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If I believe in god but consider it possible that god may not exist, am I not contradicting myself? If I believe in god, then that means I believe that god exists. In what sense does it make sense to simultaneously hold a belief in something but consider it possible for the inverse of that belief to be true?

I don’t see how degrees of belief avoid this issue either. Suppose I assign a 70% probability in my head that god exists, and by this I mean I would pay 70 cents for a bet that would pay out 1 dollar on this belief. This simultaneously implies that I would pay 30 cents for a bet that would pay out 1 dollar on god being false.

But in reality, we never make these kinds of bets. And when we do, they seem to reduce to beliefs anyways (I.e. I “believe” that I should bet 20 dollars on this sports bet instead of 21).

Pragmatically then, the only bet we ever have to deal with is picking one of many options. Using the god example, these would be: god existing or not. Suppose that if you had a gun to your head and you had to pick between one of the two options of god or god not existing. Suppose you then pick god existing and have some reason to do so (instead of throwing a blind dart at it, in which case you are completely undecided)

If so, in what sense can you still simultaneously believe that god may not (probabilistically or otherwise) exist?

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    There is a murky proposition common in analytic theology, that God would be necessary if It exists and impossible if It didn't, but how can these conditionals be true if God is not at least merely possible? A Kantian reply is that we are distinguishing two senses of possibility, though how much of that duality is available without much else of Kantian metaphysics is perhaps murky, too. Aug 24, 2023 at 16:51
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    "But in reality, we never make these kinds of bets." Have you ever played poker? This is exactly the kind of bet you make. This is the entire concept of "pot odds" - you should only bet if the potential payout is high enough to offset the chance you'll lose. Placing the bet does not mean "I am sure I have the best hand", it just means "this is my best option based on what I know". Similarly, I don't see why stating a belief in god should be equivalent to "I am sure god exists". Aug 24, 2023 at 18:08
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    Are you contradicting yourself if you believe that your partner is faithful but acknowledge the possibility that they're not? After all, people have been cheated on before. I find thinking about smaller problems than "the existence of God" for these sorts of questions to be clarifying. Aug 25, 2023 at 22:16
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    In the sense of contingency you can hold both a belief and its content’s negation simultaneously in some possible worlds since this is the definition philosophers gave to it instead of mere possibility which its negation may not be possible at all. The contemporary probability basically extends and quantifies contingency in degree not in kind. Thus under necessitarinism they don’t makes sense… Aug 26, 2023 at 6:24
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    @NuclearHoagie or bought real estate, or insurance, or a vehicle, or stocks, or tools, or an education, or currency, or not bought any of those things when you could have. If you're not a nun with a vow of poverty or Tarzan of the Apes, you're a gambler.
    – g s
    Aug 26, 2023 at 20:04

7 Answers 7

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If something is merely contingently true, it is actually true, but the situation where it is false is a possible situation.

Conversationally, there is a tension between the assertoric force of “actually” and the modal sense in which we mean it above. If it’s possible that something be false, it feels strange to say that it is “true in actuality”, because the assertion of actual fact has an implication that one has eliminated the relevant conflicting possibilities.

However, we could rephrase statements of the form “actually X” with the more semantic “we are in a world (or situation) where X”, and the assertoric force seems to disappear, or at the very least is significantly weakened.

In this way, it seems reasonable to carry both “we are in a world where X” and “worlds where !X are legitimate possible worlds”.

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  • I don’t see how that escapes the issue. If you believe you are in a world where X, then you can’t simultaneously believe worlds where !X are possible worlds. Possibility implies actuality. But if you believe you are in a world with X, worlds where !X aren’t actual.
    – user62907
    Aug 25, 2023 at 16:09
  • @thinkingman Believing in a world with X does not manifest X into being, so not X can easily be actual regardless of belief. That is to say, somebody can just be wrong. Also, what do you mean when you say that "possibility implies actuality"? Is that a typo, or are you using a special, uncommon definition of possibility?
    – hegel5000
    Aug 25, 2023 at 17:01
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    @thinkingman, your question is whether the position is contradictory. There is a consistent model of it, which concludes that it is not. If you want me to convince you that you should think it is true, I’m probably going to disappoint.
    – Paul Ross
    Aug 25, 2023 at 19:15
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    I think this is interpreting the word "possible" in a different way than the question intended. It being possible that a universe could exist wherein God doesn't exist, isn't the same as it being possible that God doesn't exist in this world. That is, my understanding of the question is not about whether it's consistent to say "I believe X is true in this world, but possibly not true in other worlds", rather the question (as I read it) is whether it's consistent to say "I believe X is true in this world, but I also believe it's possible that X is not true in this world".
    – kaya3
    Aug 26, 2023 at 19:34
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    Secondly, the goal of my answer is to directly answer the OP’s “In what sense does it make sense to simultaneously hold a belief in something but consider it possible for the inverse of that belief to be true?” If OP wants to approach this presented sense confrontationally because it does not align with their models of possibility or belief, that’s fine, but answering questions raised in good faith requires an expansion of the scope of the original position. I certainly don’t see reason to demur from suggesting alternatives to the OP’s initial presumptions.
    – Paul Ross
    Aug 27, 2023 at 16:19
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Suppose that if you had a gun to your head and you had to pick between one of the two options of god or god not existing. Suppose you then pick god existing. Doesn’t this imply that you ultimately do believe in god in the sense that you would act on it if forced?

This argument is a classic example of baking your conclusion into your definition. If you define believing a proposition P as meaning “with a gun to your head, you would pick P over not-P”, then by this definition, certainly, belief is absolute, and there is no space for degrees of belief.

But that doesn’t match well with most ordinary senses of “belief”. I just flipped a coin; do you believe it landed heads, or tails? Under your sense, you should believe one or the other. But in normal usage, most people would not say they believe wither specific outcome; they’d say they’re uncertain, or believe both options are possible, or something like that. That’s why many philosophical analyses of belief, aiming to capture something like the everyday usage, allow for degrees of uncertainty; and the notion you’re considering, which is certainly meaningful and interesting, would usually be called something like “belief with confidence at least 50%” or similar, rather than simply “belief”.

Of course, sometimes there are good reasons to define a concept in a way that diverges from colloquial usage — for instance, when the colloquial sense is incoherent or useless. And you seem to be suggesting such a justification — that degrees of belief below 50% are irrelevant in practice — when you say that “Beliefs” are only relevant in the contexts of bets and once you have to act on them. and But in reality, we never make these kinds of bets (that is, bets like your 30 cent bet for a dollar payoff). But we make such bets all the time in real life, once you start looking for them! This morning, I believed it might rain later — maybe with chance about 20% — so I took an umbrella to work. A small cost (putting a little umbrella in my bag) and a large payoff (staying dry if it rains) justified acting on a low-probability belief. Such “bets” are ubiquitous in real-life decision-making, showing that that the notion of “degrees of belief” beyond just over/under 50%” is a reasonable description of something that goes on in people’s heads all the time, and that people act on, rationally and usefully, with concrete consequences.

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  • No I wouldn’t have a belief in my sense for the coin. If I put a gun to your head, and asked you to pick which side a coin landed, you would pick. But you would presumably have no REASON to pick one over the other. My argument is that a belief is a bet in a gun scenario but where you DO have reason to pick one over the other statement. For any proposition that is belief worthy, it is true or false. Let’s call it P and ~P. If one were to put a gun to your head and told you to pick between P and ~P, and you had some reason or instinct to choose one over the other, that is arguably your belief
    – user62907
    Aug 25, 2023 at 17:08
  • In the case of the umbrella example, I would argue that you “believe” it is wise to take an umbrella. In this case, P would be “should I take an umbrella?”. In your case, your belief is in P rather than ~P.
    – user62907
    Aug 25, 2023 at 17:11
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    I like this approach to the tricky word, "belief." If belief is defined as nothing more than what you'd do with a gun to your head, then belief has almost nothing to do with our lives. We spend very little time in our lives with a gun to our head answering theistic questions (hopefully!), so the aspects of belief which matter almost certainly must include a wider array of scenarios and responses than just that! A wider reading of "belief" opens the door for both more nuance and more applicability.
    – Cort Ammon
    Aug 26, 2023 at 19:01
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I've a friend whose father is reaching 90 and 'losing it', ie he gets apparitions/hallucinations of 'people' who he sees, talks, argues and fights with.

Most of the time he's normal, bright and sharp talking intelligently to 'real people.' When he's having a spell, he mostly ignores 'real people' and argues and fights with his apparitions.

The interesting case is an in between state: He's seeing and talking to both reality and apparitions.

In that state he could say things like:

I know these people troubling me are not real but they are still %@?&!

IOW he can 'de-exist' his apparitions by an act of will, he even acknowledges this but ultimately can't find the strength, the force to push back.


I am not a medical person, still less a psychiatrist but I imagine cases like this are hardly exceptional or abnormal.

Now generalize this and you get to the core idea of Vedanta:

Most people most of the time are labouring under the delirium of maya.

And consider dreams: The occasional long interim between waking and sleep where one is rubbing one's eyes so to say: One knows somehow that whatever one is seeing, participating in, is not true...

Yet one is unable to shake it off

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If I believe in god but consider it possible that god may not exist, am I not contradicting myself?

This is your formal question, but I think the generalized question of "Can I believe in X, but also believe in !X without contradicting myself" removes too much of the context of the original question. The question of Faith and Doubt is purely Kierkegaardian, who in a nutshell said:

doubt is a part of faith, a required ingredient in faith

If you have blind faith in a god and never seek to prove or doubt its existence, is that because you are truly without faith and are afraid to confront the possibility that you are wrong? Inherently, this may seem contradictory, but I would encourage the study of non-dualism/dualism to better understand the boundaries of faith/doubt. At what point does doubt become faith, or faith doubt? They are two extremes of a whole idea, I would argue. "Faith and doubt rise and fall together" is how I would put it.

But this question of faith is not philosophical or metaphysical, I feel like it's always going to hinge on what flavor of religion you practice and how "obsessed" it is with being faithful (instead of just truthful & honest).

There are non-binary ways to hold multiple truth values at once (such as Dialetheism). Again, if you study dualism/non-dualism -- or even just different theories of analyzing "what is true" you can arrive to examples that satisfy. "The sun is hot" "Earth is hot" "Pluto is hot" are all true statements - because Pluto, despite being freezing cold, in the context of our entire universe, is >0K, which means it has some heat. "Hot" is a relative construct. There are suns x10 hotter and larger than our own. The Earth's "average" temperature fluctuates all the time, but there may be a single microscopic point of Earth which approaches 0K? At which point, that part of Earth may be "cold", but is the whole of Earth hot or cold? A Zen Buddhist might say "Mu" in reply -- because the question you're asking has a silly presupposition to it. The Earth cannot "be" hot or cold, it just is.

"God exists, but he may not exist" is not a fallacy. If "god" is omnipotent, isn't he/she no longer omnipotent if they cannot "choose" to "not exist"? Daoism proposes in essence that the universe is like a wheel - and wheels are absent in their center. They are made of nothing (in order to turn on an axel) and something simultaneously. Thus the statement is "true". (But fuzzy "truth" can also allow for a decimal "true" between 0 and 1, and not simply the absolute of 1 or 0; quantum mechanics has to use 3 vectors to represent "truth"). Famously, cups and houses (and even words and thought) need "whitespace" to function.

So, depending on how you couch your question and put into context what you are talking about, it is not contradictory. But once you explore faith/doubt sufficiently, you may realize that you have begun to doubt the dogma of your religion and no longer fall within its prescriptions on belief, so by inherently questioning in your faith in this manner, you may just be proving that you don't necessarily totally believe in the existence of god as they may (myopically or not) know it.

...also, logically speaking, we are obsessed with "defeating contradictions" because logically speaking, we wish to avoid the principle of explosion, which creates trivialism, but that really only is true if your philosophy includes the transitive property (if A=B and B=C, then A=C); but there can exist philosophies which accept contradictions and still stay somewhat logical if you just throw out the transitive property (which has its own problems, obviously).

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Almost all of the existing answers fail to address the core misconception. You have conflated belief with truth, and it is very obviously illogical to do that for any reasonable notion of "belief". For example consider that you may make mistakes in your reasoning and hence believe that the sun and moon both go in circles around the earth, but at the same time you acknowledge that you might make mistakes in your reasoning, and so you also believe that it is possible for any one of your beliefs to be wrong. You can rigorously (symbolically) use "B(Q)" to denote "believe Q" and "◇Q" to denote "it is possible that Q", and there is no problem at all to have all of the following hold:

  1. ¬Q.
  2. B(Q).
  3. B(◇¬Q).

Think carefully about these, and you will see that these are not contradictory compared to the following together:

  1. B(Q).
  2. B(¬◇Q).

This is because you ought to believe and employ all of the following:

  1. B(Q) ⇒ B(◇Q).
  2. ¬B(R∧¬R).

The second axiom schema simply says that you do not believe a contradiction. And you had better adopt this! (If you ever find that you believe a contradiction, you ought to revise your beliefs until you do not.)

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    +1 This is wonderfully clear.
    – J D
    Aug 27, 2023 at 16:34
  • So I think the issue is a bit more subtle than this (though I agree with JD about the clarity of your answer). OP recognizes that belief is a propositional attitude - they just think that ¬B(Q∧◇¬Q) has the weight of principle. My answer contends the mistake is about their conception of Modality - it is commonly accepted that ¬B(Q∧¬Q) is a reasonable principle, and this seems to be the way OP phrases the avoidance of contradiction, so the issue seems to be about how they treat the operation of the possibility operator within the scope of belief.
    – Paul Ross
    Aug 27, 2023 at 16:42
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    (More specifically, OP appears to think that B(Q)⇒B(¬◇¬Q), the necessitarian position. )
    – Paul Ross
    Aug 27, 2023 at 16:54
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    If you believe in Q, in what sense can you believe that it is possible that Q is false? Believing that Q means you think Q is true. If you think the earth is round, you can’t simultaneously think it is “possible” the earth isn’t. There is no such thing as “possible” in the first place. Truth is binary. The earth is round or not, not possibly round.
    – user62907
    Aug 27, 2023 at 18:47
  • @thinkingman: You may for example sit for a mathematics examination and just after that believe that you have correctly answered at least 70% of the questions. However, if you are not too arrogant, you would also believe that it is possible that you failed to correctly answer at least 70% of the questions. As I said in my post, you ought to acknowledge that you might make mistakes in your reasoning, and hence that acknowledgement is represented by assertions of the form "B(◇¬Q)" in the presence of "B(Q)". You failed to understand or translate the meaning of "possible" correctly into logic.
    – user21820
    Aug 28, 2023 at 4:08
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I think a better way to explain it so as not to be contradictory would be to say " I have faith that God exists, but believe in the possibility that He does not."

Regardless though, isn't life one big contradiction? I think being open-minded is an important quality that is necessary for true spiritual and intellectual growth.

At one time, scholars were positive the earth was flat. I wonder where we would be today if nobody was willing to accept other possibilities.

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You can believe something without knowing it, and you can know something. You can know that maybe God does not exist, and you can still believe that God exists. If you believe what you know, you can also believe that God maybe does not exist: so, you can doubt, i.e. do not believe, that God does not exist. So, you can believe that you do not believe that God does not exist and, simultaneously, you can believe that God exists, without contradiction: i.e., you can simultaneously believe, without contradiction, that God exists and that maybe it/he/her/etcetera does not exist.

Can you know something without believing it? This is impossible if and only if you must believe that you don't believe something if you don't believe it.

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