Friday, November 09, 2007

McDonald's, a dipped cone, and my freewill

{Podcast this essay} Occasionally, threats to my good health aside, I eat at McDonald's. Sadly, eating at McDonald's is the closest one can come to eating a direct-from-the-factory product. But occasionally, I hear the faint callings of my starving ancestors echoing up from my genome.

"We want fat. We want salt; in fact, we want 1040mg of salt in one sandwich which constitutes 43% of the daily total."

My hominid ancestors clearly scan the off-site propositions of my long-term memory for such information. That's why they are so convincing. I regularly do what they say. Prima facie, this seems wise, since their callings are the results of about five to seven -million years of successful primate evolution operating right up until even my own lunch time cravings. I'm conservative, you see. Therefore, tradition matters to me. And there's no more informative tradition than the tradition of bio-psychology.

Although I regularly do what the ancestors call me to do, it is anything but clear I choose to do what the ancestors call me to do. The prior is simply behavior, while the latter is forming an intention between options, and then actualizing one of those options uncoerced. In the latter case, I would be formulating whether to listen to the whisperings of my hominid ancestors and select the fatty, salty delight of a supersized #2 meal; or, not to listen to them, perhaps selecting a salad instead.

I certainly was doing what I wanted to do. Thus, I was free. After all, anyone who does what he wants is uncoerced. And if one is uncoereced, then one is free.

I'm still not convinced, however. Yes, I was doing what I wanted. But maybe my wants were determined. To be free, I would have to be able to choose against my wants. Is that even possible?

I ate the Big Mac meal (along with the supersize fries, thank you.). I was surprised that I wasn't full. The meal seemed large enough. And at 540 calories for the sandwich, plus 570 calories for the large fries, not counting the sprite and ketchup, I knew there were plenty of calories in the meal to sustain my system. Reason easily acknowledged this. Yet parts of my brain signalled that I desired more to eat. Now I've always been a fan of the chocolate dipped ice-cream cone, and what better 330 calories could one spend then on that sugary-sweet treat.[2] I wanted to do it, and was hardly coerced by any outside force. So I was free. It was, I assure you, quite tasty.

The problem came when I left McD's, or when I almost left. Somewhere around 1,500 calories in a meal is far more than most people ever dream of eating in a day, much less in a meal:
Take Bangladesh [as compared to] the USA: the average food intake for a Bangladeshi is 1930 calories per day, while for an American it is 3650 calories. It has been estimated that the minimum amount of food needed for good health is 2360 calories per day. So you can see, the average person in Bangladesh has too little food while the average American eats too much[1]
Clearly, what I had just put away was a luxury meal on the basis of calories. But as I drove my car around the backside of McD's in order to exit, passing under the gigantic golden double-arches abstract icon signalling to all the presence of this false temple of good food, suddenly realized I wanted yet another ice cream cone. Obviously, I didn't need it. Unquestionably, I would be further compounding the nutritional errors I had just already made by even showing up to McDonald's in the first place. And yet here it was: this want.

Suddenly, I found I did not want the want that I was having. I wanted a different want, I wanted a want that focused on something besides food; and, certainly on something besides a second chocolate-dipped ice cream cone. And yet here it was: this want.

Initially, I reasoned about its badness, its cumulative effect on me for which I would assuredly pay on the next day. I remembered the last time I ate too much McDonald's ice cream, how the sugar made me shake a bit, and how the the jello-horde of glucose too suddenly retreated from my metabolism and made me drop both cognitively and emotionally. I accurately self assessed that I'd regret it.

Then, I rationalized. "What the heck," I said. "It's good to be irrational once in a while!"

Now, and at some days after the event, I realized that during those moments, and under those peculiar conditions, I was no more free to say no to the whims of my hypothalamus hunger control system than is a smoker free to quit "anytime he wants to."

But he and I both share the same curse, if only in difference of degree: neither of us can simply want what we want anytime we want to.



[1] Juliet Gellatley "Food for a Future" (Accessed Nov. 5, 2007)

[2]"McDonald's USA Nutrition Facts for Popular Menu Items" McDonald' (Accessed Nov. 9, 2007)


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At 7:33 AM, Blogger Chad said...

Remember all the dipped cones on the drive to and from Seminary with you, me Impson and Hancock all those many years ago? You were not wrong, those were unimaginably good years.



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