While visiting Chicago, waiting for a bus at Addison with my man Hawver, two street hawkers approached us. “Would you like to try some Laughing Cow light swiss?”
“Sure,” I said, being hungry. One handed me a sample pack of swiss cheese, about the size of my thumb; the other, a pack of crackers the size of a matchbox. I also got a coupon for $1.00 off a pack of said cheese.
It was tasty enough that I bought a pack the next time I went grocery shopping, to see how well it would complement my lunch. And that went so well that I’ve bought Laughing Cow several times since, even without a coupon.
I had next to zero consciousness of Laughing Cow cheese before this, my primary exposure being the yellow Vache Qui Rit bowl Fraley kept in our cupboard when we lived together. A free sample and a coupon converted me from agnostic to believer in about a week. Four months ago I had no desire for this product; now I have a modest desire. A corporation paid some marketers to sit around a conference table and instill in me a desire where none existed.
As a marketer myself, I find the process curious. As an amateur student of autoepistemology, I find it absolutely fascinating.
This desire for Laughing Cow cheese was created in me by someone else. I can track the steps that it took to happen. Which other desires of mine originated in someone else’s mind? What about my preference for Coke Zero over Diet Coke? My taste in beer? My willingness to drive a rusting import rather than trade up for a newer car? My desire to live in Cambridge? My impulse to live alone? My need to write? My preferred self-image? My religious beliefs, or lack thereof? Who put these thoughts in my head?
Really radical progressives blame modern capitalism for about half of the above. “The consumerist market,” one might say, “encourages people to buy things they don’t need. It touts conspicuous consumption as a way to distinguish yourself from your neighbors, or to alleviate the stress of your job. Consumerism obscures your true desires.”
The funny thing is: I’d agree with them. Up until the last sentence.
Most of us believe in some notion of an ego, or a soul, or some inviolate core that makes decisions. It sits inside our body, either in the center of our brain or in our (metaphorical) heart, and “watches” what happens to us, as if on a screen. When we make a decision, the ego or soul sends instructions to the limbs to move. Descartes didn’t invent this theory of consciousness, but, with the whole cogito ergo sum thing, he made it most popular.
The problem is: (1) the idea of an ego/soul that’s separate from the body it inhabits has no empirical grounding, and (2) it’s not even a satisfactory explanation.
I’m paraphrasing Daniel Dennett here: suppose there is an ego/soul, sitting inside our body, responsible for making our decisions. The answer to the question, “What’s going on in my head?” is “a mini-self is pulling the levers.” That doesn’t answer the mystery of consciousness, though. It merely raises another question: “okay, how does the mini-self make decisions? what’s going on in its head?”
Dennett offers an alternative: there is no one “seat of consciousness” within the brain:
The book puts forward a “multiple drafts” model of consciousness, suggesting that there is no single central place (a “Cartesian Theater”) where conscious experience occurs; instead there are “various events of content-fixation occurring in various places at various times in the brain”. The brain consists of a “bundle of semi-independent agencies”; when “content-fixation” takes place in one of these, its effects may propagate so that it leads to the utterance of one of the sentences that make up the story in which the central character is one’s “self”. Dennett’s view of consciousness is that it is the apparently serial account for the brain’s underlying parallelism.
“Interesting stuff, Professor,” you’re saying, “but what does this have to do with cheese?”
If what we call “consciousness” is really the body carrying out the instructions of different agencies of the brain at different times, then there is no central ego/soul. If that’s the case, then there’s no distinction between the “true desires” of the self and the “false desires” implanted in us by corporations, politicians, churches, peer groups, etc. They’re all equally legitimate inputs. My desire for Laughing Cow cheese, which I was barely conscious of six months ago, is no more artificial than my desire to hang out with a new friend, whom I hadn’t met six months ago.
I’m still not settled on what this means for my decision-making process, except that it makes my job as a marketer easier to swallow.