Shortly after that unmasking of chaos though, I took a trip to the least visited national park in the continental U.S. and saw the limestone caves in Great Basin, Nevada. I was by myself in a small group tour when a pretty, young ranger pointed a flashlight at what I now know are helictites, and she asked if anyone could guess what explained how these strange formations grew in all sorts of random directions. No one else had any idea, so after a few moments of silence I ventured, "chaos theory?", and the ranger was astonished that someone had uttered these magical words. "That's right!" she said, before going on to explain to the group how we just couldn't predict some mysterious forces of nature. I was pleased with myself for having possessed the right answer, but in several ways, the magic for me was broken...
Buridan was very hungry indeed. It had all started with his resolution that every decision he made should be completely rational. The problem was that he had run out of food, but lived equidistant between two identical branches of the Kwik-E-Mart. Since he had no more reason to go to one rather than the other, he was caught in a perpetual state of suspension, unable to find any rational grounds for choosing either supermarket.
As his stomach rumbling grew intolerable, he thought he had hit upon a solution. Since it was clearly irrational to starve himself to death, wouldn't it be rational to make a random choice between two Kwik-E-Marts? He should simply toss a coin, or see which direction he felt like heading off in. That was surely more rational than sitting at home and doing nothing.
But would this course of action require him to break his rule about only making decisions that were completely rational? What his argument seemed to suggest is that it would be rational of him to make an irrational decision -- such as one based on the toss of a coin. But is rational irrationality rational at all? Buridan's plummeting blood sugar level made the question impossible to answer.
Source: The paradox of Buridan's Ass, first discussed in the Middle Ages
Baggini, J., The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten, 2005, p. 73.
Before tearing into this thought experiment, it's important to realise that it actually comes from a satire meant to ridicule the position of hard determinism that was articulated by 14th century French philosopher Jean Buridan during the free will debate of the day. In the original Buridan's Ass thought experiment, "an ass that is equally hungry and thirsty is placed precisely midway between a stack of hay and a pail of water. Since the paradox assumes the ass will always go to whichever is closer, it will die of both hunger and thirst since it cannot make any rational decision to choose one over the other." Of course, no donkey in history has starved because of such indecision, so determinism was refuted because it led to such a ridiculous conclusion. We must have free will; that is the point of this.
Or is it? Perhaps my helictite story above illustrates that in the material universe, there is no such thing as two perfectly identical choices. At some level, even if it's on the sub-atomic or inaccessible subconscious level, a difference between options exists and so determinism is not ruled out. Movement happens, and the decisions that drive this movement are just "chaotic" in the sense that we may not be able to calculate them ahead of time. The Principle of Sufficient Reason that Leibniz articulated on behalf of determinism can be stated in support of this in various ways:
• Nihil sine ratione: Nothing is without a reason.
• Nothing happens without a sufficient reason/cause.
• For each event A there is another event B (or a combination of events) that precedes it and fully explains why A had to happen.
• Ex nihilo nihil fit: Nothing comes out of nothing.
Although it's true that nothing comes from nothing, and we don't have completely untethered free will, at this point in our history of accumulated culture, we sure have a LOT of possible influences to choose from. Perhaps human learning does progress at the edges by one seemingly chaotic and random choice at a time, but those steps have led to the discovery of preferred paths. And now that those paths have been discovered, we owe it to ourselves and others to use the capability of reason that we've evolved to possess to learn what is wise and choose wise actions. We have the freedom to observe both the random and reasoned actions that have come before us and be moved to go in the right direction. To do otherwise, and to turn your back on our accumulated wisdom, is to lead a life that spirals indiscernibly like a helictite.
That would have made a really nice ending to this post, but Baggini tacks another subject on top of this free will debate—that of rationality vs. irrationality—which leads him down a path that I feel is misguided. He says:
The apparent [Buridan] paradox is a result of a sloppiness of language. Tossing a coin is not necessarily an irrational way to make a decision, it is simply a non-rational one. That is to say, it is neither rational nor irrational, but a process into which rationality does not enter. Much of what we do is non-rational in this way. For example, if you prefer red wine to white, that is not irrational, but nor is it rational. The preference is not based on reasons at all, but on tastes.
Now who's getting sloppy with language? First, there's the matter of the wictionary definition of non-rational:
- Contrary to reason; lacking an appropriate or sufficient reason; irrational.
- Lacking the ability to reason.
- (often philosophy) Not within the domain of what can be understood or analyzed by reason; outside the competence of the rules of reason.
This shows us we can only speak of the philosophically restricted definition of "non-rational" as something actually different than irrational — a restriction that's dangerous to do when considering the possibility of general audiences.
Second, however, and more importantly, while some processes (the processes of plate tectonics or hurricane formations for example) are certainly outside of the rational vs. irrational spectrum because no reason is involved in them, that cannot be said for the case of preferences and tastes, which must involve cognitive appraisals (and therefore rationality) at some level, even if it is on a subconscious level that is not well-accessed by the user of those preferences.
Summarising all of this, I do believe we can always use rational processes to move forward through life and take advantage of the freedom we have to make wise decisions. Sometimes, when the differences between the outcomes of two possible options is very, very small, we can spend very, very little time on weighing up the factors in our choice. There may be a teeny, tiny difference somewhere that would favour one direction over another, but to spend time trying to detect it would be very irrational indeed. Just move on; like I'm about to do with the further editing of this post.