Against “really”

Body of light? WTF?

“Really” is a dangerous little weasel-word. It is used to intimidate you into accepting dubious metaphysical claims.

Here are two sleazy examples—one nihilist and one monist-eternalist:

  1. (1a) Nothing really means anything.
  2. (2a) Human beings appear to be animals with bodies of flesh and blood, but really we are beings of pure potential, with bodies of light.

It is useful to reword “really” claims with “in some sense” instead:

  1. (1b) In some sense, nothing means anything.
  2. (2b) Human beings appear to be animals with bodies of flesh and blood, but in some sense we are beings of pure potential, with bodies of light.

These are honest statements. I think in some sense they may both true—whereas 1a and 2a are certainly false, but hard to argue with.

An “in some sense” statement invites questions:

  1. (1c) In what sense does nothing mean anything? How can I check that for myself? Why do things seem meaningful if (in some sense) they aren’t? Is the kind of meaninglessness you describe one I should care about?
  2. (2c) In what sense do we have bodies of light? Why can’t we see these other bodies, and what is unreal about the flesh-and-blood ones? What good is a body I can’t see? How am I supposed to use this alternate body?

We shouldn’t necessarily insist on answers to such questions—there might be legitimate reasons they are unanswerable, despite the truth or usefulness of 1b and 2b. But we should at least be able to ask them.

The power of “really” is to stop you from asking. If you can’t see that everything is meaningless, it means that you are just not smart enough to understand. If you don’t know that you have a body of light, it means that you are just not spiritual enough to see it. “Really” means “shut up, kid—I’ve got all the answers. I have access to the real world and you don’t.”

Statement 1a claims that in the real world (that you are too stupid to understand) everything is meaningless. Your belief in meaning is a delusion. 2a claims that in the real world (that you are too crassly materialistic to enjoy) people have bodies of light. The mundane flesh-and-blood world is illusory.

These are huge, implausible metaphysical claims. Defending them would be difficult at best. “Really” is a way of intimidating you into accepting them without explanation.

When someone hands you a “really” claim, try making it into an “in some sense” claim, and then ask the obvious questions.

When you find yourself making “really” claims (which we all do, sometimes), try and backtrack and restate them as “in some sense” claims. And then try to say which sense, and why you think so.

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