Buridan, Jean (c1295–1356)
French scientist and philosopher, Buridan studied philosophy with William of Ockham in Paris, where he became a professor and (in 1328 and 1340) rector. He made Ockham’s nominalism the basis of an empirical physics, opposed to much in Aristotelian physics and paving the way for 17th-century mechanics. His Consequentiae addresses the theory of modal propositions in logic and attempts perhaps the first deductive derivation of the laws of deduction. But his name is best known from ‘Buridan’s Ass’, the poor beast which is placed half-way between two identical bales of hay and starves to death for want of a reason for choosing one over the other. The example and name seem to have arisen later to refute his contention that will cannot operate without a sufficient reason, although Buridan himself mentions a dog in like state, in commenting on Aristotle’s De Coelo. The topic is relevant to the theory of rational choice, where it could be awkward, if there were no way of resolving the problems of multiple equilibria. Presumably the ass must be allowed to have sufficient reason to pick at random, although that could still be awkward, if several asses had a coordination problem.