20 November 2011

John Buridan's Committee

There is an old philosophical story named after John Buridan who was a French priest and philosopher in the 14th century that somewhat describes the present situation of the budget "Super Committee" in Washington, D.C. The name of the story is "John Buridan's Donkey". It is actually a satire on John Buridan's philosophy of moral determinism which stated that God always encourages virtue and punishes evil and therefore man can determine his reward and punishment through his deeds. John Buridan's critics argued that the rewards and punishments are mainly the result of random events because without random events there can be no truly free will. Their position was that there is no intervention by God since He is not interested in limiting free will through rewards and punishments that would set limits on the free will of man in making choices.

Buridan claimed that man can exercise his free will by delaying his courses of action regarding good versus evil and thinking about the morality of his actions beforehand and that a moral person who is faced with alternative courses of action by the very definition of a "moral person" must always choose the greater good and for this reason be rewarded for his choice through the satisfaction of having done the right thing as well as other potential rewards both spiritual and temporal as judged appropriate by God.

His critics seized upon his exercise in free will through delay and moral reasoning by using the story of the donkey which they named after him. There are some minor variations in the story but the gist of it is that there is a donkey and on one side of him there is a bushel of oats and on the other side there is a bushel of rye. The donkey is very hungry but since the oats and the rye are equidistant from where he is standing and the donkey not possessing much by way of the power of reasoning, the subsequent long delay in choosing which one to eat results in the donkey's untimely death by starvation.

This problem of Buridan's donkey stated in terms of mathematics goes "A discrete decision based upon an input having a continuous range of values cannot be made within a bounded length of time", that is to say, that given this particular problem there can be no time limit in making the choice and this doesn't bode well for the unfortunate donkey since the choice can be made at any time approaching infinity. In digital electronics the problem is called "metastability" or "unstable equilibrium" which involves the amount of time of a system can remain stable. In metastable states, the circuit may be unable to settle into a stable "0" or "1" logic level within the time required for proper circuit operation. As a result, the circuit can act in unpredictable ways, and may lead to a system failure.

Hmmm, "inability to make a logical moral decision before the time runs out and serious consequences such as a system failure as a result". If that doesn't sound like the "Super Committee" problem then I don't know what does. I just hope that they make a decision for the "greater good" before the final gavel sounds or else we may have to relieve John Buridan of the donkey and rename it something else... like "John Boehner's Ass".


norm said...

Things have turned around here in Ohio, people in the factories have been pulling overtime for at least 6 months. The managers are to the point where they are making people work extra hours or be fired. Hiring comes next. How soon? I would guess at least another 6 months. The problem started with tax money crashing when the overtime gravy train stalled in 08. The delay may work out for the good. The 2012 election will be about tax and spending issues. I like the idea of the voters deciding policy when practical.

Bob Mrotek said...

Yeah, Norm. I really like the idea of people getting more involved. This downturn we are going through is nothing more than a correction and the situation will soon regress towards the mean and in the end it will make us all wiser...nah, just kidding about that last part :)

norm said...

I think it will make those a bit younger than us a bit wiser, as we have lived through this before, the young had not had the pleasure... I saw some very educated people get rooked this meltdown. A friend made payments on a note for 27 months, turned out it was a sham and none of the payments had been credited. A sold note after the fact where the payments vanished into the ether. And he still owed the money to the outfit he had bought the note from in the first place. A class action is filed but he still has to pay or the bank that sold his note is going to forclose. yiks!!!

Bob Mrotek said...

The best thing about living long enough is that you learn about regression to the mean...when things are bad they will get better and when things are good they will get worse. The best place to be is smack dab in the center at the "ho-hum" position. Steady as she goes Mr. Sulu :)

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I was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A. I have been living in Mexico since January 6th, 1999. I am continually studying to improve my knowledge of the Spanish language and Mexican history and culture. I am also a student of Mandarin Chinese.