No Gods, No Beliefs

Is belief necessary?

I believe in God. If you ask me why, I don’t have particularly convincing reasons. It seems to me that life has a purpose, and there is a structure to reality that exceeds my own understanding, which is basically how I think of God. Most people, if you ask them why do they believe in God, will say something like it gives them comfort to believe in a higher power looking out for us, that something must have created us, they can sense there is something greater than themselves, and so on.

In this article we will explore the question of whether or not this belief is necessary — Is belief in God, or any other supernatural belief which can’t be proven by logic or fact necessary to achieve the heights of human potential, morally or otherwise? I will present a case that it is not.

What is human potential?

Let’s address what is meant by human potential, since there are many possible interpretations of that phrase. Every philosophical or religious system attempts to define this and none of them seem to agree completely. However, they all seem to agree that something different, and better, is possible for human life than our ordinary, everyday experience.

Muslims and Christians believe in heaven. Jews believe in living a moral life guided by God’s will. Buddhists believe in escaping Samsara (suffering) via Nirvana. Hindus believe our purpose is to achieve the four aims, which they call Purusharthas. Pagans seek joy and fulfillment by living in accordance with the ways of nature.

If you ask a Christian if they have found heaven, or a Jew if they live a moral life, or a Buddhist if they have achieved Nirvana, you are not very likely to hear “yes”. Most believers will not say they have achieved their purpose in life — at least not yet. Everyone seems to believe they have a potential for something greater which is not quite here in reality.

Philosophers throughout history have tried to bring logical arguments to bear on the question of “why are we here?”, “what is right / what is good?”, “what is the best or highest potential for human life”? They are likewise in agreement that humans mostly do not reach it; that there must be a greater truth somewhere out there to discover.

And then there’s us regular folk. Do you believe yourself to be a complete, wholly functional person who consistently reaches all of their potential? If so, congratulations! You can stop reading now. For the rest, many of us are seeking self-improvement of one kind or another. Indeed it can be sad to meet someone who appears to have given up on themselves and doesn’t seem to be trying in life anymore. Unfortunately, since there is no general agreement about the purpose of life, many have in fact given up on the possibility of discovering it, or decided their purpose is the fulfillment of their personal desires.

The basis of morality

While the details differ, most philosophical beliefs and spiritual guidance is focused on the idea that humans can be great. Whether by the examples set by extraordinary persons, or the logic of recognizing that our decisions lead to more or less suffering in our own and others’ lives, this forms the basis of something we can strive towards. Our behavior in the world matters, and we should choose wisely. Morality clearly invokes the need to be in greater control of our actions.

Notice this is an argument against free will. If we already had free will, we would easily be able to choose the right thing to do in any given situation, but for some reason we don’t. We sometimes act selfishly, jealously, or emotional reactions push us to do or say things we later regret. Sometimes we are barely even aware of our actions, or how they affect others, until after we’ve already done something wrong… if at all! How is this possible?

We have arrived at the fundamental paradox of human existence: we believe we have free will and yet we don’t always act like it. As we learned in Barely Conscious, this lack of conscious awareness is both predictable and more common than we’d like to admit.

What are we anyways?

Let’s try to be more clear about what “better” looks like, specifically what are the ways we can be better? In order to do this it will help to first define the different ways we can be by categorizing our forms of existence into different functions. From there we will investigate what better or worse looks like for each of those functions.

I’m going to leap ahead to suggest some answers, but remember the topic today is that belief is not required. Ultimately, this must be grounded in your own experiential awareness — no logical facts necessary.

There are four basic forms of being, plus two additional forms that account for the “higher possibilities” of humans.

The four basic ways of being are:

  1. Physical sensations and every instinctive process in the physical body
  2. All forms of movement in the external, physical world

  1. Emotional sensations or feelings
  2. Intellectual thought — memories, logic and so on

The first category of instinctive-physical sensations include of course the five senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch, along with every internal bodily process such as digestion, heartbeat and blood circulation, breathing, hormonal responses, etc. For the most part your body just works by itself, but we can feel these processes and sense when something is out of place or malfunctioning. In this category, we’ve captured every sensation that can reach our awareness from the outside world, including the physical body itself.

The second category encompasses all kinds of movement for the physical body: standing, walking, talking, lifting, pushing, holding, athletic sports, dancing, painting, and so on. Every physical movement that is associated with all of these activities — everything you can “do” with your body which wasn’t included in the first category.

The third category moves beyond the purely physical world into the internal world of emotions. We sense with the emotional feelings that accompany us throughout the day, which give meaning to the world around us. Emotions are immediately available to our conscious experience, and yet there is no tool or instrument that can measure them for us. We simply feel the way we feel and sometimes these feelings are informed by past experiences. The emotional world can feel rich and profound, or dull and mundane, depending on the moment.

The fourth category of experience is the intellect. This includes all the facts and data we’ve learned throughout our lives, the ability to memorize important information, and the logical processing of thoughts triggered by associations. Like emotions, our thoughts happen completely inside of us. They are immediately available to conscious introspection, but we have no tools or instruments that can measure them or any way to directly access the thoughts or feelings of others.

So that’s it?

Is that all there is to experience? Can you think of anything else in the spectrum of human existence that does not fit into one of those four categories? What about consciousness? We can think of consciousness as encompassing or enclosing all four of these functions. It is like the ground upon which everything else can be placed.

Now that we have our categories, let’s consider what is good or bad, better or worse, for the four functions. Physical sensations can be pleasant or unpleasant, comfortable or painful, enjoyable or disturbing. The room we are in is either too warm, too cold, or just right, and we can make the same kind of judgement for any other sensations.

Movement can be accurate or inaccurate, controlled or uncontrolled, coordinated or chaotic. Peoples’ movements can be described as graceful or clumsy, with the implication that graceful is better than clumsy. This is very clear in competitive sports where the quality of movement is judged by following rules to win the game. In baseball the batter either hits the ball, or they strike out. A golfer is good when the ball goes exactly where they wanted to hit it. We may not know exactly what it takes to be Michael Jordan but we know it’s good when the ball goes into the hoop. The rules of every sport are based completely on movement and the players try to optimize their movements to win. Movement is also important in many other careers: musicians train their hands, mouth or vocal cords; painters learn to control the movement of their brush; woodworkers master safely moving their tools just right; computer operators learn to type proficiently and so on.

With emotions the valuation is direct and obvious. Similar to physical sensations, they either feel good or bad. We want to feel more positive emotions, more strongly, and we generally want to avoid feeling negative emotions. Emotions are either positive or negative, weak or strong, energizing or enervating. Sometimes we do not sense any apparent emotion at all. Other times a mixture of conflicting emotions can be present which can be confusing. The fact that we can be confused by emotions, unsure how to respond to situations, demonstrates something about their role in orienting us within our lives.

For the intellect, good means a large functional memory, faster connections or associations between ideas and combinations of thought using sound logic. It feels good to remember something completely whenever needed; it feels bad when we can’t recall. We like it when our thoughts are flowing freely, and creative ideas come easily. We do not like it when our thoughts get stuck, we have difficulty forming them, and our brain feels “foggy”.

The abstraction of thought from the physical world enables us to add more knowledge over time and create new technologies that build upon each other. Technologies such as writing, printing and now computer memory have accelerated the process by removing the limitation of human brains to store all of this new information. We also invented technologies for sharing knowledge more cheaply and easily which enables it to travel rapidly around the world.

Are you with me so far?

Hopefully I haven’t lost you yet. Let’s do a quick thought experiment: try to imagine a life defined by only those good parts of existence. Beautiful sights and sounds; pleasing touch and taste; healthy body; no disease. Perfection of movement; mastery in every sport and art form. Overflowing with intense, positive emotions; total lack of misery or depressing feelings. Superior intellect; creative ideas flow naturally; never forgetting a single thing you’ve learned or experienced. A “renaissance man”, living the best life ever. Sounds nice, but is it really achievable? Unfortunately this would depend on many factors completely beyond our control, not the least being perfect genes, good nutrition, protective and nurturing environments, plus ideal teachers and training.

Most of us aren’t so lucky, but we may be fortunate enough to have some freedom to arrange our life in a way that would maximize the good while limiting the bad. We could go pretty far in this direction, and why not? Focusing on the quality of our own experiences may seem selfish or greedy, but at least we’d be assured that life would be more pleasant than not. Choosing to improve our own skills for a passionate hobby, a lifetime of learning about the world, and finding enjoyable experiences doesn’t deprive anyone else of the opportunity to do the same. In fact we generally want more people to join us in our interests, not less.

We started with a question — is superstitious belief in supernatural forces beyond our comprehension necessary to experience the best in life or achieve the highest human potential? We defined the four categories of basic human experience and considered what is “best” for each. We noted that the quality of these experiences is at least partially within our reach, if not totally under our control, affirming that the choices we make matter. Finally we concluded that these choices do not deprive others from their own choices to flourish in their lives.

But questions of human morality are more complicated than how it directly and immediately affects our personal experiences… right? Well, perhaps, but this is a good place to start for now.

What about those higher states?

I mentioned earlier that there are two additional forms of being, which account for the “higher possibilities” in humans. We will explore those in the next article of this series. Until then, take care.

More Articles

Barely Conscious

November 22, 2022

Waking up from dreaming

View Article

What Is Higher

February 14, 2023

Is there anything beyond our experience?

View Article