Bodybuilders as skilled debators

It’s tough to convince someone of something they don’t want to believe.

Our bodies are the same way — they’re tough to convince to expend energy on unnecessary things.

One way to view bodybuilders is to see them as people who for whatever reason have taken on the formidable task of convincing their bodies to invest significant amounts of energy on building (ultimately unnecessary) muscle. They’re debating with their bodies, using the rhetoric of food and focused exercise.

They have to convince their bodies that they have a surplus of energy by consuming unnecessary amounts of calories, and that additional muscles are actually necessary by stressing them. Evolutionarily, our bodies want to be misers with energy, not to needlessly waste it in case we weren’t able to hunt and kill that next mastodon.

So body builders actively deceive their bodies. In other words, gyms are like virtual reality for muscles — in real life you don’t often need to lift heavy things (we have machinery for that), but you can go to a gym and simulate needing to squat hundreds of pounds. But why? What’s the point?

Impressive things are those for which their difficult is easily recognized. In other words, it’s plain to see that a lot of effort went into it. They demonstrate their own challenge. Bodybuilding fits the bill because it literally is the very visible result of investing physical work over time. You can see a bodybuilder and realize how much effort probably went into achieving that physique.

A good novel is impressive because while it’s easy to read and appreciate its construction, its much harder to construct. A backflip is impressive because it’s easy to recognize, and your internal model of physics easily calculates that it’s pretty damn difficult to execute in reality. A new important breakthrough is often easily recognized (e.g. ‘I wish I had thought of that — it’s so simple’), but its derivation from what came before is often surprisingly difficult.

Interestingly, we often dislike when our internal metric of impressiveness is misled.

To support this idea, think of the derision that is usually aimed at people that use pharmacological shortcuts to become bodybuilders (e.g. steroids). They cheated. But really, what is it they cheated? They just convinced their bodies more directly, instead of taking the more ridiculous route of programming their bodies with exercise and food alone.

But the reason we’re upset by people who cheat in this way, is that their outcome, although it appears impressive on the surface, was in reality achieved through substantially less effort. They undermined our estimate of impressiveness — it’s not as impressive to have muscles if you use steroids. Just as it’s not really as impressive to take a photo of something as it is to paint a photo realistic image by hand. Also, think about the disillusionment that sets in when you recognize the underlying formula for a TV show that is initially interesting — the formula allows writers to crank out material with substantially less effort — there’s nothing really novel in each new episode.

What’s interesting about impressive ideas — those ideas that visibly demonstrate their construction’s difficulty — is that they are like little easily-communicated packets of valuable information. You can easily recognize why they are important — because they broadcast it themselves. For example, take Darwin’s idea of natural selection. What’s powerful about the concept is that it’s explanatory power is so evident. The appearance of design can result from competition induced by limited resources. It’s such a succinct nugget of condensed and important information.

It’s strange to think that a bodybuilder’s physique and darwin’s great idea can be seen as abstractly very similar: Just different instances of impressive artifacts.

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