Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Spinoza on Buridan's Ass

Fourthly, it may be objected that if man does not act from freedom of will, what would happen if he should be in a state of equilibrium like Buridan's ass? Will he perish of hunger and thirst? If I were to grant this, I would appear to be thinking of an ass or a statue, not of a man. If I deny it, then the man will be determining himself, and consequently will possess the faculty of going and doing whatever he wants....

As to the fourth objection, I readily grant that a man placed in such a state of equilibrium (namely, where he feels nothng else but hunger and thirst and perceives nothing but such-and-such food and drink at equal distances from him) will die of hunger and thirst. If they ask me whether such a man is not to be reckoned an ass rather than a man, I reply that I do not know, just as I do not know how one should reckon a man who hangs himself, or how one should reckon babies, fools, and madmen.

[Ethics, Part II, Proposition 49 Scholium.]

This is a very refreshing response (and, I think, very reasonable, given that the objection isn't very strong), since most determinists seem to try to wriggle out of having to admit the equilibrium.

By the way, I've been told by a Buridan scholar that Buridan himself tends not to use an ass in this sort of example. He uses a dog. I imagine the ass caught on because it makes the rhetoric better.

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