how they are not going to be stuck by looking at two identical options. They're too advanced for that.

You can use philosophy to talk about what knowledge is, or what choices are good for, but philosophy can't be used to claim how animal cognition works or assert that people really are able to make random choices.

 

The shirt experiment shows ability of subjective choice. There is no rational reason to choose between identical shirts, only gut feeling. As for the animal experiments, I don't know whether or not these experiments really created completely identical values. Most probably not, it's very difficult to arrange such a set in the real life. That why a need for the thought experiment. Animals act toward preservation of life, but they don't know that. instinctively they choose a value that is most suitable for such a goal. But in the case that all values are equal and no choice is   possible instinct could fail, but mind not. However more often than not man also could stuck in the position of indecision, when he doesn't have a sufficient information to decide or presented with too many alternatives which all seem equal. 

Edited by Leonid

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I'm sorry, but as far as I know humans and animals choose between equal values all the time.  Watch your dog eat a bowl of dog food.  Every pellet is for the purposes of the dog's hunger and even by the standard of the dog's "differentiating capacity" perfectly identical.

 

Again the truth is "If all values are equal ALL choices are possible"

 

 

 

As for a halting problem, in an artificial system that really would require bad programming (equal values to cause inaction causing lack of value), and from a biological evolutionary standpoint if ever such a mechanism appeared in the variation of species, it would almost certainly ensure extinction of that new species within a paltry few generations.

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Animals essentially are very complicated computers and at least theoretically could face a halting problem, provided that experiment eliminates all biases.

 

The halting problem is the problem is the problem of determining whether a Turing machine halts. (No Turing machine can solve this problem in general. And only one animal can solve it at all, us.)

Perhaps what you meant is that an animal might infinitely loop. Algorithms infinitely loop when they execute the same instructions over and over again; this model does not describe animals (which do not have a list of instructions) or even your PC (which can be interrupted; most applications are in an infinite loop and do not deterministically end after a certain time).

Still, I can tell a deterministic, sequential, uninterruptable program to pick an even number from a set (Scala code: Set(1, 2, 3, 4, 5) find (_ % 2 == 0)) and it doesn't hang. Something which is 'essentially a computer' can't ever face indecision; anything deterministic by definition only really has one thing to do.

 

TLDR: I doubt a donkey will get lost in thought and stop moving.

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The halting problem is the problem is the problem of determining whether a Turing machine halts. (No Turing machine can solve this problem in general. And only one animal can solve it at all, us.)

Perhaps what you meant is that an animal might infinitely loop. Algorithms infinitely loop when they execute the same instructions over and over again; this model does not describe animals (which do not have a list of instructions) or even your PC (which can be interrupted; most applications are in an infinite loop and do not deterministically end after a certain time).

Still, I can tell a deterministic, sequential, uninterruptable program to pick an even number from a set (Scala code: Set(1, 2, 3, 4, 5) find (_ % 2 == 0)) and it doesn't hang. Something which is 'essentially a computer' can't ever face indecision; anything deterministic by definition only really has one thing to do.

 

TLDR: I doubt a donkey will get lost in thought and stop moving.

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In reality a donkey will wait till situation changes in such a way that he could make a choice, for example the wind will blow in certain direction. The point which experiment highlights, however, is different. It comes to show that animals cannot to make a random choice but human can and this is the difference between animal volition and human Free Will.

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I'm sorry, but as far as I know humans and animals choose between equal values all the time.  Watch your dog eat a bowl of dog food.  Every pellet is for the purposes of the dog's hunger and even by the standard of the dog's "differentiating capacity" perfectly identical.

 

Again the truth is "If all values are equal ALL choices are possible"

 

 

 

As for a halting problem, in an artificial system that really would require bad programming (equal values to cause inaction causing lack of value), and from a biological evolutionary standpoint if ever such a mechanism appeared in the variation of species, it would almost certainly ensure extinction of that new species within a paltry few generations.

I observed a cat who had a difficulty to choose between 2 identical bowls of food. He was constantly moving from one to another. Not to mention a woman who has to choose a dress. 

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I just tried this experiment, only in a more controlled environment.  Instead of a donkey, which is an organism subject to changes which might affect the perfectly set up equi-attractiveness of two hay piles, I used a steel ball, set up to drop exactly on the center of another steel ball mounted perfectly securely on a concrete slab anchored to bedrock.  The "choice" I tried to establish is the angle at which the ball bounced after striking the mounted ball.  I dropped the ball and, as planned, it struck the other ball dead center and bounced directly up towards its starting point.  Fell again, bounced again.  Each successive bounce transferred kinetic energy into heat energy in the two balls, so each bounce went a little lower than the last one.  I accounted for the minute vibrations in each of the balls, as well as all other forces imparted on the balls, all ahead of time.  Sure enough, the dropped ball kept bouncing, making a clacking noise that turned into a buzz which increased in pitch until it finally came to rest on the exact top center of the mounted ball.  It's still sitting in the same spot, perfectly balanced, after almost six days.

 

Proving once and for all that steel balls don't possess volition.

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In reality a donkey will wait till situation changes in such a way that he could make a choice, for example the wind will blow in certain direction. The point which experiment highlights, however, is different. It comes to show that animals cannot to make a random choice but human can and this is the difference between animal volition and human Free Will.

The thought experiment arbitrarily asserts how animal psychology operates, and gets animal psychology wrong at the same time. Basically, it's asking what would happen if context didn't exist, and choices were only between two contextless options. At best, the thought experiment existing at all shows the unique human ability of context dropping. Only a human out of touch with their "inner" world would ever consider that context could be dropped when thinking about values.

 

A donkey wouldn't drop the context. He'd probably spend a few moments confused then walk to the right-most stack, while the analytic philosophers debate for hours about what would be a truly random choice... Flip a coin? But tails is slightly more likely than heads!

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It is pretty obvious that the donkey will eat the hay, even if we don't call it a choice. 

 

In fact, two piles are not required. Consider just one pile, with tens of equally yummy looking places where the donkey can take a bite. Donkey's are confronted with this non-choice every time they eat. 

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It is pretty obvious that the donkey will eat the hay, even if we don't call it a choice. 

 

In fact, two piles are not required. Consider just one pile, with tens of equally yummy looking places where the donkey can take a bite. Donkey's are confronted with this non-choice every time they eat.

Great observation. Cuts to the quick.

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The thought experiment arbitrarily asserts how animal psychology operates, and gets animal psychology wrong at the same time. Basically, it's asking what would happen if context didn't exist, and choices were only between two contextless options. At best, the thought experiment existing at all shows the unique human ability of context dropping. Only a human out of touch with their "inner" world would ever consider that context could be dropped when thinking about values.

 

A donkey wouldn't drop the context. He'd probably spend a few moments confused then walk to the right-most stack, while the analytic philosophers debate for hours about what would be a truly random choice... Flip a coin? But tails is slightly more likely than heads!

The whole point is that donkey couldn't flip the coin. That would be an arbitrary  decision which involves Free will which donkey doesn't have. And why he should walk right? The previous participant suggested left.

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Thank you for your input. I brought up this topic in order to highlight certain points.

1.Animals have concrete-bound volition.

2.Animals unable to make a random choice because randomness is a high-level concept and animals don't have conceptual cognition.

3. Only humans possess such a quality and that how their volition differs from that of animals.

4. Free will is volition on conceptual level.

5. The ability of the random choice is a proof of Free Will.

I expected you to address these points. Instead people choose to criticize the experiment itself. It's like to criticize Ayn Rand indestructible robot thought experiment on the grounds that such a robot is physically and even metaphysically impossible. I must confess that I'm disappointed.

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The whole point is that donkey couldn't flip the coin. That would be an arbitrary  decision which involves Free will which donkey doesn't have. And why he should walk right? The previous participant suggested left.

A coin wouldn't be random. If you just mean humans are able to drop context and animals aren't, that's fine. Randomess as a concept is an abstraction, and requires ignoring some amount of causality. But that doesn't mean an animal would ever get stuck. Arbitrary (any observed property) selection (perhaps based on its position) is all you need to make a decision.

Edited by Eiuol

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Calzonie

 

 

My hat is off to you.  That is the most perfect thought experiment I have ever seen or heard of.  It was a privilege to experience it in my mind.

 

Very impressive.  I am going to petition that it be entered into the Handbook of Rationalism.

 

You know, I would like to discuss some of my thought experiments at our next Rationalism meeting.  I have one very long and complicated one which (finally) proves Existence itself and another almost self-evident one which proves the exact nature of the fundamental entities of the universe.  See you then!

 

 

Yours Truly

SL

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