fitness · health · motivation

Thought experiment about physical activity

Philosophers love thought experiments as a way of teasing out what really matters about some issue or concept. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy puts it this way,

Thought experiments are devices of the imagination used to investigate the nature of things. Thought experimenting often takes place when the method of variation is employed in entertaining imaginative suppositions. They are used for diverse reasons in a variety of areas, including economics, history, mathematics, philosophy, and physics. Most often thought experiments are communicated in narrative form, sometimes through media like a diagram. Thought experiments should be distinguished from thinking about experiments, from merely imagining any experiments to be conducted outside the imagination, and from psychological experiments with thoughts. They should also be distinguished from counterfactual reasoning in general, as they seem to require an experimental element.

They can be helpful devices to get at what it is we really care about. Tracy posed one awhile ago when she asked how she’d live her life differently if her weight were fixed. Tracy asked herself, if she were to be the size and shape no matter what she did, how would her food and activity choices be different? Mostly she decided they wouldn’t be much different.

I often say that I love physical activity and that is surely true.  But do I love it intrinsically, because of the sort of experience it is, or merely instrumentally, because of its effects?

How do we sort this out given that in this world physical activity has both instrumental and intrinsic value?

Enter the thought experiment.

Suppose that Crossfit/rowing/cycling/Aikido etc had no impact on the rest of my life, no effects at all, would I still do it? Let’s remove all instrumental benefits and ask if without them, I’d still work out the way that I do.

(You might think this is just like asking what life would be like as non responder. I’ve blogged about non responders here. The problem is, in the real world, non responders do get some of the benefits. They just don’t get fitter or faster.)

It’s hard to tease out exactly what it would mean to banish all the instrumental benefits from consideration. At a minimum suppose exercise didn’t burn calories or build muscle, make me fitter, or develop skill. It’s as if when I left the room and ended the activity, it had never happened. I’m just the same as before the activity occurred.

What else might have to go? Let’s also suppose exercise didn’t relieve stress or make it easier to sleep.

In the case of men, you’ll have to also suppose it’s not improving your sperm count.

Note that writing this list certainly made me realize how many instrumental benefits of exercise there are.

Okay, let’s take away all the instrumental benefits.

Here’s the easy list of things I’d still love, skill development and fitness enhancing effects aside:

    • Jogging with my dog through parks. Love being outside in nature and I rarely think of that as training in any sense.
    • Riding my bike through the countryside with friends.
    • Playing soccer with friends
    • Throwing people around and being thrown in Aikido.

Here’s an easy list of things I would never do again if they had no effect on fitness whatsoever:

  • Burpees, box jumps, double under skipping
  • Early morning training rides, hard intervals, HILLS!
  • Lifting heavy weight, actually any weights

But there are a lot of intrinsic goods even in these activities. I love the way tough painful workouts make me feel. (See here.) And I’m assuming those feelings would still be there since they occur at the same as the exercise, they aren’t effects that happen later.

But would the felt sensation of the tough workout be enough to get me out the door if it had no other benefits? I don’t think so.

So while tough workouts have both instrumental and intrinsic benefits, on their own the intrinsic value wouldn’t be enough for me to do burpees and box jumps. That doesn’t mean Crossfit is any less valuable than the other sorts of workouts that I do but its value is mostly located in a different place.

And on that note, I’m off to take my dog for a walk through this lovely deep fresh snow!

How about you? Which physical activity would you keep doing in the absence of instrumental benefits? Which would you drop like a hot potato? (Have I mentioned hills?)

For Six Famous Thought Experiments animated, look here.

4 thoughts on “Thought experiment about physical activity

  1. Nothing. What for? Maybe if it gave me an adrenaline rush. Or it was a sport I enjoyed playing. But why are we in general here thinking about activities for aliens? Is this not like asking me what I’d enjoy were I an octopus? I’d probably like hunting for crab and lobster sushi, but…really, so what? An important component of exercise is the striving to become more than what you were – healthier, stronger, fitter, etc. Without that component, the character of the endeavour is radically different – and I just don’t really know what I’d like to do were I an octopus.

    1. Well, in this case I wanted to test my claim that an awful lot of what I do, I do for fun, not for training effects. So without training effects, I wouldn’t lift weights. But I sure would keep riding my bike and playing soccer and jogging with my dog.

      That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t do the other stuff–Crossfit and burpees, for example–but the role it plays in my life is different. Even there though it helps that I also find it fun. I was chatting with a friend on facebook the other day who exercises purely for health reasons and she hates it and is made miserable by it. She resents the time spent doing it. And I was trying to nudge her in the direction of finding something to do, some of the time, that she thinks is fun.

  2. Sorry, I get it now. It’s now about imagining yourself to be an octopus. It’s about how to make it about something you like doing. I’m still unsure about the thought experiment, but I understand now what you’re trying to get at. That’s really difficult for some people, who don’t really enjoy physically stressful activities and really get nothing good, whether in a social sense or in a “competitive spirit” sense, out of belonging to a sports team. You’re right though – there’s so much you can try – from racquetball and swimming and weightlifting and cycling, to soccer, dancing, kung fu and frisbee football. Hopefully there’s something for your friend out there that she actually likes to do. Maybe swing dancing and taking aikido with you would be more up her alley.

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