The descent

The donkey is torn. On one side is a pail of water. On the other is a stack of hay. The donkey needs food as much as it needs water. So how does it decide between these two equal desires, both of which, if left unsatisfied, can result in death? The traditional answer to the paradox titled Buridan’s Donkey is that it doesn’t; it is killed by indecision. In another version of the paradox, related by Nassim Taleb in Antifragile, the donkey’s choice is made by chance

“A donkey equally famished and thirsty caught at an equal distance between food and water would unavoidably die of hunger or thirst. But he can be saved thanks to a random nudge one way or the other. This metaphor is named Buridan’s Donkey, after the medieval philosopher Jean de Buridan, who—among other, very complicated things—introduced the thought experiment. When some systems are stuck in a dangerous impasse, randomness and only randomness can unlock them and set them free. You can see here that absence of randomness equals guaranteed death.”

Now, imagine this scenario—randomness influencing a choice between seemingly equal opportunities—applied to our life. Typically, we imagine our pasts as deliberate. We got from A to B to C because we chose to go from A to B to C. The reality is far different. Every choice in our past—and our future, too—is a crossroads with numerous diverging pathways. Of course, we consciously evaluate the merit of each available one. But more often than not, the path we take is taken because of an unexpected nudge in a particular direction. The nudge can come from a stranger, from a friend, from a family member, from the sweet tone of desire, from the whisper of fear, or from a peculiar facet of circumstance.

Consider it another way. You are born on the top of a mountain. At the bottom of the mountain is death. The only way down is via a succession of slides. You can see where some go, others just descend into a heavy mist. In such a situation paralysis will set in. You’ll refuse to go down any slide. No matter. The wind will howl, rain will roar around you. Eventually, via choice or via accident, you’ll begin your descent, and you may come to another platform. The same again. Many slides. Which do you take? Choose or have the choice made for you.

This is how our existence unfolds. We are ceaselessly descending towards death, down chutes which sometimes we choose and most of the time we don’t.