The Paradox of Choice (Buridan's Donkey) and The Free Will

The Buridan's paradox is one that is most fascinating. It is a spin off on an argument made in Aristotle's On The Heavens, ridiculing a sophist's idea on worldly forces. Although not technically a paradox, for it does not contain two contradicting ideas, it is given the label of one considering how befuddling the end result is. And it sure does tickle the brain. It goes as follows:

A hungry donkey placed in between two stacks of hay equal in quantity and equidistant from it, due to it's inability to make a rational decision on which one to pick, will die of starvation.

A very, very shrewd paradox. The donkey is extremely hungry, it is presented with not one, but two stacks of delicious hay. It is this possibility of excess that paralyzes the donkey. It wants to make the most advantageous decision but both seem equally lucrative! The end result? A hungry donkey with endless fodder dies of starvation.

Now this all seems like philosophical hoopla with no obvious real world implication right? Wrong. A version of the paradox actually manifests itself in electrical engineering.

The input to a digital logic gate that is supplied by a continuous voltage must be converted to either a 1 or a 0. This input is then sampled and processed by the gate.

Now the input to the gate is in a state of constant flux, which means it is continuously changing. It sometimes so happens that the input is at an intermediary state, in the process of changing between 1 and 0 when the gate samples it.

The input is now like the donkey, placed at equal distances from a 1 and 0. The gate is unable to decide and freezes in this metastable state, waiting for an undermined length of time for some noise or distortion to tip the scales in the favour of a 1 or a 0 and then processes the input.

Have you ever wondered how an application working perfectly fine konks and resumes working seamlessly on restarting? The answer is often simply a misplaced binary digit.

Finally, putting philosophy and technology aside, how does this affect us? We are not governed by rigid choice making logic gates or intelligence impaired like the donkey right? It should be simple for us to make a decision don't you think? Or is it.

Kneel before me. I said… KNEEL! Is not this simpler? Is this not your natural state? It’s the unspoken truth of humanity that you crave subjugation. The bright lure of freedom diminishes your life’s joy in a mad scramble for power. For identity. You were made to be ruled. In the end, you will always kneel.

Yes you guessed right, it's the voice of demigod Loki. Now ask yourself, is he right?

Why has religion managed to prosper unabated? How has politics flourished without obstruction? Why do we obey laws that don't agree with our logic?

The answer in my opinion is as clear as a glass of undiluted water: We want our choices to be made for us.

When the choice is left to us, we feel helpless like the donkey. Everything suddenly seems lucrative and with the anxiety of missing out and the fear of wrongly choosing, we end up starving. And so, overtime, we found a way out that we evolved into believing is the way of nature: elect someone to make the choices for us.

How many times has this happened: A person stands up and preaches a theory we don't agree with. We rebel against it for a day, unwillingly follow it for a day, and finally conform to it. It has happened with religion it has happened with governments and it will keep happening in every situation where decisions are involved.

We will always hand the baton to someone else. We are afraid of becoming Buridan's donkey.

Now honestly this is not always bad. If everyone was to exercise their own will unchallenged, the world would be a scary place. Murderers would kill and proudly claim it is their right of choice. Of course in order to maintain uniformity and peace there needs to be rules enforced, even if it does not conform with some people.

But the underlying issue is, in the process of having all our life's choices predetermined we have lost something that is our birth right. Our free will.

We are born, we study, we work, we retire, we die. We move when the light is green and stop when it's red. We marry before it's too late and give up when it's still early. Our course is shaped not by our own choices but by those of our parents, the society, the government and religious beliefs.

The message I want to leave you with is this. Know that you will always have choices. Some as simple as jam or butter, some as complex as the red wire or green. But you will always have choices. Do not for the fear of failing let someone else make them for you. Do not for the fear of failing abstain from choosing at all.

Do not starve even in the presence of fodder.


  1. You are an inspiration. I would want your autograph, please!


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