According to Nicholas Rescher in his writings, "Cosmos and Logos: Studies in Greek Philosophy," in responding to the Sophist assertion that the Earth is a stationary body because it is a sphere and therefore the forces acting upon it must be equal in all directions, Aristotle purportedly said the assertion “was as ridiculous as saying that a man, being just as hungry as thirsty, and placed in between food and drink, must necessarily remain where he is and starve to death.”

To my knowledge, this could be the earliest instance of sarcasm and the foundation for other famous assertions, such as “Nice move, Baryshnikov!” or “Way to go, Einstein!”

For 14th century French philosopher Jean Buridan, it was the basis for Buridan’s Donkey, a popular thought exercise that presented a paradox to the concept of free will. In the longest-lasting version of the hypothetical situation, a hungry donkey is placed equidistant between two identical bales of hay. Paralyzed with indecision as to which bale to choose, the donkey will inevitably starve to death.

Though much of the analysis of Buridan’s Donkey could just point us back to the idea that Aristotle was simply deploying sarcasm to make his point, much of the analysis digs down into why humans can many times be seemingly paralyzed by indecision. For instance, Michael Hauskeller, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Exeter, in his article, “Why Buridan’s Ass Doesn’t Starve,” in Philosophy Now, asks us to “Imagine you go to a restaurant. Looking at the menu, you discover that they serve your two favorite meals – say asparagus and spinach tart. What will you do? You may hesitate for a while, but then you will make your choice. You have to make a choice, don’t you? Even if you’re hungry or greedy enough to order both, you have to decide which to eat first.”

Hauskeller lays out two general answers, that there is no reason for our decision or there is a reason that we are unaware of, seemingly championing the latter, particularly when we are discussing human action, providing examples and scenarios that suggest that based on our experiences, feelings, and preferences, we must have a reason, known or unknown, for our decisions. And the biggest reason for having to make a decision, one way or the other, is reality, or time.

In electrical engineering applications, a similar decision must be made when converting voltage into the simple 0 and 1 that is familiar in computing. The voltage can exist in a state of metastability between the state of 0 and 1. Eventually, based on the time designated in the system, the converter must make the conversion, much like humans are often bound by time in making a decision.

Thanks, Aristotle!

Others have tried to break the paradox of Buridan’s Donkey as well. Metaphysically, some have dug into the idea of nothing ever being identical, breaking down the donkey’s decision to a preference for left or right, because if the bales were truly identical, they would occupy the same space. Medically, there have been studies monitoring our brainwaves as we attempt to make a choice between two “identical” snacks.

However, for a more recent, real world application of Buridan’s Donkey, we can look to the COVID vaccine. For months, the world was reduced to hoping for the speedier-than-normal development of a vaccine. When they became a reality, we were presented with two potential vaccines, then a third, and a myriad of information on each one’s efficacy and effectiveness, as well as many other potential treatments and approaches to protecting ourselves and our loved ones from this coronavirus.

I still think Aristotle was just being sarcastic. Thanks, Aristotle!

To help with decisions on the shop floor, Bill Tandler suggests we turn to GD&T. See why in his article, “Turning GD&T from Grim, Depressing & Troublesome Into Grand, Delightful & Tantalizing,” and everything else we have to offer in this month’s Quality.

Enjoy and thanks for reading!